Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Location, Location, Location... more than true for photographers.

After practicing photography for 13 years and experiencing a general lack of demand for all forms of photography in my area, Hazleton, PA, the reality became clear. Despite my efforts to promote, advertise, and position myself within the regional market, I struggled to attract clients due to the law of supply and demand. The key to overcoming this challenge as a photographer was to focus on relationship building and maintaining those connections. Although some may view my reasons as mere excuses, they are legitimate.

I attempted to specialize in senior portrait photography, promoting a high-end magazine fashion style with a highly stylized glam experience for high school seniors. However, the common feedback I received, even within the region, was that my work "looked too expensive." Admittedly, it was. While my stylized senior portrait shoots resembled fashion photoshoots with experienced models, I had learned over the past 13 years to teach inexperienced individuals how to appear like professional models in their images. This didn't mean they performed better than professional models, but at the very least, they could present themselves as professionals in the photos seen by themselves and their friends.

The only strategy I was taught, and even received guidance from experienced professionals on, was to network at high school sporting events as a senior portrait photographer. This involved befriending coaches, photographing the games (despite my limited experience in shooting sports due to lacking specialized gear), and consistently attending the games by keeping track of their schedules. Unfortunately, this approach conflicted with my full-time job, which required me to work from afternoon to midnight. Weekday games were not feasible for me, and weekend games were infrequent, often involving away games, which didn't align with my initial strategy.

As someone without children, family, or friends within that circle, networking through sporting events was my only gateway. Eventually, I had to walk away from specializing in senior portrait photography, which was disheartening because of the immense effort I had invested due to my passion for fashion photography. Given that my area lacked clothing designers, targeting regional designers for potential commercial photography was not a viable option. The most realistic opportunity for me, then and possibly even now, is to move to a larger city. However, moving to a bigger city came with higher living costs, which I couldn't afford unless I had enough savings to sustain myself for 12 months or secured a day job within the city.

Contrary to photographers who claim that location doesn't matter, they fail to understand individual goals. As a generalist photographer, location becomes less of an issue. However, my intention was never to be a generalist; at most, I aspired to be a commercial photographer specializing in various photography genres while focusing on working with businesses. Nonetheless, even as a commercial photographer, the demand from small businesses for photographers is limited. Most small businesses rely on stock photography or Google images for their minimal local social media and print advertising needs.

Therefore, even for a commercial photographer, location matters significantly. It is more advantageous to be situated in a major city rather than a small city like Hazleton, PA, with a population of 30,000-40,000 or even within the regional area with 1.4 million people. Small businesses prefer to hire generalists, who are easier and more cost-effective to find through personal connections like friends, friends of friends, or even family. Hiring a photographer is considered a regular expense for larger businesses, but for the majority of small businesses in the Northeastern PA region, it occurs infrequently, usually once a year, unless the business continually introduces new products.

To conclude, if you are starting a photography business, it is crucial to focus on your location and invest efforts in building and maintaining relationships. Personally, I prefer to pursue other business opportunities that offer faster scalability than a photography business could achieve in today's environment. Otherwise, persisting would result in minimal returns, constant annual profit losses, and the frustrating cycle of low demand and oversupply.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

A Reflection of 13 Years Doing Photography

 I don't regularly post here much anymore because I haven't really shot a whole lot of stuff since pre-COVID. I did some shoots here and there, which I'll share once they're actually and fully done. But I wanted to give a full reflection on my last 13 years in my journey as a photographer and entrepreneur, trying to make photography a viable path to a full-time living.

Initially, I got into photography because I felt I could comfortably learn the technical aspects and pair them with my creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in running a business. Looking back today, I progressively improved my photography crafting skills, but I definitely feel I lacked pushing the boundaries on the creative side for myself. Additionally, I was limited by my budget, which may sound like an excuse. From the start, my budget was always bootstrapping my shoots.

Today, of course, I spend a lot more time in preparation and even money on wardrobe. I still live in the middle of nowhere with no accessible wardrobe stylists to help me find the right clothing, so I have to work with what the models have in their own wardrobe, or I have to hope a model I trust will be the same size for a few months while I save up money for a concept shoot with a nice-looking wardrobe. I think I've saved up money for wardrobe purchases myself only a handful of times.

Did spending more pay off in terms of improving my portfolio or leading to paying jobs? Not necessarily. In the last 13 years, most of my paid gigs came from relationship building, some indirectly and some directly from doing TFP (trade-for-pic) shoots. Whether I spent a lot or not on those TFP photoshoots was irrelevant. However, if I had consistently spent more on higher-budget shoots, it could have benefited me more. Unfortunately, I couldn't afford to do these higher-budget shoots as much as I would have liked. Nonetheless, I believe I became really good at consistent natural light photography.

