The Business Side of Photography – My First Year as a Photographer

Photography is a tough business to be in.  The advent of cellphone cameras has meant the demise of staff photographers on many publications or even the demise of the actual publications.

Business PlanMost often, photography jobs are contract or freelance, paid by the job or image, or not paid at all.  The business owner who might need a few pictures for publicity doesn’t understand why these cost hundreds of dollars.  Often they wonder if the photographer should be paying them, for the opportunity to publish the work and be noticed.

Technology has, arguably, also opened the door to those without an interest in learning the technology and allowed the camera to be responsible for the quality of the work while the photographer focuses on the content of the image.  This too supports the business owner who argues “anyone can do this”.

And budgets everywhere are tight.  Instead of spending on publicity and professional photographs, many businesses and special interests are content with the cellphone images or the social media posts that others do on their behalf for free.

But there are some positives in this story.  Technology today allows photographers to concentrate on what’s really important – the final result, and minimize the time required to get there.  It’s no longer about mixing chemicals and waiting, or even about taking a chance with film and not getting the shot, it’s about making a creative choice and applying it.  In camera or in post production, the likelihood of a good outcome is much higher.  And the creative avenues for manipulating a photograph after capture are almost endless.

lightroom-full-desktopOnline tools and computer-based tools also mean that the photographer never really has to apprentice with anyone again.  There’s always an answer at their fingertips.  Oddly, when seasoned photographers started losing business, many turned to teaching and many of those turned to online course development.  So, I guess maybe in a sense, online students really are apprenticing after all.

Avenues for publicity are also exponentially greater, if more cluttered.  How many times have we seen a creative product “go viral” in the space of a day or two?  If you do something unique, it will get attention.  And that’s the key really.

Getting to the point of a unique style or signature is the goal of every photographer.  For some, it’s tough slogging for years.  For others, it’s a matter of what day of the week it is.  Some create a unique commercial style and separate that from their personal style.  For others, they are one and the same.  So far, it seems to me that those who are able to read commercial and societal trends and exploit them are those who are the most successful financially.  And most often, this requires separating commercial from personal style.  This is the real boundary between making a living or not.

I don’t have a unique style or signature as yet, either commercial or personal.  On the list.

The second revelation this year has been just how much time photographers spend on their business.  Most successful photographers shoot an average of 10% of the time.  The remainder is building relationships, negotiating with clients, adjusting work product or adjusting expectations, developing cross-pollinating opportunities like teaching or writing books, developing sponsorships, and managing staff, facilities and equipment.  A photographer is as much diplomat as technician.  They are as much personal development coach as compositor.

Nina Kirienko Photography LogoI’ve had three “commercial” opportunities this past year.  In all cases, the amount of time behind the lens was about 20%, with another 20% in post-processing.  The remaining 60% was everything described above.  And I wasn’t worried about making a living, so the negotiations were less about compensation and more about how we could help each other.  These interactions were a fantastic learning opportunity.  But I was very surprised at just how much time the non-shooting activities took.

So, I get it.  Shooting time is precious.  It doesn’t come easily.

The last revelation this year is the community of professional connections a photographer builds as they go about their business.  This includes other photographers, other creatives, supply houses, equipment vendors, model networks, location contacts, community contacts, camera club members, etc.  The number of people I’ve talked to about my schooling and business is enormous.  It’s been wonderful, especially when they share your interests and are cheering for your success.  I do have to admit, though, that few of these contacts have yet produced work for me.  But I do expect that to change with time.

It’s all about the people.

So, there you have it – style, managing the details, and building contacts.  My three pillars of success.  That’s what the next year is all about.