Why Are Photographers Horrible at Business?

For the last seven years, our video tutorials have taught the Fstoppers community how to take better pictures. Our latest tutorial, Making Real Money: The Business Of Commercial Photography, is the opposite of that. In fact, there isn't a camera or lens in the entire 14-hours of video. But, I believe it's the most valuable tutorial we've ever made. 

Our job, as the producer of these tutorials, is to identify a need in the photography market, find the best instructor to teach in that field, and present the information in an entertaining and easy-to-understand way. Over the years I think we've done a great job of teaming up with some incredible instructors and the tutorials we have created have really changed the market. Before Peter Hurley, headshot photography was hardly an industry outside of NYC and Los Angeles. Sure, there were people taking snapshots of business owners, but Peter Hurley's first tutorial The Art Behind The Headshot completely changed the way headshots were taken. Now, you won't just find headshot photographers using his techniques, you'll find your portrait and wedding photographers telling their clients to jam their forehead toward the camera and to "squinch."

Mike Kelley was also able to totally shift the architecture photography market with his tutorial. Since the release of Where Art Meets Architecture, there are world-class photographers shooting properties in almost every major city in America using Mike's light painting and editing techniques. 

Since then, we've worked with many other incredible photographers like Dylan Patrick, Clay Cook, Joey Wright, and Elia Locardi. Some photography genres like fashion, swimwear, or landscape photography are pretty exciting on their own and making educational content that was also entertaining, wasn't very difficult. But what about filming a tutorial on a boring subject? Is it possible to make "business" fun? 

We've known for years that a tutorial on the business side of photography was probably the most important tutorial we could make. We've met so many incredible photographers around the world who are struggling financially. No matter how good their pictures are, they still can't figure out how to land the jobs they want. Although we knew these photographers needed help in this area, we feared it would be impossible to make a tutorial on business actually fun to watch and, if it was boring, nobody would buy it.

Two years ago we asked Monte Isom to teach at our live workshop in the Bahamas. During the event, both Patrick and I got to sit in on sections of his business of commercial photography class. Both of us were shocked by how much Monte was willing to reveal. He was sharing his secrets for breaking into new markets by going after certain people in ad agencies. He was sharing how much he was paid to shoot major jobs and going through his bids line by line. He even gave away lawyer letters he has used to make hundreds of thousands of dollars going after copyright infringers. The numbers that Monte was talking about were unbelievably high, but as he explained the entire process of marketing to the client, sending them a bid, and then shooting the job, it actually seemed attainable. 

For two years we've been planning to do this tutorial with Monte but six months ago we actually started planning it. I assumed the tutorial would be similar to his live workshop but Monte wanted this video to be better than that. For the past 20 years, Monte has been making connections throughout the industry with creative professionals at the top of their fields. Monte wanted us to fly to NYC, L.A., and Charleston to film interviews with nine of these industry leaders. These interviews ended up being packed with some of the most interesting and valuable information we've ever included in a tutorial. Instead of this tutorial being four or five hours like I expected, it ended up being 14. I've never heard anyone in these positions speak so candidly about every aspect of hiring photographers. I've been a professional photographer for 14 years, and the majority of the content in this video was foreign to me. I can't imagine where my career would be if I had known this stuff when I graduated from college. 

I realize that the average Fstoppers reader is not a professional photographer. If you simply take pictures for fun, you probably won't enjoy this tutorial. But, if you're a professional photographer, if you actually take pictures for a living, this tutorial just might be the most entertaining and informative video that we've ever produced. More importantly, if you're a full-time shooter, I believe this will be the most valuable educational content you'll ever purchase. Monte completely changed my view of the industry and If you want to know how to take your photography business to the next level, Making Real Money is going to completely change the way you run your business. 

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17 Comments

Chris Marxen's picture

I am sooo up for this. I'm 100 percent convinced by the trailer alone that "this is the most valuable tutorial you've ever made." No doubt about it. Getting an inside from these art and creative people is something you would never get without a name. The only thing I'm not sure of is if this translates into other markets. I'm from Germany and I wonder if in the secret facebook group also includes mentors from countries other than the US.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Excellent point there regarding other markets, especially European ones. From my perspective, here in Ireland, there are a ton people online offering valuable business advice to photographers except virtually all of it is geared toward the US market, which is fair because the market is big enough and that's what they know.

The problem I run into when I start to research their offerings is that the nitty gritty (or the nits grits, if you will) of the legal / accounting stuff is mostly useless to me. I need solid advice on contracts, but I just can't afford a solicitor at the moment, as I'll need them to draw up various contracts, some of them very specific to my goals.

I'm very green in the industry (9 months) and I feel that I'd greatly benefit from something like Sprout Studio or some of Improve Photography's offerings, only if I was certain that I could make full use of them in the Irish market. There's a business there for someone in UK / Ireland. I'd do it but I need far more experience!

That said, I've purchased two of Mike Kelley's tutorials and the advice given, as well as the production quality, is second to none. When I have the cash, I'll more than likely get this tutorial. My weakest quality is my business acumen, so I gotta sort that out.

Monte talks about need to discount all this to smaller markets throughout his tutorial. I suspect, that US small town is good metaphor for most of EU photo market, though Monte says about some of his European clients as well.

