This article examines some of the considerations associated with the business of photography and was sparked by some recent discussions. In a general sense this posting deals with making money with camera gear, so it includes videography. The article shares some personal experiences and perspectives.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.
New realities emerge.
At a time when many experienced, professional photographers are leaving the industry and moving on to new and different careers, other folks fantasize about making a fortune through photography and becoming famous.
So what’s the reality? Is it still possible to make a good living with your camera, or is the photography business dying? Reality depends on your point of view, how you see the future and choose to adapt to it. Let’s examine some factors that come into play.
Know how to use our camera gear.
Knowing how to use our camera gear starts with basics like the exposure triangle. Understanding depth-of-field. Lighting. Composition. Having the basics covered allows us to point a camera at a simple subject and create a decent image under ideal conditions. This basic skill level could lead to us making some money cranking out assembly line portraits at schools, churches, and for community groups. Or perhaps spewing out routine photographs of hard goods that will be used in printed catalogues or on website price/item listings.
It’s not until we really push ourselves and our camera gear that things get interesting, and potentially more rewarding both professionally and financially. When we push things to their limits we discover more creative capability, and we have an opportunity to move out of the pack.
Knowing how to use our camera gear includes understanding it’s limitations as well as our own physical boundaries. How slow can we shoot handheld with a particular lens at a specific focal length? What special technologies does our camera have that can help alleviate the effects of low light noise? Can we produce special effects that our clients may value? How proficient are we working with our photographs in post?
If we intend to produce videos for clients what types of camera supports will we need? Tripods? Fluid heads? Gimbals? Sliders? Jibs? Does our camera have IBIS performance that can eliminate the need for camera supports? If so, how skilled are we using our cameras while putting them in motion with our body?
What video production software will we need? What video formats do our clients require for their projects? Do we understand storyboarding and how to effectively map out a video project?
Will we be doing studio work or need to create additional lighting onsite for clients? What types of lighting and backdrops will we need?
One thing is certain… before we can ask clients to pay us to create images and videos for them we need to be 100% confident that we really know how to use the gear we own.
Discover our niche.
Many of us are generalists when it comes to our personal photography. We enjoy creating images of a wide range of different subject matter. Being out with our cameras is a relaxing, creative adventure. On a personal basis that is a wonderful state to be in.
Clients expect more than that from us. They want to work with professional photographers who clearly understand what they are expected to create and most importantly, why. Regardless of conditions and changing situations, they want the photographer to deliver the project on time and on budget.
There is no magic answer to what the best niche for each of us may be. We have to discover that for ourselves. Then hone our skills and knowledge in that niche so clients who need that expertise will value what we do. Compensation is directly related to our individual ability to create client value.
For example, I learned long ago that I’m skewed to industrial photography. I love mechanical things and seeing how they work. For some reason I see beauty in how gears mesh together. I’m attracted to highlights on steel braided hoses. My mind sees balance in geometric shapes.
I’m not well suited to photographing people and have only done one wedding in my life. My youngest son’s. My daughter hired a professional wedding photographer who did an amazing job for her. Far better than I could have ever done.
What expertise did that wedding photographer have that put her head and shoulders above other folks in that photographic genre? Earlier in her career she was a fashion model. She spent years being directed by photographers in terms of posing and creating emotion. Observing how lighting was done. What photographers did, or didn’t do, to make her feel comfortable and natural in front of a camera. She brought all of that knowledge and experience to her wedding assignments, and demonstrated that in her work.
My client niche is industrial photography, and more specifically producing safety videos. I spent some time working with one of the major safety associations in Canada, learning about ‘at risk’ behaviours and being able to quickly recognize safety hazards. When I’m onsite I can see small things in a video scene that clients sometimes miss. Slip and fall hazards. Improperly stacked boxes. People wearing rings and jewelry that should have been removed before starting work.
