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Old 07-08-2011   #31
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Ed thank your for the response with the accolades and compliments. I'm hoping that I'm not too old a dog to learn new tricks. Much of what you've said here echos in my ears like the words of my early instructors in days gone by. Sometimes the most obvious thing is that which is too nearly looked at to be closely observed. Another way of saying the answer was right in front of you all along.

Here are some specifics, some perceptions and realities of the business I'm in. First, it is completely speculation. We photograph all the exhibitors, sort them and present the images on monitors. We fulfill on-site for the emotion buy factor. My larger printer is an R1800, so we can print up to 13 inch wide prints. I choose to make the largest on-site an 11X14. We take orders for larger prints. We also have the images on a storefront website where we market additional goods like mugs, greeting cards and the like.

You mentioned the volume v.s. quality argument. This is exactly where I am. We do many more small 2 day shows than we do 5 day events. The smaller local shows are smaller in every sense of the word. Of course the big plus to the small shows is the greatly reduced expense. I am getting the opinion that thinking small will keep one small. So here we go.

My current business model pushes a CD product with the full collection of an exhibitor's images for $60. Indeed this is shoot and burn at its purest. There are pluses to this methodology. I'll discuss the model objectively as it is not my own creation and I feel no compulsion to keep it. In this model the pictures are not considered high art. An exhibitor may be photographed 20 to 30 times over the course of the show, depending on how many classes or divisions they enter. There are several reasons to purchase pictures. Some people enjoy having souvenirs, others use the images for training or schooling, people sell horses regularly and use the pictures in ads, stables and facilities use the pictures to showcase the success of horses they house, trainers use the pictures to promote their own business. Of course there are grandparents who are due a photo now and then, especially when they are the ones who finance the ponies, horses and lessons.

A licensed CD collection represents a tremendous value. For the customer it's a volume buy at one low cost. For me, it is an easier option. There is no processing involved, no ink, no paper. An 8X10 costs about $1.50 in materials and a printed CD with envelope costs less that $.60. In cost terms it takes about as long to print an 8X10 as it does to burn a CD and once the process is started the computer operator/salesman can swap tasks and begin servicing the next customer.

Part of the rationale for going the CD route is customer average sales and balancing volume. We expect to convert about 10% of our exhibitors to customers on-site. If each buys an 8X10 @ $30 we make half the money we'd make if they purchase a CD @ $60. You see now how if an exhibitor has more than two pictures they like, they are dollars ahead in buying the CD and we are hours ahead in them taking time narrowing their selection and our enhancing and editing. This is the down and dirty, low gross high volume approach. It worked really well for years. It doesn't work so great today. Aside from wall enlargements, the CD is the highest single item on the menu. While it is a bargain in anybody's book there are a lot of money shoppers who don't (won't and never will) want to feel like they are paying for the bad pictures to get the good ones. With everyone's pocket book being strained, many customers feel the same pinch we feel and they are looking to trim the fat.

The photographer can do nothing about the manner in which the horse jumps, the timing of the rider in launching the horse over the jump, or the rider's equitation in executing the jump. All we can do is focus, frame, compose, and expose. So while there may be nothing wrong with the photograph, technically it can be a bad picture because of the horse or rider. Those things are out of our control. Furthermore, most of us are not equine judges (else we wouldn't be taking pictures) so we are in no position to evaluate each of thousands of images and cull the poor performance images. Besides, those images can be used for training examples. But for a certain few with their limited view, they don't want to pay for sub-standard images.

