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Saturday, 29 August 2009


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Kirk, how do you deal with late paying clients?

Roland, I make sure to review terms with my clients when I proffer a contract. Starting in 1996 or 1997 I began taking credit cards and currently Dell, Freescale and a number of other corporate clients pay with credit cards on the day of invoice. For the last two years, really pushing credit card payment as an option, I've had no clients paying later than 30 days. Most photographers just put some phrases in a contract. I like to sit across the table and say something like, "Now, you understand that part of the process is that you guys will need to pay us on delivery. Will you be using a credit card for that or should I send someone by to pick up a check?"

Remember, they need you as much as you need them!

Thanks for the question!

That sounds like a more sophisticated version of what I did. The last time I was working, in '90 and '91, one way photographers were competing in D.C. was to offer longer and longer terms to clients. It got really ridiculous--I had clients who were paying in 90 days who would tell me that so-and-so was offering terms of 120 days, and could I match that?

I don't know who can afford to go four months without being paid--not only for their work, but for their expense reimbursements. Remember the old adage, "cash flow kills." I actually had to turn down a job because I didn't have the cash to pay the expenses. At the same moment, I had many thousands of dollars in accounts receivable.

Well, the solution finally struck me--I just started to explain to clients that I was a little fish, and couldn't bill them--I said I needed to be paid either at the time the work was done, or when it was delivered. Much to my surprise ALL of them could not have been nicer about it, and ALL of them began paying immediately, without complaint (a number of them out of their petty cash aaccounts!). There wasn't a single exception. A problem I'd been wrestling with mightily just went away with a poof, completely.


From a similar business, high end framing, though I still do photography of fine art, I concur with Kirk about websites, necessary, but a reference and adjunct to other things. Relationships require work. Like Mike and Kirk, I'm mostly COD, sometimes asking for and getting advances; I've been using PayPal more and more; worth it to not wait for the infamous, check in the mail.

Kirk, have there been some changes due to the recession? In my case, I would call it a depression, as I've had several 20+ year clients go out of business this year.

Looking forward to the book.

As a confirmed "low hanging fruit" kinda guy, this is a book I can probably read. I especially like the comment about the somewhat typical "look at me, I'm a wealthy photography expert knocking down seven figures." business how-to delivery of some experts. That there is the yawn inducer.
Actually, now I want the first lighting book as I'm less interested in the business and more in the technique.
Thanks for a great interview, Mike and Kirk.

@ Robert: I've not read Kirk's book and I am not a commercial photographer, although I have done commercial work. But regarding the images on the front of his book...

I don't have the impression that the book is devoted towards teaching you how to use a camera. Read the subtitle: Business Techniques for Professional Digital Photographers.

To that end, the images on the cover probably represent exactly the type of images that most commercial photographers pump out, if they're lucky, week in and week out. Commercial photography is a commercial service business; it's a trade like being an electrician or plumber. The vast majority of the work is far from glamorous --absolutely banal crap-- and entirely anonymous (you'll rarely see a photo credit). It's also far from art.

In short, I suspect that Kirk's book might help to debunk the glamor myth of commercial photography. It's a grind of a business that will soon extinguish any love of photography from the spirits of all but the heartiest souls.

To Bron,

In answer to your question about the economy: yes, I think regional photographers are living through a depression. It's a confluence of the decimation of the middle of the market by amateurs and others who are willing to do work at a loss in order to see it published coupled with the demise of traditional media outlets and the client perception that images for the web (the major ad venue still standing...) should cost less because, for all intents and purposes the web looks free.

When you put all that together with the recession it spells bad news for many. I certainly have seen my billing fall. But I think that the antidote is to go back and look at new markets. If you shoot corporate but not weddings you might want to add weddings to your business. If you have other talents like web design or writing it would be smart to incorporate those as new profit centers.

But there is always opportunity. As the large ad agencies falter they open up markets to smaller teams of professionals. One of my friends has a side business doing YouTube style videos for lots of different types of companies locally.

I've lived through three major down cycles and each time the economy came back. This cycle may take longer but it will still come back. The fees will go to the people who consistently built their brand even through the bleakest times.

To Ken: Thanks for playing defense for me. You are absolutely right. If I showed nothing but national pages from Elle Magazine of celebrities (and I do have one in the book, thank you!) I would be showing a very distorted and unreal view of the overall market.

I think most photographers are a bit delusional about the business. Many seem to constantly chase the latest equipment but so little of our work requires cutting edge cameras and lenses. Many have unrealistic expectations about the kinds of images paying clients need. So few of our clients need images of nude women or glamor or even extreme sports. The majority of working photographers are shooting food and houses for local shelter and lifestyle magazines. Environmental portraits of high profile ( non-celebrities) people who are big donors to communities, headshots for business and lots and lots of event stuff. All these things can be done with basic equipment.

I've photographed some celebrities over the last two decades but that's tiny percentage of the kind of work that is available in most smaller markets. You have to create a balance between the kind of work you do for your art and what you do to pay the bills.

And the second part of that balance is what I wrote about. The art part is all over the web. Join a Flickr group, look at girls on Harley's and Ninjas and models lit in the desert with 28 flashes but don't think those things are relevant to running a good business.

Thanks, Kirk

P.S. If you need to see more debunking of gear mythologies head to my blog at www.visualsciencelab.blogspot.com

With respect to commercial photographs, it would seem the emphasis is on the subject and not the photograph. "Wow what a yummy-looking plate of food" vs. "Wow what a great picture." Plus commercial pictures probably have only a few seconds to relay the message.

