Is your photo business any good?

Are there too many ‘Pro’ photographers?

I follow quite a few on-line discussion forums related to aspects of photography, and was just reading another thread complaining about people ‘working for free’ and how it was taking work away from professional photographers.

industrial components

All very similar...

Whilst there were plenty of replies pointing out aspects of ‘educating’ clients as to the value of using professionals, there was no consideration that there might just be too many ‘Pro photographers’ out there.

So, is your business surplus to market requirements?

I get asked by a lot of people about setting up a photography business, and have written several articles here about various aspects you should consider. However, there comes a point where you have to be serious about how your business is performing (actually this should be a recurring activity)

Start with an honest appraisal of the different types work you are doing – look at it from a creative point of view, but more importantly from a business POV.

  • Is it profitable? – if not then you have a paid hobby
  • Does it meet client needs? – if you can’t immediately say yes, then you are likely not talking to clients enough
  • Is this a market I can expand? – if  not, then make sure you are considering new markets
  • Will this work exist in 5 years? – what will you do?
  • Was this work part of my plan? – if not then how does it impact your planning?
  • What am I not doing? – is that a market I want to address?

What are you doing for your clients

Much as I like to value the creative input that goes into my work at Northlight, I know that for many clients, photography is a product, that they can get from a lot of places – for some that includes giving a camera to someone in the office and asking them to go and take some pictures.

I try and base our marketing on benefits to the client, not features – answering the client’s (usually unspoken) question “What’s in it for me”. I know that if our products don’t fit the market, then I need to change the product or look for a different market.

I’m going to be optimistic and assume that there will be a market for high quality commercial photography for the rest of my working life. Images that help a business get its message across, images that have real value and a need for creative and technical excellence.

OK that’s the ‘top end’ of my market – clients that I know and who know me and value the images I supply. However I run a real life business, so such clients represent a small (but growing) proportion of what I do – what about the more mundane?

An example would be our industrial and engineering photography – I know there are many photographers who could produce competent pictures of machines and products. I have to try and differentiate what we do in other ways – technical use of equipment for ‘different’ views, and offering consistent helpful and professional service. This is an area where lots of people are prepared to ‘have a go’ at doing their own photography – I need to give the client reasons for hiring -me-.

man cleaning a car wash with jet washer

What problems does your business solve?

So many others

Do you stand out from the vast crowd of competent pro photographers?

hand selecting tomatos at market

which to choose?

There are a lot of them about – I’m including anyone who’s paid in some way for their photography. Yes, that includes all those people who massively low-ball on prices “just to get some experience”.

I’m inclined to go along with the notion that the traditional market for professional photography is contracting or at best static. If you allow for the ease of producing technically competent images with relatively cheap equipment, then I would say that the market space for ‘professional photographers’ is definitely shrinking.

Add to this the steady influx of freshly minted ‘photographers’ from colleges, and of people looking to make a career out out of photography in later life.

The tide is coming in and the beach is starting to look a little crowded.

I see some suggesting licensing and other hopelessly outdated approaches that won’t work in the modern economy. Add in the threats from changes in the perception of what copyright means, and I see an industry that can’t sustain the current numbers of people who call themselves ‘professional photographers.’

‘We’ are not that special…

I still see too many comments from photographers who seem to think that because they have been in the business for xx years, or have assorted letters after their name, that they are in some way special – almost ‘owed a living’. It’s as if raising their castle drawbridges will keep the riff-raff away.

My own approach to changes in the market are to concentrate even more on the business aspects of being a photographer. Note that that doesn’t mean I spend less time taking photos, since in my plans, I’d always allowed time for addressing business issues.

Look ahead – have a vision for where you want your business to be.  (Oh and remember that a proper vision has a ‘due by’ date)

A lot of pro photographers are going to have to go part time or leave the business – properly looking at your business should at least give you the choice.

  • Roger Overall

    Hi Keith,

    This is an issue that I’ve been writing about as well. We’re at a crunch time in our industry but many professional photographers either don’t realize it or won’t face up to the fact.

    I think you are right. There are too many professional photographers for us all to earn a full-time living from photography. That may not be a bad thing, depending on how flexible you are willing/able to be in business.

    I’m a strong advocate of finding a clear voice and vision. Doing so will help photographers connect with the right clients for them. Whether these clients can sustain you full-time is another issue.

    If it can’t, I think we need to understand that there is no shame in earning income from other sources – either as you mention from bread-and-butter work, or from endeavours outside of photography. The latter means we become part-time professional photographers. Ultimately, many of us are already that, we’re just not filling the spare time we have with income-earning alternatives.

    You highlight six very important questions that every photographer should ask themselves. It is equally important that they are not afraid of the answers. Those answers will be a beacon – one that might lead them away from photography. Yet, who’s to say that won’t bring them a more satisfying career?

    Great post.


    • Keith

      Thanks Roger. In many ways this site is part of my ‘diversification’ as much as promoting my work. It brings in a useful advertising revenue that effectively pays for my time doing the testing and articles. In some ways it was by design, since I know that if I was out every weekday taking photos, then my enthusiasm would suffer ;-)