Don’t Be Boiled Alive, 4 Keys to Staying Relevant

Frog in hot waterThey say that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. It’s a metaphor that speaks to the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

Of course change in photography has been going on since it was invented, but I can remember when the “water first started to warm” for me. It was when I was handed a Kodak NC2000 in the early 1990’s to photograph a Presidential debate in Lansing, Michigan for the Associated Press. It was the start of digital photography for me. (Rob Galbraith has an excellent essay on the NC2000 here.)

And change continued. And the water got warmer. Digital cameras over the next 20 years evolved to where they are today: incredible machines that take astonishingly good photographs for as little as about $200. And now, the water is indeed boiling and many photographers are being “cooked to death.”

Now clients are taking their own photographs for their basic needs and call one of us only when the situation, setting, or circumstances require a better-than-basic knowledge of photography. But I didn’t set out to reminisce or complain in this post. Rather, to suggest that because of this change, you need to do a couple of things to remain successful.

First, get better clients. The more sophisticated the client, the more they appreciate excellent photography. The more they understand licensing. The more they appreciate YOU.

Second, listen closely to what prospective clients are telling you they need and find a way to deliver it profitably. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you simply buckle and charge less for the same or additional licensing.)

Third, differentiate. How are you different (read: better) than your competitors? If you cannot show your unique value to a prospective client, why on earth would they hire you? Your value is what make’s you a better choice for your client. And, in many cases, your value will permit you to charge more. Don’t become a commodity.

And last, don’t be an evangelist on behalf of the industry or all photographers. The minute you start explaining to a client why he or she doesn’t really need unlimited usage, why you don’t do buyouts, why, why, why, why… they will click the back button in their browser and move to the next photographer in the list that Google returned when they entered their search query. You lose.

California-based photographer Mark Loundy wrote in his excellent blog “Common Cents”: “Telling them [clients] about my costs of doing business or how many hours it takes for a project’s post-production is like explaining Purina’s manufacturing process to a dog — they just won’t care.” I couldn’t have made my point any better.

The water is boiling, many of my friends have left the business. Ask yourself, how can you adapt to the new photography business? Are you willing to change your business model? Willing to reinvent yourself yet again? How has your approach to our business and your clients changed? If you’re willing, share your story in the comments below.

(Photo by James Lee, used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-2.0)


Animesh Ray

about 10 years ago

The anecdote about the frog was epic!

David Longstreath

about 11 years ago

Contant training and learning new skills has always been a part of the profession. As a wire service photographer for 30 years, retired now, I can only say that to stay in the proefession I have had to add skills to the list offered clients. Video, multimedia, or whatever they are asking for at the time. But I have to agree with Don about blaming the market and photographers shooting themselves in the foot.

Don Cudney

about 11 years ago

I apologize Blake - you are correct - YOU - never suggested anyone “charge less and allow more usage.” And thank you. I went off on a rant about recent ASMP policies and suggestions. Again - I apologize and yes, I realize these posts and these suggestions are for the younger, emerging photographers. As one colleague suggested today - "Don - ignorance is bliss - let it go." I think I'm going to take their advice. I feel I have nothing to offer these younger less experienced photographers, but attitude and resentment. Good luck to all.

Blake J. Discher

about 11 years ago

Hey Don, thanks for the comment and you know I respect you and your work. I would only point out that no where in my post did I suggest anyone "charge less and allow more usage." You state, "WE need better advice than lower your fees, be different, get better clients because I consider that advice – Common Sense." Again, lowering fees was not my advice or even mentioned. But you're right, "be different and get better clients" is common sense, especially for you and I who have been in this business for some time. But to an emerging photographer trying to figure out how to run a sustainable business, it's needed advice. My readership is diverse in terms of industry experience so I try to speak to everyone, not just us guys that have been around the block a couple of times. As an aside, I too have increased my fees, but only for jobs where I work outside of Detroit, this market is still whacked and recovering, albeit slowly.

Don Cudney

about 11 years ago

Blake- I agree with your 4 points, but I have to point out to you and to Jim C. of the ASMP - THESE SUGGESTIONS ARE NOTHING NEW. You both must realize that I respect you both as professionals and individuals, but this "advice" of charge less and allow more usage - is BS. I've been following that advice since day one over twenty years ago. Again - much respect, but this is your educated - experienced advice?? I'm sorry, but that is the primary reason I resigned from the ASMP Board of Directors and left the ASMP entirely. Mr. C. admits he lowered his fees; from what $10,000 a day to $2,500? Of course his business increased - while his profit line decreased. Was he ripping clients off before? Where'd the other $7,500 go to? How do you reduce your CODB that much? I'm sorry - but WE need better advice than lower your fees, be different, get better clients because I consider that advice - Common Sense. Guess what - my business increased this year too - and I didn't lower my rates ... I increased them. Now how's that for a better example? Simple fact: over the past 10 years WE (commercial photographers) have become better photographers, better videographers, better bloggers, better writers, better communicators - WE are "worth" more today than ever before - so why would I want to accept less compensation and give more of myself? Asinine. My advice to every photographer - stop blaming the Market and start blaming each other - WE did this - WE accepted these terms - and only WE can change this stereotypical attitude that what we do isn't worthy of compensation. Grow some balls people, respect what you do and demand that your clients do the same. It works for me.

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