Photo copyright: James R Salomon for Sabrina Inc. Interior design: Andie Day, LLC.
Wouldn’t it be great if you never had to look for photography work yourself? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had someone looking out for your interests, someone with contacts in the industry, knowledge of the business and an understanding of your photography and what it takes to negotiate the best possible rates both for stock and for interesting commissions? For years, that’s always been the role of photographic agencies, companies that clients can turn to when they need a photographer and who then parcel out the work to the appropriate talent. Agencies though tend to represent top-end photographers, the kind of people who are sent to shoot magazine covers or photograph oil rigs for annual reports. A few agencies though are relatively small. Focusing on a particular niche, they represent a handful of photographers and are able serve clients smaller than BP by being flexible, fast and specialized.
Sabrina Inc. was set up in 2008 by Sabrina Velandry, a former studio manager for a Boston-based interiors photographer. After her first child was born, Velandry chose to take the photography business knowledge that she’d picked up working for one photographer and apply it to a group of photographers whose stock images and assignment photography her firm would represent.
Choosing to specialize in the market for interiors, Velandry was able to build a client base made up primarily of home and garden magazines who turned to her firm for both stock images and commissions.
The idea might have been sound but the timing wasn’t. The economy sank in the same year she founded the firm, a recession that, combined with the growth of the Internet, hit publishing particularly hard.
“We would literally be working on a stock search for a particular magazine, or shooting for another, and by the time I went to deliver the work, the magazine would have folded,” Velandry recalls. “It was frightening times.”
Velandry responded by expanding into new areas. Noticing that the decline of traditional publishing was taking place as the app market took off, she expanded into app development, becoming one of the first publishers in Apple’s App Store and helping to bring her clients’ magazines onto mobile platforms before many of the big publishing houses had spotted the importance of the new technology.
Small is Beautiful
That move into brand management and mobile publishing — into helping clients with needs that stretch beyond photography — has helped the firm through the decline in traditional publishing but, Velandry says, it was only possible because of Sabrina Inc’s small size. Being small meant that the firm was able to move quickly and to provide a closer, more personal level of support.
It also allows the company to accept photography jobs which are unusual, for which it might not have a template but which its photographers would be able to complete. Velandry has found that sometimes just being on location and talking to someone who needs photography can lead to a new client and a service that requires new negotiations with the photographer.
“If a unique situation presents itself we work out an agreement before the job starts. This works 99.9 percent of the time,” Velandry says. “We have a common goal; we all want work, and we all want to get paid fairly for our services.”
Surprisingly, Sabrina Inc’s specialization has also managed to protect it from some of the fluctuations in the photography industry — but not all of them. When it comes to unique stock images of home, garden, food and lifestyle photography, for example, the company’s prices are high end and haven’t dropped at all. When the market for shots of home furnishings fell with the real estate market, the demand for food photography grew and has held up even as the market for luxury home images has started to bounce back. Supported by the brand management side of the business, the company also now photographs musicians.
$3,000 is Better Than Nothing
The fees for assignment photography though have either remained flat or, more usually, dropped significantly. A client who ordered a shoot for a regional advertising campaign in 2006 and paid $5,000 (including expenses) recently paid just $3,000 for the same deliverables.
“In the end, it’s still $3,000 more than you had yesterday,” Velandry muses.
At the moment, the company represents just four photographers: Dan Cutrona, James R. Salomon, Ted Axelrod and Rob Karosis. While Velandry is keen to sign up more talent, assessing new photographers takes time. Portfolios have to be reviewed and the photographers have to be consulted about their goals, needs and aspirations. A gallery of their images is also added to the firm’s website. No less importantly, Velandry takes care to make sure that members of her stable aren’t competing against each other. While there may be some overlap in services, each photographer has his or her own strength and photographers aren’t usually vying for the same job.
As a photography agency then, Sabrina Inc. stands out mostly by not standing out. Representing the stock and assigned photography of just a handful of photographers, and specializing in a niche consisting of home and lifestyle images, it’s been able to generate work for a small group of select photographers. Could it be a solution for other photographers looking to outsource the marketing of their services to someone who understands the business and can bring in the clients?
The small size suggests the model’s limitations. The more photographers Sabrina Inc. takes on and the larger it grows, the more likely it is to lose the dynamism, flexibility and personal connections with both clients and photographers that have enabled it to succeed so far. To help lots of photographers then would require lots of experts in individual photography niches being willing to act as agents on behalf of photographers — and people with the knowledge and contacts of Sabrina Velandry are no less rare than seriously talented photographers.
On the other hand, successful photographers do build up that knowledge themselves. While few photographers want to see their studio manager break away, form their own company and leave them to find a replacement, some might be willing to turn their successful businesses into management agencies too. It wouldn’t be the first time that photographers have come together to manage their work.