Thursday, March 6, 2014

Making money from photography

How on earth do you make money from photography - there're lots of people doing it, aren't there?

No - not at all. There are a lot that claim they make money from photography and in their minds they probably do. I am reminded of some friends of mine from college. We, being young and foolish, went to the amusement arcade and played the one-armed-bandits. One of them was somewhat of an expert on playing them and advised us all. My philosophy was I'd blow £5 ($7.50) and walk away. Really and truly all I wanted to play was the shoot-em-up space invaders games. He wanted to gamble so we all joined in and watched the expert lose his money then we followed his advice and lost most of ours too. At one point I had almost got all my money back in "winnings" from the machine at which point he announced that I'd made a profit and should take everybody to the pub for a beer. Then I pointed out that I still had less money than I walked into the place with. That was when I should have walked away. Like a fool I didn't and the one-armed-bandit walked away with it. Now the moral of that story is that it's very easy to see a little return on investment as actually income. It's not - it's a partial offset of capital outlay.

The camera companies are in business to make money. They are out there to sell the image that if you buy an expensive camera, you will make money using that camera. This is why all the camera unveilings are so glitzy. Look at the images put with the cameras on the website. It's all selling the image that if you have that camera, you can also take photos like they have on their website. They have dancers, well lit scenes etc. It's all sales - selling you the illusion that you will make money. Money is, of course, never mentioned but rather implied by the glitz and glamor.

The vast majority of photographs online are now not taken with a digital SLR but rather with a compact (these are fading from production) or by the more currently prevalent smartphone. The number of photographs taken has exploded over recent years. When photography was done on film, it was normal for a casual photographer to use maybe one roll of film every couple of years. Enthusiasts might use a couple of rolls a day and professionals up to half a dozen rolls a day. Now the interesting thing is that even people that would never have picked up a camera back then now have cameras on their phones. They use those cameras and send photos via online services. Amazon has a feature for most smartphones where it's possible to take a photo of a product and then Amazon will tell you how much the product costs at Amazon. Whether people realise it or not, everybody has become a photographer.
This is a photo I took in my car after buying some Vegan cheese. It got sent to friends almost immediately. This is just how ubiquitous cameras have become.

Many things have happened within a very short interval. Photography has transitioned from film to digital. Cameras have started to be included in just about everything and just about everybody now has a camera. Not only that but compact cameras have all but died out, replaced by cameras built into phones. The original poor quality of the digital image now surpasses that of film to the extent that many movie theatres now show solely digital content. Many cameras have scene detection built in which combine with framing aids that tell the photographer how to take the photo. It has got to the point that anybody can take a really good photo without really trying. Even underexposed faces are lightened automatically by the camera.

With that background, is it surprising that I doubt seriously that professional photography can limp further into the future as a genre by itself. To sell, photography needs a gimmick. It's no good to have a studio in the main street and to charge people for photos or photos of themselves with fluffy bunny foo-foo. Those can be obtained for next to nothing at various locations and people can do self portraits with their smartphones. Look at any dating site and see how many people photograph themselves in the bathroom mirror or how many use self portraits.

A while back I wanted to pair with facepainters to do facepainting and photography. I advertised in various places and got a grand total of 3 facepainters making contact. One never could manage to come to an interview and after her second cancellation, I told her that I thought she would have just as much difficulty turning up to work as she had in turning up to an interview. Another agreed to do it then pulled out just before the first session, claiming that it wasn't going to work for her. The last one was a timewaster who always claimed her paints were going to arrive and never ever seemed to receive them. That's despite the paints cost $1.99 in just about any Walmart. My rule was I do the photography, the facepainter supplies the paints. I paid the stall expenses and we split the takings 50/50. That was a totally wasted summer. Not one single facepainter turned out not to be a total flake.

So what about other ideas since photography by itself just will not sell. I never could come up with any to be honest. My best attempts at making money from photography are my books on photography and my blogs on photography. They do make a little money but nowhere enough to live on. Nor have they even offset anything much of the cost of equipment. Why I purchased more equipment than I needed or wanted was simply because somebody had sold me on the idea and convinced me that photography was a winner as a business idea when their actual aim was somewhat less wholesome.

