Two articles caught my eye this week, one in the Guardian, one at Digital Photography School, both of which I posted to the Clubs Facebook timeline, both on the same topic – photography as a business. Now, in particular, I don’t claim to know a huge amount about photography as a business, it seems a good way to turn a passion into a millstone very easily, but I do know a fair bit about business in general and have made a decent living out of that knowledge for more years than I really care to count.
Alfred P Sloan (an economist) possibly was the man who coined the phrase “The business of business is business” a fine example of the circular argument – one that supports itself by ignoring everything that isn’t itself therefore must be true on its own terms. It’s catchy because it’s hard to argue with. It does, however, contain an element of truth, as most circular arguments do. In this case you might be able to make a business out of a hobby but you can’t treat a business as a hobby (unless you have a lot of money to throw away, in which case it’s still a hobby not a business). As Mark S, Mark O, Dan T, Simon C and others have all made the fundamental point that it is the client whose taste, needs and wants prevail. Their cash pays your bills. You get their cash by giving them your interpretation of what they want. The point is, they still have to want it when the cheque clears in your bank. That is the point at which the job, the business of business, is complete. Never, ever, before (says the man who has rebuilt two credit control systems from heaps of paper, believe me only about 2.5% as interesting as it sounds).
That said there are probably more opportunities to monetarise your photography than ever before – and more people in on the game. The market is crowded. 150 photographers listed on Yell in Bristol (though some of those may be multiple entries). You need to know your market and you need to know how to keep motivated. One of the first things that people come to realise, especially in service industries like photography, is the amount of time that the business of business takes up. This is one of the big differences that mark out the amateur (and the semi-pro in a lot of instances) from the professional. The amateur can put a lot of planning into a shoot, the professional has to put a lot of planning into every shoot. Always, always do your own research. Post processing done to a deadline is very different from post processing done at leisure. As Benjamin Franklin put it in Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (July 1748) “Time is money”. If that image is taking you more than ten minutes to process isn’t it a lost shot? If every shot is taking you 10 minutes, and you have 400 of them, have you got 67 hours to spare and run the business? Sleep?
And what do you charge? There is as much to that as art as there is science. You have to be pretty well established to get away with fee £x00 (or £x000 even £x0000 depending on your reputation) + production costs and talking to a client with pretty deep pockets. You are probably not a wedding or baby portrait photographer either. The temptation is to get too close to cost just to get the gig. Bad choice, worse habit. And the tax returns and associated paperwork? Billing? Chasing? Sales and Purchase ledgers? Equipment? Is this what you became a photographer for? We haven’t even started on getting new business, the most difficult and most expensive type of business to get (you really want referrals and repeat business). Going into business for yourself is a lot of hard work.
But there is no doubt that it can be rewarding. You are your own boss. You get to do some of the things you want to do and if you are smart you use the challenges from the commissions you don’t feel inspired by (but need to take to pay the bills) to spark your creativity, to take new techniques and to work them into the shoot (when appropriate), but keep in sight the fact that the customer is always right. It is not their privilege to pay for you proving that you can’t operate out of your own or your gear’s limits.
Most of all you need drive, not just to get up and go on sunny days but on the rainy days too. But if you’ve got an idea then here’s a place to start.