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Alias: 'Disco Dude'

High Definition Photography
By Photographer Dan Harris

A home-studio photography business in Jacksonville, FL
1124 Riviera St.  Jacksonville, FL  32207 (904) 398-7668

Let's talk about the Business of Photography

Facts that some photographers don't want to discuss,
(because reality can sometimes get in the way of false hopes and unrealistic dreams)

Here's some more great (inexpensive) learning resourses:
11 ways to improve your photography


Common Photography mis-conceptions:

Photographer's Workload

The 'lovers of photography' and hobbyists all want to make a go of 'living the dream' and becoming a pro! They think there is nothing better than 'getting paid to do what you love' ...when I give classes to new photographers I always say:
"The best way to ruin a good hobby is to make it your job!".

The chasm between a hobbyist and a professional widens daily. A real business person can't compete with 'a mom with a camera' and shouldn't. I tell my customers that after you have exhausted your DIY options, give me a call --when you want it done right.

Photography worth paying for is much different than what you get from your 'friend with a camera'. The low-cost digital file provider business model is NOT sustainable NOR can it provide a living wage. The JOY of photography initially experienced by people shooting for FUN will soon be replaced by the reality of the school of hard knocks. Hopefully the lessons can be learned quickly.

I don' want to photograph all your family's images... just the best ones!

Photography is FUN! When you're a hobbyist or an aspiring professional you get to do what YOU want and in some cases make some money at it! Once you have spent the time and money to become a true professional things change. You no longer can just do what you want, but now must do what your customer is paying you to do! Not quite as fun! Now there are deadlines, demands, bills, pressures, etc. Perhaps not what you originally expected! Best to work for someone else to learn the 'behind-the-scene' reality information before breaking out on your own.

Running a photography business is a whole different job than 'being a photographer'. Disappointment may insue when you work extreemly hard with the hopes of getting a certain job and then end up with another. Too often the dream of 'being a professional photographer' leads to becoming a business owner and the 'dream job' of taking pictures for a living has now turned into the 'business owner' job which may not be as enjoyable as the original job you had hoped for.

To the 'new photographer' I totally understand, you enjoy taking pictures, your friends and relatives look at your pictures and often say: 'you should become a professional photographer.' Taking pictures for a living sounds like a great job! So you set out on your dream career of being a photographer! Every year we hire an assistant who works for us for a few months and then quits because 'it isn't really what they thought it would be', it's a lot of hard work and only 10-15% of it is 'taking pictures'. It's a long road of hard knocks... kind of like becoming a model/acttress or other 'superstar' overly glamorized job. "The best way to ruin an enjoyable hobby is to make it your job!"

To the aspiring photographer: I'm really not the ogre who is trying to 'burst your bubble' or take away your dreams. "A vision without a plan is only a hallucination!" I am probably a better friend to you and your family because I'm not selling a fantasy (or DVD's) and don't tell you the lies you want to hear. I am a decent, honest person who is bothered by the bottom feeders in our industry who are taking advantage of people by 'selling the dream (or lie)'. Yes, the artificial 'dream life' of a photographer that is glamorized by the Hollywood types is so incredibly rare and contrived that it may only exist for a brief moment for a rare few. As photography has become more popular it has become glamorized into an unrealistic dimension along with: rock super stars, phenomenal athletes, Hollywood stars, the rich & famous, child pageant winners, super models and American Idol winners. For every 'rock star' that made it, how many 'crashed and burned' and what are the percentages? Odds are worse than the lottery!

With the dawn of reality TV --today's kids are being sucked into the 'me-generation' mentality. They are expecting to be discovered and rewarded for their rare and unique talent of 'just being me' with very little work or effort on their part. Many are jeopardizing their family's future by illogically following their dream until it puts them in the poor-house, in the end hurting themselves, their family, their customers, their friends and ultimately the photographic industry as a whole. I know some very talented photographers who have spent years in training, own very professional equipment, and make beautiful pictues and still ended up bankrupt lost their house. It's a shame that so much hurt and loss can come from the extortion of one's naivety, the only defense is the truth. The truth remains, whether you choose to believe it or not, and ultimately will be all that remains standing after false hope has imploded on itself. Let's talk some reality so you can make some smart photography career decisions.

