I was on a commercial architecture shoot in Emmetsburg, Iowa last weekend. Much to my surprise and pleasure two divorced women I met at lunch tried desperately to get me out to the local casino for some dancing and drinks. I politely declined, but it got me thinking about the challenges I and many others have faced in the transition to a career in photography. As a professor in entrepreneurship I often discuss with my students the need to divorce from the idea and focus on execution, and a former student recently turned me on to a Scott Adams (Dilbert) blog post titled, “Ideas are worthless, execution is everything.” Where folks appear to struggle in the career transition to photography is too much focus on the idea of being a photographer and not enough focus on the execution of a photography business. If you’re in this transition, then you’ll be well served to divorce yourself from the idea and wed the execution of your business.
The Idea of Being a Professional Photographer - You love the creative process, the feedback and validation of friends and family. You love the independence, the spontaneity, the production of an image. You appreciate the joy it brings others, and in return it brings you. You enjoy being in charge, making key decisions that directly impact the result whether it be a landscape shoot, taking pictures for a class project or photographing your friend’s baby. Its become a very satisfying experience that generates and great level of joy and energy for you. Its a direct extension of your existence, personality and energy. Now all you have to do is start charging for it and you’re off to the races!
For me, none of that goes away as a commercial photographer. I haven’t lost the idea of being a photographer and I’m not suggesting anyone should, but I have moved my focus to more important and equally rewarding aspects of a photography business.
Execution of the Photography Business -I’ll focus on three universal themes (though there are many more to address):
1) What is your Unique Value Proposition? You might be tempted to answer “great photography, of course!” Wrong. As a commercial/professional photographer your work has to meet some minimum bar of excellence and that bar is always rising, but the bar is relevant to your subject matter, location, competitive environment and financial needs. If you live in a small town, you’re the only family/baby portrait photographer and its a second income then the bar is relatively low. If you live in a larger metro area with a hyper-competitive photography services market and you want to shoot ad campaigns because that’s the only route for you to have photography as a primary income, then the bar is relatively high. Regardless, you need to at least meet the minimum bar and your Unique Value Proposition must go well beyond this. As an architectural photographer, I know my UVP because I ask my clients about it. Here it is in a nutshell: “I solve problems for my clients, not create them.” The client doesn’t want to hear me whine about problems, they are paying me to solve them.
2) Who is your customer? You might be tempted to answer, “Everyone!” Wrong again. The broader you define your customer the larger your potential market, but it will be less clear what you’re selling and to whom. The narrower you define your customer the smaller your market becomes, but potentially the more lucrative and easier to define yourself. A related question is what you want to be known for in commercial photography. I can be a jack of all trades, but the market generally doesn’t reward that right now. If you’re a wedding photographer, be one. Don’t try to be an architecture photographer at the same time. Otherwise you’re not likely to be the top of your class in either. That’s ok, just be aware that there are trade-offs. I thought early on that real estate agents might be a good customer base for me. Boy, was I wrong about that. To them, everything is a commodity and photography has a very limited value lifespan and the bar for quality is low, commensurate with what they’ll pay for it. On the contrary, working for developers and architects reduces my market size considerably, but they pay a much higher fee, they DEMAND great work and provide great projects. I’ve have an excellent reputation in this market and clients know exactly what they get from me. That also means I’m not for every client in this market, but it all gets sorted out fairly quickly without spending much at all on marketing/branding issues.
3) What is your product? You might be tempted to answer, “Photographs, duh.” Wrong again. There is a big difference between features and benefits of your product. Features may include first rate facilities, great cameras and excellent equipment, top notch website, super personality and organizational skills. Those are features. Features can open the door, but not close the sale. What does your client buy? In my studio the client buys the intangible benefits of fun, comfortable environment that lasts in their mind as a great experience. Images that conjure up warm feelings and great memories. My architecture clients benefit from being made to look good, ease of communicating their product or service, problems being solved, not created. Customer’s buy you on benefits, but consider you on features.
There are so many more themes to continue with, but I leave it here with a quote from my good friend Dan Hanlon about the secret to business, “Do what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, for what you said it would cost.”
And now, some personal images from Emmetsburg, Iowa. The first six are HDR images of a 1948 (?) Buick Eight with my own secret sauce of post processing. The last is an HDR black and white landscape of a Poet Ethanol plant I caught just before the sky cleared. I hope you enjoy them.
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