Running a successful photography business can be challenging enough during good economic times. But when the inflation rate is the highest it’s been in 40 years, how do you cope with that? In some ways, it’s as simple as applying “Business 101” principles, but it gets a bit trickier if you’re selling something that can be considered nonessential by some consumers. Let’s take a look at some proven steps for keeping your creative business afloat, and turning a profit.
You may have heard the statistic that 60% of photographers give up their business in the first year; so what are the other 40% doing right? What are the 6-figure photographers doing that you can be doing?
Just like every other service business, photography isn’t immune to these common challenges:
- Finding new clients – continuously.
- Retaining current clients.
- Running an efficient workflow.
- Scaling your business while remaining competitive.
- Managing expenses, such as labor, fuel, and gear rental or replacements.
- Diversifying the services you offer.
- Staying creatively fresh and relevant.
- Learning how to avoid burnout, and staying positive and motivated.
So…what is a recession anyway?
Given the challenges of running a successful photography business in “good times”, how can you adjust your business to survive and even thrive during economic trials? Let’s start with the current financial climate. The news is full of experts debating about whether, or when, and how deep a recession might be, and that speaks to the inexact nature of a definition or even an official declaration. A recent Forbes article titled, “What is a Recession?” delivers a broad explanation:
A recession is a significant decline in economic activity that lasts for months or even years.
The Forbes article goes on to more specifically define a recession as a period of two or more quarters when a nation’s economy experiences negative gross domestic product (GDP), rising levels of unemployment, falling retail sales, and contracting measures of income and manufacturing that are expected to last for an extended period of time. During a recession, the economy struggles, people lose work, companies make fewer sales, and the country’s overall economic output declines. The point where the economy officially falls into a recession depends on a variety of factors.
The causes of a recession can range from excessive debt, to sudden economic shock, to asset bubbles, and too much inflation or deflation. But the bottom line is it’s a documented period of economic decline that is felt by almost everybody on some level – some more than others.
What happens to photography businesses in a recession?
It’s easy to imagine that some businesses survive while others fail based on the type of clients they serve and whether the value or demand for the photography services they provide outweighs their client’s need to cut back on spending. If your client is having a wedding, they’ll likely still have a wedding photographer, although they might purchase a less expensive package or cut back on other services like a second shooter or videographer.
For a commercial photographer specializing in product photography, as long as a client still produces new products to sell, they’ll still need photographs. Or in a scenario where photographs are required to fulfill a legal obligation (for example, in the insurance or construction industry) photographic documentation is a necessity.
Factor in the slowdown in the photography business during the COVID pandemic and the subsequent resurgence from pent-up demand, and it’s easy to feel like we’re riding the peaks and valleys of a giant economic rollercoaster. Just as you feel hopeful and are capitalizing on the biggest wedding season boom in 40 years, the highest inflation in 40 years is poised to pull the rug out from under you.
Let’s look at some steps you can take to carry your business through difficult times, from a slow season to a full-blown recession.
5 steps a photography business can take to survive a recession.
Applying the proven “Business 101” principles, basic financial tracking, analysis, and awareness are critical for any photography business owner.
1. Track your revenue.
If you don’t already use one, get yourself a good accounting system – even better if scheduling, payments, and product sales are automated so you get comprehensive reports to evaluate your progress (or, business). A clearer awareness of your financial picture can allow you to pivot quickly when it is necessary.
Once you have the reports, analyze what is coming in and take stock of which services and products are performing best. Next, look at ways in which you can use this knowledge to increase your overall profit. Some options might include a slight increase in the price of your most popular session, or opening availability for that service type so you can add more bookings. An online scheduling tool can simplify price and availability adjustments, your booking process, and even automatically create client galleries to leave you more time for shooting those extra sessions.
Another easy way to increase (or at least maintain) your profits is to increase your product pricing by 5-10%. Nearly every lab has increased their prices and shipping fees in the last 12 months to cover their higher expenses during this period of inflation. Photographers of every specialty have seen their own business expenses go up due to fuel costs, shipping fees, flight prices, or even studio rent increases. To ensure your profits don’t come up short due to these changes, your price lists need an increase, too. Adding even this small percentage can be the difference between merely covering your costs and creating a profit, leaving you some wiggle room during slow periods.
