Upgrading The Photo Business

Upgrading The Photo Business

You have to admit, it’s a guilty pleasure buying new stuff. Sure, it sucks having to shell-out moola for the really good stuff, but if you are a legit working professional in your field, it’s a necessity. BUT… as much as you hate seeing a series of zeros in the price tag of pro-level equipment, there is a part of you that is super happy about clicking that “buy” button. Photographers are notorious gear freaks, always lusting after the next biggest, faster, meaner piece of equipment, whether it is a lens, camera body, general accessory, lighting, or computer equipment. We live in a world that is now obsessed with efficient, lean business workflows. On top of that, society in general is always looking at how they can get services and products cheaper, faster, and easier. The same applies to the career field of photography. If photographers are expected to keep their prices lower to stay competitive, they have to find ways to make the price they are charging economical to keep their dollars per hour up at a desirable range. Ex. if you charge $200 for a photo shoot, is your total time invested into that project 3 hours or 30? If this (photography) is what you wake up and do every day, it is a prime example of a high output workflow. By that, I mean it’s not like you are dealing with something on a small scale, like selling cars. You are most likely pumping out photos in the thousands every month if you have a healthy business. So, we are dealing with units in the thousands per month. Don’t you think that is something that is worth evaluating, in terms of process workflow and where bottlenecks might be? Just like any other profession, the longer you keep at it, the quicker you are capable of doing a job, managing the juggling of processes, etc, and hopefully the lack of efficiency in certain spots will become more evident. You’ll most likely continue to reach new levels in your knowledge and experience, and your current gear and approach may begin to keep you from breaking through to the next step. That’s your cue to do something about it.

Identifying the Needed Upgrades

“Upgrading” can mean something beyond equipment. What if you are at a point where you are conducting photo shoots with lots of lighting? That’s a lot of equipment packing, setup, massaging lighting issues during the shoot, and finally packing back-up. Maybe “upgrading” is getting an assistant to increase efficiency of the physical photo shoot. Truth be told, any well-executed portraiture photography beyond pure live event shooting normally calls for light manipulation, whether that be a simple reflector or a $20,000 light setup. Extra hands to help are always SUPER nice to have around and dramatically decrease photo session times. Decreasing shoot times can be looked at in two different ways – it increases your per-hour production, or it allows you to fit in more shoots. Either way, you are making more money or freeing up more time for personal leisure.

New lenses are always being drooled-over by photo gear nuts. Do you work a lot of evening/indoor photo gigs? Still shooting low to mid-grade lenses and having to jack-up your ISO because your glass isn’t fast enough? Upgrade your glass. Your clients are paying you right? Invest in them, deliver a higher quality product via photo with lower ISO’s (which equal cleaner files from lower ISO photos from faster glass). Starting to get more product photography jobs? Maybe it’s time for you to dive-in and invest in a macro lens, instead of having to crop your standard lens photos to get tight shots (which effectively kills your resolution).

Buying a second camera body. I always laugh at the thought of people buying an extra camera body purely for the sake of having a backup (I hear it all the time). How unreliable is your gear? Maybe it’s time to upgrade your primary body instead… Now, I will say this in the defense of this theory – Things can go wrong, so in VERY rare cases, a backup might come in handy for a pure backup purpose, but don’t shell-out for that reason alone. And I’m sure that unless you are getting paid big-time or shooting weddings, the situation of a camera failure popping-up can mean an easy reschedule of a photo shoot and clients will understand (after all, you are getting paid a couple hundred bucks, if that). Now, if you are getting paid to fly around the country and making thousands on a shoot, ya, your clients have invested heavily in you, so you better have respectfully invested equally on your end of things. HOWEVER, a second camera body is a good idea if you plan on using it regularly. I have two bodies and I use them both ALL the time. The biggest reason – each body having a different lens mounted, one wide, one telephoto. In this situation, my portrait shoots will go quicker because I’m not having to juggle lenses onto one body while my clients wait, I just pickup the other rig and keep shooting. In event shooting, this setup is priceless. With a camera hanging on each shoulder, you can go from super wide shots to telephotos across a large room. People at events don’t wait for a photographer to change lenses or walk across the room, and candid moments are lost. Greater capability with multiple bodies can almost turn you into two photographers, increase your photo variety, making you a more effective and desirable photog to hire for events.