Now don't get me wrong, there are a lot of great opportunities in the photography industry as a career. Some people work best as independents, some as employees, some behind the camera, others behind the computer, some teaching other photographers, others selling software and equipment, some as technical gurus for manufactures, others in support areas, etc. We need more educated and well-trained people in our industry. We currently have too many well meaning, but mis-guided 'photographer' applicants for a minimal amount of positions available. The way I see it, we have too many 'photographers' and not enough 'retouchers'.

When you decide to 'become a professional photographer' you have to decide if you are an ARTIST (who sells their finished products) or an HOURLY employee (who sells their time). Work-for-hire photographers make an hourly rate for taking pictures, the more billable hours you work, the more money you make --no time for creativity, retirement, vacation or a family life! The current photography trend of shooting, burning a cd and rushing to the next job is NOT a full-time sustainable business model, but probably a quick way to make some extra money on the side. Work the math and you will find there is no possible way to be successful without burnout unless you: 1- have a well paying full-time job that leaves you with plenty of energy for your weekend photography job; 2- are independently wealthy, 3- either don't require sleep or take performance enhancing drugs so you can work 18 hours a day on a regular basis; 4- have a partner who financially supports you and your business, then you don't really have a profession of photography --just a hobby. Eventually there will be two types of photographers, the NEW and struggling 'shoot, burn and dash' ones and the well established, quality-driven ones who provide quality products, not just a cd and the quality gap between them will be monumental! The challenge in the industry; it will be very difficult for the NEW photographer's to make the transition from 'low-cost shoot & share' to quality products at a good value!

Why do 85% of all new photographers go out of business within 5 years of starting their business? And then why do 50% of those remaining go out of business within the next 5 years? It is the same with most small startup businesses. They are usually undercapitalized, over-extended, untrained and 'following their dream' without a logical or realistic business plan. Too often their passion for photography doesn't come with any understanding of business or the self-discipline required to do all the non-photographic activities required for success. It is very challenging to survive as a small business, especially in changing times. Most small business owners work too much time in their business and not enough time on their business. A small business owner needs various skills in multiple areas: business management, bookeeping, planning, sales & marketing, computer systems and with photography also manufacturing and production. A great photographer also has to have the people skills along with the artistic eye and technical skills to produce great photographs!

There is a false assumption that digital photography is cheaper because you don't have to pay for film and developing when in truth PROFESSIONAL digital photography is 25% more expensive than film because of the additional cost of the professional digital equipment (film cameras never cost so much or had to be replaced so often) along with the additional costs of the computer support equipment and software required and the additional costs involved in the digital developing. It amazes me the numbers of people who go into business without logically looking at the costs, expenses and potential income from the business, but then again the majority of photographers are artists, not accountants!

Many aspiring photographers, with all the right intentions and little of the education, start a photography business and then have to close it to get a regular paying job so they can pay their bills. Some talented business owners discover that they can make more money in less time doing something other than photography. There are a lot of 'educators' in the field of photography who make their living by selling books, seminars, products, etc. these are the people who are training new photographers. The sad part is too many of them don't make their money in everyday photography but in selling seminars & DVD's, some have never made a profit doing the type of photography they are teaching about.

The photography business would be better as an industry if there were less photographers and more business people. Most everyone starts out as a hobbyist and eventually a business owner because they have followed their passion and their dreams, but few do well as business owners. How many Franchised sandwich shops open because people are passionate about making sandwiches? Starving artists begin with a passion for their art and a love for creating, without regard for a business plan or model. Very few make it in the business world.