Here's the low volume high quality point-of-view: Take only those shots that are aesthetically pleasing. Horse show venues are infamous for background obstructions and clutter. There are parked cars, trailers, surplus equipment, the obligatory white tents. For jumping horses the course is a confusing maze of highly decorated jumps which face different directions. For hunters there are 8 or 9 "fences" or jumps which face both directions of the ring and two diagonals facing opposite directions. Usually there are three or four "good" fences to photograph in the hunter ring and 2 to 5 jumps. To make a good image, there must be an angle (45 degrees is perfect) and the horse must be approaching, not going away (else you are shooting the rider's butt in the air). Indoors the lighting is a major factor. It is impossible to light the entire arena evenly and flat. There are also shadows cast from some jumps across the view of others. The "spray and pray" guys will photograph everything they can see, not completely see without obstruction but every almost visible jump. They may shoot across one jump that is near the lights (by 2 stops) to get a jump across the arena. For the really nutty, they will stuff the image folders with lousy shots just to pump up the numbers. While I have been in the CD game, I do not feel the compulsion to add trash shots to justify the cost.

On the down side, people will compare the number of images in their own folder with those of others and will use the difference in the count as a bargaining chip. We have no number of shots assurance. There are too many variables to put a number on it. Some horses will be entered in several divisions with different riders while some horses will be entered in only one round. To date our target has been the horses with multiple entries. This seems unfair to the riders with few pictures. If they have 3 good images out of 6 total they are still ahead by buying the bundle rather than the individuals, but they are getting 6 images while little Billy gets 14 at the same cost. There may be a sense of alienation, I don't know.

The suggested change that I make is to drop the CD offering all together. Market nothing but prints and offer web sized non-commercial use digital files as an upgrade, or as a stand-alone product priced at the same price as the least expensive print on the price list. This change also involves elevating my existing print prices a $30 8X10 turns into $65 and a $25 5X7 becomes a $40 item. I don't make 4X6 prints because they are the snapshot size and at $30 I find the perceived value for the size to be wonky. Under this plan a low resolution single digital image would be $40 each. A full resolution image with a 1 year commercial license goes to $150 a three year licensed image goes to $375 and a license for the life of the image is $750.

Yes in this structure and with this philosophy there is plenty of headroom for negotiating, something I lack as I'm already at the low end.

Here's the way the shows rank: A and AA rated shows are the top of the food chain. These are shows with a minimum of 200 horses and the most experienced riders. There are fewer of these level shows. They also have durations of 4 (A) or 5(AA) days thus are the most costly to go after. Then are the B and C rated local or barn shows. These are qualifiers for aspiring riders and the second level of competition (the lowest being un-rated schooling shows). While the exhibitors take these seriously they are smaller shows, about 100 horses and a duration of two days. Naturally these are also the shows with the lesser expenses. Many photographers pass up the B and C shows, choosing to concentrate on the bigger shows. Oddly, I can make a better profit margin on a lesser expensive price list on fewer horses than I can at a week long show with three times the horses and five times the expense.

I don't want to turn away from the B&C shows just yet. I don't have enough A and AA shows to shoot those exclusively. If I can net the same money in two days, why work 5? And that's where the problem is. I need to keep a happy medium for the local shows, perhaps not change my approach for them. I've really got to do something on a grand scale for the A and AA shows if I plan to tackle those and run with the higher brow crowd. It appears to be a lucrative market if I can just hammer my product line and business model into shape for it.

No knee jerk reactions from me. Transition takes time to be smooth. A lot of people are happy with me and I guess at the prices compared to others in this business they ought to be. But I don't want to shock the existing client base and have them turn on me. Its hard to find acceptance in this business even more difficult to earn respect.

Steve
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Old 07-09-2011   #32
A professional viewpoint.
 
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Hi again Steve!

From what you have explained here, I can tell that you certainly have your act together in terms of procedures, knowing your market and having a good selection of offerings and add on sales items for your potential customers. If at the end of a business period, the profits are inadequate, factoring in the degree of time, effort and hard work you are investing in each show, you still might want to do a “from scratch” analysis of you expenses and costs and try to fined “leaks” in the system, that is, elements that are sucking time and money from your ongoing business plan.

You are dealing with tons of images and the costs of handling, I suspect, are very high and as a result, the ratio of time invested to sales may be suffering.

