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It’s Time for Independent Photographers to Consider Subscription Pricing

Posted By Paul Melcher On March 7, 2011 @ 12:58 am In Business of Photography | 28 Comments

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From Netflix to Pandora, Zipcar to cell phone plans, more and more businesses are offering subscription or membership service plans — and consumers are embracing them as a way of simplifying their lives and budgets.

It’s time for independent photographers to consider this business model, too.

Look around. Photo agencies have already moved to subscription billing that offers monthly or yearly packages that provide a limited number of images for a flat fee.

Why not you?

How the Model Would Work

Here’s how it would work:

  1. You decide how much money you want to make for the year.
  2. You offer “shares” of your time to numerous clients who would want to ensure access to your services throughout the year at a predictable cost.
  3. Once you’re hired by enough clients (maybe 50, maybe more or less than that number), you’re done selling shares.
  4. Clients book you when they need you, using an online calendar as with Zipcar [2].

To make this work, you would have to stop thinking in terms of jobs and start thinking in terms of annual revenue. You might lose money on some jobs but make it back on others; everything would level out to generate a nice profit. And your clients would be happy, since they would be able to manage their photo budget on a yearly basis instead of per job.

Example: the Wedding Photographer

So, how might this work for, say, a wedding photographer?

Most wedding photographers have hit-and-run operations. They try to extract the most money they can from a client they expect to see one time only.

In a subscription/sharing model, the wedding photographer would not only offer wedding pictures, but baby pictures, family portraits and so on. He would offer his photography services for a set fee for, say, five years. During that time, he would be on call to shoot whatever the wedding couple needs. In exchange, he would receive steady income.

The couple, excited about all the things they have to look forward to (and record with pictures) in the years ahead, would be attracted to simplifying this part of their lives. And they would receive the added benefit of paying less upfront for their wedding photography, as the photographer could spread his fees over the next several years.

Multiply this by 50 clients and the photographer could live comfortably and stress-free, with far fewer financial highs and lows.

Time to Get Creative

A corporate shooter could use the same model. Replace wedding couples with companies and there you go.

Obviously, you would need some incentive for the clients to sign up for the share/subscription model. Free unlimited online storage of images? One hundred free prints a year?

The options are wide open. Be creative, folks.

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28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "It’s Time for Independent Photographers to Consider Subscription Pricing"

#1 Comment By Roy Sinai On March 7, 2011 @ 1:28 am

An interesting way to monetize a 'relationship'. Of course, the photographer must be up to scratch on each subsequent assignment. Or there'll be lots of buyer remorse.

#2 Comment By Anthony Hereld On March 7, 2011 @ 2:28 am

This is silly. Not every business model will apply to all businesses.

All I read about from working "pros" is how bad things are. How turn-key operations and amateurs are destroying the industry. And then something like this is posted? Isn't the industry already losing enough business to Wal Mart and Sears without turning pro photography into Netflix?

Sell yourself. Provide better service. It's such a simple concept.

#3 Comment By a. shelton On March 7, 2011 @ 2:59 am

Those services work because they rely on volume and impulsive consumers.

To even dream of maintaining a living one would have to have a schedule that barely included time to take a leak.

#4 Comment By Jared Leeds On March 7, 2011 @ 10:01 am

With this business model how would one deal with a) usage and b) cost of producing shoots. It seems this is a one size fits all solution for a business in which each situation is different.

#5 Comment By Michael Howard On March 7, 2011 @ 10:25 am

At least someone is willing to start discussions of a new business model for photographers. I don't think clinging to the old one is necessarily the best idea and I think it's at least worth some discussion to see if some new business models can work. I do think the future of consumerism will change as we know it and it will become less about owning and more about simply having access to stuff. The issue is usually the subscription, shared model works well for physical items like a car. I'm not sure yet how well that model fits into a service based business, but I think coming up with new ideas is worth talking about as long as we can have a healthy discussion.

#6 Comment By Anthony Hereld On March 7, 2011 @ 10:57 am

I agree that discussion of a new business model is needed. And I think we can all agree that the industry has certainly changed over the last decade especially. A subscription-based fee structure could work with a few client bases, such as career models or corporations who would use photography services regularly for advertising. But even that is a stretch.

Budgets are being cut across the board. A subscription works for social media and the internet because content is crowdsourced. Most simply aren't going to pay a fee to keep a photographer on retainer, and those that would, are going to run the photographer ragged and out of business.

#7 Comment By Paul Melcher On March 7, 2011 @ 11:05 am

@Anthony Hereld : Not sure how Sears and Wal Mart is taking business out of the photo industry. Maybe you should revisit what you are doing, if they are.
@Jared Leeds: both usage and cost of production will have to be factor in your monthly fee. The same way as Netflix does not charge you for postage each time they ship a DVD. Not that hard.
I encourage all, before posting a 'pfff...this will not work" comment here, to think how it could work for them: Sit down and crunch the numbers. Then, if is still doesn't work, come back here and destroy my idea in little pieces.