All of the dizzying amount of various photo accessories can be another giant undertaking of upgrading as well. I covered the camera bag in a dedicated post a while back, which is very important (click here for that post). Have you bought more gear than your bag holds, and so you are forced to leave some lenses or other things behind? I HATE when I’m in a situation where I’m left saying, “I wish I would have brought  ____.” There are a stupid amount of lighting accessories. Lights themselves, stands, battery packs, light modifiers, things to trigger lights, gels, the list goes on. Shooting a lot of off-camera lighting outside mid-day and need a more powerful light to tame the sun? Invest in a studio strobe.

The biggest bottleneck in business workflow I think is the most overlooked by beginning and mid-level experienced photogs, and that is the computer side of the business. We can all say that we wish we had a faster computer, but you might not realize how badly it is slowing your business down. If you are spending more than a couple hours in post for a general family portrait or senior photo or head shot photo session, you are doing it wrong. And by the “the process,” I mean from import, edit, export, archiving, and washing your hands of a photo shoot. You have some major leaks in your digital workflow if this is surpassing 2-3 hours (and that’s on the slow end). Some leaks might just be you, meaning your experience and knowledge of the entire post processing workflow is still spinning-up, getting faster at making your photo selects, etc. It’ll take a year or two before that really gets snappy and become second nature. With this in-mind, your computer and software choices may not yet be a bottleneck, however, I promise once you have some miles under your belt, the more you’ll find yourself waiting on a computer to crunch numbers. Two huge things to look at – computer hardware, photo management software (I’m not going to cover the software end, as I wrote a post about that, which you can read by clicking here). Is your computer more than a couple years old? Realize that computers made today are over 4 times more powerful in both CPU and graphic performance than computers made just two years ago. Not a big deal? Think again. Let’s go back to that high output idea again. If I had to put a number on it, I can easily say I push out over 3,000 images on average per month. That’s importing, viewing, selecting, editing, and exporting at a minimum 3,000 images a month. Let’s say that with your current computer setup that your average time dedicated per-image is 60 seconds (from import to edit to export). That’s 50 hours for one month, just sitting in front of your computer, pumping out photos. The time consuming part of your post processing will be in the editing. How long does it take for your computer to pull-up the next image, for edits to snap into effect, and for exporting? If you are waiting on your computer to do a lot of these things, you have a GIANT leak in your post workflow, ’cause remember, we are talking about this wait time multiplied by thousands of images per month. Speeding up the process per image by just 10 seconds shaves 8 HOURS of work off of your month… a full work day (if you use the 3,000 image scenario), and that’s for just shaving off 10 seconds. That’s a free day, take it off, or… use it to book more work and make more money. My last computer upgrade was a good leap, effectively doubling my overall computing potential. This means that I could cut the proposed 50 hours in half to 25. 25 hours a month, I have the ability to get back. That’s huge, right? That’s a part-time job worth of hours, every month. How juicy does that computer upgrade look now? A little more justifiable? More like business sabotage if you ignore it. I just gave you a scenario that paid for a new computer in the first month of owning it (a really really nice computer). The software end is equally important, especially if you are not yet using software designed for mass photo management/editing. Read the post linked up above if you are not doing so yet.

Even the seemingly “small” upgrades can have significant impacts on improving your business operations, well beyond your expectations. If you find yourself saying “I wish ____” over and over in a certain area of your business workflow, that should be a giant red flag. The level in which you address your bottlenecks should be relative to your current state of business and finances. Sometimes you gotta upgrade/improve the more dull, less exciting aspects of the business that are the last place you want to spend money, but are areas that obviously should take priority over other, more fun areas you’d rather tend to. For example, billing and invoicing… oh boy, what fun, right? Spending an evening researching different billing software options and dropping 4o bucks on the one that best fits you can end up saving you a ton of time, all while keep your billing, expenses, and financial accountability all in-check with minimal effort.

Buy Good Equipment, Get Good Resale At Right Times

A helpful strategy of upgrading equipment is that you can help shave some of the cost by off-loading the old gear that the new gear is replacing. Upgrading from a mid-level lens to a pro-series that covers the same focal range? Sell the mid-grade to lower the overall cost to you for upgrading. The lens market is pretty steady, as lens manufacturers will only make new generations of the same lens every 5-10 years. Chances are you can get 60-85% of what you originally paid for a lens if you sell it, sometimes more (if you’ve taken good care of it). Lens prices fluctuate, it’s weird. For example, right now, lens prices are WAY up because of the recovering state of Japan, where the bulk of the lenses are made, which has constrained supply lines. I could sell most of my lenses now for more than I bought them years ago.

