Photography For a Living Part 2 – Coloratti Keith Cooper
by Dave Mobbs – November 16th, 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 two 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 asks if letters after your name impress anyone other than your mum? Part one of the article looked at what it means to be a professional photographer and why taking photos is only part of a profitable business.
You can find Part 1 of Keith’s blog here
Part Two – Who are you again?
I’m a photographer who helps businesses make a better first impression.
If photo credits count for nothing, then how do you get noticed?
I’m inclined to suggest that, for most people, ‘getting noticed’ is a cover for not actively going out and marketing their business. There is a conceit that if your photos are ‘good enough’, then someone will come along and ask you to do work for them.
It’s very similar to having a web site that’s virtually all pictures since, as someone really did say to me about their site, ‘the work should speak for itself’. It seems to come as a surprise to some that these mythical companies hiring photographers do not have teams of people tirelessly scouring the web for talent. Just as people at most clients have far better things to do than remember each person they get in for a job, they also rarely go actively looking for new photographers.
If they don’t remember you, and are rarely inclined to search, then how do you get seen? It’s called marketing.
The business owner loved this picture of an arc furnace being checked in the UK, but we were working via a US based agency for a US project, so made sure that the UK client knew who we were, for when they wanted some photos for themselves.
Marketing is not something that only big companies do, or something that is a little beneath your ‘art and vision’. It needs to be active, you need to find who needs work you can supply and let them know that you exist -and- how you can benefit them.
Note that I say ‘how you can benefit them’ – this is very different to telling people what you can do. It may seem a little crass, but if you assume that every potential client who visits your web site wants an answer to just one question: “What’s in it for me”, then you won’t go far wrong.
Obviously a web site is an important part of your overall marketing strategy, but it needs to address the people who might hire you, and answer their questions and demonstrate the true value (benefit) of working with you.
As a small business, marketing is something that should always be at the back of your mind.
A conversation about photographing small things with one person at a business meeting led to an enquiry from an electronics company, initially about photographing single components. As an experiment I produced a few more creative shots, which were used for a trade show display. This led to a new page on our web site covering such work, which in turn led to more enquiries and assignments.
Over 60 stacked focus shots were used to get the depth of field needed for this image, printed just over 2 metres wide
I’m currently working on a major re-write of our company web site – part of that is for practical reasons, in that it’s just got too big. More importantly is that it enables me to devote different sections to meeting the needs of people visiting it. At the simplest level, people who arrive to read one of my reviews or technical articles (from around the world) are unlikely to want to hire me as a photographer.
Already I’ve produced two new sites, one aimed at just our architectural work, and one with just our stock photos of Leicester, where I live in the UK. It’s a huge job (there are many hundreds of articles on the existing site) but it’s driven by an understanding of how and why the site helps the business in different ways.
If all this seems rather dull and businesslike, then what about ways of speeding things up? What about that guy who’s now working as a pro photographer after someone saw his work on Instagram?
Playing the lottery – social media
Who is that guy on Instagram? How did he do it?
If it could happen with him, then surely you should make sure that your work is ‘out there’? While you’re at it, I’m sure that similar things have happened to people on Facebook and 500px and Flickr and maybe even Google+
Come to think of it I once met someone who had won many thousands on the Lottery – perhaps I really should go and buy a ticket next week. However, I do keep thinking of this sign I saw when driving down I-5 for the Oregon lottery (it’s a 150% crop of an image taken through a car window so a bit unclear).
Lottery games should not be played for investment purposes
Or, maybe I should look at the parts of our business I want to develop, decide who our potential clients are, and come up with a marketing plan that divides up our limited resources in ways that maximise the chances of some of those potential clients wanting use us to help their businesses.
If I worked with the public (weddings etc) then I might well include, for example, Facebook in my marketing mix, but for architecture and industrial work? I’d say there are better uses for my time. Facebook ‘likes’ no more pay the bills than photo credits do.
