The Business of Photography

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The Business of Photography

Dealing With The Future

If your business is suffering, you're not alone. While some studios are booming, others are extremely quiet, but this is the case all the time, not just during a recession. The difference now is that there are more photographers suffering than usual and it seems the hardest hit are commercial and advertising photographers. Wedding and portrait photographers are still working, although even for them there are fewer clients than before.

Elsewhere on this website is practical business advice about how to deal with a recession or downturn in business. Theory is a wonderful thing, but how do we deal with it in practice?

Since Eric Victor, past AIPP National President and owner of Momentum Studios in Brisbane, had prompted me to write the articles, I thought he should be the one to help me with the next, especially the human side of a recession.

Began Eric, "I think it's important for all AIPP members to have the coffee machine on and the studio door open for other photographers to walk through. We're finding quite a few ex-Momentum guys are dropping in, as much for human contact as anything.

"This is something the Institute should be aware of. Conventions and workshops are important, but there's also a need for individual members to be understood."

Momentum Studios is already a hub of activity, encouraging small groups of students into the studio under a mentoring program so they can see how a business really works. However, Eric is quick to point out it's a two-way relationship, marvelling at the energy the young people bring with them.

"The problem with bad times is that everyone reduces their overheads and retracts into their shells. They don't talk to people and this makes the world seem worse than it really is; the television and newspapers are so depressing that people can feel abandoned. This is why we need to help each other, even if it's only sharing a cup of coffee.

Our Pricing: Can It Last?

While Eric is one of the most positive people you will meet, he is also a realist who sees the profession of photography going through a substantial change, and pricing is perhaps the most important part.

"Pricing has changed. We can all talk about charging $2500 a day, but I think the bulk of photographers are more likely to be getting $1200. And perhaps $1200 is a fair return, as long as you can add your expenses on top."

While Eric is talking about commercial photography specifically, his observation also relates to wedding and portrait photography. Many photographers are only shooting two or three days a week, but they are able to survive because of a generous ‘day rate'. However, at $1200 a day they will find it more difficult to cover their overheads and pay themselves a reasonable wage - unless they are able to work five days a week.

"Thirty years ago when I was a student", Eric explained, "I asked David McCarthy (another AIPP National President) what my expectations should be as a professional photographer. He said if I was good I should be able to earn as much as a solicitor, and if I was better as much as a barrister (his brother was a barrister).

"Unfortunately today it's quite different and an emerging photographer's expectations can't be so high. I think we have to accept that professional photography has changed."

Eric explained that we don't have the same mark-ups for our skills and materials that we used to in the days of the darkroom. "We used to command trust. We would shoot a lot of film and our clients would ask how do we know it's the correct exposure - they had to trust us.
"Today, all we have to do is turn the camera around and show them the histogram. And many clients have cameras that are as good as or better than the photographer's.

"We had a girl visit our studio with a degree in photojournalism and a masters in photography. She was applying for a job as an assistant and the only other work she could find in journalism was one day a week with a local newspaper, shooting flash on camera. That's not a good result for years of education.

"The elite photographers with vision and excellent communication skills will always be in great demand, but the middle market of photographers who simply record objects, people or scenes are in trouble. In the old days an engineer would hire us to photograph a crack in the concrete, but today he just pulls out his own camera. CGI and three-dimensional rendering is replacing product photography, and photographers who are slow to pick up the new technology are being left behind."

The Future

So what will the professional photographer of tomorrow look like?

"I think the supply of photography will be high but the demand much lower. In other words there will be lots of photographers competing for a smaller pool of work. I don't think many of them will own their own studio or much in the way of equipment. And I think we have to be careful how we deal with copyright and licensing.

"Last century, photographs were mainly used locally, whereas today they can be used and re-used all around the world. We can use contracts to protect our work, but in reality how do we enforce it? Few photographers have the administrative skills or the resources to check on the use of their images. For instance, the only reason I discovered someone in South Africa was illegally using one of my images was because a cousin lived there and sent me an email."

And when many people buy photography they have an expectation that they own the resulting images, just the same as if they had bought a loaf of bread. This is in contrast to the modelling licence where the photographer retains ownership of the photograph for ever and allows the client to use it for a limited period of time in a limited manner.

"If you shoot a job for a client like a hotel, they believe they own the photograph. That's the traditional way of doing things - you do the work, they own the result. Now we're saying there are limits with what they can do with our photographs because of licensing. Will our clients accept this? And what can we do with the photographs anyway?

"Often they have no commercial value to us unless we in turn have paid for property rights and model releases.

"For instance, we may well own the copyright of a photograph of a barman in a hotel. As an employee of the hotel, there's no doubt the hotel can use his photograph, but if the photographer wanted to use the image or sell it to someone else, further permissions would be required from the barman and very possibly the hotel as well.

Understanding Rights

"I don't think all photographers quite realise how far these rights issues extend. Recently we photographed a living room for a home magazine and there was a painting on the wall. By law, we had to acknowledge the artist in the credits.

"There was another case where an architect was photographed inside one of the houses he designed, but the owner of the house said she had chosen the colour for the wall and that it was her idea. The issue ended up in court - the point I'm making is that owning copyright for photographs is one thing, being able to use them and sell them is another."

So while the AIPP strongly endorses photographers owning the copyright in their work, in practice the licences provided to clients may need to be less restrictive.

Even so, Eric says the concept of owning copyright in a photograph and limiting its use is under threat.

"Everyone pinches stuff off the web. And it's dangerous for photographers to show their work for everyone to see.

"In the past, our folios were kept under lock and key, only to be shown to prospective clients. Compare this with today: expose all your bright ideas on your website and someone else in another country or another town can pinch them for himself.

