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Business challenges for photographers

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Key business challenges for photographers

Do many Pro Photographers really know what they are?


Just recently Keith was looking at a detailed report published last year, based on a survey of the state of the UK photographic industry.

The report is called the British Photographic Council Industry Survey and in an accompanying press release headlines the benefits of retaining copyright.

Keith looks a bit further into aspects of what this survey does and doesn’t say.

The views expressed here are Keith’s personal ones…

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BPC Survey – headlines

It so happens that I’m relatively new to the photography industry, but I have considerable experience of running businesses, both of my own and for other people.

How common are my experiences?

The survey purports to give a snapshot of the state of the UK photographic industry in mid 2010.

Just what did they find?

Keep hold of your copyright‘ would seem to be the key message that the BPC wishes to promote in their press release of 6/6/2010

Photographers who retained copyright would seem to earn (on average) a third more than ones who routinely passed it on to their clients.

Yup, can’t argue with that one – I never assign copyright, only ever licensing images. I regard the photo archive I build up as something that has ongoing value – some of which I may have no idea of at the moment.

It seems that a majority of photographers have encountered examples of their copyright being infringed, but only a few pursued all infringements. I count an image of mine being used in someone’s blog as an infringement – just the same as a local paper using one of my images without permission. One I asked to include a link back to my site, and the other I invoiced.

However, when it comes to doing things about such infringements, the results presented are perhaps not so obvious in their meaning.

“82% of photographers said their businesses would benefit from a quicker and easier legal redress for copyright infringements”

Now whilst I’ve found examples of my images being wrongly used, I have to make a business decision as to whether it’s worth doing anything about it. ‘Quicker and easier legal redress’ is a fine idea, but how many of the 82% have thought through what this could mean in practice?

Would I go for a red button on my desk that drops copyright infringers directly into a pit? (a la Monty Burns) why certainly I would… ;-)

I was gratified to see that only 5% of respondents thought that formal qualifications were ‘essential’ for working in the industry – I’ve none and not one client has ever asked about my training or qualifications.

It seems that I’m also in good company in only entering photography in ‘Middle Age’ ;-)

Photography is still predominantly a male occupation, as anyone who’s spent time at the UK ‘Focus’ show can testify – it also seems to have an inordinate liking for artificial fibres in clothing.

The Focus trade show 2008

In responses, 60% of photographers said that photography was their sole source of income, with nearly 20% saying it was not their main source.

Like all surveys, the real interest comes not from just these headline findings, but looking further into the results.

Do remember though that when writing press releases for your business, you need to grab attention – so I can’t really fault the approach taken in the press announcement – some headlines and then plenty of figures and a quote readily presented for ‘ease of use’ when writing stories…

The not so headline findings

Looking a bit deeper into the actual report, I’ve picked some areas that caught my interest.

The vast majority of replies identified themselves as freelance photographers, not staff photographers (these were mostly in news and to a lesser extent corporate).

So, if you’re looking to get into photography, it’s very likely you are going to have to run your own business.

This isn’t too much of a surprise given the interest I’ve had in some of our articles about photography business issues. Photography is one of the most popular ‘jobs I’d like to do’ in the UK.

The relative proportion of photographers to the general population is twice as high in the London area as in the rest of the country. This could represent more work is available, or with much higher living and working costs in London, it could suggest that you will find it easier to start your photography business outside of London…

I’m in Leicester*, a city 100 miles north of London, and having worked in London with previous jobs, have no personal desire to live there.

*A personal choice, which invariably brings out some the petty ‘My town is better than your town’ arguments if mentioned on forums. Fine if you happen to be a soccer fan (I’m not) but irrelevant in more meaningful ways :-)

The figures about how long people have worked in the industry suggest that a lot of people are entering the business in their 30s and 40s after experience outside of the industry.

Over twice as many people with degrees, have degrees in non photography related subjects (28% vs 13%)

85% of freelance respondents don’t employ anyone – so, get used to working on your own, and to all those people who keep sending me CVs – We are not hiring at the moment.

Lots of people shoot lots of types of photography – so don’t expect to make your living from just one type of work.

Unless perhaps, you deal with the public as clients? Nearly 40% in the survey results cover weddings/portraits – and in this area these people had a significant proportion of their income from it.

If, like me, you don’t want to do this sort of work, then looking carefully at how different markets use photography should be an important aspect of your business plan.

You do have a business plan don’t you?

I’ll not cover all the details of copyright issues discussed in the findings, but essentially, people are being asked more often to hand over copyright, and finding more potential clients that seem to think that it’s automatically theirs if they pay for a job (it isn’t).

