04 Apr 2008 What Microstock Photographers Can Learn from Commercial Professionals
This post was guest blogged by Jim Talkington of Pro Photo Life (a professional photographer blogs about the journey). An advertising / editorial photographer for twenty-plus years, Jim co-owns and operates Daylight Photo in Cincinnati, OH.
Digital capture and, even more importantly, the ease of digital image delivery has revolutionized the stock industry. Though I’m not an active contributor to microstock, as a commercial and advertising photographer, I’ve watched the industry grow along with the internet. Microstock is here to stay and will only grow larger, creating even more sales opportunities for part-time photographers. But how do you convert part-time success into a full-time career in microstock?
This post is for those interested in sharpening their photo business acumen in order to reach the next level. After twenty five years of watching revolutions sweep this industry, I have recognized that, despite technological innovations, business fundamentals always do apply. Successful businesses find longevity in sound underlying numbers.
I also encourage you to download my free e-book ‘Starting a Photography Business: An Overview from prophotolife.com as a companion piece to this introduction. It contains more specifics on business and legal issues relating to photography.
Keep good records
When photography is a “hobby business” we probably only track money that comes in. A sale of $200 is pure profit, a nice dinner and a few cigars or maybe some new software. When photography becomes a business, we need to track the money that both comes in and the money that goes out.
For our commercial business (and my personal photography) there is a job envelope created for every day of shooting. Any mileage gets written on the outside and receipts are kept inside. The reward for doing all of this will be greater tax deductions at the end of the year and the knowledge that you’re taking control of your business destiny.
Create definable goals
How can you define success if you don’t know when you’ve attained it? Define your microstock goals in quantifiable ways. Just saying “I want to create more images this year” won’t provoke you to put in the extra ten minutes of effort required to reach the next level.
At our commercial studio, Daylight Photo, we’re actively lowering overhead, increasing profitability, adding new services and reaching new markets. All of these business goals have genuine, concrete numbers attached to them. Attach specific numbers to your goals, like “I will submit 50 new images a month” or “my earnings will exceed $500 a month”. You’ll realize the job isn’t done until you’ve met your goals and, believe me, if you truly want success you won’t let yourself down. Create a production schedule to facilitate this and stick to it. Goals may need adjusting along the way and that’s fine. Just start somewhere and give it your best, honest effort. And, if adjustments are necessary, let’s hope it’s because you’re exceeding expectations.
Plan purchases wisely
You’ll notice we’re talking a lot about numbers: setting specific (number) goals, keeping good records (more numbers) and now, understanding the actual cost and impact of purchases. We’re definitely running a real photography business now.
If you want to know how much money you’re making you have to account for major expenses like cameras and computers. How long will that new Canon 40D (at a cost of $1500) suit your needs? Some may estimate two years. In that case you’ll need $750 a year in sales to cover camera costs.
Also realize that cameras are just a piece of the image making puzzle. If you use Photoshop CS2 for RAW image processing on a Mac G4 computer then upgrading your entire workflow may be necessary. You’ll need to upgrade to Photoshop CS3, which really begs a new Intel-based Mac. The purchase of the 40D may actually cost closer to $4000-5000 when all is tallied. View your equipment as an investment and plan purchases wisely for long-term profitability.
You can’t always make it up in volume
Many commentaries on microstock success center on increasing sales volume with no mention of costs or profitability. But volume alone doesn’t guarantee profitability.
Compare two images on your favorite microstock site: one is a highly produced photograph of striking models created by a production studio (a modest studio may run $10k / month in overhead, before production costs). The second image is a simple vector illustration. Both have sold the exact same volume. The former image embodies why we become photographers but the latter brings in the profit. A successful, sustainable career demands finding a good balance between creativity and profitability.
And, in the end
Though I’ve stressed profitability in this article it means little if you’re not having fun. Enjoying photography is what brought me to the party years ago and keeps me coming back. After years of trying, I’ve found a personal balance of creativity and profitability, a career concoction that has managed to feed both my artistic and financial needs. I sincerely wish the same for you in your quest for photographic success.
If you have any questions regarding professional photography, I hope you’ll find a helpful resource in prophotolife.com. Send me your comments and questions and I’ll do my best to help. I regularly post professional image-making tips and video on the site in addition to business oriented information.