#8 Comment By Tif Holmes On March 7, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

I think this is an interesting idea. It may not be applicable to every genre of photography, but I can certainly see this as a feasible solution to clients with recurring annual needs: clients with a series of events that need coverage within a year, for example. I have stumbled into several local jobs with musicians playing annual concert series. Generally their "season" schedule is set in advance. This situation, to me, has "subscription rate" written all over it. I will definitely be thinking about this. Thanks for sharing your creative brainstorming.

#9 Comment By Michael Howard On March 7, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

I think some child/baby photographers do a small version of this already. They setup a fee, paid out over the 1st year of a child's life, and the parents get one photo shoot ever 3 months. So the photographers are setting it up to where they know they have X amount coming in from this client and this allows the photographer to follow the life of a child for one year. It gives the parents a consistent and unique view of their growing baby. If the parents had to hire the same photographer 4 times or higher 4 different photographers throughout the year, I don't think that would happen.

This is kind of a mini subscription model, which I think would work best for photographers. I have a hard time imagining a model where someone would sign up to use a photographer for a 10 year term.

I think maybe in instances where a company needs a consistent look over say a year or two term with a few photo shoots of the same subject matter, a pricing structure like this could possible work. Just as long as the photographer had restrictions in place of course.

#10 Comment By Scott Baradell On March 7, 2011 @ 3:33 pm

Michael, as a matter of fact, a photo studio arranged through the hospital where my children were born to come in and shoot "free" pics of the baby in the hospital room. We agreed to let them come to our home every three months for the first year to take more "free" pics -- and of course, we ended up buying packages once or twice. So there are a number of ways to structure it. The key is being creative and aggressive.

#11 Comment By Michael Howard On March 7, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

Scott - Yeah I've seen more portrait photographers doing similar things as well or doing really low sitting fees and making money on the print/product sales later. Many ways to do it.

#12 Comment By Anthony Hereld On March 7, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

@ Michael Howard. You're right...many portrait photographers have a "Year One" plan. Photo sessions take place a milestone months, such as: birth, 3, 6, 9, and finally 12 months of the child's age. I've seen different pricing structures, but the model is somewhat subscription-based. This model works for "Year One" because the timeline has already been established. A businessman can figure out expenses, etc. and divide them up among those sessions and still earn a profit.

The same can be said for just about any kind of subscription. The content (in this case photography services) is delivered at regular intervals (in this case, not established). You can't set up a subscription for a couple based on the notion that you will do their wedding first, child photos later, and senior portraits 18 years down the road. The math on setting a profitable price structure for that would require a degree from MIT.

#13 Comment By Michael Howard On March 7, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

Anthony - I agree with you!

#14 Comment By Nathan Trujillo On March 8, 2011 @ 12:05 am

Interesting business idea.

#15 Comment By Tim Halberg On March 8, 2011 @ 5:01 am

I know someone who has been offering a portrait session a year for life with each wedding photography package.

Similar vein, but slightly more realistic.

Love that you're thinking "outside the box" - but don't think the idea is even remotely realistic for a wedding photographer.

I really like the idea of trying to formulate the income differently.

Problem with this idea, so they pay $1,000 a year, you photograph their wedding and would have charged them $8,000 for their wedding photography with a couple of albums and the digital negatives.

Two years into the plan they cancel service with you, you've made $3,000 total and in the end take a $5,000 loss.

Curious what "alternative" plans might actually work though.

I've heard of people trying to offer financing for weddings, but with credit card spending/debt on the decline, don't see that going far.

#16 Comment By John Linton On March 8, 2011 @ 5:49 am

Sounds interesting. Am concerned about how it would work if the photographer was booked out on a day that a major subscription client wants their services. Also these schemes would magnify the price discrepancies around at the moment. Seems like another scheme that doesn't help the basic issue which is the commodification of photography, ie the desire to put a fixed price on photography services without acknowledging the difference in quality and skill between different photographers. Maybe in certain sectors this is irrelevant though and a subscription system would work. Still would worry that someone had paid up and I wasn't available. Then I would have to pay another photographer the top rate to do job.

#17 Comment By Paul Melcher On March 8, 2011 @ 7:54 am

You are thinking in the terms of the subscription/retainer model, not in terms of the 'sharing" model.
One of the the underlying idea in the sharing model is that you spread revenue, profit and liability over numerous customers, thus minimizing risk.
You have to break the crusty old mold of traditional thinking that puts one photographer with one customer at a time, from start to finish, to multiple customers at the same time over a longer period of time .