Their are tons of starving artists in the photograpy world. The real problem is most aspiring photographers don't do their homework and don't look at the realities of the business costs and income potential. If you need to make say $30,000/yr. to support your family you would need to gross $150,000 per year (based on national averages) to be able to pay for all the expenses, equipment & supplies, taxes, insurance, overhead, etc. (sure, some years the percentages will be higher and some lower depending on your current overhead, expenses and taxes. Over the long haul you will find these numbers, as an average, to be very accurate) If you decided to do wedding photography and started at the low end of the market charging say $1,000 per wedding you would have to shoot 150 weddings over the next 52 weeks (nearly 3 per weekend)-- talk about burnout! You wouldn't have much time to spend on each of your clients or their images (or your family life). OK so instead you decide to shoot portraits so you charge $50 for the photo session and plan on selling an average of $250 worth of products to each client, you would only need 500 customers each year or 10 customers a week Then there are the 'digital' photographers who think shooting a session for $50 and giving the customer the CD is easier money. They would only need 3,000 customers each year or 60 clients a week. So if you spent 5-minutes preparing, 15-minutes photographing, 10-minutes burning the CD, 5-minutes collecting the money and 2.5 minutes on the phone and 2.5 minutes personal time per client you could work 9am-5pm daily to make ends meet but only assuming you had a steady flow of 12 customers a day.

Although you mainly only hear about the top 2% of all photographers in the media, reality is: the average photographer works 60 hours a week and makes $24,000 a year (a little more than minimum wage). (see the government photography income figures here) The die-hard successful ones that survive for years have a strong passion for the business, make less than most other professionals, charge more than the majority of photographers, have unique skills and are smart business people OR have a good retirement income and a spouse that supports them! (I'm only the messenger ...don't cry 'sour grapes' and refuse to learn, my business is doing fine and I don't get any benefit by sharing these realities with you except in the hopes of helping you prepare better for the future with less hard-knocks, don't curse me for being honest.)

New photographers usually start their own business for all the wrong reasons. Often they have a 'love of photography' or enjoy 'taking pictures' so they have a desire to become an independent business person/ photographer. Problem is 'picture taking' is only 20% of the job! Others think photography is an easy and inexpensive way to make extra money. Most really don't understand the true costs. To open a professional studio it initially takes $80,000-$100,000 before the first dollar is ever earned. I've known husbands who encourage their wife's to 'follow their dream' and make some extra money by doing photography on the side. After a year or so of being 'real busy' they discover (usually at tax time) that the business that they thought was making money is actually costing them. Isn't it fun to work all year just to pay Uncle Sam? The wife then has to get a 'real job' for the next 3-years to pay off their photography business debt. Some just leave their problems behind by skipping town and disappearing.

Too often new photographers establish their prices by under-cutting their competitors. The problem with this type of pricing plan is it doesn't consider ones real costs. One photographer will have totally different expenses, costs and liabilities than another. (just like one photographers photographic abilities will be different than another's) Many have the idea that they have to put in lots of time and effort for little or no profit to 'establish their name'. I predict they will be out of business before they are established! Too often the uneducated buyers swamp the cheap photographer and soon the quality of their service rapidly diminishes. Now the overbooked, underpaid photographer (without any extra working capital) needs to hire additional help if he/ she is to survive but can't afford additional help and has no time to improve their own education and skills to learn how to survive the mess they have created for themselves. It is then just a matter of time before someone (or everyone) gets burned.

Too often the new photographer, in their excitement to get new business, gives away the store, takes on projects they don't have the equipment or skills to complete, underbid jobs without a true understanding of what is really required or take on unprofitable jobs. All of these tactics ultimately result in burn-out or worse yet, bankruptcy! (Let me make myself clear, I'm certain that mentioning this will have no effect on or change on this pattern, it has continued for years and will continue for years to come) It's sad that many local magazines used to pay thousands of dollars a year for photography services (and national magazines millions) but now fill their pages with 'free photography' submitted by photographers wanting to 'get their name published for free' (in very fine unreadable print) so they can have 'bragging rights' which don't amount to anything except a minor ego stroke when they announce that they have been published on their facebook page.

(Ok, so here's my pipe dream that will never happen:) More could be done for the photography industry as a whole if quality photographers refused to give FREE pictures to magazines and require that they pay for their professional photography. (of course some of the local publications will print anything with no concern for quality) This would create much more photography jobs than the free by-line ad in the magazine! If you do decide to do 'trade' with a publication, don't let them just give you a free 'by-line' that is never paid for anyway, be sure to get the FULL VALUE of your services for legitimate advertising space! The new photographers need to understand that every time you do a 'free' photoshoot for someone who would have paid for photography services you hurt yourself and your own industry because now there are less paying photography jobs. If you want to get experience and practice, donate your time and skill to a charity or underprivileged family (who wouldn't be able to pay for photography anyway) and it will be a worthy endeavor and valuable learning experience without diminishing the available jobs in the photography marketplace. Then when you have the experience and portfolio, don't become the low-bid (once again hurting your own industry) convince your client to spend the most possible for the best possible and earn the job as the best supplier (not the cheapest) so you can support yourself, your family and your industry! (am I stating the obvious here?)