Differentiating our business is important. Our video service offering is designed as a ‘cradle to grave’ approach. We train client staff on how to create a proper storyboard. Clients often ask us to review storyboard scripting and wordsmith it for them. Often we can reduce word counts in video scripts by 25% or more, resulting in shorter duration, more impactful video productions.
Shorter video run times also save clients money. We do all onsite video shooting and voice overs for our client videos. Create the necessary graphics, as well as do all of the video assembly work.
There are some things that we don’t do like hire/coordinate outside acting talent or film voice on camera. We’ve been very disciplined by only accepting projects that are firmly in our strike zone… and declining projects that aren’t a good fit for us.
Finding the niche that best suits your interests, skills and camera gear is a cornerstone of the business of photography. The more you can differentiate your service, the less rate pressure you will face.
Doing the work versus getting the work.
When it comes to the business of photography and making money with our cameras, doing the work is the easy part. The challenge is getting the work in, and getting paid for it. Just about anyone with a camera can probably talk their way into doing some discounted work for friends and associates. After that initial bit of work things can get much harder.
After I was downsized from corporate life in the fall of 2000 I didn’t bother applying for any corporate jobs. In was a recessionary time and there were few opportunities in the marketplace. So, I hung out a shingle and set out to make a living for myself and my family.
Looking back over those 21 years there were many highs and many lows. We made it through all the challenges and life has been good. Throughout that entire time I never made a single cold call in an attempt to grow our revenues.
All of our business was generated by leveraging my contacts and reputation, personal networking and referrals. I’ve always believed that building good client relationships are fundamental to business success. This absolutely applies to the business of photography.
Things have changed over time with the emergence of social media. I dabbled with some of that early on without any measurable result. Launching our business poster website generated positive returns and led to custom poster work, photography assignments, and ultimately to safety video production.
Websites and social media can work depending on the nature of your photography business. At some point being awarded photography and/or video assignments involves the building of one-on-one trust.
Just for fun I did a Google search for “photographers for hire”. That generated over 51 million possible links. I tried to refine that further by search for photographers for hire and noted the town in which I live. That search generated over 10.6 million possible links.
I scrolled through the first 10 pages of listings and the vast majority were wedding and portrait photographers. Or, were from consolidation type websites that wanted all kinds of information about me before I could actually access their information. I suspect they wanted to use me as a future marketing target before they gave me any information on the photographers that supposedly were on their roster. I didn’t bother providing the requested information.
I think there is an assumption with many would be photographers that being listed on the internet or having a good, informative website is going to magically cause business to immediately roll in.
This website generates some revenue from donations, and from eBook sales in over three dozen countries thus far. The site has contributed to getting some in-person photography coaching assignments and camera club presentations. So having an internet presence can work, but it takes time to build up a following of people who enjoy your work and are willing to support what you do financially.
Having a large, well known photography website is no guarantee of success. Many photography websites today, even some with huge global market reach, are struggling with balancing their costs and revenues in order to generate any kind of a profit. Social media platforms can change their policies and revenue sharing arrangements with little notice, causing havoc with the livelihoods of content creators.
If you are considering the business of photography don’t spend too much time upfront thinking about camera gear. Without a good plan to acquire clients, keep your prospect pipeline full, and generate revenue, camera gear will do little more than collect dust.
Does selling photographs through online services work?
The short answer is that it can. It really depends on the type of work that you produce and the websites on which your work is displayed. Compensation can also vary depending on how exclusive your make your work with specific websites.
Creating photographs specifically to sell through stock photography websites used to be a lucrative career option in the past. And, many photographers made a very good income by using this approach exclusively. To a large degree photographs have become a commodity and it can be difficult to cut through all of the clutter and competition.
Many of the folks who were dedicated to the creation of stock photography have seen their incomes drop significantly. Some stock image photographers have simply given up on the business of photography and moved on to a different career.
We haven’t ruled out selling photographs through online services, but we are treading slowly and doing some research before entering into the fray. Fundamentally I think I will need to up my game considerably with the quality of my work before I could have any real success selling any images online through a service. I need to do a cost/benefit assessment to determine if that is the best use of my available time.
