If you’re tired of being spoken down to, degraded, discouraged and treated like a cancer on the photography industry – this one’s for you.
PTP exists because of posts like this:
“Dear cheap-but-good photographer: you are ruining my life and this industry“, by the talented and tenacious photographer Jamie Pflughoeft of Cowbelly Pet Photography up in Seattle.
Jamie is a wonderfully talented artist, a leader in the pet photography niche. She is worth every penny she asks and her art is a true blessing to her clients, a value we should all strive to give. Let me be clear: I absolutely respect Jamie and the work she does, for her clients and fellow photographers.
But in her post, and in much of the established photography industry, there is a frustration that is violently misdirected toward startup and low-end photographers like you and me.
That discouraging voice greatly slowed my growth as a professional photographer throughout my career, and is why for five years now I’ve been writing PTP, to give startup photographers a voice of encouragement and realistic guidance as they embark on the amazing journey of becoming a working artist.
Folks, Jamie is frustrated.
As most grognards are – nobody without a fear of scarcity reacts so strongly to aggressive competition, either manifest presently or the perceived potential.
With lower barriers to entry in the portraiture industry (the digital revolution), there has been a flood of newcomers offering, as Jamie frames it, “cheap-but-good” options in every market.
Jamie, with intense frustration, contends that those cheap-but-good photographers are ruining her life and the photography industry.
Whoops…let me slip my hand up. Duly convicted.
At least by the numbers she shares in her post, which would put me easily in her classification of “what is not a profitable business for anyone, regardless of what your monthly expenses, costs-of-goods-sold or initial investment are.”
I’ve been a part time photographer for 15 years, and I’ve only had three years that weren’t bottom-line profitable: my first two, and a third in 2009 when I made a go at a retail studio space.
Every year I wasn’t profitable was because I made huge investments in equipment. If you spread that expense out over the years I’ve used it, or if you count the value of those assets, I have never had an unprofitable year.
And not just a small margin of profit. Jamie quotes a PPA benchmark of a 40.7% high-end margin. On an average year, my margins are closer to 75% conservatively – including Cost of Goods Sold, insurance, equipment repair, self-employment taxes, and additional tax preparation. All this in mind, I put in my pocket close to $60 per hour I invest in every aspect of my business from marketing to booking, shooting, sales, and follow-up.
This factually, completely invalidates the scarcity arguments the grognards make when they say if you don’t charge $X, you’re working for peanuts or at a loss.
You don’t know my expenses. You don’t know my margins. You don’t know my market. You don’t know my clientele.
So don’t tell me, or anyone else, what we should or shouldn’t charge.
Let’s bust some myths
Myth: You don’t make profit off of session fees, you make profit from selling products.
Fact: I’ve made a profit every which way, with and without session fees, with and without product sales. I’ve made a profit with all-digital flat-rate packages, I’ve made a profit with session fees and upselling in the sales session. So long as you are honestly and compassionately serving your client, there is absolutely no wrong way to do this business.
Myth: Every ‘professional photographer’ should have read the Professional Photographers of America benchmark study to know what a real photography business looks like.
Fact: But for investment years when I put 100% of my business income into equipment (most of which later I learned I never really needed), my expenses have never looked anything like what the PPA says is the average. From the beginning, what the PPA defines as the ‘ideal’ business model (high-end, boutique, luxury portraiture) has had no relevance to my boots-on-the-ground experience.
Myth: You have to work 60-80 hours a week to earn a $30,000 take-home income working full time. ‘Cheap-but-good’ photographers are most likely making $0.00 after expenses.
Fact: Even at 60 hours a week, these numbers come to $9.62 an hour pay. My take-home is $60 an hour charging what Jamie contends are unprofitable prices. I know PTP readers who are making more than I do per hour, and I know readers who are making much less – but that $10 an hour, or $20 an hour is a huge blessing for their families. Never let anyone tell you you’re doing anything wrong by earning a humble wage that betters your life. [Not to cloud the issue with facts, but The Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the median hourly income of a professional photographer between $13.70 per hour and $14.08 per hour. This may be skewed toward photographers as employees and not as entrepreneurs, but recognize, there’s nothing magical about photography that makes you entitled to multiples of real, honest wages.]
Myth: If you teach the market your work is only worth $X, you have ruined that market for every other photographer charging more.
