A meeting of the minds. Working pros meet academia.

For the last few years I've been a member of the advisory board for the photography program at Austin Community College.  Once a year all the members of the advisory board meet and exchange information with the chair and the faculty of the program.  This exchange of information helps the faculty by supplying real world feedback to make sure that their offerings reflect the industry.  Since the working pros come from different sectors of photography their points of view are all a bit different and that helps to smooth out the outliers.

The program yields an associate degree and, per Texas rules, is very much a vocational program aimed at turning out people who can go to work in the field.  It's not a fine arts program that doesn't need to take income earning potential into consideration.  It is also the second largest associate photography program in the country (USA).  The quality of education is very good and the facilities would leave many working pros panting in envy.  State of the art Macs abound as do Epson 3880 printers, high end film scanners and a king's ransom in Profoto Lighting gear and accessories.  It's a good school and they make a point of pulling in guests to do evening lectures on a wide range of topics.  In a short space of time I listened to presentations from Jack Reznicki, Vincent Laforet and Will Crockett.

Austin is already a heavy duty photo town with UT's art and photojournalism schools turning out their share of students as well as a great program at St. Edwards University.  There's even an Art Institute just up the road that churns out photographers.  But the ACC program does a better job than any of them to prepare students for the business aspects they will encounter in the real world, and they do at least as good a job (I'd say better) teaching the nuts and bolts.  You want a big dose of art history or art theory or visual rhetoric with your technical knowledge?  Not going to happen at ACC.

But back to my point.  What did we discuss and what was our consensus?  To a person, from real world experience, we've come to the conclusion that in a second tier, regional market like Austin, jammed packed with aspiring newcomers who drive the market down, anyone wanting to make a living and earn $60 to $80K per year will likely have to become more than "just" a photographer.  We will have to be flexible enough to create, or for us veterans, rebrand ourselves as multidisciplinary content creators.  I spoke with two of the leading photographers who service the wedding and portrait markets and their sales are way down.  The corporate guys have seen their budgets cut in half.  We agreed that we'll all have to look beyond the traditional role and create new profit centers in our businesses.

Some of the avenues we talked about were obvious.  Most of the corporate shooters are already knee deep in becoming video producers for their existing and new clients.  One wedding photographer is branching into wedding planning.....and that's a natural and organic extension.  I spend as much time writing about photography and supplying the copywriting for many of the ads I shoot as I do behind the camera.  Others have gravitated into one-on-one teaching, group workshops and workshops that offer experiential entertainment.  A glamor photographer is busy creating apps of his most popular work for people to load onto tablets and laptops for a modest fee.  In nearly every niche photographers are stretching out to find natural adjuncts to their basic skill sets.

As a side note we talked about rationally identifying whether or not what we are selling is what the consumers want to buy.  The consumer side of the business was always monetized around the idea that people wanted to have prints.  And that the print represented the value source. But a whole new generation gets their hit of family photos, wedding photos and more on a 50 inch LED TV or an iPad or a phone screen.  They're just not interested in prints and if they do buy them they are looking for small and manageable, not big and framed.  So, why aren't the photographers upselling the shooting part of the equation and then delivering it on a customer friendly platform?  Why shouldn't wedding couples look for their coverage to be delivered on a tablet, with a back up on DVD?  Why should they have to want prints if they don't?

And in commercial photography why do we keep aiming all our focus on advertising agencies if they are the prime users of cheap stock?  Why not also go directly to the clients and put our selling proposition to the final arbiters as well as their de facto gatekeepers?

Even in marketing we've gotten pushed into a narrow structure.  At some point everyone decided that all marketing could be done electronically.  We abandoned post cards and print ads and shows on the walls of chic coffee houses and bars and we made everything virtual.  But everyone did it at once and now we have a billion needles in one really large haystack and most of the people who come to the haystack aren't even in the market for our services.

