So, you want to start a career in photography. Perhaps you've been told
that you're a great photographer and that you should sell your photos
to magazines or in galleries. Or that you shoudl work for a newspaper or
magazine, or shoot weddings or portraits, or perhaps advertising photography.
Indeed, most books on the photography business cover these topics.
After some initial short-term success, you then get stuck. Work has dried
up, you can't charge enough to make a living, the market is saturated,
or you don't get work you actually want. Before you know it, you're on
discussion forums commiserating with others. It's there that people
offer the worst advice, which is largely categorized as a union-style
attitude: photographers should get paid fairly for a job, and the way
to get that is by everyone sticking together and agreeing on a common
way to work.
This approach violates all principles of economicsthe basic laws of
supply and demand in an open market means that people will compete. They
will not stick together. And with more and more consumers without any
business interests enter the photo industry (often without realizing it),
the hardest way to make money in photography is to treat it like a
fee-for-service job. This is how people get stuck in a never-ending
spiral of gig-chasing, haggling over nickels and dimes, and bickering
Success in the photo business has nothing to do with how good you are,
nor does it matter what you shoot, or whether you specialize in a subject,
or have a very broad repertoire. Success is the direct result of one and
only one thing: business sense. A great photographer can fail miserably
because he has no business skills, but a lousy photographer can succeed
if he's good at business, regardless of what he shoots, or how good
(or bad) he is. If you want a photography career, you don't have to be
a better photographer than the other guy, just smarter than him.
How do you study "business sense?" You don't. Business is more
of an art than a science. Sure, there are business mechanics, such
as how to incorporate, learning about taxation and general accouting
principles, but you can learn that stuff from any business book. The
kind of effective thinking that makes one successful in any business
goes beyond mechanics. You need to know basic economic principles like
supply-and-demand, marketing strategies of attracting clients, pscyhology
of choosing, and other higher-level concepts. And when you start thinking
in those terms, what you end up doing is thinking ahead. You're no
longer thinking about how you get your next assignment, or how to price
that photo someone wants to buy or license, you start thinking in broader
career-development terms: how can you set up a business model that scales up,
that generates repeated interest, that allows prices to rise without
Our sense for business is a by-product of our experience with it.
The more you do, the better your sense for it evolves. Yet, not all
experience is gained through direct encounters; some come from
observations of others, others through theoretical teachings. It's the
interpretation of what we experience and witness from all sources that
shapes our ultimate business sense. This process is much like learning
math when we were in school. Simple arithmetic being the basic form,
leading to algebra, calculus, and so on. However, unlike math, which
can be proven and disproved entirely through equations, "learning"
business is mostly done through trial and error.
There are three essential stages in developing business sense, each of
which corresponds to different stages of career development. (This isn't
a coincidence; career development is usually the by-product of having
mastered each of these stages.)
Long-term vs. Short-term Strategic Thinking
Because most people think of their "photo business" as a way to make money,
the first thing they think of is this simple concept:
"You sell a picture. You get money."
The first step in developing a mature sense for business is learning to
see the long-term effects of the decisions you make. This awareness
often comes in retrospect after you've been doing the same thing
repeatedly and you see how benefits (or costs) that weren't apparent
before, are clear now. Time's role in this is pivotal because developing
a career requires time to experience those events, to witness the
cause-effect relationship between decisions and actions, and to develop
good analytical tools to objectively measure those results. The sooner
you learn sound business analysis in terms of longer-term benefits,
the quicker your career develops. I'll get into details of this later.
As you go through experiences that make you realize long-term goals
are rarely achieved by only shooting for short-term objectives, you
then realize you've been very inefficient in your decision-making.
Most emerging photographers go through an early stage phase of repeating
many tasks of a certain type: writing invoices, updating portfolios,
budgeting marketing plans, designing and re-designing (and further
re-designing) websites, etc. The more you do things, the better you
tend to get at them. It's good to build efficiencies into your business,
because saving time is critical. Learning how to save time by being
more efficient has obvious benefits, but you can get a false sense
of security just because you can do these things more quickly and
smoothly all the time. The more mature business mind asks, "should I
really be doing these things?" Some yes, some no. But it's the mere
awareness to even ask the question in the first place is the sign of
a more mature business mind.