Computers can have great resell too, especially if it’s a Mac (sorry PCs, the truth stings). Just like a car, where a model with 90,000 miles seems pretty reasonable will sell well, where a car with 120,000 miles on it will not sell nearly as well. So there is that sweet spot, and keeping your ear to the ground as far as where computer technology is, you can get really good resale on your computer. I recently sold a two year old MacBook Pro for $1,200, which sold the day after I listed it. I paid 2,200 for it originally, which happens to be the same price as the new one I bought, so I’m only out $1,000 for getting a new mac that doubled my digital efficiency. I’m keeping the digital end of my business very current by only having to invest $500 a year on computer hardware.

Camera bodies will sell almost as well as lenses, that is until the next model comes out, which is much faster than the lens market. Camera body cycles can be as quick as one year to as long as 3 years. Once the next generation of that model drops so will the price on the old one.

Invest In You, Invest In Your Clients

I’ve had a few photographers ask me what they should charge for photo shoots. They’ve usually been students of mine in a workshop, so I know where they are (experience and equipment-wise), so my simple answer to them is, “whatever you think is a reasonable price for your time investment,” as they have been photographers who are just jumping into the game, and financial/gear investment is low so that really doesn’t get equated into things. They have other jobs, and at this point the photo gig is something they love and they are working towards building businesses. This is a great place to be, as it’s not a “putting food on the table” situation for them, and it can be a much more casual decision, and any extra dough they score from a shoot is icing on the cake. They also understand that at present time their investments in experience, knowledge, equipment, and photo business finances are low… right where their prices should be. This plays in their favor though, as low price points make them desirable if their work is good enough.

I don’t believe photography pricing is decided on how a photographer was feeling one day when they woke up, “hey, I should be charging ___ per hour, just because I think I’m awesome!” It’s something that should be weighed on numerous avenues. How much do you charge to conduct a photo shoot with entry-level experience, low-end equipment, no lighting gear, no legit studio, along with a number of other investments other photographers have made? I sure hope that you are not competing in prices with someone who has 5+ years and made considerable investments. If you are pricing the same with a seasoned photog who produces superior work, will those same people come back to you? Proper investment (in a mutual way) will ensure happy repeat clients.

Now that I have talked your ear off about how important having the newest gear is kickass, it isn’t all about gear. It’s about reasonable investments and where they make sense. You want to produce better work, charge more for your time, get better clients – it’s a process. Gear doesn’t define you as an artist and your production of creative works. It’s a snowball process. I started, as we all do, with low-end gear, and photographed people for free or next to nothing. I knew that going out and buying a bunch of uber pro gear wasn’t going to make me an amazing photographer. No, that would come with the experience, and newer, better gear would have the potential to make my product a bit better in overall quality. As my experience, level of work, and desire for a creating a better, more efficient product hit higher levels, so did my level of clientele, gear, experience, and prices. I can walk away from a photo shooting happy with knowing that my clients think they got an amazing deal, I’m happy with my price points, and the level of work exceeds expectations. If I’m going to be on one end of the investment scale or the other, I’d rather feel like I’ve invested well beyond what I’m charging clients, rather than feeling like I’m over-priced for my level of work and capabilities.

It should go without saying that you shouldn’t read this post and be thinking you should be dropping all kinds of cash to “upgrade” your biz. Truth be told, we all could use improvements in just about every corner of all of our businesses, and we all have a wish list. Photography isn’t a professional that increases your worth by throwing more money at it. It’s simply about identify bottlenecks and hurdles in your business and then forming plans to clean them up. Investments should be made across the board, and on equal measures. Your business will only be as strong as it’s weakest link.

Bonus Points

Sure, it’s really easy to buy a camera and overnight you wave a magic wand and you are now a photographer with a business and a Facebook page, right? For vets, this is an obvious, but for you newcomers, it’s a really really good idea to have a business license. Not only does it make your photo outfit legit, it opens up another reason for investing…. tax breaks. By the way, it’s illegal to conduct a business without a license. I think it’s like 15 bucks a year to register your biz with the state, and takes like 5 minutes online. Plus if you do any business to business work, the other business will require it for their tax purposes. Anyways, back to the tax breaks… You can write-off all of these toys you are buying for your registered business (if you file business taxes in tandem with your personal). There is a chance that the first year you conduct business that your expenses will be greater than your profits, which means big brother owes you, booyah. Just remember to keep all the receipts. Use your car to drive to a shoot? That’s a write-off, mileage and gas (you didn’t know that buying a car was an upgrade for your biz did you!).

If you have any questions on upgrading aspects of a photography business, feel free to comment below or send me a message from the contact page.