Will Photographers Survive the Next Recession?

During the past decade, the world economy has experienced steady, gradual expansion. But what goes up must come down, and the question photographers are wise to consider is: "how will the next recession affect me?"

This focuses on economic recession impacting the freelance or small business photographer: the challenges involved and how to best prepare for them.

For obvious reasons, those who are employed full-time in photography (which seems less commonplace today) might experience a recession differently. But employed photographers and photo editors also need to prepare for the possibility of being laid off in a general economic downturn. Suddenly switching to freelance isn’t easy. Even in a strong economy, decent photography employment is somewhat scarce.

The last thing we want is for a client’s photography budget to be cut. But when a recession hits, one of the first things to be cut from a company’s budget is a service deemed a “luxury." Depending on the severity of the recession, both individuals and businesses will cut corners and forego discretionary spending in order to survive. Such “survival cuts” can deliver bad news to a photographer.

Commonly undervalued professional photography includes wedding photography and much small business photography. But, sadly, that low valuation doesn’t stop there.

When the economy heads south, don’t waste time on pricing wars, which usually just digs the hole deeper. In a recession, you need to think on your feet and be flexible, perhaps even venturing into new photographic markets. With the right adjustments, you might even thrive in a recession.

Target the Right Fields

Some areas of the marketplace assign a high value to photography; some don’t see the big picture. And of the ones that do value photography, not all clients in those fields have budgets that can justify professional photography pricing. It's your job as a freelancer to figure out who can and will value your work.

Perceived value and spending power aside, only the most recession-proof businesses will maintain a steady photography budget when the economy takes a downturn. Some companies will downsize or eliminate their photography budgets or departments in response to a recession. That means less gigs and more layoffs for photographers. Some businesses might even turn to stock photography. To get an idea of the small pool of businesses not affected by recessions, check out this list here.

Think of other industries or genres you have yet to break into and make an actionable plan to start working in those sectors. For example: are you a portrait photographer interested in medical photography? Offer promotional (limited time) discounted shoots to local medical institutions to build your new portfolio. There will always be a need for certain types of photography, so focus your efforts in the right places.

Not only would it be wise to begin targeting more recession-proof markets now, we also always need to be perfecting our skills and updating our portfolios in order to attract high-end clients.

If you're a wedding photographer who caters to brides with a max budget of $500, there might be bad news in your future: those gigs disappearing when the economy tanks. Don't twiddle your thumbs on Thumbtack waiting for "bridezillas" to respond to your quotes. Step it up and re-think your marketing today, instead of scrambling to position yourself later.

If you've been putting off the dive into videography, now is the time to learn. Offering videography or drone work as add-on services will position your business as a "one-stop shop" for those seeking a more complete solution to their marketing needs. What better way to beat the competition than to make choosing you an easy decision for your clients who have multiple needs?

If you specialize in non-commercial photography like private events or weddings, it would be wise to formulate a marketing plan to break into higher-income markets or social circles. Proper use of keywords like "luxury" in your website or ad copy could help appeal to upper-end clientele.

Flexibility in your marketing strategy is the key for surviving challenges. An important component of that strategy is making sure that your sales language (admit it, you sell) and website convey value.

Think of your new marketing strategy as insurance. When disaster strikes, it will keep you afloat.

Establish and Affirm Your Value

Besides knowing, liking, and trusting us, the main reason clients hire us is because they see the value in our product and service. And the higher that value, the more you can command in your pricing. This remains true even when pennies and budgets are being stretched during hard economic times. Instead of positioning yourself as an expense to commercial clients, use language like "equity" and "investment" to remind clients that what they spend will help them produce more business. And why would someone turn down a productive investment when the economy is struggling?

What else can you do to establish value and stand out from your peers when competition is high and work is scarce? Always provide high-quality customer service. Being timely and clear in your communication is essential to ensure clients will want to continue your working relationship.

Your overall professionalism and agreeable personality is important, helping you stand out in the large sea of photographers in which we must all constantly swim. Turning a new client into a steady client by “exceeding expectations” is an old cliche, but there’s a reason such sloganeering becomes cliche. When it’s true, it typically works.

