There has been quite a lot of photographers coming out and talking about the problems within the “photography community” – mostly complaints of how “shoot and burn” photographers are ruining the industry and making it hard for “real” photographers to charge what they’re worth, and others complaining about the attitude and, “Why can’t we all just get along and support each other?” I have some thoughts on the topic and I feel like this perspective isn’t being shared. So feel free to disagree, as this is only my perspective and I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my perspective is an absolute truth.
For some reason, people in this industry have forgotten one really important detail: They are business owners.
If photography is really your passion and you do it just for fun and don’t need or want to rely on it to pay your bills, then the photography community is exactly where you belong. The photography community is for having your art praised and critiqued. It’s a place for artists to go to commune with other artists, it’s for friendship and lots of drama, it’s for your art – your deepest self to be seen and heard. You’ll either get built up or tore down. Sometimes chewed up and spit out.
IF, on the other hand, you are trying to build a legit business, a profitable business – one that will put food on your table instead of debt (oh yeah, have I mentioned this business is expensive?) IF you want to build yourself an actual photography business that will pay you in actual dollars and not in warm, fuzzy feelings – I believe you should RUN. Get your pretty little self so far away from this “photographer community” and do it fast because it will invade your life and distract you from ever making a single solid decision to add to the success and well-being of your business. Put your blinders on, get your head down, and get to work. Focus on YOUR business, YOUR goals, YOUR success. Art is art and business is business, keep it separate.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a Facebook Page or a website of a local photographer that has literally copied and pasted wording from my website or Facebook page – even something as stupid as a hashtag, and I bang my head against my keyboard in frustration. Not frustration for me, frustration for that photographer. I want to grab them by the shoulders, shake them and ask, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” What could they possibly have to gain by being the same as me? They should spend all of their time and energy being BETTER and DIFFERENT than me. Or maybe they’re just really that lazy. “Seems to be working for her, it’ll work for me too!” Here’s the thing, there is room for ALL in this industry, but there will be ZERO room for you if you’re imitating someone who already holds space here. Hence, the blinders. Take everyone local out of your news feeds. Now don’t be an idiot, you need to know what your market can bear and what your market is asking for. But you can’t dwell on what other photogs are doing – it will consume you. I remember when I first started to specialize in newborns I was using my “kit lens”, and this was apparently very bad. A sin, in fact, according to everyone else. And what everyone else said mattered greatly to me at the time. So I did some… “research”. Ok, not research. I found on the Facebook page of the goddess of newborn photography that she used a 50mm to photograph newborns. So, obviously – that’s what I was supposed to be using. I went out and got myself one. And I hated it. I knew it wasn’t wide enough for me and I was spending so much time editing to compensate for it. I didn’t like my work one bit, but I continued with it because I was supposed to. And then said goddess switched to a 35mm. Having not learned my lesson, I also switched. And holy mother of all good things, it was perfect. It was perfect for ME. I LOVED my work and my editing time was cut significantly. And then it hit me. If I had done actual research and rented a few different lenses to try to find the right fit for ME, I would have chosen the 35mm first, and I would have been so much further ahead than I was right then on MY journey to find MY style. Lesson learned.
Okay, I’m going to get back on “there’s room for ALL in this industry…” Your art, personality, style, branding, the way you word things, your pricing structure, policies, the products you offer, even your silly hashtags makes an impact on your market. It’s up to YOU who your market is. What you put out there is what you’ll attract. Every person is different – we all have different values, different priorities and different perspectives. You have to build your business on what those things are for you. You will be the only one that can exude those things well enough to make an excellent return on it because they are distinctive to YOU.
There is a market for $19.95 chain studio photographers, $60 shoot and burn photographers, $2,000 minimum purchase full service portrait photographers and everything in between. It’s because not every person holds the same value for photography – for lots of different reasons. Maybe they haven’t been exposed to “good” photography, maybe their money is actually needed elsewhere, maybe they just can’t tell the difference between the photographs that came from the person who just got their first camera for Christmas and my photographs – this is a real thing – some people just can’t tell. Or maybe just the fact that their adorable kid is in the photo is good enough for them. I have a friend who got her kids’ pictures taken by me a couple of years ago, before her littlest ones could walk. She loves my work, she tells me all the time – but for the last couple of years she’s been going to JCPenny’s to get her kids’ pictures taken. Why? She has 3 very active, not at all predictable, boys. Like, she dresses them all in the same bright color when they go out so she can find them. Maybe you can relate. She goes to Penny’s because she’s not at all an idiot. She hates going to Penny’s and tells me horror stories about it almost every time I see her, but at least there she knows that if her kids aren’t in the picture taking mood, no real harm was done. She’s not going to spend a few hundred dollars to bring them into my studio and maybe come out with nothing to show for it. Would I let that happen? No. But it gives her arrhythmia just thinking about it. Now her kids are a little older and I know that a family session with me would be perfect for them – the kids can be themselves, they won’t have to pose – they can just be together. And my friend is the type of person who appreciates the reality of her life, so I would include all of the “outtakes” of her kids not cooperating and she would love it. Because it’s her family, her world and she wouldn’t change it for anything. Now, if I gave her grief every time she took her kids to a chain studio instead of me, do you think that when she is ready for a “real” photographer she would choose me? No. She wouldn’t. The point is, you can’t expect everyone to think that your photography is a necessity. It’s not. At least, not for everyone, all the time.