In today's digital age there is a false belief that the cameras automatic program makes it easy for anyone to take great pictures! A digital photo only begins life in the camera, after countless hours of post-capture processing, tweaking and improving with the right software, tools and skill, a quality image properly captured can finally be develop into a truly 'professional image'. (want proof of it, send me your best picture and I will make it better and send you a sample print!) You will sometimes hear the comment that 'the camera doesn't matter' and then whomever says that will prove their point by referencing a rare situation when someone accidently got a great picture with a junk camera... if this were really the truth there wouldn't be a market for better cameras! You don't hear a jockey saying 'the horse doesn't matter', or the race-car driver saying 'the car doesn't matter'! Because if you're doing photography the camera DOES matter. The right equipment can make all the difference especially in the hands of an experienced professional!

Another false belief is that 'you can fix anything in photoshop'. (I don't know who this 'you' is but it's not me.) I'm sure given enough time, skill, experience and an unlimited budget that might be true. The problem is all digital editing software has its limitations and often the biggest limitation is the skill of the operator. There are many 'problems' that are much easier to fix and look better on the finished product if they are 'corrected' before pressing the shutter button than trying to fix them 'after the fact' in photoshop. If we take 10 seconds to remove something off the carpet, as we start to take 50 group pictures, it only took 10 seconds, but if we 'remove it in photoshop' later it will take about a minute per image or $90 worth of editing. Digital editing isn't free for a professional because they have to buy computers, software, pay employees, overhead, etc.

Today their are a lot of people without any training or experience with only a consumer-quality camera calling themselves 'professional' photographers and charging for their amateur services without being totally honest with their clients about their experience or capabilities. (maybe these people have their head in the sand and don't know better, maybe they are trying to be deceitful, I don't understand their motivation) Although they may fool some people some of the time and may be able to perform in simple situations, the day will come when their lack of education, experience and understanding of their equipment and the photographic process will create a major problem for them and their unsuspecting clients. Too often that pretty picture on the back of the digital camera (which is unusable when it comes to printing) also looks good on a website and can create false expectations for future clients. I never want to 'over-sell' my abilities but would rather 'under promise and over deliver' to insure superior customer satisfaction.

I am certain there are 'newbee' photographers reading this who are upset with me because I speak the truth and it's not what they want to hear, they believe their excitement, enthusiasm and incredible personality will make up for their lack of equipment or technical skills (some are taught in class to 'fake it until you make it' --that may work with attitudes, but seldom with principles of science) ...and if you believe that you probably also believe any day now you will be discovered and paid incredible amounts of money to be on reality TV! Good luck with that! If you have read this far in the hopes of finding out what 'secret' will propel you into success, reality is there are no secrets! In the old days after a photographer achieved their degree in school they would serve as an apprentice for many years before being allowed to call themselves a photographer, today there is no such prerequisite. Buyer Beware! It is up to the educated consumer to determine if indeed the photographer can truly handle the work required.

Photography is expensive, when all is said and done a good photography studio owner takes home 25% of their gross sales in a well run studio (top 5% as documented by a 5-year professional study of studios across the nation by PPA) and they work at least 60 hours a week. If they did 50 weddings per year (which may cause burnout) at $2,000 each their paycheck would be $25,000 for the year or aprox. $8 per hour before taxes. How long can they remain in business at that price? They will either have to cheat their costs (some ways of doing this are by: avoiding paying taxes; not repairing or upgrading equipment; using cheaper inferior materials; taking advantage of contract loopholes; not delivering what was paid for; basic lying, cheating and stealing.) OR raise their prices OR get into another business. So in the end, the choices you have in the marketplace are either: 'new cheap photographers' who may not survive and the 'established experienced professionals' who charge a fair price based on their real costs and services. To the customer: It's your money ...gamble if you wish.

