My Story – Condensed Version
I believe in transparency. Over the past few years as the photography industry has changed drastically, many photographers are silent about what has been going on. I don’t understand the silence. Silence is not helping this industry at all. Silence is fear. My aim is to discuss the industry frankly and point out what I have learned myself in the current business climate.
While this is the condensed version, feel free to read the long and more detailed story of my photography journey below. I also have a Frequently Asked Questions area that I am constantly evolving here. If you have a question, shoot me an email – no subject is off limits; however, I will not identify or blast anyone’s name publicly.
I came into the photography industry in the very early 2000s. I was in the right place at the right time and experienced massive success. Money was ridiculously abundant. It was an incredible time. From touring around speaking about lighting, newborn posing, and pricing for profit to working with thousands of clients to creating national commercial ad campaigns, I never thought my career in photography would be anything but continued success because talent will always win, right? I followed tried and true business management as I had run two successful businesses prior and was a loud voice for women especially treating their business like a business, feeling their worth as a business owners, pricing for profit, and not allowing themselves to be degraded with the Mom With a Camera (MWAC) term. I had three commercial studios within the Northern Baltimore County, Maryland area – business boomed.
Around 2011, I started feeling the industry decline. I have taken steps to insure my future, and I am sharing the journey, the research, the analysis and even my own secrets and techniques here.
My photography Story – the long version
My Early Years in Photography
Let’s face it. When I opened my photography business, I was in the right place at the right time. It was the early 2000s. I left my medical records business when the push for EMR began and I pursued my art side once again. Digital cameras were finally advanced enough to compete with the quality of film, and the custom photography boom had begun!
It was an amazing time. In heavily populated areas, photographers could simply take snapshots of children, increase saturation and contrast, and pull a six-figure salary in the Greater Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia area. Prior to opening my business, I took some free classes with the Small Business Administration and developed a business plan. I saw them side eye me when I had my business goal of $500,000 in revenue but I was doing the numbers. It was very clear that this should not be difficult to achieve.
I started out with my studio in my walk-out basement in the cornfields of Northern Maryland…. and quickly realized I needed to open a commercial studio, so I did. I chose an area in Northern Baltimore County, convenient to both my home and the main highways coming out of Baltimore.
The first studio was “eclectic”. It was located in a very historic building. I had 2,000 square feet including the attic space. While I had occasional issues with heat and air conditioning as well as some wasps (I know!!! ugh!!!) because of it being a historic building, it was a great destination spot which clients seemed to be thrilled with. We were right on the NCR trail which also allowed for some great outdoor portrait opportunities.
The Money was Ridiculous
I had clients travel from all over the United States to have their portraits done. Some would even fly in with their brand new babies. The demand for custom newborn and child photography was huge compared to the small supply of us that were shooting this niche. I knew I had found my “passion”. I was creating art without living the life of a starving artist. Art and wealth? Not something you hear of often but we were all living it.
I wrote my first photography workshop book, Studio Lighting Naturally (which of course had been copied and resold by other photographers because somewhere around 2008, everyone lost their ethics). I sold thousands of copies at $400 per book. I taught my first photography workshops and filled 20 seats at a time ($1,800 per seat), and we all crammed into this space. I enjoyed teaching the art of using studio lighting to mimic natural lighting for those who wanted to shoot year round even in dark locations instead of being limited by whatever situation they were in. I taught newborn posing and newborn safety as well. My first year in this studio, I had a six-figure salary. That $500,000/year revenue was looking more and more like a possibility.
It was all quite a whirlwind. My images were published in a baby art type of book, and I was able to be interviewed on television for this. In online groups and forums, we discussed the new breed of photographers that we were seeing up and coming in the early 2000s. Most of us were all about profiting and running legitimate businesses and improving our craft, but there were what was referred to as Moms With a Camera (MWACs). We noticed that many stay-at-home moms were grabbing digital cameras and going into business within a month or two (usually after Christmas when their husbands gifted them a camera), and were charging super cheap prices that were not a livable wage. It never sat well with me, and it worried me a little bit that maybe this will be a really bad thing for the industry…. my thoughts were always shut down by my peers who didn’t believe we would be anything but successful long term.
Mom With a Camera
I despised the MWAC term. Yes, I had kids but you don’t call a plumber, a Dad With a Wrench, do you? No, that was degrading to me and I wanted to be as far away from that term as possible. I was a business owner. I worked too dang hard and made way to much money to be belittled in that way. I was interviewed for an article in the New York Times “All Work/All Play: Moms-with-a-Camera Taking over Child Photography”. The reporter had an agenda to prove, and I was taken aback by some of the questions she asked me during the interview. I kept steering the conversation to my success in this business because I ran my business like a business owner should, but she kept asking questions like “What does your husband do for a living?” When the story finally came out, all she could pull from our conversation was about business cards I handed out because I didn’t give her any evidence of being an MWAC. She could not use me for her agenda of stirring controversy.
