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Making a living from professional photography

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How to make a living from professional photography

Earning money from a real photography business


Keith (right) has now run Northlight Images for over ten years as a professional photographer.

What makes the business work? and how do you need to approach it in order for it to be far more than a paid hobby.

This article is an extended version of one originally published in two parts on the X-Rite blog. The views expressed here are Keith’s personal ones…

keith cooper pro photographer

My observations here are largely based on the answers to what might seem a fairly simple question.

What do you do?…

The short answer is that I run a photography business and as part of that I take photos for other businesses.

Now the longer version…

Photography for a living

Not long ago I read a question from someone on a forum asking where they could sell their photos?

The responses were plentiful and largely comprised of the usual web sites that offered galleries and managed sales for you. Not one answer questioned why anyone would want to buy the photos or even whether they had a target market.

Over the years I’ve received a steady stream of requests asking similar questions. One of my first responses is always to ask who they think might want to buy their work and why.

Ah, not so sure on that one… Invariably, their actual desired answer was for me to tell them who, and preferably include their phone number. Oh, and if I could tell them how much to charge, it would be really helpful too.

This comes down to what is one of the hardest things for many aspiring professional photographers to truly accept.

Produce the photos clients want, not what you want to make

As a working photographer it’s my job to produce images that meet my client’s needs. Part of my job is to provide creative input and interpretation that produces great looking pictures, but it still has to meet the needs of the client (the tricky bit being when these needs are not known very clearly).

In the case of selling prints, I may not have a specific client asking for an image, but it helps to think about why someone would buy it. In the case of landscapes, people buy images just because they like it, or far more commonly, because of a personal connection with the location. I may have some great looking prints from when I was travelling in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve sold more prints of local Leicestershire landmarks.

Hood canal in Washington State

Hood Canal, Washington State – not very local.

I love making large prints, and have a large format printer, which I use with a range of carefully profiled papers to make prints in colour and black & white.

There is a real sense of achievement in creating a 30″ x 45″ print and seeing it displayed on a wall – however, as anyone running a gallery here in the UK will tell you, the most popular print size is A3+ (13″ x 19″)

Why? Because in the UK, very few people have walls large enough to show massive prints.

Hotel interior with large print

One of my images of Curve Theatre in Leicester, in a Leicester Hotel.

I know people produce large prints for exhibitions – they look great, but expect to have many of them still unsold at the end of the show.

What works in print making applies to all my work.

Sorry, it’s really not about what you like

It’s my job to produce great photos.

One of my favourite definitions of what it means to be a ‘pro’ is that you have to produce great photos even when you don’t feel like it, or when the subject is not one that fires your enthusiasm.

I’m a commercial and architectural photographer by choice. I’d like to include ‘Landscape’ in our business, but as I found out when initially researching the world of professional photography, there just isn’t much money to be found in landscape photography.

I still enjoy it, and print sales do form a small part of our business. However, it’s far more likely to be industrial and the man-made environment in association with our construction and architectural work, that gets seen.

Ellesmere port sunrise

Sunrise at Ellesmere Port

When setting up the business I chose not to deal with the public, so no portraits, weddings or pet photos. That’s not to denigrate other areas of photography, just that I have no real interest in them.

So, does that mean I don’t photograph people?

School interior with large prints of photographs

School photos

Definitely not.

Whilst photographing interiors and exteriors of several new buildings at a school, I was also asked to take photos of some of the students, both for the school brochure, and for these big prints (each is 2 metres square).

If the school had asked for formal ‘School Photos’, I’d definitely pass the work on to one of several pro photographer who I know do this work regularly. Part of providing a professional service is deciding what work you won’t do. Just because someone asks, and you feel ‘I could do that’ doesn’t mean you should.

As an industrial photographer I get to look round factories and manufacturing facilities. That really appeals to my engineering and scientific background, and I find that being able to understand what’s going on helps me produce images that can get a strong message over for the business.

The point is that it really helps to have an interest in the subject, and the business of your clients, whether an oil company, bride, or someone wanting to put your photo on their wall.

tape winding machinery

A wire taping machine, set for initial loading. Image used for promotional materials and for set-up guide.