To the new photographer: don't practice at the expense of an unsuspecting customer! If you get a job you can't handle pay a pro to help make you look good, in the end you will be further educated and you won't hurt the industry or disappoint a client. Educate yourself, separate the fantasy from the reality and learn enough to know what you don't know and then serve your time (3-5 years) as an apprentice so you are well trained in the business before you take on major responsibilities otherwise you are only doing a dis-service to yourself, your customers and your future industry.

Part-time photographers ask: Can I quit my day job?

Throughout my travels I talk to a lot of part-time photographers, hobbyists, weekend warriors and 'moms with cameras' who really enjoy photography and would love to make it their full-time career so they ask me how will they know when it is the right time to quit their day job. There is a simple math formula for determining if it is the right time to become a full-time photographer. Take the dollar amount you need to live off of and times it by 4. This will give you the gross dollar amount of sales you need to be able to pay yourself, your overhead, your bills and your taxes and maintain a successful full-time photography career. (anything less is unsustainable and a recipe for disaster) The next step is to determine how to bring in that dollar volume. Another simple way to look at it is to work from the other direction, realistically how many events or sessions will you do in a typical month, times that number by the average price per event or session, this equals your gross income, then times the total by 25%, this equals your paycheck after expenses. Better to use realistic conservative event/session numbers than to hope for the physically impossible.

I'm amazed at the number of NEW photographers who have never given the financial realities any consideration. I guess they don't want reality to mess up their dreams! But you ultimately can't reach your dream without working through the realities! The other major problem I experience with this budding group of future professionals is they take on FREE photography projects (for the experience) or under-quote and undermine existing photography opportunities in an attempt to 'break into' the industry and what they don't understand is that they are undermining their (and all other photographers) future income by hurting the very industry they hope one day will support them. (are they crazy or just delusional?)

New photographers have it backwards, when they are 'experimenting' with becoming a photographer (while they don't yet have to make a living off the industry) they shouldn't be under-cutting prices and offering to do services for free, they should determine their charges for an event based on the income they would like to make (using the formula above) and then charge accordingly and see if it is feasible to reach their financial goals. They should also make a commitment to the photography industry to never do anything that undermines or devalues it, otherwise there will never be enough paying photography jobs for the professionals of today or tomorrow. If you LOVE photography, support your local photographer! (not just the multi-national manufacturers) Go to an event and buy photography! Pay a professional to take photographs instead of just settling for do-it-yourself quality! Encourage others to support local photographers (don't cheat photographers out of a fair paycheck by stealing pictures off the web or scanning prints). I'm amazed at the number of 'new' photographers who think they will be successful in this industry by eating their own young.

Fresh, new, young and hip photographers with a desire to break the rules

Gotta love 'em! I work with lots of new and budding photographers in several photography organizations I belong to. I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm and desires and sell it to the old grumpies! A few interesting trends I keep seeing: some new 'self-taught' or 'internet trained' photographers are quick to talk bad about any kind of established 'photography rules' or any suggestion of the 'established' or 'proper' way to do things and they often go on a rant about why their work is better/different than the established photographers because they weren't 'conditioned' by the facts or trained by the establishment, etc. And how 'breaking the rules' is the new standard even if you don't know what the rules are, etc. What I am really hearing is excuses for ignorance and justifications for not learning about things they may not understand or are intimidated by especially if it requires long-term effort to grasp.

Many of the 'rules' of photography were taken from the portrait artists of the 1500's. The uses of light, composition, hand and arm positioning, angle of the face, etc. are proven methods perfected over the centuries and applied to modern photography today. The purpose for these rules isn't to intimidate or judge or confuse new photographers, they have been established as ways to insure the subject looks their best and give the artist repeatable guidelines to insure the final work is the best possible. New photographers who are 'put off' by established guidelines and think it is always best to 'break the rules' can continue to shoot unflattering portraits; (looking up peoples noses); or making people look fat; or making people look like they have deformed stumps or dismembered body parts; or calling attention to the wrong body parts; or emphasizing less important elements in a picture rather than the more important ones; or applying incongruous effects to poorly exposed and unfocused images; and if they can convince people to pay for their 'art' -- I say more power to them! But please don't arrogantly announce your ignorance when questioned or when in front of an audience.

