The business of photography is something you really need to approach based on an honest assessment of your abilities, strengths, and interests. From there, you can see if there’s any kind of market for your planned products or services, and do some proof of concept research to ensure those markets will indeed pay you for your offerings.
Then you’ll be ready to start planning your business!
Unfortunately, most photographers come at it from the opposite direction. They have a desire to make money selling their photos but no real understanding or interest in the business processes involved in converting photography to income. They mistakenly believe great photography is all it takes to build a successful business.
1. Assessing Your Current Situation
Photography is extremely competitive, simply because it seems like such a dream job to so many people. Modern digital technology means anyone with basic camera skills can create a good image, so everyone thinks they’re a great photographer with real prospects. You need to work out what makes you different.
- What specialized skills do you have that will set you apart from the crowd?
- What interests and knowledge do you have that you can use in your work?
- What subjects do you do your best work with?
- Do you have a distinct personal style of work that sets you apart?
- Is your equipment suitable for creating high quality images?
- Do you have the skills and software to take an image from your camera and create a commercial quality, print-ready file?
- What business experience do you have?
- What sales and marketing experience do you have?
The idea here is to first identify the kinds of products and services you’re able to offer, and then assess whether those skills are at a level where people will pay you for them.
2. Determining the Market for Your Products and Services
It’s one thing to know you can produce some amazing work, but it’s another to know there are people out there who want it. You really need to put in some time to determine whether or not there is a market for what you do.
It doesn’t matter how good your work is if you can’t find anyone to buy it, and yet many photographers go into business with little more ‘market research’ than the encouragement of friends and family. “Wow, those photos are good; you should sell them!”
So somehow you have to answer the following questions:
- Are there people who need the kinds of images you like to shoot?
- Are there people who buy photos of the subjects you shoot?
- Are there people who will pay you to create specific images for them?
- Are there people who will pay for your expertise or knowledge?
The best approach here is to find other photographers offering similar products and services, and then see how your offerings stack up. (Google is great for this!)
- Are your subjects similar?
- Is your technique as strong?
- Do you present yourself as professionally?
- If the buyer was to view your portfolio and that of your ‘competitor’, who would they choose to do the job? Why?
If you’re serious about making a business of your photography, you need to be totally honest with yourself when you answer these questions. The truth is, you don’t necessarily have to be a great photographer to build a success photography business, but your work does need to be at least as good as your competitors.
You also need to be clear on what you’re offering, who you’re offering it to, and why they’re going to buy it.
Unfortunately, many photographers—and many other would-be business owners—start with little more than a product idea and rarely take the time to objectively test their idea to see if there’s likely to be genuine demand.
They build a business based on wishful thinking and wonder why it fails.
Fortunately these days it’s quite simple to test any idea and assess the likely demand using the search engines and keyword research tools.
3. Proof of Concept Testing
This is where you prove to yourself that there is a real demand for your offerings. In days gone by, this would have involved surveys and focus groups and taken considerable time and money, but these days it’s quick and easy.
The best place to start is to simply search Google for other people offering something similar. The volume of search results will give you an indication of the competition, which is a good start. Too many competing results means your idea probably needs to be more unique. No results at all means there might not be enough demand for it to be viable.
The real test, of course, is whether people are making money offering those services, and that’s easy enough to gauge.
For that you look at the AdWords ads, to the right of the search results. In simple terms, lots of ads mean that those photographers are making money offering those services. No ads means there’s no money to be made in that market.
That probably seems a bit over-simplified, but it really is quite simple…
People only spend money on ads that make them money, so if no one is paying to advertise a specific service, chances are good it has been tried but didn’t work.
To be sure though, you should also test your idea in a proper keyword research tool. Google offers a very useful free keyword research tool. You may need to log in to a Google Account to access it, but it’s well worth setting up!
The process is quite simple. Once logged in, type a keyword phrase into the tool that represents the product or service you’re considering building your business around. It might be the style of photography, the field of work, or the subjects you want to focus on.
Once you submit a query, you’ll get real-time data back showing you the number of people searching for that phrase–and similar related phrases–every month. So the first thing you’re looking for is search traffic–proof that people are, in fact, looking for the services you plan to offer.
The next thing to look for is the CPC value. This is the average/approximate price paid by AdWords advertisers to have their ad shown beside the search results. This is a cost-per-click, meaning the advertiser pays this amount for every single visitor they get.
So while most general photography terms might be in the $1-2 range, when you start seeing prices higher than that–sometimes $5 or more per visitor–you know you’re looking at a highly commercial term. And if that is closely related to your business idea, then you also know your concept has merit!
Of course, this kind of research is all relative and quite subjective, so spend plenty of time on it. Test some broad phrases to give yourself a benchmark, and then zoom in on phrases related to your planned business to see how it stacks up.
If you find genuine search volume you know there’s interest, and if you also verify that people are paying to advertise with those phrases, you’ll know there’s a viable market—and that’s a good starting point for building your photography business!
4. Developing Your Business Plan
It’s only after you’ve done all of the above that you’ll be ready to start planning your business, and that’s where the real work begins.
You need to spend even more time now planning how you’re going to market your offerings, transact your sales, and deliver your products or services. As a photographer your options are virtually unlimited so it’s important that you take your time to get clear on your business model so you can focus on the best options for that and avoid the distraction of trying to do too many things at once.
The good news is that by now you know you have the skills, the product or service, and the market, so it should be easier to focus on the specific processes– sales & marketing, fulfillment, and operations–that will turn your idea into a sustainable business.
One final point to keep in mind is that you don’t have to be a great photographer to build a successful photography business. In fact, there are many mediocre photographers who do extremely well on the strength of their business skills. There’s obviously minimal standards required to ensure customer satisfaction, but you should never assume great photography skills will guarantee you a successful photography business.
The truth is, you’ll be hard pressed to find a successful photography business run by a great photographer with poor business skills.
So when you consider how many talented photographers share the dream of making a business out of their photography, it should be clear that the best way to succeed is to focus on your business skills as much as you do your photography.
About the Author
Matt Brading writes for GlobalEye Images (http://globaleyegroup.com/blog/) which is a co-operative stock photography library, where independent photographers work together to increase exposure and distribute more photos.
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