Photography: Your Business And You

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

The problem with your business is you.

That’s a pretty controversial statement by which to start this post. The question is, is it true.

These days, sadly, folks take such comments personally. Clearly, I’m writing to an audience, of which each of you is but a single member.

However, such a statement is probably true to a number of you, just as it is to me. The fact that so many folks can’t bear such truths is a determining factor in why they fail in business.

I’m not saying it’s easy to read or hear such statements, but that doesn’t make them untrue.

The problem is that not wanting to hear can stop us listening to the kind of advice that could help turn our business around. And that’s a sure sign of denial.

Most People Are Not Cut Out To Run A Business

Just look at the simple truths TV chef Gordon Ramsay tries to ram home to those hapless folk running restaurants that they are clearly not cut out to run.

I suspect most folks watch such shows, from a distance, without actually realizing that, placed in the same position, most of them would make similar mistakes. As, indeed, have I in my own business.  

For the sake of simplicity we can separate the business of photography into 3 general categories, which I’II outline as follows:

Christmas in Hamilton with Anna, Jessica and Rocky, The Wonder Dog.

High Volume Results In Low Price And Less Profit

In the world of the portrait photographer this might include the kind of portraiture commonly done in schools, supermarkets and shopping centres.

In such circumstances photos are often sold as part of a larger package of images: often as a variety of images in a range of sizes.

It’s a simple recipe for the photographer to follow to both create the images and to sell them. However, it’s hard work and very repetitive.

What’s more, because the look, lighting and approach is so highly recipe driven there is little room for creativity in this part of the market.

Success is, therefore, driven by bums on seats. The more little kiddies you photograph, the more prints you’ll sell.

However, with such low prices, the take home profit on sales is relatively low, particularly for those business operating in shopping centers where rent can be expensive.

A portrait of a well feed and content Koala sitting in a tree near Cape Otway in Victoria, Australia.

What Happened To The Postcard Market?

Traditionally photographers working in the landscape genre would often enter this end of the market with a range of postcards or low priced prints.

This is a terribly difficult way to make money as, despite significant expenses associated with the production and quantity of these images, you’re also likely to have to spend a lot of money on specially constructed postcard stands.

To have these stands produced locally you would likely have to have them manufactured in bulk or, alternatively, ship them in from China. You’ll also need to warehouse them.

For years my garage housed around 70,000 cards and several dozens stands. I had to park my car outside. Can you imagine the amount of customers you’d need to win over to turn around that much stock?

It’s almost impossible and the profit margin on a premium $1 postcard is far less than half.

A detail from the historic precinct in Cromwell on the South Island of New Zealand.

What’s more, in addition to the cost of actually making the photographs, purchasing the stands and printing the images, in bulk, you also have to take into account the time and cost associated with travelling to the outlets to sell, dust and refilling the stands.

And you will have to show up to sell your wares. It’s the only way you’ll get a re-order. Why? The retailers just don’t value what it is you do.

And that’s despite the fact that, just like a newspaper in a milk bar in days gone by, a postcard would often result in one or more add on sales.

My experience was that if I did all the work the postcards would sell. If not, they’d just sit there because most retailers see postcards as a hassle rather than as a really easy way to make money.

Pukerangi, Taieri George Railway, New Zealand

About to Travel?


Bring In The Dodo And Stop Flogging That Horse

Let’s not forget that most folks no longer buy postcards. They use their mobile phone to make the image, personalize and share it via email and social media.

Postcards still survive in certain marketplaces, but you’ll probably find those markets already well serviced and near impossible to break into.

Please understand, it’s over!

Of course the internet is full of folks trying to sell 8”x10” prints, via SmugMug and other forms of online fulfillment, for $20 or less.

I’m sure you all understand that, to make a living at this price point, you would need to sell 50 or more (landscape) prints per week to make a basic living.

It’s more likely to be 100 plus prints if you take into account the cost of making and shipping the prints as well as any travel costs, including accommodation and fuel, associated with you creating the photos in the first place.

Good luck with that.

While photographing in this forested area near Twizel on the South Island of New Zealand I was reminded of 'Gollums Song' from the LOTR The Two Towers movie.

There Is No Better Word To Describe Cheap

I do understand the philosophy behind why most folks price their work so cheaply. And by the word cheap I do not mean affordable or at a reasonable price.

In the case of business ventures this kind of pricing usually suggests a lack of confidence in the quality and value of what it is we do.

Fine! Don’t sell, at least not yet. That is, assuming this is a real business venture we’re discussing.