Another funny trend is the girl who accidently took some cool shots by using her photography equipment in a manner it was never intended to be used and then began to promote her 'style' and began to teach other photographers to mimic her ' new trend'. Now here's the funny part, one of those styles gives a soft-focus, blurry and dreamy image. So now she is teaching others how to use very expensive, professional equipment (which is designed to produce crisp and clear images with minimal flare) how to defeat the expensive design characteristics and make the $3,000 worth of camera equipment act more like a $15 plastic camera. The sad part is many of those taught in this method have determined that if it's cool on one or two images it would be even better on every image! So now un-educated photographers with the most expensive and professional equipment available are working really hard to defeat the scientific design and natural characteristics of the equipment to mimic the result that could be achieved with a $15 plastic toy camera. The saddest part? With the professional equipment the 'effect' only works correctly every third or fourth shot, so now they have to take tons of experimental shots, most of which are too blurry and out-of-focus to use, just to achieve an effect that could either be done every time with a $15 toy camera OR done perfectly in photoshop later. Go figure. Oh and it gets better, the instructors have had to alter the method over the years (now using more wider-angle lenses) to help lessen the high rate of failure.

Reality: if you know and understand the scientific principles (rules) governing your equipment (and your art) you will understand which piece of equipment is best for doing what (or what effect to use) and will not try to force the near impossible out of the wrong equipment choice.

To the 'self-taught', 'fake-it-till-you-make-it' photographers

Perhaps you have a rare gift of seeing what others don't. Your photography skills have vastly improved as you practice photography. Initially you brag that you are self taught and don't have any formal training. Although this may carry you for a time and some people will be happy to pay you for your art, eventually your career will become stagnant without continual learning and growing. I often ask photographers if the end result is really what they planned on or are they selling 'accidental art' and just pretending it is what they wanted to do.

Can you take a picture and make it look exactly like it really looked to the human eye in every situation and circumstance? Then do you make conscientious decisions to alter or modify the reality to match your artistic vision? OR are you hap-hazard 'spraying and praying' --taking tons of pictures in the hopes that one of them will look cool and accidently meet your artistic expectation? Can you look at a picture, dissect how it was made and then re-create a similar look through the proper use of your equipment and lighting?

Understanding the science behind the photography and how to make your equipment and software do what you want it to do, then making the decision to create in the way you envision is a lifelong endeavor and an ever-learning process that ultimately can't be faked. A REAL professional who has mastered the art and science will easily make the best image possible in an efficient amount of time thus making their 'expensive' price per hour actually very cost effective.

To my fellow Photographers who are bemoaning the 'state of the industry'

The photography business is tough, it has even gotten tougher when more and more people are 'becoming photographers'. All the media hype and facebook posts make it sound like a glamorous job... very few want to admit the truth, it's a challenging job! It's nice to say "there's enough business for everyone." But the reality of the laws of supply and demand dictate that when there is too much supply and not enough demand, prices go down until the supply decreases or demand goes up. Today everyone is 'snapping and sharing' for free and some 'professionals' are offering the same and trying to make money at it. I'm not sure a business model of trying to get people to pay you for what their friends (and co-workers) will do for free is one that can become a sustainable business plan. The Shoot and Share business model works best when photographers are shooting for real photographers who know how to edit, retouch, design, print and bind. The average consumer doesn't know what to do with a CD/USB of files and ultimately messes them up trying to make something from them. A real professional wouldn't leave their customers stranded with a 'do-it-yourself' project. Photographers who want to have a sustainable and successful business (one that can support themselves and their family without outside support) will have to develop a business model that offers a unique product or service that people ARE willing to pay for --therein lies the challenge. In the meantime, happy shooting and sharing!


Other items of interest to other photographers:

Not all RAW converters are the same, compare: (notice the strange color artifacts -on the right- where the sunlight passing through blue and red stained glass hits the carpet, can you guess which raw converter is the cheapest one!)

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Dan Harris PhotoArt, LLC (904) 398-7668
1124 Riviera Street Jacksonville FL 32207