When Photography Really Does Mean Business

Photography: Craig Holmes

It would be great if success at photography were only about talent, technique and the ability to produce a great picture. It isn’t. Earning a living behind the lens also means understanding the business of photography, knowing how to promote services, sell images, and protect yourself against the most damaging competition. That’s hard enough at the best of times. It’s even harder at a time when anyone can buy a good camera, practice taking pictures and start marketing themselves. But the same opportunities that now give enthusiasts access to buyers also allow smart entrepreneurial professionals to pull ahead. So what would a small, modern and successful photography business look like if it were run by a photographer who knew business?

It would probably look a lot like the business run by Craig Holmes.

While most professional photographers learn the art of photography and then struggle to pick up the commercial skills they need, Craig took up photography as a hobby while studying for a business degree in the mid-90s. His degree done, he then looked for a job that appealed to his passion rather than his studies and began climbing the career ladder of professional photography. Work experience at his local newspaper, which happened to be the UK’s largest evening title, led to his first assignment after a freelancer let the paper down. Soon he was being given regular — if low-paid – photography jobs, and after a year was offered a staff position, which he held for another year before branching out on his own as a freelance editorial photographer.

Get Big or Get Niche

The late nineties though might not have been the best time to be an editorial photographer. By 2000, Craig was finding that photography budgets at the publications he supplied were being slashed and sometimes even scrapped, a change that should have threatened his career. In fact, that shift in the market had the opposite effect.

“This was perhaps the best opportunity for me, as the magazines had space to fill and now the pressure was on commercial firms to produce their own photography and supply the magazines,” he told us. “Hence, I switched virtually overnight to being a commercial photographer that supplied the editorial market.”

Following the business principle of “get big or get niche,” Craig branded his photography as “location promotion.” He creates images that promote organizations, such as television channels, tourism businesses, government bodies and construction companies, within a certain area. For Craig, that’s the Midlands region of the UK. In practice, the images themselves might not appear too different from those created by other commercial photographers but the title allows him to broadcast the kinds of site-related photographs his business produces.

“Basically, it is my way of saying, ‘This is my niche geographical area, and I do commercial photography here.’”

But the niche branding is only one of the advantages that Craig has created for his business. He’s also developed three different revenue channels from that niche.

CraigHolmes.com is the site for his commissioned photography business. That makes up about 60 percent of his turnover. Images taken on commissioned shoots that aren’t used by clients may end up on Craig’s own niche stock site, ImagesofBirmingham.co.uk, together with self-commissioned images and shots taken by six other photographers. Those stock sales make up 30 percent of Craig’s income. And the most artistic, black-and-white images are sold as prints at CrowdedGallery.com, contributing a further 10 percent.

Marketing Photography with Twitter

Each of those channels is marketed and branded separately. Craig’s commissioned photography business relies mainly on word-of-mouth. Professionalism, he says, is the most important aspect of this part of the business, and apart from the website, it does very little traditional marketing. The stock site relies on search engine optimization, generated by well-captioned photos and pages that are search engine-friendly. Leads that can’t find the images they want on the site might then surf through to the commission site and ask Craig to produce the images for them.

“There is definitely a ‘complimentary’ relationship between stock and commissions,” says Craig, “something that would only exist in a niche area.”

Because print sales are worldwide, that part of the business relies on online marketing tools.  A blog helps, as have mentions in art magazines, but Craig also uses separate Twitter accounts for each branch of the business. His commission photography timeline lets him chat with clients; the stock timeline’s photo of the day has turned out to be one of the most effective ways of bringing visitors in; and the print site has its own timeline too.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Craig’s business though is the pricing. As other stock sites struggle with rights managed and royalty free models, Craig’s stock site employs its own pricing structure. Buyers pay a set fee based on the size of the image and are free to use the photo for twelve months. The prices range from £25 ($40) to £85 ($135) for images of more than 5000 pixels. It’s a move that came after six years of imposing usage licenses on clients who didn’t understand them.

“The clients we worked with just didn’t get it – often we were the first stock agency they had dealt with,” Craig explained. “It became clear that the library needed a new charging scheme, whilst not becoming a ‘royalty free’ site….  Gone are the days when clients wanted to chat over the price of an image; they simply see it, and want it there and then for a fair price.”

There is some flexibility. Craig recently agreed to supply 500 images for use over a ten-year period, but even this deal, he said, took just two emails and a meeting.

None of these revenue channels is particularly difficult to establish. A commissioned photography business may take time to build. It relies on connections, a recognizable niche and the kind of good service that generates referrals. But while Craig used a programmer in Norway to create his first stock site in 2003, his current version is powered by PhotoShelter, which also underpins his print site. Any photographer can do that – and now any photographer can build their own successful photography business.

4 comments for this post.

  1. Craig Holmes Said:

    Thank you very much for the kind words.


  2. Linus Bohman Said:

    Thanks for the terrific inspiration. I've recently begun thinking about picking up freelance photography again, but hadn't really considered the exact nature of it. I think I'm going to allow myself be inspired by Craig and go local.

  3. Derek Houghton Said:

    inspirational post, my old boss used to say, "Go Big, Go Niche or Go Bust" (not sure where he got it from) but it's the same principle. Nice one Craig.

  4. Brenda Genese Said:

    Enlightening words when one thinks that photography is only about the love of art. It is a business and not as easy to learn as taking a photo, but worth it. I'm in the transition of one business to going solo, so all the support I can get, all I can learn will be hopefully an asset not an ass kick. LOL


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