I was the only customer in this suave pub late on a summer's night in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had a few drinks and, together with the barman, solved the problems of the world.

Low Self Esteem Is The Devil In Us All

Low self esteem effects us in several ways. It can be debilitating and cause us not to act at all, which is a kind of death for the creative soul.

But low self confidence can also cause us to make poor decisions and, as a result, set ourselves up for failure. And this is what I believe is at play here.

I do understand that keen photographers, happy in their normal jobs, just want the injection of self-confidence selling a print provides them.

But, really, if you’re already making good money working full-time elsewhere, you’re not reliant on print sales.

So, the question remains, why sell your work so cheaply?

If you can use the sale of a handful of $20 prints a year to justify the purchase of a new camera kit, or the launch of a new photography business, good luck to you.

But you’ll find translating, what for many is an hours pay, into a full time income difficult in the extreme.

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

This Is A Carrot, Not A Stick

Given that most photographers exist happily, though financially tenuously, in this end of the market it’s not too much to at least ask you to consider trying to increase your prices, at least moderately.

After all you don’t want to be a part of the crowd. You want to stand out from and above it.

It might help to re-package your prints somehow.

However, the price we put on our products and services is usually an indication of the value we place on ourselves and the work we produce.

This is a real opportunity for those of you who are only looking at a little extra income, to help offset the money you’re already spending on your photography.

Think of it, if successful, this increase in income could pay for a new lens, an overseas airfare or a year’s subscription to The Arcanum.

Black and white portrait, photographed with window light, in a pub in Mildura, Australia.

Medium Volume And Medium Price Results In A Medium Life

Most independent portrait photographers fall into this category. They are susceptible to competition from highly promoted, low price operations that offer lower priced packages.

Similarly, the average portrait photographer is susceptible to low volume, higher priced studios offering a more personalized and, seemingly, more professional service.

Talk about being squeezed between a rock and a hard place.

An interesting business model appeared around 10 years back referred to as Shoot and Burn. (This is photographers slang and not to be repeated in front of actual customers).

The idea was that you would photograph the person, couple or family in question and, with little or no post processing, burn the images onto a DVD or memory stick to pass directly onto the customer.

In Australia a $700 price point worked very well initially. The whole process could be finished in half a day for the photographer, while the customer saw value in being given full resolution files which they could share and print when and how it suited them.

A close up portrait of a young man alongside a statue in Eltham, Australia.

Here Comes Wally, The Man Who Destroyed Their Business

Of course most successful business models are compromised by the very photographers who could have made a decent living by just following a method that’s both tried and true.

Prices are driven down due to fear of competition, as a way of securing more work and, ultimately, due to a lack of self worth.

You’re now working harder and longer for no more money.

Good one, Wally!

Last I heard this model was down to under $200, though there will be some photographers who have bucked the trend.

I entered this market for a time, mainly to test it out for my students, just as the price was beginning to drop.

I kept the price at $700, but maintained value through the quality of the photos produced and by offering both color and black and white copies of each image, in both full resolution (e.g., print ready) and low resolution (e.g., web ready) versions.

This duplication of files did take time, but it cost me nothing to do it and I set my computer up to undertake the task while I slept.

Always Look To Add Value To What You Do

I also provided a small print of the family, at no charge, with an offer of a wall print, at a reduced price, if purchased within a 7-day period.

I had about a 50% success rate with this add on which, on average, made me another $400 profit for those particular jobs and, as a relatively large focus point on my customers walls, provided a great testimonial for me each time I sold a large, framed wall print.

I’d photograph families outdoors, in parks and botanical gardens. Neither a studio nor studio lighting was required.

This was an easy to implement and profitable little business model, ideal for someone working from home. And that was the whole point of the exercise.

I undertook this market trial to prove to my students that they could make a living in photography, without having the high costs associated with a traditional studio-based business.

This business model relied, primarily, on word of mouth and personal testimonials which, if you do the right thing, should follow naturally from the work you do.

Unfortunately this exciting business model has become largely redundant. Not by the customer, but by photographers who look a lot like you and me.

Their own lack of confidence pushed them into an ever reducing pricing structure which resulted in the death of that nice little business model. One that had been good for both photographer and customer.

Thanks again Wal!

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

The Key To Pricing Is Not To Be Cheap

Please don’t enter any photography market thinking you’ll start cheap and work your way up. It simply doesn’t work that way.

By coming in at the lower end of the market you’ll create a perception, both in your own mind as well as that of the market, which you will be unlikely to change.

