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.

More resources

I’ve lots of photography business articles on the site that look at many of the issues of being a pro photographer and why it’s mainly about running a business.

  • I totally agree. This is the same in many industries and you’re spot on in pointing out the need to differentiate.
    These days you’ll die with the competition if you can’t convince your market that doing business with you gives them some kind of benefit.

  • Pete Simpson

    Hi Keith

    I realise that I’m a bit late with my replies as I’ve only recently discovered your site and I’m still exploring it. I’ve been very interested in your articles about becoming a pro and am in agreement with many of your comments.

    This probably applies to a couple of your other articles too…

    I’ve taught photography at different levels for a long time and some of your points are very familiar to me. ‘What qualifications do I need?’ is a common one. My reply has always been that it’s a portfolio which will impress clients, not letters after your name. For me, the sight of FRPS proudly displayed after the photographers name is certainly meaningful, but unfortunately not in the sense that it is intended too.

    The level of naivety is sometimes staggering not only in the business sense, which you have detailed, but in what is actually involved. Although many pros specialise in a particular
    area and many amateurs are capable of producing satisfactory images, working in
    a studio is the one which causes some big problems. Here you have to invert the process of photography: you have to look at your subject and make decisions about how you are going to light and shoot it. There are no reference manuals which will tell you how to photograph a particular product because that product will have the potential to be photographed any number of ways, with any number of lighting set-ups and there are a million and one products. It’s about what you want to show, what you need to show and how you will light that product to achieve these aims. This knowledge therefore goes beyond basic photography and becomes about problem solving, application of equipment which is probably beyond the reach of most amateurs’ pockets and common sense.

    What intrigues me though is how some actually manage to get away with some very shoddy work. Moving aside slightly, some years ago I came across a wedding video which someone had produced for a friend of a friend. I won’t give the ‘company’ name but suffice to say that it was one which I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Many operators fail to understand the concept of a company image. In a word, the video was awful. Truly awful. The client paid £500 for it, then still quite a bit of money for a wedding video. Had I been the client, I would have refused to pay but then, having been the client I would have insisted on a showreel
    beforehand. My point is, the client was happy with the product although had I sat through it with them, I could have changed their minds.

    I suspected that what had happened was this (I’ll call the operator X):

    A friend of X is getting married. X is an amateur photographer. Friend says to X:

    ‘X, you’re a photographer aren’t you? Would you photography our wedding, we’ll pay

    X photographs the wedding and the friends are happy. It’s likely that the goods are actually
    pretty poor. X thinks:

    ‘Bloody hell, this is easy money’, and starts to advertise locally as a wedding photographer.

    His friends think: ‘X is pretty good. We’ll recommend him to some friends of ours
    who are getting married soon’. And so it goes.

    A few months down the line he decides that moving into video would be a good idea so he buys a video camera and off he goes, probably using Windows Movie Maker to edit. The
    likelyhood is that this will be an area which he knows little or nothing about.

    Now, I’ve just had a quick look to see if that person is still operating and he doesn’t appear to be.
    Presumably he ran out of friends of friends.

    I have a copy of another wedding video, the cost of which would have run into thousands. That one isn’t worth the money either. The first shot of the bride and groom dancing has the bride with her back to camera and the groom clutching a can of beer behind her back. It’s the little things, although I seem to recall that the groom’s mates actually try prise the can from his hands. He hangs onto his can as though his life depends on it. Now, while this could be easily seen as a comedic point in the proceedings, I doubt that it was something which the bride would have been too happy about especially as this is the first shot of her dancing. I could be wrong but my point is that there’s a right way and a wrong way…

    I’m talking about video here, but the same principles apply to still photography. A number of years ago I attended a wedding which was being photographed by ‘Mickey Mouse
    Photography’ or something similar. We were outside and I said to my wife: ‘I reckon that from where the photographer is standing, he will catch his reflection in that window’. I went and stood behind him and sure enough, the reflections of both of us could clearly be seen. The clients were happy though.

    Despite this I’ve seen some wedding photography which is stunning (not that I’m particularly a fan of weddings). It’s been produced by people who know what they are doing, are obviously good with people, have the imagination to produce something fresh and above all, they Care.
    With a capital C. They care about their work, their clients, their image.

    I recently came across some images of jewellery taken by a local photographer, the background of whom I have some knowledge. While the lighting of the products was
    acceptable, the art direction certainly wasn’t – they looked as though they had just been thrown on the table.

    I know all this is probably making me sound like a grumpy old bugger but while I don’t want to appear snobbish about this, it does annoy me that there are some who possess little talent, imagination or equipment to produce something which I would call professional and in one sense, they are exploiting a client’s complete ignorance of what is a professionally produced
    product. On the other hand, and I say this grudgingly, good luck to them.

    Ultimately, and I say this to keep my blood pressure down, these people probably don’t actually last very long although I do know one or two who have and they haven’t improved.
    They do have FRPS after their names though. GGGRRRRRR.

    • kacoooper

      Thanks Pete – since I wrote this article I have been asked about my qualifications a grand total of -zero- times… ;-)

  • 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.


    • 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 ;-)