The key element here is to remember that we have limited resources and social media needs to be considered just one aspect of your marketing strategy. The mix of what works needs continual evaluation. That warm feeling you get when a load of people ‘like’ one of your photos does not count as evaluation.
One other thing. If you’re a small business then marketing should be an everyday activity. If you can consistently devote a bit of time every day to marketing activities (winning and keeping clients) you will likely win out over the person who puts it off and only does it every few weeks, months or years.
So ‘exposure’ can be a part of your marketing mix, but it works much better if it’s targeted and ties in with your other activities.
Still wondering if there isn’t the ‘big break’ out there? How about winning prizes?
Competitions are something that split opinions – personally I find little interest in managing to meet judges arbitrary criteria of ‘good and not so good’. However I know that a lot of people enjoy the challenge, even if I can’t but help feeling it’s like a bigger version of getting Facebook ‘likes’ for your work.
If you are minded to enter competitions, then be sure to be selective, if it’s part of your marketing mix. If you are after plaudits, then ones that mean something to potential clients are probably more useful. Perhaps when talking to existing clients – part of following up any work you do – you might ask if they know of any photo competitions. Just don’t be too put off if it’s none whatsoever.
Perhaps expecting them to know about competitions you’ve won is a bit optimistic, but surely they will appreciate your membership of a professional camera club and those letters you’ve managed to add after your name?
Qualifications and professional organisations
There is a big difference between qualifications that make your mum happy and ones that mean anything to people looking to hire you. I’ve two university degrees in different subjects, neither of which are related to photography. Like most people with such academic awards (in the UK) I don’t put M.Sc, B.Sc (hons.) after my name. Photography is not a regulated profession like medicine or architecture and there are (fortunately IMHO) no regulatory restrictions on calling yourself a photographer.
Experience, the right lens and a nice day are what I needed for photographing the ‘Dock’ in Leicester, not letters after my name.
In the years I’ve been running our photography business, not one client or potential client has ever enquired about my qualifications or membership of professional photographic bodies. They are interested in evidence of your work, and experience relevant to their needs (you are answering their ‘what’s in it for me’ questions).
Academic qualifications may sound great if you’re at school and thinking of a career, but if you’re looking to change careers later in life then look carefully at what is really being offered and whether it addresses enough.
In terms of business organisations, I’m a member (in the UK) of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and RIBA (Royal Institute Of British Architects) both of which are very relevant to my business. FSB for it’s work on behalf of UK small businesses and legal/insurance benefits and RIBA because I work with architects.
My membership of the FSB and meeting other business owners led to me being asked to photograph a large corporate event associated with the British Grand Prix.
I’m not a member of any UK photography organisation – I’ve looked at them over the years and just don’t see any valid business reason to pay them a subscription. I have no interest in (more) letters after my name or any of the other things I’ve seen them offer.
Despite that, I do recommend that people look at what organisations are available in their location and decide for themselves what aspects (if any) are worth the money. Ask members just what tangible business benefits they have gained – a warm feeling of mutual support may or may not count for anything, that’s for you to decide. Also, if you do join, don’t feel bad about deciding to leave after a while. A significant proportion of many groups’ membership comes from people renewing out of habit…
It’s also important to look at just who is a member of any group you are considering – one of wedding and portrait photographers would be of little relevance to my own work for example.
Membership of different organisations can be interesting and enjoyable, but remember that your business is paying for it. If you’ve not run your own business before then it’s probably not just profits you’ve been detached from, but likely the real costs as well.
The costs of business
The costs of running your business and the profit you need to live off can give a good guide to what is probably the second most asked question I get about working as a photographer – how much to charge?
At it’s most basic, let’s say I decide I need an income of £30,000 per year to live off. That’s profit that has to come from the company (or however you structure your business). I’m not working in the US so I expect a reasonable amount of holiday. Let’s say I choose to work 40 weeks of the year.