I used to do lots of speculation on my portrait promotions and we used to average in our “ace rate” that is, the percentage of people who don’t buy anything beyond a low priced basic offer or even a freebee. If that rate went too high I began to loose money, especially of the average actual sales were low. If the actual sales were decent enough, I would do well because the buyers were paying for the “aces”. In my speculative approach, rather than spend loads of money on media advertising, I would rather invest in creating a body of work that I could sell once the proofs existed. Once I had the actual PRODUCT on the table, I now had desirable MERCHANDISE to sell rather than concepts to be realized later on. There was a time when I could invest in a trade or consumer show, run my promotion and project my yield almost to the penny based on the caliber of the show and create enough business for year-round cash flow and profits. As you have aptly stated, times and conditions have changed and sometimes old systems no longer work. Much of our promotional work depended on follow up telephone calls to potential clients based on the leads we collected at each show- it worked just fine in the day. Nowadays. however, any kind of telephone solicitation is considered a scam based on the fraud and criminal activities that occur on a daily bases. To me, the telephone was a great tool. There it was sitting on my desk collecting dust unless I used it to contact potential customer both old and new. Nowadays the lowlifes who rob elderly people and commit all kinds of criminal activities have robbed us of a simple and effective sales tool and have turned the telephone lines in to a virtual hellfire. The Internet is now loaded with malicious spam. Internet fraud, here in Canada, has risen to the level whereby our postal service has initiated a new inspection and investigative department to handle the criminal activities on the Internetnet. Up here, Email fraud is considered a serious federal offense in the same way regular mail fraud was/is considered now and in the past- strict enforcement, nasty fines and jail time are now commonplace. The bad guys have infected and contaminated our economical and efficient lines of communication. It’s sad- give people super highways and the drive drunk, have road rage and kill each other on the roads. Give people convenient telephone service and the use the phone lines to make harassing, threatening and malicious calls and give the public a wonderful information highway and the abuse therein is earth shattering. The public then considers all business communications as spam and fraud and we as legitimate business operators are deprived of vital avenues of communication.

Although I am serving a different market than you are, I can relate to the problems and pitfalls you have explained to me. We used to do ore-sitting consultations in each family we photographed. There were several reasons for this procedure. I wanted the potential clients to invest some time in the photography even of no money changed hands until the actual sale occurred after the proofs were selected. No show and uncooperative people culled themselves or qualified themselves before the sittings took place. In many cases, however, the would be clients sabotaged their own photography by not taking our advice on clothing colors, hair and makeup tips and other such elements which was/is the main basic reason for the per-sitting consultation. This is like your shooting in good faith and the jumps themselves are bad. You have no control over that and in my case, we loose control over the sittings. The clients come back and complain that they don’t like their hair etc. and if the knew the pictures were gonna be that good they would have worn their Sunday best. They have created a reason for them not to buy. A more stringent “dress code” helped me mitigate the damage for this sort of thing but it still does exist. I realize that you have no control of the esthetics or quality of the performances themselves but I certain can relate to such problems.

The wedding business is more like the horse business in that there are dozens of occurrences that can create harder work and inefficiencies. Things like the bride showing up late for formals, bad hair and makeup, all kinds of interferences at the venues and there is a long list. If the couple insists that the formals have to be shot in “Grandma’s garden, for sentimental reasons and this “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” turns out to be 3 flower beds and the site overlooks a garbage dump or a construction site- well here we go again; more time wasted, more post production work and possibility more customer dissatisfaction. With all theses things going on, I sometimes think I should have been a firefighter because I spend so much time “putting out fires”. Now, I am more of a fire inspector because I spend lots of time preventing the “fires” from igniting in the first place but there is just so much any of us can do.

Perhaps you are thinking in terms of materials costs such as the differential between the costs of burning a CD and producing a print but the profits may be suffering because of the time and payouts in the coverage of the shows themselves. If this is the case you need to “plug the leaks” somewhere along the line or simply charge a bit more to take up the slack.

