When I had my full-time portrait boutique, I had to have support staff in order to manage things behind the photo shoots. Today, I no longer need someone to field phone calls because most people book their own sessions through my website. Furthermore, when someone is inquiring about my services and pricing, they often email or text me verses calling. When it gets to be too much or I find myself getting overwhelmed, I filter things to my virtual assistant and she helps me.
Once upon a time ago, the only way you could get "professional" print quality was through a professional photographer because pro-labs chose to only do business with pros. Just like the scenario with my support staff, I no longer needed a receptionist because the way people contacted me changed. The same is happening to prints. I believe that within a few short years, it will be common place for people to purchase their own professional prints.
It all started when a big league pro-lab created a website allowing professional quality directly to the public. Although some professional services were limited, it still allowed the everyday consumer/photographer to buy professional quality at manufacturing prices. Professionals were alarmed and asking why would they do such a thing?! Simply put, they were alarmed because it undermined the retail value of the print. Hard to sell a photo for $25 when they can buy it direct for $2.50. In our eyes, it was a travesty! Professional photographers were not happy...really, really not happy. I have to admit, I was one of those alarmed photographers until I realized they were doing me a HUGE favor.
I need to explain a few things to help you understand why things changed. I don't fault the pro-lab, anymore. I now understand they were just trying to keep the doors open. They had 1000's of people relying on them to keep going, employees and customers alike. Second, there was a real and growing demand which I will explain in more detail later. What you need to understand first is when digital photography became mainstream in 2004, the influx of novice photographers flooded the market and it was devastating to the whole industry.
Mistakenly these novice photographers associated the value of professional photography to be in the "printing" and heavily discounted their services. It's our fault really. Everything associated with the value of our photography, running and operating a business was in the creation and care of the print. My studio was considered "retail" because I bought products at wholesale, marked it up for profit. The skill, talent, service and care of creating the photography was simply a means to create and sell the retailed products; even though it was the heart and soul of why people would buy the products.
From the outside looking in, session fees sounded and looked like this is where the photographer was being paid to create the photography. What most people don't know is a session fee is a non-refundable initial investment. If a photographer fails to create desirable photographs, the customer is under no obligation to purchase further. The novice photographers didn't understand this, so they undervalued their time and service with mini-sessions. They thought since they weren't producing "prints", they felt obligated to charge less.
The service of creating photography and putting it on a disc was becoming so common, it became known as "shoot and burn" photography. Another little known fact, most "shoot and burn" photographers actually do burn-out within a few years of business because it's not a sustainable business model. They have to pull numbers, they actually call this "bums in seats", which is why they are so aggressive especially on social media.
One major problem is that the general public has lost it's ability to see the difference between a amateur and professional. Novices looked and acted like a pro but in reality they are only going through the motions. The tell-all signs are easy to spot if you know to look for them, such as, no business license, no liability insurance, works strictly on-location, prefers only natural light, or never changes lenses. This might sound a like a bitter generalization but a pro photographer conducts business professionally. This is why we are called a professionals, we pay taxes and have a location to conduct business even if its in our home. A pro would never declare a lighting preference, it's like announcing they only shoot with one lens.
What is important, the shoot and burners were making a large impact on the whole photography industry. This was especially true when the economy crashed in 2008. Hoping to save money, people were more than willing to give them a chance. Yet they had these discs and nowhere to print their photos, except through a drug or discount store mini-lab. A mini-lab is great when you are in a pinch or printing vacation photos, but they lack genuine pro-like quality. Just a side note here, but several of the really popular online sources for printing are literally mini-labs behind a trendy website which is not widely known.
Between the shoot and burners, people with discs and trendy online mini-labs, the photo industry was experiencing a noticeable decline in business. Album and frame companies were the first to feel the pinch and started closing their doors. Then in 2010, the smartphone was introduced. Anyone and everyone could take a photo, edit it with an app and post it online within minutes. It was like the air was being sucked out of the room and the photo industry was slowly dying. However, the shoot and burners were breathing air like rockstars. Seriously, some of them even called themselves a photo rockstar! It was very awkward time for the photo industry.
Back to that big league pro-lab starting a website that sold professional products to the public, somehow they saw the future. They recognized they had a market and viable future, just not with the professionals. This transition was going to take a few more years, but eventually, they would be the major player on a global market.
Remember when I said, at the time I wasn't happy about this but later on I realized this was a good thing? What you don't know is that dealing with prints, it's very tedious and time consuming. Someone has to be readily available to take the order, input the order into the system, place order with lab, receive order from lab, review order accuracy and/or quality, make needed corrections, prepare for delivery and arrange pick-up. Although I am majorly downplaying how involved this process is, just know that I employed at least 2-3 full-time people to help me.
It was now 2012, and after 17 years of being a studio owner along with 10 years of apprenticing before that - I wanted to simplify my life, be a mom, and have a more fulfilling life and healthier lifestyle. What you don't know is that life as a photographer is a never-ending job. There is constant pressure to perform and produce. No one except another successful photographer understands amount of sacrifices I have made, mentally and physically. I literally worked my youth away given that I started my career in high school!
I decided to put myself out there as a shoot and burner for a year despite the lack of sustainability. I needed to understand firsthand the appeal, and what I learned was invaluable! Most people don't actually know what photographic quality is until they don't have it, but once they learn this lesson, they don't make the same mistake twice. People buying photography want to play and use it for their own purposes. If you don't allow them too, they will find someone who will. The DIY industry is huge! Why? Because people would rather serve themselves than get crappy service. There it is, right there. This is the driving force behind the DIY appeal and the way modern business is changing.
No matter how hard I worked to find and train my employees, they were human and would fall short either to my clients or to me. I need to admit, I was a hard person to work for. Being an artist with high standards, I expected a lot especially when someone was representing me. Before you judge me, you must understand, people were paying me to get it right. Love it, hate it - it's the pressure of photography no one really talks about. I cannot tell you how many cigarettes I smoked, cupcakes I ate, or alcoholic beverages I drank just to cope with the angst I had dealing with my frame company. I tried ditching them so many times, but then someone would come in wanting their frames & mats and I wanted the sale. Album companies were not any better, they were slow and often back-ordered.
Photos would arrive from the lab with all kinds of issues ranging from physical damage to poor retouching/artwork, more our fault than the lab. My employees would drop the ball and being the owner and photographer, I would take the heat for it. Not to mention having too much on my plate and taking more time than estimated before would get something done, which is stressful on both ends. Bottom line, the business of printing is not easy. I am an expert at it, and even I would make mistakes from time to time. However I quickly learned and realized when I tried the shoot and burn method, letting go of the printing process was like being set free.
I know there are photographers who would argue with me until the end of time that I am making a mistake. Saying things like you are not providing my clients with full service, but I believe a majority of people don't really want me to print for them. At the end of the day, if I do my job right and my clients use the labs I tell them too, the quality of my photography will stand true. Plus, I honestly believe they like doing it for themselves. They can find and pick their own frames and albums, some even prefer to make their own but I am more than willing to offer advice or suggestions.
Once I am out of the loop, I move on to the next session or client and everyone is happier. I will say that follow up is extremely important. I want to make sure if they need my assistance, I am happy to help. I will place their order if they need me to and have it drop shipped to their home. What I love about not offering prints is that I am commissioned to be a photographer and artist, and not a retail business. I get to do what I love and everyone is happier. :)