The Business of Photography

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The Business of Photography

Wedding & Portrait Photography - The Future...

Is wedding and portrait photography going through a major change? Has modern technology and high pressure sales tactics turned a profession into a used car yard? With tough economic conditions, many photographers are starting to ask some hard questions as both the wedding and portrait markets readjust to a changing world.

Yet are things really changing? A business built on reputation and referrals will still survive, no matter what happens in terms of price cutting and pressure sales techniques elsewhere. Of course, these issues can impact a good business for a time, but not forever.

The question is, will your studio stay in business long enough to reap the rewards? And what can you do in the meantime?

Some people make their money quickly by using saturation marketing and high pressure sales techniques. The few successful ones tend to move around as their markets dry up, while the majority wither and die because they're not astute enough to see what they are doing. They blindly follow a business strategy without really understanding the dynamics surrounding it.

At the heart of strong business lie the relationships you have with the market.

Relationship building is a huge topic, so let's start with a simple question: How polite are you and your staff to your customers? Don't just brush this question aside. Think about it. Be objective. Make some inquiries. Test yourself and your staff. And this isn't just about answering the phone, but how you deal with people during the shoot and the sales process.

So, how polite are you and your staff to your customers? I know that most AIPP photographers believe they are very polite. Of course, everyone has a bad day or meets a client who deserves a tongue-lashing, but aberrations aside, it appears that domestic photography in Australia has two big problems at the moment:

  • A bad reputation with the public (e.g. too expensive, high pressure sales); and
  • A lot of new entrants to the market offering much cheaper prices.

These are not new issues. Over the last twenty years writing this newsletter, topics like this come and go. So do photographers and studios: one photographer will find it very difficult to compete with the newcomers and so leaves the industry, while others continue to thrive no matter what happens outside their personal market area.

The difference is often as simple as manners. More technically, it is the relationships that the studio builds with its clients and the community as a whole.

Manners - and relationships - means being polite to your customers, no matter how exasperating they may be. You might feel good about dressing down a painful customer or stitching them up for a bonanza sale, but invariably that one customer spreads her experience far and wide (compared to a good experience which people speak about far less often).

Manners means not pushing your clients into buying products they don't need. I remember an interview with NSW member Brian Chapman and thinking how refreshing and honest his approach was. In a nutshell, he treated his customers how he would like to be treated himself. Simple, really. And great for building relationships.

So why is there so much bad press concerning wedding and portrait photographers? And why are we finding it difficult to convince our clients to spend sufficient money with us to make our businesses successful?

Let's continue this thought process with some comments and observations from the profession itself.

A Meeting In Sydney, June 2009

Matt Lee, the new AIPP Domestic Group chairman, provided the following notes from a meeting held in late June immediately after APPA. It was attended by wedding and portrait photographers from around Australia.

Robert Edwards, AIPP Vice President, began by detailing the AIPP's new wedding and portrait photography website project. With the support of PMA, the website will provide an informative resource for both consumers of photography and professional photographers, designed to educate the market about best practices.

While not being identified directly as an AIPP website, its main objective is to increase awareness among the general community and highlight the benefits of using a professional photographer. The principal target market will be brides-to-be, closely followed by prospects seeking family portraiture. The style and professionalism of the website will be attractive to a demographic that understands professional photography, while also educating the public about professional photography.

In the future, it is hoped this project will develop into Australia's leading wedding photography website.

Wedding Issues

After Robert's introduction, Matt Lee chaired the meeting and attendees identified the following issues that adversely affect the wedding photography market:

  • Erosion of market value in the current economic climate with increasing competition on price.
  • Proliferation of shoot-and-burn studios, especially new operators who charge prices that are not viable, go out of business in one or two years, and in the meantime erode the market value to a level that is not profitable for existing studios.
  • Aggressive price discounting resulting in lower profitability at all price points.
  • Bridal magazines devaluing the market by educating brides about how to reduce the price of professional photography.
  • Photographers are not educating the magazine editors and writers about realistic prices and best practices for photographers.
  • Lack of education and appreciation of the value a true professional studio provides.
  • Lack of education about how to select a suitable photographer.
  • Online bridal portals/bloggers telling brides to look for shoot-and-burn photographers and providing unrealistic ideas of what to pay for good photography and service.
  • Erosion of basic standards for a professional photographer in regards to packages, service, pricing.
  • A need to educate photographers about how to compete on service, quality and value adding rather than just on price

Some of these issues are not particularly new, as wedding photography has always been a highly competitive area, but the current market conditions are putting even more downward pressure on the value of the industry as a whole. All segments of the photography market are in danger of being devalued.

