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Why newcomers aren’t a threat and how your ego is killing your dream

A few days ago an interesting conversation started in the portrait industry, specifically  the Australian one. A photographer from NSW started this national conversation, rather unknowingly, when she posted on her Facebook page about her decision to close her portrait business and pursue another career.

Now let me start by saying- I do not know this woman, her work or her business. As with all social media these days, I found this conversation when it went viral and appeared in my newsfeed. If you missed the banter (and you probably did) I’ll fill you in-

This professional photographer, for a few reasons, had decided to close her doors as a photographer. Permanently.

One of the reasons she cited was that her business was no longer a viable income. There were not enough paying clients to sustain her as a career photographer and to an extent, she felt she could no longer compete with the newbies.

Now once again, I must reiterate- I do not know this woman and have only glanced at a few of her images. This post is not about her, her work or her business it’s about the conversation and debate that her post ignited.

The response to her farewell was mixed but mostly sad with many other photographers sympathising with her and the difficulties of making a living in this industry. I read the many responses, shares and new discussions on the pages of those who resonated with this woman’s story. Her one post begun a very long conversation among many other photographers who expressed feelings of frustration at the struggle to make a living while competing with newcomers to the industry, people with little to no experience setting up shop next door and charging half the price.

I didn’t post my thoughts on the matter as it took me a little while to process everything I was reading from the many other photographers discussing the big issue here- “Newbie photographers are undercutting us, ruining the industry and making it impossible to make a living from our work”

Ok so not everyone wrote that sentence repeatedly but that sums up what many, many people were saying and feeling about the current state of portrait photography. As I read and read, I struggled to find anyone who put my own thoughts into words. At all.

The more I thought, the less and less I found myself agreeing with the majority. In fact, I feel quite the opposite.

Here’s the deal:

Newbies are not stealing your business, your clients or their babies out from underneath you. Brand new photographers are getting out there and charging peanuts because they have no base to justify charging professional pricing. Would you really be happier if next-door-no-name-got-her-camera-yesterday charged a $250 session fee with a $700 minimum print order? Ah, no. No way.

YES- They are shooting and burning for $100. I am not denying that. But guess what? The clients that are using and paying for those services were never your clients. You didn’t lose a job. The newbie had it in the bag before you even got out of bed that day.

Why? Because that client never wanted to spend more than $100. They might have sent you an email about a session or posted on your page to say how amazing your work is but they had a budget for their photos before they even thought about it.

Consider this- it’s your wedding and you need a cake. How much do you want to spend? $200? Ok great- let’s go cake shopping. First stop, that fancy cake shop on the corner. You love their cakes, you walk past everyday and they always look and smell amazing, the staff look so friendly and professional and you even know a cousin of a friend who used them for her wedding and she RAVES about it.

This is it, this is the shop for you. You walk in, talk to the lovely lady and show her the cake you like. She lets you taste some flavours and it’s perfect, you can hardly contain your excitement. You ask her “How much?” and she slides a quote across the table. Your heart sinks. It’s $600.

That’s not part of the budget. It’s not a cost you can afford or justify. You’re gutted.

You politely take the quote and leave, with one last whiff of buttercream your dreams of a cake from the amazing cake shop are dashed.

Was the cake not worth $600? Actually, it was. That’s a fair price for the amazing cake from the amazing shop with the amazing staff and amazing quality. But it’s not in your budget. You had no intention of spending that money before you walked in and all the great service and buttercream in the world won’t convince you otherwise.

Now what? Well your aunt has a friend who makes cakes from home as a hobby. It’s not fancy or even that amazing but she can make you a cake that tastes good and feeds everyone. And she only wants $150 for it. Deal done.

See what happened there? The budget existed from the second you heard the word cake. That budget was not negotiable, you know what you can afford and that’s it.

Your client is exactly the same. Before they contact you the budget exists. It may have room to stretch a little further but everyone has a limit they won’t cross. Does that mean your work isn’t worth what you charge? NO. Should you drop your prices to compete with the newbie next door? NO. Because guess what, the client on the budget was always going to use the newbie, they just went via the fancy cake shop on the way.

The problem as I see it is not the newbie. Heck- I was a newbie once. So were you. We were all new once. We charged peanuts. Our work was mediocre. We made no profit and were eager to please. We were beginners.

When I was a newbie, the newbie hate wasn’t there at the level it is today. Professionals these days seem to turn to stone at the sight of yet another new photographer on the scene. Given our over saturated market- that’s a lot of statues with cameras.

So what is the problem if not the undercutting newbie? Welll… It’s you. It’s your ego.

Sorry, did that hurt a little? Hear me out…

From what I’ve observed, the popularity contest in photography is killing your business. Slowly and painfully sucking the life out of your dream career as a portrait photographer. These days photographers are more concerned with their status than their bottom line. More concerned with how many likes their facebook page has over what their profit margin was last quarter.  They want to have the most comments, the most traffic through their page, the most bookings and ego inflating posts on their blog. It’s that need to be the first to use a new prop, the one whose image is shared on vendors’ page or voted best on an image sharing site.

Now tell me this: While you’re lapping up all the attention, glory and ego stroking affection, who is running your business? I mean actually running your business? Not just replying to emails and choosing stationary. Those things are almost as indulgent as counting your facebook fans.

I consider myself a passionate business woman. I love business as much as I love photography and I believe it’s the lack of business love that is killing this industry. There are so many photographers out there with cameras, competing to be the most popular shooter in town but very few put that passion and time into their business.

If you’re failing to thrive and blaming the newbie who charges $100 for a two hour session with prints ask yourself this- what are your 6 and 12 month marketing plans? What is your low season income generator? How will you manage cash flow to see you through your unpaid holidays? When will you next invest in equipment and how will you pay for it? What is the profit margin on your products and when did you last pitch an upgrade to a client?

If you haven’t written a SWOT plan for your business you need to. Now. And if you don’t know what that is, please get on Google. Now.

Building and operating a sustainable business is so much more than taking great photos and it’s what will separate you from the keen ammeters.

If Facebook and Instagram aren’t something you know about or understand, you need to learn. If you’re not utilising social media in your business, get some advice from an expert. For every dollar you spend on props you should be spending another dollar on the marketing of your business.

There is a market out there full of clients who want to invest in quality photography work. Your job as a business owner is to find those clients.

This is my 6th year working as a full time, professional photographer. Am I Australia’s best portrait photographer? Absolutely not. Am I Melbourne’s best wedding photographer? No. Am I fully booked on a consistent basis? Yes. Am I threatened by a shoot and burn photographer charging a third of my prices? Not even remotely.

Forget the popularity contest. Stop the newbie hating. Be a success in business and you will make a living in this industry. Professional photographers who invest in their business can have their cake and eat it too :)

-Clare

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