What do I mean by the business of photography?
If the act of picking up a camera and pressing the shutter makes a person a photographer then I’m broadly ok with that, At least they are taking photographs. But what defines a photographer these days?
A practising photographer, sustaining a living out of photography must be involved in a lot of other activities, it is these that I refer to as the “business of photography”.
In the UK Photography is a $1.2 billion industry in 2022. (IbisWorld) For comparison the Hospitality Industry was $53 billion over the same period and when we say Photography that includes every aspect of the industry from retail through to actual photographers.
The average working photographer makes £27,500 pa in the UK or £14 an hour. The newest Canon R5 Camera costs €4,559. This is not a get rich quick profession!
The money in photography is no longer attached to the pictures you take, it’s attached to the business of photography, selling kit, education, sponsorship and services. Having said that, it is still the quality of the images that enables the other income streams in most cases, although there are exceptions.
For that reason, I thought it would be useful to look at the activities a photographer needs to get involved in, other than taking pictures.
You need to insure your kit and in most countries, as a professional you need to have public liability insurance at the very minimum. If you fly a drone the complexity gets worse as drones aren’t insurable on a photographic insurance policy yet.
As a photographer you have to be your own lawyer, accountant, marketer, coffee maker and assistant.
Why do accounts matter? Well, if you want to make a living, you need to understand your market, set your prices sustainably and budget for new kit, education, marketing materials and so on. You need to understand the meaning of the phrase “cost of doing business” calculate it for a year and use it to set your prices. Figures don’t lie, if you make less than you spend, you don’t have a business, you have an expensive hobby. If you mkae more then an accountant will help you keep the money you earn.
Basic Cashflow Example
|36 Photoshoots @ £400||£14400|
This table demonstrates just how hard it is to make money as a photographer. This photographer will need to make some hard choices if they are to eat or buy clothes! Put the price of the sessions up and you may lose clients, close the studio and you may lose more clients. You need to be adaptable and creative to survive.
The answer I found was to diversify into Web Design and Digital Marketing. I already had the skills and all of my photographic income was derived from e-commerce shoots. I quickly discovered the scale of the challenges faced by those people commissioning me. This one decision effectively tripled my income in a single year.
There are other ways, do you really need a studio for example? Or dipping into another niche for your photography. Providing Education is fun if you like teaching and Podcasts are great if you like the sound of your own voice.
Those are the essential outgoings, now lets look at the stuff you need to do to make yourself competitive as a working photographer.
Costs of Competing
Because of the cost of hiring a photographer, in the beginning your paid photography will be mostly local. This is because if you charge for example £400 a day then adding a £100 train ticket makes a critical difference.
So research the competition, find out where their strengths and weaknesses are and position yourself accordingly. Use Google, check out their website and find out who their clients are. To compete, you have to be perceived as being better than they are in the niche you have chosen.
Tip. Only choose the battles you can win.
I used this technique very successfully in the UK. This was around six years ago. I decided to major in 360° Photography and created a visually stunning example at Christmas for Rosie’s Emporium for no fee. This is the only circumstance where I would consider working for nothing. If you approach the client and deliver top quality work they will be your best PR.
I used the first shoot to get more shoots, this time paid and floated the idea of a business directory website where for a yearly fee, every client could get a page on the site, a 360° panorama representing their business and a half day photoshoot.
The website was a great success, we more or less broke even on costs but we got an interview on local radio and the jobs started to roll in. My name was mud amongst local photographers but I’d made my own market.
Marketing comes in many forms, the three evergreens are websites, social media and mailing lists.
A lot of photographers use Squarespace for their websites. It’s a solution that works well for those who can’t build their own sites. The templates are stylish, they support e-commerce and you can practise good SEO. The downside is that a monthly fee is involved and you don’t own your own website. E-Commerce enabled websites start at €24 a month,
A rival to Squarespace is Smugmug. Pretty much the same pros and cons as Squarespace, less stylish, marginally better at commerce. Website plans start at $34 a month.
If you are technically inclined it’s much better to have your own website. Check out my article on building a photography website for some insight into how easy or difficult this is.
If you’re at the beginning of your social journey, go where your audience is. Facebook is probably a given, Twitter less so since Elon Musk took it over. Focus on a maximum of three social networks, in the UK we used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for Helter Skelter Studios.
In a sign of changing times, I now have personal accounts on 500px and Vero, plus Facebook. I’m maintaining my Twitter account as I have more than 5000 followers there, but the signs are not good, I’m looking at Mastadon as a possible replacement. I wrote a review of two new platforms – The Best Alternative to Twitter for Photographers?
