I might be easy, but…
…I’m not cheap, as the saying goes! There seems to be lots of noise at the moment about how professional photographers are fed up being asked to work for free or peanuts!! Normally I wouldn’t wade into these types of discussions, because I think I’m a bit of an anomaly in this space, but I do have some observations for those of you interested in sticking around to hear my ramblings (and this one could get long’ish, we’ll see…). So read on!!
I’m not the first shooter to muse on the challenges of being a professional photographer. And I’m sure I won’t be the last. Originally it was the old film guys, standing up on their soapboxes lamenting the demise of film due to the cheap availability of digital. But as we’ve all seen, film isn’t dead at all – in fact, with the amazing success of The Impossible Project (against all the odds), some people would argue film is just as important as ever. Just because someone can buy an entry level DSLR does not make them a photographer. So, for the most part, we got over the hurdle of film being killed by digital…
Onto the next hurdle, and the topic of today’s ramble – now that everyone has purchased their entry level DSLR, professional photographers are angsty that these wannabe pro’s are devaluing the photography industry with their cheap or free offers. I got onto this topic as a result of a mini-trend in blog and forum posts of late, including this entertaining one from professional photographer Tony Sleep (in the UK) who “no longer replies to [no budget inquiries] except by linking to this text“. If you want a little more, Chase Jarvis also wrote about shooting for free and David Hobby (aka Strobist) wrote a similar article (both in 2008 when the US economy was in the sub-prime hole and working for free would have seemed like a completely ridiculous idea!).
The premise behind the views in these articles is the notion that free/super cheap photography is actually devaluing the photography industry!! Much like high quality film was being slapped around by that crappy cheap digital, so too are amateurs (wannabe pros?) with a website beating a path to all professional photographers’ clients’ doors – and winning the work!! I find this topic much more interesting to discuss because (IMHO) both the pros and amateurs are making a whole bunch of assumptions. I’ve tried to summarise a few of the key ones here (but there are plenty more).
Free or cheap photography devaluing the photography industry is a fallacy because:
- It assumes that all images are equal (which they’re not);
- It assumes all clients want to pay zero, or close to zero (which they don’t);
- It assumes all clients can’t tell the difference between photographers (most can, but may choose to ignore);
- It assumes all photographers can market themselves equally well (which they don’t – this one is important); and
- It assumes all clients are the same in each of their respective niches (which they’re not).
Each one is an entire discussion on its own, and I’m only scratching the surface. But I do want to pick out a couple that are more interesting and worthy of examination:
All Images are Equal
Sure they are – just ask a wedding photographer who nails a “keep rate” upwards of 40% from anywhere between 400 and 4000 images (yes some shoot more and some less, this post is not about that!). My point is simple – one person in the crowd absolutely nails a show-stopper, and suddenly the happy couple thinks they’re getting better value from the crowd for free than from their pro shooter!!
Pro wedding photographers might think to themselves “the crowd is not my competition, the $500 wedding shooter is”. Interesting point – so what makes you so different from them? You charge more, obviously – but why? Because you’re better? Perhaps… because you have experience (now we’re getting somewhere); because you’re keep rate is >40%? (on the right track); because you understand what goes into creating great wedding images and you’re not a “spray and pray” shooter? Because you have a unique and identifiable style that is your “product” that people will pay good money for??
All of these are “differentiators” – things that make you different from the cheap provider, things that remind the customer there’s a reason you cost more… which leads nicely to the next point!
Photographers are equally good at business, at marketing, etc
Most aren’t – fact. Disagree? Buy and read The E-Myth Revisted or go to the website. In no time at all you’ll realise that being a good cook does not mean you’ll be a successful restaurateur! Photographers are the same – being a great shooter who creates magic images that cause people to collapse in the street will not mean your business succeeds if you have no idea how to run the whole thing!! Just ask Peter Lik – how many photographers do you know selling their images to art collectors for $20k a piece, with around 14 international galleries and turning over in excess of $US 400m in revenue? Sure, he’s a great panorama photographer, but he is clearly a spectacular businessman (or was smart enough to get people around him who are…)
Why did I pick those two fallacies over all the various reasons a client may pick your competition over you? Because they are the two that photographers need to remember when they fall into the trap of being emotional about their circumstances and not objective about their “photography business”. There’s nothing special about the points I make above, they affect all service industries! We could just as easily talk about image retouchers (off-shore vs based here); or consulting (large reputable firm vs one-man contractor); or car mechanics (Porsche or Kia); or hotels (the W vs a hostel). The kicker example I love discussing with photographers relates to how they would pick their own wedding photographer – can’t take the images themselves, they have to pick someone!! So, would they pick on price, quality, service, coverage, all/none of the above? More importantly, how would they get that kind of information…. got a light bulb yet?
Photographers continually fall into the trap of whining about why they lost a booking to a guy who was cheaper – maybe they did, or maybe the client was only after bargain basement and perhaps they weren’t a good client to have anyway? Or perhaps bargain basement photographer is actually trying to muscle in on your turf and deliberately setting prices low to get your business – who knows!! While competitive information is important in all businesses, price wars (in simple terms) are the path to hell!
So you’re left with two choices – sulk in your cave and hope that the problem will magically go away (unlikely), or you could differentiate!! You need to be shouting from the rooftops why your clients are ecstatic about the quality and service and experience and value for money and friendliness and service and quality and experience and… you get my drift. I’m a big fan of FAQs – wedding photographers should have something on their websites along the lines of “Top 10 questions to ask your cheap wedding photographer” and then provide information for potential customers on how they should separate the hacks from the quality. Joe customer isn’t going to know what to ask – you have to help them, take them on that journey that naturally leads you to getting more sales…
I’ve rambled enough, and this is a massive topic – and the reason I have a lot to say is not because I’m a photographer! It’s because I’m a business owner and I’ve spent the last 15 years either starting businesses or working for pure services businesses. Either way, photographers should take a good hard look at other service businesses that are successful outside of photography (to remove the emotional attachment element), and dig in to find out what makes some service businesses more successful than others.
Certainly couldn’t hurt!