Part of being a good photography business owner is understanding the market for the work you are doing. There are large photography organizations that can provide info on trends in the industry across the country, but finding information on a local level has been more difficult. Photographer Kat Forder is trying to change that, and created a survey last year to understand how retail photographers have been fairing in the D.C. area.
Many of the results from last year’s survey are not good news for retail photographers: “52% of the respondents reported that their business gross for the previous year was below $30,000.” Forder has brought the survey back for 2014 and made some updates. We caught up with her to get more information about this endeavor.
1. Can you give us some background on the survey?
The 2013 survey asked retail photographers to look back at the past year (2012). That survey was launched March 2013, timed to coincide with when photographers were attending to their year end bookkeeping, and the results were tabulated and summarized and published a few months after that. This year’s survey has also been released during the end of the fiscal year, and asks for information from the past year.
The survey and the results are free, and the responses are completely anonymous. The questions have been developed very carefully to ensure the integrity of the responses and anonymity of the participants.
2. Why did you create this survey, and what are you hoping to learn?
The simple answer is that I made the 2013 survey because there was nothing else out there like this. I blame my mom – her D.I.Y skills are legendary. I must have been channeling her when I jumped feet first into this.
Really though, this whole thing was born out of need. Anyone who has started a business knows that solid information is worth more than your annual profits.
Retail photography has been around since cameras were invented, but it’s only been during the last 10 to 15 years that we’ve seen such a rise in popularity and prevalence of this genre of photography. There are so many changes happening that there are now retail photography specialties that did not exist a decade ago, there are new products that did not exist five years ago and new services that we can offer that didn’t exist even three years ago. Those of us who have been around the industry during the last decade have witnessed some dramatic shifts, and that has an impact on our clients and our businesses.
I soon discovered that the students attending my photography classes also needed this information too. As I developed the survey and tested individual questions with students, local photographers, veteran retail photographers and industry leaders, it was obvious that the need for this kind of information was pretty universal. This kind of local business focused information is not captured anywhere else.
It’s my hope that we’ll all learn a little more about some of the pressures and changes occurring in the industry. Last year’s information has been used in so many ways and has been so useful that other photographers across the country are reaching out to get assistance with creating their own version for their local area too. This grassroots, participant led effort is exactly what makes this all so interesting!
3. Which results from the 2013 survey surprised you the most?
The most surprising results were the questions about salary and gross business income. A national level survey conducted by The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) provides benchmarks that retail photography businesses should hit in order to be sustainable. Our local survey responses indicate that we are 30-50% below that national level benchmark. This means that majority of retail photographers responding to the survey have businesses that are in peril. Their reported personal salary is significantly less than they need to continue to live a basic living in the DC area, and their business’s gross income was so low that they will not be able to survive normal business challenges like broken equipment. What was most interesting was that together these figures tell a story about the businesses themselves. We all know that the economy put pressure on businesses to cut costs and offer cheaper products and services. Retail photographers are often quick to point out that it’s their clients who are pushing prices ever downward. While I have no doubt that this is a factor, I think the data shows that photographers themselves are setting their price points far below the market value of their products and service.
If that trend continues, these businesses will not be sustainable into the future and they will have to close their doors. This is a big change for clients. It will be increasingly difficult to find a family photographer that will grow with your family and be there to document family milestones year after year.
4. Seventy-three percent of the respondents from the 2013 survey were in business for less than five years. Why do you think a disproportionately high number of newer photographers answered the survey, and how are you reaching out to veteran photographers to get them to respond?
Exposure like this, from Exposed DC will certainly help spread the word! I’m also targeting a wider variety of local professional organizations to request that they distribute this among their members as well. With the help of many other local photographers who believe the importance of this kind of data, we’ll spread the word via Facebook, G+, and Twitter again, as well as local online groups. My goal is not to target just new photographers, or to specifically encourage established or veteran photographers because that kind of targeted outreach would introduce a bias to the data that won’t help us at all!
Another reason I think that it would be undesirable to target veteran photographers specifically is that there may be very few left in that category to begin with. There are national level statistics that suggest that 5-10 years is about the average length of time retail photographers stay in business. I personally know of more than 25 retail photographers locally who have closed up shop this year. Phenomenal photographers who were my first mentors a decade ago have closed their businesses. My own studio is one of very few of its kind in Maryland right now.
So, that 73% is quite possibly pretty close to representative of the reality in the local retail photography industry. It’s certainly what I was hearing anecdotally for the last three years, and is consistent with what others have been observing. The amount of churn, turnover and change is just amazing.
5. Who should answer the survey, and why would is it important that they do?
Every industry out there has associations and organizations who conduct market research in order to better inform their members. We do have a national level survey that is conducted by one professional organization, however the scope of that survey is limited to that organization’s members and it includes responses from areas all over the country where the cost of living and local economies vary dramatically. In the DC area we have some pretty unique economic and geographic influences on our businesses so we need some local market research to inform ourselves of trends. This is important because it is the only way to gather real information that we can use to make solid business decisions.
The survey is intended for Retail Photographers (meaning, those who provide photography services that are provided directly to consumers: wedding photography, newborn portraits, family photography, etc.) based in the DC Metro Area (defined as photographers with 90% or more of their clients located in Virginia, DC, or Maryland) who accepted payment for their services in the past year. This was the most inclusive definition I could come up with to capture the wide variety of business models that exist in this section of the photography industry.