Humans are generally averse to the concept of the infinite. It’s in our nature to simplify the world into manageable compartments that we have an easier time comprehending. The entire institution of economics is dedicated to this idea. A room, a house, a neighborhood, these are all notions that we can deal with pretty easily. Ask someone the land area and population of their city and you’ve most likely already surpassed their concrete understanding of their immediate environment. What about photographers, what do we understand about our photography landscape?
The Photography Landscape is Big!
If you’re just starting out in photography, chances are that you feel like there’s no more business left to acquire. The photography customer is something that once existed in the paleolithic era, but they have long since passed extinction due to the vulturous ways of the photography industry. You’ll say if you had only started out a hundred years ago when there were no photographers, then you might have had a chance, but it’s just too late for anyone to start a successful photography business — just born a couple generations too late — nothing you can do. Don’t believe this nonsense, it’s not true.
The photography landscape is big — really big! It may seem that where you live, a handful of photographers have monopolized all photography business in your market area. This is not only untrue, it’s a mathematical impossibility. If you have access to the internet, a quick search for your city will supply you with the number of households that make up your pool of potential customers. My particular city is about 14 square miles and has a population of 43,000 people in 13,000 households. In ten minutes I’ll drive past more customers than I could ever service in my entire life, and my town isn’t all that big. There is plenty of business out there and a little market research will give you the confidence to go out and get some.
Find a Customer Base
The example above assumes that your target audience is the residents of your city. This is most likely too broad for any photographer. Geography is only one consideration — one that does not necessarily apply depending on your particular market niche. The lesson thus far has been to not underestimate the expanse of the photography sphere. Once you have conceptualized the size of the photography industry, the next step is to find a workable area within that larger sphere. If you’ve wandered out in nature for any period of time, you know it’s easy to get lost. There are also many things in the wilderness outside your line of sight.
Everyone requires some amount of time to acclimate to the photography culture. Most of us start out with a camera on our own. It doesn’t take that long for the urge to find other like-minded creatures to set in. Once this happens your understanding of the culture gets wider. After a year or two of going to events and meeting people you have a pretty good idea of the broad areas most photographers occupy.
Perhaps you will find one of these areas to your liking and set up shop — I think that’s great and you can certainly succeed in any space. For the more adventurous, you may consider exploring a less popular space and try to carve out something more unique and unusual. This isn’t for the faint of heart, but you will find that there is much more up side in entering an area with a few less ravenous beasts. It’s important to remember that your market doesn’t have to be enormous in order to support your business, it just has to be big enough to meet your goals. You will be surprised how specialized your niche can be and still have sufficient demand to achieve the income you desire.
Be the Expert in your Space
Once you have staked a claim to fertile ground, the hard work is really just beginning. If you succeed in starting something completely original and unique, it won’t be long before other photographers catch on to your game. You will have to compete in order to maintain your market share. The good news is, you have a head start, so don’t waste it. Make it your business to be more knowledgeable and more innovative in your business than anyone who might be nipping at your heels. It would be good to take your que from a little known movie rental chain called Blockbuster.
Blockbuster was not the first chain to rent videos to the public in the United States. Look up “The Video Station” if you’re interested. Blockbuster did make some major innovations in their industry and were the top dog through the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Starting in about 2004, Blockbuster began to lose market share to emerging competitors that were embracing the new technology available, making the old rental business model obselete. These days, the names Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Redbox and the like are much more relevant in the video rental space while Blockbuster is utterly non-existant.
Every industry is in a constant state of change. The essence of competition is that there is always someone trying to beat you. It’s not enough to have a great idea, because ideas have a very finite shelf life. The distinction between you and your competitor must be that you not only know more about your niche, but you are always looking for ways that it may be improved or delivered in a more efficient way to your customer. Blockbuster had more than sufficient resources to beat Neflix or Redbox before they entered the space, but didn’t have sufficient vision to see that the industry was going in that direction. Don’t let your business become outdated. Know that the business of photography is always changing and be on the front edge of that change.
A Winning Mentality
Winning in photography is about having a positive mindset. The photography landscape is a big place and can be daunting when you’re trying to carve out your own space. It’s tempting to assume the worst about your business prospects, especially when you lack experience. It gives us an internal excuse to stay in our comfort zone. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming the photography landscape is barren. Just a few hours of research and planning will give you a better picture of your prospects. You can then set a foundation to chart a winning course.
photo credit: Adriel Kloppenburg