The realization to think this way often comes as a result of a different
realization: business isn't growing. The immature business mind usually
confuses efficiency with effectiveness. More often than not, you
probably shouldn't even be doing many of those tasks in the first place,
even though you are doing them very, very well. The mature business
mind is willing to let go of those tasks that aren't necessary, and
instead spend time doing other things that contribute more to building
Effectively executing your longer-term strategies involves making
many attempts. Your first sale is a pivotal event, because you look
back on what you've done up to that point, and gain an instant (albeit
simplistic) understanding of what you did right, and what you did
wrong. Seeing the cause-effect of actions and results helps formulate
what will eventually form the second stage of the learning process:
how to strategize.
Sense of Self
Experiences contribute to your sense of self, not just in your own eyes,
but how others see you. Maintaining an honest assessment of your
failures as well as your successes is important, but understanding where
you are in the broader scope of your industryyour competition, your
clients, and the market segment you work indefines who you are (in the
business sense). Sense of self does not necessarily imply a positive
sense, just a realistic one. This is not a motivational speech, this
is business reality. You are going to be strong in some areas, and weak
in othersthe smart business person knows his strengths and weaknesses.
By this time, you've developed efficiencies into your methods, combined
your methods into strategies, and are now applying them to real business
growth. Negotiation: Should you bid an assignment for more or less money?
Strategy: Are you wasting time competing for assignments that are
beneath you, even if you aren't getting the work? Social Decorum: Are
you overly confident when speaking in public or with decision-makers?
Self-Honesty: Were you lucky in getting chosen above others, or was
it deserved success? Strategies help guide you on decision-making,
but choosing among decisions are best made when you're aware of your
own real strengths and vulnerabilities.
Now that we've identified the stages of developing a mature model for
business sense, let's get into the details of each.
When newly emerging photographers enter the market, they come from a wide
range of backgrounds. Some come from school, others migrate from other
careers, and other still drift into the craft, often unintentionally.
(Photography being one of the most popular hobbies in the United States
means that the idea of starting a photo business may cross one's mind
at some point.) However it is that you came to photography, we can assume
that if you're reading this book, you've got a sense of your subject
During those early career-development stages, opportunities will come
your waysome will look like great break through's, whereas others
are duds. But, what you see on the surface may not be as it seems.
Weighing the cost/benefits between short-term and long-term objectives
is the most important aspect of smart business thinking. For example,
consider this brief list of criteria that is often cited as considerations
for a business opportunity:
How much does the assignment pay?
What is the price I get for this image?
Are the terms of this contract fair?
Am I losing my rights to the images?
There's no question that each of these are important, but not every
business model requires the same answers to be true for it to be
a "good opportunity." For example, some assignments may pay a high
shooting fee, but you don't get to keep the images. Someone who needs
immediate cash may find this a good opportunity, whereas the career stock
photographer wouldn't find it beneficial. Not all assignments will pay
both a good fee and let you keep the images (where they license them
back from you), though some will. Is it good business sense to only
participate in those opportunities that have optimal returns? As Charlie
Brown once said,
"When my ship comes in, I'll probably be at the airport."
Sometimes, it's not just a choice between two conflicting factors,
but many at once. I ran into just this situation when I was getting
started: I had been asked to shoot a film festival. There was no pay,
and I couldn't keep any of the images, but I was able to attend all of
the events and get into the movies for free. I agreed, mostly because I
had never shot an actual assignment before, but I thought the experience
would be useful, and it might be good to add it to my résumé.
Many pro photographers said I was hurting their business by lowering
the perceived cost of photographers, and that I should charge money for
my services. And if I did it for free now, they said, I would establish
a low-water mark, and they'd never pay me for any kind of assignment
in the future, To me, I saw one main problem with this logic: the film
festival simply had no budget to pay photographers; everyone who did odd
jobs during the event was a volunteer. In the case of the photographers,
most were inexperienced amateurs, much like me. Hence, if I didn't do it,
some other non-professional would. So, I wasn't hurting anyone's business,
nor was I establishing a low price point for my services. Instead,
I was simply gaining experience.
