I started working on this very problem in 1975. Twenty-one years later, I retired financially independent at age 50.
Once the solution was found, I sang on the way home every night. No indigestion. No lying awake at night stewing and fretting. Other photographers said it couldn’t be done, but I’d heard that phrase all my life, so it no longer bothered me.
The way photographers price their work, especially wedding and portrait photographers, comes from a time that no longer exists. The handwriting was on the wall in 1975, and certainly before that. My guess is that it began around the time of the invention of the 35mm camera.
The grave was dug for many photographers when the photo-copying machines started going into malls, libraries, and supermarkets. Many labs happily copied copyrighted images. Our livelihood. And our lab’s livelihood depended on our success... or so we thought. Kodak built the machines to copy our work – and then stuck a little sticker on it to gloss over the fact that they’d sold out. Other photographers came to me and wanted me to help ban copy machines from coming to our town. Other photographers came to me and stayed late, whining about the problem. Everywhere I lectured, the problem came up.
I thought about it a lot. I thought about the changing world and the copy machines coming into town and it made me wonder if it might have been the same thing for the livery stables in an earlier time trying to ban the automobile from coming into town.
I thought of how painters felt when photography came into town.
Then do you know what I thought of? I thought of the painter who, when asked what he felt about photography being invented. He said, “I love it. Thank God it’s here. Now I am free to paint!” I took that to mean that he was tired of being hounded to paint someone’s portrait. he wanted to create art instead of likenesses. He probably especially hated painting those little bitty passport “photos.” Worst of all was trying to make 18 little squirming boys in baseball uniforms hold still for 3 weeks while he painted the group mural.
The automobile has come into town.
Yet, there are people out there who are still trying to ban it, to stick warnings all over it. Threatening the public is a very popular approach to the problem. The final resort for many photographers is to drink heavily and often.
By 1981, I had the solution and began implementing it. They said it couldn’t be done. But I knew I had no choice in the matter. I pride myself in thinking long-term thoughts involving long-term effects from accumulating cause. Cause and Effect. Work it out. Be realistic, pragmatic, and painfully honest with all the steps of the problem. I knew that those who did not take this steps I was taking would be caught short. I warned them over and over. I’m still warning them, apparently. At least those who haven’t gone under.
The pricing structure photographers use is as old as the horse and buggy. Folks, the world has changed. I’m amused by those who resist change, and doubly amused by those who don’t expect change to occur.
Everything we own, everything we have, everything we do, and yes, even everything we “know” will change. What we “know” keeps us from learning. Growth comes from change. Even a cabbage knows that, and so every day it changes. Some changes are big changes, like when it decided to change from a seed to a seedling. Other changes are smaller, but just as essential, such as leaning to the right to catch more sun instead of leaning to the left as it had always done before...before someone parked a wheelbarrow there and blocked the sun from that angle. Being able to change like that is called adapting. A cabbage seedling can adapt in an hour. Do photographers need a century?
What did I do to adapt?
Prepare to hate me.
Perhaps the cabbage seedling could have waited for someone to move the wheelbarrow before it began looking for new light. Perhaps the livery stable owner could wait for the automobile “fad” to die out. Perhaps photographers are waiting for the world to turn back in their favor.
But here’s the odd part. The horse and buggy fell out of favor because they were no longer desired or needed. In today’s world the desire for photographs is higher than any other time in history. There’s been a quantum leap in demand. There aren’t enough photographers to go around.
Here’s an interesting thing about that. The more there is of a thing, the more demand there is for the best of it, and the more value will be placed on it. If there were only three people who could sing, there would be no demand for it, but since everyone can sing, suddenly there is a clamor to find out who can do it best and to throw lots of money at the winners.
Photographers now have that same opportunity. The demand has never been higher for the best in photography. When I started my career, people didn’t think about pictures very often. Maybe on an occasional Saturday night. And there might be one hanging somewhere in the house. Our house, growing up, had none. We were lucky to have wallpaper. The awareness and knowledge of photography in our culture is incredible now. What an opportunity!