#18 Comment By Reportage Photographer On March 8, 2011 @ 9:18 am

I'd say, a bit crazy, but interesting idea! :)

#19 Comment By Ranger 9 On March 8, 2011 @ 10:50 am

I can see this business model working for commercial photographers who have ongoing client relationships that provide a fairly steady flow of work. The problem is that if you've got those, you don't NEED this business model. (My corporate-events clients know how much I cost, budget accordingly for X events per year, and then send me a schedule of what they'll want covered.)

BUT... this could be a great break-in business for family photography. "I'll be the photographer you wish you could be... relax and enjoy your family events while I make sure you get great photos (and video!) I'll do family portraits for spring, summer, fall and winter... your kids' birthdays, big games and school plays... and put them all on your own personal online photo album and/or Facebook page. All for one low annual subscription!"

Upscale families would love it. Shoot, instead of posting this, I probably should have written it into a business plan...

#20 Comment By johnwiththelens On March 8, 2011 @ 11:09 am

@paulmercher: 'You have to break the crusty old mold of traditional thinking that puts one photographer with one customer at a time, from start to finish'

So apart from developing models like the Sochi Project which works for photojournalism only really, I can't see how this works time wise.

If I have many clients who pay retainers then the likelihood is that more than one will need me on the same day. No matter how you take the crust off the mold, you can still only be in one place at the one time. Subscription works for services where many people can be serviced simultaneously. I can't see a client rearranging their wedding date because their subscription photographer is unavailable that day. Not a PR postponing a press launch. So what exactly does the client get for their money? In an ideal world if you could split your time evenly around many different clients I could see this working, but when is that going to happen?

#21 Comment By Paul Melcher On March 8, 2011 @ 11:27 am

@ Johnwithlens : And how do you handle it now ? The issue your raise has nothing to do with the sharing model but rather with poor planning.
It does happen that netflix or Zipcar might have the car/dvd that you want when you want it. I do not see thousands of people canceling their subscription because of that.
Part of your arrangement with your clients should be to provide them whit an online calendar when they can clearly see when you are available or not so they can book you when needed/free. It's not because you or your clients are disorganized now that it should remain so in the future.
again, crack that crust.

#22 Comment By johnwiththelens On March 8, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

@paulmelcher - no crust or disorganisation on my part. Photos are not DVDs. Demand over the year is lower for a start. Client expections are far higher.

I can see it working for elements of a photo business such as headshots, or assignment shooting where the pics can be taken within a set period.

I regularly offer such a service already - whenever anyone tells me they'll give me more work if I slash initial rate I tell them work out how many times they'll need photography over the year and I give them a sliding scale of charges, providing they commit to the lot of course. No one has ever accepted.

Like I say maybe with certain aspects, but not the whole shebang. Fools gold I tells ya, fools gold...

#23 Comment By DeAndre’ Vidale On March 8, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

It's cool to see this discussion, as we should always be observant and strategic in the market.

I've heard of a model like this before. The photographer and company agree to an annual charge, sign an agreement saying the photographer would be available whenever the company needs, and if they want, they can renew at the end of the year.

It's called a job.

#24 Comment By Paul Melcher On March 8, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

@johnwithlens : never said this model would work for everyone. But saying that because it doesn't for you , it will not work for everyone, well, that what's foolish.
@De'andre Vidale: your comment shows that you completely misunderstood the model . Too bad.

#25 Comment By Katie Garlock On March 8, 2011 @ 5:47 pm

Never thought of this process as a subscription but I guess it is. You never know when a new idea will work. I do enjoy success with a yearlong agreement for family portraits. The program is five sessions, with a limited number of images included from each session. Paid in full at the beginning of the program, we schedule sessions at mutual convenience, not an 'on call' basis. Additional images may be purchased from each session if desired.
I wouldn't want to do everything this way, but it is a nice revenue stream in addition to regular appointments.

#26 Comment By Raj On March 8, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

I think this can work if you want it to. You're offering a discount to a loyal customer. Can you lose? Sure, you can always lose. But if you're providing a great service and a great product I don't see why this model would fail over another. A valid point is that maybe you can make more off one event than you will over a lifetime. If money is the primary concern then this may become an overriding factor. If creating a lasting connection with someone else is the goal then I can see some benefits to going the subscription route. Just my 2 cents ;-)

#27 Comment By almostinfamous On March 9, 2011 @ 10:04 am

I am preparing a package for corporate customers along these lines... glad to hear i'm not the only one thinking along these lines...

#28 Comment By Stephen Wise On March 9, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

It won't be long before someone on Wall Street comes along and creates "securitized products" around those photography subscriptions.


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