This interview with photographer Kyle Johnson originally appeared in our free…
Event photography is a tricky business, but if done right can earn you a comfortable income. In order to get the low-down on the biz, I thought I would ask a panel of trusted event photography experts if they have any “best business practices” suggestions.
Members of my trusted panel of event photographers are:
Mike Janes, Freelance photographer based in Western New York
Brent Eriksen, California and Colorado-based equestrian photographer
Nick Olive, Berkshire, England-based sports and portrait photographer
Mason Ibas, Tucson, Arizona-based sports photographer
Carl Auer, Alaska-based sports, news and event photographer
8 Best Business Practices for Event Photographers
8) Images should be easy to find.
The quicker a customer can find the images they want, the better their experience will be, and the likelihood that they’ll complete a purchase is increased. Think like a customer, and make the experience of finding images fast, easy, and obvious.
“Parents want ease of finding their images, they don’t want to go through thousands of images, including the out-of-focus ones the photographer was too lazy to cull. When at all possible I will try to sort it by player at smaller events with not many participants and it’s possible, but that’s kind of rare. You need to try and break it down as much as possible, baseball and other individual sports is easy to sort by team or player – football with numerous having both teams not so much. Photographers really need to learn to try and make it easier on the parents so they don’t get frustrated and x-out of your site.” - Mike Janes
7) Create a sense of urgency.
This is actually quite important, and as you read through the rest of these points, this keeps coming up again and again. Event photographers (including wedding photographers) have found that they make more sales if they set a deadline of some sort. Create a special offer that will eventually expire, or make sure they know that the images won’t be available after a certain date. Without this type of motivation, people are less likely to act, and more likely to put the purchase decision of to later.
“The Internet and the web are a two edged sword it’s too convenient in some respects. It puts people on the fence they go home and the impulse to purchase goes away. They can come and see pictures all the time and never have to purchase. So you need a kicker – a coupon with an expiration date. This is something I have used with good effect in PhotoShelter.” – Brent Eriksen
6) Remember that you’re running a business.
Sure, shooting pictures for a living may be fun, but it’s important to remember that it’s also a business. Do your homework, understand your true cost of doing business and tailor your products and services accordingly. Keep a close eye on what sells, and what doesn’t, and keep improving your processes so you can maximize profits through efficiency.
“One of the biggest mistakes new photographers makes, and many experienced honestly, is not researching prices and cost of doing business at these events. Over the course of the year I re-evaluate everything dozens of times to find out what’s working and what is not. It seems now with so many jumping in they just show up to an event, shoot away, and hope selling under or over priced images works, it doesn’t! There’s reason behind pricing most don’t understand.” - Mike Janes
“I photograph the fall charity horse show in Colorado. The first year I did it I did it with film. It was view here, order here, or not get a picture from the event. People came and they were compelled to buy, and so they did. A weekend brought me nearly $4k in sales. A year later I was digital and had the option of purchasing later on line. My sales shrunk. There was nothing to kick the fence rider over to purchasing. My sales were a dismal $1,700. The next year I offered get it at the show or forget it, and my sales were back up to $5k instantly. As you can understand a quick $5k is more what I would want after my expense then a slow trickle of orders over time where it never amount to anything and never quite offsets my cost of production.
Having the PhotoShelter system I have been using has been the best of both those worlds. I can work fast and upload direct to the web. I can set out several computers that are connected to the web helping to train the people to use my site and getting feedback from watching them go thru the order process (sort of like a lab experiment). At the end of the day everything is done and the order processing is super simplified for me. I can be far more efficient than I ever was before printing cutting and mailing my own stuff. that is the edge I have.
People type in the name of the rider or the horse. They see the pictures instantly. They dont have to go through other people’s photos. The ordering process is easy. It collects email addresses I can use later for promotions, and it’s truly simpler than any other event photography system out there.” - Brent Eriksen
5) It’s important to establish productive relationships.
Nobody likes to work with a grumpy bastard. Be approachable, friendly, and positive. Talk to people, and become known. Word-of-mouth advertising is incredibly powerful, and each time you strike up a conversation with someone, you’re starting up another word-of-mouth campaign.