What I didn't expect was to be in front of filmmakers and others who,
by the nature of their industry, became potential business opportunities
for me. Best of all, I had almost no competition around methe
professional photographers boycotted the event, and everyone else was
a non-pro with no interest in getting more photo work. Through the people
I met at this event, I generated about $5000 worth of new business over
the course of the next year.
This example illustrates that longer-term benefits can outweigh the
lack of short-term financial gain if you use them to your advantage.
But, it's equally important to maintain perspective. Today, I no
longer "need" to shoot assignments for free, because I get work from
clients who are willing to pay my rates because they know what they're
going to get. However, my analysis of business opportunities hasn't
Knowing when to say "yes" is where the "business sense" comes in, just
as it's important to know when to say no and move on. It's really not
an issue of pay anymore; there is a more complete check-list of items
that I review before I turn away any assignment.
Is the pay too good to pass up? (Assuming there is pay?)
Are there "resale" opportunities in the aftermarket? (e.g., stock photography)
Is there salable "art" that could be produced?
Is there great credibility or other marketing aspects that can be
leveraged due to the nature of the customer, the event, or the subject?
Is there experience to gain in this area?
Is this an entry into a niche market that's hard to penetrate?
Is this pertinent to my specific career path or subject matter?
Does this cost me time, money, or other restrictions or distractions?
I consider all possible ways I can make any given assignment favorable
before I let it go, but that doesn't mean they carry equal weight. The
values you attribute to each is dependent on your individual career goals.
My only warning is that a disproportionate weighing on any one factor is
often a sign of overly focusing on short-term strategies. For example,
if you dismiss an assignment simply because it is a work-for-hire
contract, without even considering the other items, you're not thinking
strategically. Having good business sense means that you favor long-term
A related problem that emerging photographers suffer from arises when
their eagerness to get into the business allows them to conjure up
all sorts of phantom justifications for any idea that will just get
them going. This is what I call the solution-looking-for-a-problem
syndrome. (Psychologists call this functional fixedness: when all
you have is a hammer, every problem you see is a nail.) For example,
I once knew a photographer who was talented, creative, and in all ways
proficient, but she really had no strong basis for what she wanted to
shoot. Because she had good pictures, she felt that anyone would be
interested in publishing them. She had a solution (her pictures), and
she was merely looking for problem that matched. (I.e., a publisher
that just liked her work.) One day, she was bursting with excitement
about the following idea:
"There's this art festival I saw when I was on vacation that's so
great that travel magazines would just love it! I'm going to go back
and take a lot of pictures, and sell them to editors, because no
one else is covering this event!
She was so convinced that her enthusiasm would be shared by others, that
in her mind, it'd just be a matter of unearthing this latent demand by
showing the pictures to photo editors.
It's easy to conjure up successful scenarios to justify your desire to do
it. But this type of self-assuring rationalization is what leads to dead
ends. Enthusiasm for your subject does not mean that there's a market
for your pictures. What's a better "business case" to make? Let's say my
photography friend follows art festivals everywhere, and has insights
into the social fabric with behind-the-scenes views on the inner workings
of the culture. She also knows the magazines and other media outlets
that normally follow this sort of thing, so she has a more intimate
knowledge of the kind of interest this story would generate. Not only
does the analysis of the "opportunity" have a stronger foundation,
but a potential buyer would appreciate the views from an experienced
expert that would tell a more compelling story than, say, a tourist who
happened to be at a neat event. Best of all, her credibility within
the art industry would give her significant advantage over competition
in the sales effort.
My friend's long-term objectives had not been defined yet; she was
driven solely by short-term goals that were unlikely to succeed. And even
if she were able to publish some photos, they wouldn't really amount to
much. Career-building involves capitalizing on previous successes to
leverage future plans, rather than floating from one idea to the next
without a coherent plan.