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

  • Continually improve the quality and presentation of your work

  • Change the way you see yourself and the value of what you do and produce

  • Improve your marketing and the ways you connect with your audience

  • Make sure all your activities are outcome orientated

  • Clear out! Get someone else to sell and, perhaps, market your work for you

  • Get fit and dress more professionally. That’s because image matters. It helps get you the work and ensures your customers treat you with respect, without which it’s really hard to produce photos of the quality you’re capable of producing.

  • Never under value yourself or the work you produce

A spectacular and colorful tree in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Low Volume And High Price | The Top Of The Market

Only a few photographers make it into this category, though not enough try. To succeed at this end of the market your photography must be of a very high standard.

What’s more your business reputation, and the dollars the resulting goodwill can bring to your business, may take years to build.

I’ve studied a number of very successful photographers in a variety of markets.

They are all very good photographers, though many of them were successful long before their work was much better than that of folks in lower priced segments of that same market.

But the quality of their work never stopped them making money, which is an important lesson in itself.

What sets you aside from so much of the competition is that you create the perception, in your own mind as much as that of your potential customers, that your work is in some way unique and special.

And of course you need to produce the kind of work that your audience finds compelling.

Needless to say successful people are driven by success.

Now there are several ways to read that last sentence. Let me just say that, to be successful, we need to become highly focused on the outcomes we are seeking to achieve.

I know of one hugely successful photographer who, for many years, did not have a TV. He considering it a distraction to his work.

He certainly maximized the hours available to him in a day. What’s more he loved making money and he was excited by opportunities to sell his work.

One thing he wasn’t was scared.

Whatever the weather Salzburg is a beautiful destination and a wonderful place to explore on foot. This photo showcases a pool, in a beautifully designed garden, where trees and the colors green and yellow dominate.

Please Beware Of The Tall Poppy Syndrome In Photography

Of course some folks are focussed on their business to the point of obsession. And that can be detrimental to their personal lives.

I don’t want to be like those people, but I most certainly can learn from them. As can you.

Dismissing successful people is just one of the ways we set ourselves up for failure.

In Australia it’s called the Tall Poppy Syndrome and we need to recognize it, whenever it occurs, and ensure it doesn’t cause us to judge people unfairly.

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

It works in the automotive industry. Why would it not work for us photographers.

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

Consistency is important.

Waters edge near Wanaka in the South Island of New Zealand.

Is It Time For A New You?

We also need to come to terms with our own upbringing. I still distain wastefulness, greed and sloth.

However, I no longer distain money nor believe that the accumulation of wealth is beyond my means or station in life.

I'm no better than anyone else, but I'm no less grateful for what I've received in the past nor for what I will accomplish into the future.

Our primary goal should be to live as creative beings through a purpose driven, meaning rich life.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

I’m of the belief that we live in a world of abundance and that, if the motivation and intentions underpinning our work are pure and life affirming, then the universe will reward us, one way or another, for our efforts.

If you're in the low volume and high price end of the landscape photography market then you are marketing yourself to the top 10 percent of spenders (not necessarily earners)

 That in itself makes you unique.

But achieving that level of separation from the pack doesn't come easily. The gallery your work is displayed in must be a beautiful space, staffed by folks who have a strong record of selling work like yours at the prices you’re expecting to achieve.

Likewise your website must meet the following criteria:

  • beautifully designed

  • easy to navigate

  • targeted to the audience that wants to purchase your work

If there's a blog associated with that site, then you need to produce content that meets the wants and desires of your audience.

You understand, no one needs a large framed landscape photo on their wall.

However, they may well desire one, particularly after seeing some of your own beautifully crafted and professional presented wall prints.

A serene scene of farm houses around the edges of a lake on the island of Suduroy in the Faroe Islands.

Make People Happy | That’s What I Want To Do

Actually, that's true for all markets. Remember, if it’s a business site you’re running, you should be producing content appropriate to your audience.

It's not all about you.

Everything you do on your site must be outcome orientated and must contain a call to action.

It’s not about selling. It’s about guiding your audience to take action that satisfies their wants and desires or ends in a solution to their problems.

Otherwise there will be no action taken and you will have lost the opportunity to convert visitors to your site into a frequent, loyal and supportive audience of the work you produce.

Needless to say, they are not actual customers until they actually buy something. Though that doesn't mean they're not important.

In fact it’s quite the contrary. You've just failed to lead them to a solution they came to your site in search of. Some would call that failure.

Of course a call to action doesn't have to involve an exchange of money for a product or service you provide.

It might simply be a request for folks to share your post or follow you on one of several social media platforms.

Speaking of which, here's your chance to do that, right now. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share this post widely and wildly.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru