The Post-Pandemic Boomerang to Bust: Is Photography in Trouble Again?

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Over the last few months, a common theme has trickled into photography group discussions. It’s as though no one wants to say it out loud for fear of making it true. There is a white elephant in the room.

Where have all the bookings gone?

The pandemic response of 2020 was brutal for the photography industry. Anyone living through that time might call this an understatement. The hopeful outlook of industry research since then has been encouraging.

The August 2021, IBISWorld Industry Research Report on Photography Industry in the US summarized: “An economic recovery and growing disposable income will likely drive industry growth.”

Though the 2019 projections for job growth in the United States looked bleak, 2021’s pandemic rebound seemed to be the boost the photography industry needed. For the majority of photographers who stuck it out through 2020, 2021 was a bumper crop year. Blue skies ahead!

As we plow ever deeper into 2022, something has become clear. That Great Reset society’s thought leaders kept mentioning has not settled yet. This is due in no small part to nobody factoring in political events in countries half a world away.

Economic trends are a fact of life – for you, and your business

Please don’t come looking for a politically based argument here. The simple fact of the matter is that regardless of how any of us feel about it, the government’s “stimulus” money helped create an inflationary spiral. This was inevitable. Now that it’s happened, it’s that much easier for other things to pile on and make things worse.

No economy lives in isolation. We’re part of one, big, (not always so) wonderful world. Now that global political events have tremored through the global economy, that economic recovery isn’t showing itself quite so clearly.

Over the last few months, a common theme has trickled into photography group discussions. It’s as though no one wants to say it out loud for fear of making it true. There is a white elephant in the room.

Where have all the bookings gone?

Taking the temperature

For several weeks prior to this writing, photography communities have been – and still are – taking polls among their members.

The same types of questions are repeated:

  • How busy are you?
  • What’s your outlook?
  • Does the type of work affect the answer?

As one might expect, luxury and high ticket photographers are seeing little if any change, regardless of genre. Not unlike other luxury goods during the pandemic, those with means are still going to buy what they want. Our local boat dealers were out of stock within 30 days of the first pandemic lockdown. Higher income customers aren’t as easily affected by changes in the economy.

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Wedding and event photographers are busy working through calendars that have been booked long in advance. Moderate to lower priced photographers currently report a normal number of inquiries, but slower bookings. It may be too early to tell whether this is due to people postponing events, reducing their budgets, or some other economic factor.

Maternity, birth, and newborn photographers seem to be unaffected as far as inquiries and bookings are concerned. These life events happen regardless of what the economy’s doing. But they do report potential clients taking more interest in lower priced packages. So while these events may happen, people are still sensitive to their budgets.

The most affected group seems to be general portrait and family photographers in the moderate to low price range. This isn’t surprising, considering the discretionary nature of general photography. This is especially true if the work doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. Photographers that have turned themselves into commodities rather than brands are feeling the pinch.

Consumers consume but commerce is commercial

None of this is really surprising. Ebbs and flows in the economy are part of the natural culling process in most industries. Those better positioned to weather the storm will always have the advantage. For the rest, it really depends on the depth and length of any economic downturn.

This is where commercial photography as a bellwether comes in. As a group, they are not yet putting out feelers among themselves. This is good. As long as commercial clients are still investing in the future – which a large volume of commercial work is for – faith in the economy hasn’t completely left town.

The exception seems to be school and school sports photography, but this has been ongoing for a while. Costs are a constant concern to these organizations. Undercutting chain operators Goliath their way through, picking up more and more accounts. Even long standing relationships aren’t enough to keep schools from turning away from independent photographers and toward the high volume, mediocre quality competition.

Large brands will continue to hire, regardless of the economy. Whether local Mom and Pop businesses will pump money into product or brand photos remains to be seen.

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So the consensus is…

The consensus is variable. People who value photography will always find a provider. This is true regardless of budget. If the photos are a priority, shoppers may find a more affordable solution, but they will still consume. Clients of greater means will probably consume at the same rate regardless of the economic outlook.

Commercial clients are stuck in a catch 22. As long as the expense of photography is less than the revenue they’ll get in return, they will continue to hire. If those clients begin to spend less at a time and look for ways to repurpose old photography to suit their needs, that may be a troubling sign for the future.

A small warning about large prices

There are a lot of challenges in small photography business. Almost every problem gets the “you need to raise your prices” response. Certainly, you have to cover your expenses at all times. As costs of doing business go up, your prices naturally rise. Ideally, you also need to cover your own life expenses, or else your business becomes just another burden.

In tough economic times, the raise your price mantra really comes into play. Knowing that luxury priced clients are the least affected makes raising prices into that level very tempting. But remember that just sticking a Ferrari badge on your daily driver doesn’t make it a supercar. You won’t get a higher price for it when you trade it in.

Luxury and high ticket photographers will find clients as long as their work deserves the price tag. The customer experience must be second to none.

You must be able to fulfill the promise of luxury and excellence. Your strategy must be more than just adding a frilly font to your website and pumping up your prices on a decidedly average portfolio. If you plan to elevate yourself into a new realm of competition, be ready to compete.

Strong foundations weather storms

Whether markets are good or not so good, your job as a business owner is to find your strength and turn it into profit. The things that makes you, your product, and service unique among every other photographer out there are more important than ever.

Figure it out and offer it to the world.