A discussion with my G+ friend Michael Adkins got me thinking about the art of photography as a business. It left me mulling over several thoughts that I wanted to share with anyone who will listen. I've been self-employed (not as a photographer) for nearly 10 years now so I have a bit of experience to speak from. And please, take it all with a grain of salt and realize I am smirking as I write it. :-)
I think much of what I'm going to say here has applications in any line of business, but it came up as a discussion regarding photography specifically.
Good Photography is an Art
I need to make a few statements to ensure we're all on the same page. First, good photography is an art. There are those who will tell you that photography is not an art, and I agree that most photography is not art. However, good photography is an art. It requires a keen perception, a bit of imagination, and a great deal of skill. That said, the current tools have dumbed it down to the point that anyone can take an OK photo.
Modern gear has also enabled many budding artists who would never have been able to handle a manual camera express their artistic side. It's made us all artists at some level, even if only on a hit or miss basis. Essentially I believe that modern gear has improved us as a species by enabling more art without the need to rely on a tiny percentage of the population to produce good work.
The problem is that in many cases that tiny percentage of the population is offended. I can't convey how many conversations I've had with professional photographers who take offense at "every tom dick or harry with a camera who thinks they can shoot a wedding."
The problem is not the average joe with a camera. The problem is more one of a vocal minority being jealous of other people's mediocre talents. There I said it. I probably just offended a good portion of that vocal minority. :-P
Let's look at it from another point of view. Home Depot and Lowe's are located within a few minutes of nearly every home in the nation. If someone has a problem with their plumbing no doubt a Lowe's, a good friend with a bit of knowledge and some elbow grease can fix it. I don't recall a plumber union outcry over the fact that they aren't the only ones who can fix a leak anymore.
Like I said in my other discussion, who is to tell the home baker they cannot give away goodies to friends because it might offend the local bakery?
Why waste your time and energy getting upset over cousin Bob with his new Rebel T3i when you should be either shooting or out finding customers to shoot. I guarantee there's nearly as many people who want portraits shot who aren't getting it done as there are people in your town.
As a result of the lowering of the bar, we've increased the volume of photography in the world. That includes the below-average, mediocre and above-average work. It's helped people who might have been average to excel at their art. It's also helped people who were below-average produce acceptable family albums.
From the artist's perspective, why should I even charge for what I do? If it's a labor of love and I want to shoot a weekly photo session and give away all of the images for free, who is to deny me that right? Must I be required to make a minimum amount on the work that I do if I'm not supporting my family through that means? No, of course not. In fact, the spirit of giving and charity is generally not questioned elsewhere, but when listening to many struggling photographers you'd think that someone who shoots and gives away full size images for free or next to nothing are demons in disguise.
Microsoft is facing the same challenges. Free, open-source software aims to provide alternatives to packages that they sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per license. Yes, it's bad news for Microsoft, but the population as a whole benefits. As an author of open-source software, what have I done but spend time doing something I love - programming - and then provide that something to the world for free. This isn't bad, and it's certainly not evil.
Technology has changed the face of many businesses in the past decade. Look at Lester Chambers as an example. The traditional music label distribution method screwed him out of potentially millions. With today's technology he's able to overcome those limitations, cut out the middle man and produce his art. That's something he couldn't do in the 1960's.
Photography is no different.
Business is business. If you can't cut it alone, go work for The Man. I would chance to say (and no, there's no science behind this statement) there are more professional photography shoots going on today than a decade ago, yet to hear many photographers you'd think there was 1/10th the business worldwide. There's just more competition.
As business owners, photographer's need to realize that they have a target market and they need to apply business sense. That target market probably does not include the people who go to their friend with a camera to get photos done. Photographers should have three main goals for running their business.
Goal 1 - Increase Exposure
No, I don't mean blow out the highlights. More people need to know about you and your work. This might even include doing some pro-bono or drastically reduced work for people you identify as high profile or connected. Maybe it's the teenager with over 1000 Facebook friends who is going to post her graduation pictures online. For most businesses, doing pro-bono work for something like the local animal shelter isn't going to help if you primarily make money from portraits, so you need to pick and choose this type of work properly. All businesses offer something like this - coupons, loss leaders, etc. Don't be offended when your competition does. If you're doing Goal 1 properly, you won't be worried about the average joe with their shiny new DSLR. You'll be too busy shooting.
Goal 2 - Customer Satisfaction
This is why I don't shoot weddings, even for friends. ;-) If you want more business, your customer's must perceive value in what you do. This means you must be friendly and personable, you must produce a reasonably high quality product, you must somehow differentiate yourself from your competition and you must be willing to fix anything that goes wrong before the customer gets irritated.
You want vocal customers. You want them to brag about their experience with you. You want them to want others to come to you for portraits. You want their Facebook and G+ pages covered with your work - giving you attribution of course.
By day I'm an executive in a business that markets to hospitals. I've lost new business to local "mom-and-pop" shops before. The fun part? Three out of four times if I am patient that business ends up back at my door because we offer a level of service that local vendors just can't provide. As a photographer you should be delighted when someone uses "Uncle Joe" as their photographer. Given an opportunity, even compliment the work. And make sure they continue to see YOUR work as well. My own son took my grandson to a local studio for Christmas portraits but I wasn't offended. I don't have the backdrops they do or the costumes they do. They also can't take the outdoor shots or action shots that I can. And honestly the pictures aren't bad. What did I do? I got out my matting kit and framed and matted the 8x10 he gave me. It's the only photo hanging in my home that I didn't take.
Goal 3 - You Must Make a Profit
As Michael points out he isn't "in the printing business" anymore. Kudos. The actual prints are the commodity part of what photographers do. It's also more likely where you'll have dissatisfied customers due to shipping damage, print quality, etc. And, it's the worst part of the business anyway, so why bother? There are plenty of online print shops, many of which allow you to still maintain control of the digital original while letting your customers order through their site. Managing a print order of 4 8x10's a few 5x7's and a bunch of wallets is a waste of your time considering what you charge. Time that could have been spent with another photo shoot. It's also where you will likely make the most errors - "Oh I'm sorry, I completely forgot to place your order that you wanted by Christmas because I was busy shooting a wedding."
How much do you charge? Figure out how much you want to work, and how much you want to make. Then, make it happen. Amanda Reed once told me she figured up how much her cruise to the Bahamas was going to cost and figured out how many sessions at what price she'd have to do. Then, you go out and just make that happen.
You suck at Business. Get better.
Running a business is something most pure artists don't have a grasp of (another non-scientific statement of mine ;-) Business requires logic in addition to imagination. It also requires commitment and tenacity. There's a reason everyone's heard the term "Starving Artist". It's rare that a single individual has both the business head and the artist eye. Fortunately in this day and age we have been able to lower that entry bar on both the business and the artist side to allow more people to do what they love. Things that we never could have been capable of until the last decade or so. There are tons of free online resources regarding how to be a better photographer, how to be better at marketing, and even how to be better at marketing photography.
So before you get angry with that guy who sees your camera and mentions he's starting a photography business from his garage (happened to me twice this year,) just smile and wish him the best. But do suggest that he not go into debt doing it.