Making Your Photographic Hobby Pay in 2011

I thought I’d repost this article from early 2010 since the economy and market hasn’t really changed all that much (sad but true). – Enjoy!

Making Money at PhotographyA friend sent me an email last week posing an interesting question for all amateur photographers namely, “How do you make your photographic hobby pay for itself?”.

At first I was tempted to tell him it’s impossible because gear lust tends to overcome common sense in most amateurs (and many professionals). The manufacturers keep adding features to keep us dishing out money for new cameras every year. If we fall into this trap (we’re all guilty of this folks) then it’s impossible for amateurs or most professionals to break even, let alone make a profit.

Successful professionals understand this reality very well and look at their gear as capital equipment that depreciates over time. No small business replaces capital equipment before it’s fully depreciated and the key to making money as a small business is watching your cash flow like a hawk.

However, somewhere along the way, serious amateurs begin to realize that their 10 megapixel 20D or 12 megapixel D300 is really all they need to achieve consistent image quality. They come to the realization that a good photograph has a lot more to do with the photographer than with the camera. It’s a profound and humbling realization for most and it’s the time when they sets aside their gear lust and begin their search for knowledge. It’s the time when serious amateurs seek out teaching professionals at workshops, seminars and photo-tours.

It’s also the time when many begin to give back to the photographic community as a whole. This is where many folks really begin to grow as photographers and discover that sharing knowledge freely with others multiplies their opportunities to connect with potential customers, sponsors and other photographers that share their passion.

The next steps amateurs take to make their craft pay for itself depend greatly on the personality of the photographer.

Selling fine art prints or coffee table books to the general public is hard work and most amateurs know very little about their regional market for such images.

Microstock photography is one possible revenue stream but a quick search on sites like iStockphoto turn up thousands of incredible images from very talented amateurs and professionals. (Face it. The stock photography market today is already flush with talent.)

Getting commercial work as an amateur is extremely difficult, given the fact that so many top-notch professionals are already out of work due to the ailing economy and the rapid decline of print media. Competing in the commercial arena means going up against the likes of David Tejada, Tyler Stableford and Kirk Tuck. Not for the weak of heart.

Some how do you make your photographic hobby pay for itself?

  • Control your gear lust and stop spending money for the latest & greatest stuff! The easiest way to break even is to stop spending your hard-earned money on a new camera every year.
  • Volunteer at your church, your local food-bank or your local civic center. NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) in your local area may well need the services of a photographer to document their work. But please don’t under-bid your local pro who needs all the work he can get.
  • Sell to small, local companies that won’t usually hire a professional photographer to shoot their widgets, facilities or staff but want new images for their web site every so often. (Just don’t do this in Sugar Land ;-))
  • Sell your services to local folks that need a simple but professional head shot for a blog, Twitter or Facebook. You don’t need a studio. Make house calls using your minimalist “studio in a box” on-location lighting kit.

If you’re good and can find a local niche for your work, your photographic hobby has the potential to pay for itself. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have gained valuable experience that most hobbyists never dream of.

“Give, and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:38)

How Much To Charge?

Making Money at PhotographyA young man and budding photographer that I met a couple of years ago called me this afternoon with a question on how to price his work. It’s a great question, especially in today’s economy and I’m not sure I did a very good job of explaining things in the few minutes that we spoke. It’s also a question that comes up frequently during my workshops and speaking engagements.

I’m sorry to say that in business (any business) the value of the product or service you provide and the price you can charge has absolutely nothing to do with how much effort you put into creating that product or providing that service. If it did, we would all be millionaires.

Let me repeat that for those of you thinking you’ve misunderstood me.

The value of the product or service that you provide and the price you can charge has absolutely nothing to do with how much effort you put into creating that product or service.

Experienced sales and marketing people from around the globe will read this simple sentence and nod quietly in agreement but folks that make things (creative professionals in any industry) seem to have the most trouble understanding this concept. Right now I’ll bet you’re thinking “Wow, Jeff is off his rocker today” and “what the hell do you mean that my efforts have nothing to do with the value of my work”, but hear me out before you pass judgement.

Question: If the value (price) of your product or service is not determined by the effort (cost) it took to create it, then what determines the price you can charge?

The short answer is  “You do. Only you.” and no, I’m not joking.

The long answer is that you determine the price and your customer determines if the value of your work is worth the price. This dynamic hasn’t changed one bit since the beginning of human history and it never will. Even before money was invented, people used the barter system to determine value and price. It’s pretty much a natural law.

