Surviving this market…..

Richard Charpentier Economics, Notes from Rich, Photography, Portrait Work, RLC Design 8 Comments

Recently a friend of mine sent along an article that was a worthwhile read.  “The Photography business and the American Dream.”  Before you read on today in my post, go read this sobering post by Laurence Kim.  If you’re into the photography marketplace at all you’ll get something out of his post.  Now, go read, then come back and we can continue our little digitized conversation……..

Assessing where I’m at for a number of reasons

While on the “big trip” into Utah I spent a good deal of time pondering next moves, growing the business, and getting beyond just survival mode.  It’s been a long road building my photo / giclee business from the ground up.  And it hasn’t been easy.  2.5 years of spending down my personal savings, a business that paid for itself but nothing more while seeing me work 50+ hours per week for no direct return.  Hey, small business in a down economy.  I get it.

But now we’re into the third year.  Things need to get to profitable.  Otherwise I should really consider something else.

That’s where a phone call came in yesterday.  All friend from the wireless days needing someone who knows how to build a national network from the ground up.  Hey, that’s me!  An interesting proposition, and someone else would be writing me a check……Mmmmm….I remember checks coming to me……

Beyond yesterday’s phone call I’ve been pondering next steps for a while.  We’re coming up on post #1000 here at the Chronicles.  And reading back I remember how this whole venture started and my hopes and plans for where the business would be in 3 years.  The 3 year mark is right around the corner, hopes dreams and plans be damned, we are where we are.

So, what am I seeing out there on the horizon?  A tough road ahead still.  But growth as well.

Prices going up all over

My medical insurance premiums are going up.  The Airstream insurance has gone up year after year.  My auto insurance, even though I’m a super safe driver, has gone up.  Repairs to the Titan this week were shockingly expensive.  Same grocery list, massive inflation in the cost over the past 4 years.  And then there’s gas prices… costs go up, the price of everything else goes with it as it takes energy to manufacture and deliver everything we use.

In addition to costs going up all over the place on the personal home based front, there’s costs going up on the business front.  I ordered a bunch of supplies today and discovered that prices are increasing dramatically.  Shipping costs, media costs, all going up.  Several items I use in print reproduction have increased so much that my current prices reflect me giving away product.

So, today I had to raise prices on many types of media I use.  Can’t be helped.  Unless I want to be a charitable organization donating my time to my clients.  Somehow I don’t think you’ll believe for a minute that’s why I went into business.

The print business, while busy lately, has super slim margins.  If inputs are going up I too have to roll with inflation (don’t mention the Federal Reserve to me, I’m a former economist I know the tricks) and raise prices too.  Only sane step available to keep swimming.  My prices are going up…..

Expanding into other markets?  It’s hard to compete with free

In Laruence’s post it’s pointed out that the photography market has 0 barriers to entry.  It’s not hard to get into the game.  And I can tell you from personal observation, everybody’s getting into the game.  I have a unique vantage point in town, and I can see it first hand for myself.  The Whiskey Row Alleyway is a popular photography spot.

Each week I see dozens (not kidding) of photographers with people shooting in the alleyway.  Shiny new digital SLRs with kit lenses and pop up flashes.  High School seniors getting their portraits done against the brick walls, against red walls of a plaza, sitting near milk crates, etc.  New photographer faces show up every week.  Of course there are a few pros I’m friends with out there shooting as well.  When I see them I don’t cringe, I know they’ll be doing good work for their clients.  But when I see the folks fresh to the fight I wonder what the results will be.

Actually I’ve seen the results time and again.  I’ve found so many photographer websites for this region.  Using black & white to cover up for a bad job with color, blown out images, clients in dark shadows with a bright sun behind them, and then there’s the folks who found the saturation slider and automated vignettes!  The whole range of what not to do to a portrait client is available for you to see in portfolios……

Now I’ve been working on portraits for a year and a half.  And I’ve finally started selling my services because I think I can do a good job for clients now.  One and one half years ago I didn’t think that at all.  I sucked at shooting people, and I knew it.  That’s why I went on my learning jag.  Off camera lighting, posing, portrait techniques.  And while learning all of it I didn’t pretend for a moment that I should even try to charge folks for the service…..

Here I am ready to get to it now and I find myself facing a difficult road.  A few pros around who really know their stuff and demand real compensation (good for them), and then there’s the “Sea of Free.”

Now some time ago Zack Arias did a great post on cheap photographers only hurting themselves, not the industry.  While I agree with many of his points I do have to say that the person who just got a DSLR and is now selling themselves as a pro for free or nearly nothing does have an impact.  I’ve had many clients (print clients) tell me, “Oh, so and so has offered to do our portrait session for free.”  Ah well then, good luck to ya.  If I need to fix it in Photoshop after for you (which happens OFTEN) I’m gonna charge ya, oh yeah!

