The One Thing That is Keeping You From Making Money as a Photographer

The One Thing That is Keeping You From Making Money as a Photographer

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On July 4th, my wife and I had the opportunity of sitting next to one of our friends to  watch the annual firework show in our town.   While visiting, my friend (a brilliant individual with a MBA from Columbia Business School) said, “Bradford, I watch you on facebook, and I have to tell you that you have really figured out how to run a business that allows you to travel so much and have so much free time.”   

Yes, in the last two months, I have been to Europe and South America as well as some fun journeys here in the States.   During a two month period, I only worked 5 days in my studio, but my income did not suffer because I figured out something a long time ago about our industry: 

Our industry teaches you to be busy, not profitable!

Last Tuesday I shared an article that appeared the Wall Street Journal on July 12th with a group of photographers in Palm Beach which reported that despite the fact that there are  over 1000 companies in the world that make smart phones, and despite that fact that Apple sells only 20% of the phones sold world-wide, It makes 92% of all the cell phone profit in the world!  92%!!  You can read the full article here:

In other words, when it comes to cell phones, Samsung is busy, and a lot of people have their product,  but Apple makes all the profit.

This begs the question…Are you busy with lots of people having your product, or are you profitable?

Attached in the screenshot below is one of my sales days last month….over $52,000. from 6 clients in one day.  The following morning, we had extrapolated another $18,000. by 11:00 a.m. …70k in a little over 24 hours from one studio.  

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Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair…  When I first started out, I worked four jobs to survive, having gone through a painful bankruptcy after the real estate crash of 1989 in California.   Every single night, I would sacrifice most of my sleep to deliver hundreds of papers for the Los Angeles Times.  I was so tired it hurt.  I am still in amazement that today, I make in a matter of hours what I made in an entire year back then.

Focusing on being profitable, not busy is tougher than it sounds….It actually takes a ton of courage.  Most people have a mental block that makes them resist changing, but if you are willing…the following eight steps can change both your business and your life.

1.  Offer Only What Makes you Money - I laugh sometimes that when I first started in photography, I had a mini van that had vinyl lettering on the side that said “Bradford Studios…Specializing in:  Portraits, Weddings, Seniors, Head-Shots and Events.”   Basically, I didn’t understand the word “specializing.”   But after one year in business, I got it.   My real money was made in portraits on canvas with artistry.   Against the advice of almost everyone, I eliminated everything except fine portraits on canvas.   

One of the reasons that I encourage my readers to religiously watch The Profit on CNBC (or is because in a majority of the episodes, Marcus Lemonis makes the business he is partnering with eliminate all the “junk business” so they can put all the efforts and focus on the one or two things which make all the profit.   This is painful for many of the business owners to accept and be able to let go.    

Make a list of everything you offer.   How much profit do you make from each offering?  Once you do this, eliminate the junk and keep only the highest winner(s).   It is amazing how many photographers haven’t done this.  If more photographers understood this concept, I would venture to guess that very few would be giving away their work for almost nothing on a disk.

2.  Measure Everything in P/T Ratios -   P/T Ratio means your profit divided by your time.   It’s that simple.   It doesn’t matter what your average order is, it matters what your average profit per hour worked is.   When I hear a photographer say he/she likes environmental images because his/her average order is twice of what his studio work is, I think to myself, “this photographer doesn’t understand P/T Ratio.”   If he/she can do 3 in studio families in the time and effort of one environmental session, then he/she makes more money from the studio work even if the environmental average is twice as high.   An example of this is weddings.    Personally, I would have to charge almost $100,000. per wedding to make the same P/T ratio as taking portraits.

3.  Target the Proper Demographic - I see a lot of young photographers out there (especially males) going for an edgy fashion photography look and targeting younger, attractive model like women.   Some of the work I see is beautiful and very artsy.  Only problem…It’s the wrong demographic in most cases if you want to make a great living.   It may not be as sexy as a 20 something model, but people 45 and above have the highest potential to spend money on portraits.   

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4.  Target the Proper Look - I love artsy styles, but most people are pretty conservative when it comes to hanging a 4 foot portrait in their living room.   Ever wonder why most concept cars at auto shows never make it to the dealership?   Despite how people love the new sexy styles, when it comes to their own pocket books, people are actually very conservative.   There is a reason Mercedes-Benz chooses a very mature look for  their automobiles.   Even Porsche is careful to avoid too much trendiness by preserving a similar body shape on their models throughout years of production.   I find the “mature” look to sell much higher than the more artsy and trendy looks of the day.  

5.  Sell Art not Photos - It’s been said that people will spends hundreds of dollars on photography, but thousands on art (and sometimes millions).   Rarely do my portraits ever show broad toothy smiles because I am after a more traditional art look (different than artsy).   As John Howard Sandon, one of the most expensive portrait painters in the world (you can see his prices here at ) said, “If Mona Lisa or Madame X or one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits - if any of these featured a broad, toothy smile, the gavel price at Sotheby’s would go down by - I would venture to predict - many millions of dollars.”  When our clients see the more restrained and composed expressions we offer in our portraits that look more like old world paintings, I tell them they are basically seeing the difference between a holiday card look and a portrait.   What we do are portraits.   

6.  Don’t be a Control Freak - I am proud that I have wonderful artists working for our studio.   They are way more expert than I am, and I don’t have to stay up till 2 a.m. on photoshop when I can better use my time for things that have a higher P/T Ratio for me.   My daughter-in-law who lives in Texas  handles my production and workflow.   My manager in California handles any customer concerns and I have staff that handles marketing.    Many times a great team around you will save you money through efficiency and allow you to focus on growing your business as opposed to constantly being busy trying to play catch up in your business.

7.  Don’t be Afraid to Charge a Proper Price -  Proper margins begin with charging a proper price.  This is an article on it’s own.   Sufficient to say that you should look to charging at least 5x your materials cost so that you also have money to cover other fixed expenses such as insurances etc. and still make a decent profit.  If this is difficult for you, I encourage you to click again on the link above for the prices of John Howard Sandon…Also notice the language underneath his pricing.  

8.  Don’t Get Your Sense of Significance from Being Busy - Some people feel important if they can impress others with the car they drive, the clothes they wear, or the home or neighborhood they live in.   But some people try and impress and feel important by how busy they can show others that they are.   Have you ever known someone that almost seems to brag about how busy their schedule is?   I really think many of us feel important when we feel we are needed for many tasks by many people.   Hence, we will focus on that which keeps us busy, but not profitable.  

By focusing on profit instead of “busy-ness” you will create a photography business that actually is margin based instead of calendar based.  

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About the Author:

Bradford is perhaps the most expensive portrait photographer in the United States with an impressive list of prominent clientele.  He operates studios in New York, California and on world famous Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.  He has made over 20 million dollars from selling portraits. He has taught photographers from more than 70 countries.   He currently resides in Connecticut with his wife and youngest child.

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