In terms of sales of photography, the best I managed was 3 bookings in 5 years. Oh, I did all the usual advertising stuff and websites etc. Money went out in bucket loads all to no avail. The website showed no hits from one week to the next despite having been optimized. The only hits were when I landed on the site using other computers on other networks to test the hit counters. The phone never rang with people enquiring about photography. The website was never visited. I had advertising on the sides of my vehicle. I had flyers, I had a portfolio in my car at all times. People would ask to see my website so I'd hand them a business card so they could see it. The hit counters never changed. I would have understood it if people viewed my work and said it sucked. Nobody even attempted to look. It wasn't the photography. If it had been the photography then somebody would have had to have seen it or to have asked to see it.

Of my 3 sales, one turned out to be a fraudster. I should have known better. It was a dodgy area of town. They had pit bulls in their front yard. They wrote a check drawn on a closed bank account. The other two were much better. One was a government agency and the other was somebody that wanted photos for their boyfriend. I met the latter a couple of years later and they wanted more photos but never got back in touch. A grand total income there of a loss of about $220 on one and income of $225 on the other two so in total my income was $225 offset by a loss of $220 so basically $5 actual income over 5 years. That's from straight photography. What a waste of time and effort!

Now having painted that dismal picture, I do actually make money from photography. Photography is a supporting item to my writing ventures though. I wrote two books on high-speed photography. They make money. I saw no reason to withdraw the first edition when I published the second. If I do a third I will not withdraw the first or the second. Those books make money. They don't make huge retire rich sums of money but they do make a few hundred dollars a year. Similarly this blog makes money. Again, not huge sums and it doesn't actually pay for my internet connection but all combined, it makes money. In fact I'd say that the books and blogs have made far more money than I ever made in my entire life from photography.

If your idea is to make money from photography then you need an angle. What's your angle? Mine is writing. I write and include photos. Wedding photography is allegedly a big payer - the angle there is the fantasy. Having said that, wedding photographers have been wiped out by digital which means any money can blaze away taking thousands of photos and come out with the half dozen that the professionals always used to provide. If you're going to sell just photography then you're always going to struggle to come up with the price of a Big Mac.

For all those who do not wish to listen to my cautionary tale, let me further add to the tale. I have been trying to sell the stuff I just don't use. In the time I had the photo business, I spent probably about $8,000 on equipment which is now worth maybe 10% of what I spent. Not only have the cameras reduced so much in value that the only way I'd get the purchase price back is by donating them and taking the donation as a tax break but other things have reduced in price. I had a bunch of light stands and other studio stuff. I ended up bundling about $500 of stuff for $175 as a job lot. Nobody was interested. I advertised it for months on craigslist. Forget eBay and Amazon - they want money every time and I'd have been well out of pocket. I'd set a deadline in February that if it didn't sell by January that it'd go into the garbage skip down the road. It finally sold in December.

I see things going on eBay etc for low prices. I put exactly the same advert up and yes, it does go but for half what the previous low price was. As an example, Nook Colors were going for $75 so I put mine up and it did go - for $25. At that kind of price, it was debatable as to whether just to cancel the auction and toss the damned thing in the garbage instead. I think after postage and auction fees I had maybe $10 for my $100 Nook Color.

Right now I'm investigating how much I can just donate to get rid of. A few days ago I heard somebody asking whether they should buy a grip for their camera. My question was had they been able to get the photos they wanted without it. If so then what imaginary problem would a grip solve. It's too easy just to buy garbage equipment. Unless you are making an absolute mint from photography then you absolutely do not need more than one or at the very most three lenses. You absolutely do not need more than one body. Do not buy an expensive body. Buy the cheapest body you can find - it will depreciate with the glide ratio of a grand piano. Whatever you buy has to pay for itself so the less you buy, the sooner you will be into profit. Don't get the Fancy Nancy Canon flashes that are about $700. Get a cheap eBay Yonguno flash that'll set you back maybe $60. Nobody cares what your equipment looks like. Nobody ever asked what equipment was used to take Moonrise over Hernandez. Nobody but an gear worshipper really cares.

The $10,000,000 question as to why I started a photography business? Well, let's say it wasn't something I wanted to do personally. I wanted just to have a camera and take a few pictures occasionally that people might hang up in a cafe and sell on my behalf or cover maybe a function for people I knew for whatever came my way. I did not in any way want a business license nor a "business". That got imposed on me and although I tried, I never could and still cannot see any way on earth photography on its own can make any money. I'll be honest, I was delighted when I finally realized I was trying to live out somebody else's bad idea and since they weren't around to insult any more by dumping the miserable affair, I could ditch it. Thus I ditched that business license in December. I don't need it for my books or my blogs.

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