One important lesson I learned was that I did over 400 TFP modeling shoots in my 13 years, but unfortunately, most of them were in Hazleton or around Northeastern PA, and most did not lead to paid gigs (maybe 2% did). They did help build my portfolio and allow me to work on my craft, which should be the primary reason to do them. However, location does matter, regardless of what others in the industry say. I am based in Hazleton, a small city in the Northeastern region of Pennsylvania. I didn't have access to modeling agencies near me or any agencies willing to drive to my area from NYC or Philadelphia. My only opportunity to work with models who could help me build the portfolio I wanted was to collaborate with modeling agencies. Others would hire models, but as I mentioned, my budget was almost zero per shoot, and the only models considered "pro" in my area were glamour models. Glamour photography was not my preferred route for business, as I primarily focused on passion-focused directions like fashion photography and editorial work.

If you can afford to travel to a major city that ideally has a modeling agency, such as NYC or Philadelphia, and you want to focus on fashion photography, I recommend researching legitimate agencies and reaching out to collaborate with them.

The only way I could do more on-location/off-camera flash photography was by having either a heavy and expensive wagon or paying an assistant to help carry my gear. Many photographers use sandbags as a solution, but they are not lightweight. So, if you want to do more on-location/off-camera flash photography, invest in a $100-$200 wagon to save on labor costs. Most photographers, though, have a significant other or life partner who can be very helpful. From what I have observed, photographers working with their partners for

 assistance or even for makeup and hair can significantly reduce costs compared to hiring someone externally. Although having an assistant is much better than relying on sandbags, especially when shooting in public or urban areas like NYC, Philadelphia, or Miami. The goal is to travel as lightly as possible, so be prepared to shoot with natural light or become skilled at speedlite shooting with an assistant holding or angling the modifier.

A key lesson here is that if you can afford to have a reliable assistant, go for it. If you can't, become proficient in natural light shooting or invest in a good wagon.

Another aspect of my entrepreneurial learning experience was the rate of scaling and earning enough revenue to become full-time. I never reached that level due to several reasons. One of them being that I prioritized the artist and passion over the business. When running a business, especially a photography business, you cannot put passion for the art first to become successful, unless you have ample resources and access to a larger networking pool. Admittedly, if I had forced myself to do photography that I had no real artistic passion for, like weddings, couples, and family portraits—the common types of photography that regular people would hire for—I could have obtained more work in my area. However, my passion for editorial and fashion photography was what drove me to keep going. While the money would have been great, and I did try to get those clients, I'm not a family person myself, nor am I particularly interested in couples' photography. Therefore, I'm not naturally connected to those circles.

So, the few times I did acquire those clients were either through bidding websites like Thumbtack, referrals from friends of friends, or clients who hired me for other work but also requested couples or family portraits. I also attempted Facebook, Instagram, and Google advertising, but I didn't see any returns on my investment; it was a total loss. The only way I could have made any headway with paid online advertising would have been by spending thousands of dollars a month. However, given the current state of the industry with its supply and demand dynamics, it didn't make sense for photography clients. I learned this lesson because of the abundance of supply in the world. People will always check their own personal networks first, starting with close friends and then expanding to their social media connections. While I'm not a private person, I don't like friending random strangers on Facebook, and most photography clients were on that platform. Building personal relationships to network with potential photography clients was just too slow to become full-time based on my location and my passions in terms of the types of photography I wanted to explore and offer.

In 2023, I decided to reduce my efforts to win over clients as much as I did before. I will still keep my photography websites up (chrisadvalproductions.com, ca-headshots.com, and chrisadvalportraits.com), but the effort to advertise and network as extensively as before for photography is simply not worth it. Instead, I am putting more effort into a new business venture where I don't invest as much passion and heart into the artistic direction, but rather focus on the business aspect. Currently, I am building a clothing brand centered around T-shirt designs for the live streaming community. Since 2018, I have become more involved in this niche section of the online community and have fallen in love with it due to its unique nature and the significant opportunities it offers, particularly within the IRL community. Over the years, I have built many friendships within this community, so it makes the most logical sense to start my first clothing brand catering to this niche for my T-shirt business.

I have also considered, and still might, start creating more YouTube content for educational purposes in photography. Based on the lessons I've learned over the last 13 years, the highest demand and most lucrative part of the photography industry has been, and continues to grow, is photography education. Initially, I didn't pursue this path because I love creating fashion and editorial photography more than teaching. However, it has become evident that the "superstars" of the photography industry achieved their success by teaching their expertise. I am confident in my ability to teach natural light portraits or, more specifically, natural light modeling photography to those who are or were in my position, where shooting with off-camera flash is not ideal.