Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thoughts for New Photographers - a Big Boy Pants Post - Read with Caution.

So you’ve decided to enter the world of professional photography! Congratulations. It’s exciting isn’t it? And a little scary too. Especially with all of these seasoned photographers talking about how tough things are. I think there are a few things you should know, so I’m writing this just for you. With this said though, I always warn people that my posts can be pretty blunt. To keep that light I’ll ask if you have your big-boy pants on (Big girl pants work too). Here’s why. If you don’t then some of what I’m going to write will be insulting. You won’t be able to see through that and you’ll get mad. If that’s going to be you then stop reading now. We’ll be friends anyway. But if you think you’re ready, keep going.

The first thing you need to know is this. As with most businesses, the fun stuff is only about 25% of the time you’ll spend. The rest of it is actual work. There is nothing easy about succeeding as a photographer. (That is, unless you have a rich uncle who is underwriting all of your costs). Building a business that lets you charge enough to make a profit after all of your expenses are paid is the hardest part. Learning to take great pictures is also tough. You need to do both. So get ready to spend some time being humbled, getting better, being humbled again, getting better again, etc. And be ready for a lifetime of that.

There are those who have jumped in because you take good pictures. I think the thing you need to understand is that’s a good start, but you have to dedicate yourself to becoming a master of your craft. Here’s why. People aren’t hiring you for good pictures, they’re hiring you for great pictures. These days they can get good pictures for free. Taking great pictures is one part luck and nine parts skill. The settings are rarely perfect. The light is flat. The people are NOT always attractive. The dresses clash with the paint on the walls. The church won’t let you shoot with a flash or work downstairs. The bride gets drunk. (If you’re a bride and you’re reading this somehow please don’t get drunk. It makes it REALLY hard to take good pictures of you.). The groom’s mom is 100 lbs overweight, is wearing a sleeveless white dress and has said she wants some really nice pictures for her husband. If you’re the master of your craft then none of these situations present an insurmountable challenge. If you’re not, your pictures will suck, your clients will not be pleased and you will fail. (And - you also discredit the industry as people will assume that all professional photographers are just amateurs who charge).

There are those of you who’ve jumped in because the day job just wasn’t working out. Congratulations! You have a day job again. Working professional photographers spend most of their time doing actual work. Between editing events, having sales meetings with prospective clients, bookkeeping, rewriting marketing materials, working with vendors, etc., there is a lot of “slog” that has to happen between the “fun times” taking pictures. You’re your own boss now and there’s definitely an upside to that, but in that capacity you have to discipline yourself to actually doing these things. Otherwise when the tax bill comes at the end of the year you’re going to get an awful shock. (and the health insurance and the ... you get my point).

The biggest mistake most of you will make is undercharging. This is a tough topic to understand and I don’t have enough time or room to really explain it but suffice it to say that if you’re going to work an 8 hour wedding or a 3 hour location portrait shoot you need to charge enough to cover the time, plus a portion of your costs as a photographer and then have enough left over to help you pay the bills. I know you’re charging a low price to help you build a portfolio and a referral base (your life blood as a photographer) but you need to understand that if you’re charging too little, that referral base will simply refer other people who only want to pay that price. You have to be disciplined about continuously creeping up your pricing or you will quickly get pigeonholed as a cheap photographer.

Photographers who are successful over the long haul understand that more than half of their profit is going to come from post-shoot sales. For this reason, they are protective of their images. The images you shoot belong to you - not your clients. When they hire you to take their pictures they’re paying for your time, not for your images. You can include a disk of images with your packages, but you need to understand that when you do that you significantly diminish the chances that you will succeed. At the bare minimum, recommend to them that they buy any “enlargements” from you. They can go to Wallmart and get all the 4X6’s they want, but if they want an 11X14 or a 16X20 they want that to look great on their wall and the way to ensure that is by working with you. Your monitor is calibrated. You have access to professional quality labs that print on archival paper. You or your lab can properly mount the print. And most importantly, you can make money on it.

Here’s the thing. I’m certainly not trying to discourage you. I want you to succeed. There are a lot of things Pictage and others can do to help, but you have to understand that a lot of your success will be determined by your willingness to do the hard work I’ve touched on here. There are a lot of great resources and a lot of folks who can help and one of the most critical pieces of advice I’d give is to listen to what they have to say. (Especially on "closed" forums where they can be completely candid).




Jill said...

I love how you just get it and throw it out there! Thanks for wearing the big boy pants!

emilie inc. said...

There are people who have been in this industry for years who don't get it as clearly as you do. Thanks for being so transparent, for being you, for having such an impact at Pictage and for our community.

Jess said...

Pictage is alright and is helpful, but I don't understand how someone can make half one's profit in post-shoot sales if Pictage takes such a large commission rate. At the very least, take the commission AFTER you deduct the cost of prints rather than before. Since you take your commission before you take out your print costs, you're making commission on your own fees--which isn't right.

Jim Collins said...

Hey Jess,

Great question. This is something we've been thinking about a lot and we'll be making some changes in the near future. With this said, the percentage of the commission, when applied to the cost of the print equates to very little on a per order basis. Here's an example. About 90% of a Pictage photographer's post event print sales come during a 2 for 1 promo period. This makes the effective price of a 4X6 print $1 (~.67 for the print itself and $.33 for the post processing, QA, etc). In the mid tier plan, where more photographers seem most comfortable, that boils down to a $0.15 commission on a per print basis. Since the average photographer order is in the $85 range the commission against costs ends up being a very small part of the sale price overall.

However, for Pictage, with thousands of sales per day, these amounts are meaningful.

Since you got me on the subject, lots of folks are curious what the commission is for. It's easiest for me to explain it in the context of a typical order. Most orders occur during post event marketing periods. (Thankfully, photographers can see this now in the new interface). A registered guest or owner gets and email with a offer they decide to take advantage of. They log on to the galleries and try to make some selections. (Or commit an order against pre-selected prints). In about 30% of the cases, they reach an impasse and they need help so they call customer service. These can be short calls, taking credit cards, etc., or longer calls where a Pictage customer service rep actually walks the customer through the order, selecting prints and sizes, etc. The average cost of a call is about $6 and the average order amount when a customer calls customer service rises to about $100, though there are times when even our great customer service team can't pull a client over the finish line.

The cost of the marketing team that manages the promotions campaigns, the additional product or discounts that are a part of the campaign and the customer service interaction is offset by the commission charge levied against the order.

Of course, it is possible for a photographer to turn off all of these services and simply use Pictage for online proofing, community, etc., ordering product wholesale through the photographer portal. In these cases there are no commissions. However, our surveys suggest that Photographers who do this diminish their post event revenues by as much as 40% since they focus all of their efforts only on their direct clients.

At any rate, as I have said, here and elsewhere, we're looking at a whole series of new services and we're also looking at new pricing for the services in place. By asking the questions you keep these issues front of mind for us and that's a big help. I know I probably haven't given you an answer that makes you feel any better, but at least you're getting the truth...

Feel free to write anytime. My email is just jim@pictage so I'm pretty easy to reach.



Chelsea Patricia said...

Gosh, I love this. You are so right, about everything.

The thing is, you have to be in photography because you LOVE it. If you love it, you will want to learn and hone your skills...the work will not be so much work as a means to do what you love.