With respect to the 28 flashes in the desert, I see some photographers using social media to market a persona. It seems to light them up in the eyes of other photographers, but I wonder if all the behind-the-scenes video and adventures on location travelogue reaches potential clients. Plus it looks like an awful lot of work to create. (OK, in the form of a question, "Is it worth the effort to market your persona?") Visual Science Lab in contrast is your insights on photography and the business (and a good read!).

A second question (time permitting): you must have learned things about your business while researching the book. I'm curious what sorts of insights this book brought you.

Great interview; I might just have to grab a copy of the book.

Not half bad for a Longhorn... :)


In talking with clients/colleagues, there is a general feeling that this is the worst "valley" in the almost 40 years I've been in and out of the art field. There is also a feeling of a shift in the nature of the business; as you allude to with the interwebs and "amateurs". I "know" it will come back, but different than before. One of the reasons I'm looking forward to reading your book, as I've found your blog at times very enjoyable and insightful. Some new thoughts and fresh ideas might help, though I've not been resting in exploring new ways to try and attract business; as well as what the business is and does.

Hope the book does well!

Hi Kurt, Those are the very same questions I ask myself every time I see another video by Chase Jarvis or read about Joe McNally doing something the hard way to support his franchise with Nikon. I've queried a number of art directors and art buyers and most of them say, "Who?" But it's important to remember that the primary markets for most of the new "cult of personality" photographers has very little, if anything, to do with commercial photography. The cult men are very specifically targeting amateur and newbie pro photographers. A ready market for books, DVD's, and especially and most importantly, workshops.

Why? Because you don't need to deliver a highly creative finished photograph, you get instant respect because you've built up a persona and a rationale for existence. All you have to do is teach some new dogs some old tricks. Like bouncing a light of the ceiling or using some black foil to make a snoot. To the uninitiated this all seems like magic.

In the old days workshops were populated by reasonably competent photographers and many times the workshops required a portfolio be shown as a condition of admittance. Now the vast majority of one day and weekend workshops are aimed at people who've just bought the camera and flash and are using the workshops as a refuge from the printed manual. And what can you really expect from a culture largely educated by video.

The workshops have grown in the number of participants, following the trend on the web of offering lower and lower prices in exchange for quantities of sales.

Will you make money with a good "cult of personality workshop"? As long as there are well paid professionals from OTHER professions who seek out photography as a hobby and as long as there are IT guys sharpening their skills with an eye to shooting "model portfolios" the answer (from anecdotal research) is yes.

Will this line of work engender bookings from major advertising agencies? I think the jury is still out. People like Joe McNally established their reputations decades before the advent of twitter and facebook. Jarvis became successful first and started documenting his every move second.

Some who've become famous from blogging are being invited into the hallowed halls of companies that benefit from social marketing and web plumbing because they represent a model that the industries would like to interpret and profit from.

On a local level the social marketing seems to resonate in the retail space----weddings and baby portraits. I haven't seen the same successes from various people in the ad space.

I would say that magazines, which nowadays are also defacto websites have a higher awareness of newly minted social marketers with cameras but, keep in mind, this is a media space that is hemmorhaging people and properties at an astounding pace.

My take is that all real estate is local. Most commercial jobs are indeed, local. It's easy to get better at local marketing because it is less expensive. You've got to have a base somewhere.

Finally, the care and feeding of a persona requires constant travel and even more constant care and feeding of a website, a blog, a forum, a cellphone and all the rest while creating very few opportunities to create long term products and intellectual property that you will be able to profit from again and again. A video on the use of Nikon SB-800 flashes is already largely obsolete.......

On to the second question. What have I learned? That most people talk about marketing and never do it or do it randomly and when they already have a foot in the quicksand of economic dissolution. That a face to face meeting with a potential advertising client trumps all other marketing. That building true, face to face professional relationships is the key to success in nearly every long term sustainable business.

Look, IBM is a smart company. Why do you think they spend millions and millions of dollars each year to hold trade shows and customer forums and to send sales people out to meet face to face? Because they've done the metrics and they know that it is still the way all big deals are closed.

Obviously we're not IBM but maybe we should copy the smart people for a change. The web is a great place to sell penis enlargement, viagra and commodities. Maybe we shouldn't copy bottom of the barrel tactics.

MIght have stepped on some toes but that's how I see it.

Oh, one more thing....if you want to make a killing in stock photography make sure you own the agency....

Stephen, thanks very much. I take it that you are an Aggie. Thank you for learning our language. :-)

"Like bouncing a light of the ceiling or using some black foil to make a snoot."

Kirk...shhhh!! Cinefoil is one of the most valuable secrets. Make 'em pay for that tip! Whatsa matta wit you?


Your latest comments are very good. I started my business doing "cold calls"; lost more money than I made at first, mostly because I was learning things I said I could deliver, but built a base of repeat customers, all based on a personal, face to face interaction. I didn't have a clue, other than a gut reaction that I needed to see the customer.

I still start and deliver most of my jobs face to face for that very reason. Every thing you've said has clicked with me.

Well, certain aspects of the crafts I practice, are unchanged since the caves at Lascaux; I use a computer for certain aspects of those crafts now; but the need for a face to face is still very important; I'm glad you emphasize that, as I probably needed to hear it again.

I think the ability to bring people together and throw a great party trumps "search engine optimization" as a marketing tool for artists. If I'm wrong I will still have enjoyed a great party. If I am right then I haven't spent more time sitting on my butt in front of a soulless computer.

Ken, cinefoil is just a loss leader now. The real stuff is.......

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