Shoot and burn photographers are getting a lot of heat right now cause they’re supposedly ruining the industry by teaching the public to expect to be entitled to the rights to their digital gallery and usually for a really low price. There is also a lot of talk about “you can’t be a shoot and burn photographer and expect to pay your bills”. Usually photographers who are just starting out are shoot and burn photographers because there’s lower overhead and less hassle – maybe they haven’t discovered the right printing labs or products yet, they’re still finding their style, I don’t know – it took me a while to get my products where I wanted them to be. But have you heard of Rachel Vanoven? She’s one of the biggest names in newborn photography – has something like 60,000 followers and is the goddess from my previous anecdote. She is a shoot and burn photographer. She’s not cheap, but I wouldn’t label her as expensive either. I expect she could charge a lot more for her sessions because her name holds a lot of weight and she doesn’t have to rely on her immediate area – people come from all over America to use her services. Could she make more $$ by selling product too? Notttt necessarily…. She might be a terrible sales person, but regardless of whether she is or isn’t, that isn’t where her priorities and values lie. She likes to shoot and burn because it gives her more TIME to invest into the things that she does value. Spending time with her family, and teaching other newborn photographers (which I’m sure is where she makes most of her income). This business model works for her because it’s based on HER values, HER priorities and it plays to her strengths (teaching, posing, shooting) and leaves out her weaknesses (being cool with investing more time into sales, processing and delivering orders, and possibly sales in itself). Alright, please don’t go around saying Rachel is a terrible sales person because who knows if she is or isn’t – I was just using that as an example, but she does have some kind of weakness because she is human like the rest of us.
I, on the other hand, LOVE sales. I love everything to do with business actually, I’m a very results-oriented person, so business suits me well – except for taxes, you can come into my studio any time January 1st – April 15th and expect to see me in the corner of my office rocking back and forth in the fetal position with a calculator in my hand. I’m good at sales because I believe 100% in what I’m selling, not just my art or the products I’ve chosen to display that art, but I believe in my clients actually displaying their images in their home for them to enjoy instead of the digitals just hanging out on their usb. It’s a priority for me that I help my clients experience this because it’s a wonderful thing to get your pictures taken and then have them up on your walls in beautiful form just a couple of weeks later. Do my clients want the digitals? Yes, and I also want them to have them for safe-keeping, but I want them to have product MORE, so I give them the incentive: you purchase x amount of printed product, I’ll give you the digital gallery for free. It’s something I value, and therefore a strength and I play to it. I teach my clients the value of it, most conform and actually become addicted to the experience – a few don’t, but that’s ok – I understand that not every client will share my same values and I can’t expect them to. While I market to the ones that do value printed product by posting about my printed product, people also hire me for various other reasons. A few being: all of their friends recommended me, they just really love my pictures, or they can already tell that my customer service is above average. (Which isn’t hard to accomplish, cause average customer service usually sucks.) I’m also pretty competent at interior design, so I do in-home ordering sessions where I can design wall displays for my clients actual homes that they can’t say “no” to. I am NOT good at card or album design, however. I can do it, but it takes me forever and time is equal to money, so for the occasions where I HAVE to do it, I purchase templates that are ready made and beautiful so as to hide that weakness from my clients. They end up with a beautiful product they couldn’t have acquired on their own, and I’m not in the hole for spending 12 hours creating something that costs me $300 to print that I can only charge $600 for. (For those of you doing the math thinking I would still make $25 an hour – Ha, no, that’s not how it works.) I’m also not so good at sugar-coating things, maybe you’ve noticed. But I use that honesty to my advantage when I’m working my with clients. It doesn’t pay me to comply to my client’s every whim. ((WWHHHAAATT?? But the client is ALWAYS right!!)) They’re actually not. Not always. Before my clients start calling to cancel their sessions, let me give you an example of what I actually mean: I did an in-home ordering session for a client and when I walked in she ushered me to a space where she wanted to display one of her pictures, she knew exactly how she wanted it – she could see it in her head. The only problem was that the vision she had in her head did not at all line up with reality. That space was not meant for displaying a photograph, no matter what product we used to display it in. So I said, “Let me show you why you’re not going to like this.” And I showed her what it would look like by putting one