The Busy Commercial Years
I became frustrated with some of the quirks of being in this particular historic building. Parking was a huge issue on weekends. The NCR trail became more and more popular as a hiking/biking spot. I had way too many clients to be dealing with this issue day after day. I was a bit of a diva over it. I was J. OTTE PHOTOGRAPHY! Strangers stopped me when I was out because they recognized myself or my daughter as she had been in some local magazines. I had a personal blog, sharing the simple every day snaps and family happenings that received 3,000 unique visitors per day. I was so booked up that there were times I had to turn customers away.
I moved to a second studio location. I LOVED my studios. Each one of them was unique in their own way. This one was right down the road from the first one. It was on 8 beautiful acres. This was considered the Millers House. More recently, the man who owns this build opened up the Millstone Cellars in the Mill on the same property.
I booked one-on-one mentoring sessions and more workshops about running businesses and newborns. I had attendees from all over the world – Japan, Switzerland, Germany, England, Australia…. you name it, it was truly amazing. I took in up to 12 full-session clients per week. Mini Sessions? No way. Never did them. I also never ran a sale. There was no need. I was on the first page of google and was getting so many inquiries per day, many of them were left unanswered or I had to turn clients away because I could no longer fit them in the schedule.
I was elated when bug parts were found in Similac Infant Formula. This meant more commercial work for me while they did damage control! I was juggling eight newborns in a day commercially and paying each newborn model’s parents $1,000 to model for the ad work – all my clients wanted in on that – it was so much fun! At the end of this time period (around 2010), my revenue for the business was just reaching $400,000/year. My original business plan goal of a half a million? I expected that in 2011 or 2012 for sure.
My Third and Final Commercial Studio
As landlords do, mine decided to raise rent. I put a lot of hard work into that building but I couldn’t stay there with rent going up. It didn’t make sense. We had an unstable economy and I had that feeling there was going to be a decline at some point. I didn’t want to be stuck in a lease for too long and I also didn’t want to pay $1,500/month (on top of rent) to have continued heat in a building that lacked insulation due to it being historic. I quickly found another location, about 10 minutes away from that studio in a building with newer construction. This studio was my favorite of all. I had so much room, too much in fact (and later on had them downsize it and cut it in half – these photos are after the downsize of space).
Something was Changing
At this time, I realized I had a major back problem. Something we all don’t realize as newborn photographers is that we are putting horrible wear and tear on ourselves physically. We are contorting and bending and twisting over this tiny baby in an effort to keep her quiet and comfortable for hours on end. I have since met many newborn photographers from “back in my day” who also ended up with this same herniation (L5-S1). Some of them required surgery and others are still managing. I know that I had a hard time walking for an entire year while fighting with my insurance company to cover an MRI. A chiropractor made it worse. I tried my best to hide it from my clients (unsuccessfully) and at that point could only take one session per day because after that session, I had to sit for the rest of the day. When I finally received my MRI, I was shocked and so were the doctors that I was even getting around at all. I ended up with permanent nerve damage and I have lost many of my reflexes down my right leg. Yes, folks, this is what can happen to a newborn photographer with repetitive motions and bending certain ways.
I think there was some foreshadowing in this story that I did kept trying to avoid because all my peers kept saying “Don’t worry about the MWACs. There’s enough business for everyone!” I noticed in 2011, my revenue dipped significantly. I was not comfortable with this but I kept telling myself it was me. Maybe I wasn’t responding to clients quick enough. Maybe I wasn’t providing good enough work. I tried to talk about this to my peers, and I kept getting met with “Ignore the competition. They will go out of business if they don’t charge enough.” But…. but…. I clearly saw that for every one that went out of business, more would take their place. This is what I observed, yet everyone was telling me to shut up and work harder. They told me to evolve my business, to differentiate myself, to specialize, to become a CPP. Many that said those words started dropping out of the industry, one by one…. even the CPPs. Yet, they still wouldn’t discuss it openly.
Decline and Confusion Among Newbies
So many photographers refused to talk about this decline and years later, still won’t talk about it. Many of my peers stopped taking cold-call clients because they were finding they could get more revenue through teaching and touring and doing workshops. Again, I tried to discuss this, and it was hushed. No one would talk about it. The big phrase was “I’m giving back.” Giving back? What? That didn’t make sense. Clients are where the biggest part of your revenue should come from. Why were they not focusing on clients anymore?