“Be friendly with everyone, and to use the old cliche ‘treating people how you want to be treated’. It can go a long way to stop and talk with a parent for a minute or two while shooting or just walking through the crowd. Because of just the routes I took at the games this weekend I probably handed out the most cards ever at an event, though still newer to the “big” events like this was.” - Mike Janes
“Talk to your customers. When at an event before or after, during breaks, I always make time to chat with the parents of the kids I am shooting. It is a marketing tool for me because I can find out what my customers like, what they do not like and even land other shoots. For example. I shoot as a booster photographer for a local high school. I started out just shooting boy’s basketball. Then the girl’s team requested me. The following year, some of the basketball players were on the football team and their parents pulled me into that. A sister of a football player played volleyball and I was pulled into that, and on and on. 5 years ago I was shooting just basketball for the school, now I am shooting football, flag football, volleyball, wrestling, boys and girls basketball, swimming and diving, boys and girls soccer, baseball and JROTC events.
But it does not stop there. After shooting these kids at sporting events (not just in high school, but in youth leagues like Little League), when they hit their senior year, they are now approaching me for Senior Photos. A parent of a current senior (who is also a girls basketball assistant coach) not only had me shoot her daughters senior photos, but booked me for her 7th grader, booked me for family photos, hired me for a corporate shoot at her mothers law firm, and is pushing me to all the other parents. I even have some parents that will bring me food or drinks during long shoots. This is all because I talk to the parents and the kids. I form relationships with them, and I try to never say no to them.
Talk to the officials. Over the years I have gotten to know many of the officials at the high school level. By talking and getting to know the officials, it makes it easier to set up strobes for basketball, remotes for volleyball and baseball. This is because once the officials know you and know that you know what you are doing, know you are aware of what is going on around you and are not going to be in the way, they will focus less on you than a parent with a camera getting too close.
I always try to get a shot or two of the officials working. They enjoy that and it helps them to remember you too.” - Carl Auer
4) Make sure people know you’re at the event.
Don’t hide! Figure out as many ways as possible to let people know you are, or have been, at an event. Take a look around the venue and find places to put your cards, posters, and promotional material. Walk through the crowd with your cards, ask the coaches to help you, ask the event organizers to send an email for you, rent the Goodyear Blimp and fly it over the event – anything!
“I always liked to shoot and be kind of unseen. This is easy at games you’re shooting for a specific client like a magazine or trading card company, but if you try to be that way at an event where the parents are the client then you need to make sure you’re seen everywhere.” - Mike Janes
“Make your presence known at the game and on the league forums etc. so to maximize the viewings and sales of your images.” - Nick Olive
“If they don’t know, they won’t come”! Just like a tree falling in the woods – if a photographer spends a day shooting and no one knows where to go buy them, does he/she make a profit? For Gods sake man…market yourself! Endlessly!” - Mason Ibas
3) Look, and act, like a professional.
One subtle way of letting people know that you’re there is to look and act like a professional photographer. Parents will notice and many will seek you out as a result. But being a professional also means being prepared, doing your research ahead of time, and allowing yourself to focus on the things that will result in your increased profits.
“Before you go into the event be confident of your abilities. Turn up early with enough time to check out the venue and get your equipment ready and look for any potential problems with lighting etc.” – Nick Olive
“You’re a professional, look and act like it. If you look around the field/event and can’t tell which ‘tog is getting paid to be there, it’s a problem. I don’t mean because they have the biggest white bling hanging off of them (and nowadays it’s spooky what mom and dad or husband/wife/teammate shows up with!) but it’s the one who is always looking for the shot. In other words…working!
Every game has rules, you should too! You and your client should know exactly what the expectations are. Nothing worse then a “I didn’t know you wanted that… How much?!?!” moment. Terms for scope of work, delivery of images AND payment. Maybe a handshake will do with your buds, but I really like to see something in writing! Shouldn’t be any gray areas if you want avoid a pissing match with a client (clue… not good for referrals).” - Mason Ibas
“Do not worry about parents with cameras. I admit, I use to stress about someone else taking pictures at games. But then I was at an event, shooting, but shooting for a newspaper, and watched the event photographer spending more time running around telling parents that they can not be taking pictures, that was his job. And I thought it was silly.