That means the business needs to make a profit of £750 for each week I’m working. If I decide that I’m only aiming to do an average of two jobs a week (80 a year), I need to average £375 profit on each job. The simple way working out how much I need to charge, is to divide the running costs of the business (insurance, marketing, equipment, software, stationary etc) by 80 and add it to the profit.
I’ll give myself a very modest budget for new and replacement kit and set the cost of running the business at £16,000 pa, which gives £200 per job.
A lens such as the Canon TS-E17mm may set you back nearly £2000, but quickly recouped its cost, and will last for years.
So for my desired income of £30k pa I need two jobs a week at an average charge of £575 per job. Note that I don’t include any tax costs here – how you deal with that will depend on how your business is structured and how good your accountant is (another cost). Don’t forget other things like a pension, and in some parts of the world, health insurance costs.
Here in the UK our business is a limited company and is VAT registered. VAT (20% charged on sales) is added to our invoices to clients. However, since we work with businesses, they get to claim it back, so are in effect not charged for it. In the same way, when I buy a new camera for the business, I get to reclaim the VAT – which can be viewed as a very useful discount.
If I was dealing with members of the public as clients, I’d have to charge VAT, but they couldn’t get it back, so my £1000 invoice becomes £1200 to them. That’s why you’ll find commercial photographers in the UK like myself are often registered for VAT, but very few wedding photographers are.
Whilst such calculations don’t give a price for a quote, they do give you an idea of the sorts of prices you need to be looking at, if you want to create a sustainable business.
You can vary the number of jobs and weeks worked, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that you can create jobs from thin air and work every day of the week. More jobs need to be found in the first place – I quite deliberately aim for only a few jobs per week, to give me time for marketing, time for my articles and review writing, and not least, time to enjoy not having a 9 to 5 job.
When it comes to finding ‘market rates’ that’s a little harder. A good web search will find suggested rates on some photographers’ web sites, and some of the photography organisations produce rates and job costing information. You’ll also find suggested methodologies for calculating usage rates and costings. For my own areas of business I find them interesting but sometimes lodged in an era of pricing that went away with the professional use of film. Many such guides address digital issues, but seem somewhat inappropriate for work dealing with other small businesses.
As should be obvious, pricing and image licensing strategies for dealing with the media department of a big multinational company won’t necessarily be the same as some photos taken of a house extension for a local building company.
A good camera – the tools for the job
The cost and effort needed to produce technically good photos has fallen over recent years.
To get some images of the quality I managed on a recent architectural job with my 50MP Canon 5Ds, back in 2002, I’d have needed a 5×4 camera and several packs of film. Not only would the equipment have cost more, but there is no way I’d have got proof images to the client the following day.
Leicester Fire service HQ
I’ve heard some say that this makes things too easy, as if there needs to be some bar to entry to professional photography.
But there still is, and it’s not really changed much, even if it’s more a bar to remaining in business for any length of time.
One of the hardest things for many aspiring professional photographers is to appreciate that technical excellence at doing a job (taking good photos that meet client’s needs) does not equate with the skills to run a business providing the same service.
In larger companies it’s possible to hire people who specialise in marketing and strategic management, but if you want a successful photo business, then that needs to be you.
I’m not saying however that technical excellence is unimportant. I sometimes see it said that a good photographer can take a great photo with any camera. I find this a somewhat pompous statement, usually uttered in an attempt to downplay the importance of technical skill and understanding in photography. If it said ‘camera suitably good enough for the end needs’ I’d be happier.
In truth great photography, for me, requires a combination of artistic and creative abilities with the technical understanding to achieve your vision.
A great photography business needs all of the above -and- the abilities to manage and market a product to people wanting to pay for it. I’d go so far as to suggest that if you want a successful business that lasts, then the business side is more important to get right.
Is that it?
Whilst there are many refinements and additions you can and should look at for your business (e-mail marketing for example – not dead yet), the elements I’ve outlined above address the most common questions I’m asked.
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)