Business start-up. Photography and writing

Build on previous success

Time to get started. With the new year has come some decisions. I now have a strategy for my relaunched photographic business. It is definitely a case of out with the old (approach) and in with the new.

I have already written about my decision to switch completely to the small and lightweight Fuji X camera system from my long standing Canon kit (No going back). Alongside my  well documented technical and personal reasons the decision was taken on the back of the new plans for my photography.

The first, and biggest, decision is that I am no longer going to major on stock photography. As I said in Taking stock I do not believe that shooting generic stock is a viable source of income for most photographers.  So on the basis of my own analysis of trends I am no longer spending time  going out with the primary purpose of shooting images for stock libraries. Inevitably, when I am out and about I will see pictures that should work as stock and I will take the opportunity to photograph them, but only if doing so will not get in the way of other more strategic objectives.

I have started to work that way. However I am finding that it is difficult to get out of the habit. It may not be rewarding, or satisfying, but going out to shoot generic stock provides an illusion of working, doing something useful even though, for me at least, it is patently not. I need to be more focussed on my new direction, unfortunately old habits die hard and stock shooting keeps rearing its head and getting in the way. As my new approach develops and provides more opportunities I expect that I will be able to wean myself off stock photography.

Traditional finger post direction signNew direction

Underlying my new direction is the belief that I should concentrate on differentiating myself by shooting what excites me, follow my passions and enthusiasms—I have more than enough. It can only lead to better results. I am not intending to follow 'art for art's sake' as I am too business focussed for that. I will bear the marketability of what I am doing in mind but it will not, initially at least, be the main driver. I need to become a photographer with something a little different to offer, something to say. Whether that is style, approach or whatever, 2016/17 will be a learning year.

My belief is that as a photographer I should primarily be a story teller, I am not interested in pretty pictures as such. The photographers I admire have something to say about the human condition and our place on earth.

I have always loved shooting events , actuality, as they unfold in front of me. Hence my interest in sport and my return to occasional news photography in the last few years. Now may not be the best time to going back to a photojournalistic career as, at the time of writing, there are a lot of under-used news photographers already as a result of the Corbis sale and the apparent closure of Demotix. That said, I used Demotix for a while when I was refreshing my skills. But was disappointed at prices, and even worse that they only seemed to collect about one sale in three, or worse. For those reasons I fully expected them to close.  So I gave up on them in early 2014 and have less than £5 due which may be at risk of non-payment. I have rather more outstanding that has never been collected. I will now chase those unreported sales myself and use it as an introduction to a potential client.

I will also be carrying this story telling approach over to my travel photography and writing. Rather than treating my travels as an opportunity to produce generic stock images I will looking to find a narrative for both the travel itself and the photography. Inevitably I will produce stock images as a by-product and they will be placed with Alamy, and any other library I use. I will be very much more selective of the work I submit as I am looking to move my portfolio and reputation up market. It is not a viable business to serve the mass, commodity market unless you are prepared to create an image production factory - such commodity markets need suppliers with low costs and high volume so that profits can be made from low prices. In the current vernacular I suppose I am aiming to be an 'artisan' photographer producing high quality product, at low volumes and therefore greater exclusivity for discerning clients at a premium price. It may be a bit arrogant, or even wishful thinking, but I am going to give it a go—I will have fun trying.

There is never a perfect time to start a new business in an established, very crowded, market. But people do and are successful. I am reminded of a line by Felix Dennis (founder of Dennis Publishing), he contends that success in business is less about the 'Big Idea' but more down to execution. After all, there have always been newly successful photographers coming through. The old journeyman professionals have been talking about the end of photography as a viable career for more than forty years in my experience alone. The past was always a golden age but I have seen many struggle and fail in those 'good times'. In fact one can argue that we are  in a new golden age,  at least as far as the opportunities for getting photographic work used are concerned. There are so many more images needed for purposes that did not exist only a few years ago. It is true that many uses are poorly paid but hopefully those easy sales will keep the masses distracted and leave the more lucrative, usually more difficult, opportunities to those who can execute better. My aim is to be one of them, albeit in a small way.

As well as news I am also looking to shoot documentary stories, to get behind some of the news or to pursue stories that simply interest me. I have wide ranging and eclectic interests so there should be no shortage of ideas for picture stories.  An early task is to find a couple of such stories that I can cover in just a few days as I need to quickly rebuild my portfolio with work that reflects my new direction and style. As a writer I have the means to add words to those picture stories and produce a complete finished package of words and pictures that should appeal to editors and publishers.