If they know you are there, who you are, what you are doing, you will get sales. I have seen parents put their cameras away when I show up because they know I will get better shots than they will and now they can just enjoy the game. Sure, you are going to have someone who brings their camera and never buys, but by not letting the other parent photographers bother you, it allows you to focus on the kids.” - Carl Auer
2) Make images available immediately after the event.
Don’t wait a month to get the images out of your camera and into the waiting hands of your customers. The sooner you can start letting people see the photos, the better. People are more motivated to buy images the closer they are to the event. Wait a week and many of your customers will have lost that motivation – and your sales sill suffer.
“Unless you’re doing on-site prints or ordering you need to get the images online fast. [Parents] are waiting to see the results and want to buy on impulse. If you wait to the next weekend where their kid participates in another event you’ve lost them.” - Mike Janes
“Be organized have a plan as to how you can speedily get your images in front of your perspective customer.” - Brent Eriksen
“Event photography is about getting it done right, right away. Shoot what you know. Shoot it well, so that a customer can see the potential of the image without too much editing. Get it in front of the customer fast. Have a sales person able to encourage them to enjoy the process and buy a print. Get the print to them in a timely fashion, and ultimately make it enjoyable.” - Brent Eriksen
“After the event, get the images up as quickly as possible while the memories are still fresh. Make sales quick and easy, something that PhotoShelter is perfect for and has massively helped grow my sales.” - Nick Olive
1) Shoot where the money is.
As you’re shooting, take a look around you – there’s money making opportunities all over the place. Don’t just concentrate on the obvious action in front of you. Shoot people in the crowd, shoot emotion and reaction, shoot fans, shoot preparation and warm up, the possibilities are almost endless. Shoot like a journalist, and think like a business owner.
“This is something I don’t understand with a lot of photographers, they shoot what really doesn’t make any money. They do events to make money, don’t make anything… and keep on shooting it anyways as they complain about it! The more I get into event photography the more I study where the money is coming from, what schools and teams buy, what type of events sell, what types of shots, etc.
I’m not trying to run a business that loses money or breaks even, I need to survive. Many don’t look at it that way and think if they just keep plugging away they’ll get a big break, well sometimes you need to make your own.
“Some of the best events I hear about are ones where parents can’t get any good shots so they need you, ones that nobody really shoots because it’s not the “big event” like the big football game and what not. Cheerleading, gymnastics, swimming I keep hearing about doing very well.”- Mike Janes
“The upside of being on the web is; having several events on a site over time creates a PIPELINE. You have the ability for people to revisit an event or several people to revisit several events and the resulting income can over time become something that can carry a photographer thru the lean times until his calender is full again. For this reason I try and mix in as many good candid opportunities as I do good event pictures. People are pretty much optimistic creatures once the event is over and if this is something they do every weekend they say to themselves “maybe I’ll do better next weekend and get a better picture”… “I’ll wait.” However, 1 year later a good candid can’t be replicated, it holds a memory so it has some shelf life.” - Brent Eriksen
“Get plenty of ‘standard’ shots in, and early! The more photos you have of different people, the more sales you are likely to make. A player taking a throw in, in their stance, dribbling/running with the ball etc. Although not the most exciting images, this will give you the base to go on and take more risky hit or miss shots of high action and emotion with the confidence of knowing you have images to fall back on.” - Nick Olive
“I often come early and stay late at events. Shooting the setup, the pre-event rituals, the kids, fans and dogs (you’d be surprised how many pics of dogs I’ve sold!) during and after the race/game records the whole atmosphere. The competition is the focus but the “stage” can offer some pretty rewarding material. Some my best financial rewards come from approaching events with an editorial viewpoint. Sometimes when I’m about to leave I’ll look around at the empty road where hours before packs of riders passed with the sound of a freight train, the urgency of “now” on their faces that athletes possess. And now, in silence, I know that I did my job and have the images that will preserve the “now” for posterity. It’s a great feeling. Better if know I’m going to make a profit!” - Mason Ibas
“Know your buyers. I have certain parents that will buy every shot of their kid. Usually only a 4×6, but if I have 10 shots of their kid, all 10 will be bought. If I see this parent, or see their kid in the game/event, I will shoot more of them than the other participants, because I know, from talking to the parents and previous encounters that it is a guaranteed sale.” - Carl Auer
Contribute to this story by adding your own tips and suggestions about the business of event photography in the comments area.