Business

A picture doesn't speak a thousand rands

Tracy Burrows

Running a small photography business is becoming increasingly challenging.

Suzanne Gell says it has been a steep learning curve since she launched her own photography business a year ago. (Nadia Meli)

Photographers around the world blog the complaint — they are being edged out of their traditional market by happy snappers on social media. The businesses that are still flourishing attribute their success to their ability to adapt to the changes, market themselves well and find fresh opportunities.

For the love of it
Hush Naidoo runs Jade Photography in Johannesburg, specialising in covering corporate events, celebrities, weddings and products. He decided to go it alone 12 years ago. "I spent my first year photographing products — tin after tin of baked beans — for catalogues."

But his old clients sought him out and his business grew. Naidoo says there are still tough months and he does not expect to retire a wealthy man. In fact, he does not expect to retire at all. "I hope to still be taking photos when I am 90," said Naidoo.

He is prepared to work within a client's budget, he said, or offer a relatively low rate to improve the relationship with a potential long-term client. A hefty proportion of his income goes into keeping his equipment up-to-date and insuring it. Professional and hard-working he may be, but Naidoo says he is finding himself edged out of the picture by interns snapping away with company cameras at events these days.

"Not everyone cares about quality when budget is the priority," he said.

Going it alone
Suzanne Gell, once a photographer for a publishing house, launched her own photography business in Pretoria a year ago. It has been a steep learning curve, she said. "Constant marketing is a must, you have to stay abreast of trends, and it helps to create your own niche in the market."

When work comes in, she takes it on — even if it is not the high-paying corporate photography she specialises in. "You've got to be prepared to do the small stuff too. It's humbling, but I'm not too good for anything. The world is highly competitive, whatever the industry. You just have to contribute something unique."

Johannesburg-based Lisa Skinner was also a photographer at a media company before going on her own a year ago. She now has a constant flow of work, much of it documentary photography. What she earns varies significantly, depending on the project. She is relatively confident that with the right skills and marketing, good professional photographers will always have business flowing in. "If you're good enough, your work will stand out."

She believes the higher your price, the more highly regarded you will be. "Charging seriously got me treated better — as if I was more valuable."

There is also the matter of a track record. "Much of the work I get is because I am really easy to get on with. I don't complain, I'm professional and reliable. I've earned my space here and proved I won't get in the way of filming or break confidentiality agreements."

Taking the low risk route
LiveMoments is an operation that specialises in covering sporting events.Managing director Fanus Schoeman said: "People see LiveMoments with all our photographers and banners and think it's easy money. It isn't."

No major moment can be missed, or a potential photo sale will go with it. This means photographers are on their feet all day. "And the photographers must be paid, whether you sell photos or not."

He has learnt that planning is critical. Site visits, coordination with the organisers, and a focus on low-risk events with a risk-sharing model work best. He has also put his 30 years of photography experience into a business manual and now offers personalised training as a more lucrative sideline business. There are many money-making opportunities out there, said Schoeman, but businesses have to evolve and take a low-risk approach.

Schoeman says photography is a tiring and stressful business. The pros are being undercut. But then, many people do not care too much about the quality of their photos.

Building a reputation
Christine Meintjies is a high profile Cape Town-based wedding photographer. "It took me five or six years to build up my reputation. At one stage, I was shooting almost 50 weddings a year but now I've scaled down to only 15 a year. Running your own business in itself is a massive challenge. Starting out and doing everything, then learning to delegate and outsource was a huge challenge for me."

Changing trends
Photographer Darren Smith explains the changing environment: "[Photography] has been hit by the double whammy of the proliferation of digital cameras, and the social era. Because everyone is a 'photographer' now, the value of photographs has changed. 'Why would I pay a professional to take the shot, when I can do it myself?' Access to high quality, lower cost DSLRs also put professional quality equipment into the hands of millions of consumers, further eroding the value proposition of professional photographers. Amateurs simply price their time and resources differently to professionals, and as a consequence, professional rates are being remorselessly undermined."

Everyone's a photographer
Roger Machin, product manager of photo, video and projector products at Canon South Africa, says the company is showing steady local growth in the sale of digital cameras, both compact and SLR.

"Whether you use an SLR or a compact camera, the auto mode provides the general user with the means to produce great results. However, professional photographers consider things such as lighting, exposure and composition. In other words, a point and shoot camera will produce good images to the untrained eye, but professional photographers have a trained eye, which definitely affects quality of the end result." The changing environment impacts more than photographers: "A lot of photographic laboratories/stores have closed down due to the advances in digital photography, good quality home photo printers and growth in e-commerce or online photography sales. "Photographic stores have been forced to diversify by offering digital kiosks or selling accessories such as frames and tripods to ensure sales growth. Some photographic business may be struggling, but the stores that have used market changes to enhance or better their offering seem to be doing well."

Photography business fact file

Earnings widely varied, from R600 a day, up to R50 000 for a wedding.

Biggest motivator passion for photography.

Key success factors marketing, exploiting a niche, building a reputation as "best in business", professionalism, people skills.

Major threats lack of business and marketing skills, attitude, under-charging, competition from amateur photographers and a lack of discernment in the market.

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team.

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