The debate between In-Person Sales and Shoot-and-Burn wages on. We photographers discuss endlessly each model. Should we deliver digitals or not? Is print a dead art form? Who cares about prints when we can have every photo ever at our digital fingertips?
These are the wrong questions to be asking. As a professional photographer and business owner, you should be asking yourself one question: what sales model will make me the most money? If you’ve turned your hobby into a business, that should be your number one goal: to make money.
What model will make you the most money? If you’re a family, senior, or wedding photographer, then answering that question ends the debate. You can make more money with the In-Person Sales model. Period.
When I started my business almost four years ago, I was a shoot-and-burn photographer. I delivered countless digital photos for a bargain. (My first session? All digitals for $50.) That model seemed right at the time. Shoot-and-burn was easy, and it seemed fair. But being a good business isn’t easy, and it’s certainly not about being fair.
About two years into my business journey, I decided to finally learn about printing and In-Person Sales. After a few months and a few sales, the evidence spoke for itself: there’s more money in print sales than digital sales, at least for a family, senior, or wedding photographer. (I recently had a $1600 sale and didn’t deliver a single digital file.) Even better is that IPS is much more rewarding. There’s nothing quite like seeing a client react to an album or wall art collage.
A year after making the switch to IPS, I watched the School of Photography video course from August 2018 comparing the In-Person Sales model with the Shoot-and-Burn sales model. (If you haven’t watched the free video course, you’re missing out on so much great advice.) To my pleasant surprise, I felt like I was a true IPS Photographer because 95% of the information wasn’t new. Instead, it was affirming and motivating. I said to myself, “I actually know what I’m talking about! Now when’s my next sales session?!”
But here’s the thing: most of the resources you read about IPS describe things far into the journey. Most give advice after years of IPS experience with burgeoning studios filled with samples.
I don’t have any of that. I’m only 18 months into IPS. I’m still transitioning to a robust, confident IPS model. For me, the struggle is fresh. The struggle continues. I only have a dozen or so real sales under my belt. But a dozen is more than zero. I can confidently say that I am an IPS photographer.
But I’m not a full-time photographer. I’m a high school English teacher by day. I run my entire business from a table in my bedroom (and scattered closet and counter space around my home). I do sales sessions in clients’ homes. I carry samples with me for every consultation and sale. I say this to tell all of the part-timers, the weekend warriors, the dreamers that you can do it. You just have to start the journey.
So let’s do it. Let’s talk about the journey. How do you make the transition to IPS?
Do the Math
First, do the math. You’ll come to realize that you aren’t paying yourself anything as a shoot-and-burn photographer. Say you’re charging $200 and delivering 50 digitals to a family. If you’re doing things right, you’re saving $60 for taxes, and you’re putting another $60 back into your business. That means you’re really only keeping $80 for yourself. Let’s say the entire job took you six hours (driving, emailing, the session itself, editing, etc.). That’s $16 an hour. $16 an hour for the 24-hour stress and attention that comes with owning a business? That’s crazy. If you want that kind of money, go work at Starbucks instead and retain your sanity.
Consider this: what if you need a new external hard drive? What if you drop a speedlight? What if it’s time to pay your website fee? That entire $200 session maybe paid for one of those. Is all that time away from family and friends worth a speedlight or website fee?
Here’s the thing: If you keep selling only digitals but at a price that will make you good money, you’ll quickly realize that (almost) no one will buy your expensive digitals. There are too many other inexpensive shoot-and-burners. You have to deliver something better. Print products are your “something better.”
The Biggest Hurdle
You’ve done the math and decided to make the transition to In-Person Sales. Your biggest hurdle will be changing your mindset. You have to convince yourself of a few things.
First, you need to realize that delivering all digitals is an incomplete service. You leave your client with a job. They now have to figure out where to print. They have to design their own album or order and install their own wall art. By delivering only digitals, you are not doing the full job of a photographer. You are a pro: finish the job.
Second, you must tell yourself that this is business, not charity. You deserve to make money. More importantly, you are worth the money. With that, you must know that you are (probably) not your ideal client. I would never pay my prices for a photography session. But others will!
People spend their money on what they perceive as valuable, what fulfills a desire. I would never buy an expensive car, but I will buy an expensive lens. My wife and I would cringe at spending $200 for a fancy meal, but we would gladly spend $200 on a day trip with our kids. People spend money on what they value, what they desire, what makes them happy. Your job is to find the people for whom quality print products fulfill a desire.
Third, you have to believe that digitals are your most valuable product. Giving away a digital photo is like Coca-Cola posting their secret recipe online. Once they do that, they can’t sell any more Coke. It’s the same for digitals. Once you give away a digital, you can’t make any more money with it.
Lastly, you have to understand that clients want prints, not digitals. Clients think they want digitals, but they really don’t. They want to decorate their homes. They want to line their bookshelves. They want to give gifts. They want to sit with and cherish their photos. They want to touch them, take them in. They don’t want to flick them on a screen. Your clients won’t hand down to their kids a hard drive or social media passwords. Your clients will hand down albums, frames, and prints.
The permanence of a digital is misleading. Their ubiquity disguises their fragility. Files can become corrupted. Hard drives can crash. Phones can be dropped in toilets. But albums and prints are cared for. They’re stored well. They’re cherished and handed down, generation to generation.
Say it with me: My clients want prints.
I’m a Believer. Now What? The Long Road to Samples
You need to start printing and getting samples. Clients will buy what they can hold and feel. If you don’t have a metal print for your clients to see in person, then they won’t buy metal prints. It’s as simple as that. If you have the samples, then your clients will buy.
Building a sample collection means spending money. That percentage of your session that you’re putting back into your business? Early on in IPS, you’ll use much of that money to buy samples. It might seem like a financial gamble up front, but it’s one that will pay off.
The tough part about printing is that there are tons of labs with gobs more products. I’ve tried almost a half-dozen labs by now, and I’m still not quite settled.
Just realize that you can’t sample everything, and you can’t sell everything. Instead, sell some standard products (i.e. loose prints, albums, canvases or standouts) and pick one or two specialty products. I just put together some table-top products that I love. I am now showing my clients an acrylic block and a metal print with easel back from Bay Photo and an image cube from White House Custom Color. All three are perfect as gifts or for shelves and desks. The acrylic block is especially stunning, luxurious and elegant.
The biggest personal benefit you’ll see once you start printing is that you get picky about (and better at) editing. You won’t choose as many photos to share. You’ll want the photos you print to be flawless. In turn, you’ll want high quality papers with accurate tone and color. That will begin to make you an expert on paper and printing. Clients don’t know paper and printing. When you do, they’ll pay a premium for your knowledge.
The packaging of your prints says a lot, too. Think about how many views “unboxing” videos get on YouTube. And what about the unboxing experience with an Apple product? (I just bought a new phone and a new computer from Apple--their packaging is artwork.) Opening a beautiful boutique package is an experience itself. Give your client that moment of indulgence and wonder. Your high-end experience requires quality packaging.
A Few Technical Details
When you begin to print, you’ll want to calibrate your monitor. The colors and the brightness levels will matter even more now that you’re putting work on paper. Our illuminated screens can be forgiving. (We can turn up the screen brightness on a dark photo, right?) Paper won’t provide the same forgiveness.
I’ve come to learn that photos need to be a little brighter on screen in order to print correctly. Our eyes are easily deceived by our screens. One thing you can do to fool your eyes is to set the area around your photo to white. In Lightroom, just right-click the area around your photo, and you’ll be given a list of workspace color options. Choosing white will force you to edit a little brighter.
Use your histogram to check tones. Even if all of the tones are within the visible tonal range, you’ll still want things to hover around the middle or to lean slightly to the right. To be absolutely sure, do test prints. Most print labs offer a “proof print” service for inexpensive 4x6 and 5x7 prints. (Bay Photo’s 4x6 proofs are $0.25 each.) Save yourself the headache (and possible disappointment) and do test prints.
One more technical note: telling your clients that they can print any size with an original resolution file is a lie. They can’t print big unless they know how to change the number of pixels in Photoshop or Lightroom. If their original image is 4000x3000 pixels, then they can’t even print an 11x14 at 300dpi. That same image file on a 20x30 metal won’t work! For a 20x30 print at 300dpi, the image file needs to be 6000x9000 pixels. Don’t lie to your clients. Instead, sell them the print and up-size the image for them.
How do I set my prices?
Most of the resources that I’ve come across suggest that your Cost-of-Goods-Sold should be 15%. That means if a metal print costs you $50 to order and ship, then you need to sell it for about $330.
That number can be shocking for a first time IPS photographer. As a former shoot-and-burner, you might not have even had a full session priced at $300! Trust me, though. The right client will pay for that markup. They know that you’re providing more than a piece of paper or metal. They know that you are giving them heirloom art (though it doesn’t hurt to explain to them the quality and longevity of the product).
Don’t forget that you mark up your print products so that you can not only buy the product but so you can also pay yourself, invest in your business, and pay taxes. All of that money has to come from your clients’ purchases. Markup is the only way to make that money.
Alicia Caine’s The Photographers Pricing System is also a great resource. Her text is the first I read to begin the transition. It’s well-written, easy-to-follow, and well worth the purchase price. Also, look to Jeff and Lori Poole’s “The Business Corner” in Shutter Magazine each month for great information about running and pricing your business.
One choice you’ll have to make is deciding between a la carte purchases or packages. I’ve done both, and I’m still not settled (though I think I’m leaning towards packages). Do what’s best for you and your clients.
With an IPS pricing change, you’ll inevitably have to figure out how to transition your current client base to your new pricing model. There’s great advice in the SoP video I mentioned: mark a date on a calendar and tell your current clients that any sessions booked after this date are the new pricing system. You’ll either keep them or lose them. But don’t worry, there are always more clients. Your next job will be to find them.
The final piece of the puzzle: running a sales session
Don’t be scared by the word “sales.” You are not a salesman. You are an expert. And your clients need your expertise.
Sales doesn’t mean pushing your clients to buy, buy, buy. If they don’t want wall art, no worries! You have priced your session and products so that you make money no matter what.
You are truly the guide providing your expertise. They want your photos in print; you just need to show them possibilities. Show them different papers, albums, metal, acrylic, gifts, you name it. Trust me: your samples will do the sale for you. In fact, your clients will probably have a hard time not going beyond their budget. They are going to want everything you offer.
Here are a few tips for your sales session:
Do not provide digitals for preview (or download) prior to the sales session. Your clients should see their photos for the first time with you by their side. The reveal should be special. It should be full of emotion and pride. Let them soak in each photo.
To that end, come with proof prints. If their first experience with their photos is in print, then you send the message that you are about printing. Plus, selling them proofs (with a watermark!) can be an easy sale. After all, clients will buy what they can hold. They’ll want those proofs.
Once they see their print proofs, then you can move to digital viewing to create a favorites list or invoice and to really examine the photos up close.
Come to the sales session with an album layout already created. Use a design program that gives you ability to proof or edit that album on-the-spot. If you come with something prepared, your clients will more easily envision that album in their lives. Similarly, use a display program that allows you to show wall art at size, either with a projector or on photos you’ve taken of their home.
Remember, you’re not a salesperson swindling clients, you’re an expert showing possibilities. Your photos and products will sell themselves. You just need to guide their choices with expertise. In the end, I’ll say this: I’m no expert at print sales. I’m only 18 months into IPS. I have a long way to go. But I do know that after one sale, I was hooked. You will be, too.
Aaron Taylor is a professional portrait photographer and high school English teacher. Aaron is forever blessed to be in love and married to his best friend and partner in parenthood. Much of his time is spent chasing his three curious, energetic kids. Aaron lives in Columbus, Ohio. Before moving to Columbus in the summer of 2016, Aaron was a high school English and Drama teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. He spent ten years in the classroom in Maryland and earned National Board Certification in English Language Arts. Give him his family, a good cup of coffee, and a homemade cookie or three, and all is right in Aaron’s world.