The immediate response was overwhelming.
More than 150 of you sent emails saying “yes” to my inquiry as to whether I ought to start “a survival stories” section on this web site. My web developer, Nina Sossen, who knows a lot more about web site interaction than I do, tells me that statistically, the letters represent very strong support for the idea.
So, I’m going to do it. And, I’m going to do it now — even though I’m not sure whether the form will remain constant or whether it will morph into a separate but connected blog.
The basic idea is simple. This new area will be a place to talk about the “business” side of photography.
Those of you who have been reading my work for the last few years know that I’ve spent most of my time writing about the “artistic” and “technical” sides of the endeavor. That’s what I like to do. It’s probably what I do best. I’ll not stop doing that.
But, it’s clear to me, that in this funky economy we have to talk more about survival — and this will be the place where we do that.
The fence that separates “business” and “art” is artificial. There is no conflict between the two. It is a false dichotomy.
Because, without “art” there can be no business. And, as many are learning, without “business” one cannot continue to produce art.
I think that false dichotomy may be at the root of the problems many of us are facing.
We see ourselves as “artists” not “marketers” or “sales people.”. We love to create. We hate selling. We put our time into becoming better artists and ignore the need to become better business people. Why? Because we want to do what we love doing. And, most of us took up photography for the creative rush, not because we wanted to market and sell.
But, market and sell we must — especially in these tough times.
As money becomes tight, what we do is seen as “discretionary” spending. Photography gets the red pencil because it is not seen as a “necessity of life.”
Until, we need a picture of a loved one for a funeral. Or to remind us of special times. Or to brighten our homes and lives. Often, when we see the need, it is too late to create the image. Our loved ones are gone. The moments have passed. And, we realize that we really should have recorded them, for all time.
It is our job to make people understand the importance of what we do. In simple economic terms, we need to create “demand” for our products.
That’s what marketing and selling are all about.
It’s about getting ourselves in front of the right people and teaching them to value what we do. It’s about getting them to let us share and record those moments. And, it’s about selling them our work — closing the deal, getting paid, fairly, for what we have done — so that we can continue to do it.
I define marketing as the stuff we do to get customers. I see the shoot and post production as the “art” side. And, selling as the way we make sure we get paid, fairly, for what we have done. They are all one and the same thing — being a professional photographer.
We will talk about all of these things in this space.
We will talk about how we can survive in this down market — a market which, increasingly, has spawned the worst type of competition — price competition.
As artists, we’d prefer to have decisions made by clients who compare our work to that of others — not by clients who don’t care about the quality of our work or don’t know how to evaluate it and, therefore, simply compare our rate cards to those of our competitors.
No one wins a price competition. Not the consumer who often gets a product of poor quality — because it costs more to do it right. And, not the photographers involved in the price fight who often make less on a shoot than they would if they were working at a McDonald’s.
How do we survive the black hole of price competition? Let’s talk about it here.
That’s pretty much been my business philosophy for as long as I can remember.
What does that mean in this context?
It means that we are in this together. If we make the tide rise, we will all succeed. If we cannot, we will all run aground.
And, that’s why I don’t find it productive to have internal battles. There is a lot of anger out there. Hostility and jealousy. In general terms, it’s not productive.
Complaints about “moms with cameras,” in addition to being demeaning of many very good photographers who are also mothers, take us nowhere; they, too, want to work in an economic environment where they can flourish. And, where they are paid fairly.
Whether one who does not have a studio can be considered a “professional photographer” takes us nowhere. Unfortunately, in this economy many cannot carry the overhead of a studio space and are either shooting from their homes, on location, or renting studios when needed. They, too, want an environment where they can flourish.
I think the essence of these complaints is a belief that those who do the work “part time,” or don’t have the overhead that studio photographers have, are creating the price competition by offering their work for unreasonably low prices. (I have also seen the finger pointed at studio owners who, as the belief holds, desperate to hold onto a “dinosaur business model” are cutting their prices to get work to support their “bloated overhead”.) Neither set of allegations moves the ball forward.
Whether or not these allegations are true is an empirical question. I’ve not been able to find any numbers to support or deny them.
However, it is clear that the finger pointing is not productive. It does nothing to increase the demand for our work. It does nothing to make the tide rise. And, if the tide does not rise, we will all be left on high ground.
