Open sourcing the business side of photography (part one of two)

A friend recently posted a thought-provoking comment about one of my September blog posts on The Wells Point site. The blog entry was titled: “Going pro vs doing photography for love, not money.” One question he raised in his comment was so good that I wrote him back, saying I would answer him in a blog post. So here goes.

The blog entry that started this discussion (and prompted the resulting comment) can be found at: http://thewellspoint.com/2010/09/17/going-pro-vs-doing-photography-for-love-not-money/ The part of the comment that caught my attention was:

One question popped into my head reading this and, if you’d be willing of course, I’d like to know in broad strokes what your business model looks like. On a percentage basis, what are your sources of income as a professional photographer? I know from visiting with you last year your sources are varied and diverse and that teaching figures into your life a great deal (at least on a time basis). You have embraced this web-based world with your blogs and podcasts, which is why I’m curious about the mix of income sources; how you have diversified your business.

I am happy to answer such an important question. I am not sure I feel comfortable talking dollars and cents, but I am thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about my business model, in broad terms. I also suspect that going into too much detail will likely distract some readers from the larger point. That over arching message is to always be looking at your photography practice rationally, even clinically. That way you get to do as much of the part you like and as little of the part you do not like.

I never thought I would get to the point of being “happy” to do this kind of thing, but thinking about the commentator’s question prompted me to start thinking about the old and new models for information sharing. Observers much smarter and more widely published than I am have already gone on at great length about the new ways information is shared and will be shared in the future. What my friend’s comment on my old blog entry prompted me to do was ask myself, “Why would those same new arguments not hold true for information on the best practices in the business of photography.“ Then I realized how my project, The Wells Point and the drumbeat of my blog entries on the business of photography, have been parts of my attempt to share information the “new way.”

This blog entry, in two parts will move beyond broad lessons as noted on The Wells Point and in my blogs to the specifics of my business. In this, the first blog entry, I will be framing the question. In the second blog entry, to be posted in a week or so, I will go into great detail about my business model.

The smart photographer will of course, learn from my what I write. But the really smart ones will take the questions I have raised (and the answers I have given.) They will then see if they can get that same information on other photographers whose photography, business (or both) they admire.

The old model for information on the business of photography was that such information was a kind of set of trade secret. I never fully understood that, partly because some of my best early mentors did not practice such a closed-door strategy. They believed, like I do, that sharing best business practices floats all boats. Similarly sharing that information is more likely to keep rates up, contracts more reasonable and the business better for all. That is, as compared to leaving each new photographer to wade through the mine-field of business practices completely on their own.

One example of this openness is the Seattle based commercial sports, lifestyle, and environmental photographer, Chase Jarvis, whose site http://www.chasejarvis.com/ is a wealth of information about him, his work, his creative processes and his entire operation. Spend some time going through all the pages. He is “cooler” and “groovier” than I will ever be, but more importantly, he is pretty above board about sharing his knowledge.

It seems to me that Chase understands something that people in the world of music already know about the changing nature of their business model. Increasingly, many musicians all but give their music away for minimal or no payment. They have learned to make money from actually performing the music, in person. I am pleased to say that such a model also works on a small scale for me. Most of what I teach can be found on The Wells Point site, but many people still value having me explain the same material to them, face-to-face. They love having the resource to go back to and to share with their friends, but at the same time they know they learn best when I present the same material in person.

Another example of this kind of open sourcing of business information can be found in the three online forums run by APA (American Photographic Artists.) APAnet, APAdigital and APAmotion, which focus respectively on the business of photography, digital imaging issues and the new, growing business of moving images. The information pages on the same forums are found respectively at:

http://www.apanational.com/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3278

http://www.apanational.com/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3280

http://www.apanational.com/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=4034

The amazing thing about all the APA foums is that membership is FREE and open to advertising photographers, assistants, and students, both APA members and non-members. You do not have to be a member to get all the great information on these forums!

A group with a similar an on-line forum that chose to keep the most important part of their information proprietary is Editorial Photographers, http://www.editorialphoto.com/. As it says on their site:

Editorial Photographers (EP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and profitability of editorial photography. Our mission is to educate photographers and photography buyers about business issues affecting our industry, and in the process raise the level of business practices in the profession.

When on-line forums first became important resources for sharing business practices, EP was THE forum of choice for editorial photographers. Then they moved from a member-run organization to something more formal, with dues and the like. I was happy to pay the dues. I was among a group of photographers who offered to pay more than our share of dues in order to keep the forum open to non-members who would not pay the dues. We lost and then the best part of EP became a closed forum, and many people like me left. I am not begrudging them over something that is long past, but history has shown they made the wrong choice.

To be clear, the EP site is still a wealth of information on the business of photography. There are some great resources there. But the information posted consists of fixed lists, reports, analyses, etc. The real value of EP was the forum, with the all-important live discussion and the multitude of members who chimed in to educate the forum readership on a given topic.

Over time, since the EP forums went private, open sharing of information has been shown to be the best (and only) way to better the entire professional photography. So now you know why I am willing to share the broad outlines of my business model. You also understand why such sharing is so important and who are a few of the people who are already sharing some of that same information. In case you missed it, I am also making an argument that pretty much any professional photographer who loves the business should be willing to share the broad outlines of their business model. Next week, I for one, will do just that.

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