It's easy to get excited about business ideas and prospective
opportunities, but you can see signs when you've become distracted. A
common example that I see on most amateur Web sites is when photographers
try to sell 4x6 prints. First, prices for such sales are so low, that the
time necessary to fulfill product orders doesn't justify the incomethe
infrastructure required to do volume sales would require a considerably
intricate business model. Furthermore, you can't get to that level of
sales until you have sufficient traffic to your site. To get that,
you have to invest a lot of time into doing other things to build your
business. In the end, if you were doing those activities, you wouldn't
be bothering with sales of 4x6 prints because you wouldn't have time.
If you're thinking that such sales don't hurt in the early days, you're
also not taking into account the perception held by more serious photo
buyers and agencies who hire photographers have. Sure, consumers may
spontaneously buy a 4x6 print, but this isn't growing a business.
(Read Selling Posters, Postcards and Calendars for more on the topic.)
The broader point is that long-term strategic thinking involves looking
at every moment of time you spend, and justifying how it contributes to
growth. We'll return to this subject later in this chapter.
Assuming your business strategies are sound, you've framed your
imagery around a subject you know intimately, and you are good at
weighing your long-term benefits wisely. It may now seem as though
your photo business is just a matter of setting up shop. After all,
you've got the foundation that justifies the business model, and perhaps
you've inadvertently made a modest income by selling photos or have been
asked to shoot assignments. But it's here where people make their next
fundamental business misjudgment: the assumption that if you're already
getting a little business with a little effort, then just a little more
effort could turn into real revenue.
This is what I call the GLOSSARY:low-hanging-fruit fallacy:
In reality, there is a rather high hurdle that separates the time,
work and effort required to start a photo business, and the making
of a self-sustaining and viable business. That is, the growth curve
isn't linear, and what often happens is that people get too optimistic
when the quick sales happen right away, only to be completely unprepared
when the low hanging fruit runs out. The common example is when someone
tells her friends she's starting a portrait business, and she get all
her friends and family as first clients. Words spreads, and things seem
to be running fine, but after the first round of easy sales has been
exhausted, business dries up. I have seen many amateurs, many of whom
are far more talented than I, simply give up because of the frustrations
and pitfalls. Success isn't easy, and one should be wary of any successes
that seem "too easy," especially when it happens quickly.
To keep a business going beyond the first few rounds, one needs to see
not just the long-term strategy, but begin to make effective decisions
that realize those goals. In the development cycle of business sense,
the first level may have been achieved, but the second level wasn't. So,
let's discuss that next.
Your most valuable resource is time, and how you prioritize and
implement your strategies will determine the rate and degree of your
success (or failure). Prioritization is choosing strategies that
are effective. Doing them smartly, cost-effectively, and in a
"timely" manner is efficiency. Or, put another way:
Efficiency is getting the job done right.
Effectiveness is getting the right job done.
Both are critical, but don't confuse one for the other. Whatever you're
doing at any given time means that you're not doing something else. Are you
doing what needs to be done? Might something else be a better use of your
time? When emerging photographers fail to achieve this balance, it's
because they either choose to do things they "like" (or want) to do,
or those things they incorrectly prioritize (even if they're bad at it).
This is a phenomenon that I call
. When business stagnates, it's because of the circular dependency of feeling that business can't progress until other tasks are done first, which never get done because business isn't progressing.
A photographer I know shoots weddings at moderate prices, but does it all
using a single mid-range zoom lens. She has no portfolio, no web site,
no contact information available, and limited equipment (her camera and
one lens; no flash). She gets business through other photographers who
send her jobs when their own schedule gets too full. Between her
day job and weekend shooting, she is doing "well enough"
that she isn't suffering, but she is clearly aware that her business isn't
moving forward. She attributes this to a variety things: the wedding photo
business is saturated, the pay is going down because new photographers
are willing to work for so much less, the economy is just too tight,
people aren't getting married as often, etc.