What happens though when a client contacts me and asks if I can ‘just’ take a few staff photos ‘while I’m there’?

Do I say ‘no, I don’t do head shots, just machinery and people at work’?

Of course not, I’ll take along suitable lighting and maybe a simple backdrop for some basic portrait work. I’ll probably make sure that Karen (my wife and business partner) comes along, since she’s better at the people wrangling side of things.

It adds to the work carried out for the client, and taking along the extra kit makes it easier to show how the photos of employees are additional work – which will need to be paid for.

If you’re uncomfortable about adding more to your quote/invoice, think about the response if you’ve got a builder in your home to fix the roof, and you ask if they could ‘just’ replace a window?

A satisfied client sees the value of your work, which is a far bigger concept than the simple cost. Sell on the value of your work, not the price.

A satisfied client is more likely to mention you positively to others and come back the next time they need some work.

Of course, how do you know if a client was satisfied with your work? You ask them…

Repeat work is many times easier to get than new clients, and if you include the effort (as you should) involved in marketing your services as a cost, it is much more profitable too. It seems so obvious, but many photographers lose contact with clients after a job, so making repeat business so much harder. Sorry, but clients have much more on their minds than remembering who you are – you need to help them with that one.

Profit – yes, this is not a job

Ah yes, profit… That is why I do my professional photography. It pays the bills and puts food on the table.I do take photos for my own enjoyment, and the reviews and articles I write give me an ‘excuse’ to experiment more and expand my knowledge, but the articles also bring in an advertising revenue and promote some aspects of my business.

Entrance to Southwell Minster

Southwell Minster – combining my interest in cathedrals and an excuse to test a new lens, in this case the Canon EF11-24mm, for a lens review.

If you’ve spent time working for others, then profit is not something you really think about. Even if you’ve spent time in the financial department of a business, it’s not -your- profit. A job pays you for doing work that makes the business a profit that may in some ways reflect back into your wages or bonus.

If you’re running your own photography business, then profit and loss are much more intimate concepts – you pay for the pens in the stationary cupboard, and you know how much it costs to insure and run your car and travel to clients.

Profit is what keeps your business running. Whilst there may be the temptation to cut prices to get work, remember that a client who gets a discount on their first job with you, will only see any return to your full rates as a price hike.

Clients that primarily choose you on price will just as quickly drop you on price, no matter how good the work was.

Take any strong concentration on price in initial contacts with a new client as a potential red flag. There really are jobs not worth doing.

It can help a lot to have basic procedures in place for handling enquiries, and to know where the various costs are in your business. Remember that some costs can be trimmed – others can’t.

Karen looks after much of the business side of Northlight Images, and quite rightly has banned me from giving quotes for work over the phone.

We now have a proper procedure for handling enquiries and getting quotes out for work. The procedures work very well, offering different packages and options (pitched at emphasising their value to the client) to match the client’s requirements, and help me resist the temptation to ‘knock a bit off the price’ just because I feel like it. It also gives us the option to up-sell different package options, in terms of how they benefit the client.

It’s also worth pointing out that ‘photo credits’ do not pay bills and in the real world ‘exposure’ counts for very little. I’ve had someone from a design agency genuinely look surprised (and a tad offended ;-) when I pointed this out.

Getting noticed – who are you again?

I’m a photographer who helps businesses make a better first impression.

If photo credits count for nothing, then how do you get noticed?

I’m inclined to suggest that, for most people, ‘getting noticed’ is a cover for not actively going out and marketing their business. There is a conceit that if your photos are ‘good enough’, then someone will come along and ask you to do work for them.

It’s very similar to having a web site that’s virtually all pictures since, as someone really did say to me about their site, ‘the work should speak for itself’. It seems to come as a surprise to some that these mythical companies hiring photographers do not have teams of people tirelessly scouring the web for talent. Just as people at most clients have far better things to do than remember each person they get in for a job, they also rarely go actively looking for new photographers.

If they don’t remember you, and are rarely inclined to search, then how do you get seen? It’s called marketing.

checking the interior of an arc furnace

Looking into an arc furnace

The UK business owner loved this picture of an arc furnace being checked, but we were working via a US based agency for a US project, that just happened to have specialist castings being made in a UK foundry.

