The recent closure of portrait studios in Sears and Walmart stores sent a chill through the photography community and the news arrived only a few weeks after Olan Mills, another big name in portrait photography, closed their doors.
The shocking and sudden demise of Olan Mills and CPI, the dominant players in family portrait photography and the companies running the portrait studios in big box retail stores, must surely signal some troubling change in the photography market.
Actually, no, and this is good news for most professional photographers. What it signals is that photography as an industry can no longer support corporate overhead. At the top of almost every corporate structure are an office full of people drawing hefty salaries and bonuses but delivering very little in the way of productive work. Behind them are stockholders and investors who are also expecting a return on their money. The demise of CPI and Olan Mills signals that there is too much pricing pressure on the consumer side of the business to carry that much overhead.
Like all the other dinosaurs, corporate photography providers died out because their bulk required more resources than the market made available and they couldn’t adapt to the new reality.
Everyone in the photography business is feeling the heat from low cost competition, yet that is nothing new. There has been the same kind of pricing pressure in photography since Kodak first introduced the Brownie in the 1800s and photography is still here.
Most photographers are not giant corporations trying to support massive overhead, they are lone wolf independent business people trying to pay the rent. You can survive where Olan Mills and CPI failed because you are lean and adaptable. You can diversify your service offerings and adjust your pricing and stay busy enough to make a living.
Here are six ways to expand your income as a photographer without spending a lot of extra money.
People will spend crazy amounts of money on their pets, especially people who own show dogs and horses. Working with animals can make you crazy but, as long as you’re making your day rate, who cares? The best part is you can practice at adoption shelters and help find needy pets new homes while you learn the best angles for pet shots.
Stock Image Resale
There are few people making a living exclusively from stock photography, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to capture residual income from shots you’re already taking. If you’re a wedding photographer and have a particularly photogenic couple, considering offering them a small discount if you can market some of their shots to stock image companies. Since a lot of the time you’re shooting engagement shots anyway, use that time to get some fun couple activity shots that are always popular at stock image companies.
You can do this almost anytime you’re going to be out shooting people or places. Sometimes the couple or business will not want their pictures being used in advertisements, respect that wish. When they don’t mind, it’s residual income for you. Not much but it all adds up, right?
This is a step too far for me, but if you can stomach it and make gigs on short notice, new parents are frequently willing to spend the money to have a professional photographer on hand for their baby’s arrival. I know several photographers making enough money from doing birth photography that they’ve dropped the rest of their business to focus on kids.
I’m not talking about the Glamour Shots fakery, but seriously good fantasy portraits that require costuming and theatrical makeup. Whether the theme is pirates or the zombie apocalypse think about elaborate staging and green screen work. Those kinds of portraits will also involve elaborate price tags but you’ll find ways to keep prices in line and offer a product that is not easily duplicated by some kid with a couple hundreds dollars in cheap lights.
For the technically gifted finding ways to get your shots up on a web site accessible to mobile devices in time frames measured in minutes will be a huge selling point for wedding and event photography. If you can find a way to let guests upload their own smartphone shots in a separate area, you can co-opt the peanut gallery and use their shots to bolster your social imaging system.
Shooting CEO and corporate officer portraits means being able to take your portrait show on the road, set up your lights in tight spaces and get busy people to focus on you for five minutes. If any of that sounds easy, then you’ve likely never tried it. Being able to do all that on short notice, when companies have their execs in town for board meetings and special events, will bring you a surprising amount of business. The good news is that big companies have a lot of turnover in the executive ranks and, if you do good work, expect to get called back again and again to the same places.
With the exceptions of real-time photography and fantasy portraits, you can offer almost any of these services to your photography business without adding a lot of expense. The same portable lighting kit you use for weddings and events will work with corporate portraits if you add some shoot-through umbrellas and a couple softboxes. A portable background hangar will work for your wedding reception photo booth besides pet photography.
The difference between you and the big corporate photography companies is craft, creativity, and flexibility. You can still make a living where they failed.