of my samples up on the wall for her to see and you could see it in her eyes that her vision was shattered and her soul was crushed (okay, it wasn’t that bad – but it she was obviously disappointed). I then proceeded to explain why she hated it, why the space wasn’t fit for displaying a photograph. And I suggested another place to display her photograph, one that she had never thought of and I showed it to her in a LESS expensive product (because it happened to looked better in that specific space) – and it was perfect. She loved it. And she said “Thank God you talked me out of that!” Okay, could I have sold her a piece of art for both spaces in a more expensive product? Yes, and I would have made more money that day. But in the long run, I’ve made even more money (which is the purpose for my business because *surprise* I have bills to pay like everyone else) because I invested in that client. I’ve built a relationship with her. She not only trusts me as a person because she knows full well she would have wasted her money had I not stepped in, but she trusts me as an expert in my profession because her images are now displayed perfectly in her home. If I would have let her buy whatever she thought she wanted, she would have never bought any product from me again because she would have been dissatisfied with how it displayed in her home no matter whose fault it was. Since then, I’ve been to her home 2 more times for ordering sessions and those sales are 5 times more than the first sale would have been. Not to mention all of the clients I’ve gotten as a result of giving her an experience worth sharing. Now you also have to realized that every client’s personal taste and style will differ from yours, hopefully only a little if you’ve been marketing your style as you should, but still – everyone sees things a bit differently. Your job is to recognize and understand what they want and then execute it in the best possible way. It’s all about giving a good experience, and a good experience will be a little different from one client to the next. Same goes when creating the images themselves. Another thing that I value is excellence. I don’t do anything half way and I have very high standards for myself. It’s a compulsion of sorts that is tied to my personality, can’t get rid of it, drives me crazy most of the time, but I use it to my advantage and my clients benefit greatly, which in turn, rewards me.
Let me conclude with this: I am a business owner. Photography happens to be the service that I offer for the following reason: I’m good at it. Photography isn’t my “life” or my “passion”. (Oh boy, is the sky falling yet??) If I wasn’t running a photography business there would be a great many other things that I would be perfectly happy to do, and even prefer to do. Cooking, yoga, creative writing, traveling, quilting, crafting and keeping my house clean being a few of them. (And you’d better believe that I have business ideas for at least a couple of those.)
Now, that’s not to say I don’t like my job (you can put the pitchforks down now). I really love it. I love being around families with young children, it makes me happy and I can say that kids are definitely one of my “passions”. During a college & career class in high school we were all asked what it is that “drives our bus” – my answer was children. I think they’re hysterical and I love making a connection with them. It’s rewarding to me. It’s not as easy to make a connection with newborns – but I love them for what they are: tiny, squishy, sweet-smelling (mostly) humans that make adorable faces and there is literally no better sound than their breathing. Also, the way their eyes flutter when they dream and how each one of them, no matter what size, seems to fit perfectly in my arms… Ok, you get it, I love them. But I also love working with them because it satisfies my results-oriented personality. I know that if I keep them really, really warm and their bellies really full they’ll let me mold them by doing this, this and the other, and I will end up with a beautiful result. It’s a challenge that very few people are able to accomplish which also appeals to my particular personality. I play to my strengths, address my weaknesses, define my values and priorities and apply it all to my path to success. It won’t all be perfect, I will fail many times. The same will go for my next venture – I expect once I’ve accomplished all I can here I’ll move on to my next thing, that will undoubtedly have to do with children – after all, they drive my bus.
So it has to be asked: Are you committed to running a legitimate, profitable business? Are you committed to the investment it will take? Not just the money, but the time that you will spend in perfecting your craft, your approach, your style and creating your business model to reflect who you really are. If you are, welcome to the community of small business owners. You are not alone, you CAN find the right people to help, support, and teach you. Get your blinders on, focus, make intentional decisions, act with purpose.
If you’re not committed to that, own it. You’ll waste time and energy on something that wasn’t meant for you, and worse – miss out on what IS meant for you.
Of course it’s the dream to make a living doing what you love, but like my client – your vision doesn’t always line up with reality and that’s ok because there is something better and more fulfilling waiting for you.