How are existing professional photographers making money today?
No doubt when it comes to the business of photography there are highly successful professional photographers generating very comfortable incomes with their photographic assignments. They are at the top of their photography genre and have gold-plated client lists. They are simply superb at what they do. Clients receive jaw dropping work every time, without fail.
As revenues from the sale of individual photographs has declined over time, many well known professionals are augmenting their incomes by doing photography travel tours, various types of seminars, and producing training materials that they can sell.
For example, a number of very well known nature/birding photographers have successfully taken the travel photography route. Some like Jari Peltomaki have an extensive number of programs available and have grown their business to the point where they have additional photographers doing tours through them.
Some have added additional travel related services to expand their revenue base. Success like this doesn’t happen overnight. Jari has decades of experience and is highly regarded in the industry.
Professional photographers fundamentally sell their expertise and knowledge. It could be through the photographs they create for clients. Or sharing what’s in their brains in seminars and on photography tours.
To make money with your camera at some point people need to be willing to pay you for your knowledge and expertise. If they aren’t willing, you have no choice but to move on to a different career.
The importance of camera gear.
As can be expected camera gear is important to professional photographers. They are the tools of the trade. What some folks don’t realize is that the lenses that a photographer owns are often more important than the camera body used with them. It’s the lenses that transform a camera body into a subject specific tool.
The professional wedding photographer that my daughter hired came to the photo session with three cameras. She had two full frame Canon bodies. One was 2-3 years old. The other one was about 6 years old. She also used a Nikon cropped sensor camera that was about 10 years old.
She shot mainly with constant aperture f/2.8 zooms and a few fast prime lenses. Some flash photography was done. Her overall set-up enabled her to be very fluid and adaptable. She had done her homework and knew the exact lighting that she would be working with at the selected venues. Her assistant had notes detailing the client’s required shot list including composition guidelines, props, and planned camera/lens use.
The business of photography isn’t about owning and using the ‘latest and greatest’ gear. It’s about making thoughtful, prudent equipment purchases that will withstand the punishment of regular daily use, and faithfully generate revenue. It’s about owning gear that is ergonomic and physically comfortable to use. Equipment needs to be very reliable, durable, and cost affordable to maintain. It must stand the test of time.
Buying camera gear directly affects the operating cash flow of a professional photographer’s business as most equipment is depreciated over time. For example, in Canada the first year’s depreciation allowance on new photographic gear is 10%. It is then depreciated at a rate of 20% of the declining balance in subsequent years.
Professional photographers understand that their camera equipment are the tools they need to do their work, and generate an income. Every piece of gear needs to have a specific purpose and over time is expected to generate a positive return on investment (ROI). Investments in camera equipment are not done on a whim or just because there is a new model out.
Create the right business structure and register with the government.
The business of photography means determining the best business structure for your enterprise. For many photographers it is a binary choice between incorporating, or doing business as a sole proprietorship. Advantages and disadvantages will vary by jurisdiction.
It is also important to register with the tax authorities. Many countries like Canada, have a value-added tax. Unless you are properly registered with tax authorities a photographer will not be able to claim Input Tax Credits.
In Canada if a business generates $30,000 or more of revenue it must register for value added tax (i.e. HST or GST in Canada depending on the province). Clients are well aware of this requirement.
We registered for our GST/HST licence as soon as possible. Obviously we wanted to make sure we could claim future Input Tax Credits. It was also important to have our tax license from a client credibility perspective. Businesses without a GST/HST license are viewed as small, unprofessional, and likely fly-by-night operators.
Understand the value chain.
As a professional photographer you have services and/or products (e.g. photographs, posters, training, seminars) that you want to market. You’ll have to determine the best distribution approach to use for your business. The larger the number of stages in the distribution channel, the more the photographer’s share of revenue will be reduced.
