Thursday, September 18, 2008

[B]Business Day Thursday: Where Have All The Customers Gone?

Gone to "soccer" Moms (& Dads), everyone..." - sung to the tune of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." I'm hearing this way too often anymore. My of my videographer buddies here in Cincinnati was just lamenting exactly the same thing just last week. She was saying she always has about 30 events a year to photography, but this year - hardly any, and the prospects look even worse for next year.

I hear other photographers saying the same thing. I was talking with a wedding photographer about a year ago who was telling me that he generally does about 70 events in a year and so far for the year in question he had 3 events booked. In hearing this story over and over. I had another photographer tell me that his portrait business is really off this year too - his first year ever he had felt the decline.

Here's the scary part folks, the drop in business has not been gradual for these photogs mentioned here - it's been precipitous! We are talking quick business turn down like in the last 6-8 months.

What's the story here? Many want to blame the economy - just look at the stock market these last few days, look at the price of gas for the tank, look at the housing situation - it's fallen through the floor. I have to sat, I don't think this is the problem - I know, you think I'm crazy here - I don't think so. We all weathered the worst of times in this country - I'm talking 9/11 - and business went on pretty much as usual in spite of the national feelings of anger, fear, and uncertainty of that horrible tragedy. So if that was the worst of times for this country, and just about all we photos weathered the storm without much of a problem, what's the problem today?

As I said, the business turn-down has been precipitous for a lot of photography studios out there - what do you think is going on? Sure we have a lot more shooters out there. Sure, people are settling for just "good enough." I'm taking a different tack today for our Business Day Thursday. I'm put out a request to all our readers on this one. I'm asking you to share with our readers what it's like on your end, how's your business? If you've been in business for quite a while, what are you experiencing for 2008 going into 2009. If you are new to the business, what's your experience been for this year? Are photographers serving the higher end client experiencing the same turn-down?

Let me put this into perspective. A lot of the new "emerging" pros are saying, yea, I booking weddings. portraits, seniors - things are great. But let's look more closely here - how great are they - what kind of averages or they hitting, what kind of gross numbers are they hitting. At the end of the day, a photographer shooting a wedding for $500-$800, even a thousand dollars, can't make the mortgage payment, the car payment, and buy shoes for his/her kids with those kind of numbers.

Granted, is a nice bit of extra income, but that in additional to their job. Is our profession going part time these days, it's that the future of photography? What is the reality of the situation here. I'm been interviewing my vendor buddies here in the Cincy area to get their take on it and so far the jury is out for me. I talk to one of the big florists and they tell me that business is down just a bit and they are not seeing as many of the really big jobs. But hotel venues and caterers are busy as can be.

For other parts of our industry, things seem to be fairly stable. It comes down to the reality, that established photographers and videographers are feeling the pain the most. The reasons seem very nebulous for those feeling the pinch. They can't put their finger on it. Heck, if they could, they could do something about it.

Sorry to be on such a downer today, but it is a real problem for a lot of people, and I think many would like to get some kind of perspective on it. So again, I turn to our DigitalProTalk readers for some input - where has your business been, where it it now, and where is it headed for 2009? Please drop me your comments below, I would love to hear from you as would all our readers.

Hey everybody, I've got class starting in just a few minutes, so I've got to run. I'll see everybody tomorrow for hopefully a bit more upbeat post. Anyway, have a good one where ever you are and I'll see you tomorrow. -David


  1. Hey David,
    Do you know what I think? I think that people who don't really know anything about photography see one of their friends with an impressive-looking DSLR and think the camera automatically makes them a good photographer. So, instead of forking out money for a professional photographer at their event their are getting Joe-amateur to be their photographer. I have absolutely no evidence to support this, but as a Joe-amateur myself I am always blown away at the comments I get on images that I think are really incredibly average...
    Just a thought, I hope your classes go well - wish I could join!

  2. The photography industry is just seems to be reaching a tipping point in certain segments of the market. Add up all the factors:

    - Style changes - the rise in popularity of the photojournalist style means less overhead (studio, lighting, etc) PLUS
    - the availability of cheap, good quality of DSLRs means:
    - Lower barriers to entry for the mid-low market, which drives:
    - a saturated marketplace - includes the "part-timers" mentioned, but also the "serious amateur" friend or relative with a DSLR. now throw in:
    - Panic over the economy, resulting in increased consumer price consciousness and a "good enough" mentality which:
    - contributes to increased pricing pressure in specific segments of the market, which means:
    - establish photographers with higher prices (sometimes due to larger overhead like a studio, etc) get priced out of certain markets.