Mailing Lists are the best way of marketing your services and building relationships with people that are actually interested in what you have to say. It’s hard to build from scratch, but if you provide a lot of helpful content on your site those signups will come in. I found that once I’d broken through the 50 visitors per day barrier then the signups started to happen regularly. That took around 12 months.
Don’t be tempted to buy a mailing list, you’ll only succeed in annoying people and waste a lot of money in the process.
Income Streams outside of Photography
This is where the business of photography becomes interesting. These are a collection of ideas to make money from loosely connected activities.
Publishing on the face of it is a good way to make money. Think of it as a way of selling prints that is affordable to the consumer. Books represent especially good value.
Don’t fall into the trap of paying for a print run based on guesswork. The reality of calendars is that you have maybe a three week window to sell them. December leading up to Christmas. After that you won’t give them away.
The smart way is to sell advance orders so that you print what you have already sold (and been paid for).
An excellent way of selling prints! But do it yourself. I’ve had two books (on Computer programming) published by mainstream publishers and despite one being a steady seller for around three years made virtually no money.
Far better is to self publish, gather advance orders and pack and despatch them yourself. Yes, it’s hard work, but you’ll make more money if you get the size of the print run right.
Note: To get calendar or book presales to work you have to have an audience to sell to. And this is why the business of photography is so important. Building that audience takes time, years in fact.
Investing in Photobooks
Investing in Photobooks is lucrative. Most have small print runs and after they are out of print, the value of second hand copies in good condition can increase dramatically. I have a friend who buys two copies of every photobook he likes. Keeps one and sells the other after the book is out of print. He’s turned it into a very profitable side hustle.
Almost a total waste of time. I sold more prints ten years ago than I do now. Recent sales have been to publishers for inclusion in magazines and books. The problem is changing tastes and technology. People want to see the product as it will look in their sitting room. They won’t go to the trouble of framing a print themselves and don’t necessarily trust the printing process offered by the likes of Smugmug.
Much better to oversee the printing process yourself, print on good quality paper and print large.
Even commercial photographers should try to find the time to do personal projects. When I say ‘even’, my own experience as a commercial photographer was that growing the business became a full time job and pushed personal projects out of the way.
However, personal projects put you back in touch with your inner photographer. They push you into strange areas and stretch your creative muscles.
I was a full time lecturer at the University of North London for three years. I taught multimedia technology and the only reason I left was because the internet was invented. It was obviously going to be hugely disruptive and I wanted to see where it would lead. It led me via a clutch of startups to a very lucrative career with IBM working as a consultant. But becoming a lecturer is not easy.
More directly photography related, selling courses is a reliable source of income if you have the ability to structure and write a course. It’s a crowded market and you need to build an audience, but if you enjoy the process it’s well worth doing.
In person tuition can be very profitable. We offer this in Andalucia and really the product is a specialist holiday. We have run a holiday let in Spain for around ten years now so we know how to make sure people have a fantastic time. It is very hard work, but for me, the teaching side of it is a pleasure.
There are a few YouTubers, good photographers with big followings that undoubtedly make quite respectable money out of sponsorship, advertising and connected sales of books, calendars and prints. However, these are the people that rode the crest of the wave. It’s a lot harder now to build a following unless you’ve got an original angle and are equipped to make technically excellent videos.
At minimum you’ll need a camera capable of shooting 4k, sound, including wireless lavalier mics. a drone (with license), an action camera and a gimbal to get smooth footage. That’s a £5000 investment up front and the good channels publish once a week. Oh, and unless you generate the following you won’t be able to monetise the channel via ads.
A much lower cost of entry and way less time consuming than YouTube but obviously has the disadvantage of being unable to include pictures. However, if you have a lot to say for yourself and know other photographers that will come on your podcast as guests then this can be a lot of fun.
The Business of Photography – Conclusion
Everything here is predicated on building a following. I hadn’t realised just how much social media had changed the landscape (for the better and for the worse) until I edited this article!
All of these tactics won’t work for everyone. All of them are hard work and require a modicum of skill to implement.
I haven’t really addresses the world of commissioned photography because so far as the business of photography goes it’s a different planet. Academia produces hundreds of graduates every year and the job market is tiny and very competitive. I studied at London College of Printing, one of the better institutions for photography and I’m not aware of a single person from my cohort who is still working in photography or film.
My message to everyone starting out in photography is that it is possible to be successful but to sustain success is difficult. This is where the business of photography comes in, adapt and survive.
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