I made sure that the local business owner and management knew who we were, for when they wanted some photos of other work for their own use. Too many photographers assume that all this needs is a business card. No, it needs active follow-up and engagement.

I’d note too that we resisted the request from the US client for ‘full rights’ for the images supplied, and indeed only licensed them for use in connection with a specific project – you need to be careful that your images don’t find their way into some company ‘image library’ and thence on to other companies, with no control (or money!).

Marketing is not something that only big companies do, or something that is a little beneath your ‘art and vision’. It needs to be active, you need to find who needs work you can supply. Then, let them know that you exist -and- how you can benefit them.

Note that I say ‘how you can benefit them’ – this is very different to telling people what you can do. It may seem a little crass, but if you assume that every potential client who visits your web site wants an answer to just one question: “What’s in it for me”, then you won’t go far wrong.

Obviously a web site is an important part of your overall marketing strategy, but it needs to address the people who might hire you, and answer their questions and demonstrate the true value (benefit) of working with you.

As a small business, marketing is something that should always be at the back of your mind.

A conversation about photographing small things with one person at a business meeting led to an enquiry from an electronics company, initially about photographing single components. As an experiment, I produced a few more creative shots which were used for a trade show display. This led to a new page on our web site covering such work, which in turn led to more enquiries and assignments.

small electronic components on a steel ruler

Over 60 stacked focus shots were used to get the depth of field needed for this image, printed just over 2 metres wide.

I’m currently working on a major re-write of our company web site – part of that is for practical reasons, in that it’s just got too big. More importantly is that it enables me to devote different sections to meeting the needs of people visiting it. At the simplest level, people who arrive to read one of my reviews or technical articles (from around the world) are unlikely to want to hire me as a photographer.

Already I’ve produced two new sites, one aimed at just our architectural work [architecture-photos.co.uk], and one with just our stock photos of Leicester [Leicester.northlight-images.co.uk], where I live in the UK. It’s a huge job (there are many hundreds of articles on the existing site) but it’s driven by an understanding of how and why the site helps the business in different ways.

If all this seems rather dull and businesslike, then what about ways of speeding things up? What about that guy who’s now working as a pro photographer after someone saw his work on Instagram?

Playing the lottery – social media

Who is that guy on Instagram? How did he do it?

warning sign at roadside, about playing the lotteryIf it could happen with him, then surely you should make sure that your work is ‘out there’? While you’re at it, I’m sure that similar things have happened to people on Facebook and 500px and Flickr and maybe even Google+

Come to think of it, I once met someone who had won many thousands on the Lottery – perhaps I really should go and buy a ticket tonight.

However, I do keep thinking of this sign I saw when driving down I-5 for the Oregon lottery (it’s a 150% crop of an image taken through a car window so a bit unclear).

“Lottery games should not be played for investment purposes”

Or, maybe I should look at the parts of our business I want to develop, decide who our potential clients are, and come up with a marketing plan that divides up our limited resources in ways that maximise the chances of some of those potential clients wanting use us to help their businesses.

If I worked with the public (weddings etc.) then I might well include, for example, Facebook in my marketing mix, but for architecture and industrial work? I’d say there are better uses for my time. Facebook ‘likes’ no more pay the bills than photo credits do.

The key element here is to remember that we have limited resources and social media needs to be considered just one aspect of your marketing strategy. The mix of what works needs continual evaluation. That warm feeling you get when a load of people ‘like’ one of your photos does not count as evaluation.

One other thing. If you’re a small business then marketing should be an everyday activity. If you can consistently devote a bit of time every day to marketing activities (winning and keeping clients) you will likely win out over the person who puts it off and only does it every few weeks, months or years.

So ‘exposure’ can be a part of your marketing mix, but it works much better if it’s targeted and ties in with your other activities.

Still wondering if there isn’t the ‘big break’ out there? How about winning prizes?

Competitions?

Competitions are something that split opinions – personally I find little interest in managing to meet judges arbitrary criteria of ‘good and not so good’. However I know that a lot of people enjoy the challenge, even if I can’t but help feeling it’s like a bigger version of getting Facebook ‘likes’ for your work.