    It's largely simple market forces at work here and they are finally reaching critical mass. There is still a market for higher end work, but opportunities in other market segments are simply being filled by part-time and serious amateur photogs, which is in turn displacing some established businesses. That's the wild west of a modern, free market economy - you have to constantly re-invent your business or be replaced.

  3. I for one have only been in this industy for about 2 years, and I currently work 2 jobs in very high hopes to one day emerge into the full time photog...I am one that does not charge much for my wedding services, the reasoning is i am trying to get some weddings so i have the proof that i can be one of the top end photogs and eventually charge the price i would like to. Name reconigition is huge (not that i want to be known as the cheap photographer) and everyone has to start somewhere. I have not booked many weddings this year, it does seem that more and more photographers are cropping up in my area, so i will have to figure this out. The Senior market has been gracious to me this year again just starting out i only shot 7 last year and this year i shot 11 in the month of August. I do think that in 2009 it will only get better as i have big plans on things to seperate myself from the rest of the field. One other note, we also as the "pro Photogs" have to stop sitting back and waiting on the phone calls and start seperating ourselves from the other studios, soccer moms and dads. All it takes is a little thinking outside of the box and talking to everybody you know about your carrer. Be passionate and sincere and people will take you seriously. If you dont have a great personality this is not the right business for you!! Just some of my thoughts.

    Eric Cameron

  4. I think it's marketing. I'm busy, and criglisters, firends of the bride, family members shooting an event don't bother me. These events usually have a budget for 4-5 K for an entire wedding. This market has always been there and the people who are losing business are the folks who are missing the boat. In Rhode Island there is a site called and there are 50 photographers listed there. Is it daunting? At first glace it is, but then ou have to look at the market and the photographers. Out of the 50 photographers listed there are 10 dead links. There are another 25 sites that are amateurish or woefully out of date have been created circa 2002 or 2003. There may be 10 sites that are very professional looking, contemporary and current. Ok. that leaves 10 photographers in a saturated market? Maybe. Take a look at a town census for a small town of 10,000 people and you will see on average 20 weddings listed. Let's use a low number of 20 weddings per 10,000 people or 2000 weddings for 1 million residents. Again, let's say 10% are weddings with a budget of 5K. that's 200 weddings for 10 photographers or 20 per person. I would tell people to look at their images to make sure they are contemporary. Your brides are your best marketing source. Make sure your website is updated regularly and only contains your best work. Make sure you have SEO optimized and do some research on google page ranking. I know one photographer I love and who is high-end and does not show up in the first ten pages of a google search. Have a blog and blog frequently and use meta-tagging. Budget 5K a year for print media. Grace Ormonde has a yearly New England magazine and a full page ad is expensive at 4K, but it's something high-end brides will buy and you have a full page advertisement with your best image. How about something as simple as an iPhone? I heard Becker mention booking weddings from his and I loaded mine up with 4 galleries and just booked a wedding from it at my son's soccer practice. There are some older parents with kids my son's age and kid's in their 20's. This one mom mentioned her daughter and her fiance. I hear fiance and the business side of me kicks in and I whip out the iPhone and she likes my work and a week later I have a signed contract and deposit. My long winded point is that you need to market yourself 100 different ways. You can't expect to hang a shingle and have the phone ring based on past years performance. Most photographers in my area that are failing are the ones who will not adapt. Who have outdated websites or no web presence in 2008! Heck, my best marketing tool is a $900 used 20 iMac that I post a slideshow on during the reception. The bride and groom and all their guests will gather around and watch it. Everyone loves seeing themselves in photos during the event. I have booked many bridesmaids and wedding guests from this alone and at times will run out of business cards in my wallet.

  5. David,

    I think you are underestimating just how bad the economy is today. Yes we were in a downward trend when 9/11 happened, but we still had a strong housing market and companies were still posting record profits or close to record profits. Some people were hurt, but not like now.

    We haven't seen a financial crisis like we have now since the 1930's. No one is lending money so companies are finding harder and it is more expensive to operate. Extremely strong institutions a year ago are selling themselves at bargain basement prices or are folding. In '01 and '02 we saw the bad companies or the marginal performers have trouble, but nothing like now. Merrill Lynch, the brokerage that brought Wall St to Main St, the strongest financial institution in the late '90's sold itself for half of what it was worth less than two years ago and some may think that was a generous deal!

    People can't pay their mortgages and are loosing their homes, their retirement investments are vanishing daily. Gas, food everything is much more expensive. Plus as a nation we have hemoraged trillions to dollars to fight a war that we may or may not have had to fight. And now to top that off, we are injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial markets to prevent an all out cataclysm. We are going to have to pay for that somehow, either in higher taxes or less services. We can't expect that China will keep funding our public debt on the cheap if they think our economy is about to crumble. We are eventually going to have to pay for all of this and we aren't even close to experiencing the pain that this will cause.

