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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.