If you want to make a lot of money doing anything, including photography, there’s one very easy strategy: eliminate the competition. It’s certainly an approach that’s done wonders for Microsoft, and a monopoly on a section of the photography market can do wonders for any photographer too.
Of course, unless you already have enough money to buy up anyone who gets in your way, that’s not going to be an easy strategy to follow, which is why it usually makes sense to skip around the competition by focusing on a narrow niche.
But even that’s not an approach that everyone can take. If you like shooting landscapes, children, portraits, pets, events or any of the other specializations targeted by… well, just about every other photographer, you’re always going to struggle to stand out, get noticed and make your sales.
Competition though does bring with it certain advantages. The most obvious is that if a part of the market is crowded there’s usually a good reason. Photographers focus on shooting weddings because the money can be relatively good and there’s a fairly steady supply of work. Landscapes might be hard to sell, but at least they’re fun to create.
Copying your Competitors
The advantages of working in a crowded field can extend beyond a signal that the market’s big or the production enjoyable though. It can also help new entrants become competitive fast.
Browse the images on a microstock site, for example, and the first thing you’ll notice is that there are an awful lot of them available and that many of them are very good. But you’ll also be able to see how many times they’ve been viewed and how many licenses those images have sold. That can be very revealing and it’s why even top microstock photographers have been known to copy each other’s work.
When you can see what sells, why create something original and run the risk that it won’t make money?
One of the benefits of competition then is that the market testing has already been done and the results — often — plain for everyone to see. If you can’t always beat the competition, you can easily join them.
That applies to marketing too. Any photographer considering building a commercial website — which is any photographer considering at least a partly commercial future — will spend time looking at the websites of photographers who have launched before them. Today, when so many companies offer ready-made photography templates, that might not sound like an issue but being able to look at the packages on offer and the prices the photographers are charging can save a great deal of time and money spent calculating price points and offers. Even Flickr, not a commercial site but a photo-sharing site through which a great deal of commerce is done, is filled with examples of photostreams optimized for easy browsing and linked to stock portfolios and commercial spaces.
All of those marketing methods are examples of valuable knowledge handed out freely by the competition.
Helping your Competitors
And perhaps one of the biggest advantages of competitors is that they can give you a helping hand up the ladder. That’s traditionally done by the use of assistantships. In return for a helping hand, top photographers will pass on some of their knowledge to aspiring snappers… and hope that by the time they’re ready to compete, their former students have either moved on to a different geographic area or are still too inexperienced to infringe on their own client base. (Although at least one photographer has pointed out that while they might teach an assistant everything the assistant knows, they won’t teach them everything they know.)
Today, there are other methods too. An endorsement from a top Flickr photographer like Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir can help any Flickr member stand out and win additional views, and even acting as a moderator on a group run by a well-known professional like David Bean can show that you know your specialty and that you’re not part of the crowd (like the average group member).
Of course, there is another benefit that working in an atmosphere filled with other photographers can bring: it keeps you sharp, which is what competition is supposed to do anyway. That requires effort, which might not sound like fun, but the goal for any photographer is always going to be not just to make money, but to take better pictures.
The alternative is to end up like Microsoft, and make products that are progressively worse.