    So to not think that the people who would otherwise be spending their discressionary income on high-end photographic services aren't at least taking into account all of this is short sighted. You can try to blame it on low cost competition, but these are the people who would be willing to spend if they felt they could. When they don't think they can, they aren't going to go to the $1,000 guy either, they are going to do without.

  6. It's evolution; The biggest don't always survive- but the ones with the ability to adapt do.If your "specialty" has become your burden- it's time to lighten the load.
    Remember why you picked up a camera in the first place- how did it make you feel? Were you scared you'd lose everything because you were taking photographs? Of course not! You felt a spark, empowerment, the ability to share- we need to communicate this love of artistry and connect it with every client.
    I'm not saying that we should give up on any specific type of photography that is slowing up the bottom line; only supplement with different photography ideas, New ways to do things that shakes up "the way we've always done it"
    I always look at myself as a photographer first; Not a peticular kind of photographer, just one who has the experience and vision to do the job.
    I take great care to further my skills and that in itself is an investment. Instead of selling a commodity, I try to sell the artistry.
    It pays better...

    The other thing is, we can only remain a viable to a bride, commercial client, PR, API,magazines, etc; if we are willing to remain relevent.
    We often say what WE need- but how often do we ask a client the same question?
    I'll step off the soapbox in line please! ;-)

  7. We have been shooting weddings for 18 years. Our buisiness was off about 20% percent last year. However next years bookings are ahead by more than 20%. The low end part time photographer and videographers have made an Impact on business. But on the otherhand we here many more horror stories from clients and people at our weddings. Last week we heard a photographer didn't show up at the wedding, brides not getting any photos at all from a different wedding because the photographer left town with the money and the files.Time like these 18 year track record means a lot.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I agree that you may be a little short-sighted here by your assumption that the economy is not a major factor, and that your business is getting "vultured" by part-timers and amateurs. You've just spoken about how the drop in business has been 'precipitous,' a fast drop in bookings. One would assume that a vulturing process of people turning to part-timers and amateurs would lead to a slow but steady decline.

    However, in the last few months, gas prices have hit all-time highs. People are for the first time in decades ACTUALLY cutting back consumption, cutting expenses, moving closer to work, buying electric cars (can you imagine that 10 years ago?), etc. People's disposable income isn't what it was even last year. People are being cautious, not wanting to sign a contract for something next year while they watch the market.

    If some stability returns to the market, I would think business will pick back up, but let's face the end of the day, photography will always be a disposable expense. Food and rent and gas will not.

  10. David, I don't think you're being negative, I think you're being proactive by collecting further opinions.

    I agree that the economy does have something to do with it. A local bridal shop told me that last year brides took 2 weeks to decide on a dress, this year they're taking 2 months. Lots of hesitation.

    But there's also been a massive shift in the interpretation of professional photography. As a commercial photographer of 20+ years much of my experience has been negated by new techologies.

    10 years ago shooting an architectural photograph meant carefully correcting perspective using swings and tilts of a view camera. A color temperature meter and boxes of gels were used to color balance lights and lenses to low speed transparency film. Banks of lights were necessary to control exposures of the finicky film. Incredible attention to detail and an ability to "feel" the camera and interpret dim ground glass images were a necessity.

    To be honest, now I can shoot the same job with a DSLR, a tripod and a couple stabs of the shutter button, easily correcting perspective, color balance, exposure and dynamic range in post-production. Unfortunately, so can many other people. These skills aren't particularly hard to learn, the software practically does all of this for us now. Much of it will be incorporated right into the camera body in coming years.

    This is just one example of how the advertising industry has changed. Add in that many advertising uses are now for the web and we've also lost two of my major assets: a knowledge of four color press printing and, really, an understanding of the "big idea" advertising campaign.

    These developments are, admittedly, to the detriment of my business. But they're to the advantage of the commercial photographer just starting out. Personally, I see a "leveling effect" taking place: young photographers are able to rise much quicker and established photographers risk coming down a notch or two. Where will the needs of the market settle? At a place where skilled, determined photographers can all earn a salary, pay overhead, reap benefits and fund a retirement plan?

    As I've long said, "it's easier than ever to make money in photography but it's getting harder to make a living".

  11. I feel that there is another piece to the puzzle regarding the fact that brides and grooms are using friends/family with fancy cameras. Many bridal magazines ecourage brides to save on the cost of their wedding day by cutting back on important things like photography, invitations, and flowers. Many of these magazines encourage them to use a friend to do the photography, print their own invitations, and to do the flowers themselves. Sadly, in regards to the photography, too many couples give these a try and end up with poor results. I know of a couple who had around $2K to spend on photography. They were persuaded to do everything themselves- in the end they did not have 10 usable pictures of themselves.

