Successful photography is as much about what’s in the mind as what’s in the camera. While taking great images will always be essential to making money from photography, there are plenty of talented, skilled photographers with hard drives full of fantastic photos who aren’t making a dime. And as a quick look at any microstock site will tell you there’s also no shortage of photographers with mediocre talent who are making sale after sale.
The difference lies in the way that photographers who make money out of their talent think about their images. They understand that photography is a business – even if it’s not the business that pays their mortgage. The production, sales and customer service all have to be conducted professionally. The images don’t have to be fantastic; they just have to serve a purpose. And the operations have to completed with the recognition that when someone is paying for something, they expect that something to do exactly what they’re paying for.
That begins with the hardest step of all…
Thinking of Photos as Products
For photographers who rely on their cameras to pay their bills, regarding photos as products is a step that happens naturally and out of necessity. But for enthusiasts who shoot primarily for the pleasure of taking a great picture, it is something that requires a different way of thinking.
A beautiful photograph is a work of art. The composition, the subject, the story the image tells and the way it tells it all incorporate an artist’s creativity. The success with which it achieves its goals reflects the photographer’s grasp of his or her craft.
But none of that means a thing commercially if an image is too avant-garde to be displayed in a home or a collection, and too artistic to be used in a commercial or alongside content.
When shooting art, entrepreneurs think “Would anyone buy this?” And when shooting stock, they think “How could someone use this?”
For an entrepreneurial photographer, it’s not just the image that counts but the way the image will be used… and whether it’s capable of being used at all.
Preparation and Marketing are as Important as Shooting
Enthusiastic photographers also assume that the work ends when the shooting is complete. Entrepreneurial photographers recognize, even if they’re not happy about it, that the hard work is about to begin.
They have to refine and sell the image.
Established professionals regard this part of their business as essential but something that they can leave to experts who can do it better than they can. Both stock photographer Ron Chapple and microstock photographer Yuri Arcurs employ people whose job is to prepare the products they’ve created for market and tag them appropriately.
“Our studio is a team effort,” Ron Chapple told us. “There’s two photographers shooting full-time, plus our digital artists also create illustrations… We’ve learned that shooting is only a small part of the overall process — editing, color-correction, retouching and adding keywords is the lion’s share of the workflow.”
Together with placing the images on websites and marketing those sites, the editing and keywording is unlikely to be the most enjoyable part of photography. But it is essential. It’s just fortunate that entrepreneurs also understand the value of delegation.
They outsource the work that others can do better than them, allowing them to focus on the most valuable part of their business.
The Buyer Always Knows Best
Browse the comments under the images on Flickr, and you might be mistaken for thinking that everyone on the site has the eye of Man Ray and the technique of Ansel Adams. Every shot is a “great capture” and every upload a “beautiful photo.”
There are lots of wonderful pictures on the site, of course, but by definition, there are also very few works of genius. While enthusiastic photographers allow themselves to be affected by praise from other hobbyists, entrepreneurial photographers pay attention only to the voice that really matters: that of the buyer.
The only test that shows if an image is good enough to be sold is whether it sells. And the only criterion that an entrepreneurial photographer has to meet is the requirements of the market.
But that means more than just producing images that editors, designers and collectors want to buy. It also means treating them not as admirers but as customers. Thinking like an entrepreneur involves keeping track of who buys the most images and which kind of photos they want. It means keeping them informed when you release a new subject range, producing discounts and incentives, and handling complaints quickly.
It means seeing a photo that generates a hundred positive comments as less successful than a photo that generates one check.
Sales are to be Expected, Not Celebrated
Perhaps the biggest difference in the way that entrepreneurs and the enthusiasts think though is in their expectations. Professionals and entrepreneurs expect to make sales. They understand that a product that doesn’t sell, however beautiful and well-made it may be, is a failure.
When they produce a photo, they assume that it’s good enough to sell, and that it will sell enough to make a profit.
That’s not just one of the hardest shifts in thinking to make though, it’s also one of the most important because it usually has a strong effect on pricing. For enthusiasts, the thrill of a sale may be reward enough so they’re often willing to lower the price, keen to take the opportunity when it arises. Entrepreneurs though, believe that there’s another sale and another buyer just around the corner so they stick to their guns, demanding the price that they know the market demands – and they also know what the market demands.
Photography is an unusual business. It relies on artistry and creativity as well as the kind of physics-related technical skills that would frighten many free-thinking art school types. To be financially successful at photography though, to produce the kind of pictures that sell and to use talent to build even a small photographic business, requires thinking in a particular way. You can still think like an artist and be a photographer. But to make money, you also need to think like an entrepreneur.