So what are the solutions?

As a long term project, the AIPP initiative of educating photographers and clients on best practices is a very worthwhile initiative.
In addition, all photographers who advertise in bridal magazines and on bridal web portals should be discussing the true value of wedding photography with the editors and writers.

It was pointed out that one of the most powerful motivators for the magazines is their advertising revenue, so photographers who advertise with the magazines are most able to effect change in this area. These photographers are to be encouraged to engage in positive dialogue with their magazine contacts and ask them to help ‘develop' the wedding photography industry by including editorial that educates brides about the value of good photography and why they should feel good about paying for it.

Care has to be taken about how we talk to our colleagues and competitors about pricing. It is against the law to fix prices, so let's talk instead about competing with increasing levels of service, product, customer experience, perception of value, reputation etcetera.

The AIPP will prepare a press release for all the major bridal magazines outlining what brides can expect to pay and what to look for in a professional photographer.

Whether this is the solution or not, I'm not sure. Have a read of some comments from three other photographers.

Portrait Reputations

Carol Gibbons M.Photog. runs a successful portraiture studio in northern Sydney. Operating for more than a decade, she has grown from the ‘newcomer' to one of the more established studios in her area.

What concerns Carol is how some photographers are treating the portraiture market - and how the market is responding. "A lot of people are not using portrait photographers because they fear they will be ripped off and they are worried about high-pressure sales tactics.

"One of my clients told me how a friend of hers was ‘kept' in a very hot room and told images of her family would be deleted forever unless she bought them. She spent way more than she wanted to and felt a lot of pressure.

"I know it can be difficult to get some clients to make up their mind. We don't want to be chasing them for six months to make a decision, but similarly we can't expect all of them to make up their mind in six seconds. There's a balance. You want to encourage clients in a nice way."

Carol explains it's all about trust and this trust has been greatly tarnished by the plethora of free giveaways with third party promotions.
Another client told Carol she received a voucher from a professional photography studio to the value of $800, but this only bought a single 11x14-inch unframed print.

"That's not a lot to get for $800, but my main issue is whether the client had a good experience. In this case the client didn't because there was a lot of pressure put on her to purchase more prints and when she didn't, things turned sour."

Carol sees these marketing techniques adversely affecting her own business. "I had one client say she almost didn't visit me because a friend had told her that all photography studios apply pressure sales tactics. How many other people have decided not to come at all? This is really bad for our industry. The AIPP logo says ‘Trusted in Photography' but unfortunately that's not the experience many people get."

Carol says most of the high pressure photographers are not in the AIPP, and that she is also aware of several business coaches encouraging photographers to use third-party promotions. "But it's not the third party promotion that's the issue, it's how the photographers are treating their customers.

"Personally, I find people will spend more if they actually want photography in the first place, rather than winning a free $500 voucher which they don't actually need. This isn't to say third party promotions don't work - obviously they do - but we risk devaluing the portrait market."
With so many people giving away a sitting and a free print, even if it is valued at $500 or more, the market will learn to just sit back and wait rather than actively searching out a good photographer.

"I'm lucky I have a loyal customer base, but even people who visit me every year have succumbed to a free voucher when they bought a boat or a car. They come back the following year and tell me my work is much better, but I've missed out on a sale in the meantime.

"One lady said she had three vouchers for free portrait sessions and that she was going to try all three and then maybe buy something more from the best one. She was very open about it, but I'm sure this isn't what the business coaches had in mind when they set these schemes up."

