The COVID-19 epidemic has thrown the photography community into a financial tailspin. And while some of us are busy trying to survive, others are taking this business downturn as an opportunity to reinvent their business, do a better job of living out one’s values, and form deeper connections with our clients.
When times get tough, business owners typically do one of two things: They "get creative" or "get out.” The first choice requires bravery and innovation, qualities that freelancers need in abundance if they want to thrive or even survive.
I asked wedding photographer Caity Colvard of CCPhotofactory how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her business, as well as how she's staying afloat in such a bleak photography market. Her service is based out of Austin, Texas, but also serves several other areas across the United States.
Though formerly focusing solely on wedding photography, Colvard had previously been planning to roll out several new services for the fall 2020 season: senior, family, and boudoir sessions. Her planning has involved online courses to ensure proper posing, editing, and marketing of her new specialties. She even took a part-time job shooting school photos in order to sharpen her people skills — specific talents that are employed outside of the wedding photography world.
She recalls the tripwire point of the coronavirus crisis:
Then the city decided to shut down schools. Restaurants, bars, and venues started announcing their pandemic plans for the next few weeks. Friends and colleagues of mine started getting cancellation and postponement notices. I started getting them, too... and then, the gauntlet: Austin lowered the maximum number of people at gatherings to 250... then 125.. then 50... then 10. Then they shut down restaurants, bars and other venues entirely. And I was left with literally $0 income.
Colvard's overnight business freeze has not been uncommon among photographers, nor among the rest of the entire world's various workforces. But like any agile business owner, she stayed on her toes and announced that her new services would be available immediately. The top header of her website currently reads in bold lettering: "NOW OFFERING BOUDOIR SESSIONS.”
Colvard also made the wise choice of updating her contract, the importance of which I wrote about last week. She didn’t narrowly protect herself from the inevitable refunds produced by canceled shoots. Instead she added a stipulation to her contract that allows clients an entire year of flexibility in postponing shoots.
Having a postponement period this generous provides my clients some comfort and confidence. It influences them to look ahead to the future, and excites them about the successful session we will have at a better time. They need the same thing all the rest of us do: an opportunity to look forward to something better once the pandemic has subsided.
Lauren Moffe, a wedding photographer and videographer in central Texas, was faced with a similar situation after six of her clients either postponed or downsized to an elopement. This was a hard blow, especially since all six clients gave notice of cancellation within 24 hours of each other. Moffe then began offering 360° virtual reality streaming for the large number of guests who could no longer attend the services.
As for marketing, Colvard is focusing on making her business more relatable for a broader base of customers. Since most freelancers run a one-person show, our businesses benefit from a healthy amount of outreach and a gregarious business personality. These personified marketing angles often include live streams of our daily work or personal activities — from sharing our behind-the-scenes shoots and editing processes, to walking our dogs in the park. Some photographers start up YouTube channels, an outlet to promote their brand via sizzle reels or testimonials. But most use the free video platform to "vlog," in which the photographer shares daily personal musings, opinions, and sometimes even photoshoot summaries and specific techniques.
This more personal approach can provide a friendly glimpse into our professional and even personal lives. Admittedly, the latter glimpse is something that many of us can find a bit uncomfortable, but it’s also a useful way to strengthen professional relationships. Colvard has taken it upon herself to embrace this approach as an asset both in marketing and in customer relationships. She says:
I've decided to show my face and what I'm doing in my life during this period of enforced ‘social distancing.’ This open approach connects with my clients on a personal level. That’s increasingly important right now because we're all experiencing the same thing in different ways.
When asked about her advice for photographers who are struggling with business setbacks now, she had some wise words of encouragement.
The best advice I can give to anyone who feels hopeless or lost is not to give up but to adjust and embrace this gift of time. If photography that benefits people and businesses is something you're passionate about and driven to do, now is the best time to buckle down, perhaps find educational opportunities, and set your goals for the future. These initiatives need not cost much money, and you're given this grand gift of time to implement them. Use it. Use this time.
It's easy to see the risks and harsh realities produced by the current health emergency. Of course, many people in many walks of life are experiencing loss, struggling with the present, and worried about the future.
But taking Colvard’s outlook is not only more challenging; it’s also more rewarding. Though we constantly feel the need to be profitably busy with filled schedules and commitments, the time to rework professional perspectives and re-educate ourselves is also profitable.
Even with ample available time, our future is important and the stakes remain high. We have a chance to set ourselves up for better standards to come: improved policies, new avenues of work, better relationships with fellow professionals, and a deeper connection with clients. When the crisis subsides, I hope to have found, as Colvard and Moffe are finding, opportunities for improvement and growth.
So many of you in the Fstoppers community — readers, writers, and others — are working hard through this global challenge. You're investing your time and professional commitment in your business, your family, and your future. If you would like to offer your own words of encouragement to our photography community, please share them in the comments section below.
Author's note: This article was drafted shortly before stay-at-home orders hit much of the USA. These orders are becoming more common across the globe. To slow the spread of disease, please research and comply with all local and countywide/federal laws regarding business and outdoor activities.
While greatly limited, photographers still have income options: teaching remotely, selling online courses, and stock sales to name just a few. Please share further ideas in the comments.
Lead image by Caity Colvard.