Shoot And Burn, Or Shoot And Share? – Q&A With Matthew Saville
What is the difference between “shoot and burn” and this new idea of “shoot and share”? Is it just the same (bad?) business model, or can a pro photographer actually achieve great success while accommodating this generation’s desire for digital delivery and a shrinking interest in pricey physical products?
As Chandler Bing once said… “Can, open. Worms, everywhere!”
First we need to briefly talk about the past few years in professional photography. Please forgive the generalizations and stereotypes, I promise it will make sense in the end!
Different Photo Business Models
Over the past decade or so the popularity of digital photography (and 9-cent prints, etc.) has significantly affected the business models of pro photographers everywhere.
Or a pessimist might say, a massive influx of aspiring pros has caused the industry’s profit margins to shrink considerably. To put it nicely. Oh, you don’t want me to put it nicely? Fine, a massive horde of wannabes is ruining everything. Or so they say.
Why? Not just because consumers these days want everything cheap and instantly, but also because new pros usually just don’t know how to run a profitable business. (Whoa there, let me finish my thought!) This isn’t an insult to beginner photographers, this is just a fact about any first-time experience with self-employment. People usually go into it very unprepared! Up-selling physical products is an uncomfortable task for anyone without experience in sales / retail, especially for a right-brained “creative”. So they may convince themselves that it’s an outdated business model, a beast not worth tackling. Obviously this is a huge generalization, but there is at least some truth to it.
Actually, having a cheap price up-front to attract clients is fine. Business startups have been using the “get your foot in the door” tactic forever, and capitalism encourages competition. However if you don’t make up for that loss-leading price afterwards on the back-end, or in the long run period, you won’t turn much of a profit.
Most photographers argue, “well if I don’t offer a disc then nobody will book me!” Combine this argument with, “once they have all the photos, nobody wants to pay extra for canvases or albums, not even a few 5×7’s!”
In my experience, this is only partly true. So how do you get out of this potential trap / rut of forfeited profits? “Back in the day” as they say, one portrait session might have generated one or two thousand dollars in sales, or a $3,000 wedding might have gone to $6,000 with albums. How do you make up for that today, with a $200 “disc included” portrait session or a $2,000 wedding? Can you book 5-10 times more work, if there are a hundred times more photographers out there to compete with? Hmm…
In short, I often hear photographers say “I’m a shoot and share photographer, and my clients love it!” …Well of course they love it, they’re probably robbing you! (Again, whoa there, let me finish!)
How To Escape A Shoot And Burn Business Model
It all comes down to whether or not you’re leaving money on the table. If you’re giving away the farm, that’s not good. But first, an exercise: do the math on a typical week or month for your business, log the hours you spend, take out your expenses and taxes, and see what you’re paying yourself. If you could make a better salary by managing a fast food joint or swinging a hammer, OOPS!?! On the other hand if you’re paying your bills, putting your kids through college, and saving for a comfortable retirement, then who cares? Stop reading this and get back to work. Actually leave a comment below, then get back to work!
But I digress. The “shoot and share” business model aims to maintain a fair profit for photographers, while still serving the best interests of today’s digital age customers. This is exactly what is so hotly debated by many pros right now. (At least that’s what my friends tell me) Can you serve your customers’ digital demands, and still grow a profitable business? YES.
Personally, over the past ten years I have tried pretty much every business model under the sun. Admittedly when I started out, like many others I under-charged and didn’t deliver much more than a DVD of photos. Of course I quickly realized how much hard work it was, and I started raising my prices. Then when I went full-time, I had to find ways to attract more clients. Apparently just dropping a DVD in the mail did NOT create a lot of buzz or referrals!
(Of course back then Facebook and SEO were pretty unknown among photographers, heck we used Xanga and Myspace to share our recent work!)
I remember my “ah-ha” moment very clearly: I felt very proud of one wedding in particular, and I crossed paths with that couple a year or two after the wedding. They talked about how much they loved their photos, …but then mentioned that the DVD I had delivered was still sitting on a shelf and they had yet to print / display any photos. Awww, dang…
So this is the first reason why I recommend that you NOT abandon the delivery of physical products entirely. In my opinion, physical products are a great catalyst for exposure, buzz, and referrals. A physical DVD may result in a slideshow viewing every now and then, but a canvas on the wall or an album on the coffee table will be admired and talked about by EVERYONE who visits the home of that newlywed couple or those proud parents!
Now to me, “share” still means more than just offering a slick new online delivery business model instead of a physical disc, and using social media tools to increase your images’ circulation. This alone is just a modernization of the “shoot and burn” model, and only part of the equation.
Simply put, the difference between “burn” and “share” is good service, generosity, and a high-quality final result. It is more than just the warm fuzzy feeling that “photo industry gurus” talk about regarding your personality and the branding of your website, and all that mind-game stuff. That’s wonderful, but it mainly happens BEFORE the actual shoot. Sharing takes place mostly AFTER the photos are captured.