Look around in your community, and globally. What are others in the industry doing well that is applicable to your business? It is always a good time to strengthen ties with your community; make time to connect with your network of peers and share ideas.
2. Diversify your income.
Speaking of pivoting, how can you do that effectively? Maybe you determine that one area of specialization – like legal/insurance/construction photo documentation – is more immune to economic swings, so you pursue more business in that area. Perhaps you identify that product photography clients also need video of new products and you already have the studio and lighting to make that happen for them as a one-stop resource.
Most importantly, take the time to identify opportunities to use your existing skills and equipment for other genres or applications. For example, if wedding photography bookings are down, try pivoting to include any of the following:
- Courthouse weddings or elopements.
- Fashion or product photography services (all those years styling and shooting wedding details have you off to a good start!)
- Couples, maternity, or family sessions for past wedding clients in your contact list as their families grow.
- Headshots or portraits for other business owners or creative professionals in your wedding and personal networks.
You can take a more in-depth dive into diversifying your income with inspiration from this recent blog: How are photographers diversifying their income in a pandemic-afflicted world?
3. Automate – work smart and avoid burnout.
The advent of new technology and automated tools in pre and post-photography session applications can help you immediately save time, expedite workflow, and cut expenses for labor or outside services. Make the most of your designated work time (and still leave some time for work-life balance) by adding some of these to your process.
- An online scheduling tool; better still if it includes automated gallery creation.
- Integrated e-commerce in galleries with a custom online store and lab-fulfilled orders drop-shipped to your clients.
- Coupons and seasonal automated campaigns and banners that can be used to boost sales anytime, or around specific holidays or events.
- Automated email notices for gallery expirations to create urgency.
- Streamline workflow and be more efficient wherever possible by using new AI technology tools like facial recognition and auto-culling.
4. Get creative. Be flexible. Think outside the box.
As with any successful business owner, creativity and innovation are often effective antidotes for an ailing economy and reduced income. Remember the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention?” When necessity demands, be imaginative.
- Identify needs in your community and ways you can address them. For example, communities were looking for ways to acknowledge their graduates during the pandemic. Photographers designed and sourced yard signs and door posters, increasing their profit on completed senior sessions from earlier in the year.
- Don’t be afraid to put your ideas into action – if you need examples to share on social media for work you want to create, do a model call or get friends or family to model for you. You could even get in front of the camera yourself making use of your camera’s remote or timer functions.
- Anything goes! From front steps and porch sessions to shade tents for outdoor “studios” to B&W basement sessions, your creativity is what makes a setup or location shine.
5. Wow and delight your photography clients.
Make your client experience your number one priority. When your clients are thrilled with your service, products, and responsiveness, they are likely to keep coming back. And, they are more inclined to refer others to you.
- Keep your finger on the pulse of what clients need or want most in terms of services and products by reviewing your reports. You could even take a quick poll in an email newsletter if you have a responsive client base.
- Clear and prompt communication keeps them engaged – you can never be overly clear about what is included in your services, the client contract, your image delivery timeline, etc.
- Beautiful, secure client galleries with features that make the proofing and ordering experience easy. These are some of the most important for a good client experience:
- The ability for clients to leave comments on individual images.
- An option to save and share their favorites.
- A built-in shopping experience with clear pricing and product previews.
- Quick and easy image and gallery downloads (free and paid options.)
- Quick turnaround on images, whether its a “sneak peek” with up to a dozen images in a day or two, or their entire gallery delivered slightly ahead of your set timeline
Now let’s get back to business…101.
Here’s one more often-used expression you should keep in mind, penned by famous musical poet Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’. Just remember that nothing ever stays the same. Bad times will become good again. That applies to you and your photography business practices, too. You CAN think, work and innovate your way out of challenging times. The highest inflation in 40 years is a fact. The biggest boom in weddings and events in 40 years is also a fact. Whether we’re actually in a recession yet is up for debate but getting back to Business 101, with some help from advances in technology and your own creativity will help you whatever the economy throws at you.
Header image credit: Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash