Digital photography has pushed up equipment costs for events photographers (and others) but it has also opened up new sources of revenue in this highly competitive area. Those who are embracing new technology are thriving, especially if they are also building up solid contacts in niche markets such as underwater babies, horse trials, cruise ships and Masonic meetings.
When seven-year-old business Water Babies started out it was a specialist swimming club, and photography was very much a sideline. Now image-making is a major part of its 31 franchisees' revenue streams. 'The commercial photography business was a good way of balancing the business model,' explains co-founder Jess Thompson. 'Teaching babies to swim involves many costs, such as hire of warm water pools and investment in instructor training.'
The high cost of shooting underwater meant Water Babies made the switch to digital only last year. Second co-founder, husband Paul Thompson says that upgrading from film to Nikon D3s plus new underwater housings cost each of their seven in-house photographers around £6000, a huge investment. 'So we helped fund them,' he says. 'That helped us too, because now everyone's now shooting on the same equipment. Day-to-day we pay photographers per client, with a minimum fee.'
'Our 10 photographers use older strobe underwater flashes - two mounted on arms attached to the camera and another two custom-designed, bespoke arms attached to the background frame, firing from above. We also invested in underwater studios for each franchise - each costs about £1200, but it's built for a lifetime.'
'Our job is to support our franchises with teaching about photographing babies, and to do business reviews with them,' adds Paul Thompson. Clients buy a 10-week course of lessons at £12 each and then an extra £40 to attend the shoot. 'Two weeks after the shoot, we run a photo-viewing day with the samples on display. Clients come in, they see their photos on large monitors and we spend a lot of time discussing their options. £180 is the average spend and we also offer Canvatexes, photos printed on canvas. It can seem expensive, but we explain the costs involved and they realise the work that goes into each picture. They can see our professionalism. We offer a supportive environment and we go for the best quality.'
John Britter started his successful horse show photography business 17 years ago, after 'a friend mentioned he needed a photographer for a small horse show'. The small show turned out to be Badminton International Horse trials, the equestrian world's equivalent to Wimbledon, and Britter was well and truly in at the deep end. 'I had to learn about horses very quickly,' he laughs. 'And I also had to learn about what people were wearing, the colours. But I found it exciting to find out what the customer wants, finding a jump that works well. Newcomers want pretty pictures, they're my best customers, but further up, they want hard and scary. Knowing which jump that comes from takes a lot of research.'
Britter travels with a trailer containing his digital printing set-up. His kit consists of two Nikons, a D2Hs and D2Xs, usually paired with a Nikkor 70-210mm f/2.8 lens. 'Come summer we can be working four days a week,' he explains. 'We have two dye-sublimation printers, a Sony UP-DR150 and a Mitsubishi CP3800DW, both over a grand.' The printers are able to deliver high-volume, high-quality photos at speed, ideal for fast-moving events. 'We also have an inkjet printer for proofs. Depending on the job, we could have up to four or five people operating them at Badminton, but usually we rely on customers to find themselves in the proofs.'
The average order is a couple of 7x5-inch or 10x8-inch prints, priced at £12 and £18 respectively but on the internet, orders can go up to £100. For bigger prints, Ritter will upload to a professional lab rather than trying to handle it himself.
'Now everyone with a DSLR thinks they're a photographer,' adds Britter. 'But our customers come back to us because we are producing quality all the time. It's down to our contacts and our reputation. People also call us because they've seen our copyright sticker on the backs of our photos. 30% of my job is PR and talking to people.
'Horse people change horses all the time, they want a record of their events and something to give to their sponsors. You'll never get rich, but it's a way of life and I love it.'
Director of operations for Ocean Images, Toby Veitch originally started as a cruise ship photographer looking for adventure. 'I handle Holland America Lines, though we have seven to eight cruise lines, each of them with a tailor-made product. We run different levels of services,' explains Veitch. 'It could be a £7.95 picture of an event to studio portraits that cost $15,000 to $20,000, our Joe Craig Black Label brand.' At that price the offering is much more intimate, with images sent electronically to land and shipped directly to guests' homes. Regular work is printed on board. 'Increasingly, portraiture is proving successful,' says Veitch, 'especially on formal nights where guests wear tuxes and dresses and where we use backdrops.'
With average contracts for ship photographers lasting eight months and Ocean Images paying food and board, cruise photography can be a great way for young photographers to get started, and even save money. 'You have to be over 21,' says Veitch, 'but young photographers who've just left college are commanding group shots of 300 plus people within eight months.'
Day-to-day a typical photographer on a ship will earn commission doing event photography, portraits and video for guests. 'We have an entry-level kit we recommend for photographers,' says Veitch. 'For example the Nikon D90 is a minimum. We use Nikon Speedlights as well, SB-900s and 600s. For the Joe Craig Black Label brand, we use Elinchrom flash gear and 35mm digital cameras.'
In July Ocean Images will be installing its first dry, chemical-free lab on a ship. 'Digital has really allowed us to push the quality side of things,' says Veitch. 'Now the possibilities are endless. We send more to land, we do canvas printing, we're looking into metallic print finishes, even Texographs (made up with canvas and oils). We want a higher level, better quality and we now see ourselves now as rivalling high-street portrait outlets.'
23-year-old Jayesh Morjaria is currently taking over the helm at successful Bournemouth firm Sebastian Studios from his father, founder Sebastian Morjaria. 'There's a lot of work involved with the hand-over,' says Morjaria junior, who works six days a week, nine to five. 'He's been doing this for 35 years, so he's reluctant to step back.'
Sebastian Studios' main business is Masonic lodge events, held in spring at some of Bournemouth's leading hotels. Each customer usually orders one or two prints at these events, so Jayesh employs some 10 photographers to help him out, each paid up to £100 a night. Sebastian Studios supplies Prolinca portable studio-flash lighting kits, but each photographer is expected to use their own, professional-standard digital cameras. 'All our people need a professional DSLR,' says Jayesh. 'You could use a three-million pixel camera for the size we print, but as many of our customers are using DSLRs themselves, so ours have to be bigger.' The photographers' clothes are also important, and they are expected to sport eveningwear to match their clients' dress.
When the photographers have finished shooting, they return to base and Jayesh's team prints and frames each picture. 'We print all the photos up and frame them because we believe that customers are more likely to buy something they can hold in their hand, and the framing is what sets us apart from other event photography companies in the area,' Jayesh explains.
Sebastian Studios faces a lot of competition, so cultivating and maintaining a good relationship with the hotels who book it is crucial to survival. 'We have the best hotels and it's all down to our reputation and contacts,' he says. 'We've never really screwed up and the top hotels are more than happy to use us. We phone them every week, to confirm bookings, but also to keep our voices fresh in their minds.'
But, successful as his business is, Jayesh is also aware he needs to keep it moving. So having spotted another local firm that takes the whole events photography package direct to the lodges, he's considering starting that approach. 'As yet we don't need to do that,' he says. 'But I wouldn't rule it out.'
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