In my case, we do not offer on site printing or instant on line proofing so sales meetings are set up for each client. In you own case, after all, the shoot and burn system may work best because when you are on site there may be more enthusiasm going on and more impulse sales occur, especially if the competitors are doing well at the show. You are right- you can’t abandon your small shows because theses are you customers as well- they like you and what you do so they may be willing to support your work a bit more and pay a few extra bucks. At the bigger shows, perhaps the more experienced attendees/competitors may consider the photography part and parcel of each important event and just pay as a matter of routine.

It’s like the wedding business in that people will spend inordinate amounts of money on what is tantamount to a “one nigh stand” and get cheap with the photographer who is supplying a vital service and a long lasting product. I am sure the costs of care, feeding, training and transporting horses is not a poor man’s hobby kinda thing but people will quibble about minor expenses.

At the end of the day, however, perhaps all of us “old dogs” are operating in a pull-down economy where the low-ball and inapt photographers have all but completely destroyed our market and it has become a great challenge to simply turn a buck in spite of all of out hard work, traveling costs, overhead expenses and investments in good serviceable equipment.

My survival in this business over a long period of time is attributed to the fact that I manage to stick to my guns in certain areas and change radically in other aspects of the business. I kill myself thinking about new presentations and packages realizing that the word “NEW” and the phrase “NEW AND IMPROVED” are still some of the strongest elements in advertising or promoting any product and/or service.

Years ago, a very successful “school shooter” walked into my studio and offered me a BIG JOB if I were to close my shop and work for him in another State. He admired my work and said he could pay me a handsome salary to come into his operation. I asked him what my job would be; inventing new poses and styles, more dramatic lighting etc? He said NO to that. What I was to do is train and supervise his photographers in producing no more than 8 poses and doing some shooting myself. His job would be to sit in his office and invent a new products to increase add on sales and what with his 50,000 sittings per year, an increase of $5.00 would be a handsome addition to his bottom line. The guy had numerous school contracts in 6 States. My job would have been simply to maintain quality control to enable his “proof passers” to sell well having good expression and decent images to work from. Of course those were the film days so my argument was how much more costs would be involved in shooting a few more frames but his theory was more of a time thing in that with his volume factored in, the few seconds it would take to shoot those few additional poses would throw a wrench into the works and slow down production in each school and they would not finish the season on time. Who knows?- I may have become a partner in that business and be a retired millionaire by now.

I hope this helps a bit more and I hope even more that our OLD DOG theory is incorrect and that we can carry on in business with a few new ideas and approaches. Perhaps we need to packages ourselves as artists and seriously apt technical people and simply work our way back up the food chain to the extent where our experience finally pays off.

Kindest regards. Ed
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Last edited by Ed Shapiro; 01-20-2012 at 01:59 PM.. Reason: Discovered some old typos!
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Old 08-25-2011   #33
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Really enjoyed this post.
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Old 09-11-2011   #34
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Mr. Shapiro,

I have enjoyed your post. Figuring out how to turn any service or product into a sustainable business is a challenge. You have helped me consider some important points.

I hope you continue to be so generous with your experience.

Best regards,
Michael
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Old 01-20-2012   #35
A professional viewpoint.
 
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Thanks Michael

I was recently asked to help out as a moderator in the BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY forum here on the Camel. Mark McCall is doing a great job there and is extremely well credentialed and experienced in the business applications in photography. I am pleased to help him out as much as I can and fill in when he is on the road. I hope to add some information regarding the other of my studio where I do commercial and industrial photography.

Tune in soon and you will enjoy the information.

Ed
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Old 01-20-2012   #36
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Glad to hear it. Looking forward to your additional duties. Thanks for taking it on.
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Old 04-02-2012   #37
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Looking forward to additional great content!!
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Old 04-16-2012   #38
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

Ed, great stuff. Thank you for sharing.
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Old 06-03-2012   #39
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Default Re: The REAL business of Photography.

I cant believe ive read all of the this and wished theres more, makes me think about where this hobby of mine might lead to. better stick to the hobby and my day job for now. I have an uncle whos a photograper all his life, yes hes good but Im so puzzled as to why he ddnt venture further. You Sir made me realize what my uncle figured out long ago. Thanks Sir.


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