The Digital Era and The Photographer: A Love/Hate Relationship (an essay by Jessica Strom)
I have a love/hate relationship with the way “digital” has changed photography. I love how it has exploded the possibilities of all types of photography, how much control it’s given me over my images, how much it’s allowed me to share and promote my work. It’s really made me love photography even more than I already did, which back then I didn’t even think was possible.
But when it comes to my business, to my livelihood, to the manner in which I put food on my table, my love/hate relationship with it really comes into play. When I first started my business, like many photographers out there, I wanted my photography to be enjoyed by all. I worked by butt off, loved discovering new ways to enhance my photos, and because I didn’t want people to be limited to prints, I pretty much gave away my digital files to my clients. Not long after, I realized I was working too hard for too little money and separated my session fees from the prices of my digital files (which were and still are priced too low).
I had moved into a new market where I could do this and it was a successful change. I knew I started my prices too low so I could build a clientele in the area and have some income and would gradually increase my prices to what I wanted to be working for, knowing I would have clients fall off the roster with each yearly price change. I was still working a desk job. My average workflow was shoot, post watermarked web size sneak peeks on my blog and Facebook (tagging the client so others would see it) and then putting the complete 30-45 image gallery online in a password protected gallery. Both the client and I enjoyed that they had time to view the images online before they would email me their order and we’d meet up when I delivered it to them. But as time went on, I was starting to notice that the excitement I saw over the sneak peeks that would indicate it would be a decent sized order never panned out. The orders were small and barely enough to break a decent profit over the hours I’d worked and the cost of my business. Where was all that excitement from the sneak peeks going when it came to ordering? If they loved my work so much, why wasn’t I being compensated for it when it came to ordering images for them to keep forever? My value is not set alone in my session fee.
I use Facebook everyday for my business. If my client has Facebook, I add them and interact. This serves two very important purposes. 1). I want to get a feel for who they are and what they like so I know I can interpret that in the images I take for them. 2). I have them on there to see how they use my images and to see what their friends are saying. I used to put a sneak peek on Facebook the day after their session, sometimes even the day of. I figured that it was more exposure to their friends. They would make their sneak peek their profile pictures as expected but some started cropping out the watermark, even if I asked them not to. The sneak peek images were never the ones ordered despite the excitement they caused. So I stopped putting sneak peeks up on Facebook. I continued as best as time would allow with sneak peeks on my blog which was right click disabled. Yet the digital era has allowed for screen shots and Google has allowed for Image search, which can show your image hovering above your website and viewers can click and save it from there. There are even websites out there dedicated to telling you how to steal images from a right click disable site. No joke.
On the slightly non-digital side, a friend of mine used to let her clients take home their printed 4×6 proofs to think about their order. Some would never order or respond to her request to get the proofs back. Some would bring them back but their orders would be pretty small. She has since pulled the option of taking proofs home because, as most photographers would agree, the likelihood of the clients scanning their proofs was pretty significant.
So the question to be faced with now is this. How do you get your clients excited but keep your work safe from being copied and how will it affect your bottom line when it comes to ordering? The digital accessibility and this need for instant gratification can be a pain. Clients don’t want to wait long to see their photos, yet when they finally see them, they can make YOU wait forever and some will find a way to get their photos for free and cheat you out of an order. Before the digital age of online galleries and online ordering, doing business with a professional photographer used to be personal. Now that personal customer service is viewed as inconvenient to the client. They want what they want and they want it now for as next to nothing as they can get. When I get clients like this who knowingly cheat me, I have to wonder why they hired me in the first place. It’s just wrong. The majority of my clients are wonderful and I adore them dearly, but it’s those ones who just blatantly and so obviously cheat you that really sting. I had one client just this week who waited 3 months to order and got caught in a price increase (which she was warned about prior) yell at me because in her abrupt opinion, “How are the files worth more now than before when all you do is throw them on a CD that costs you nothing?” The accessibility of digital material has changed the value of an artist/photographer behind the media in the eyes of a lot of the general public.
I think it’s time to go back to being personal again. I think the need for instant gratification has also ruined the personal value of our work. A digital file to the average joe doesn’t represent all the years of experience, education, equipment costs, taxes, etc, etc that it does to us as the photographer. But at the same time it’s what everyone wants. So where is that happy medium? Keep the client happy and the photographer fed. It’s really up to everyone individually to figure out what works best for them.
The Digital Era has made our business lives wonderful and exciting, but when you’re not looking, it’s also stealing cookies from the cookie jar. And they are the really good kind of cookies too.
Jessica Strom is a newborn and family portrait photographer based out of the greater Kansas City metro area and known for her work throughout the Midwest, Texas and Canada.