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Pro photography – winning the lottery?

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Planning your photography business with care

Why so much advice is not much better than buying a lottery ticket

Are you still hoping for your ‘big break’ in photography?

Are you making lots of use of Social media – if so, perhaps buying a lottery ticket is  good idea too.

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How are you planning the future of your photography business?

hands playing blackjack

Your photography business model?

Fame and fortune await – just get your work noticed – put out enough photos in enough places, and surely you’ll strike it lucky?

Or, you could buy some lottery tickets…

How are you planning your business?

The other day, Google contacted me and asked if I’d like to be one of their local ‘Trusted Photographers’.

Sounds great – a source of leads for panoramic interior photography, for businesses that want their interiors featured on the extension to ‘Street View’. Given I do some of this sort of work already, I was curious and looked at the initial terms and conditions. From my own point of view, it’s not that bad until I see this:

” …Photographer assigns all ownership rights in the photographs (including intellectual property rights) to Business;
Photographer hereby agrees not to assert at any time, and otherwise waives, any “moral rights” that Photographer may have in the photographs, and Photographer hereby assigns to Business all moral rights therein; …”

Whoa – hold on, we never assign rights for our work (*1), I’ll be fairly flexible in licensing with smaller businesses, but we always retain the original copyright.

I’ll not go into the absolute camera equipment requirements (no substitutions *2) for becoming a ‘Google Trusted Photographer’, but I was curious to see what other photographers thought of this and whether any had signed up. I enquired on several online forums.

I was quite surprised by the dichotomy between people like myself, who wouldn’t consider such terms, and those who thought it an excellent opportunity for advancing their business.

Traditional business models vs the Lottery approach

If I look at how I’ve developed the Northlight Images business over the years, then I can see how I’ve concentrated on one particular area (commercial photography) and looked to build up my own experience in more specialist areas, such as architecture and industrial photography. As a relatively new business I know that it takes time to build a reputation, through word of mouth and recommendations. As such, our commercial services are still quite varied, but I feel more specialist than if we also did portraiture and weddings. The key element is that the development of the business is part of  an ongoing plan. True, it’s regularly updated and refined, but it’s essentially directed.

What I’d not considered was the popularity of an entirely different approach. It involves concentrating on ‘exposure’ and getting your work ‘out there’. This is the approach that’s happy to do work for nothing if need be, just to get noticed. This is the approach that embraces social media and photo sharing web sites. Who cares if you are not getting paid, if millions see your images?

Success in this approach brings fame, work, invites to speak, books, videos, training opportunities and potentially huge earnings.

Sounds great eh?

I’m reminded though of the warning at the bottom of this roadside sign I saw advertising the Oregon State Lottery, when driving down I-5.

roadside sign for Oregon lottery

Lottery games should not be played for investment purposes

The traditional approach is much more likely to give you a job that pays the bills. It involves developing your business through providing excellent service that meets your client’s needs. I’m tempted to say that it’s about real work and learning to run a proper business.

But is all that work really needed? If only you can be ‘found’, then ‘making it big’ can happen for anyone…

Sounds great, but like most lotteries, the chances are pretty remote.

Like most lotteries, there are lots of players and few winners. Think of the sea of dross  on TV’s so-called ‘talent’ shows ;-)

Finding what suits you.

3 card poker

Some skill required…

As someone who’s spent time building up aspects of a conventional business, I find things like the  ‘microstock’ business just don’t fit into any way I’m wanting to work.

I do note however, the way that it’s affected photographers who used to rely partly on stock photo sales.

If you want to make money in stock photos these days, it needs to be a very well planned and agile business.

I noted the way that many people who thought the Google offer was a good one, were people more to the edge of professional photography (or just plain short of work). Some of the justifications sounded familiar too: “getting exposure”, “good promotion” and “future work”.

The more outspoken dismissals came from those with established photography businesses, who saw Google’s offer as an attempt to further commoditise and devalue their creative efforts.

Whilst Google’s offer has a number of serious deficiencies from the point of view of how I want to develop our business, I’d encourage anyone else being contacted, to consider just how it might fit into their business model (…you do have a business model?). If you do sign up, remember that it’s going to take a lot of work and cold calling of businesses to make anything of.

Mostly A with a little B

The ‘being discovered’ approach is quite attractive to those who don’t currently need to earn a living from their photography. It isn’t harmed by the currently popular notion of celebrity as an easy way to the top.

Look at some of the ‘celebrity’ photographers in the social media universe – are you really saying that their work is so vastly superior to many of the other competent photographers out there?

If you’ve looked at the work of some of them and wonder what’s so special, you’d share the opinions of many a successful working photographer. Just remember that your future photography business will have to work in the real world, where you do have bills to pay.

Lots of people play the UK national lottery every so often, it gives a moment or two of wondering how to spend all that money if you won…  That’s all good and well, but I can’t see many bank managers willing to invest in your business, if a key part of your plan is to buy lottery tickets.

There is nothing wrong with using your full range of skills to build up your business – if you have a knack for creating the sort of images that win competitions, then by all means work out how you could profitably make use of this. If you can teach or write articles, make it part of your business development plan (I have).

The essence of it for me is to have a plan, monitor the progress of this plan and refine it as need be.

The ‘traditional’ approach does not have to be dull and pedantic, no matter how much some some of those internet ‘photography stars’ may decry enforcement of copyright and licensing photos for use.

There isn’t a right way of running a photography business – but there are some ways that are much more likely to earn you a living from it.


*1 One reason I’m keen on retaining rights, is that you never know if an image is going to be worth something in the future. A lottery indeed, but one I’m happy to buy my tickets for.

*2 Requirements: These include 2 cameras of a particular type, a particular Sigma fisheye lens, a particular type of panoramic tripod head, and even stuff like an Android phone (for a special Google app) and a compass (over £2000 of kit). There is a complete list of what you -must- use, and a manual prescribing the exact approach you must take for each job. Even if I’d have got past the rights issues, these factors would have been a killer (the equipment I use is well beyond the requirements, but that counts for nothing).

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  • Karl Craig-West | Apr 16, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Great article Keith,

    Sadly no shortcuts to building a business.

    However, spending time daily on marketing and promotion will put you ahead of most of your competition since most owners of small businesses don’t dedicate consistent time to winning and keeping customers.


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