So, how do I market against free?  And further, how do I market against the standard portrait model?  That model is interesting.  A low sitting fee, a contract where the client is bound to order a certain dollar amount of prints, the prints are sold at a steeply elevated rate, and the clients don’t have access to their photos except through the studio.  That is the model.  And I have clients regularly come in with prints from other photographers that need fixing and reprinting.  Uh, photographer’s copyright, not mine or the client’s.

For me, I’m somewhere in the middle.  I don’t do free.  I charge a specific hourly rate to non-commercial clients.  When we’re done they get a disk along with a specified number of edits.  They’re not committed to printing with me through a contract.  If they do print with me I charge them my standard print rates ($6.40 per 8×10 for example).  They can bring their images elsewhere if they like.  “Your Memories.  Your Moment.  You Own It.”  That’s my little motto.  Still, most consumers don’t understand the low sitting fees are nuked by the contracted print dollar value, nor do they get the fact the prints are resold to them at a steep markup.

For example.  I’ve been shopping around on the net for Northern Arizona Photographers.  The rates I’ll mention next are for someone not in my area.  I know many of the folks here, they do great work, and they’ve got reasonable contracts.  But the pricing I’m about to talk about is standard for many portrait photographers.  $75 sitting fee (what a bargain).  $350 minimum print commitment.  By the way, 8×10’s are $40 each.  So, that gets you almost nine 8×10 prints.  Hmmmm……  The number one complaint I’ve read on reviews?  “Read the contract with photographer X before signing.”  There’s the model.

So, can’t work for free, and not going to have complex contracts.  How the heck do you sell that?

So where’s all this going?

Ah, there’s the million dollar question.  I’m still working it out.  My landscape is pretty simple:

  • Print business is slowly growing.  Pretty clear to me I’m one of the absolute best color matchers for paintings in the West.  I’m adding famous painter after famous painter to my list of clients.  Their print needs in this down economy isn’t super though.  Right now this side of the business is what pays rent in the office and at home.  There’s no money for savings, building capital for future big equipment purchases, etc.  Treading water, but not drowning.
  • Commercial shoots, while great, are few and far between.  I’ve done several.  Super happy clients each time.  But getting the word out there isn’t super easy.  Most of my time is spent on the print business trying to stay afloat.
  • Portrait work holds some potential to move me forward combined with my current offerings.  The trouble is finding that niche between the Freebies out there and the established portrait photographers.  I think I’ve got some very unique views to offer, but the marketing has me stumped.
  • The option to go back to network engineering and get myself out of debt and the ship righted within 2 months is certainly appealing.  But after all of this extreme imaging eduction it would be sad to pack up the tent prematurely.  Still, I do miss walking into the Apple store and dropping $5K like I was spending $5…….  🙂

Whatever the end result, it’ll be posted here.  So keep reading along.

One final note:

I keep referring to “Pro” photographers in this post, and I really want to define it.  From what I’ve been told, a professional photographer is:

Someone who makes more than 50% of their income from photography.

Just wanted to make sure nobody was getting insulted out there.  Being a pro isn’t about your skill level (although skillz help) or the like.  Not about the gear you use.  It’s about getting paid for the work you do.  Pro Golfers are pro and get paid.  Same with pro athletes.  You might be great at baseball, but if you’re not paid to do it then it isn’t your PROfession. No slight on anyone, just wanted to clarify!  🙂


Comments 8

  1. Oh, and I can totally see the seduction of the job offer….. I’ve been almost three years without that paycheck too.

  2. Post

    LOL Carlos. Thanks for passing along the link.

    I love pay checks Carlos. I have some time to weigh my options, but will be thinking long and hard. In the end we all need to earn a living!

  3. Post

    Woah Carlos! I plugged my numbers into the NPPA cost calculator. Actually used my real numbers from the business and my current state. In order to pay myself $40K per year pre tax I need to more than double my current business!

    Sobering. I like how it breaks it out to what you need to make per day. My target is $357 per day average in a 5 day work week to achieve the goal……Whew, got some work ahead of me.

  4. Or you need to do roughly the same amount of business but raise your prices. You think you’re competing with the low cost printers, but if you were you wouldn’t be getting all the artists coming to you because of your color matching abilities. You’re selling a premium product at commodity prices and the only way to survive at commodity prices is to spend less time on each one and do more of them.

    And you wouldn’t have to come anywhere near doubling your prices if that’s the route you took.

  5. Tough and honest analysis of the business. Thanks for sharing it. It appear that you did your best to stay focused on the subject, but your mind was going all directions.
    Take care of yourself first, and you can get back to this later. Not to say dump photography and your printing completely, just that it may not ‘in this financial market’ be the main source, to take care of your long term financial goals.

  6. Interesting topic. Of the local and Phx area pro (using your definition) photographers that I know, weddings bring in most of their revenue. Personally, I would not want that kind of stress but I’m a hobbyist photographer with a geeky day job.

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