On Marketing Photography – A Personal Perspective
In my humble opinion, I have the best job in the world! Being able to create images and make a comfortable living from it is what I had hoped for from the very beginning when I embarked on a new career as a full-time freelance photographer some 20 years ago. Following a successful 20-year career in the biological sciences, I was ready for a change in focus.
“A good photographer knows what he/she is worth and charges accordingly.” I don’t know (or can’t remember!) who coined this phrase but I have heard it countless times over the years. It is advice that has served me well. I also remember the advice I received many years ago from a well-known professional photographer from Winnipeg when I was just starting off in this profession which went like this: “There is always room for another good photographer; you are simply displacing another one who isn’t as good technically or isn’t following good business practices”. Both of these mottos still resonate with me today. Success in this highly competitive profession depends on a blend of passion, knowledge of your subject, your photo skills (your craft), sound business practices which include a good marketing plan, along with a measure of good luck! The unfortunate reality however is that it has become significantly more difficult these last few years to make a successful career thorough practicing photography.
‘Pay for Work’ seems to be on many people’s minds these days although the topic surfaces periodically. My interest in photography began in mid 1970s when I picked up my first camera (you can read more about how I started in photography from an earlier Blog post on November 7, 2010). In the following years, photography went from a hobby to a passion (and I dare say to an obsession!), a profession and eventually a way of life. As my career expanded, I began to receive many requests to share my thoughts and experiences, not only on pricing photography, but also on how to make a living in photography. Over the years I have met with students at every education level (elementary, secondary, post-secondary and photography schools) as well as with novice photographers and mature adults looking to make a career change. I even worked out a 6-day course for a photography school on ‘How To Make A Living At Nature Photography’ that I taught for a few years. For the last decade, I have also been involved with the Career Mentor Program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I thought the time was ripe for me to share my perspective on this issue of ‘Pay for Work’ in the hope of perhaps helping a few others as they struggle with the business side of photography.
The Digital Revolution
The digital revolution provided photographers with many benefits. The ability to preview on the screen at the back of the camera the image I had just captured was a considerable advantage. Because I was now responsible to develop my own images, digital technology allowed me to process my images in a manner that was more in keeping with my own creative vision. Albeit this was done at the expense of that precious commodity of ‘time’ which, in the past, I had leveraged against paying a photography lab to provide that service for me. Digital technologies also meant that I was able to compete, at least in the first decade, with many of the big players’ in the stock industry.
With the advent of digital technology, the photography business also became more challenging. A proliferation of photographs and photographers soon followed. While there have always been many people interested in the medium of photography, digital technology meant that camera equipment as well as the means to market photography became more accessible and more commonplace. This resulted in a glut of imagery that drove prices spiraling downwards. The work of professional photographers, who had spent considerable time invested in their medium and their business, was now diluted to the point that their income was reduced significantly. Following the economic crash of 2008, many photographers decided to leave the profession of photography for a variety of reasons but certainly many left because the profession was no longer viable for them. A mentality of “it’s good enough” now permeated the marketplace. Clients who once would go to great lengths to research the best photographers and photographs, were now satisfied with purchasing inferior photography for a cheaper price. This is an over simplification of what happened but many would agree with this assessment.
Cost of Doing Business (CODB)
In order for me to make a living at this profession, my business model must be sustainable over time, meaning that I must charge a fair price for my services. A great deal of time and research went into developing my business plan that must also be updated from time to time. I have been a strong advocate for anyone receiving compensation for goods or services rendered. As I provide work of a high-level of quality to my clients, either through leasing my images for various projects, through my services or from the sale of my products (prints, books, cards, etc), I also expect to be fairly compensated for those.
