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The Digital Era and The Photographer: A Love/Hate Relationship


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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.


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  1. Jill on April 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

    OMG, I couldn’t agree more. I’m considering removing all sneak peeks from FB as well and adding a watermark that goes across the face on all website sneak peeks. I’m over it.

  2. Natalie on April 13, 2011 at 10:14 am

    I know some photographers have implemented a minimum order policy. Which would essentially force a sale. You could still do the sneak peek on fb, but limit it to one or two images. And watermark your online gallery. And I mean upload the image with the watermark already on it. Don’t let the gallery do it for you. If they’re going to screen shot it might as well get the exposure from that too. But make sure the watermark is big and obnoxious and it places it would be difficult to crop out. And if they just want the digitals, charge your minimum order amount for them printable up to 5X7 and such. They are then in charge of getting them printed, and you’re essentially done with them. There are plenty of people out there. And those that do try to cheat the system, you just have to get creative and get what you can back out of your work.

  3. Kathy on April 13, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Most of my work is action shots from horse shows, but with that or portrait work, I only sell the digital files to images they have already purchased in print form. I do put a couple images on FB, knowing they will be stolen, but I chalk it up to advertising. Maybe try only leaving gallery published 2 weeks, if they don’t order in that time, charge extra to republish it for them to order. And if it’s a horse show client that truly only wants the digital file for their website, it’s the same charge as a print. I know they’re going to scan the print anyway, I’d rather them use a quality file with my name on it than a bad scan with my name on it.

  4. Kristin Guynn on April 13, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Oh lanta! This is spot on right! I can’t tell you how much I’ve had to deal with this lately, add that to the fact I’m only 18 and you have a recipe for seriously selfish people. I try not to view my age as a handicap. I act very professionally and I put just as much work into my work as a 30 year old would! Yet, I find people saying, ‘Why would you charge that much? You are ONLY 18!’ This came from someone in my own family! Most of my clients were worse, but you know what? After I raised my prices I realized something, the people that appreciate me, my work and the amount of time, effort and emotions I pour into every single shoot, were willing and GLAD to pay what little I charge! It has been a 180 from what I was putting myself through!

  5. Kristin Guynn on April 13, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Oh lanta! This is spot on right! I can’t tell you how much I’ve had to deal with this lately, add that to the fact I’m only 18 and you have a recipe for seriously selfish people. I try not to view my age as a handicap. I act very professionally and I put just as much work into my work as a 30 year old would! Yet, I find people saying, ‘Why would you charge that much? You are ONLY 18!’ This came from someone in my own family! Most of my clients were worse, but you know what? After I raised my prices I realized something, the people that appreciate me, my work and the amount of time, effort and emotions I pour into every single shoot, were willing and GLAD to pay what little extra I charge! It has been a 180 from what I was putting myself through!

  6. Everyman on April 13, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Stealing proofs happened even before digital, but no question digital has de-valued the work in the eyes of many. A friend of mine responded to an indignant client who made the comment that “it only took you a few hours to do that, why should I pay that much?” with, “No, it took me 30 years to do that.” Unfortunately, I’m afraid it’s the cost of doing business these days and, as you mention, everyone will have to figure out what works for them.

  7. Jamie on April 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

    The simple answer is to do in-person ordering sales before any images go online. You can still sell digital negatives in the session, or even facebook/mobile phone optimized images for sharing, but once they’ve seen them the excitement is gone and you’ve lost some of your income potential. I just published a post yesterday about how I do in-person ordering sessions without a studio and how it’s drastically increased my average sale. You can find it here: stuff to think about.

  8. Janneke on April 13, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Thank you for the thought and effort you put into writing this article. I am currently learning the art of photography and want to eventually be able to earn a little income on the side from it, but reading things like this about the business aspects of photography really scare me! But, I’m glad to read them because it helps me put more thought into my business before I actually launch as a business. I think one more thing to add is that we are in an era of penny-pinchers and couponers (me being one of them). All the marketing advertisers use this too, so we as consumers have come to a point where we only get something if it’s “a REALLY good deal.” Think about the idea behind Black Friday. It’s hard to convey that with photography because like your one customer put it, all it is is an intangible digital file on a cheaper than cheap disk. Hard to put value to that when not everyone appreciates art the way it should be appreciated. Perhaps a solution for those people would be to advertise another type of package where they just hire you as the photographer and you can use their digital point and shoot and they can just download the pictures off their camera, no edits included…

  9. Carolyn Elaine Matteo on April 13, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Excellent article that is very timely! Thoughtful and well-crafted essay that does prove the point that instant gratification rarely brings lasting and worthwhile results! Bravo!