Because I know her, I see what's going on at home. She spends most of her
time repeating the same tasks over and over: when she writes an invoice,
she starts from a blank page in her word processor, and redesigns
the enter thing from scratch, unaware that she can make a template.
She's constantly re-calculating her budgets, cleaning her studio, and
calibrating her monitor. All these activities are justified because,
she says, "when business comes, I'll be prepared." Why not invest in
other things first? "That costs money, and I'll spend that money when
the business can pay for it."
You and I can see all sorts of things she's doing wrong, plus add
a bunch of other things she should be doing to move forward. But,
don't let your ability to see the fault in other people give you the
false confidence that you'll see it in yourself when it happens to you.
Those who get stuck, including (especially) the pros, they never see
it in themselves; they always have rational reasons for their lack of
Choosing between tasks is easier when you're the objective observer.
You can see my friend doesn't need to be calibrating her monitor all the
time. But, will it be so easy to see when you find you don't have
enough time to do things that seem important? Will you make a
portfolio to send to the art director, or will you get that website up
and running? Making tougher decisions is where the exercise gets more
challenging. We'll be looking at this in more detail in Marketing your Photography Business.
If you've established a good foundation for your business and are
doing everything right as far as you can tell, and business is moving
along just fine, it's easy to think it's all because of your having
good business sense. Well, sure; you probably do. But, then,
here's an uncomfortable reality check: the next stage of business
development is coming to the realization that you're in a very
competitive, unforgiving business, where your main product is art,
and no matter how well you can articulate a business solution to a
client, your product is still subjective in nature. Your client either
likes it, or he doesn't, and there's no science to it. When you're getting
started, there are a lot of photographers that make great art, but not
all of them will be successful. To some degree, you just got lucky.
Even beyond the art world, one of the most famous and richest financial
wizards in the world acknowledges luck's value:
"If you can get rich either by luck or being smart, I'd choose luck every time."
Your job is to diminish luck's role as you and your business mature.
Part of having good business sense is knowing when luck ends and
"deserved success" begins. The reason this is the final stage of
development is because you may hit a dead end in your career if you
don't really have a good sense of yourself that gets you by the
tougher times. You may have good strategies and your business decisions
are adequate, but as pointed out earlier, you come up with a lot more
ideas than those you actually act upon. When your career is stuck
it could be that you're stuck in a narrower pattern of decision-making
that isn't serving your goals, and it's all because you're perception
of self doesn't match what the outside world thinks. The graveyard of
business failures is populated with many who look back regretfully and
say, "I got too arrogant for my own good."
Consider this example: you're a talented, but inexperienced photographer,
and you send your portfolio to a series of art directors and ad agencies.
After a few days, you get a call and are given an opportunity to bid
an assignment. Normally, this gig is given to experienced shooters,
but it turns out that the usual list of photographers is unavailable,
and the art director liked your portfolio. This particular job is
with a reliable client who's willing to take a chance on new talent,
so the job is yours if your bid is accepted. How do you handle it?
Do you bid it straight up, as if you were one of the regular go-to
shooters? Do you underbid a little in acknowledgment of your
inexperience, or do you push it a tad higher because you know they're
in a bind? There is no right or wrong answer hereit's a rhetorical
challenge to get you to think in terms of yourself. You should review
the "assignment evaluation" checklist earlier in the chapter as a guide,
since a lot of those items compel you to take into account your own
sense of self. If you're right about yourself and your assessment of
this opportunity, your actions will match the expectations of the client,
and you'll get the job.
One very important factor in this scenario that you need to consider, is
the fact that you were chosen because of potential merit, not realized
merit. Being hired for potential is great, but it's still a factor of
luckmany people have potential. Whereas, realized merit is "deserved,"
merit you have earned from proven experience.
There was a survey done by the Department of Motor Vehicles in California,
where people were asked to rate their own driving skills on a scale of
1 to 5, where 3 was "average" (on par with other drivers). 75 percent
of the respondents rates themselves a 4 or 5, whereas only 10 percent
rated themselves a 1 or 2. A true bell-curve distribution dictates
that most people should rate themselves a "3", and the number on
either side should be evenly divided. The survey shows that people think
more highly of themselves than they should. It has been repeated in
different demographic groups for different activities and job functions,
all yielding much the same results.