For example, when we were determining the best way to bring our business posters to market it became clear that using an outside printer to produce them took too big of a bite out of our revenues. After those costs, there simply wasn’t sufficient margin left to make marketing posters viable. After determining our breakeven point we made the decision to purchase our own professional grade 24″ 12-colour printer. At the time that required an investment of about $5,000.
Every time a photographer’s work goes through a third party of any kind, a piece of the revenue is left behind and margins erode. If one is not careful all we end up doing to working increasingly hard for a smaller and smaller slice of the revenue pie.
Looking for ways to maintain control over as much of the value chain as possible helps a photographer maintain appropriate margins, and keep pricing to their customers at competitive levels.
Liability and Insurance.
Depending on the type of work you do and the client base you plan to serve having appropriate insurance is important. For example, many wedding photographers have faced the wrath of angry bridezillas when they have failed to deliver as promised on the bride’s special day. Lawsuits can follow which can be ugly and expensive affairs.
Dealing with stress and pressure.
Even the best planned photography or video assignment can be unpredictable. Photographers need to be able to immediately adapt to changing environmental conditions and other situations that arise, while keeping cool and focused on the job at hand. People who have difficulty handling stress and pressure will likely struggle with the business of photography.
A few years ago my wife and I were doing a safety video assignment for a new commercial bread slicer. The demonstration unit was only available for us to shoot on one particular day. To further complicate things it was In was in a location 335 kilometres away. The 670 kilometre round trip would consume about 7 hours of our day. The video shoot was scheduled to begin at 10 am and we had until 6 pm to complete all of the onsite filming and photography.
We had a very tight, client approved storyboard with which to work so we were confident that 8 hours shooting time onsite would be sufficient for our purposes. After arriving we discovered that the bakery manager was totally uncooperative and did not want us filming inside the department at all. Our approved storyboard called for the entire project to be shot in the bakery, so this presented an obvious challenge.
After some discussion and negotiation we were able to get agreement from the department manger for about 90 minutes of in-department filming in the late afternoon. The rest of the safety video had to be shot with the bread slicer placed in a hallway hidden away from the public area of the facility.
Our challenge was to rework about 60% of the storyboard’s planned visuals to hide the fact that we were not actually in the bakery department.
My wife is a terrific storyboard coordinator so we were able to make the necessary changes on the fly. We completed all of our filming and photography by about 6:15 that evening. The overall project was completed on time, within budget, and delivered the appropriate safety messaging. Our client was pleased and we were awarded additional projects.
The moral of this example is simple. If you can’t stand the heat… better stay out of the kitchen. As a professional photographer you’re only as good as your last project.
The challenge of free content.
Determining how much free content you are willing to give away can be tricky. On one hand you want to demonstrate your work to build credibility. On the other hand if you give everything away then it can be difficult to make any money at all.
The business of photography is tough. The solution for many folks is to use their viewers as a profit centre and turn them into a commodity that they can sell to advertisers. They cram their YouTube channel or websites full of advertising and are paid based on the number of click through ads.
Or, they align themselves with a multitude of marketers who are interested in their viewers as consumers. They relentlessly flog products to their viewers, encouraging them to keep buying new stuff. As viewers open their wallets and spend, the photographer takes their small piece of flesh.
At the end of the day it comes down to an ethical and moral choice. Do we respect our viewers, or do we view them as a commodity that we can sell to advertisers?
The future of the business of photography.
The old model of the business of photography is fading away. While making a living creating and selling images is still possible, it has become increasingly difficult with the commoditization of photography.
There will likely always be a market for selling individual images or finding clients willing to pay for custom photography and videography. Those opportunities will be harder to find and will require significant niche market expertise for success. Networking and referrals will become increasingly important.
The business of photography will continue to morph into a hybrid model where photographers sell their knowledge and expertise through a number of related activities.
These will include photographic tours, seminars, training courses, books, and custom apps. Additional opportunities will continue to emerge. Success will depend on becoming a very adept chameleon.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced using my standard process. This is the 1,101 article published on this website since its original inception.
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