To be or not to be, and why hybrid doesn’t work

These days, there’s a lot of discussion about “shooting and burning” vs. “boutique studios.” Photographers giving away all the digital files, while others guard them with their lives and would never part with anything less than a fine art print. Sessions ranging from 15 minutes to 24 hours, or even longer for destination shoots. Studio settings with a million props, or pure documentary catching toddlers in bathtubs. The range is as wide as an intergalactic highway, and way more busy on any given day.

There is such a thing as photographic style — and there are as many as there are photographers, constantly evolving and changing as they figure out new techniques and flashes and editing software. But a business model has nothing to do with style, and needs to be carefully chosen, strategically designed and brilliantly implemented in order to make it a success. Most of all, it needs to be clearly defined and then built in a deliberate and consistent way. In other words, it doesn’t just happen.

People almost fall into a kind of business model by default

Often I see people almost fall into a kind of business model by default because they’re trying to copy other photographers’ ideas, gleaning here and there on the web and putting their own strategies together in a fairly haphazard way. Sometimes it works, to an extent, but often the information is so contrasting that one side of the business almost sabotages everything else, because what is used belongs to two very different business models which cannot possibly work together.

family, baby, newborn, bw,

Let’s have a look at some of the most common mismatches I come across regularly:

  • Photographers wanting to print, yet offering packages of digital files that all their clients end up buying.
  • Others wanting to offer glamour shoots, and then advertising mini sessions (with files) at every season.
  • Wedding packages that include all digital files in full resolution, followed by complaints that hardly anyone wants to print an album.
  • Photographers wanting to offer high-quality prints and products, and sourcing their albums from mediocre printers and manufacturers.

The list could go on, but I think you got the gist of it.

A business model has to follow ONE of two main standards

A business model has to follow one of two main standards: Either high quantity and lower quality, or high quality and lower quantity. Of course, there’s no set number for the “quantity” and service is difficult to quantify, but the rule works well.

One model is no better or worse than the other, but the important thing is that you know exactly what you’re after and which way you’re trying to go.

If you think of it in terms of high street shops, the difference is between a supermarket style (could be a mini-market if it’s a smaller business, but the strategy is the same) or a little boutique where the owner is often present and personally advises her clients on what suits them best.

family portrait, family, children, documentary portrait
Printing high-quality albums is the best service you can give

Confusion means no sales, and the result will be a failed business

You cannot mix the two, and there needs to be a very clear definition that is obvious to the customer in order to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. Because confusion means no sales, and the result will be a failed business, while you’re still scratching your head wondering what went wrong.

If you want to follow a high quantity business model, you’re going to optimize time, make your sessions shorter, source inexpensive products, offer digital packages, have a massive wide-ranging marketing strategy and keep clients coming through your revolving doors almost 24/7.

You will probably want to work in a studio (or more studios) most of the time, have young photographers working for you following a set standard of lighting and posing, someone to take care of all the editing, as well as marketing and sales. The margins are lower but the numbers are higher because your product is not so expensive and a larger number of people can afford it.

boy, potrait, plane, lego, engineer, natural light
Figure out what you really want to do

If you want to follow a high-quality business model, you’ll be devoting an awful lot of time to your clients, personally. You’ll be sourcing the highest quality products, customizing sessions for your clients, advising them on their choices, holding their hand throughout the process and giving them an amazing experience.

They’re two opposite views of what a photography business should be, and they’re both viable. What doesn’t work is the hybrid version, the mix between the two, and that not so much because high quality couldn’t be offered in a high-quantity business, but because your target clients are completely different, and you can only speak to one target at a time — and you have to choose it well. 

You must be absolutely clear about who you’re trying to talk to

People looking for a deal will not respond to a higher-end brand. People looking for high quality won’t even consider a lower priced offer. And if you’re not absolutely clear about what kind of business you’re building and who you’re trying to talk to, you won’t get either one, and none of your marketing will work.

Of course, there are different tiers of high quality — not everyone needs to set up the Prada store — just as high quantity doesn’t have to be bottom-of-the-barrel low quality, there’s a range at both ends. But the difference has to be clear.

In my work, I coach photographers on how to build a low-quantity / high-quality business, and identifying and getting rid of the “hybrid” bits is usually the first thing we work on (and if you’re working in the opposite way, you should do the same). Can you take a moment and think of ways you can make that difference clearer in your business?

Comment here if you need help, or join my Facebook group for more advice :)