While pleasing your clients should be your number one business goal, don't forget to stay motivated and passionate with the occasional personal photography project. A “passion project” is especially useful for keeping your spirits high during tough times and can impress or even attract new clients.

Summary

Be proactive and flexible. Photographers face enough challenges regardless of the state of the economy. The key to stability in a challenging economy is solid planning and flexible adaptation. For all of us, marketing, sales, and pricing strategies can usually benefit from analysis and reconsideration.The best time to make that analysis and reconsideration is today.

Has your photography business lived through past recessions? How did you survive them? Please share your experiences in the comments section below. 

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42 Comments

Deleted Account's picture

Always
Have
An
Exit
Plan.

michaeljinphoto's picture

I second this. Mine is pre-tied and in the closet right now.

Tom Anderson's picture

The premise of this article is totally flawed. The demand for photo/video content is growing fast. From journalism to marketing, the demand for digital content keeps growing. We are in a digital golden age for content creators, and it's never been easier to showcase your work.

michaeljinphoto's picture

The demand for content is growing, but so is the supply of free content while the budgets for paid content are simultaneously shrinking. While it's certainly never been easier to showcase your work as a creative, it's probably never been harder to make a decent living off it.

alberto cabrera's picture

I second that

Michael Penn's picture

Oh God thank you for the good laugh. The golden age being used by someone who most likely hasn't experience any other period of time. Actually it is the golden age of devalued photography as art, as photojournalism, as a career. The golden age of free, paid by exposure, or just plain stolen.

Indy Thomas's picture

Showcasing your work is not the same thing as getting paid.

Tom Anderson's picture

Are you really trying to say that digital advertising hasn't far-surpassed what print media advertising once generated?

Sure, everyone wants to be a photographer or videographer today. But the true dedicated professionals who stick with it can find success more readily than in the past. The money is out there for the taking.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people out there. Those who complain, and those who make things happen. Which are you?

Tom Anderson's picture

By the way Dan. Great portfolio, your lighting is top-notch!

alberto cabrera's picture

Sorry Tom. Are you that arrogant? Yes, the demand is there now, in a recession? I don't believe you are going to find the same love as you would now.

Les Sucettes's picture

Clickbait titles are so passé. Of course “photographers will survive“... if anything the title should be “how” or “how to prepare”. That would be far more interesting than a notion that is frankly silly

Indy Thomas's picture

Some will. A lot won't. And the author does note ideas of how to prepare.

Les Sucettes's picture

Most will and those who won’t wouldn’t have survived regardless.

Recessions happen all the time - so do weddings, so do art sales. Similar rubbish statements are made when “Apple comes up with a new iPhone that is almost as good as a camera” and then suddenly all media pundits write articles about how the photo business is f’d. Even if Apple invented a mobile phone that shot the same quality as a DSLR photographers won’t loose business because frankly daddy and mommy wouldn’t have the artistic eye or the tenacity or the experience to shoot your wedding. Even if AI could come up with the ideal way to convert a RAW to a JPG and also retouch a sky into a photo perfectly, clients will still be looking for a particular style, for the experience.

The notion that everyone has a camera and therefore there is less need for photographers is another one of these flawed statements that re-appear on repeat, always was, always will be.

The reality is: it was always going to be a competitive field regardless of the economy, technology or whatever. Bad photographers don’t succeed, or those that don’t have the tenacity — regardless of technology

It’s a clickbait topic that will never end.

Zachary eastburn's picture

What recession..

John Dawson's picture

The one that is brewing now and will be here within the next 16-24 months.

Daniel Mendiola's picture

Recessions aren’t really. It’s something that was created just to scare people like dragons or the queen of England.

michaeljinphoto's picture

...

John Martin's picture

Tell that to the millions who had to close their businesses in the last recession of 2008. Or to the homeowners who lost their homes. Or the long term employees who lost their careers and homes and are now homeless or dead from suicide..

Ed Di's picture

What do you understand by recession?