Interesting to me is that everyone talked about how much market share of holiday shopping ended up at Amazon.com.  But, reality check, e-commerce only accounted for about 9% of total holiday shopping.  The other 91% of the money walked into the stores.  And we need to understand, as working photographers, that while the allure of "free" advertising and marketing on the web is a powerful concept it may not be effectively reaching the people who write checks to us.

If I had the budget to experiment (and fewer pressing projects on the schedule) I'd look for local advertising the reaches my market (executives and upper tier marketing folks) and I'd probably do well running radio spots on news and talk radio during drive time.  I'd also do well with a few quarter page print ads in the business journals.  Wouldn't be sexy web marketing, and it sure wouldn't be free, but I bet I wouldn't have a single competitor crowding the airwaves and I'd have a pipeline straight to the likeliest buyers instead of everyone out there who has enough time on their hands to cruise the web and drink coffee.

So, will the curriculum change to register these new directions and thoughts?  If it does I think it will be more glacial than the speed of business and in a year or two we'll be identifying new areas to concentrate on.  But it does remind me that all of this (photography, marketing and business ) is a moving target and the sooner we deal with it the more successful we'll be.  The web?  Maybe.  Postcards?  Definitely.


John said...

I'd thought about local small market radio spots a couple years ago for running ads during senior portrait season. Cost was about $25+ per spot at that time at a new station we have.

FrankG said...

I read this post with great interest. I have always had a dream of making my living in this field. You have put into perspective that having a passion to express oneself and make a living at it are two very different things.

kirk tuck said...

Frank G. What's become clear to me is that I'm in a standard service business that depends on marketing and advertising for its survival. I do my "hobby" photography to please myself but the rest of the time I create products for sale and market them or services for sale and market those. It's the same as running a hotel and a bait shop. We need the experience to be good for the customer and we need to understand that our inventory is constantly perishable.

Ira said...

Thanks for your kind comments about our "blue-collar" program. :-)

I think there's a bit of a prejudice against a community college education but I've been very impressed with ACC's photo department. It's certainly made a world of difference in my own work and you can't beat the price.

On a side-note, I wonder if you might be willing to write at some point about how one gets started finding work as a photographer's assistant?

FrankG said...

Kirk. Thank you for the response and reminding me that it is hard work making it in any business and very little of it is glamorous. I would consider myself an enthusiast and photography an obsession "err" hobby. I recently attended my first work shop and plan two more this year. My goal is to become a better photographer.

Anonymous said...

Liar, Liar. Sob. I'm sorry. I just wanted business to stay the same until I retired.

Dave Jenkins said...

I’m not so sure about the effectiveness of the business journal ads. I once had an arrangement with a local business mag in which I shot their covers each month in exchange for a full-page ad with good placement on a right-hand page near the front of the book. This lasted for a year and a half and I received not one inquiry from that ad. I finally told them that the ads were not working and that I would have to start charging for their cover shots. At which point they found another free photographer.

In response to FrankG’s comments, I would say that the only field that is of comparable difficulty to photography in terms of breaking in and getting established is the performing arts. The big difference is that there is the possibility of making it really big in the performing arts, but the people who make anything more than a decent living in photography are very, very, few.

FrankG said...


Thanks for your perspective. I guess for now I will focus on the photography and enjoy putting some good pictures on my living room wall.

FrankG said...

I just wanted to add that I will be spending a week with Zack Arias up in Montana this summer. It will fun to learn from Mr. Arias and rub elbows with someone of some notoriety. It is fortunate that I have the time and resources to spend on learning more.

Anonymous said...

This is an amazingly thoughtful article and should be required reading by everyone who is trying to make a living in Photography. Profound and valuable...

Doug said...

Great post, though I have to say, not what I'm seeing in Boston. Yes there are many folks doing what you're speaking of, but I've been hammering away at, "I really want to be really good at one thing," (still portraits), and last year and ytd are the busiest I've been in almost ten years of doing this. Maybe that's the benefit of a larger market.