So let’s try to make the tide rise. And let’s discuss how to do it here.
In my eyes, for the tide to rise:
1. All photographers who sell their work must attain high standards of proficiency. Poor results sour the consumer base. Unfortunately, all professions suffer the stigma created by the least skilled in the trade. If our clients begin to believe that they can do better work than we do, they will not hire us. We must be noticeably better and we must differentiate our work from that achieved by consumers who own the same cameras we do. I’ve written extensively about differentiation — doing the things that our friends and neighbors cannot do — be it perfect lighting and posing or doing using tools they do not own or have not mastered, like the Lensbaby, or post-production software, like the stuff from onOne, Imagenomic, and Nik. To survive, we need to create images that don’t look like those that come out of their cameras.
2. We must educate the public to see the beauty in and appreciate good photography. If they cannot tell the difference between what we do and what they can get for free or for rock bottom prices, why will they pay more for our work?
3. We must price our work in ways that reflect our investment in time and materials; we must seek a fair return. I know it is tempting, in bad times, to cut our bids so low that we either barely make or lose money — just to get the job. But, we really have to wonder whether that job is worth getting. And, I firmly believe that we are only as good as our last quote. Once we underbid, it is hard to get back to fair pricing. After all, we are the ones who diminished the value of what we do; by cutting our prices to ridiculously low amounts, we are telling the consumers how little we value our work.
4. We must learn to adapt to the new paradigm — the one in which many consumers don’t care about “prints” and/or have the ability to knock off our work. This is an odd time. My guess is that more people are looking at images in an electronic format than are printing and displaying them. Until we explain to people the value of prints, and the danger of “electronic” storage, we will not be selling a lot of prints. And, this is a time where, with scanners, it’s not all that hard to copy what we have done, we might question whether a model based on selling prints is viable. We may want to think about different economic models, like charging for our time as opposed to charging by the print. Either way, we have to explain the law of copyright to our clients in a non-threatening way; if they understand our rights, most will respect them. And, when they don’t, as an industry we have to enforce them.
5. We must market like it matters, because it does. Sitting back and waiting for business to come will not work, now, if it ever did.
6. And, we must sell. It does no good to book a client, do a great shoot, produce some incredible images, if we cannot get people to pay for them. Spending hours to sell a couple of 8×10′s won’t cut it.
I’ll continue to work hard on #1 in other sections of this site.
Numbers 2-6 will be the substance of “Survival Stories.”
I’m not sure exactly where this will go or how we will make it happen. But, for now, here’s what I’m thinking:
This will be a place where we speak to each other — through articles or comments.
I’ve already started contacting some of my friends and have been asking them if they’d write some articles on selling and marketing to stimulate discussion here.
Last week, I got an email from a reader who told me about a loan program that might be good for photographers. I’m going to follow up by interviewing her and reporting what I learn here.
If it is going to work, it has to be a dialogue. Some of you have offered to write short pieces for me to post. I know others will add depth by commenting.
In your recent emails, many of you have expressed frustration, pain and anger. I expect our dialogue here to be passionate. We are talking about things that cut to the bone — our ability to do what we love and to support ourselves doing it.
Passion is perfect. From discussions come answers. There is no “party line” or set answer here. For example, you may disagree with me about “part timers” or those without studios. That’s fine, state you point. Disagreements stimulate discussions. To move forward we have to make sure we are building on solid ground. Often, it takes some digging to find the bedrock.
There will be but one rule: Play Nice. Simply stated, if you disagree with someone, do it respectfully. That’s it. Let’s be vibrant and passionate in a respectful manner.
Let’s start the discussion with your comments on this post. Let me know whether this is what you want and where you think we should go. Have comments on what I wrote? Post them. Have ideas for future topics? Post them. Have other thoughts you want to share? Post them. Want to add to something someone else has said? Use the “Reply” function. For this to work, it needs to be a dialogue. No one person has all the answers. The more who join in, the better this section will be.
I look forward to seeing where the discussion takes us.
P.S. The content here will probably be more dynamic than the normal substantive content. It might change on a daily basis. Some of you have figured out a way to get notifications when things here change; would someone please put up a comment teaching me, and others, how to do this?
We are going into the Holiday Season and I’ll be out of state for a while. I want to get this started now but expect it to really take off after the New Year.
(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2009)