The good news is that the sky’s the limit and when times are good, many creative professionals (in many industries) make a healthy living if they are smart and frugal. The bad news is when times are bad, many creative professionals find themselves unable to make enough profit to cover their expenses.

My pricing formula is very simple and straight-forward. I do not give away my work, no matter how bad the economy is doing. When folks contact me about buying the rights to an image, doing product photography or (heavens forbid) shooting a senior portrait, I will almost always ask a simple question, “What’s your budget?“.

Almost everyone I’ve ever done work for in engineering or photography has an idea of what they want to spend on a project and this simple question cuts right to the heart of the matter. However, in today’s economic climate I am very (VERY) aware of how little extra cash most small (and really small) companies have to spend on photography and I will always try to find a way to a “price” that works for both of us.

For example, I’ve recently started shooting interiors, exteriors and surrounding areas for B&B’s (bed & breakfast inns) in the Texas Hill Country. Most of these are mom & pop operated small businesses looking to make some extra cash on the weekends. These folks generally advertise their places on the Internet and use their web site as an online reservation system. There are several really nice software packages available (hosted) that provide a template that the owners fill in with text and photographs.

Some B&B’s do a great job with their images but many just take their own snapshots and post them up “as is” with no color correction, using the wrong resolution, etc. Nothing drives away potential customers as fast as poor photography of the interior and exterior of a Bed & Breakfast. I’ll post later about my interior lighting setups (stolen from David Hobby) and exterior natural light shots (Two words: Tilt & Shift).

What I offer them is a much higher quality set of images that they can use royalty free for a very reasonable and very negotiable price. In fact, there are a few that I work for that pay me in “trade” (room & board) when I’m traveling through the area. They get some really nice images for their web site and brochures and I get a comfortable bed and a hot meal during my travels. This barter system also extends to some of the small town restaurants I frequent in my travels. And since these folks get to see me more often and get to know me better, when the economy turns around I’ll be positioned to get any new photographic work they need done.

One thought to leave you with. Selling your product or service “for nothing” sets a very dangerous precedent that will come back to bite you when the economy picks up (yes, it really will get better). Once you’ve given away your “work”, that customer knows just how low you are willing to go to land the job. In boxing that’s called “telegraphing your punches” and it usually ends up with you getting the #$%^& beat out of you.

So, the next time your back is against the wall negotiating a price, be brave and ask “what’s your budget?”. Be willing to walk away from “free” but keep the idea of “trade” (barter) in the back of your head. I think you’ll be surprised how many jobs you can land.

Making Your Photographic Hobby Pay

Making Money at PhotographyA friend sent me an email last week posing an interesting question for all amateur photographers namely, “How do you make your photographic hobby pay for itself?”.

At first I was tempted to tell him it’s impossible because gear lust tends to overcome common sense in most amateurs (and many professionals). The manufacturers keep adding features to keep us dishing out money for new cameras every year. If we fall into this trap (we’re all guilty of this folks) then it’s impossible for amateurs or most professionals to break even, let alone make a profit.

Successful professionals understand this reality very well and look at their gear as capital equipment that depreciates over time. No small business replaces capital equipment before it’s fully depreciated and the key to making money as a small business is watching your cash flow like a hawk.

However, somewhere along the way, serious amateurs begin to realize that their 10 megapixel 20D or 12 megapixel D300 is really all they need to achieve consistent image quality. They come to the realization that a good photograph has a lot more to do with the photographer than with the camera. It’s a profound and humbling realization for most and it’s the time when they sets aside their gear lust and begin their search for knowledge. It’s the time when serious amateurs seek out teaching professionals at workshops, seminars and photo-tours.

It’s also the time when many begin to give back to the photographic community as a whole. This is where many folks really begin to grow as photographers and discover that sharing knowledge freely with others multiplies their opportunities to connect with potential customers, sponsors and other photographers that share their passion.

The next steps amateurs take to make their craft pay for itself depend greatly on the personality of the photographer.

Selling fine art prints or coffee table books to the general public is hard work and most amateurs know very little about their regional market for such images.

Microstock photography is one possible revenue stream but a quick search on sites like iStockphoto turn up thousands of incredible images from very talented amateurs and professionals. (Face it. The stock photography market today is already flush with talent.)

Getting commercial work as an amateur is extremely difficult, given the fact that so many top-notch professionals are already out of work due to the ailing economy and the rapid decline of print media. Competing in the commercial arena means going up against the likes of David Tejada, Tyler Stableford and Kirk Tuck. Not for the weak of heart.