Mixed signals were given to the newbies. Some of the problems with the education that was being “sold” during this time was that, for instance, an amazingly talented photographer out of let’s say No-One-Cares, Nebraska began touring with her beautiful work, teaching technique. She taught a workshop in Washington DC where the cost of living is probably quadruple what hers was back home. The attendees would be enamored with her and worship her and why not? Her work was gorgeous. She would then get asked “What do you charge?” Her response was, “$500 for all the digital images.” Her workshop was not about business, but she would politely answer these questions that everyone wanted to know. The new photographers in this workshop would then think I’M NOT WORTHY and price less, comparing themselves to her. They would not understand the fact that the going rate for “all the images” in DC was $3,000-$5,000 because of the higher cost of living. This was sending confusion to the mass of newbies.
The commercial photography was not exempt from this phenomenon. Photographers who never did commercial work before would start spouting off online that we all must find our “happy place” with pricing and her happy place for a five-day shoot where she had to fly out and include a library buyout of all the images produced, well, she charged $5,000. Wait. No. The going rate for that type of job was $50,000-$150,000. Now we had photographers charging a fraction of what they should charge for commercial work and licensing of images. There were no standards for photographers anywhere and since most were artists or stay-at-home mothers, they lived a life feeling they were not worthy enough to charge what they considered ‘a lot’.
During my last commercial ad campaign in 2011, an art buyer that I had worked with before was negotiating my production and licensing rate. She kept pushing me to reduce my rate. I reduced to bare minimum because it felt like she did not want to deal with me anymore. Many of these commercial jobs were six-figure jobs. I had to pay assistants, models, catering, cleaning, prop stylists, makeup artist, wardrobe, etc. etc. etc. Plus, I had to price out library buyouts for all the images and licensing fees. The art buyers words to me that I will never ever forget were “If you don’t lower your price, we will get any mom with a camera to do it.“
That was it. I knew my commercial photography career was over. How did she even know that term?
Putting Eggs in Different Baskets and Closing the Studio
Sometime around 2012, I decided to go finish my college degree. I felt the decline of the industry. I didn’t care what anyone said, I felt it. I needed to move some of my eggs to different baskets. So I did just that, I went back to college.
In 2013, I decided to close my studio. It no longer made sense for me to continue with that overhead. I hardly used the studio at that point. I photographed children outdoors on location, and I was no longer taking 10 newborns per week. I could simply photograph newborns back on location (I hear you all groan because you think that’s a huge hassle, but go read my Article – On-Location Newborn Photography). I thought I would be sad to close the studio but in all honesty, at that point, it was a relief. The overhead had truly become a burden, and I was burnt out and frankly, pissed off that this decline was happening and no one would talk about it!
Downsizing was the buzzword for me. I downsized everything but balanced maintaining quality work. I also had quite a back tax burden. Once you have some back taxes due to massive unexpected revenue mixed with a tax preparer that gave bad advice during the time of an industry decline, you learn what it’s like to run on a hamster wheel….. Our system of taxation involving penalties and interest guarantee that small businesses who experience an “oops” will find it nearly impossible to fix it. When I tried to get a repayment plan established, the IRS did not believe that I could no longer bring in that $400,000 revenue because the market here was no longer supporting it.
I felt that since I was finishing up my degree, I should start re-establishing my resume in the accounting/business world. I acquired a full-time accounting position where I stayed for two years gaining important resume experience. I also continued to work my photography business part time. I was no longer counting on the income so having a few clients per month with a prepaid pricing structure (not cheap, in fact, I was still one of the most expensive in the area) was rather nice.
A side note: I will never understand why if someone has a full time job that pays the bills why they would do photography on the side for cheap. Why? Why do that? If you don’t count on the money, isn’t it better to charge higher and only take a few here and there – that’s how you develop an exclusive brand. You don’t want a lot of business that way. But I will save that for a business article.
Research and Analysis
I left my accounting position and briefly worked as a controller. I decided to come back into the photography industry full time while completing the degree. When I closed my studio in 2013, I had a bad attitude. I couldn’t help but to ask myself, did I make the right decision? I vowed to dive back into all of it for the past year (2017-2018). I wanted to know is there anything left? If there is anything left, is it enough for me? Should I really pursue my next career path? Of course, I will never give up photography completely and will always have my foot in the door with it and always take clients that are willing to pay my prices, but do I want this full time again? Is there even enough left for full time at a salary that would be worth it to me?
That is what my business articles are really about. I’m sharing with full transparency what I have researched and discovered in TODAY’s business climate. I just spent the last year back in the trenches with real photographers who take real clients (not supporting themselves solely on teaching). I put 100% effort into it this time around, and I have the results.