Without doing a proper business plan and a cost of doing business (CODB) analysis, you are essentially playing a game of ‘Russian roulette’. The act of photography itself is fun and satisfying but, personally, anything that has to do with pricing and costs has always made me a bit uptight. In order to be successful however, I had to learn how to adequately price my services and the leasing of my photographs in order to make my business a success. Part of that research meant looking at what I needed to spend simply to become a legitimate business. The cost of doing business (CODB) meant that I had to realistically consider all the variables involved. These variables include a long list of expenses such as: office and/or studio, office supplies and furniture, photo/video/audio equipment and accessories, computer hardware and software, web hosting and portal service, professional development, subscriptions and dues, health insurance and deductibles, taxes and business licenses, utilities, phone (landline and cellular), equipment service and repairs, broadband internet, vehicle expenses (purchase or lease, registration, insurance, maintenance), advertising and promotion, postage and shipping, equipment and business insurance, legal and accounting services, office assistance (payroll, answering service, intern) and travel and entertainment. Add all the above factors and you are likely looking at a figure ranging from $ 30,000 to $50,000 simply to be able to start in the profession. If you are serious about making a living in photography, you need to consider these factors seriously. We all have different needs and situations but the fact remains that it is expensive to be in business. You need to spend money to make money.
In order to survive financially, there are many other personal expenses that will gnaw at your hard-earned salary. These other costs include: mortgage or rent, home insurance, health insurance, medical expenses, maintenance of the home and yard, utilities, food, transportation (purchase or lease, maintenance, gas, insurance, registration), travel, entertainment, taxes (municipal, provincial, federal), holidays, raising a family (day care, clothes, food, toys, activities, medical, etc), schooling for kids (elementary, secondary, post-secondary), hobbies, discretionary spending and, please don’t forget to put money aside for your retirement! The CODB and your personal expenses will necessitate that you earn a gross income in excess of $75,000 and likely much higher than that. A recent posting by Rosh Sillars (April 1, 2016) reports that the average photographer in the USA doesn’t make very much money, about $30,000 USD, the equivalent of $50,000 in Canadian dollars. A small percentage of photographers make much more of course (the 80/20 rule), enough to make a comfortable living and raise a family but many simply can’t rely on just photography as the only source of income.
Generally speaking, most of my clients have been wonderful to work with. I have also met some dubious clients in my first 20 years, some who were outright unethical and others who simply needed to be educated. I have charged a fair to premium fee for my photography. There have been some difficult situations over the years and, as an entrepreneur, I recognized early on the value of having a healthy cash flow on hand. Like many, I have been undercut by many photographers, some drastically and, often by other professional photographers. I have also lost valuable income due to unpaid invoices, perhaps a half dozen in total. I have also refused many work offers that simply were not sustainable. We all deserve to be compensated in some form for our work and, in our society, this usually means being paid financially in dollars. Not all paying jobs are good however but not all non-paying jobs are bad either. It’s not always a black & white situation. A good amount of judgment is often required to assess the situation and to make the right decision for what works for you. In the more difficult situations, I have often found some other way of making a deal work for me. Communication with your client and mutual respect can go a long way. Understanding the value of these deals can make all the difference. It is sometimes a delicate balancing act. Adapt, diversify and survive.
Photographer Credit Lines
A credit line should always be ‘part and parcel’ of leasing an image. There are of course situations such as in advertising where a credit line cannot be given. Do not lease an image or give away a service simply for a credit line. This type of ‘exposure’ never results in any gains for the photographer. This is a bad deal!
Promise of More Business Coming Your Way
Too often, a client will try and negotiate a lower fee with the promise that there will be more business coming your way. Rarely does this ever come about! I have been sung the same song by a few, multi-billion dollar companies but I never saw any additional work in the future. This is another bad deal!
I am often been asked to donate artwork for a charity. There are numerous registered charities with excellent ‘raison d’etre’ and I have given on many occasions. The reality is that I can only give so much! You may believe so strongly in an organization that you are willing to donate your time or service to their cause. Many of these organizations also have a budget for photography that they can sometimes access via grants, etc so it is often good advice to ask them about that possibility.
The contributions that American photographer Ansel Adams made towards the preservation of wild lands through his photography is legendary. He was not the only one to do so and many have since followed in his footsteps. Today, more than ever, we need to support our environmental organizations in the hope of saving our planet. My humble contributions via a promotional campaign locally have helped the Save Our Seine (S.O.S.) organization preserve some 98 hectares of land along the Seine River destined for urban development. Today, the general public has an opportunity to come in contact with nature through a series of hiking and biking trails. I regularly use that urban preserve to create art.