Compare this with a more challenging scenario: the art director's
colleague highly recommended you as an experienced photographer, and you
are then asked to bid the assignment. Same questions as before: how do
you bid? Here, your "deserved success" is present in both cases: the
portfolio was strong, and you were chosen as a known entity. What's
more, your portfolio was not sent unsolicited, and the client is in
a bind because their regular go-to shooters aren't available. If you
think it is a good time to bid higher, you may be right, but here's
where people get ahead of themselves: you're still an unknown entity
to that particular art director. If you want to establish a longer-term
relationship, your bid may be affected. If it's a one-time job for good
money, your bid may be different.
As you go through your business, no matter how talented or smart you are,
having the ability to distance yourself from yourself, to see your own
misgivings, and to see your situations objectively, is critical to making
better decisions. An inflated sense of self can be your own worst enemy,
just as diminishing your own value can be equally crippling. Strive for
accuracy in self-perception, not just an ego-boost. If you do this well,
you may achieve a level that everyone in any art form hopes for: name
recognition. (This will be dealt with in detail in Marketing your Photography Business.)
I'm going to take an aside here to discuss a subject that's related to
sense of self: sense of others. More precisely, that of other pros.
Beginners in the photo industry invariably look to successful
photographers as role models for advice or inspiration. But, blindly
following them can be fraught with pitfalls. Are successful photographers
really so much more talented or deserving than many of their peers who
aren't as successful, that their strategies are worth emulating? Were
their conditions similar enough to yours that you should follow without
question? Consider this: failing photographers usually do the same
sorts of things to develop their career as the successful ones do.
When it comes to listening to business advice, the analogy I like to draw
is "the room full of lottery winners." If you take all the people who won
more than one million dollars in the lottery, and assemble them in a big
stadium, most would claim to have "some technique" for picking winning
numbers. But we really know: they were just lucky. (You're with me on
this, right?) The fact that they are all together gives the illusion of
credibility. Quote time:
"Even a clock that doesn't run is right twice a day."
It's important to understand that anecdotal evidence of success does not
demonstrate a pattern. Analysis of advice should be one that can be tested
across a wider sampling of the population, not necessarily just the
one pro, or even the stadium full of lottery winners. This invariably
leads to the bandwagon effect: that phenomenon where everyone does the
same thing because that's what everyone else does. It's understandable,
because it feels safe and reliable. This reminds me of when the 9/11
Commission gave its report on why the intelligence got it so wrong when
they thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. There was this
"When everyone around the table agrees, you know someone's got it wrong."
Photographers have a tendency to succumb to group-think, as information
trickles down from the top. Advice often goes unquestioned, without
scrutiny, and without unbiased analysis. Having good business sense
means you see the pitfalls in any given advice, not just the benefits.
Having the ability to argue both sides of a position, or being able to
articulate both for and against a postulate is a form of business sense.
For example, I've heard pros say that their job is to be the "creative
talent", and the rest of the tasks should be done by outside professionals
who are skilled at such matters. The reason this doesn't work for
the independent photographer is the loss of control, efficiency and
effectiveness. Obviously, you aren't an expert in every field of
business, and outside help is critical and necessary; you need to rely
on others' expertise. But, if you don't know exactly what needs to
be done, why, and how, then I guarantee that it won't be done right,
even by professionals with the best intentions. Outsourced "tasks" aren't
just robotic activities that someone does for you. Strategic business
decisions need to be made that affect how each of those processes are
done. You need to understand the ramifications of those decisions with
their help as advisers and experts, not as hired hands who just do the
job for you. Hiring a lawyer $250 per hour will cost you thousands more
if you just leave matters in his hands. Worse, he may be ineffective
simply because he doesn't have your long-term business objectives in
mind. (Nor might he be able to identify with them.) If you don't know
this stuff, your lawyer is never going to advise you in any way that
will help you in the end.
