Six Reasons That Great Photos Alone Won’t Make You a Success

When you are a self-employed photographer, reaching the level of earning enough to support yourself and your family is difficult. There are thousands of struggling and aspiring pro photographers out there, all searching for that elusive key to success.

Some commentators will tell you that the key is simply to shoot great photos. For example, here is what Marco Oonk of Fast Media Magazine recently said:

I firmly believe that despite the “democratization” and “commoditization” of the stock photo industry, there will always be more reward for great images. By “great” I mean images that fill a need and do it superbly … There is still, and always will be, plenty of money to be made.

I totally disagree.

Certainly, as a photographer you should try to produce the best images you know how to produce, and you should always be striving to improve the quality of your images.

But just because an image is judged to be “great” by your peers, or because it wins awards, that does not mean customers will pay more for it, or that you will sell more of your work.

Photographers may spend more time in pre-planning, use better models and more expensive sets, and generally spend more money to produce a set of images. But that does not mean customers will pay more for them.

The Agenda of Stock Agencies

It is in the interest of stock agencies to make you think success is all about producing more and better photos. They constantly ask for “more and more” and “better and better.”

Do they do this to help you be successful? No, they do it because it does not cost them a thing. They have no investment in the production costs.

Following the advice of stock agencies may or may not increase your sales — but it will certainly increase your costs, and quite possibly reduce your profits.

Photography Business Realities

So before falling for the line that shooting lots of “great” images leads to commercial success, keep in mind these six basic principles of the photography business:

  1. Customers always want the best image they can find, at a price they can afford. A stock picture has to be exactly what the customer needs — including the right price. The price they can afford is always a major deciding factor.
  2. If the image you are selling is a stock image, the price the customer is willing to pay has absolutely no relation to your efforts to produce it. No one cares what it cost you to produce an image or what you had to go through to get it.
  3. Prepare to be constantly surprised at what the customer thinks is the right picture. Customers seldom pick the images you like best. No matter how great you think your image is, how many awards it has won or what your colleagues tell you, it is the customer who determines value.
  4. Customers don’t care whether your fees cover your costs. If you are doing an assignment, you can establish a fee upfront to cover your costs and profit, but many potential customers may be unwilling to pay what you ask. The value of any image is based entirely on the customer’s perception.
  5. The amount customers pay is based entirely on the value they will receive from using the images and what they feel they can afford at the moment. Since the end of 2007, the average price Getty Images receives for the images it licenses has dropped 30 to 40 percent. That is not because the images are of poorer quality than they used to be, but rather because the prices agreed on are all the customers feel they can afford to pay in these difficult economic times, and because there are other easily available options that satisfy customers’ needs.
  6. The price a photographer decides to charge for his work limits the number of potential customers. If the photographer sets a high price, fewer customers will consider the image. If the photographer sets a low price, more customers may consider it, but that is no guarantee there will be enough buyers at the lower price to equal what one might have earned at a higher price.

Despite growing demand for images, still photography as a profession is taking a serious hit — and not just because of the current recession.

Those in the industry who say that the photographers who continue to produce “great” images will succeed are just kidding themselves. Or, as in the case of the stock agencies, they are telling you what you want to hear because it benefits them.

The truth is, those considering entering the photography profession today need to carefully weigh their options. The pictures you produce have to be good, but that alone is not nearly enough. Beware of the temptation to spend more and more and work harder and harder without a corresponding financial result.

9 Responses to “Six Reasons That Great Photos Alone Won’t Make You a Success”

  1. I would also add that digital photography has "dumbed down" the level of expectation of images that people will accept. They will say, "why should I pay that when I can do it myself? Or my wife's brother has a camera and he makes good images all the time and he'll do it for free."

    People seem to think that with digital camera's everywhere anyone can take great pictures and it doesn't cost them much to do so. So the level of what really good photography is and the cost involved are not much of a consideration; you just point & click...

  2. Interesting points but I've got to say that maybe (and only maybe) this applies to stock library work, commercially I think if you believe this whole heartedly then you either need a good kick up the rear or you need to get a new career.
    Sure we're in a changing market place, sure the goal posts are constantly moving, but this is a good thing to those who are willing to work with these changes as opposed to against them. Come on this is a photography 2.0 world, if you feel threatened by all the upstarts with their entry level gear and entry level work then you really need to give yourself a slap and up your game. There is HUGE demand for photography out there, sure it isn't easy, I'm not pretending that you aren't going to have to make some changes in your mindset but it's time to wake up and smell the coffee people, stop whining that we're all doomed by this and that. Remember when video spelled the death knell for all photography? hey look, still here!
    I suggest those who still find themselves in a fearful position after reading this should buy and read Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson.
    Rather than spending your time worrying and moaning about these changes, spend your effort becoming a better artist AND business person.

    Mark Ivkovic -

  3. This applies more to stock than to assignment work.

    If you can and go give superior quality images you still can get paid better than most other photographers.

    I think those who excel are more about the needs of the client and know how to listen. They listen until they understand and then they offer solutions for those problems the clients need solved.

    Those who rise to to the top and get top billing in my opinion are those that supply solutions to their clients needs. For most artists/photographers they never succeed because it is difficult for them to make it about the client and not about them.

    Most artist talk about their projects and their stories. Successful business folks talk about the projects where they helped provide a solution to a clients problem.

    I believe to be in the game you have to be producing great work. Just being good is achievable much easier today with the equipment we have, so you need to standout with your portfolio and your ability to listen.

  4. Keyboard was sticking.

    it should read:

    "If you can and do give superior quality images, you still can get paid better than most other photographers."

  5. agreed, on every count. I chose to drop weddings rather than compete with Uncle Charlie and his digital camera. All up, you have to find clients who Want YOU, regardless of price, and as long as you Want THEM, and the job, it works out well for everyone.

  6. Thanks for this topic. The response about providing solutions for the client is key. Being able to provide solutions along with your service will have your clients not only calling you back but making referrals on your behalf!!

  7. Yes, the topic is stock photography. Whatever the mythical “great” stock photo is… aside, photobuyers buy what they need, not what they like. Their cubicle walls are displayed with “great” photos but they are signing checks for pictures they need.
    More and more photo researchers are using the power of “SEARCH” to find the pictures they need using ‘long-tail’ keywords. (multiple tags)… More and more photographers are learning how to tag their images and reaping the sales benefits.
    This all filters down to a new concept in selling and re-selling stock: the realization of the hidden expense of finding the ‘right photo’ on a microstock site. Buyers are finding it’s becoming more productive (and fast, time is money) to go right to the source of an independent specialized photographer for their on-target need and stop wasting time, wearing out eyeballs in on-line galleries. So get out there and tag those photos! --Rohn

  8. Thank's John for this, with shooters like you: Paolo, Bernard, Jake, Wawi, Luis and Veejay most of us are ready to toss in the towel already. Keep up the great work..

    Seattle WA

  9. Unfortunately I agree with the above article, but unlike some of the above posters, I also think that it applies equally to assignments. I regularly have timewasters on the phone that are trying to commission at a price that won't even cover the lighting hire. I take the best approach, send them packing, but ultimately with the advent of widespread digital cameras, they are more likely to be able to find someone silly enough to either do the job badly, or do it at a loss in order to meet their unreasonable demands.

    It is rather nieve to assume that quality will always hold the force for assignment photography when on a weekly basis I see examples that prove that it does not.

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