Understand the tax laws clearly as I have heard different opinions from different accountants regarding the matter.
There has been a proliferation photo contests in recent years and most of them are not ‘worth their salt’. Not only is there often a fee associated with photo contests, often the photographer gives up ‘all rights’ to the images that are submitted, not just to the winning entries. Contests and competitions should be about honoring and celebrating great work and not about a ‘rights grab’ as many invariably are today. Many photographers are however willing to pay the organizers and give up all their rights for the potential of winning a big prize. In my opinion, these types of contests and competitions should be avoided. Read the ‘fine print’ carefully! Some competitions like the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the Windland Smith Rice International Awards through Nature’s Best Magazine are certainly fine examples of what competitions should be about but, even in these competitions, only a few photographers really benefit.
In general, it is a myth that publishers are wealthy. Without the yearly grants they receive from various sources, publishers would not be in business. The last decade in particular had been difficult on this industry. Canada is a very small marketplace and, without our publishers, most of our work as artists would simply remain on our computers.
As the photographer’s representative, stock agencies used to earn a reasonable income for a number of photographers. As is often the case, some 20 to 30% of photographers could rely on a decent income from stock agencies at one time. It was great while it lasted. However, in the last 15 years or so, decisions to reduce the royalty rate to the creators, the adoption of royalty-free, micro stock, unlimited downloads, extended licensing, credits and subscription models, as well as trying to make as much money by sending the images to as many other partners as possible, naturally eroded the market for most photographers. The economic crash of 2008 saw sales for most photographers working with stock agencies bottom out. Only a handful of photographers today make enough royalties from their stock images to continue supplying their stock agents. In fact, many photographers have actually stopped dealing with stock agencies. I am fortunate in some way that I never really depended on stock agencies for any substantial income, having preferred from the very beginning, to market my own work directly to prospective clients. While the economic crash of 2008 also affected me to some extent by reducing my income by about 15%, it has since rebounded somewhat to a new normal. I have always photographed for myself first. I was never really caught up in providing agencies what they wanted which also explains in part why I never really did very well with agencies. However, I learned much about the marketplace and today, I still enjoy photographing the natural world in all its glory. Nevertheless, the drawback from working for myself, particularly in this digital era, is that I now spend much less time photographing and much more time in the office working on the computer!
Today, most stock agencies represent part-time photographers and earn very little income for most of their contributors. While it is easy to blame someone else for all the photography industry troubles, we photographers must also accept part of the blame because most of us accepted the changes without much resistance.
There are situations, for whatever reason, that monetary compensation cannot be provided for. In a democratic society, photographers have the right to accept or reject any offer. If you can’t get the price you want, try and negotiate some asset or tangible benefit in lieu of monetary compensation. If tangible benefits are offered to me in the form of ‘decent exposure’, I am certainly open to investigating the proposal in greater depth. The exchange of goods or services for other goods or services without using money is called bartering and some form of the practice of bartering has been around for centuries. In Canada, we have the Canadian Barter System that I have previously looked into.
Occasionally, I will negotiate with a client to let them use an image(s) without monetary compensation but always with some tangible benefit involved. Generally, this takes the form of a promotional piece that I can use for my own marketing and exposure. I know that the word ‘exposure’ has received a lot of bad publicity during the past decade but exposure can provide exceptional value under the right circumstances. I have worked with businesses to display my work inside an airport and on the facade of a building and it was truly amazing the amount of people that noticed my work. I have also collaborated with a printer who has used my images in books and materials they designed for their sales force; these same materials also provided me with some excellent promotional materials that I could never have afforded myself. One of these ‘barter deals’ provided the framework for a new book that I am currently working on.
Sometimes, tangible benefits come in the way of a Photographer Profile in a magazine or a book. Generally these are not paid for but the ‘exposure' is undeniable. Many professional photographers have been featured in magazine profiles displaying their work in anywhere from a single page to a 10-page spread. These Photographer Profiles can be very valuable assets, particularly if the publication enjoys a substantial circulation and reach. I have been featured in a number of Photographer Profiles over the years in which I have neither been paid nor reimbursed for but, personally, the exposure has been indispensable.