If you are minded to enter competitions, then be sure to be selective, if it’s part of your marketing mix. If you are after plaudits, then ones that mean something to potential clients are probably more useful. Perhaps when talking to existing clients – part of following up any work you do – you might ask if they know of any photo competitions. Just don’t be too put off if it’s none whatsoever.

Perhaps expecting them to know about competitions you’ve won is a bit optimistic, but surely they will appreciate your membership of a professional camera club and those letters you’ve managed to add after your name?

Qualifications and professional organisations

There is a big difference between qualifications that make your mum happy and ones that mean anything to people looking to hire you. I’ve two university degrees in different subjects, neither of which are related to photography.

Like most people with such academic awards (in the UK) I don’t put M.Sc, B.Sc (Hons.) after my name. Photography is not a regulated profession like medicine or architecture and there are (fortunately IMHO) no legal restrictions on calling yourself a photographer.

The Dock building in Leicester

Experience, the right lens and a nice day are what I needed for photographing the ‘Dock’ in Leicester, not letters after my name.

In the years I’ve been running our photography business, not one client or potential client has ever enquired about my qualifications or membership of professional photographic bodies. They are interested in evidence of your work, and experience relevant to their needs (you are answering their ‘what’s in it for me’ questions).

Academic qualifications may sound great if you’re at school and thinking of a career, but if you’re looking to change careers later in life then look carefully at what is really being offered and whether it addresses enough.

In terms of business organisations, I’m a member (in the UK) of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and RIBA (Royal Institute Of British Architects) both of which are very relevant to my business. FSB for it’s work on behalf of UK small businesses and legal/insurance benefits and RIBA because I work with architects.

Holdenby house and F1 car

My membership of the FSB and meeting other business owners led to me being asked to photograph a large corporate event associated with the British Grand Prix.

I’m not a member of any UK photography organisation – I’ve looked at them over the years and just don’t see any valid business reason to pay them a subscription. I have no interest in (more) letters after my name or any of the other things I’ve seen them offer.

Despite that, I do recommend that people look at what organisations are available in their location and decide for themselves what aspects (if any) are worth the money. Ask members just what tangible business benefits they have gained – a warm feeling of mutual support may or may not count for anything, that’s for you to decide. Also, if you do join, don’t feel bad about deciding to leave after a while. A significant proportion of many groups’ membership comes from people renewing out of habit…

It’s also important to look at just who is a member of any group you are considering – one of wedding and portrait photographers would be of little relevance to my own work, for example.

Membership of different organisations can be interesting and enjoyable, but remember that your business is paying for it. If you’ve not run your own business before then it’s probably not just profits you’ve been detached from, but likely the real costs as well.

The costs of a photography business

The costs of running your business and the profit you need to live off can give a good guide to what is probably the second most asked question I get about working as a photographer – how much to charge?

At it’s most basic, let’s say I decide I need an income of £30,000 per year to live off. That’s profit that has to come from the company (or however you structure your business). I’m not working in the US so I expect a reasonable amount of holiday. Let’s say I choose to work 40 weeks of the year.

That means the business needs to make a profit of £750 for each week I’m working. If I decide that I’m only aiming to do an average of two jobs a week (80 a year), I need to average £375 profit on each job. The simple way working out how much I need to charge, is to divide the running costs of the business (insurance, marketing, equipment, software, stationary etc.) by 80 and add it to the profit.

I’ll give myself a very modest budget for new and replacement kit and set the cost of running the business at £16,000 p.a., which gives £200 per job.

school library and meeting area

New school library. Photo is two shifted shots, merged, using the TS-E 14mm f4L tilt/shift lens.

A lens such as the Canon TS-E17mm may set you back nearly £2000, but mine quickly recouped its cost, and will last for years.

So for my desired income of £30k p.a. I need two jobs a week at an average charge of £575 per job. Note that I don’t include any tax costs here – how you deal with that will depend on how your business is structured and how good your accountant is (another cost). Don’t forget other things like a pension, and in some parts of the world, health insurance costs.

Here in the UK our business is a limited company and is VAT registered. VAT (20% charged on sales) is added to our invoices to clients. However, since we work with businesses, they get to claim it back, so are in effect not charged for it. In the same way, when I buy a new camera for the business, I get to reclaim the VAT – which can be viewed as a very useful discount.

