Open sourcing the business side of photography (part two of two)

In the first part of this two-part entry, I explored old and new models for information sharing information on the best practices in the business of photography. Last week, I “framed “the question and gave some useful examples of open sourcing of business information. This week, I will do my part by going into my business model, making my own small contribution to the process of open sourcing the business side of photography.

My business model is the accidental byproduct of three overarching forces. I wish I could say that I went about creating a business model with clarity and planning, but that would be a lie. I was more lucky than diligent, as I was carried along in my career by three overlapping forces.

1) During the first part of my career as a self-employed photographer, I tried almost every type of commercial photography imaginable. I did paparazzi work, school portraits, fashion, food photography, etc. I even did just one assignment for the National Enquirer. What my mother described as impatience, I think of as the ability to quickly size up whether something was working for me. I tried all those different genres for short periods of time and discarded them just as quickly. I did that because I was not enjoying the work, I was not that good at it and I was not earning enough.

2) During the early and middle parts of my career I was looking for role models in the veteran photographers I worked around. I have previously blogged about how I moved from potential-mentor to potential-mentor in search of the illusory perfect guide. Time and maturity taught me how to learn the most from the veterans I worked with while putting their unique personalities in proper perspective.

3) During the middle to current phase of my career I learned how to understand and appreciate the business models of other photographers, even if I had no interest in being like them. Today, I gather much of that information via the web and especially through the various forums I read. Before the Internet (and forums,) I relied on certain printed publications, most notably Photo District News and Communication Arts. The best articles in those publications detailed a given photographer’s career path, taking me along as they built their business model, which was also explored in those same articles.

Today, my business model can broadly be described as “learning to use opportunities to do what I need to do.” Let me break down the various revenue steams for you.

• Editorial assignments for magazines are a shrinking part of my business model. It is sad but true. Most successful editorial photographers these days bring something distinctive to their clients. For my best clients (there are just a few) the thing that I bring to them which they consider distinctive is my expertise in South Asia and globalization. Most of the rest of my clients come to me because of my geographic desirability. That just means when a publication is looking for a photographer in Rhode Island, they usually only know of the city of Providence. Since I actually live in the city of Providence, proper, I am often the first to show up on the various photographer listing pages and the thus the first get the call. Most editors who are using geography as the prime criteria should learn more about Rhode Island so they would know that Rumford, Barrington or Warren, Rhode Island are towns just down the road and my peers who live there could so the assignments almost as well.

The best assignment work, when it happens, can be an opportunity to start new projects and to shoot stock imagery. My project on Quahoggers (shell fishermen in Rhode Island,) was initially an assignment for Yankee magazine. These days, when I get called with an assignment, I have to make a calculation. If the assignment is especially interesting, will help me make images with resale value, and get me to a place where I can do other work (paying or personal,) then I tend to be more enthusiastic about the assignment and more flexible on the fee.

On the other hand, if the assignment is not all that interesting, has little or no resale potential, involves a great deal of travel and an obviously difficult or cheap client, the fee goes up. It does not mean that I always get the jobs, but it does mean that I am trying very hard to regularly do a cost-benefit analysis to make sure I am getting paid for my time, effort and especially for any aggravation I have to put up with. The other problem is that many editorial clients are under ever tightening budgets, with contracts that are reprehensible and accounting bureaucracies that are treacherous. So, I spend too much of my time trying to find out if a client who contacted me is even worth working with.

• I still make most of my income from stock image licensing. This is a market that is under serious competitive pressure, just like the assignment market. I did not get into “stock” with any grand designs or clear intentions. I started out in stock like most editorial photographers do, where stock was way to resell existing photo-stories over and over. While the market for reselling stories has largely died, the market for individual images has not declined as badly. When I saw, like many others, the looming death of assignment work, I expended into stock as much as I could.