To a significant extent, I will pay heed as appropriate to Ron Engh's advice, in Sell & Re-sell your Photos to avoid the scenic and other amateur enthusiasms and ambitions. As Engh suggested I will concentrate on those subjects where I have particular knowledge, skills or access. I will be able to enjoy doing that.

Route to market, setting out my stall

Behind the scenes, market stallAs it is with most photographers my biggest challenge is to find an effective sales channel for my work. The news and documentary work is essentially a completely new venture so I have to think afresh about how to generate an income from it. I have not had a great deal of success with Alamy Live News, even Demotix did better with the same material, and most of the news stories are likely to be of essentially parochial interest.

Initially I will use Alamy News but I will look for more specialised alternative sales channels and discuss what I can offer with them. That means my priority has to be to build a portfolio that represents my latest intentions so I have something to share with them.

The documentary work is more of a challenge as there are few libraries or agencies that work with photo stories. The news agencies are understandably focussed on placing current news and mainly topical single images, or small collections. That probably means that I will have to work at selling direct and it will probably be easier to sell an article with pictures. Most magazine editors no longer have the resources to commission someone else to write the words around a set of photographs. My job is probably to make it easy for them to use my work by making it a complete package that they just have to lay out. Fortunately, it is something I am comfortable with, it is something I have done many times.

The stock pictures that do come my way will continue to go to Alamy but as I develop my style I will be looking for alternative libraries that may be more suited to my newest work. Although I was a Demotic contributor I am not expecting to be offered a Getty Images contract as result of the recent shakeup; in fact I would be amazed if I was. Again I will need that up to date portfolio for when I approach new libraries.

As I explained in a previous post it may be a more effective use of time to sell direct initially. I have always had a good conversion rate for the few query letters I have sent to editors. As a result I should be able to win a reasonable amount of new work. I appreciate as I send greater numbers my success rate will probably, inevitably, decline somewhat but I do not need to many acceptances for it to work. Direct selling will also provide better feedback on what the market wants and the suitability of my new direction.

Goals and objectives - getting started

A target

As I have suggested above my overriding priority has to be to build a portfolio that reflects my current approach. Whether I sell direct, or approach new agents I will need that portfolio as a demonstration of what photography I can offer, and the direction I am taking with it.

I am fortunate that although I need my photography (and writing) to be financially worthwhile I can take time to build an income stream. So I can focus on developing my "brand" and style, take time to promote myself as I develop my portfolio. It also means that I can use any income to invest in developing my new business. Although I need to be business-like, to think about who would use my images, and how, I do not have to chase gigs to pay a mortgage or feed and clothe a family. That gives me time to work to be the best photographer and writer I can be. It also allows me to be firmer  when negotiating proper fees for my work. Helpfully, thinking in a business-like way is second nature after a career in management consultancy and project management.

I currently have one very modest financial target and that it is in the year from April 2016 I earn more than I have done from my photography and writing in any of the last five years. I will be very disappointed if I do not achieve that as it is an embarrassingly modest target! I have other financial aims that I would like to achieve but they are not the principal driver at this stage.

My other goals in the financial year from April are to build an audience and a contact base that will be a source and access for news and documentary opportunities. All in all 2016/17 will be year of building credibility and identity, both locally and nationally.

It would be ideal if I can make enough money to at least cover direct costs and depreciation in my first year. I have ran a photography business for a period where I was not covering wear and tear  on equipment. It was a worrying time to not be able to put money aside to replace equipment; I could have easily reached the point where I was out of business because I did not have reliable cameras. Fortunately I was able to trade out of it before that happened. Some wages would be nice as well, I will price any chargeable work accordingly but 2016/17 is a development year.

During the next year my analysis of performance will be continuous and I will do a major review at the end of 2016 so that I can prepare revised plans  for the year starting April 2017. I will of course be sharing my experience here. I hope readers find useful and worth revisiting from time to time. If you have a moment, please go to and like the M-dash Facebook page so that you are kept informed of new articles; no spam I promise.

The over-riding goal is to enjoy my photography, to go places, meet people and produces images that satisfy me. To do that they will need to say something to other people as well.

The future: 'To infinity, and beyond!'

Start of a marathonOr is it 'Back to the Future' as I am essentially returning to my first freelance career? Whatever, time to get started. It is an exciting time in what I appreciate are challenging conditions for both photographers and writers. My previous photographic career was also launched in difficult economic times. I may look back with some nostalgia but not through rose tinted spectacles. It was no more a golden age of easy wealth than today. It was just that the challenges, and expectations, were different.

I am excited, and not a little apprehensive, to be starting out on an essentially new venture. I will share progress, good and bad, and I hope my experience will help others with their business plans. Feel free to share your ideas as comments here on

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