Photographers and the Economic Crisis

Photography: TW Collins

Photographers could be forgiven for feeling a little schadenfreude these last weeks – or at the very least, enjoying the idea that they reached the party a little early. As the value of Wall Street portfolios plummet, photographers can nod their head and say, “Now you know it’s like when stock prices fall.”

Sure, we might all be talking about different kinds of stock but the result is the same: money that we thought was safe and hoped would provide for us in our old age has shrunk to a size barely capable of keeping us in tartan blankets and Werther’s Originals.

Photographers, of course, have been suffering for a while. That might make us all into experts and capable of teaching others how to cope with tough times, but there are plenty of lessons in the Credit Crunch that can help photographers build a business more stable than a bank’s.

What are your Chances of Success?

The most important perhaps relates to risk. It was the inability to assess risk, the probability of failure and its costs that lie at the heart of the current problems, and those are things that every small business needs to be able to understand… or at the very least be able to cope with.

The easiest way to hedge is to develop multiple revenue streams. That’s something we’ve seen a number of photographers do anyway, often prompted by the decline in the prices of their stock photos. They’ve set up their own one-person stock companies in an attempt to stem the fall and cut out the middle man. They’re pushing harder than ever for commissions. They’re trying to market prints, even though that can be a hard sell. And they’re even branching out into low-price, high-volume products such as postcards, an option that some photographers have reported to be very successful even if putting them in stores can be difficult.

But it’s one thing to create systems for multiple revenue streams, it’s another to make sure they’re actually all operating. Although different streams will always bring different amounts of revenue, often you’ll find that one or two streams make up the bulk of your income while the remainder provide a bonus extra. It’s the photographers’ own version of the 80/20 Rule – that 80 percent of a business’s income will derive from 20 percent of its clients.

As long as the total is enough to supply a decent amount of income, it’s tempting then to ignore the other 20 percent. Tempting, but risky. As stock photographers have found, the collapse of a major revenue stream can come unexpectedly and leave them scrabbling for other sources of funds. It’s much better to prepare in advance so that if the worst does happen, your back-up is ready to hand.

Managing your Debt

Another aspect of the Credit Crunch that has a lesson for photographers is the drying up of capital and the inability – or unwillingness — of homeowners to pay their debts. Creating a photography business, especially a small one, doesn’t require taking out a second mortgage but it does demand a capital outlay. Cameras aren’t cheap and neither are lenses, lighting gear, software and backgrounds.

Professional photographers have to take all of these expenses into account when they provide quotes and calculate estimates. Semi-professionals – enthusiasts who bought the equipment for fun and now find that they’re skilled enough to make the odd sale – tend to neglect them. If incomes become stretched and an expensive hobby less easy to justify, that might change, and that’s no bad thing. Even if you have a day-job, photography prices should reflect the real cost of producing the image – if only because it means that you’re hobby will be self-funding.

And it’s likely that professionals too will need to have a more realistic idea of how much they’re likely to earn and how much debt they can service now that asking nicely is no longer enough to secure a loan. That might mean sacrificing speed of growth for building a secure foundation but again, that’s not a bad thing either.

If there was one piece of schadenfreude that we’ve all been enjoying though, it’s the sight of the banks going cap-in-hand to the government and asking for money – even if it is our money they’re asking for. It’s nice to see arrogance humbled but before we smile too much, it’s also worth asking what has caused the drop in photography stock prices and whether dismissing it out of hand is the best strategy.

The demand for commercial images hasn’t changed – if anything the Web has made it bigger. What has changed is the size of the supply, which has grown so fast that microstock sites are able to offer photographs for around a dollar each. That’s a situation that has caused many professionals to turn up their nose and dismiss those open submissions as both under-priced and low quality.

Other photographers though are taking a different line. Ron Chapple, for example, an experienced stock photographer, also submits some of his images to microstock companies. While the returns for each license might be low, he clearly believes that the generous conditions and the rewards in the long term make it worthwhile. Humility might not be fun but when money’s tight, it might be best to accept that if you can’t beat what’s causing the problem, you may as well join it. After all, no one’s offering photographers a $700 billion bailout.

2 comments for this post.

  1. laura ann Said:

    have you ever sold photoart? i don't want to do stock (at this point i don't need to as i am 'gainfully' employed as a stay at home homeschool mommy.

    i do have my first 'show' locally and want to know how to price my work.


    [email protected]

  2. Fotografo Matrimoni Said:

    Hard times coul be time of oportunity.
    Some people will exit from the market leaving you their customers.

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