Carol also does third party promotions, but with businesses that are more closely aligned like childrens wear and toy stores. "A gym isn't a bad idea either, but it's harder to see the relationship between portraiture and a real estate agent or a car yard. Even if you change your credit card from one bank to another you can get a free portrait session, but this only seems to be devaluing our market."

Carol acknowledges that there have been free sittings and free prints for many, many years and while this can devalue what we do, the big issue is how we deal with our clients and what we tell them.

"We're very open with our clients. We tell them we hope they love the photos so much they will want to buy more of them, but there needs to be a desire for portraiture in the first place.

"And if the free portrait sitting is spoiled by a high-pressure sales session afterwards, then eventually the industry will get a bad reputation.

Perhaps we already have.

"I've attended a few seminars recently where photographers explain how they are getting out of weddings and into portraiture because the profit is better, and I think, ‘Oh, not another one'. Rather than concentrating on the sales techniques, perhaps we should be focusing on good photography, customer services, building trust and educating people about the value of a good family portrait.

"Some photographers say they don't like kids or weddings; others have said that clients are just walking dollar signs. I don't think all of your clients have to be your best friends, but surely we need to treat our clients with more respect than this. This sort of attitude can only give us a bad name."

You can spend your money on advertising and use high pressure sales techniques, but eventually you'll run out of market. Portrait photography is a long term game. If people like what you do, they will recommend you and your business will grow. "I don't know how many referrals these promotions produce, but I'd hate our profession to become a used car yard. I feel we're in danger of being taken over by lead generation systems."

Wedding Manners

Are photographers really as blunt and rude as Carol has experienced? Here's a letter from Barry Gittens, AAIPP which suggests the issue is more widespread than we might wish.

"Recently, I received an inquiry from a couple on a tight budget regarding wedding photography. They told me they were looking at AIPP members and sent emails to various studios stating their budgeted amount.

"Several responses were encouraging, some were polite refusals, but some were dismissive and others downright rude and arrogant. The couple was quite clearly upset and confused by the latter responses.

"One AIPP member actually sent them an email requesting that they send the names of the photographers who quoted them the low priced figures.

"Most couples who embark on the journey of obtaining quotes for their wedding day have no idea about the costs involved. They only find out by asking and the last thing they need is a rude response from some bristly egotist. If the budgeted amount they have is inadequate, it's our job to inform them politely and suggest they allocate more funds if they wish to have quality photography. Alternatively, the studio may offer a coverage that can be done for a lower price, or simply refer them to other members who may be interested in taking on the job.

"The photographer who dismissed them so rudely might, if he were polite, have interviewed them and convinced them to spend more. A successful businessman once said to me, "You can't upgrade what you haven't got."

Meeting The Market

Malcolm Mathieson, M.Photog., FAIPP, Past National AIPP President, heard about the recent meeting and offered these observations:

Photographers need to remind themselves that we are in business, and that business is numbers and not art!

It appears that many in wedding photography would like to live in a dream world where they set the price for their work and marketplace says yes. The arrogance of this approach astounds me. The simple fact is that the people we sell to will set what we charge and if they decide we are too expensive, they stop spending.

The world has changed, the ‘shoot-and-burn' wedding is now a reality and prices are being squeezed, but this doesn't justify the ego-driven breast-beating by some wedding photographers who feel that the sky is falling and that something must be done. Perhaps they should take a cold shower and look outside their studio into the real world.

This is the world where their clients live. It is time many photographers stopped trying to flog clients what they believe they should have and started listening to what clients really want.

There is a belief that we can educate the market. If the AIPP has the money to educate anyone, it should start with the members who believe that they can educate clients to want something from yesterday at yesterday's prices. It is the industry that must adapt and change, not our clients.

For years photographers have been able to charge prices set by our ability to produce something the general public could not produce themselves. When the ‘formal' style of wedding photography was replaced with a more journalistic style, the differences between the professional and the rest narrowed. Then along came digital and the differences became even less and the cost of taking hundreds of images to get a few dropped to almost nothing. The only expense is time, something the non-professional does not value.

