Previously published in Success Magazine by H&H Color Lab, 2020
It seems in this fast-paced world, our industry is ever-changing – especially in 2020! The ability to be flexible and have Plan A, Plan B, and even Plan C and D, in your back pocket, is essential for business survival.
So, in this time of social distancing, as we navigate through new business models, we thought it would be good to re-post this article written in 2019 from Success Magazine… reminding us of the special gift photography provides to connect, create, and impact people. No matter where our cycle of business is, our industry can still be strong. Success can be there for those who are able to see opportunity, to keep it real and candid, to invest and transform themselves through hard work and the right relationships… even if you are on Plan XYZ! Some things do remain the same!
There is nothing like talking with similar businesses about what is working and what is not. This is why I believe so much in investing in face-to-face relationships over the years. Electronic communication can never achieve the efficiency and depth of understanding that comes from spending time face-to-face, building relationships and working to improve. When we spend time at conferences and meetups with other professionals, we learn so much.
H&H has a unique perspective from having relationships and serving businesses in all 50 states, and 8 of the 10 Canadian provinces.
We see national trends of what is working and what isn’t, and we love to share patterns and trends that might help you in your business.
Cycles of Business
Thirty years ago, the “photography cool kids” were wedding photographers; twenty years ago, high school senior photographers were the elite, and volume school and sports photographers were considered to be the “uncool” businesses in our industry.
Now, the new cool kids are doing volume school and sports.
Over 12 years ago, H&H saw an opportunity for the independent school and sports photographer—the opportunity for us to build technology that would help the small business scale up in a healthy way.
We accepted that challenge by learning all we could about the volume school and sports photography business, photographing and doing post-production alongside our customers, and then setting about the business of writing workflow, studio management, and online sales software that continues today. We continue to see the impact of this work in our customers who want to grow and transform their businesses. We continue to listen, learn and invest, as we believe these opportunities in volume school, sports, events and dance school photography will continue.
Today, I have the same feeling about portrait and wedding photography.
I recognize that some private FB chatter has been focusing on the struggle and fatigue in the portrait business. I understand how difficult it can be to sustain vigor and energy for reinvention, year after year. But I am talking to many thriving portrait studios and wedding photographers who are humming along, running very profitable businesses.
Traveling a Lot
Last year, I visited 23 cities and personally talked to over 1,000 photographers. It seems to me that while the entry-level, shoot-and-burn wedding and high school senior photographer will continue to churn (starting up then washing out), with just a few who are able to achieve sustainable businesses, I believe we are ready for an upswing in the portrait business cycle. Study after study shows that the consumer still wants to decorate their home with photographic artwork. IPS (in-person sales, which was just “how you sold” a few years ago) is seeing a renaissance in the sense that personal sales are becoming widely accepted again as the way to build a profitable and sustainable photography business. I believe if this method can be commonly adopted, it will dramatically improve and grow our industry.
As traditional photo products have become commoditized, H&H has been investing heavily in new product development to provide differentiated, professional-grade products. Combine this with the emergence of the new generation of flexible, refined and highly convenient personal sales tools from N-Vu; combine this with the evidence of a multitude of quiet, hard-working studios that are making a great living at portrait photography; and I believe there continues to be tremendous opportunity in the portrait and wedding space.
These businesses have built momentum in an area over time, and they thrive as a result. While not every region, photography skill, brand, and business can support the same price points and services, many photography businesses are doing very well. Every business has struggles, but these businesses have worked out the details of what it takes to provide a level of service to their clients at a volume and a price point where they can run a profitable and sustainable business. Markets with multiple people doing this over years gain momentum and thrive. But not all business models have to be, or are, the same.
What Do You Do for Your Clients?
When a photographer shows up and snaps some images to sell digital files, they are only selling a product. Unless it is highly differentiated photography, the digital file is a commodity—received, shared on social media, then filed away.
When a photographer sells the service of photography—the creative and technical ability to advise, choose the right sets, pose appropriately, light well, and elicit a great expression—it delivers the craft and skill of photography, and it commands a higher price point and profit margin than just selling product.
When the photographer knows how to create an experience through fun, music, and hair and makeup sessions, treating their clients exceptionally well, tailoring the session and destinations to a particular client’s interests, and staging photographic stories, this is the next level of price point and profit margin. It takes intentionality and work, but great experience is the foundation on which many high-end studios have built their brands.
What’s Next? The Business of Transformation
It has been exciting to see a handful of our customers using photography to experiment with a next evolution in business—the transformation business. When we elevate the experience of photography to start to unearth the next evolution of the people we photograph, when we help our clients take their next steps as humans, this experience can be transformational.
What is our basic human need? To be seen. To belong.
We are in the business of capturing Who someone truly is. And sometimes, we are able to get beneath the surface where we see something special waiting to emerge. When we practice this, there is a unique potential we are unpacking. I am seeing examples across the country of what this can look like:
The photographer who quietly asks a husband during a portrait session to whisper in his wife’s ear what he cherishes about her.
The photographer who asks a mom what she respects about her son during a senior session.
The designer who mixes in inspirational quotes based upon personal conversation with a tween in the artwork they present in wall collections.
The photographer who weaves questions about where the businessperson client is headed in their career, then stages a personal branding session so they can feel the presence of their future role.
The photographer who finally brings out the beautiful human from inside their shell, where they realize how valued and special they have been created to be.
With these, we’ve left commodity behind and moved from experience to transformation.
Think back—I’m sure each of us can recall at least one client who gained lasting self-confidence by seeing themselves in a different light as a result of their experience and the images created in their photography session.
I don’t believe transformation can be accomplished easily. And not everyone will have the constitution to do it. To do it well, one must genuinely believe people are a priority and be willing to invest in quality education and practice to develop this skill. But I believe the opportunity to make a difference with photography and run a business with an honorable profit is tremendous.
Your Own Business Model
Consider what you want to provide your clients, from product, to service, to experience, and in some cases all the way to transformation. What is the price point, volume and margin that you can command?
Then, work to become the best at delivering that level, to a volume of clients that will pay what it takes to make it a sustainable business that you love and enjoy.
I have been so fortunate to serve thriving photography businesses—from businesses whose purpose is to add extra income to a family, to a single mom supporting her family of five, to a subsidiary of a corporation. Each has a different set of goals and has identified what their clients want, what people are not their clients, and how to run a business as simply as possible while they pursue their goals for that period of their lives. It has been exceptionally rewarding to play some small role in their success.
The professional photography business is amazing. But this industry is not easy. It can be lonely, there is struggle, and it takes constant reinvention. But in what other business do we get to connect, create, and impact people while we use our gifts to transform clients’ lives (and yes, while we profit)? The photography industry is strong and continues to have incredible success for those able to see opportunity, to keep it real and candid, and to invest and transform themselves through hard work and the right relationships.
About the Author: David Drum
David Drum is head of product and business development at H&H Color Lab in Kansas City, Missouri. After starting his professional career as an engineer at Xerox and Motorola, David moved to the professional imaging industry in 1995. David worked as a technical support manager, production manager, lean manufacturing manager, and IT director before assuming his present role in this family-owned company. David lives in the Kansas City area with his wife, Amy, of 25 years and their two children: Nathan, 20, and Jordan, 16.