I had an email this week from a photographer wanting to know the best way to get started in the business of photography. As questions go, it’s about as open-ended as you’re going to get, but the interesting thing is, it’s one I get all the time. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that people want easy answers and cookie-cutter solutions, but the fact is, photography as a business is never going to be so simple.
The business of photography is something that you really need to approach based on a honest assessment of your abilities, strengths and interests. From there you can then 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 photography 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.
So with all this in mind, this is the gist of my response to the would-be pro photographer.
1. Start with an honest assessment of 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 everything thinks they’re a great photographer with real prospects, you need to work out what makes you different?
- What specialised skills do you have that will set you apart from the crowd?
- What interests and knowledge do you have that you can use to in your work?
- What subjects & fields do you do your best work with?
- Do you have a distinct personal style of work that sets you apart?
- Is you equipment suitable for creating high-res, 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 & marketing experience do you have?
The idea here is to first of all identify the kinds of products and services you’re able to offer, and then assess whether those photographic services are of commercial quality?
2. Is there a market for those products and/or 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 to use it. So 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 people 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 as professionally?
- If the buyer was to view your portfolio and that of your ‘competitor’, who would they choose to do the job?
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 as good as the competition.
You also need to be clear on what you’re offering, who your offering it to, and why they are going to buy.
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 little more than 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 is super quick and easy.
The best place to start is to simply search in 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 and possibly your idea needs to be more unique. None at all and there mightn’t 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 login 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.
Regardless, once you submit 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 besides 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 … sometime $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 the zoom in on phrases related to your planned business, and see how it stacks up.
If you find genuine search volume you know there’s interest and if you also people 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 Photography Business Plan.
It’s only after you’ve done all this that you’ll be ready to start planning your photography 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, by now you know you have the skills, the product or service, you know there’s a market for it and you’re confident that people will pay you for it, 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, 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.
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