    Disposables on the tables sounds great to some people. A large number of couples getting married have gambled, with good intentions, therefore paying the price of lossing out on precious memories.

  12. David,

    The loss of work has been a concern in the fine art painters market for years. We all know a "painting" can be made with an average photo and a Photoshop filter or plug-in (fine art painters hate that!). Part-timers...full-timers; we are missing the point dreadfully! Put customers first, develop your skills, and mind your expenses. Yes people are holding onto their money and saving or cutting costs when they can (the economy will do that). Simple economics can determine whether one can make a living or not.

    Photographers, artists, and businesses relying on disposable income clients must understand how to get money from good clients. Don't focus on penny pinching customers if you can't educate them on your service, or offer them affordable alternatives.

    The bottom line is not an argument for or against part-timers, or full-timers. I truly believe the amount of time one spends in a week in their business doesn't reflect his/her professional abilities. Healthcare coverage may be why some of us choose to work 40 hours outside our passion. The real bottom line is how we (professionals) handle the business of making our clients happy. I see many professionals bragging in order to scare clients into staying away from the competition when they should be proving they are working for the customer.


  13. I have to agree with the "its the economy" line of thought.

    Just today, my son's soccer team took their team pictures. In years past I have always purchased a package of prints, my thinking is that they are the sports team pros, so I'm happy to pay them to do what they do best.

    This year however, I chose for the first time to skip purchasing the prints. I'll take a team picture myself before next weeks game and get a few individuals of my kid, and this will have to do.

    My husband sells 18-wheeler trucks for a living, so the economy has hit us hard, as it has many others. Photography is just one of the "little extras" that we are doing without.

  14. I'll have to side with Alessandro the biggest effect from the last 6mo is the economy. If it were the PHD Pros it would be slow and steady.

    I believe (for me at least) that marketing is the key. I don't have a top notch website that changes every three months with every fad, but I do have the means on my site to get the brides and other clients to call. Great photography sells itself.

    Remember this, when gas and oil goes up, everything but our income goes up.


    professional |prəˈfe sh ənl|
    1 [ attrib. ] of, relating to, or connected with a profession : young professional people | the professional schools of Yale and Harvard.
    2 (of a person) engaged in a specified activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as a pastime : a professional boxer.
    • having or showing the skill appropriate to a professional person; competent or skillful : their music is both memorable and professional.
    • worthy of or appropriate to a professional person : his professional expertise.
    • informal derogatory denoting a person who persistently makes a feature of a particular activity or attribute : a professional naysayer.
    a person engaged or qualified in a profession : professionals such as lawyers and surveyors.
    • a person engaged in a specified activity, esp. a sport or branch of the performing arts, as a main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
    • a person competent or skilled in a particular activity : she was a real professional on stage.
    professionally |- sh ənl-ē| |prəˈfɛʃənli| |proʊˈfɛʃənli| |prəˈfɛʃnəli| |proʊˈfɛʃnəli| adverb

  15. Totally agree with Michael Warth above, come on people evolve with your business dont be let behind.

  16. "At the end of the day, a photographer shooting a wedding for $500-$800, even a thousand dollars, can't make the mortgage payment, the car payment, and buy shoes for his/her kids with those kind of numbers."

    You. Have. No. Idea.

    I used to work at a portrait studio and I know the owners quite well. Last year the studio made $76,000 in one month and about $620,000 for the year. We're not talking about some gigantic studio with advertising out the rear. This is a pretty typical, small portrait studio.

    Gary Fong used to charge under $100 for a wedding. He managed to earn something to the tune of $120,000 a year off of that.

    Two years ago your average person with a sub-prime loan on a new house was doing pretty good. The value of their house was higher than they paid for it, their ARM hadn't started floating yet, and they hadn't taken a pay reduction in order to keep their job. That is the reality of the situation. Those people would have gone in for family portraits two years ago. Today, they're having a meeting at the dinner table to decide whether then want to start riding their bikes 8 miles to and from work or try to negotiate with the bank to get a lower mortgage payment. Getting portraits done is about the last thing on their mind.

    Almost every business that survived the great depression did so by cutting spending and essentially just "maintaining" through it. That's what smart businesses are doing now. They're cutting funding, especially in the area of advertising, so that they have the capital to ride out a few years of losses and emerge on the other end of the recession we're in.

    Commercial, retail, etc. is all seeing a drop and it's because of the economy. The only photographers that you see losing jobs to Uncle Joe aren't much of photographers and they're even worse businessmen.