• It is true that Royalty Free and Micro Stock have cut into stock imaging fees, but in my case only up to a point. Over the last two years, I have been carefully analyzing what images of mine are still being licensed. Though this is NOT a blog on what works in stock photography, I can say this much: uniqueness sells. Most of the images that show up on my ales report as licensed have some unique factor to them. The biggest single factor is geographic uniqueness. I have a fairly substantial archive of work from Bangladesh that shows daily life in that country. Since I am NOT focusing too much on the poverty, the imagery fills a need clients have. Yes, Bangladesh is a poor country. But it has a middle class, and schools and normal life and imagery of that normality is what often interests some of the clients who license my images. Do not go charging off to Bangladesh to photograph, but keep in mind that thousands of people have photographed the Eiffel tower so making a truly “new” stock image of that is unlikely. Not as many people photograph in the places that I go to, so my work is relatively speaking, more unique and therefore more commercially viable.

One question that many aspiring stock photographers do not clearly analyze is the question of whether to license their images directly vs. licensing their images through an agent. In the former system, the photographer makes most, or all, of the fee. In the latter, the agency gets fifty or sixty percent (or more) of the sales. Portals, like Photoshelter, make direct sales possible so, in theory, going “direct” is better. The problem is that unless a photographer has a TRULY unique set of work and/or incredible marketing muscle, they will never generate enough sales to have a viable stock photography business. Like most photographers, I license my work through agencies because I know I cannot market my self and my work as well as those agencies can.

• Workshop teaching is a substantive part of my business model. Part of that is because I seem to be good at it and part of that is because I enjoy teaching. I have blogged about the challenges of teaching and so do not look at teaching as some easy way to advance your career. When evaluating whether to teach at a given venue, I ask myself, will I make good stock images there? Will I have other networking opportunities when I am teaching there? Can I piggyback other work (paying or personal) on my trip to the location of the workshop? For me, a growing part of researching and executing projects involves exchanging my expertise in photography for student’s expertise in (or access to) various areas of interest that I want to know more about.

• Private teaching, working one-on-one with students on their photography, particularly long-term projects, is a growing part of my business. Again, I like teaching and I am good at it so it works as one revenue stream for me. It is NOT something that every photographer can do well. I charge mostly by the hour and was initially working in the New York City area. It was initially a way to get to see my daughter in New Jersey. I am continuing my private teaching beyond NYC these days, especially since she is going off to college in less than a year. I also have a growing business in on-line critiquing, building on my teaching experience and students’ continuing desire to get useful feedback on their work.

• Fine-art print sales are a small part of my business but an important one. My more poetic imagery is what sells, most notably my color imagery from India and my black and white images of Philadelphia’s Thirtieth street station. The latest issue is whether I want to print the images myself, in order to control the quality and make more money or am I okay with skipping the hassle of making the final images and taking only a licensing fee.

• Grants and fellowships are numerically a tiny part of my business but an important element, none-the-less. Grants are usually little more than advance money to start and produce a project. I make the real profit on the “back end,” through stock image licensing, lecturing fees and occasional rental of the finished exhibition. I invest a lot of time in researching grants and applying for them because the potential reward in terms of visibility and support is so high and so, in my mind, they are worth the effort.

• The smallest part of my business, the one that involves the most work for the least reward is that of gallery exhibitions. I recently blogged about the problems with gallery exhibitions including the high costs of production vs. the low level of return on the costs of labor and supplies invested in producing those shows.

That is my business model, which can be described partly as “learning to use opportunities to do what I need to do.” It is driven by a realistic assessment of my skills and the market’s opportunities. I could not possibly have stopped the overwhelming forces that have swept assignment photography, particularly the move from using assignment photography to using stock images. But I could jump into stock early on and take advantage of that change. I am not sure I will always be that lucky anticipating the inevitable changes, but I will certainly keep trying.

I said this last week and I repeat it again. The smart photographer will of course, learn from my what I write. But the really smart ones will analyze the questions I have raised (and the answers I have given.) The smartest ones of all will be the ones who see if they can get that same information from the photographers whose work and business model they admire.