  10. Kristyna on April 13, 2011 at 11:04 am

    I couldn’t agree with this post more! I have the exact same problem. And an even bigger problem I have is I’m a people pleaser, and I’m always so worried someone will get mad at me. I think what I hate hearing the most though is “Olan Mills/ Portrait Innovation gave me all my digitial files and printed my pictures that day, and they’re a lot cheaper” and what I want to scream is “Do you not see the quality of those prints? The color? The backgrounds? Do you not see the difference?” Oh…I might as well get over it, it will always be this way.

  11. Amy F on April 13, 2011 at 11:15 am

    I like Jamie’s idea, and to enhance it, you can set the appointment for them to see their images for just a few days after the shoot, that way they are still very excited and your working off of that initial momentum. Another idea is to offer a bonus when they order at that first ordering session with you, or build your prices so that there is a drastic price increase when they wait longer than a few weeks to order, but promote it in a way that they feel they are getting a smoking deal by ordering right away. You could call it the “preferred customer special” for those ordering right away and show a 25% discount, which is actually your regular prices now, and any delayed orders would be charged more. More great pricing advice found on our site: Thanks for addressing this issue, it’s very real and frustrating to many photographers.

  12. Heather on April 13, 2011 at 11:50 am

    Brainstorming – 1) I know a photographer that tells her clients when the gallery is ready, but has the client give the date to “go live” with the gallery knowing that from that date the client chose, there will be seven days available to order. After that seven days – the gallery is gone and will be rehosted for $50 if client was unable to make order.2) There is the 3-day incentive. “In order to continually show new client photographs I will host your images online for a total of seven days. If you order within the first three days there will be a 15% discount”.3) What if (don’t hate, just brainstorming) it became the “new trend” to provide the “instant gratification option” of having sneak peeks and online galleries?? For $50 I will provide your images in an online gallery that you can access from any computer with internet connection. If this is not an option you prefer, the standard in-person ordering session will be two weeks from your photo session. It is a convenience and extra work on our part to websize and watermark the images for sneak peeks – go ahead and make that an additional service at a price?4) No longer do sneak peeks at all. Blog about the entire experience ONCE IT IS OVER. We do this at Christmas a lot of times because the sessions are for gift prints to family – make it a year round policy. Blog about it and show off the work from the session once the order is complete. When I order clothing online they dont’ send me a swatch of what’s to come. I have to wait until the whole thing is ready and done? 🙂 Ok – bad analogy.Brainstorming here – what do you think?

  13. Andrea on April 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I loved this article and thoroughly agree, but I’m curious what the author’s solution to this dilemma is. Do you sell the files?

  14. Dave on April 13, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I’ve said this for years, and been booted off a few forums for saying so. I’ve also said that putting the images online in galleries for ordering costs you big dollars in potential sales. You want the solution – do not put any images online until after you have had your sales session. No sneak peaks, no teasers, nothing. Kill the online galleries. The customer could find the time to come for the session, they can find the time to come for a proper viewing (read sales) session. Invest in a projector, project your images up on the wall, over a sofa at 40×60 in size. You will be amazed at how much difference that will make in the size of your sales. Next YOU have to realize that even a digital file has a value – that value isn’t the price of the medium, but the image that makes up that file. Yes, they can buy a disk at Wal-Mart for a few cents – but that disk will not have the images that you took on it. Just like they can buy an 8×10 at Wal-Mart for a couple of dollars – but they shouldn’t get that 8×10 with your image on it for a couple of dollars. At one point I never provided a digital file, but now I will give one for free of every image that has had a 24×30 or larger print ordered from it. I know that there are many “photographers” that think sales is beneath them, and that interacting with the clients outside of the session is a waste of their time. Nothing could be further from the truth. That interaction is what leads to sales in the four and five figure range. You also have to learn to say no to clients that will take up more of your time than they will provide in money. When you are struggling to make ends meet, it seems counter productive to send money away, but the fact is that time you would spend shooting their session will make you more money by spending that time looking for better clients.

