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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Business

Photography Business Topics

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Framing A Paradigm
black and white, dans, horizontal, personal, self-portrait, photograph

    "But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
    "Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat, "We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
    "How do you know I'm mad?" asked Alice.
    "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
      --Lewis Carroll


When I first thought of getting into the travel photography business, just about everyone in the industry said, you must be mad. "The field is saturated," "there's no money to be made," "it's very competitive," and the obvious statement, "there's a huge amount of really good material already out there." In short, the advice was a resounding, I didn't have a chance. Not one bit of encouragement from anyone. I soon discovered why. Though none were aware of it, making money in photography has nothing to do with photography. Success in this business depends on one and only one thing: good business sense. If all people were equal, the advice I got would have been right. It'd be just like a lottery, where your chances of success are equal to everyone else's. In the photo business, there are so many players—in fact, more people in the world take pictures than ever play the lottery—your chances of success are worse.

Thing is, not all people are equal. What's more, there are huge numbers of very skilled photographers who aren't successful. Is success distributed only to those who are skilled? I probably don't need to tell you the answer to that one—we have all seen pretty awful images in everything from ads, to magazine stories about travel, to brochures. The point of differentiation is not skill, nor how many people are in it, or any of the typical explanations. The one factor to success is how smart you are. Sure, you need to be "good enough" with your photography for people to really take you seriously, but that standard is sufficiently low that just about anyone truly serious about photography is probably a good enough to make money with it. So, if you're wondering whether your photos are good enough to get into the business, the answer is probably, "yes." But, that's not important right now. The real objective to be smart about how you go about it. The photography part is easy; being smart is the hard part.

Thus, my favorite quote about the photo business is,

    "If there were a formula, everyone would be making money."

Photography is a Lonely Business
(California, USA)
california, fog, horizontal, marin, marin county, north bay, northern california, people, photographers, san francisco bay area, west coast, western usa, photograph
Another notion to dispel: "hard work" doesn't translate to success. Nor does it mean you are entitled to compensation. This isn't a factory where union workers are compensated for their time in and work output. This is an "arts" industry, and there is no logic or ethic to how work is valued. Someone who cold-calls art directors, sends unsolicited portfolios and emails in hopes of getting noticed is someone who is working hard, but dumb. Whereas, someone that focuses on industries they already know and understand, and leverages their knowledge of those businesses beyond photography, and who establishes relationships with influential people within those industries, is someone who will quickly bypass all the other photographers trying to cram through the front door.

Work smart is also time-consuming. It often takes years to know a business and its various nuances to speak about it intelligently. It also takes time to foster relationships with important people outside of the context of photography. In short, it's having an intuitive understanding of how people work in a particular business, and making clear, concise decisions that are consistent with that understanding. Whether your interest is cars, architecture, fashion, fine art, or socio-political documentaries of the late 20th century, the more immersed you are in those fields of knowledge, the better you will compete with photographers who don't know the subjects or people as well, even if they do have superior portfolios. And because of this, photography is like many other professions: the smart ones are more successful than talented ones.

That's the basic theme of my books on the photography business. The best way for me to help you is to split our responsibilities: your job is to know your specific target industry that you'd like your photography to focus on, and my job is to help you understanding the basic concepts business and how to apply the abstract to the specific of the photography industry. Your success depends on how well you fuse them together.

Now, if you don't specifically have a known business sector that you'd like to focus on, that's fine. There are many who make money by shooting general photography and sell their photos as "stock" imagery in the open market. There are others who are just undecided on what they want to shoot. You can and should learn about the general photography industry as a whole, regardless of how your personal business focus evolves.

In that spirit, the best way to learn this business is not to look for step-by-step instructions for doing specific things like accounting, balancing a checkbook, or understanding tax returns. Though you may need to develop tasks, such as creating a portfolio or a website, you must continue to recognize that there is no "best" way to promote yourself. These tasks are for operating a business, not succeeding at one. Some business operations can be handled by specialists, such as accountants and software programs. Others, like self-promotion, are very specific to you, your target buyers, and so on.

Another critical understand you need is to avoid searching for specific answers to specific questions. Spoon-feeding does not help you learn to be self-sufficient. You need to explore all aspects of the business, and deconstruct the many approaches that are used so you can determine for yourself when such approaches are applicable for you.

As examples, my books and articles discuss the principles behind the various ways to form a company, and what the tax considerations are for choosing them, even though I don't explain specifically how to form a corporation. That's a task that you can (and should) research yourself. (It's brain-dead simple.) Similarly, I discuss general web design issues and principles that may apply to different kinds of photography businesses, even though I don't teach you how to specifically build a website. There are other applications that can help you do that.

Lastly, understand that photography is not a business you go into to make money. It's not like getting a job at as a waiter and the money just starts flowing in. Photography is chosen because of its lifestyle and creative outlet. Yes, one can make a good, comfortable living in photography, but don't get into photography with the primary goal of making money. That said, there are a lot of people who have a hard time thinking about what they can do to make any money, let alone a living. But even still, that takes a long time too. Be prepared to have another source of income for a while. (Or, at least, parents you can move back in with.)

Hence, this final word of warning/advice before moving ahead:

    "Trying to make a career out of photography is a sure way to ruin a perfectly lovely hobby."

Final closure: this is by no means an attempt to talk you out of the business like everyone else tried to do to me. I would never talk someone out of trying to make money with photography, unless they have already clearly demonstrated their inability to understand reality. I'm just trying to give you a realistic sense that photography is not an easy business to be in, and you really have to set your expectations on what it'll to do to your lifestyle. This is where the chapter, Photo Careers picks up.

For a comprehensive list of business topics, see My Blog Archives.

You'll notice that there are no chapters on photography techniques. For that material, see Frequently Asked Questions about Photography, technique and business.

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