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Editor's Note: Steven McConnell is a professional family photographer based in Sydney, Australia.
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The world of professional photography is changing rapidly. And so is the world of business. If photography is also your job, this is both good and bad news for you. The good news is that the rapidly evolving environment around you is creating new ways of producing art and building your business. The bad news is that if you aren't quick on your feet you'll fall behind, your outdated ways of doing business will stop working (if they haven't already) and you'll have to start looking for a different kind of job.
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A Difficult Job
1. Everyone Is A Photographer These Days. This argument points to the rapid growth of competition and abundance of cheap entry-level DSLRs. How can a seasoned pro charge decent rates when amateur hobbyists who are eager to break into the market are giving away their work for free? And how can anyone make a living as a wedding photographer, for example, when any couple has at least 5 friends/family members who own DSLRs, have "a good eye" and can take some photos which are "good enough"?
2. Social Media Is Killing Professional Photography. This argument points to the proliferation of amateur photography on Facebook, Instagram and the like to suggest that no-one wants to pay (and wait) for high-quality images any more. Photography used to be about art created by professionals, they say. And it's become a sea of cheap, instantly-gratifying, mass-produced and quickly forgotten snapshots. Why would anyone go to a professional photographer when all they want is to take a photo on their phone and upload it instantly to their profile?
Both of those are good points, and are completely valid. Yes, there's an abundance of people with DSLRs out there and photography is no longer a dark art. And yes, social media has redefined how our customers produce and consume photographs. But now we're left with two choices. The first choice is to view these changes in the world as obstacles to our success. The second choice is to begin to inquire about how to use these changes to our advantage.
Yes, the changes are undeniable. And things are never going back to the way they were. The question is - are you going to complain about the changes or are you going to use the fast-moving environment around you to outmaneuver your competition and capture market share? If you're a professional photographer, your customers are going to expect different results from you in 2013 to what they expected just a few years back. And they're going to look for professional photographers through channels that most photographers who started in this business just a few years back still know nothing about.
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1. Your Competition Will Get More Rubbish. I got engaged recently. Which means that I'm now in the market for a wedding photographer. I have always liked to flick through portfolios of wedding photographers every now and then out of professional curiosity. But now I'm flicking through them as a potential customer, as well. Last night my fiancee and I had one of those flicking sessions from behind a few glasses of gin. And we both came to the same conclusion: there's not much stuff out there that we'd want to pay money for.
If you're a professional photographer, then yes, it's true - your competition has become more stiff in last decade. But has the quality of your competition risen? Not by nearly as much. And not by much more than that of any other business, be it a chiropractor or a plumber. As far as my casual search for a wedding photographer is going, I have flagged two Australian, one Canadian and a couple New York based pros whose work can be used interchangeably with the word "art". But all those guys have been around for decades - they were working long before this digital revolution came along. Most of the others I've come across just take snapshots, pump the contrast, add a vignette and hey presto! A wedding "professionally photographed". My point is - if you're just starting out and are facing a sea of competition, keep in mind that most of your competition is rubbish. Stay true to the artist within you, produce something remarkable, different and that is a work of love - and your competition will not be relevant nearly as much.
2. Your Competition Will Not Be Online Savvy... Yet. As a photographer, you're not just an artist. You're a businessperson as well. Some would argue that you should always think of yourself as a businessman first and artist second. I think they're equally important. But what's more important is this: any business these days is an online business. And most business owners are still trying to work out what this digital online business land of Wordpress, SEO, Adwords, branding, social media, website copy and online user experience is all about.
Most of your competition in 2013 will still be trying to either learn the ropes of online business or resisting learning those ropes, and hoping that they get some customer referrals through word of mouth, good fortune or through a stack of flyers they left in some cafe. Which is good news for you. You need to become an expert in the digital online business space or pay someone to be one for you. If you don't even know how to register a domain name and make a website which your customers will want to be on, this Free Step-By-Step Guide is for you. But that is just a tip of the iceberg. Start being a sponge for all great information about digital online marketplace. Read top marketing, Google, SEO and business blogs. Follow people like Seth Godin, Steve Pavlina, Matt Cutts and Michel Fortin. And avoid the so-called experts of the "make money online" niche. While they might teach you some semi-decent tips and tricks, they also tend to communicate from very scarce mindset, which will limit your vision and thinking.
3. Google Will Reward Value Creation More And More: A few years back, ranking in Google was mainly a game of spammy comments, good meta tags, spun article submissions, keywords in the URL and paying someone in India $10 per day to "build links" to your site. This year has been one of most ruthless for businesses whose online strategy depended on those tactics. Google rolled out a series of algorithm updates which axed search rankings that could have been a result of automated and grey hat SEO tactics. Instead it rewarded sites which contained socially relevant, socially liked and original multimedia content. I think in 2013 we'll see an acceleration of this trend.
If you're primarily driven by thoughts about how to "get links" and "get likes", you're not going to be competitive. You need to adjust yourself to how Google wants you to think in 2013. And that thinking is - "how can I create content that is valuable to my industry, a by-product of which might be "likes", links and traffic?" Subtle difference, but an important one. In the former one, you're driven by a desire to be a drain on the world. In the latter, you're driven by a desire to contribute to someone. The world is moving towards being a global community where people are contributing to one another, and Google is rewarding businesses that facilitate that shift.
In summary, the outlook is a lot better than you probably think - if you're light on your feet, are online business savvy and are driven by a desire to excel and contribute to others. And that's an important "if". At the end of the day, these changes are a reflections of bigger changes around you, and they're felt not just in the photography circles, but in every other business and every person's life. Next time you walk through your neighbourhood, notice that there are more and more shopfronts with "For Lease" signs. Notice that their failure was result of two things: trying to cling to an old bricks-and-mortar business model and an outdated value offering. If you're a photographer who still doesn't have a powerful online presence and are still insisting on charging a ridiculous rate for digital negatives out of fear that your customers might take them somewhere else to get them printed, how long do you think you'll last?
- Photos all by Steven McConnell.