When you get outside help, your job is to learn as much as you can from
these people so you can use them sparingly, if ever. And if you do need
them, you will know why, and can direct them efficiently.
To put all this into context, I will describe my basic business model.
First, I picked up photography as a hobby as many other people do:
on vacation. I took a lot vacations in the 90s, and I simply found I liked
the photographic process. In 1995, I put my first personal Web page together
where I posted images for friends and family to see. It wasn't long before
I engaged in discussions with other photographers, where I learned tips
here and there, and eventually took it more seriously (by buying a real
camera). By 1997, I had started getting real print orders, and not long
after that, I was getting license requests from corporate clients.
By 1998, it was clear I had a real business going, and is when I also
got my first "Real Assignment" from one of the travel companies I used
to travel with as a paying tourist. This is when I decided I had
actually transformed my photography into a career.
One could say from the beginning that my business has always a Web-only
concern, where most of my revenue comes from online sales. This doesn't
mean that I don't engage in other marketing or promotional activities
offline as well. I do. But, the main goal is to bring that target
audience to my site. Those marketing activities do not include sending
mass mailings to unknown clients, or unsolicited portfolios to photo editors
or art directors, or mailing postcards directly to buyers in hopes of
getting new clients. For me, the cost-benefit never justified those
efforts or expenses (see Marketing your Photography Business). I repeat: for me. Because
the net was already doing such good business for me, I didn't have the
need to spend the time and resources in other ways. Most of my business
is so saturated, that it has never been a matter of getting "enough"
business, it's more a matter of improving the efficiency of it, so that
I can reduce the amount of time I need to spend with each sale.
Speaking of sales, I break them down into three categories: stock,
assignment, and fine art. As per Truism #4 (from the Photography Business),
I diversify my revenue across as many market segments as possible that lie
within my photography specialty, style and business model. This allows me
to both spread the risk appropriately, and to optimize the total return
without diffusing focus. There's always a trade-off in that delicate
balance, which takes some time to discover for oneself. However,
following the checklist outlined earlier allows that discovery to evolve
While assignments only represent between 5-7 percent of my revenue, those
provide images that fuel 95 percent of my sales. As before, I continue to
shoot for active/adventure travel outfitters who send me on trips with
other guests so they can use my pictures for their marketing. I
shoot the entire experience: the country, the places we stay/eat at,
culture, people, architecture, whatever. The client uses those photos
in their catalogs, direct mailers, or anything they create to promote their
businesses. That's where my relationship with the client ends (except for
recurring assignments). Where the bulk of my business picks up is from the
aftermarket sales of those same images as fine art and stock photography.
Again, for the broader perspective of the market, there are many other
kinds of models, such as wedding and portrait photographers, who pull
in 90 percent of their revenue from assignments, and 5 percent or more
from other sources like stock or print sales. What's more, a name-brand
shooter in strategically-placed markets or industry segments can make
a respectable living. There are many models to choose from, so don't
get caught up in thinking that mine or any other singular approach is
About 40-50 percent of my business comes from selling "fine art prints."
Briefly, I define fine art as a custom-made print that I produce and
whose use is solely to display as artwork. This is my highest-margin
sale, and most consistently priced. It's also the most efficient sale,
since it takes no negotiation, no sales pitch, and no product delivery or
follow through. The order comes in, it's done, I move on. One doesn't have
to try hard to illustrate the fantastic advantages of selling online. The
question isn't "whether" to do it, it's how you get the orders, and what
are the best price points. (Those are discussed in separate chapters.)
