Photography: Your Business And You

Warm backlight brings a hint of summer to a field of lupins at days end in Lake Tekapo, New Zealand.

I could start this post with a controversial statement such as the following:

The problem with your business is you.

These days, sadly, folks take such comments personally. Clearly, I’m writing to an audience, of which each of you is but a single member. But, more importantly, such a statement is probably true to a number of you, just as it is to me. The fact that so many folks can’t bear such truths is a determining factor in why they fail in business.

I’m not saying it’s easy to read or hear such statements, but that doesn’t make them untrue. The problem is that, not wanting to hear can stop us from listening in the first place. And that’s, potentially, a very, very dangerous outcome indeed.

Most People Are Not Cut Out To Run A Business

Just look at the simple truths TV chef Gordon Ramsay tries to ram home to those hapless folk running restaurants that they are clearly not cut out to run. I suspect most folks watch such shows, from a distance, without actually realizing that, placed in the same position, most of them would make similar mistakes. As, indeed, have I in my own business.  

For the sake of simplicity we can separate the business of photography into 3 general categories as follows:

High Volume And Low Price

In the world of the portrait photographer this might include the kind of portraiture commonly done in schools, supermarkets and department stores. In such circumstances photos are often sold as part of a larger package of images: often as a variety of images in a range of sizes.

It’s a simple recipe for the photographer to follow to both create the images and to sell them. However, it’s tedious, hard work and extremely repetitious. Because the look, lighting and approach is so highly recipe driven there is no room for creativity in this part of the market.

Traditionally photographers working in the landscape genre enter this end of the market through postcards. This is a terribly difficult way to make money as, despite significant expenses associated with the cost and quantity of images required, you’re also likely to have to spend a lot of money on specially constructed postcard stands. To have these stands produced locally you would likely have to have them manufactured in bulk or, alternatively, ship them in from China. You’ll also need to warehouse them.

For years my garage housed around 70,000 cards and several dozens stands. I had to park my car outside. Can you imagine the amount of customers you’d need to win over to turn around that much stock? It’s almost impossible and the profit margin on a premium $1 postcard is less than 50 cents.

What’s more, in addition to the costs of actually making the photographs, purchasing the stands and printing the images, in bulk, you also have the cost associated with traveling to the outlets, dusting and refilling the stands. It’s the only way you’ll get a re-order. Why? The retailers just don’t value what it is you do and that, just like a newspaper in an milk bar in days gone by, a postcard would often result in one or more add on sales. 

Bring In The Dodo

Let’s not forget that most folks no longer buy postcards. They use their mobile phone to make the image, personalize and share it via email and social media. Postcards still survive in certain marketplaces, but you’ll probably find those markets already well serviced and near impossible to break into. Please understand, it’s over!

Of course the internet is full of folks trying to sell 8”x10” prints, via SmugMug and other forms of online fulfillment, for $20 or less. I’m sure you all understand that, to make a living at this price point, you would need to sell 50 or more (landscape) prints per week. Good luck with that one.

There Is No Better Word To Describe Cheap

I do understand the philosophy behind why most folks price their work so cheaply. And by the word cheap I do not mean affordable or at a reasonable price. In the case of business ventures this kind of pricing usually suggests a lack of confidence in the quality and value of what it is we do. Fine. Don’t sell, at least not yet. That is, assuming this is a real business venture we’re discussing.

The Devil In Us All

However, low self confidence effects us in several ways. It can be debilitating and cause us not to act at all, which is a kind of death for the creative soul. But low self confidence can also cause us to make poor decisions and, as a result, set ourselves up for failure. And this is what I believe is at play here.

I do also understand that keen photographers, happy in their normal jobs, just want the injection of self-confidence selling a print provides them. But, really, if you’re already making good money working full-time elsewhere, you’re not reliant on print sales. So, the question remains, why sell your work so cheaply? If you can use the sale of a handful of $20 prints a year to justify the purchase of a new camera kit or even launching a new photography business good luck to you. But you’ll find translating, what for many is an hours pay, into a full time income difficult in the extreme.

This Is A Carrot, Not A Stick

Now, given that most photographers exist happily, though financially tenuously, in this end of the market it’s not too much to at least ask you to consider trying to increase your prices, at least moderately. It might help to re-package them somehow.

This is a real opportunity for those of you who are only looking at a little extra income, to help offset the money you’re already spending on your photography. Think of it, if successful, this increase in income could pay for a new lens, an overseas airfare or a year’s subscription to The Arcanum.

A fast flowing creek near Milford Sound on the south island of New Zealand.

Medium Volume And Medium Price

Most independent portrait photographers fall into this category. They are susceptible to competition from highly promoted, low price operations that offer lower priced packages. Similarly the average portrait photographer is susceptible to low volume, higher priced studios offering a more personalized and, seemingly, more professional service. Talk about being squeezed between a rock and a hard place.

An interesting business model appeared around 7 years back referred to as Shoot and Burn (photographers slang and not to be repeated in front of actual customers). The idea was that you would photograph the person, couple or family in question and, with little or no post processing, burn the images onto a DVD to pass directly onto the customer. In Australia a $700 price point worked very well initially. The whole process could be finished in half a day for the photographer, while the customer saw value in being given full resolution files which they could share and print when and how it suited them.

Bring On Wally

Of course most successful models are quickly compromised by the very photographers who could have made a decent living from just such a model. Prices are driven down due to fear of competition and as a way of securing more work. Fine, you’re now working harder and longer for no more money. Good one, Wally!