Fact: I have a lot of local competition, and most of my fellow photographers are very good – several are far better artists than I am. Some charge more, some charge less. None have ever affected my bookings. Some of my lower-end clients found a better fit with a less expensive option, some of my higher-end clients had a better fit with more expensive offerings, but I have never struggled to book clients I love who are happy to pay what I’m worth. Your people, the clients who perfectly fit with your personality and art and prices, are out there – great, targeted marketing makes that win-win connection over and over again.
Myth: A client won’t pay $1,000 for what they can get for $175, all things being equal (art, quality, service, experience).
Fact: Well, okay, I’ll give you that one. As a consumer, I’d be an idiot to pay five times as much for the exact same product. But art is subjective, and so is the experience we create for our clients – we differentiate our value in our markets through our unique art, message, and personality. Your people are out there, and if they can afford you, they will hire you for what you uniquely mean to them – but if you aren’t out hustling, shaking hands, telling your story, finding your people and getting your art and message in front of them, that’s not my fault or anyone else’s fault – that’s on you.
Myth: Cheap-but-good photographers are destroying the industry, which may already be ruined.
Fact: The cheap-but-good photographers in my area (cheaper than me, to be clear) haven’t hurt my business. Nor has Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG, who all make fantastic camera phones. Nor has Canon or Nikon, who make powerful consumer and prosumer cameras. Again, the blame is misplaced here: viable, competitive, ‘good enough for me!’ alternatives to a talented, expensive, worthwhile professional photographer will have no affect on that photographer so long as he or she knows their market and how to communicate their value in the ever-growing landscape of options every potential client has.
Myth: If you aren’t running a profitable business, you’re destroying an industry many photographers who came before worked hard to build.
Fact: The vast majority of my new clients have never had professional portraits made – those who have were typically photographed as children at a chain studio. My very customer-friendly pricing and policies aren’t hurting anyone – but they are enabling an entire segment of the market to afford professional photography. Nobody used to paying a super-talented boutique photographer is knocking on my door, and that’s okay – I’m not that guy. In my area, I know that guy, and I refer out to him often – like Jamie, he charges multiples what I ask, and he’s worth every penny.
Myth: If you can’t do X, Y, and Z, then you have no business being in business.
Fact: Welcome to the Free World (America, specifically, in my case). Welcome to capitalism. I can run my business any way I see fit, with or without a profit, with or without insurance, with or without a dSLR, with or without a web site or Facebook page or business cards or even an ounce of experience or professionalism. My art can suck and I can still get paid. My personality can be abrasive and I can still get paid. Within the law, I can do anything I damn well please – the onus is not on me as a rights-bearing business owner to conform to your vision of the ideal; the onus is on you to run your business so well that there’s nothing I could ever do to affect it.
Myth: To make $30,000 charging $175 session fee which includes images on CD, you have to work 12-14 hours a day.
Fact: With my margins and at that price, I’d have to work right at 16 hours per week to earn $30,000 in-pocket – that includes everything from marketing to delivery and follow-up. Fair enough: this is after 15 years of streamlining my workflow. But the numbers Jamie is using are based on models with extremely high expenses and time-intensive workflow, which may be reality for her business – but they are by no means realistic or necessary for the rest of us.
Myth: I need my income, therefore you should charge more than I do.
Fact: What I do as a photographer should have absolutely no effect on your business, unless your business model is unsustainable in the face of aggressive competition… Which is not my fault, nor is it my responsibility. A competitive market doesn’t negate a successful boutique offering: Apple, the most valuable brand in the world, proves this. Here’s the truth: if Apple didn’t curate a customer experience, a brand loyalty, a culture that uplifts it to this status, it would be just another manufacturer. If Apple didn’t establish and maintain its market position, that’s Apple’s fault: not IBM, not Microsoft, not Nokia or Samsung or Motorola or Dell or Gateway or any other player in the industries it touches.
Myth: Photography is the only industry where inexperienced people try to sell professional services.
Fact: Every year there are fewer and fewer barriers to entry into almost every industry, which is naturally going to cause an influx of lower-end offerings. Notice I say lower-end, not cheap: there is plentiful room in the market for startup photographers, who have less developed skill and less experience and charge less because of this. Just like a model may trade for images early in her career then fetch hundreds of dollars an hour years down the road; just like a good mechanic with a great reputation can charge more than the guy fresh out of vocational school; just like every other industry with a low-end, a middle, and a high-end segment of clientele.
Myth: If you charge $100 and hand over a DVD of images, you’re a glorified non-profit.