Daniel Mendiola's picture

You people need to read what I wrote and learn how to take a joke

John Martin's picture

The recession of 2008 and cheap digital ruined me. I had a high medium format film based overhead studio but the money was rolling in from a high volume business model.
Once the recession hit things started going south.
The end came in 2015 after years of playing whack a mole with finances.

Trying to recreate yourself as " luxury" when you weren't just doesn't work.

Ed Di's picture

Not all recessions are the same, is hard to tell how much a particular industry will be affected, also, not everyone has the same exposure with assets vs liabilities, the advice of the article is not only useful during recessions, but most of the time.

Deleted Account's picture

The advice here has nothing really to do with recessions. You should always be looking to reposition a business to a place where it maximizes earnings and is valued. If you're not doing that in the good times, the odds are you don't have what it takes to ride out the bad times.

But... photography is currently one of the most over-worked and under-paid professions out there. The big question is not will your business survive a recession but do you really want it to? You'd be better off lobbying your local politician for Universal Basic Income and then taking photos for fun in most cases.

Scott Mason's picture

I suppose what I was trying to convey is that you need solid, reliable marketing to make it through a recession. The emphasis on being flexible when things aren't working was also noted, I hope that came through as an important aspect for survival. Thank you for reading and commenting.

Indy Thomas's picture

A recession is when you find out your business plan wasn't.

Deleted Account's picture

The Recession War?

dale clark's picture

Recessions for finding new clients when other providers are weeded out.

Deleted Account's picture

I was in advertising too, for years, and as you say, every crisis has given me more work.
The major brands must remain above average, and even more so in times of crisis.

For other markets, I think it could be otherwise, even if there is no less work, the financial compensation would probably be reduced

Deleted Account's picture

I left because it was time to give new priorities to my life.

40 years in the world of advertising and publishing, as a photographer, then artistic director and creative director have been more than satisfying and rewarding for me.

The work of a photographer had become more and more tiring for me because of minor health problems.

Now I help my wife who is the artistic director of a children's magazine, I take some pictures for my own pleasure, and I take care of my grandchildren :)

Mike Ditz's picture

Since the last recession, in my corner of the photoworld the bottom and the top are still there. There has been a big hit to the middle part of the business. But to be honest in the 2008 recession I was busier than usual for a couple years. A few friends have closed up shop but I still keep on.

Mike Ditz's picture

Not to be nosey but what does your studio specialize in...? I see you mention wedding and advertising. High end society weddings, or lower less $$ events? High end national international advertising or local businesses?

robertc's picture

The last recession brought the gig economy into the driver seat, and with it came every mom and uncle with an old DSLR starting a photo page on Facebook to fight over prom photo gigs. People will scramble to make extra income and many see photography as a delusional "easy path" to it. If / when another recession hits, I would expect the flood of new photography business to come with it. Everyone can claim that they aren't competition, but if you are in the business of senior portraits, weddings, etc, it's easy to lose to an uncle willing to shoot the wedding for $100 vs your $1500 package when the couple is tight on cash due to the recession.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

I survived the last one. Shooting weddings and for Biz Journals make it a little easier to survive. I wonder if this one will cull all the hobbygraphers that are constantly switching gear and shooting for free.

Scott Mason's picture

Probably a little bit of the hobbyists leaving, as you mentioned, plus some of what Robert (above) mentioned.

David Stephen Kalonick's picture

There won't be a recession, Trump hires the best people and he's a stable genius.

Mike Yamin's picture

The premise of this whole article relies on the idea that an upcoming recession is a foregone conclusion, but only the Trump-hating media thinks that. Besides, photographers often have to do these things anyway... very few of us are just coasting along here.

Scott Mason's picture

The US experiences a recession roughly every seven years. There's no political statement implied here, it's just a pattern that no one can deny. And you're right, everyone has to practice the above to prosper. I was simply stating that good marketing and flexibility will help us survive the next downturn. It's coming, but anyone who claims to know when is only pontificating.

Matthew Odom's picture

Investments! I just recently starting dabbling in real estate and scooped up some cash flowing rentals for those rainy days find what works for you but be prepared!!