If I was dealing with members of the public as clients, I’d have to charge VAT, but they couldn’t get it back, so my £1000 invoice becomes £1200 to them. That’s why you’ll find commercial photographers in the UK like myself are often registered for VAT, but very few wedding photographers are.

Whilst such calculations don’t give a price for a quote, they do give you an idea of the sorts of prices you need to be looking at, if you want to create a sustainable business.

You can vary the number of jobs and weeks worked, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that you can create jobs from thin air and work every day of the week. More jobs need to be found in the first place – I quite deliberately aim for only a few jobs per week, to give me time for marketing, time for my articles and review writing, and not least, time to enjoy not having a 9 to 5 job.

When it comes to finding ‘market rates’ that’s a little harder. A good web search will find suggested rates on some photographers’ web sites, and some of the photography organisations produce rates and job costing information. You’ll also find suggested methodologies for calculating usage rates and costings. For my own areas of business I find them interesting but sometimes lodged in an era of pricing that went away with the professional use of film. Many such guides address digital issues, but seem somewhat inappropriate for work dealing with other small businesses.

As should be obvious, pricing and image licensing strategies for dealing with the media department of a big multinational company won’t necessarily be the same as some photos taken of a house extension for a local building company.

A good camera – the tools for the job

Yes, really … I’m talking about what camera kit the professional needs.

When taking photos for a living, you really do need to think about taking backup kit with you, and how reliable and robust it will be. It’s not just weddings that are difficult to reshoot if something goes wrong – my architectural work is usually at the mercy of the UK weather…

The real costs and effort needed to produce technically good photos has definitely fallen over recent years.

To get some images of the quality I managed on a recent architectural job with my 50MP Canon 5Ds, back in 2002, I’d have needed a 5×4 camera and several packs of film.

Not only would the equipment be expensive and massively inconvenient to use today, but there is no way I’d have got proof images to the client the following day.

Leicester Fire service HQ

Leicester Fire service HQ

I’ve heard some say that this makes things too easy, as if there needs to be some bar to entry to professional photography.

But there still is a bar of a sort, and it’s not really changed much.

It’s more a bar to remaining in business for any length of time.

One of the hardest things for many aspiring professional photographers is to appreciate that technical excellence at doing a job (taking good photos that meet client’s needs) does not equate with the skills to run a business providing the same service.

In larger companies it’s possible to hire someone who specialises in marketing and strategic management, but if you want to start a successful photo business, then that needs to be you.

I’m not saying however that technical excellence is unimportant and I sometimes see it said that a good photographer can take a great photo with any camera.

I have to say that find this a somewhat pompous statement, usually uttered in an attempt to downplay the importance of technical skill and understanding in photography. If it said ‘camera suitably good enough for the end needs’ I’d be happier.

In truth great photography, for me, requires a combination of artistic and creative abilities with the technical understanding to achieve your vision.

A great photography business needs all of the above -and- the abilities to manage and market a product to people wanting to pay for it. I’d go so far as to suggest that if you want a successful business that lasts, then the business side is more important to get right.

Is that it?

Whilst there are many refinements and additions you can and should look at for your business (e-mail marketing for example – it’s not dead yet), the elements I’ve outlined above address the most common questions I’m asked.

Obviously, my comments come from my own business as a commercial photographer, but the general principles apply just as much if you decide to concentrate on weddings and portraits – your target audience is very different, but the business principles are far more similar than you might first think.

One area I’ve not addressed much here, is your willingness to change and adapt to what’s happening in the rest of your business environment. Over the last dozen years, I’ve seen some massive changes in the technology of taking photos, and even more significantly, the ways they are used, and how clients see photography as something of value to their business. When I started out, stock photography was a pretty easy business to get into – not today, if you need to eat. I’ve addressed some of the changes and reactions to them in a recent article:

I’ve written numerous articles about aspects of the business side of photography over recent years and they are gathered together on a page specifically covering the Business of Photography.

An example article would be:

More photography business related articles

Business related articles (50+) are listed on the Photo-business page.

Some specific articles that may be of interest:

More of Keith's articles/reviews (Google's picks to match this page)


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