The Biggest Wastes of Money in My Photography Career

The Biggest Wastes of Money in My Photography Career

Business Commentary

I already know that this is going to be a controversial article, but it’s something I have to get off my chest because I look back and almost feel guilty about how much money I have spent on these things. The photography industry is full of products that you may or may not need and separating the wheat from the chaff is going to be important when you’re watching where your money goes. Here are the things I never wish I spent a dollar on.

1) Marketing services. 

They are popping up almost weekly, and I constantly get questions from photographers interested in spending money on them. While I don’t necessarily think that the people behind them are nefarious or up to no good, I think the concept is flawed in today’s commercial photography climate. Here’s the thing: nearly every client I’ve gotten has come to me through one of a few ways: Google search results, face time, a personal appeal via snail mail, or from a personal connection recommending me. 

If you are already so busy that you simply don’t have the time to pursue marketing, then perhaps throwing some money at a marketing service might be a decent idea. But here’s the thing, most people aren’t that busy. Even some of the most successful photographers I know can find time to do personalized marketing with their best clients. I absolutely make time to meet up with them, grab a bite, get a drink after a shoot, and keep them updated throughout the year. And as far as I know, people will appreciate a personal touch more than someone reaching out on your behalf and hitting them over the head with email blasts.

Prices range from $150 to $500 to thousands of dollars per month which gets expensive in a hurry. Instead of spending $5,000 on a marketing service, consider taking that money and rolling it into a personal project that you can use to build your brand, portfolio, vision, and career. 

2) Email lists. 

A perfect segue from the marketing service, email lists are, as far as I’m concerned, on the way out, especially if you want to be a niche photographer. We are all suffering from email inundation. It’s a huge cause of office anxiety and just one more stress that you are imposing on your potential clients. Instead, a simple, quick, and factual email will be more appreciated than a weekly or monthly blast. I have made new clients who at this point have paid me over $100,000 in commissions throughout the years from a simple email introducing myself and what I do. 

It all comes back to the personal touch. Anyone can buy an email list and send a bland, vague, mass email to thousands of people. In fact, you probably get these emails daily from overseas retouching companies begging to let them try to edit some of your photos. I get countless, and it’s annoying af.

Why would you want to subject your clients to the same thing? It’s not a good look. Be honest, be sincere, and send one email at a time. People’s inboxes are overstuffed enough as it is.

3)  Pelican cases. In what I think might be the first case of severe blowback in this article, I’m just going to put it out there: I’m totally over Pelican cases. SHOCK! HORROR! Mike, how can you? 

Well let me tell you – since 2015 I have flown somewhere over 100,000 miles per year on assignment, checking equipment on every single one of those trips.  The only time I’ve had equipment damaged has been in Pelican cases. The issues I have with Pelican cases starts with the fact that they’re heavy as hell. The schlep is real, and since I’m often traveling solo, I have embraced equipment that is as light as possible. Some airlines weigh carry-on luggage (Qantas and Air New Zealand are especially prickly about this) and the Pelican case itself can eat up half of the allowance.

The latches also pose problems for security agents. Yes, they are stupidly simple, but there have been so many times where my Pelican case has come flying down the baggage claim ramp with all of the latches improperly sealed. I’ve even had $4,000 worth of Profoto lights spill out onto the concrete floor at the bottom. 

My solution has been to embrace hard-walled, soft-sided cases such as ThinkTank’s logistic manager, production manager, etc, as well as Lightware’s cases. I have not regretted this for a second.

When it comes to cabin baggage, go with a ThinkTank roller. “BUT WHAT IF I NEED TO GATE CHECK MY CAMERA?”, you scream. It will be fine. There is so much structure and padding to these things that it would take someone seriously inept to screw it up. In fact, the chances of your Pelican rollaboard being opened and spilling the contents of your luggage onto the apron are probably higher than a ThinkTank roller getting crushed. If you are super worried, pop out that expensive MFDB and just hold it on the plane.

I’ll also mention that ThinkTank rollers (I have the airport international) fit in overhead compartments and under the seat of even the tiniest regional jets. Sometimes it takes a bit of a fight, but yeah, it fits.

4) Monitor and Calibration Voodoo. Clutching of pearls, what the hell did he just say?! Yes, that’s right, I think for 98% of photographers, monitor calibration and insanely high end monitors are a waste of time and money. Let me let you in on a little secret – magazines aren’t going to cross-reference your colors, newspapers sure aren’t, book publishers won’t, and people on instagram don’t care either.

Instead, try to look at your images across as many media as possible. Big screens, little screens, cheap screens and expensive screens. The problem with monitor calibration is that unless you control every aspect of the production from capture to print, your efforts are probably wasted. 

I recommend finding a good base point to work with using something like  a Huey or Spyder – you can get in for under a couple hundred bucks and that’s all you really need to spend. There are exceptions to this. If you are doing your own printing of fine art pieces and you need to match your monitor to your printer; I’d recommend jumping through the hoops to get everything in sync and producing consistent output. In this case, I’m working closely with someone who understands color science far better than I am and we spend an afternoon together in his shop to make the prints look as good as they can.

If you are shooting product photography in studio, you’ll probably want to be working with a digital tech who understands color science and lighting to accurately represent what you’re photographing. Still, you’ll have to match what you see on screen with the printed media. 

Instead of worrying yourself sick about something like this, look at your shots on an iPhone. Look at them on your computer screen, iPad, Surface, Samsung, whatever. Compare them to other photographers’ work; after all, it is all relative. I have been using some iteration of Apple computers for ten years and I think I’ve calibrated my screen twice, instead preferring to rely mostly on iPhone and Macbook screens to judge relative brightness, color, and contrast.

5) Facebook and instagram advertisements. 

Just like email and marketing lists, it’s one more thing nobody wants to look at or pays attention to. I think the list of art buyers and marketing directors hiring photographers off of Instagram is in fact very short; let alone hiring a photographer that they saw an advertisement for. Especially in architecture photography, I maintain that the best way to get hired is through personal connections and person-to-person marketing. 

Another issue with the Instagram and Facebook marketing angle is that I, as a photographer, see tons of ads for other photographers trying to get hired. This is a major leak that should be plugged and I’m not sure if instagram and facebook give you enough fine-grained control to ensure that other photographers don’t see your ads. I just have to chuckle when I see their hard earned money going to waste when their ads turn up on my feed. Much as I’d like to  – I can’t hire you – nor can all the other photographers you’re showing ads to!

If you are a wedding photographer who can target couples who were recently engaged in a specific locale who make a certain amount of money per year – then by all means, use Facebook ads! But for what we do, I’m going to go ahead and call it a waste of money. We want long term relationships, not a one-night stand like a wedding photographer.

With marketing, there is no easy turn-key solution. It’s time consuming difficult, and requires patience and practice.

Learn from my mistakes (I’ve literally spent tens of thousands of dollars on the stuff in this article) and keep your money! All I wish I’d done was park it in an index fund. I’d be much happier – so if the urge strikes you, seriously, stick it in an investment such as index funds and revisit in a year. You’ll be glad you did.

Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.
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