Entrepreneurial Photographers Become Successful Developers

Image courtesy: Light Blue Software

Become a successful photographer and it won’t be long before other photographers are asking how you did it. They’ll want to know how you take your pictures, what sort of equipment they should use and what tips you can offer about shooting in low light, bright light, no light. If you’re on photography forums, you can expect to be fielding questions and receiving giant amounts of gratitude for your professional answers. And people will even pay for that advice. For many successful photographers, the stage after building a full schedule and a glowing reputation isn’t hiring more photographers or even publishing a photography book. It’s putting on a photography workshop.

Workshops though usually explain the techniques of photography. Sometimes, they’ll also explain the business of photography, teaching marketing and business-building. But they always sell information that the students have to take away and use. A few photographers are going a little further. They’re not just selling their knowledge, they’re offering the physical tools that they’ve created to build their photography business.

Tom Catchesides, for example, began his photographic career while studying economics at Cambridge University. He hoped to become a writer for the university’s student newspaper, but between assignments volunteered to photograph the bands the newspaper was reviewing. After leaving college in 2003, that interest in picture-taking grew into a photography business that combines wedding photography with corporate photography and occasional PR work.  In 2008,  he was voted one of the ten best wedding photographers in the UK.

Invited to Put on Workshops

Tom’s move into workshops wasn’t planned. Two years ago, he was approached by Calumet, a chain of photography equipment stores, who invited him to put on some seminars for other photographers.  His last workshops have been about post-production and workflow, teaching professional photographers how to stay on top of the work that comes after the shoot.

“So that they can spend more time taking pictures and building their businesses,” Tom explains.

Tom will do another set of workshops for Calumet this year, but his main focus, he told us, is divided between his wedding photography and a software company that he launched last year to sell business programs to photographers.

Light Blue Software’s main product is Light Blue: Photo. A workflow and studio management program, Light Blue: Photo lets photographers manage enquiries, send personalized messages to clients, place bookings in calendars, issue invoices, track expenses, and even review the effectiveness of a photography business’s marketing strategies. It can also create Web galleries with a built-in shopping cart and, as a bonus, publish commitments to either iCal or Google Calendar, allowing photographers to view them on their iPhones and Blackberries.

“We’re well aware that it’s possible to manage a photography business with bits of paper, various spreadsheets, a diary, etc.,” says Tom, “but Light Blue: Photo brings everything together into one streamlined package. That saves you from having to remember where everything is and, more importantly, it save a lot of duplication.”

Whether it will save enough time to cover the program’s £295 price tag is another question. According to Tom, the program’s profitability depends on the amount of time a photographer’s current system takes to use, but he predicts that it can save busy photographers “hours every week.” Depending on how much the photographer earns per hour, those saved hours should quickly add up to more than the price of the license.

Create a New Revenue Stream

What is clear though is that the program provides another dimension to Tom Catchesides’ photography business. In addition to earning from wedding clients, corporate shoots and workshops, he’s been able to add another revenue stream based on a program that he’s been using in one form or another since he created his business.

Like his workshops, the idea to offer the program came as a result of demand from others. Photographers, said Tom, had been hassling him for years to let them use his workflow system ever since he had created it for his own business in 2003. He formed the software company in 2008 then spent six months working closely with a variety of photographers to test the program before release. Today, the development and company management does take up much of his time — perhaps not the best result for a process that was first developed to allow him to spend more time shooting — but he is able to leave the work to his team while he’s out taking pictures.

Tom though, isn’t the only photographer to have seen his workflow system as a product that can be sold as well as an asset to his own business. Fran Howlett is a portrait and wedding photographer in Perth, Australia. Her husband, Peter is an electronic engineer, and the couple together run TimeExposure, a professional photography software company. Their main product, ProSelect, was designed for photographers who choose and lay out the images in front of their clients. The company claims to have sold “thousands” of copies and “many” businesses using the software “have reported at least a 50% increase in sales.”

Clearly, programs that share a successful photographer’s workflow tool have to be effective. Learning a new system takes time and expense, even if that investment is paid back in the long run. Creating the system and marketing it also demand a whole new set of skills that go beyond the challenges of building a wedding photography business. Having a professional engineer close at hand, as Fran Howlett does, will always be helpful. But more important is the kind of drive that’s strong enough to move a photographer outside the relatively comfortable world of photography into an area as different as software production and marketing. It means hiring coders, designing functions, testing the program and setting up a way to field the inevitable support questions that technical products always generate. It requires the kind of willingness to take risks that’s essential for every high-flying photographer. As Tom Catchesides puts it:

“Any successful professional photographer needs a combination of photographic talent and an entrepreneurial streak.”

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