People are losing income because of a refusal to give up rights – I’ve lost potential jobs, but take the attitude that a client willing to screw you over in one way, won’t be averse to doing it in others.

The section in the report about hypothetical legislation gives more of a general appreciation of photographers feeling about issues rather than illustrating any genuine understanding of the legal frameworks that any business works in.

Looking at profits from working in photography, suggests that it’s still true that the difference between a 15″ Pizza and a professional photographer, is that one will feed a family of four.

Taking up photography is unlikely to make your fortune – but then, that wasn’t my prime objective in setting up Northlight Images.

The (initial) lack of money in the business makes it easier for the like of me, whose previous work paid off the mortgage long ago and doesn’t have a family to support, to make it into photography. Those of you with kids, a mortgage and a ‘real job’, thinking of taking up photography had better be pretty sure where the money is going to come from. Anyone thinking this isn’t fair, had best get used to the idea that photography is a business, and if you can’t make money, then a temporary one at that.

An illuminating aspect of the results, for myself, is the analysis of who and what are perceived to be threats to the respondents businesses.

The two key numbers I immediately noted are:

  • The biggest threat is competition from amateurs
  • The smallest, competition from other professional photographers.

No, I’d have to say that the biggest threat to many, is from photographers’ own business ineptitude and lack of ability to see their work as fitting in a supply/demand environment.

You can rail against as this much as you like, but adapt to it or die (as a business that is).

My competitors are other photographers doing similar work to me – my business aims include taking that work from them.

If amateurs are good enough to do work that I do, for very little money, then that tells me I have to raise my game and deliver an even better service to my clients. I have to offer them value for money.

If I can’t make a profit in a particular area of photography, then why am I in it? If I can’t diversify my business or don’t have the skills to work in different areas, then that is tough. No-one owes me a living in photography just because I enjoy it.

Every time the threats are raised in forums, I see some replies to the effect that photography should be regulated or controlled or licensed. I for one, do not want to see a market of regulation, protectionism and artificial barriers to entry – who would be the gatekeepers? I see such responses as backwards looking and reflecting an essential unwillingness or inability to change.

What’s not asked in the survey

There are relatively few questions aimed at the business side of doing freelance photography. I’d be curious in responses to some of the following.

  • How many people are self employed?
  • How many run their business from a limited company?
  • How many are VAT (UK sales tax) registered.
  • How many have a written business plan?
  • What are your key sources of new income?

About the survey itself

With any such survey, my first questions are usually, who commissioned it and what is their agenda. Note that this is not in itself a positive or negative view – just an acceptance that that surveys and reports tend to get commissioned for a reason.

Before my photographic career I spent several years in management consultancy and academic research, so I’ve been involved in writing, commissioning and analysing such work.

First of all – who are the British Photographic Council http://www.british-photographic-council.org

This from their web site:

“The British Photographic Council exists to protect, develop and promote the rights and interests of photographic image makers, those involved in the distribution of their work, and the bodies that represent them in the UK.”

OK sounds very noble, but who are they?

“The British Photographic Council is an umbrella body, and its board is comprised of representatives from its member organisations.”

Who are these organisations?

Well, they appear to be the better known UK professional photography organisations and cover most areas of photography. http://www.british-photographic-council.org/members

It’s a group aimed at promoting the interests of photographers – certainly nothing wrong there, but how representative is it of working photographers in the UK?

There are no accurate figures for how many people make a living (full or part time) from photography. Estimates vary from 6,000 (Skillset ) to over 15,000.

The BPC survey is based on around 1600 responses from people identified as ‘Professionals’ or somewhere between 10 and 25% of the potential respondents.

One difficulty here, is that a significant proportion of UK photographers may not be members of any professional photography organisation (I’m not) and may not have been asked to respond to the survey (I wasn’t).

Given that I know several other pro photographers who are not members of any of the organisations making up the BPC, there is the question of whether the survey accurately represents the views of professional photographers in the UK as a whole?

I’m minded to think that by its very nature, it over represents people in the business for some time, and particularly those inclined to join trade organisations.

As such I’d suspect that results relating to photographers incomes paint an overly optimistic view of how much people make from paid photography work. The report does include some analysis of potential sources of error/bias in the results and, for example, notes that younger photographers may be under represented.

Nevertheless, the numbers contributing to the survey are enough, in my opinion, for it to represent worthwhile data, although the absence of many raw data numbers in the published version means that the relative confidence that can be placed in different findings is less clear.

Well worth a read, but do apply some critical thinking to both the questions asked and the presented answers.

If you were looking to start a business, then what would I point out from the report – don’t give away copyright!

©2010 Keith Cooper – all rights reserved

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