Selling Images is Like Selling Cameras


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Today’s email is a riff on what I’ve been writing about cameras and the hardware that the camera makers have been giving us: “the new mantra in the business is [also] 'Good Enough.'  I've seen it in a flood of local cookbooks: poor unbalanced lighting, soft focus, bad composition, etc. It surprises me that any photo editor/publisher would allow any of it to get through. But then It’s 'Good Enough'. Does no one care more?

Selling images these days is tough. Really tough. Two things have happened in the selling of images that mimic what happened in the selling of cameras:

  1. The low end got better (e.g. smartphones take good photos). Plus digital cameras gave amateur shooters the instant feedback needed to improve their imaging quickly, while the digital cameras themselves have gotten far better to the point where things that even pros had a hard time doing (shooting in very low light) are de rigueur. 

  2. The race for growth and especially growth in profits starts a race to the bottom (e.g. cut costs and deliver good enough products, as opposed to deliver best possible products). Publications—even highly profitable ones—got very worried about the Internet, a recession or two, lack of growth in circulation, and more. For some reason they all seem to think that cutting content expenses are the route to better results. Only problem is, content is what gets the customers that you sell to advertisers. The appearance of stock photography at wicked low prices has also driven everyone to using the same core batch of images.

So just like the camera makers, pro photographers are fighting the same basic core market trends. Which means that the answer to more image revenue is the same as the answer to more camera hardware revenue:

  • Convenience. If you make it difficult for your customer to do what they want, the customer looks elsewhere. I can find any image I need on a few stock sites pretty darned quickly, but not always on photographers’ sites. Moreover, the pro photographer is going to argue about rights, too. If the client can’t see your images immediately and has to negotiate for what they want (and I’m not talking about price negotiation, which is another issue), guess what? There are simpler ways to get images. Photo editors have to fill a lot of image needs quickly on a tight publishing schedule. Make their job more difficult and they stop talking to you.

    Personally, I’ve stopped trying to retain all rights to my images I sell. I’ll simply sell the rights the publication wants, but I also ask a higher price (I also ask to retain the ability to use images in my own marketing). I do high quality work, I am “direct-able” in that work, I’ll make it easy for the customer to obtain and use that work. One of my first questions to a client is usually “what works best for you?”

  • Interaction. Hire me and I suddenly become an extrovert (I’m normally as introvert as they come; only child syndrome and all, you know). I want to hear what you need, I want to offer you options, I want to brainstorm with you, I want to keep you up to date on what the status of everything is, I want to talk to and even work with your designers whenever possible. I want you to be happy. I want my product (images) to reflect what you really want and need. I can’t do that by sitting in my dimly lit office ignoring the phone, email, and the guy from your office knocking on the front door.

    If it’s a studio shoot, I want someone in your decision making process there at the shoot, if possible. I want to offer options, and I want your feedback on them.  

  • Quality. This, of course, is one of the reasons why I believe in “optimal” versus “good enough” in my camera gear. I believe that quality, all else equal, will typically win out in any contest. Moreover, the ultimate consumer of any content immediately recognizes good content from bad. Sometimes they’ll tolerate quality lapses (e.g. bad grammar or spelling in an article, slight focus misses, etc.) if there’s redeeming and unique value in the rest, but even small lapses in quality send up warning flares in the consumer that you’ll have to navigate around. 

    Worse still, fads and styles wear out. Once content becomes too “me too,” it loses that unique aspect that drives it beyond the other similar content. This is one of the problems with using stock photography, actually: it tends to drive towards the center, and it tends to lag fads/trends. It just isn’t unique enough to make the reader pause and fully take it in. If you’ve seen it before, you can skip over it, basically.

  • Uniqueness. If everyone else can provide you the same product, or you can get exactly the same look and level of quality via stock, good for you. You don’t need me. If I can’t provide images that are unique or which you can get more cheaply elsewhere, then I’m not really a pro working at the highest level. That’s my problem, not yours. On the other hand, if I am living up to my reputation, I’ve giving you things that set your publication/business off from the rest. 

Of course, we can take all this back and apply it to the camera makers:

  • The gear they’re selling isn’t very convenient, thus we aren’t overly interested in buying more of it.
  • Almost no camera company has any interaction with more than a hand selected “chosen few” of their customers, so we have no interaction, and thus don’t always (usually don’t) get what we want in new products.
  • Most of the camera makers have gotten the quality message, at least in terms of image quality. The products are exceptional in that respect, though Nikon has been undermining themselves with other quality issues as of late.
  • Why are Fujifilm, Olympus, and Sony getting any attention at all from camera customers these days? Because they build some unique products. Products that might actually solve a problem our current gear doesn’t. Canon and Nikon are mostly sitting on their long-established butts in this respect. When they do get up and do something,  it’s a strange compromised mishmash like the Nikon 1.

There aren’t a lot of unique problems in the world to solve. Nor are there much differences in the answers you need to solve those problems. 

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