Some how do you make your photographic hobby pay for itself?

  • Control your gear lust and stop spending money for the latest & greatest stuff! The easiest way to break even is to stop spending your hard-earned money on a new camera every year.
  • Volunteer at your church, your local food-bank or your local civic center. NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) in your local area may well need the services of a photographer to document their work. But please don’t under-bid your local pro who needs all the work he can get.
  • Sell to small, local companies that won’t usually hire a professional photographer to shoot their widgets, facilities or staff but want new images for their web site every so often. (Just don’t do this in Sugar Land ;-))
  • Sell your services to local folks that need a simple but professional head shot for a blog, Twitter or Facebook. You don’t need a studio. Make house calls using your minimalist “studio in a box” on-location lighting kit.

If you’re good and can find a local niche for your work, your photographic hobby has the potential to pay for itself. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have gained valuable experience that most hobbyists never dream of.

“Give, and it will be given to you.” (Luke 6:38)

Lighting a Dungeon (Without a Fire Breathing Dragon)

There is only one Joe McNally and only Joe gets the BIG jobs like this. The rest of us? We get a wee bit more modest jobs…

Had some fun Friday shooting a pretty cool computer controlled coordinate measuring machine (CMM) made by none other than Zeiss, a name very familiar to most photographers. I wanted to get a few close-up shots of the probe that does the actual measuring as well as an environmental portrait of the machine and operator in action.

I walked into the 10′ x 20′ room housing the CMM and took a few snaps with my G10 to see what the room’s fluorescent lighting looked like. As in most manufacturing plants, the dark floor and walls seemed to suck up the available light like a sponge. And as luck would have it, the CMM’s base was a giant block of black granite and Miguel, the operator, was wearing a grey shirt and black pants. (Butterflies in the stomach…)

I decided to get the easy shots out of the way and began with a few closeups of the measuring probe as it zoomed all around the part it was measuring. I shot these using a softbox on the left and a shoot-through umbrella on the right at 45 deg. I chose a fairly wide aperture to throw the cluttered background out of focus. My 580EX II’s were on manual around 1/4th power controlled wirelessly using the PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 units. My biggest issues were the specular highlights (that’s a David Hobby term for a blinding reflection) coming off the (very Terminator looking) probe. These shots contains a few small areas that are almost completely blown out but hey, that’s life.

CMM Closeup 1

CMM Close Up – Houston, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual (M) using an EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod-mounted. The exposure was taken at 180mm, f/5.6 for 1/50th of a second at ISO 400. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 Beta. Click on the image above for a larger version.

CMM Closeup 2

CMM Close Up – Houston, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual (M) using an EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod-mounted. The exposure was taken at 135mm, f/7.1 for 1/60th of a second at ISO 400. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 Beta. Click on the image above for a larger version.

With the easy “product shots” out of the way, now I had to figure some way to light this dark room, the big shiny machine and Miguel, the operator. All with three Canon 580 EX II strobes, a 24″ Lastolite Ezybox Hotshoe (softbox) and a 43″ Westcott shoot-through umbrella. (Panic begins to set in…)

Miguel was extremely patient while I tried several different lighting positions attempting to light the machine evenly without leaving him in the dark. I settled upon the layout shown below by pure luck, using the softbox pointed at Miguel through the arch of the CMM, as the key and using the shoot-through umbrella as the fill. I also bounced another 580EX II against the white ceiling to add some additional fill behind the CMM to soften the shadows. I pumped up all three strobes to 1/1 power to fill this dark room with as much soft light as possible.

CMM Lighting Diagram

Shooting at ISO 400 with the Canon 5D Mark II really makes this a snap due to the almost nonexistent noise at ISO 200 – 800. The 580EX II’s worked perfectly with their external battery packs and new PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5 radio triggers. Post capture processing was simple using Miguel’s shirt to set a custom white balance in Lightroom. I spent less than 10 minutes retouching these shots in Photoshop so my entire “labor” for this shoot was under four hours.

My next shoot is a bunch of big green machines under sodium vapor lamps on the factory floor, so wish me luck!

CMM Operator

Hard at Work – Houston, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on manual (M) using an EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens tripod-mounted. The exposure was taken at 47mm, f/6.3 for 1/80th of a second at ISO 400. All post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3 Beta and in Photoshop CS4. Click on the image above for a larger version.