Adapt or Die.

I see a common sentiment among many photographers. Most recently I noticed it in the comments to a blog post at A Photo Editor. The basic complaint, which is repeated over and over, is that either a) clients are demanding more return for less money, b) competitors are offering more for less, or c) some unholy union where a) and b) have gotten together and didn’t invite anyone else to the party.

The solution offered is usually…

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…some sort of price-fixing or collusion. Sometimes it’s a subtle “I sure hope no one ever actually accepts an offer like this” or a disparaging “no REAL photographer would accept such outrageous terms”, in an attempt to influence competitors to say no. Other times it’s more blatant, like a call for guilds, unions or to standardize rates for services.

The problem is, this sort of ‘solution’ never works for long. And with the internet reducing all sorts of economic friction at an ever increasing rate, any attempt to force buyers and sellers into a pricing regime falls apart immediately.

Ironically, photographers have been huge beneficiaries of getting “more for less”. The capabilities of today’s digital cameras far surpass anything available in the past, and for much cheaper (on a dollars-to-capabilities measure). But imagine if camera manufacturers said to each other “customers are demanding our cameras do more for less, so let’s band together to keep camera prices high.” There would be legal action to stop this price-fixing, and eventually someone new would come along and build a better/cheaper camera anyway.

Magic Gadget

But what if you, as a photographer, had a magic gadget that enabled you to complete ten projects in the time your competitors could only complete one? For a quarter of the price? Would you lock this magic gadget away in the closet and not use it? Of course not! You’d keep it running 24/7 and use it to beat the competitors into a pulp (figuratively speaking).

What if that magic gadget wasn’t a thing, but a process. What if you improved your work flow to the point that it became a competitive advantage, for example. Or you found cheaper suppliers to lower your costs. Or you found new ways to move parts of your business online. Or you inherited a warehouse property downtown that you could turn into a studio for next to nothing.

You’d do it, wouldn’t you?

Rather than moaning about how unfair it is that someone is undercutting your prices, worry that someone might successfully be undercutting your prices. You might have overlooked an advantage they have. Life isn’t fair, and different folks have different advantages: trust-fund babies, math geniuses, well-connected people, good-looking people…someone somewhere has an advantage over you. It might make their job easier, and your job harder. It might also make them cheaper, and you more expensive. It’s unfair, and it’s part of doing business.

Ruining It For Everyone

But what about all those new photographers trying to break into the business? Aren’t they ruining it for the ‘real’ photographers by charging too little for a job? Yes I think this does make it harder for established professionals to keep making the money they’d like. But I also don’t think it’s an unfair advantage. And more importantly, a newbie hasn’t earned the right to charge so much. A photographer with experience is worth more than a photographer without it, if you factor out fuzzy things like talent and vision. A new photographer generally has only one competitive advantage: the willingness to work harder for less money.

It’s likely that many new photographers give up after a year or two and go find a real job. But others might be more savvy than that, realizing that losing money for a year or two might be worth it in a long run. In any other business, losing money as a start-up is just the price of doing business. But in the photography business, new photographers who don’t charge enough are called “cheats” and worse. Yet established photographers who can’t make money are somehow the victims of the same newbies who are also not making money.

Everyone has the right to lose money. Making money, on the other hand, is a privilege.

Times are hard, that’s a given. Many clients are no longer able to pay like they used to. As an established photographer, you either have to be so good that your work compels a client to find a way to afford you—you ARE that good, right?—or you must find a way to use your experience and business skills to be more efficient at a competitive price. And don’t think that this applies only to commercial photographers. Portrait and wedding photographers have the same competitive woes: clients who are not willing to spend as much, and competition with part-time or amateur photographers. Even the client can be a competitor when he or she thinks “hey I can do this myself and save some dollars.”

As a new photographer, you need to convince the client you can actually handle the job, and offset the risk of disaster by charging less. As an established photographer, you must convince the client you can deliver superior work in a reliable way, and you charge a premium for that. There are no bonuses for average work. If you find yourself losing jobs or clients time and time again, then you quite simply are doing something wrong. Either your work is not compelling enough, or it’s not efficient enough. Whining won’t fix it; you need to adapt. The alternative isn’t pretty.

As always, if you leave a substantive comment on this blog post, I will donate a canned food item to the local food bank, Food SHARE.

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