I agree about the translation to other markets (Europe for example), is to be taken with a huge grain of salt. As a rough average estimate, I would say that for the euro zone, the numbers (i.e. without currency change into account, just numbers) are easily only 0,5 and 0,75 times those that in the US. That is: if a shoot would sell for 10k$ in the US, it would sell for something between 5k€ and 7,5k€ in Europe.
Moreover, legal stuff may have share common aspects, but in practice they are just plain different.
And getting reliable resources on both of those is not common on the web. You only get by experience of trial and error. So if anyone has any of them to recommend online for Europe, please do :-)

This is absolutely something we've needed. Thank you Lee, Patrick and Monte.

Photographers tend to be horrible at business because, like many other creative types, they tend to focus their energy toward creative efforts rather than counting beans or crunching numbers (often to their own detriment). Creating art and running a business are two VERY different skill sets and I would argue that the vast majority of photographers who are running successful businesses are probably not creating art, but performing jobs that they generally have little to no emotional investment in so that they can earn enough of an income to take the photos that they actually want to take in their spare time. I would also wager that a fair number of the photographers that fail on the business end are people that go in with the misguided mantra that if you love your work, you will never work a day in your life, and end up having trouble separating the business aspect of their photography from their personal passion for it.

In my case, while I am not a full-time professional, I do real estate photography and business headshots on the side to supplement my income and help fund the things that I actually want to do. I can't say that I give a damn about either of those two things and I certainly don't actually apply myself in any real way to either of those pursuits (simply because I have no passion for them) to the point where I refuse to even put my name with the end products (they bore and disgust me that much and I don't even care about copyright at that point), but it's pretty likely that hell will freeze over long before I make any actual income doing the type of photography that I actually enjoy doing so I do what I deem necessary to subsidize the things that I enjoy.

In a way, it's good that I actually hate the photography that brings me income as much as I do because if I enjoyed it, it would be much more difficult to separate the business from the personal and I could easily see myself doing stupid things like taking less pay for a job or putting in extra unpaid time because I got emotionally invested in a project. When I'm doing something I absolutely abhor, I'm actually very good about setting strict boundaries and making sure I'm getting compensated for every single bit of my time and resources that I spend suffering through it.

That is actually correct on a certain point of view!

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Something in common with most of the photographers featured in Fstoppers tutorials is his passion. Look this video, look his eyes when he talks, barely he can stay quietly in the chair! That guy has passion!!!

One thing about passion is, when you have it, you put that passion in everything you do, you live life through that passión. This guy could be selling shoes, potatoes, whatever, and he would be the best potatoes seller in the world.

When you don't have it, on the contrary, you can be doing the best work, having the best job and you are going to hate it anyway.

I'm sure he does have plenty of passion and I'm also sure that there are many people that are more capable than myself of putting up boundaries even when passion is involved.

It's those boundaries that are often the problem for creatives because they get so emotionally invested in projects that they're passionate about that they're often willing to tolerate less pay or worse working conditions for the privilege of being involved in the projects that they love. The rest of the world isn't ignorant to this fact and people will gladly take advantage of you whenever they can. One of the keys to maintaining a healthy business that many people don't initially understand is the ability to say "no" even to very tempting projects because they are not good financial decisions or maybe even just outright abandon a project you've been working on if circumstances change and it looks like the budget is not going to work out. The creative will, in these situations, often want to finish the work for the sake of realizing their vision. The smart business person will be more inclined to cut their losses and look for better financial opportunities. Serving both masters is a difficult proposition.

Unless you're REALLY good at maintaining discipline in setting those professional boundaries, it's generally best to keep your labors of love separate from the way you actually make a living. It's a lucky few (relatively speaking) that have the privilege of going to work everyday and doing what they actually love to do while still making a good living and if you fall in that category, I congratulate you.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

When he said "so the president of the united states walk's in the door..." I felt like I was watching a Tarantino film!!!! Great! :D

I've already started watching it and so far it is the best tutorial money can buy I've ever seen. Though it is all money talk it is surprisingly (and extremely) entertaining.

Jim Bolen's picture

Geez, listening to those numbers he was throwing out makes my head spin. Living in a smaller city in the lowest wage paying state in the country makes it really tough. I got 'the look' when I quoted a day rate of $350 to a major corporation to come in and help in the studio. Hell, I'd run up and down my street naked if I could make $101,000 in a YEAR from photography! And my wife would probably join me!
Looks to be a great tutorial!

Ya, no doubt he is landing big national and international jobs. We are in a medium market here in Charleston SC and the local jobs are also pretty small BUT what I recently learned is that national ad campaigns are created here all the time, I just don't hear about them. A photographer who I have never heard of but who lives here in town recently shot a 5 day job for a university and the budget was $750k. My point is that these jobs are happening, you just have to be in the world for it to be on your radar.

"A photographer who I have never heard of but who lives here in town recently shot a 5 day job for a university and the budget was $750k."

Good Lord. Well, that explains out of control tuition rates.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

He looks like Carl Taylor!

Patrick Hall's picture

Maybe Karl Taylor looks like Monte?

"I realize that the average Fstoppers reader is not a professional photographer. If you simply take pictures for fun, you probably won't enjoy this tutorial."

I haven't watched the tutorial but the discussion is interesting.