A photography shoot that ends with a check starts long before the photographer hits the shutter release button. It starts even before he packs his bag and selects the gear. It begins with research. Before any business, including a photography business, can produce a product, it has to know whether there’s a market for that product and how profitable it might be. Market research is an essential stage in any venture and while it’s not a straightforward effort for photographers, with a little thought and an investment of time, it’s not an impossible mission either.
The first focus of any market research is the product itself. Photographers need to know whether anyone is going to want to buy the photos they produce. Stock photographers have a range of tools that — although they can’t promise sales — can help to predict the chances of success, assuming that the image reaches the right levels of quality.
Following the Stock Market
Some of that comes down to a general market knowledge. Agencies consistently report that buyers struggle to find images that contain broad ethnic diversity, that reflect older customers or which are realistically shot instead of posed with models. Knowing that buyers are looking for images that contain those features should help to improve the chances that a photo series will produce sales. Glancing through magazines regularly, too, should give photographers a good idea of the styles that photo editors are currently looking for. Top microstock contributor Andres Rodriguez has described how he keeps records of published images that he uses to inspire his own compositions.
More helpfully, microstock sites in particular also list the images that are now selling well. Fotolia, for example, lets photographers view the most popular images today, in the last week, over the last month, and ever. Just about all the sites indicate roughly the number of licenses an image has sold, giving buyers an idea of how likely the image will have been used by a competitor and providing photographers with an impression of the kinds of pictures that buyers prefer to see when they search for a particular keyword.
While keeping an eye on that data will help to determine what to do with a search term, it won’t necessarily reveal which subjects are currently in demand. PicNiche can do that. Created by software engineer and photography enthusiast Bob Davies, the site offers toolbars used by both buyers and contributors to compare supply and demand for search terms. Crunching the data the toolbars produce allows Davies to assign a score that correlates with the level of a competition a picture on a particular topic may face. On a scale on which anything below 10 is “bad” and a score over 100 is rated a “niche,” the keyword “office” comes in at 0.33. “Beer gut” is currently 1,522, a good excuse as any to head back to the fridge.
Photographers can use the site both to check the levels of competition for a keyword they’re thinking of shooting and to see lists of current opportunities. Neither can guarantee sales, but both should give a clue to the likelihood of selling a stock license and an indication of whether the picture is worth shooting.
For photographers hoping to win event commissions, the research is a little harder. There are no tools that can tell them the right kinds of images to produce let alone the best demographics to target or the most effective marketing channels. Market research is going to be largely intuitive rather than based on the solid sales figures that stock companies produce even if they don’t share directly. On the other hand, the level of competition is going to be smaller too and largely restricted to other photographers in the same geographical area.
The research then will be mostly based on understanding what those other photographers are offering. For the images themselves that will be an assessment of whether they’re pitching traditional wedding photography images, edgier wedding photojournalism or edgiest Trash the Dress Photography. In practice, you’re likely to find that many will be offering a combination of at least the first two. The real challenge will lay not in assessing the nature of the product itself, which should be fairly straightforward, but in understanding how to deliver the images, how many images to deliver and how much to charge for them.
The Photography Pricing Process
In fact, for photographers, pricing is likelier to be a harder market research topic than subject. Even stock photographers need to be aware of how much their pictures are worth to buyers; with agencies taking as much as 80 percent of the sales price and websites allowing them to cut out the middle man, there’s a strong incentive to know how much to charge yourself.
But stock photographers have an advantage: fotoQuote has done the work for them. The software uses sales data contributed by professional photographers to produce an accurate snapshot of current market rates. Although it costs about $150, it does take the legwork out of the research and provide a justification for charging a set price based on usage.
Event photographers are going to have be a little less scientific and look at the contents of the packages their competitors are offering and the amounts they’re charging for them. Photographers looking for other kinds of commissions, whether commercial or editorial, can do worse than follow the suggestions outlined by Susan Carr, former President of the American Society of Media Photographers and author of The Art and Business of Photography. She breaks down the pricing process into four elements: creative fee, expenses, license, and market. Each of those elements is complex and each poses a whole new set of market research questions.
But those are questions that any photographer hoping to generate revenue from their images needs to answer — and they’re answers that should be collected before the photography session begins, not once you’ve shot the images and are wondering how much to charge for them and why they’re not selling.