Exposure in a book can also provide great value. I know of more than one photographer whose career was either propelled or given a powerful boost because of the exposure they received from a particular book. Personally, I have also benefited from this type of exposure, namely from a client who saw my imagery in a book and then hired me during the next decade. This resulted in earnings of nearly $100,000 for services and images that I leased to that company. The reality is that not every situation turns out that well but one should always be open to assess each situation in an informed manner and determine if the situation falls within your comfort zone.
Advertising and Marketing
Successful entrepreneurs understand that passive promotion isn’t going to bring bread on the table. You can’t wait by the phone or computer and expect clients to contact you in droves. It just doesn’t happen! Today, websites are more or less the equivalent of the old business card although. Many websites however suffer from poor design and functionality. A well designed website can deliver great dividends and it has leveled the playing field and allowed small entrepreneurs to compete with the ‘big brand names’.
If advertising didn’t work, graphic designers and advertising agencies would not exist. It is rare that a company can be successful without some form of good promotion. Personally, I find that social media is generally not a good marketing platform, with the exception of photographers who cater mostly to the general public. Direct advertising has proven to be the best method of promotion but it is also much more expensive. Serious entrepreneurs have often chosen this path. Working with a good designer can make the difference between a very successful promotional piece and one that simply flops!
There remains a number of good clients in the marketplace who respect and want to pay fair money for services provided. It’s merely harder to find them, hence the need to promote yourself. Focus your efforts on the proper target market for your type of photography. Keep yourself in the face of your prospective clients on a regular basis if you want to have any kind of working relationship with them. It can take months, if not years, before you might hear from prospective clients.
Pricing Your Work and Resources
Talk with colleagues and/or join photography associations to learn more about this unpopular topic. While some photographers won’t give you the time of day, many photographers will be more than happy to share their experiences because it is to the benefit of us all if we price our work intelligently and avoid the pitfalls that others before us have stumbled onto. Sometimes we have to make concessions as well as adapt to changing environments. While we need to be flexible, we also need to be smart!
Never give up the rights to your images. Generally, you should negotiate ‘One-time, reproduction rights’ for a certain fee. Sometimes, a client requires additional rights such as an industry or time-related exclusivity that, of course, should command a higher fee. Clients will often request unlimited rights without really knowing what they want but they generally are not willing to pay the much higher fees for unlimited rights. I have rarely negotiated unlimited rights and I have never given up full copyright to any image.
For photographers still hoping to lease their images as stock photographs, I highly recommend FotoQuote software by Cradoc. FotoQuote is the industry standard for pricing photography. It not only offers a rage of pricing depending on the usage required but it also provides great coaching advice. At $129 USD, it is one of the best investments you will ever make. I have been using it for a couple of decades now.
I have personally benefited from two other resources dealing with the business of photography. One is the book ‘John Shaw’s Business of Nature Photography’ which was the standard back in the late 80’s and from which I modeled my own business approach. Many of the principles discussed still apply. The other book I found very valuable was ‘VisionMongers: Making a Life and A Living in Photography’ by David duChemin. While I read this book after being well-established in my own career, I found that much of what David said rung quite true.
Members of the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators (CAPIC) will also find their manual on business practices an excellent place to begin learning about how to conduct yourself in business. Today, the internet provides an amazing assortment of resources for the aspiring photographer.
Nothing beats hard work and passion. Learn your craft and practice, practice and practice … and practice some more. Immerse yourself in the medium, read as much as you can and look at the work of photographers you look up to, as well as study the work of the Masters in Photography. Pay attention to other artists too! Formulate a vision that is true to yourself. Follow your heart. Have patience and persevere. If you have aspirations to follow a career in photography, enroll in a small business course. Learn about sound business practices and learn about how best to promote yourself. It will usually take a few years to get to the point where you can compete on a global basis.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me but I hope that the perspective I offer will at least help a few individuals in the pursuit of their dream. As for me, I am grateful for all that I have. I have so much more that I want to accomplish!