Albums and print presentation have added to the perceived value of our work, but then along came digital books. Harvey Norman and others have grabbed this opportunity and now today's clients say, "I want files to do it myself".

Ask builders and other tradesmen about the "do it yourself" revolution. Have a look at your television lifestyle shows: they are all about do-it-yourself, save-a-buck and have some input in what you do. Why should photography be any different, just because we are ‘artists'?

As much as I admit events like APPA do wonders for standards of imagery in our industry, they also need to be held accountable for the ego building where far too many photographers believe their own marketing bullshit. Yes, there are a few individuals who have artistic skills, but you can count them on your fingers and toes; the rest of us have to face the reality of dealing with the general public and what they want to buy.

If you cannot give people what they want for what they are prepared to pay, then go and find a job because your business will dry up.

Over the years I have seen many photography businesses close and these days they are closing faster than ever. Sure, new ones spring up and fill the spaces, but they too have to understand the market. The studios that survive realise that they need to sell a product that people want and produce it in such a way they can make a profit. These studios survive and grow, the rest die as they always have and will.

Will these same photographers tell Kodak that just because the staff loved Kodachrome that Kodak should have kept making it? The world changed and the product is no more.

Today's clients want something different to yesterday's and no doubt tomorrow's. It is our role to provide that. If we cannot, they will spend their money on something else and we will have no business.

It's that simple.

What's The Answer?

So what are the solutions for wedding and portrait photographers? A difficult question, but perhaps a couple of observations will help.

First, the wedding market. I am told there are between 100,000 and 120,000 weddings each year in Australia, yet professional photographers only photograph about 20 percent of them.

The AIPP has around 1000 members who shoot weddings and the average number of weddings shot per studio (as per our benchmarking survey in 2007) is 30 per year. So let's be generous and say that out of the 100,000 weddings each year, only half engage a professional photographer.

This statistic is a huge lead for our market - think of the potential.

However, now for the hard question: why doesn't the other half of the market hire a professional photographer already? One answer might be price (i.e. too much). Another (as postulated by Malcolm Mathieson) might be because we're not offering the market what it wants.

While lots of photographers are up in arms against the ‘shoot-and-burn' mentality, this isn't really the issue. Some photographers want to charge for a service that some people don't want to buy. A high end wedding takes at least 40-hours to produce; shoot-and-burn weddings can take as little as three hours. The photographer who charges $500 for a three hour service is often earning more per hour than someone charging $5000 and including a wedding album. However, while the $5000 wedding photographer can survive on 40 weddings a year, the $500 photographer needs to shoot two or three times this many - and given the market statistics just outlined, I think there's a market.

Do I like the way the market is heading? That's not the right question. Do I want to stay in business is far more relevant and, if so, how do we offer the market what it wants without jeopardising the profitability of what we already do?

I think traditional wedding photographers need to revisit the market and find out what their customers want. Personally, I believe young people getting married need a paper-based wedding album so they have something to hand down to their children. A DVD is unlikely to be a valued heirloom in the same way - but this is my personal view. What does the market think and want?

So, in addition to the AIPP producing a website that tells the market what they should have in terms of professional photography, I believe we should also be surveying the market - a market that is already speaking with its wallet and not purchasing wedding photography.

Please don't take this rambling as a negative against wedding photography. Just as Eric Victor in the last issue asked some hard questions of commercial photographers, so am I asking domestic photographers to look at the world with fresh eyes. If it hasn't changed, it is changing.
Taking a leaf out of Eric's comments, the days of a commercial photographer working full time as a photographer could be numbered. Similarly, a shoot-and-burn wedding photographer might work as a soccer coach in the winter and earn a very comfortable living between his two careers. It is dangerous to view the future based solely on what we have known in the past, and with technology making photography so accessible to so many people, we must expect there to be more operators in the market forever!

The question for AIPP members and online readers of this newsletter is how do we set ourselves apart from the competition.

Remember, we don't even address the majority of the market. Yet.


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