  15. JP on April 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I am surprised at how this article struck me and left an impression. Just recently, I had shared a link to a photo taken decades ago on my once owned Instamatic 110 camera of a historic event for the enjoyment of a museum’s facebook blog. The next day, the photo was pasted to the top of their blog page without any credit. Not that I minded so much, it seems there should be a principle somewhere. Although I am an amature, who would love someday to enhance my technical photo skills, I am not short on effort toward composition (and frightfully, yet inapropriately, proud of it at times)or fail to recognize a rare opportunity I might record. That was the first photograph I had ever posted online. It took less than 24 hours to be lifted and copied elsewhere beyand my control. (Should I feel complimented?)I am now-days paying attention to the photographer’s new-age dilemma.

  16. Kate on April 13, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Hi Jessica,Your essay is very serendipitous for me as I start out with my photography business. I am experiencing some of your frustrations as well as I work hard to produce high quality photographs for my clients and my service is very personal and client focused. Some of the comments I’ve had are “amazing”, “gorgeous” “wow”, “fabulous”. This initial excitement has however waned very quickly and not turned into decent orders. I did my very first portrait promo a short while back and the proceeds were going to a charitable cause here in Manila. Everyone who took up the promo all said they LOVED their images and I was absolutely delighted at the feedback! I gave them all low-res digital copies on CD and posted the same on my website from which clients could choose their images for print. I received 1 print order from 14 clients. I worked on an honour system with the promo, asking my clients to put their voluntary donation for the session and CD into a sealed envelope. After making the donations, I was mailed a receipt from the charity for the total donations and I was shocked at the dismal total amount. Some clients donated nothing!One of my clients asked me for high res files so she could “go somewhere and just print off what she wanted.” Needless to say, I smiled and explained that the print order would have to come to me or I would sell her the high res files. She didn’t buy them.As a newcomer to all of this, I don’t really know what to make of it or do about it. I learned a lot about what NOT to do next. ie/ I have to be specific about price and I also have to charge something for the low-res files on CD too. ( Separating the session price from the digital files). The experience has knocked my faith in people a little, but I have to think positively and learn from it and apply those lessons to my future sessions. Is the future for print sales bleak? Should we be adapting and concentrating on charging more for full-res digital files instead if that is what people really want? Any feedback from experienced photographers doing business would be wonderful!Kate

  17. Maria on April 14, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I too have experienced this. However, my mother, who is a plein air artist and has been involved with thepublic and art world for many years, has pointed out that the general public is not usually willing to pay for talent. The digital age has led the general population to believe that the skills in taking beautiful pictures have been somehow simplified. My mother often reminds me to newver undersell my talents as that is truly what a client is paying for. The media by which it is delivered has changed but that doesn’t remove the skills and talents needed to produce the files to place on the newest media. Tha would be like saying that a blank cd is pennies on the dollar so why do we pay $13-$20 per music cd when we purchase them or better yet a digital downlaod is vertually pennies to deliver yet most people pay $1.29 per song to iTunes and to take that one step further Apple is only delivering the music not producing for you!I believe that any form of art is difficult to sel to the general public as not many people are willing to pay for your time or experience.

  18. AlyGatr on April 14, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    I’m a hobby photographer and making money from my photographs is not my livelihood, but I do work in IT and in business and it would seem to me, maybe, that perhaps the photography business needs to change (at least a little). This is a very simplistic example, but when I took my kids to get Easter Bunny pictures, I could purchase my digital image on a flash drive but I had to buy at least one print (it was only a single shot). When my kids had their school pics this year (private school), they photographers who did the session would let you purchase your rights to all of the photos from the session. You had to buy a minimum set of prints and then, of course, you paid for the rights and would get a CD of all of the shots.As a consumer who has, in the past, considered a professional photo session, I’d be more interested in paying for the actual photographer’s time and editorial skills. When it comes to printing, I’ll be honest, I’m more likely to pay to have the rights to my images than to actually have them printed for me. I can get high quality prints online on my own time in whatever quantities I want…whenever I want. I fully believe the photographer is due to be paid, but perhaps the shift in business paradigm is going away from the profit from printing to the profit from rights to the digital image.

  19. David Oastler on April 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    This is my first attempt at using MCP Fusion. I love the result and hope you do as well.I used Vanilla cream and Desire and sunflare.David

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