Photography For a Living Part 1 – Coloratti Keith Cooper
by Dave Mobbs – November 13th, 2015
Keith Cooper is a professional commercial photographer and X-Rite Coloratti based in Leicester in the UK.
Whilst he loves taking photos for a living, it’s about so much more. In this two part article he covers some of the key questions and considerations he’s had to look at, both before setting up Northlight Images in 2004, and since, to ensure the company continues to develop in a fast changing business environment.
Part one of the article looks at what it means to be a professional photographer and why taking photos is only part of a profitable business. Part two will look at the myths of ‘exposure’ and why active marketing needs to be a key everyday element of your business. It also addresses the costs of business and asks if letters after your name impress anyone other than your mum?
People ask me what do you do?
What do I do for a living? – I run a photography business and as part of that I take photos.
Photography for a living
The other day I heard someone on a forum asking where they could sell their photos? The responses largely comprised of the usual web sites that offered galleries and managed sales for you. Not one answer questioned why anyone would want to buy the photos.
Over the years I’ve received a steady stream of requests asking similar questions. One of my first responses is always to ask who they think might want to buy their work and why.
Invariably, their desired answer was for me to actually tell them who and preferably include their phone number. Oh, and if I could tell them how much to charge, it would be really helpful too.
This comes down to what is one of the hardest things for many aspiring professional photographers to truly accept.
Produce the photos clients want, not what you want to make.
As a working photographer it’s my job to produce images that meet my client’s needs. Part of my job is to provide creative input and interpretation that produces great looking pictures, but it still has to meet the needs of the client.
In the case of selling prints, I may not have a specific client asking for an image, but it helps to think about why someone would buy it. In the case of landscapes, people buy images just because they like it, or far more commonly, because of a personal connection with the location. I may have some great looking prints from when I was travelling in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, but I’ve sold more prints of local Leicestershire landmarks.
Hood Canal, Washington State – not very local.
I love making large prints, and have a large format printer, which I use with a range of carefully profiled papers to make prints in colour and black & white. I get a real sense of achievement creating a 30″ x 45″ print and seeing it on a wall – however, as anyone running a gallery here in the UK will tell you, the most popular print size is A3+ (13″ x 19″)
Why? Because in the UK, very few people have walls large enough to show massive prints.
One of my images of Curve Theatre in Leicester, in a Leicester Hotel.
I know people produce large prints for exhibitions – they look great, but expect to have many of them still at the end of the show.
What works in print making applies to all my work.
It’s not about what you like.
It’s my job to produce great photos. One of my favourite definitions of what it means to be a ‘pro’ is that you have to produce great photos even when you don’t feel like it, or when the subject is not one that fires your enthusiasm.
I’m a commercial and architectural photographer – when setting up the business I chose not to deal with the public, so no portraits, weddings or pet photos. That’s not to denigrate other areas of photography, just I have no real interest in them.
Whilst photographing new buildings at a school, I was asked to take shots for the school brochure, and for these big prints.
As an industrial photographer I get to go round factories and manufacturing facilities. That really appeals to my engineering and scientific background, and I find that being able to understand what’s going on really helps me produce images that can get a strong message over.
A wire taping machine, set for initial loading. Image used for promotional materials and for set-up guide.
What happens though when a client contacts me and asks if I can ‘just’ take a few staff photos ‘while I’m there’?
Do I say ‘no, I don’t do head shots, just machinery and people at work’?
Of course not, I’ll take along suitable lighting and maybe a simple backdrop for some basic portrait work. I’ll probably make sure that Karen (my wife and business partner) comes along, since she’s better at the people wrangling side of things.
It adds to the work carried out for the client, and taking along the extra kit makes it easier to show how the photos of employees are additional work – which will need to be paid for.
A satisfied client sees the value of your work, which is a far bigger idea than the simple cost. Sell the value of your work, not the price.
A satisfied client is more likely to mention you positively to others and come back the next time they need some work.
Of course, how do you know if a client was satisfied with your work? You ask them…
Repeat work is many times easier to get than new clients, and if you include the effort (as you should) involved in marketing your services as a cost, is much more profitable too. It seems so obvious, but many photographers lose contact with clients after a job, so making repeat business so much harder. Sorry, but clients have much more on their minds than remembering who you are – you need to help them with that one.
Profit – yes, this is not a job
Ah yes, profit… That is why I do my professional photography. It pays the bills and puts food on the table.
I do take photos for my own enjoyment and the reviews and articles I write give me an ‘excuse’ to experiment more and expand my knowledge, but the articles also bring in an advertising revenue and promote some aspects of my business.
Southwell Minster – combining my interest in cathedrals and an excuse to test a new lens, in this case the Canon EF11-24mm, for a lens review.
If you’ve spent time working for others, then profit is not something you really think about. Even if you’ve spent time in the financial department of a business, it’s not -your- profit. A job pays you for doing work that makes the business a profit that may in some ways reflect back into your wages or bonus.
If you’re running your own photography business, then profit and loss are much more intimate concepts – you pay for the pens in the stationary cupboard, and you know how much it costs to run your car and travel to clients.
Profit is what keeps your business running. Whilst there may be the temptation to cut prices to get work, remember that a client who gets a discount on their first job with you, will only see any return to your full rates as a price hike. Clients that choose you just on price will just as quickly drop you on price, no matter how good the work was. Take any strong concentration on price in initial contacts with a new client as a potential red flag. There are jobs not worth doing.
It can really help to have basic procedures in place for handling enquiries, and to know where the costs are in your business. Karen looks after much of the business side of Northlight Images, and quite rightly has banned me from giving quotes for work over the phone. We now have a proper procedure for handling enquiries and getting quotes out for work. The procedures work very well, offering different packages and options (pitched at emphasising their value to the client) to match the client’s requirements, and help me resist the temptation to ‘knock a bit off the price’ just because I feel like it. It also gives us the option to up-sell different package options, in terms of how they benefit the client.
It’s also worth pointing out that ‘photo credits’ do not pay bills and in the real world ‘exposure’ counts for very little.
Part two of this article looks at the myths of ‘exposure’ and why active marketing needs to be a key everyday element of your business. It also addresses the costs of business and whether qualifications and professional organisations are of any tangible value to your business.
Keith Cooper is a member of the X-Rite Coloratti Group due to his expertise in the field of photography and color management. He has written articles on many X-Rite products including ColorChecker Passport, i1Display Pro and ColorMunki Photo solutions, you can read these and more on his articles and reviews link.
Keith’s Web sites (as of 2015)