Last I heard this model was down to under $200, though there will be some photographers who have bucked the trend. I entered this market for a time, mainly to test it for my students, just as the price was beginning to drop. I kept the price at $700, but maintained value through the quality of the photos produced and by offering both color and black and white copies of each image, in both full resolution (e.g., print ready) and low resolution (e.g., web ready) versions. These duplication of files did take time, but it cost me nothing to do it and I set my computer up to undertake the task while I slept.

Always Look To Add Value

I also provided a small print of the family, at no charge, with an offer to purchase an enlargement at a reduced price within a 7-day period. I had about a 50% success rate with this add on which, on average, made me another $400 profit for those particular jobs and, as a relatively large focal point on my customers wall, provided a great testimonial for me each time I sold one.

I’d photograph families outdoors, in parks and botanical gardens. Neither a studio nor studio lighting was required. This was an easy to implement and profitable little business model, ideal for someone working from home. And this was the point of the exercise because I undertook this market trial to prove to my students that they could make a living in photography, without having the high costs associated with a traditional studio-based business.

This business model relied, primarily, on word of mouth and personal testimonials which, if you do the right thing, should follow naturally. Unfortunately this exciting business model has become largely redundant. Not by the customer, but by photographers who look a lot like you and me. Their own lack of confidence pushed them into an ever reducing pricing structure which resulted in the death of that nice little business model. Thanks again Wal!

The Key To Pricing

Please don’t enter any photography market thinking you’ll start cheap and work your way up. It simply doesn’t work that way. You’ve created a perception, both in your own mind as well as that of the market, which you will be unlikely to change.

If we don’t think we’re capable of achieving top dollar fine, here’s what WE should all do.

  • Continually improve the quality and presentation of our work
  • Change the way we see ourselves and the value of what we do and produce
  • Improve our marketing and the ways we connect with our audience
  • Make sure all our activities are outcome orientated
  • Clear out! Get someone else to sell and, perhaps, market your work for you

The blue light of dawn on a still morning at Milford Sound, New Zealand.

Low Volume And High Price

Only a few photographers make it into this category, though not enough try. To succeed at this end of the market your photography must be of a very high standard. What’s more your business reputation, and the dollars the resulting goodwill can bring to your business, may take years to build.

I’ve studied a number of very successful photographers in a variety of markets. They are all very good photographers, though many of them were successful long before their work was much better than that of folks in lower priced segments of that same market. That never stopped them making money, which is an important lesson in itself.

What matters is that you are at least comparable to your immediate competition but, importantly, you create the perception, in your own mind as much as that of your audience, that your work is in some way unique and special. And of course you need to produce the kind of work that your audience finds compelling.

Needless to say successful people are driven by success.

Now there are several ways to read that last sentence. Let me just say that, to be successful, we need to become highly focused on the outcomes we are seeking. I know of one photographer who, for many years, did not have a TV, considering it as a distraction to his work.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Of course some folks are focussed on their business to the point of obsession. And that can be detrimental to their personal lives. I don’t want to be like those people, but I most certainly can learn from them. As can you.

Dismissing successful people is just one of the ways we set ourselves up for failure. In Australia it’s called the Tall Poppy Syndrome and we need to recognize it, when it occurs, and ensure it doesn’t cause us to judge people unfairly.

To be successful in this end of the market we need to have a clearly defined brand reflecting prestige, dependability and leadership in our industry.

Likewise, so as not to endanger that perception, our products need to be of the highest standard and we need to be consistent with the type (e.g., appropriate to our niche) and quality of the images we present/publish as well as the methods by which we display and present them.

Re-Examining Our Identity

We also need to come to terms with our own upbringing. I still distain wastefulness, greed and sloth. However, I no longer distain money nor believe that the accumulation of wealth is beyond my means or station in life. I'm no better than anyone else, but I'm no less fortunate for what I've received in the past nor for what I will accomplish into the future.

What we need, as creative beings, is to live a purpose-driven, meaningful life. I’m of the belief that we live in a world of abundance and that, if the motivation and intentions underpinning our work are pure and life affirming, then the universe will reward us, one way or another, for our efforts.

If you're in the low volume and high price end of the market then you are marketing yourself to the top 10 percent of spenders (not necessarily earners). That in itself makes you unique. But achieving that level of separation from the pack doesn't come easily. The gallery your work is displayed in must be a beautiful space, staffed by folks who have a strong record of selling work like yours at the prices you’re expecting to achieve.

Likewise your website must be beautifully designed, easy to navigate and carefully targeted to the audience you aim to sell to. If there's a blog associated with that site, then you need to produce content that meets the wants and desires (not needs) of your audience. Actually, that's true for all markets. Remember, if this is a business site your running, you should (unless you are a significant celebrity) be producing content appropriate to your audience. It's not all about you.

Everything you do on your site must be outcome orientated and must contain a call to action. Otherwise there will be no action taken and you’ve lost the opportunity to convert visitors to your site, your audience, into customers. Needless to say, they are not actual customers until they actually buy something. That doesn't mean they're not important. Quite the contrary. You've just failed to lead them to a solution they came to your site in search of. Some would call that failure.

Of course a call to action doesn't have to involve an exchange of money for a product or service you provide. It might simply be a request for folks to share your post or follow you on one of several social media platforms. Speaking of which, here's your chance to do that, right now.