Coronavirus Is Teaching Photographers One Very Important Lesson

Coronavirus Is Teaching Photographers One Very Important Lesson

I know, you're tired of reading about coronavirus and its colossal impact on both people and industry alike. Well, this article isn't really about coronavirus, but rather what it has served to highlight.

Media outlets have run out of negative superlatives (is there a word for that?), and if I hear the word "unprecedented" one more time, I'm going to hurt somebody. The world has indeed been impacted by this virus like nothing most of us have ever seen in our lifetime, and almost nobody has escaped the pandemic unaffected. One thing has shone through the fog for me, however: those horsemen of the self-employed apocalypse whom, if not heralded the abyss, certainly persistently warned of it, definitely had a point.

When I decided to open the window and jump into the darkness of self-employment as a photographer, I consumed a lot of books, articles, podcasts, and conversations with people who knew more than I did about that sort of life. There were many themes that I began collating; strands of advice that resembled one another even if expressed in a different way: for example, keeping a to-do list, getting up early, and over-delivering on every job you do. It was sage, positive advice, but the other themes I noticed were less palatable.

They usually came in the form of preparation for disaster: "you must have savings," "you must have insurance," and "you must be proactive even when you're doing well." Generally, they made a lot of sense. I had read a book by an economist that says if you can save 20% of everything you earn, you'll always be wealthy, and that took care of the first strand. Insurance was a no-brainer after I read a horror story (which I'm not even sure was true) about a wedding guest tripping over a photographer's cable and getting seriously hurt, suing the poor cameraman. Being proactive with networking and building client relationships was just good sense, as it didn't take many good months followed by bad months to realize that tunnel vision isn't conducive with a stable working life. But there was one more piece advice I took to heart, but very nearly didn't, and it's shown its value many times over in recent months.

Diversify your income. That is, create as many revenue streams as you can maintain, so if one goes down, you still have others to keep you afloat. It makes perfect sense when it's worded like that, but the issue for me was that it was at odds with the other perfectly sensible advice I was getting: find a niche and dominate. I was told I must specialize in a field and be known for it and not spread myself thinly across lots of different genres. People want to hire photographers who are experts in whatever they need them for, not jacks of all trades. And that's true, you certainly should specialize in an area and work on being known for it, but that isn't the complete story; you still need to work on having more than one revenue stream.

That isn't to say if you're a wedding photographer you need to start covering sports too, but rather you need to work out ways to make money that aren't wedding photography. My primary work with a camera is portraiture (both for editorial use, commercial, and private businesses) and then product work (usually with watch brands). However, soon after starting out on my own, I came to the conclusion that it would only take a brief downturn, unfortunate scheduling, or an unforeseen issue, and I wouldn't earn any money in a calendar month. That's not just high pressure, that's suicidal. How long could I reasonably go before some combination of events meant I didn't bring in money one month? So, I began working on multiple revenue streams. 

Some research yielded the general principle that five revenue streams was the magic number, and I aimed for that. I had my photography, and that was always going to be my primary source of income. I had spent a lot of time writing and had sold some articles, so that seemed a logical next step. I then started selling stock photos, prints, tutoring, and so on. Over the years, some have fallen by the wayside (stock photos) and some have grown significantly (writing), and I'm still working on building and maintaining these different streams, as well as new ones, every day. However, part of me always had the seed of doubt: was spreading my efforts a poor use of time? After all, the top 1% of any field seem to do little else other than what they've known for. Well, COVID-19 answered that question by force.

The truth is, few of us get to 1%, which is painfully obvious when written down, but less so in the abstract sense of success. You cannot afford to put all those proverbial eggs in a single basket, and this pandemic has shown why in ruthless fashion. Many of my photographer friends who were well specialized and had no other sources of income are in dire straits. It's not their fault. They are fantastic at what they do, have built brilliant reputations, and have done incredibly well for themselves, but there was no predicting this anomaly. Usually, talk of disaster is personal in the form of severe injury or the like. This, however, is affecting everyone and everything in totality.

I can tell you unashamedly if I didn't have multiple revenue streams, I would currently be in trouble. I had many photography jobs, workshops, and trips booked for this year; in fact, in the early part of 2020, I was excited at what the future held. Of those jobs, workshops, and trips, which would have made up a good portion of my total income, all but one canceled or rescheduled to whenever this is all over. One. One photography job survived the coronavirus onslaught. It gives me anxiety to think the state I would be in if that was my only income, which is the case for many self-employed people or freelancers, a single revenue stream they have specialized in. Many of those people have had to emergency-pivot or annihilate their savings, neither of which is ideal. Pivoting, however, is what you would like to be able to comfortably do to other revenue streams.

In all honesty, I was still underprepared. I see YouTubers and content creators leaning into that revenue beautifully, and it just highlights how crucial it is to diversify your income and make sure pressing the button on top of your camera isn't the only way to put pennies in your pocket. The industry is visibly taking a hit in manufacturing and sales, but many brilliant photographers won't recover from what coronavirus does to their businesses, and it's a crying shame. If you survive this or you've not quite started a career in the industry yet, diversifying your income into multiple streams could be the difference-maker for your business's longevity. Heed this important lesson; I know I will.

Have you managed to pivot to another revenue stream? Has coronavirus hit you hard? Do you have any advice you can share with photographers to help them better prepare for the future? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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5 Comments

You are spot on my friend. I took up the diversification model back in 1988 with the magic number 5: photography, lab work, stock sales, teaching and investing. Now 40+ years into my career, I still diversify (lab work fell by the wayside years ago) but I now specialize in one specific market segment and business is booming!

Robert K Baggs's picture

I'm still trying to establish a pronounced 5 but getting there. The fact you've had a 40 year career at all shows how resilient a business you've built!

Catherine Bowlene's picture

> you need to work out ways to make money that aren't wedding photography
YES! You never know how your life would be next and you never know about the next "covid-crisis" coming up to you, so you really have to learn many things just to develop your own skills, because you never know when you will need them. Sticking to one genre is a good thing from the point of view that you develop your skills in this particular thing, but trying new things means you will be capable of doing more if necessary. I really enjoy learning how to work with different photo editors (i.e. C1 or Photodiva, or apps like PicsArt) or how to do jewelry shooting, because in some time I may have an opportunity to use these skills.

Jerome Courtial's picture

Yes the diversification advice is always a good one. But it can also deter from achieving greatness at one particular thing. I think there is no right or wrong here whether you earn from one activity or five. For me the main learning is that whatever you do you need enough cash flow to keep you alive for 3-6 months.

Todd Bailey's picture

Offering a diversified set of services not only helps in times like these but for anyone looking at going full time it can help level off the highs and lows of uncertainty. Always be learning and growing! Stay well through this my fellow creators <3