When I had my studio, I had “competition” that sold 30 portraits for $3.99. My film cost more than that. Did I whine? No. Actually I was glad they were there. Why? Because with them there, I was “free to paint.” Being free to paint is an attitude, not buttons to click on a photoshop app. To have companies in my town who could take the coupon clippers off my hands was a help to me. I was free to create. The better I created, the more value I had, and the value loomed large when compared to the $3.99 portraits.
All this essay so far was a preface to the point of whole thing. Here’s how I solved the photography theft dilemma. Here’s how I got them to stop copying my stuff. Here’s how I got people to throw money at me. Here’s how I got to retire early. Here’s how I gained financial independence enough to be unemployed for 13 years and never draw a dime from the government. Here’s how I got to be the state’s most award-winning photographer, a PPA Master, Photographic Craftsman, the state’s first ASP Fellow, and 4th recipient of the ASP Gold Medallion. Here’s how I was able to sing every night on the way home. Ready?
I began charging for my creative talent instead of the photographic paper. I charged for me, not the pictures. How did I do it when they said it couldn’t be done? I did it gradually. Back then I had the time to do it. My ultimate goal was to give my pictures away for free. I have reached that goal. I grin every time I do it, too. My ultimate goal in life is to take my last breath thru grinning lips. Since I don’t know exactly which breath will be my last, I try to laugh often...just in case.
Here’s how I did it. Every time I changed my price list, I increased the price for ME and lowered the price of the PAPER. A little bit at a time. Soon, I was changing my price list four times a year. At the end, I think I was changing it about once month. The changes were small but cumulative. I wanted small and gradual changes because 96% of my clientele were repeat. EVERY time I handed anyone a price list, I pointed the change out to them.
Typical speech: “We changed our prices – I’ve raised the price of my time and talent, and that made it possible for me to keep the picture prices the same, which makes them lower because of inflation. These three prices even went down in ADDITION to inflation. What do you think?”
I don’t remember a single person complaining when I explained it to them that way. Most said they liked it better that way. Some said, “It’s about time. You’ve always priced yourself too cheap.”
I ended up making my living from my talents, and letting the print prices cover the lab bills and some overhead. I was on the way to giving them away for free when my career ended. No, it didn't go belly up - I stopped because of a deadline I'd given myself when I was 16.
How do you keep people from stealing from you? Help them get what they want. Help them by making the pictures too cheap to steal. Show them they’re better off money-wise AND quality-wise to get the images from you. Then prove it. What CAN’T they steal? Your talent. (Make sure you have some talent. Otherwise I wouldn’t recommend you trying this at home.)
I think of a wall with a picture hanging on it, and the wall is covered with wallpaper. The person who created the wallpaper design was probably a salaried worker, and the wallpaper was sold by the square foot. I have yet to pull up a chair and sit in front of some wallpaper and marvel at it. There are such seating facilities in museums, and the creators of such works was not paid by the square foot. The artist was paid for being creative. If you charge by the square foot, you’re mocking your own creativity.
Every time We changed the price list, I marveled about how easy it was and how much more sense it made for everyone.
I love making sense.
I love adapting.
I love change.
I love photography.
I even love photographers, although sometimes it doesn’t show.
I love life itself. My life is valuable because I keep it real, not fake. I don’t pretend. I don’t flatter. There are lots of teachers out there who are determined to be liked by telling what you want to hear. But I don’t really care whether you like me or not. I have always said what I think needs to be said, and I do what needs to be done. There are lots of teachers out there who will tell you what you want to hear so that you’ll like them well enough to pay for a seminar or workshop or buy their DVD. I don’t need your money.
Can we still be friends? I may be the best friend you have in the business. George Bernard Shaw said, “A friend will stab you in the front.”