Fact: What if I charge $100 and hand over a DVD of images on a 15-minute headshot shoot? What if I’m a school photographer and shoot 90 kids an hour at only $25 per kid? What if I’m already doing that with high school graduation ceremonies with an average sale of $65 per graduate? What if I run a lean business and streamline my workflow? What if my chosen lifestyle means I need less income than you? What if I live in a one-bedroom studio apartment and you live in a 3/2 home? What if there is absolutely no way you can make a factual statement about the profitability of my business without knowing my numbers?
Myth: If you’re a cheapo photographer, you’ll get cheapo clients who will be a paint in the butt and make you miserable.
Fact: Hey, you can talk trash about me all you want, but don’t dog my clients. I can’t tell you how many of my now good friends started as photography clients, and they came from all walks of life and income levels. There are good photographers and good clients at all levels of wealth and affordability.
Myth: If all these ‘facts’ have you freaked out, you need to go back to being a hobbyist.
Fact: This is the exact kind of sick discouragement I have fought against for years.
Grognards are frustrated. They’re pissed. They’re scared because that they don’t know how to maintain their market position in the face of aggressive, low-priced competition.
Welcome to reality: there are no guarantees.
Ask IBM, ask Lehman Brothers, ask Pan Am, ask Kodak, ask Atari, Ask Blockbuster, ask Woolworth’s, ask Circuit City, ask RadioShack, ask Borders – ask any business of any size that ever got it’s butt handed to it by innovative competition or changes in the market or industry.
Then go ask Apple, ask Southwest Airlines, ask Nintendo, ask Netflix, ask Amazon – ask any business of any size that ever toppled its bigger, more established competition through innovation or recognizing and adapting to changes in the market or industry.
Never forget: you’re 100% in charge of your business – you’re the boss.
Nobody can tell you what to charge: that’s price fixing.
Nobody can tell you how to run your business: that’s restraint of trade.
In 1711, Lord Smith LC said:
“It is the privilege of a trader in a free country, in all matters not contrary to law, to regulate his own mode of carrying it on according to his own discretion and choice. If the law has regulated or restrained his mode of doing this, the law must be obeyed. But no power short of the general law ought to restrain his free discretion.”
Don’t let any grognard put the onus of responsibility for the whole photography industry on your back – it’s unrealistic, unwarranted, and unreasonable.
You have every right to conduct your business as you see fit.
Don’t buy into the scarcity-minded horsesh*t the grognards promote – they are speaking from a position of fear, not of innovative creativity.
And while I definitely promote knowing your numbers and earning a humble-but-worthwhile wage that leaves you walking away from each sales session with a cheshire grin, I am at the same time a huge advocate that those numbers – and that humble wage of your choosing – are yours to define.
Again, I absolutely respect Jamie’s work as an artist and teacher in the photography industry, but I have to vehemently disagree with her position – it’s the same “blame the new guys!” mentality that I have seen over and over again in my 15 years as a professional photographer.
We photographers aren’t special, despite our stamping of feet and crying woe – business is business, and while no doubt it’s frustrating as hell when we get underbid or undercut or can’t hit our numbers or can’t feed our families from our art alone, it’s not the fault of the tens of thousands of photographers entering the market over the last 15 years.
If we can’t create and communicate our value, it doesn’t matter what we think we’re worth – the market will decide for us.
That is nobody’s fault but our own – not as an industry, but as individual, empowered business owners with agency over our destinies.
A lot less blame and a little more #hustle goes a long, long way.
Author Christopher McDougall, quoting Roger Bannister:
“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”
- Take a deep breath; take 10 minutes to meditate and clear your mind. This is heavy stuff, and it’s easy to bear a lot of weight when someone points the finger of blame at you for their fear and frustration. Center yourself, and let it go – recognize that someone else’s crisis is not your own.
- Brainstorm session: get out your pen and paper. Play with some numbers: how much have you spent on your business so far? How much have you earned? Are you profitable? (If you haven’t done your first paid shoot yet, project how many shoots at $100 per, then $200 per, you have to do to get profitable.) If not, why? Are you producing a Minimum Viable Product, the least complex and expensive art and experience that your initial clients will pay for? Are you spending excessively on equipment you don’t need yet? This is a very, very easy trap to fall into with so much outside pressure to buy this, buy that, go boutique or go home. Focus on what you truly need, then iterate and invest as the money is earned by your business. File this in your Brainstorms folder.
- My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
- What’s the biggest struggle holding you back right now? E-mail me your answer (yes, right now!), and let’s make a breakthrough today.
- If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use these ideas to better your part time photography business!