A big problem with “burn” is, lo and behold, burnout. You get bogged down and can’t take good enough care of the clients you have. This forces you to compete on price alone, and the downward spiral begins. So my first bit of advice is, never bite off more than you can chew. Take the best possible care of each client you have. If you’re making too little money per-client that you have to “skip ahead” and pursue future bookings to make ends meet, then you’re either not charging enough or you’re trying to build your business too fast.
In other words, if you cannot afford to slow down and take the best care of each client, then maybe you need to find ways to increase your income with your existing clients. Don’t cast them aside and grasp for new ones.
The Best Foundation For A Photo Business
The absolute best recommendation I can make is to maintain financial stability while you grow your business. This is self-employment 101. If you’re under-selling yourself season after season and you still can’t get your foot in the door, something isn’t right. And while “leap of faith” stories are glamorous and inspiring to read on so-and-so’s blog, your survival absolutely requires clear plans, goals, and even deadlines.
Once you have time and financial stability on your side, then you can focus on business tactics and healthy growth.
Does this mean you stop delivering high-res images, cold-turkey? No, that would backfire and you’d lose 90% of your clientele. It really depends on exactly what you shoot, and where you live.
For example almost the entire wedding industry must offer some form of high-res or medium-res delivery of every “keeper” image. And yet innumerable wedding photographers still make tens of thousands of dollars per year selling physical products! What’s that, you can’t spare a few more hours a week to nearly double your income? I bet you can.
Similarly, in many areas an in-demand, boutique portrait studio can still find great success with a “”viewing & ordering session” business model, even if they have to also deliver a set of low-res or mid-res images with the final delivery. (If you don’t have a sexy studio storefront, try a fantastic app such as PREVEAL!)
First and foremost, let’s assume that as your skill and experience increases, you raise your up-front prices. This is a given. We all need to charge what we’re worth, or even a little bit more so that we can push ourselves to rise to the occasion and really “knock it out of the park” each time. Now, what to do on the back-end? Even if you book a ton of clients who pay you very well, I believe there is more that can be done. Remember, part of the equation is the end result. If all your clients are buying themselves good quality canvases and photo books, then yeah your job is done. But I guarantee you that many of them probably don’t do a thing with their photos after the initial online buzz.
So, a challenge: if you’re so flush with cash using an all-digital “shoot and share” business model, why don’t you re-invest a little bit of that money into physical products as gifts for a few of your favorite clients, and see what happens? As I said earlier, a physical product on display in a clients’ home can go a very long way towards spurring buzz and generating referrals. Also in my opinion, it will last far longer than any initial buzz created through social media.
Don’t get me wrong, social media is a great way to expand your business. Once you have a full calendar though, what then? Your only option (as a one-person show) is to make more money per-client. Social media can push a “shoot and burn” business model a little higher, but not as high as a more boutique biz model that involves physical products. So, try it. Get a bunch of physical products on display, either in your own home / studio space, or if you don’t have such a space then invest directly in your current and past clients. What do you have to lose? Even if I’m wrong and print sales are “dead” in your area or with your particular market, at the very least I would rather invest in the happiness and “end result” of my own clients, than any form of paid advertising.
If you’re against the concept of a “freebie” or if you’re worried that future clients will say “but you gave so-and-so a free 11×14 / canvas / photo book!” …don’t worry, in my experience it is very easy to politely explain that you could only afford to do this a few times, and if they want that physical product you’ll offer it to them at a slightly discounted rate since they are a referral. Yes, it is a gradual process to establish a successful photo business, but eventually people will come in your door already knowing that they “need” your canvas on their wall, or an album on their coffee table, and they’re ready to pay for it. No, this is not a green light to pretend that it’s 1995 again and charge $300 for an 8×10. Simply put, don’t waste three whole days making precise calculations for the markup of every single print size your lab offers; just charge enough to cover the time it takes you to handle a client’s order and retouch any images as needed. Of course product marketing and sales is a whole different topic for a whole different article!
The end result is what matters most. Are you actually paying your bills with this career, and are your images actually getting cherished by your clients? If you can answer yes to both of these questions, then you’re on the right course.
A Good Photography Business Model Needs Balance
Like I said, there are innumerable ways to grow, succeed, and survive in professional photography. I’d love to hear your own stories and tips, so feel free to leave a comment!
I simply want new pros who are dipping their toes in a “shoot and share” business model to be aware of the big picture. Don’t just jump on board with what everybody else is doing simply because it looks like a glamorous and easy way to make a buck, instead educate yourself about successful business models in photography, for whatever your market is. Not just today’s hot trends, but also what has worked in the past. There are actually photography organizations (PPA, etc.) that collect data on this type of stuff, believe it or not, and it is absolutely worth your investment of time and/or money This will give you an idea of where you stand, and whether or not you’re leaving money on the table.
Whenever you say “I shoot and share!” just remember that there are innumerable ways (including many physical mediums) that you can SHARE a photograph…
For the record, I personally do not have a “dog in the fight” as they say. I am not directly affiliated with nor compensated by any of today’s host companies or persons behind them. In fact to be honest, I pretty much ignore the periodical “drama” of the photo industry. I do use SmugMug Pro to digitally deliver high-res images to clients and promote social media circulation, however I also sell prints and albums and things, if my clients want. ;-)