"If I had some really interesting images, I would lock them down with a password. But then again, that's the old way of business and as I said, photography is changing."

Surviving The Recession - 1

So how does Eric suggest we survive the current financial meltdown? His first suggestion is to have a copy of the accounting program MYOB and keep it up to date.

"You need to know minute by minute where you're heading. It's a pity MYOB doesn't include a set of alarm bells. When your payables are higher than your receivables and there's no money in the bank, there should be a big flash across the screen telling you that you're broke! There's no better incentive to improve your business than to know you have a problem."

One of the good things about GST and the monthly or quarterly BAS reports is that it forces businesses to look at their finances regularly. However, if you just pay a bookkeeper to do the paperwork for you and you don't look at the profit reports produced, you're really doing yourself a disservice. It is essential in a recession to know how your business is faring, especially if you're quiet.

Surviving The Recession - 2

Eric's second suggestion is to save the ship the best way you know how and usually this means reducing your expenses. "Expenses should already be under control, but some people don't even look. You need to rationalize existing expenses and make sure you don't incur any new ones. Maybe your business can't afford the government's fifty percent investment bonus."

And of course all good businesses have some cash stashed away for a rainy day. Perhaps that rainy day is today? Or if you don't have any cash stashed away, the experience over the next few months might encourage you to build up such a nest egg for the future when the economy recovers.

Surviving The Recession - 3

The third suggestion from Eric is to drive a cab or work as a barman. "It can get to the point where the business is simply not there, so is it a good idea to increase the overdraft or refinance the house to pay the studio overheads when there isn't any work coming - and little prospect either?" Rather than borrowing to survive, I'd think about working a second job instead.

Surviving The Recession - 4

Finally, don't panic. "Staying cool, calm and collected gives you a much better chance of success. And remember, your potential clients are going through enormous change as well.

"If there isn't any work around, you need to set yourself up for the recovery. How do we create unique products that our clients can't produce themselves? Some areas of photography are in decline, so where are the new areas that are going to expand? Where will photography be in demand next?

"Of course, this is the hard part, working out where the future will go. I can only see the photographer of tomorrow using better equipment with higher resolution so he or she is able to create something different from the client. I would also like to see a return to proper lighting - something our clients generally can't create, something that separates us from our competition.

Thinking Quality

"As an industry, we have to sell quality to our clients. If a photographer says it ‘will be good enough', then he or she is destroying our profession.
"We have two high end Sinar digital backs as well as the Canon 1Ds Mark III. I always ask clients why not shoot on the Sinar and if they say, ‘Oh, too big', I say nonsense, it's never too big because you never know what you might need to use the photographs for. High quality must be synonymous with professional photography.

"I think we are in danger of losing the distinction between photography and professional photography. The camera manufacturers aren't helping here either - you can shoot things on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II that are just as good as the Canon 1Ds Mark III. And the medium format digital back manufacturers are in turmoil because while people love the quality, they don't like the price. Yet the price is only $40,000 and this is peanuts in photography."

Not too many years ago, the average photography studio would spend between $40,000 and $100,000 a year on film and processing, so $40,000 on a camera that will last many years is not an unrealistic business expense, Eric argues.

"Suddenly professional photographers are poor people, so does that mean we also accept poor wages? I think it's a pity that as a profession we haven't had the strength to be leaders, setting the standard for professional photography."

However, Eric admits that his is just one viewpoint. It would be interesting, he believes, to survey the membership to see what formats people are using, how they deliver their files, and what their clients expect.

"Maybe we are fighting a losing battle and the future of the profession is going to be a cheap recording business that a lot of people can do quite quickly. Photography today, after all, is easy: just press the button.

"I think we have to accept that 80 percent of photography will be done by non-professionals, but the good news it that it's a much bigger market than it used to be. We need to aim for the top part of the market and accept there will be casualties further down."

Using Down Time

So, despite all the good advice, you have nothing in the bank and business is grim. What do you do?

"You need to generate positive energy. If clients ask if you have a lot of work and you say yes, they can tell if you're being truthful. I think it's better to say business isn't good at the moment, but you're enjoying the down time and using it to shoot more personal work - could you show them what you've been doing? And even if you can't sell your photography to them today - perhaps their business is as quiet as yours - you can still endear yourself by having a cup of coffee with them.

"If you have time on your hands, sharpen your products. Look at how you deliver your work from the cover of the DVD to the packaging. We used to deliver the CD in a nice case, but now we add in A4 prints of the key images and even an enlargement which we roll out when we visit them. People can't believe they get such a beautiful picture free of charge and often they want another one for the office - so there's a $300 extra sale.

"I think photographers have been poor in giving their pictures away. We did a show last month, inviting art directors to the studio to see a series of holiday photos we had sticky taped to the wall. They came for a beer and went home with their favourite photograph. For some reason, photographers never give their work away, yet it is one of the cheapest things to do and generates so much goodwill.

"I acknowledge you can't create work if it's not there in the first place, but perhaps you're not looking in the right places. And the internet isn't working as a way to reach your clients because they already get so much spam, it's impossible to get through. We're back to producing brochures and postcards, printed specially for a particular art director.

"If there's no work around today, prepare yourself for the economic upturn. You still need to visit your clients and maintain the relationship, even if you're just drinking coffee. Despite the internet, I think we're entering a period of very personal relationships in business and success in this area is critical to the success of your studio.

"Change is upon us. The economy is in dire straits. Yet I don't see any of this as a negative. The digital revolution is fantastic, barriers are being broken and the new international language is photography. What we need to do is refine our skills and position ourselves at the top of the pyramid."

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