Is Your Photography Business Like a Restaurant Without Tables and Chairs?

Before I started my own photography business, I had been a newspaper staffer for more than 20 years. I didn’t know how to market myself, and I decided to hire a consultant to help me.

Among other things, the consultant I chose redesigned my Web site and helped me to create my portfolio, logo, and stationery system. I’m not going to kid you; it wasn’t cheap. But it’s turned out to be worth every penny.

tony blei tables and chairs

My photographer friends, complaining about their inability to score clients through word-of-mouth, tell me that they can’t afford to do what I did. “It’s too expensive!” they say.

You know what? For whatever reason, word-of-mouth doesn’t carry as far during slow times. You just don’t have as many people flapping their gums about you. So you better start to rely on yourself to bring in the work.

And that means spending the money it takes to market your business.

If You Were a Restaurant

Think about your favorite restaurant. You love their food. But what if you went there and discovered there weren’t any tables or chairs? Would you still go there? Would you sit on the floor?

My guess is that you would drive to your next-favorite restaurant, and the next time you wanted to go out, the next favorite will have become your favorite.

Now think about your photography business. Your cameras are the equivalent of the restaurant’s stoves. Your lights are the deep fryers and the computer is the freezer. The images are your entrees.

What about your tables and chairs? Your plates, flatware, glasses and napkins?

In many ways, these are the equivalent of your logo, Web site, portfolio, business cards, postcards and other marketing tools. They make your prospective clients comfortable, and give them confidence that you can deliver a visual meal they will love.

The Right Clientele

Now, there are paper-napkin burger joints and fancy restaurants with cloth napkins. You need to figure out which you want to be.

Just because you can print your own business cards on paper stock that you bought at the office-supply store, that doesn’t mean you should.

After my business cards had been designed, I found places on the Web that would print them for $40. Instead, I chose a local printer that charged nearly $1,200.

Why did I choose the more expensive option? Simply put, it’s because I want prospective clients to associate the quality of my card with the quality of my work. You don’t have to spend what I spent on printing, but I will tell you that every time I hand someone a card, the same thing happens.

They whisper or say, “Nice card.”

I spent as much as I did because I am a cloth-napkin photographer — and I want my clients to know that. If you believe your work is of filet-mignon quality, don’t let prospective clients mistake you for a burger joint.

14 Responses to “Is Your Photography Business Like a Restaurant Without Tables and Chairs?”

  1. Very well put, Tony. It makes a lot of sense when it's put that way. Thanks for a great tip!

  2. A few questions: Who did you hire, how did you find them and what did you spend?

  3. @Sean Cayton, I would love to tell you to go see the consultant that I used, but they may or may not be right for you. I've listed a few resources for you. I suggest contacting them to find out if they can give you what you need.

    • Suzanne Sease
    • Amanda Sosa Stone
    • Leslie Burns-Dell'Acqua
    • Carolyn Potts
    • Louisa Curtis
    • Ellen Boughn

    And as far as cost: What I spent will probably be different than what you will spend as it's not a one-size-fits all issue.

    The bottom line of this blog wasn't that you should go spend money on a consultant. These are hard times, feed your family first! My point is: Treat your business like the business that it is and don't take shortcuts. The shortcuts will take longer and cost you more in the long run.

  4. Nice comparison. I like the paper vs. cloth napkin reference.

    It's nice when someone who isn't a designer understands the value of quality design and marketing, and, while it is going to cost you, it is worth the investment.

  5. This advice is valid for every profession though... I always always always stress to people to not SKIMP on the bcards cos sometimes that's all that's left behind of you after a chance encounter or some other circumstance where someone can't see your work. If your card is crap it won't make the cut, or will make the trash heap. If your card is nice, it will be remembered and saved. I think that carries across other platforms as well. It's not necessarily bells and whistles that will sell your work-- it's obviously your work-- but if you don't put a minimum amount of effort into packaging that (site, mktg mats etc), people will be like OMG look at this crap and they will NOT get past the CHEAP or FLY BY NIGHT packaging...

