by seanlow on January 25, 2010

Scott Bourne wrote a great post today about protecting the integrity of wedding photography.  He rails against those photographers who would massively under price their work.  It is a terrific post and I could not have broken it down better:  massively undercutting on price cheats the client, the industry and, most of all, the photographer.  However, like it or not, what Scott describes as the state of the market is not going away:

Everyone who owns a camera – and that seems to be everyone period – thinks they could be a professional photographer. How many times have you heard “You must have a nice camera” after showing off a portfolio-quality image? We’re already battling a severely under-educated clientele. The client thinks ANYONE can do our job. We’re fighting mass competition and a public that doesn’t know better.

And, even more to the point: even if the market DOES know that quality costs, it won’t cost what it did yesterday and certainly not what it did three years ago.

I aspire, with Scott, to have everyone in the business of being creative properly value their art.  However, I also do not believe that the way most creative businesses operate will be sustainable for much longer.  It is just too hard to rely on the next project and constantly chase after new clients along with your ever-growing competition.  Your lumpy cash flow will probably get lumpier and your profit margins squeezed ever tighter.

To survive, you are going to have to evolve your business model.  You are going to have to figure out how to extend the life cycle of your customers and create an annuity business for yourselves. By annuity, I mean a sustainable, consistent revenue stream based on the core strengths of your creative business.  It can be some sort of membership, consulting/advisory service or other ongoing stream.  The annuity business can be to the trade or for consumers.  The point is that the annuity will be the base revenue stream that will support the fluctuations in your core creative business.  The annuity will also help you redefine how you price your core projects.  For instance, if you create a membership, you can price your core project (i.e., wedding, large commercial project, corporate event, etc.) into that membership.  By doing so, you might be able to shoot that wedding for $500, if you can assure yourself of a guaranteed stream from the client that far exceeds the $500 each year for many years to come.

In the end, you get to the same place – extracting proper value for your art.  Creating your new business model to extract that value is going to take time, require you to take calculated risks and rethink everything you “know” about your business.  As Seth Godin said recently: to affect change, you are going to have faith beyond any facts you are presented with.  Just please remember: change is hard, progress a process and determination a necessity.


1 Carolyn January 25, 2010 at 11:01 pm

I have been trying to come up with some sort of monthly fee for people for a long time now and haven’t been able to come up with anything! (sigh) I need ideas!

2 Alexandra Jusino January 25, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Can’t wait to meet you at the Day of Education in Chicago in a week. Every single day I think of a question that’s been on my mind about my business and you not only answer it, but give me a new perspective on the way of running the business. Thank you for writing these posts.

3 Tom McCallum January 25, 2010 at 11:26 pm

As a tourism professional for many years and now a marketing and strategy consultant (who finds Sean’s writings a must read!), these are accurate yet scary thoughts for the wedding professional. After all, where is that ongoing client loyalty / revenue stream going to come from on what is intrinsically a one time purchase ?

To me the answer comes back to networking, and networking with those who can bring you ongoing business leads. Yes, that can mean the wedding planner and others who get the first call, but (let’s stay with photographers) wedding photographers also could (in most cases) do a far better job of building their own brand, independent of their network, and so be the first point of contact from that bride-to-be. In addition to getting more business, makes sense that there is intrinsic network value in being the originator of the stream of business that spins out to others from that first contact.

One other observation is that, in far too many cases, a greatly overlooked resource is the staff of hotels that specialise in weddings. With the rapidly increasing trend (put on steroids by the web in recent years) for brides to DIY more and more of their own planning and execution, the Hotel group planner (or, as one of my clients calls the role, “wedding guru” !) is increasingly that point of contact. That particular fairly small client does 70+ weddings a year, up from zero 5 years ago. Wouldn’t it be good to make sure you are the professional called for photography (or flowers, or beauty, or reception planning etc etc). Now there’s something that many could focus more on in order to gain repeat customer business.

4 J Sandifer January 25, 2010 at 11:36 pm

There will always be people that race to the bottom, it has been in our industry for years and will be here for many more. Scott and I had a conversation recently about hope for our industry and understanding the possibilities…an industry that has lowered the threshold of entry, but the possibility to distance yourself from the crowd with quality work and brand. I fear for those that are afraid of the $500 photographer taking their work…really?

I agree on Change…creating an annuity is certainly that, working on that now 🙂

You should come out to Vegas for WPPI!

5 Scott Bourne January 26, 2010 at 6:11 am

Sean this is a well-written piece with a good message. I agree that creatives need to build value – and your ideas are good starting points. One thing that wedding pros have going for them is that if they do a good job with the wedding, they have a built-in opportunity to see and photograph the family again – when the first child is born. When I ran a wedding practice I always offered to come photograph the mother and baby in the hospital – for free – as a reminder of our bond with the family. Of course when I delivered the free 8×10 I offered solutions for photographing the child going forward along with new family portraits, prints for relatives, etc. It always worked well and is just the kind of thing you are talking about. Nice to see someone else beating the right drum. Thanks.

6 Daniel Sroka January 26, 2010 at 8:52 am

Fine art photography has also been greatly effected by the downward pressure of so many people being willing to sell their “fine art” for barely enough money to cover their expenses. Visit Etsy, and you find many photographers are selling their prints for $5, $10, $20. While I understand and respect the joy a new artist experiences at having someone willing to pay *any* amount for their work, they need to understand the long-term implications of the market that they are creating — a market that is trained to equate “fine art” with the price of a pizza.

7 CalebC. January 26, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Produce quality work. Find receptive people. Build true relationships.

It’s not a business model. It’s just good living.

8 Catherine Hall January 26, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Great advice. I definitely agree that marketing your work and building its value is very important. I find building and maintaining relationships of utmost important in the wedding photography industry.

9 Bryan Johnson January 26, 2010 at 10:22 pm

I’m with you on this one, Caleb.

10 ABC Dragoo January 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Last weekend, I was at a party. Me (stationery designer) and two friends (interior designer, and custom shoe maker) were having a very similar conversation. I wish you were there with these ideas!

At some point – there has got to be a turn around. This might just be the way.

I see too many creatives across the board who are giving themselves (mostly their time) away for free. They take jobs where they barely cover materials and don’t even come close to paying themselves for their effort. I think it cheapens their brand to give themselves away like that.

Great post as always Sean.

11 Mary Gardella January 27, 2010 at 10:41 am

As photographers/artists we will constantly struggle with those that undercut the market for the fast buck. There are also those who are afraid to charge what they are worth and undercut themselves. Our biz model in theory works towards keeping the client with us through all those life change. In practice, it’s much more difficult to accomplish. When you mentioned this idea to us during our recent conversations I thought what a great way to maintain those relationships. Definitely thinking more along these lines.

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