Shooting and Selling Through a Recession

Even during the last economic boom, times have been hard recently for professional photographers. The price of digital equipment might have fallen, cutting expenses, but with high-end cameras now within reach of amateurs the result has been an increase in the supply of photographers and of images too. At the same time, the Internet has created new distribution channels available to anyone with a memory card, and cut into the sales of print publications, a major revenue source for pros.

Magazines and newspapers have responded by hiring fewer photographers and even passing out video cameras to the photographers they do use. Media organizations as large as the BBC and The Economist have turned to Flickr as one source of free images.

And just when professionals thought it couldn’t get any worse the economy has dived, taking a bite out of everyone’s income, not to mention the value of our assets.

One solution is to give up. Toss out the camera, uninstall Photoshop and head for an industry with more certain growth potential such as nuclear arms-making or with better job security, such as Middle East peace negotiating.

But once you start, photography isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to walk away from. A photographer can put down a camera but it won’t be long before they’re picking it up again. So a better strategy is to look for the opportunities in a recession – and there are always some of those.

Getting Married on the Cheap

Weddings, for example, are a major source of revenue for many small photography businesses and have long been seen as recession-proof. People who believe they’re only going to get married once in their lives are usually ready to splash out on their big day. Not any longer. According to one report, the average cost of weddings this year fell marginally from $28,732 in 2007 to $28,704. That might not sound like a dramatic difference but it follows fifteen years of growth and a year of relatively high inflation. Even brides are looking at the figures and realizing that cutting back on the flowers can have a real impact on their mortgages.

One option then is to create low-cost wedding packages. You’d still sell your normal shoots – they’d be bought by those less concerned about the recession and they’d also give buyers a sense that they’re getting a bargain – but you’d give less and perhaps be a lot more rigid about the offer. So you might state in advance that the total shoot won’t last more than two hours, including ceremony, reception and party. Only a small number of photos might be edited and arranged, with the remainder available on a piece rate basis. And you could market more carefully too.

Chelsea Kuhn, for example, a wedding photographer in Montana, places the same ad on her local Craigslist every two days and receives one wedding gig for every ten to fifteen ads. The clients, she says, tend to be people looking for “affordable” photography rather than high end jobs – exactly the sort of demographic most likely to grow during a recession.

Promoting those budget packages exclusively on Craigslist would keep that market separate from your usual customers. Budget-conscious clients can click through to your websites to see what you usually charge and realize they’re getting a deal, but if you don’t list your mini-rates on your site, then high-paying clients won’t know that you also offer a cut-price version of your services.

Catch the Freeloaders

Offering a budget wedding package will help you to find clients worried about price. But no one expects wedding photography to be free. That isn’t the case for editorial images and even for some commercial images too. With almost 65 million images on Flickr licensed with some sort of Creative Commons licenses, image users might wonder why they should ever pay for a photo again – even in boom times.

But of course only a tiny fraction of those images will be professional quality, Creative Commons doesn’t cover every usage and finding good photos worth using on Flickr is time-consuming and painful. It’s often easier – and because it’s faster, cheaper too — to use a stock site, especially for more important projects.

As the economic downturn continues to bite though, it’s likely that more and more businesses will be inclined to cut costs and spend time looking for free photos. That means that Creative Commons is likely to become more important, at least for small businesses.

A good option then is to use CC-licensed images as bait. Offer a few carefully-keyworded photos for nothing but indicate in the caption that you have better quality images available for a low fee. Faced with a choice of continuing to search or negotiate with someone who can supply the images they want at an affordable price, many buyers will choose to pay, giving you new regular customers.

One for the Road

And if you’re thinking of traveling during these difficult days, bear in mind that firstly the dollar doesn’t go very far, but secondly neither are travel photographers. Just as a website owner is likely to pay a small fee for an image he can find easily rather than spend half a day looking for a free one, so an editor is likely to be interested in a photographer pitching pictures from the road if it means he doesn’t have to send someone on assignment.

Wherever you’re going, try to find a publication that might be interested in photos from the region, pick an editorial name from the masthead and give them a call. It’s the kind of cold conversation that’s rarely sounds like fun but just ask, don’t sell. With a little luck, you might find yourself in print.

Economic downturns are difficult for everyone. For photographers, with a little bit of smart marketing, they can be chances to make sales too.

3 comments for this post.

  1. Giulio Sciorio Said:

    I am a working advertising and editorial photographer. Last year I would not have time to shoot a wedding even if I wanted to shoot one. This year not only did I have the time but when a close friend got married he asked me to shoot the wedding.

    It was pretty simple and fun and when the night was over I had a grip of cash and I didn't need to negotiate further usage because there was none. Nice and easy and a good change of pace.

    My experience actually made me think twice about shooting weddings.

  2. Embassy Pro Books Said:

    Your right, getting into shooting weddings is a great way to get through a recession! They say the best industries to be in are: Birth, Death & Marriage. These are the few industries that will always have demand regardless of the economy.

  3. Steve Kalman Said:

    You can work the other end of the wedding gig, too.

    Lots of places have large volunteer organizations (library, church, garden club, etc) whose members are at or near retirement age, meaning they were married decades ago.

    I've offered to shoot matching wedding pictures (bring in the old one, scan it, make a new one with a similar pose, then print side by side) as a fund raiser for the organization. They make a donation for the photo to the organization at their meeting and call me for an appointment to take their new photo and scan the old one. I put a tasteful imprint on the bottom ("Photo made exclusively for [..vol org event/fundraiser name here..] by [ name here..]") I upload the pictures to Shutterfly and tell everyone the URL. They order prints and do framing on their own (they also love looking at their fellow volunteers' photos).

    Since I'm not paying for printing or framing, other than my time, there's no real cost.

    However, it keeps my name in front of them full time. When they need a photographer they don't go to the yellow pages. They call me.

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