Upon observation, you may ask, since fine art represents so much of my
revenue, and it's easier and quicker with less overhead than other types
of sales, why don't I price (and market) my "art" more aggressively to
yield higher volumes? The reasons I don't are somewhat complicated because
it's not just a see-saw of price vs. volume. Other costly factors get
involved as prices fluctuate: the time and other customer service matters
emerge as prices drop, because "consumers" become the audience. These
are the "tire kickers," where the amount of time and resources necessary
for customer service, shipping, and other things that "go wrong" in the
day-to-day running of affairs can eat you from the inside out. Worst of
all, there is a lot of time consumed with queries that don't lead to
sales. Higher-priced images appeal to a very different kind of buyer,
making a smoother sales cycle, but one runs into another example of
the law of diminishing returns: if prices are too high, sales drop. So,
the trade-offs are challenging, but more frustratingly is the fact that
there is no reproducible formula.
What works for other never worked for me, and what works for me hasn't
shown much success with others. My explanation for this is non-scientific,
but I suspect that the nature of my imagery, topics, style, marketing
idiosyncrasies and other factors, all create a unique demographic
specific to me. Thus, my price points work with that demographic.
35-40 percent of my business comes from licensing images for commercial
use. Those who license images span the spectrum in diversity, ranging
from traditional media (publishers, newspapers, magazines), to consumer
product companies, to government agencies, all the way down to a small
church in the middle of South Africa. The number and types of people
who license images seem virtually infinite. Licensed images are usually
priced and sold depending on use: advertising brings in the most money,
usually several thousand dollars for one-time use in a catalog, whereas
a small regional newsletter may only bring in $100.
Selling images for licensing like this is called stock photography, and
that's an enormous subject to cover. For more on this, see The Stock Photography Business.
The price points for stock photography is also a bigger, more complex subject,
and that's addressed in Photography Pricing.
I've been asked why I don't charge more for my assignments. Yet, my
assignment rates go up all the time; I just do less assignments, making
the ratio of total sales appear smaller. So, it's not that I don't
charge enough, I use assignments to leverage the growth of other revenue
streams, which are more profitable when measured by the time and effort
necessary to produce each dollar earned. My assignments are the goose
that lays the golden eggs; it's unwise to over-feed the goose if its
egg yield is already sufficient. Today, I only do a couple assignments
a year, whereas before, I used to do up to six.
Clearly, my long-term objective is to fill my stockpiles of images through
my assignments. But that doesn't mean that all assignments have value, or
are created equally. There are trade-offs. I retain copyright and to
re-license the images in the aftermarket, making the reciprocal value
between me and my client mutually beneficial. An assignment that doesn't
let me keep the images must make up for that lost revenue somewhere else
(usually the assignment fee). Review the checklist earlier in this chapter.
I've done assignments where I don't own anything and don't have any
relicense rights, but I also get paid $10,000 and more for a one or
two-day shoot. Those are great revenue-generators that shouldn't
be dismissed out of hand. They're just not part of my long-term
strategies, but that doesn't mean they can't be part of yours. If your
business model is to become well-known for such assignments, you don't
need to worry about stock photography and sales; you can earn good
money if you get one assignment a month. (But, don't get your hopes too
high on that oneif it were that easy, everyone would do it.)
I had made reference to the expression, "well-known." The reason some
photographers can get $10,000 assignments is because they are well-known
in their market segments. Fashion, for example. To get there, part of
the business strategy has to be name-brand generation, as discussed in
Marketing your Photography Business. This is not a simple thing to do, but it's also not out
of reach for people. I happen to choose a business model that doesn't
require name recognition because I don't do well with notoriety. There's
a personality style necessary to go along with that, and I don't have
it. If you value this benefit and your personality allows you to develop
"fame" in that way, you might choose a business strategy that leverages
those traits in you. Again, this reinforces the notion that there is no
one business model that's right for every photographer.
How much time does it take to develop a photography business so that
you can make a living at it as your sole source of income? Should you
quit your day job yet? What kind of time expectations should you have?
There are many different kinds of photo businesses, from the portrait
photographer in the mall, to the press photographer for the local
newspaper, to the stock photographer out in the field that takes pictures
of nothing but birds. Every field of photography has a different degree of
demand for such products, different competition, and different regional
variances that may make that work more or less worthwhile as a career
objective. What you develop your career into is entirely up to you. But
it won't go anywhere unless and until you develop a sense for business.