    So once the door is open, then you can make a pitch. But the most important part is opening that door...and then convincing them why your chairless restaurant is going to be the best dining experience they've ever had!!!!

  6. That fact that you chose a $1200 printer to do your business cards shows me that you're not in touch with reality. Anyone who spends $1200 to print business cards is a dangerously dumb in my book. And to boast about that in your post is laughable.

  7. Additionally, if you're looking for business/placement consulting, Mary Virginia Swanson is great.

  8. @Michael Anthesis, I think you may have missed my point. Let me try to clear things up for you.

    When someone wants to open a restaurant, they have the necessary skills to feed someone a nice meal, but it takes much more than being able to cook. You have to have a budget for all of the elements of a restaurant — including a sign.

    While Michael Anthesis may enjoy a meal being served to him in a Styrofoam container from a paper bag, I don't. I like going to a place with cloth napkins and nice plates. I also know there is a difference between the teen-age line cook and the experienced chef whose been through culinary school. Because the restaurant is run like a profitable business, it knows that it can continue to provide the level of service its customers require.

    Also Michael, I didn't buy my own business cards. My business (which is an LLC) bought those. I have a budget for marketing because I know that for every $100,000 that I want to bill for, I need to spend 10% (or more) on marketing. And some of those marketing expenses include business cards.

    The level of competition is so high that I know I have to bring my "A Game" in order to accomplish my goal. Some people my enjoy serving cheeseburgers from under a warming lamp (clearly there is a market), you have my blessings. I'm just saying that whatever you do, run your business like a business and don't take shortcuts to your success.

  9. I'm glad that I stumbled on to your site. It has been very helpful to me already. I am new and I'm building my business. Do you have any information of how to build your business in this economy?

    Remain blessed.

  10. I advice you sir This advice is valid for every profession though. I always always always stress to people to not SKIMP on the business cards cos sometimes that's all that's left behind of you after a chance encounter or some other circumstance where someone can't see your work.

  11. @Tony Blei, I think you may have missed Michael Anthesis' point:

    $1200 for printing business cards means you got ripped off!

    You got scammed by some printer somewhere, or maybe your favorite new consultant just charged you a serious markup.

    It shouldn't cost more then $200-300 for thousands of high-quality cards. You must have paid for offset printing, which is virtually indistinguishable from digital printing when the output is something like a biz card (small size, probably vector graphics, low resolution).

    You probably don't care, because if you have $1200 to blow on little paper rectangles, you're probably the same kind of person who could order a $1200 bottle of wine and somehow justify the experience.

  12. I had my cards printed at the local Pennysaver. I worked with the printer and used my image. They came out beautiful! People were taking cards before I even picked them up. $50 for 500. Money does not equate quality. Intregity, talent, and passion do. Having spent more does not make you a better artist.

  13. @Suzanne McAndrew, Money doesn't necessarily equate quality, but it can be used to communicate an idea. I suppose you could simply write your phone number on a piece of paper and hand it to people.

    This column was not specifically about business cards. It was about buying and using all of the tools that are necessary to market your legitimate business.

    I've read in more than one place that ten percent of what you want to annually invoice should be spent on marketing. Want to bill $100,000 for the year, spend $10,000 on marketing. Is this guaranteed? No, but over the years, you will see a return on your investment.

    My dream client is in the $25,000 range. I'm probably not going to attract that client with a business card that I printed myself. I've spent thousands of dollars so that I can earn tens of thousands and more.

    You are correct. Spending more will not make you a better artist. But a well crafted marketing plan will get you seen by those who are willing to spend more.

  14. Thanks for the insightful article. I think that if you have the budget set aside for marketing to your target audience then by all means do what is necessary to project that image. People who want to nickel and dime their way through certain aspects of marketing themselves but then want a client to value their work come across as ironic to me. Great analogies too.

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