Stand tough

Opportunities for photographers in the age of disruption

It seemed like a joke: an airport photo booth that makes digital headshots. So that’s exactly how Scott Stratten took it. He climbed in the Iris Booth and sat for a few photos thinking it would make for some silly shots to share with friends. But once he saw the images, he had to admit they were pretty good—better than anticipated. So when he returned to the airport for his flight home, he wore his business best and sat for a few more. One of them made the cut, he says; he still uses it today.   

Scott Stratten
© Richard Johnson
Scott Stratten

This is the kind of product that makes professional photographers cringe. How could an electronic photo booth in an airport ever substitute for a human being holding a camera? Stratten agrees that while the photos were better than expected, the experience wasn’t the same as a headshot session with a professional photographer. “That’s not the point,” he says. The point is that there was an ease and convenience to the photo booth. “Having your photographer make pro headshots is better. But between the pricing and the convenience and the quality, it’s not as big of a gap as you would think.”

The real competition

The headshot photo booth is one example of the disruption that is rocking the professional photography field. “We are simply living now in a constant state of disruption,” says Stratten, a business writer, podcaster, and public speaker who will deliver a keynote on the topic at Imaging USA in January 2019.

“We used to have time to adapt to things changing. And I think disruption is change without time.” It used to take decades for significant changes to embed themselves in the mainstream. Stratten notes that it took 60 years for people to adapt to electricity and 30 years to the home telephone. But the internet took six years, the smartphone five years, and social media three years. “So things are fundamentally changing our world at a rapid pace that disrupts,” he says.

“The internet has made for a great opportunity to exponentially increase the reach of photographers, but there is also a mentality that if something is on the internet it’s free,” he says. It devalues photography, which devalues the profession. You’re no longer just competing against other photographers. “You’re competing against a population of smartphones, against amateur photographers with pro photographer egos, and hobbyists,” he says.

© Franz Krachtus

Standing firm      

Despite these challenges, it’s not the photographer’s job to convince consumers that pro photos are better than a smartphone’s, he says. The job of photographers is to do their job—to deliver the best photography they can and stand firm in the value of their product and their worth. Their job is to elevate customer service and to bridge the gap between what their business delivers and what the increasingly tech-savvy and convenience-hungry consumer wants.

To that end, Stratten offers tips for meeting the disruption head-on: 

Be known for your niche, but more important, be known for your customer service. “If you’re claiming you can do everything, that doesn’t help you get known for doing something,” says Stratten, so it’s always best to zero in on a niche that customers need and are willing to pay for. “But being known for customer service supersedes most other things,” Stratten says. It’s what happens before and after the photography session that cements referrals and bolsters your business.

“If you have great photos but you were a pain in the butt to work with, then I [the consumer] start questioning my decision.” If you say the photos will be ready in a week, but they arrive in a month, it doesn’t matter how good they look, the customer is disappointed. Be as transparent as possible about the process and the delivery so the customer can set their expectations accurately. And always put customer service first.

Make it easy for clients to book you and pay you. Advances in technology have made it easier than ever for people to book appointments and make payments with a smartphone. So consumers have little patience for a lag in response time or an antiquated payment process. Stratten recommends responding (preferably within the hour) to an initial inquiry for service via the same medium the potential customer used. If they email their inquiry, respond by email. Same goes for text and telephone. When the conversation turns to payment and contracts, it’s best to move to email so you have the details in writing. If you’re on the phone or texting with the client, Stratten suggests politely asking if you can email the information to move forward.

As for purchase options, it pays (literally) to keep up with the latest and greatest in payment apps and equipment. Make sure your contract makes it abundantly clear when the deposit and the remaining balance are due. Then make it easy for customers to pay quickly—with PayPal rather than by check, for example.      

Handle inquiries, comments, and complaints promptly. Stratten recommends returning clients’ calls, texts, and emails within the hour, or at least within the first 24. “The worst thing you can do when you are busy is to act busy by not returning calls or emails for days,” he says. “If you say, ‘Sorry, I was on a shoot,’ clients don’t want to hear that. Clients want to feel like they are the only people that exist.” If you’re too busy to return calls, hire an assistant to handle those responsibilities, even if virtually, he advises. “By answering those inquiries or current client calls you fill up the hopper for six months from now. And the time to market is not when you are not busy. You are marketing in how quickly you answer an email.”

© Franz Krachtus

Timely responses are particularly important with clients who have a complaint. “If there is a problem, if you get back to me in an hour, I am much more up for a solution than if you get back to me in three days,” Stratten warns. And often when an unhappy client doesn’t hear back from the business directly, they move to that other outlet: the internet. “It used to be that when you had a good experience you told a few people and when you had a bad experience you’d tell 10. Now if they have a bad one, they tell the world,” says Stratten, in reference to sites like Yelp, Facebook, and Google that enable consumers to quickly and easily dispatch reviews of businesses. 

In general, unhappy clients are looking for validation, to be heard. If you give them the opportunity to say their piece and you empathize with their situation, they’re much less likely to take their complaint to Yelp. If it’s too late, and the client has already posted a poor review of your business online, reach out to them directly to remedy the problem and show your support for their needs. “I have seen cases of clients going back and revising their review,” he says. “A complaint is not the end of the story; it’s just the start of that next chapter. And sometimes the person with the problem, if you win them back, will become a bigger fan than before anything happened.”

Refer clients to other photographers. It may seem counterintuitive to recommend that a client or potential client check out another photographer in your area, but Stratten advises it. At some point, for example, you have to raise your prices, and some of your old clients won’t be able to afford your new rate. That’s when your photographer connections kick into action: Recommend that the client contact another photographer you respect who is offering their services for less.

“Photography is a very isolating job, but it doesn’t have to be. You can create a world, a community that can connect with each other,” Stratten says. Helping out a fellow photographer who is new to the business by referring clients to them gives them a leg up, helps your client, and even puts you in a good light. “Photography is a community where you can take the elevator up to success,” Stratten says. You don’t have to step on your peers to climb the ladder.

Never work for free. It’s common for novice professional photographers to accept unpaid assignments for the exposure and to beef up their portfolios. But even when you’re in the green stages of a business, you deserve something of value in return for your work. So be sure to negotiate stipulations if necessary as a newbie: For example, you’ll work for free if the customer agrees to provide referrals, consider you for a future assignment, or share your credited work on social media. 

Stand firm on rates. Sometimes clients will try to talk you down on price, and those are precisely the clients you don’t want to take on. “The clients that ask you for a discount are always the worst ones to work with. Always,” says Stratten. “The ones that are the best respect your fee, treat you well, and pay you fully.” It can be awkward to quote your price (Stratten saddles his assistant with that responsibility because he hates doing it himself), especially when you’ve recently raised rates. But never get sucked into a discounted sale. “I’m not scalable,” is how Stratten responds to requests for a discounted rate. Then he explains how bad he would feel cancelling a discounted booking when a client who’s willing to pay full price inevitably comes along. “I couldn’t do that,” he tells them.

That being said, sometimes a gig comes along that’s rewarding enough to allow for a discounted fee, and that’s OK, says Stratten. He recommends setting aside a few dates a year for philanthropic sessions and other enticing assignments. When your work is your passion, it’s OK to line up a few pro bono assignments a year that are too good for your creative mind to pass up.  

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.