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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business  >  Photography and Business Sense

Photography and Business Sense

Table of Contents

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1 Introduction

(Amorgos, Greece)
artists, cameras, clothes, europe, glasses, greece, horizontal, men, people, photographers, reflect, reflections, self portrait, sunglasses, tourists, photograph
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, you're thinking of working for a newspaper or magazine, or shooting weddings or portraits. Perhaps advertising photography. You start looking around for advice, leading to discussion forums, where you and other photographers discuss the topic, where you then start hearing all sorts of advice: learn to shoot better, make a great website, specialize on a subject, don't try to compete with other photographers, and the most common statement: It's a crowded space, and it's impossible to make money with photography anymore.

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 by simply being good at business, regardless of the topic or skilset (good or bad).

In short, it's this simple: if you want a photography career, you don't have to be a better photographer, just a smarter one. This is what I call "business sense."

How do you study business sense? You don't. Business is more of an art than a science. It's true that there are business mechanics, such as forming a company and learning about tax 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 haggling?

The Top-Down View
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, headlands, looking north, national landmarks, san francisco, tops, vertical, views, west coast, western usa, photograph
One's sense for business develops incrementally from initial intuition, yes, but you get better at it through empirical experience of trial and error. 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. It's the interpretation of what we experience and witness from all sources that shapes our ultimate business sense.

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.)

1 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.

2 Efficiency and Effectiveness
Garbage In, Garbage out.
(San Rafael, California, USA)
california, change, civic center, garbage, grounds, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, san francisco bay area, vertical, west coast, western usa, photograph
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 your career.

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.

Fields and Mountains and Clouds and Photographer
(Lhasa, Kyichu, Tibet)
asia, clouds, fields, horizontal, landscapes, lhasa, mountains, nature, photographers, sky, tibet, photograph

3 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 industry—your competition, your clients, and the market segment you work in—defines 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 others—the 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.

Boats in Canal (2)
(Venice, Veneto, Italy)
boats, canals, europe, italy, venecia, venezia, venice, vertical, photograph
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 of focus.

During those early career-development stages, opportunities will come your way—some 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."

Discern Good Choices and Bad Ones
horizontal, kayaks, palau, storm, tropics, photograph
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 me—the 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 changed.

Starting Small is OK
(Cuzco, Peru)
capital of peru, childrens, cities, cityscapes, cuzco, latin america, peru, peruvian capital, plaza, towns, vertical, photograph
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.
checkbox.gif  Is the pay too good to pass up? (Assuming there is pay?)
checkbox.gif  Are there "resale" opportunities in the aftermarket? (e.g., stock photography)
checkbox.gif  Is there salable "art" that could be produced?
checkbox.gif  Is there great credibility or other marketing aspects that can be leveraged due to the nature of the customer, the event, or the subject?
checkbox.gif  Is there experience to gain in this area?
checkbox.gif  Is this an entry into a niche market that's hard to penetrate?
checkbox.gif  Is this pertinent to my specific career path or subject matter?
checkbox.gif  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 opportunities.

Where to go...
(Mt Asinau, Corsica, France)
asinau, corsica, europe, france, mountains, mt asinau, vertical, photograph
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.

Choose Your Path Wisely
(Monument Valley, Arizona, USA)
america, arizona, desert southwest, horizontal, monument, monument valley, north america, united states, valley, western usa, photograph
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.

Potted Flowers
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
croatia, dubrovnik, europe, flowers, potted, vertical, photograph
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 income—the 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.

Seeing the Light
(Whitefish, Montana, USA)
america, fireworks, montana, north america, united states, vertical, western united states, western usa, whitefish, photograph
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: DEFINITION: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.

Peddling in First Gear
(Venice, Italy, Italy)
childrens, europe, horizontal, italy, kid, people, venecia, venezia, venice, photograph
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.

Know Thyself (and thy size)
(Geneva, Switzerland)
black and white, europe, geneva, horizontal, switzerland, terrier, photograph
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 progress.

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.

Trying Your Luck
(Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)
america, hands, las vegas, nevada, north america, slot, united states, vertical, western usa, photograph
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."
      --Warren Buffet

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."

Mannequins and Window
(Fethiye, Turkey)
europe, fethiye, humor, manequins, mannequins, turkeys, vertical, windows, photograph
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 here—it'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 luck—many people have potential. Whereas, realized merit is "deserved," merit you have earned from proven experience.

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.)

Women Bike and Poster ad
(Ljubljana, Slovenia)
bicycles, europe, humor, ljubljana, people, posters, slovenia, square format, womens, photograph
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 classic comment:

    "When everyone around the table agrees, you know someone's got it wrong."

It's a Long Way to the Top
(Banff, Alberta, Canada)
alberta, banff, canada, canadian rockies, horizontal, mountains, walkway, photograph
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.

"The numbers are very interesting!"
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, havana, island nation, islands, latin america, men, people, south america, vertical, photograph
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.

Sunset and Silhouette (2)
(Piran, Slovenia)
clouds, europe, horizontal, ocean, pirano, shoreline, silhouettes, slovenia, sunsets, water, photograph
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 naturally.

blue-bullet.gif Assignments

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 "correct."

Cars in Cuba
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cars, cuba, havana, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, south america, photograph

blue-bullet.gif Print Orders

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.

blue-bullet.gif Licensed Images

Rosengarten Mountains Silhouette (4)
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, black and white, dolomites, europe, horizontal, italy, mountains, rosengarten, silhouettes, photograph
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.

Jack Business Dinner (1)
babies, boys, business, dans, dinner, grandparents, horizontal, infant, jacks, photograph
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 one—if 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.

Light at the end of the Tunnel
(California, USA)
animals, dogs, horizontal, sammy, tunnel, photograph
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.

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