When I started my photography business things didn't run all that well. I didn't have a clear understanding of how to run a business or manage any of the financial aspects. I didn't realize that making a profit was an essential part of living a fulfilling life as an entrepreneur. I knew how to work hard and I was willing to do whatever it took to become a great photographer, but that's pretty much sums up everything I had going in the right direction.
A lot of folks are interested in starting or building their own livestock photography business and I think it's an incredible side hustle that can build income for farm and ranch families. I also firmly believe great photos add value to livestock, meaning farmers and ranchers who do their own livestock imaging can easily increase the value of their own animals by learning to take better photos.
When I think about how much a photograph is worth, there are really three distinct questions at play. First, we need to consider the value an image can add to an animal. Second, we can evaluate what we might be able to charge for an image based on the value it adds to an animal, and third, we need to understand what we have to charge for an image in order for the creation of it to contribute toward a profitable business.
How much value can a photo add? For 100 years the photograph has been the standard that's allowed people to evaluate animals they can't see in person. Until the adoption of the internet in rural communities, access was our biggest challenge when it came to distributing information about our animals. If people wanted to see our animals, there was only one way to do it; get in the car and drive.
So, in order to give more people access we'd take a few photographs, put them in a catalog, or postcard, or print advertisement and have them mailed to people all over the country. Throughout the 20th century, we tended to market our breeding programs and trusted our program would sell our individual animals.
A lot has changed in the last 20 years and, today, we live in a world that is not limited by access. If I want it, I can get online and have it, and I can have it now. Today we live in a world of convenience. This change in the mindset of the buying public has shifted directly into livestock marketing. Today, photos are still the standard we use, across all species, to evaluate animals we can't see, but now buyers expect sellers to provide images to add convenience to their purchase experience.
This means buyers expect sellers to provide a photograph of every animal. Buyer's assume, if an animal isn't photographed, it's not good enough to be worth photographing, therefore it certainly isn't an animal worth owning.
Today, buyers in the purebred and club calf cattle business also demand a video, not only to see how animals move, but to gain trust that the photograph they saw was an accurate representation of the animal. This trend is slowly creeping into all other species of show-oriented animals as well and will be full blown in the next few years.
So, I can't expect to sell an animal without an image. Got it. Sounds like an extra cost I have to endure to sell my product, not an added value, right? Not really.
Let's accept the fact that providing an image of every animal adds to the convince factor your buyers expect. And, assuming your animals meet their needs, you've now become a potential purchase option. That's priceless, but it hasn't added value yet, I've just met the minimum bar required to sell my stock.
So, let's look at how images add value. First, good photographs create demand. The more good photographs you have of good animals, the more phone calls you can expect. I don't have to tell you the difference between having one bidder and two on sale day can add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the sale price of an individual animal.
More so, I believe images add value by visually conveying your brand to others. As a producer, you must trust the quality of your animals to attract buyers, so you share your photos everywhere you can. In doing so, your livestock pictures become the number one way your brand is perceived by others.
Do you have a clean, attractive background in your images? Do you have clean attractive animals in your images? Are these ranch cattle or hand-fed show cattle?
Buyer's perceive a lot more about you from your photos than just the quality of the livestock, and everything in that image can add value to your farm's marketing efforts - from the animals, to the gates, to the background, to the care you've taken to present those animals to the public.
A quick note to wrap this section. As much as I know the right shot adds value by increasing demand for an individual animal, the wrong shot will cost you a lot of money. In an era of purchasing convenience, there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that might fit my needs. If I have the option to choose an animal from the right farm, with the right brand, I'm not going to spend any time learning about one that doesn't have a good photograph when there are plenty of others that do.
How much can I charge for my photography? It should go without saying that the better you are as a photographer, the more value your images will add to the animals because you'll be consistently posing the animals correctly and lighting them correctly, and ensuring the quality standards of the brand. So accordingly, the better photographer you are, the more your images are worth.
In the video above, I talked about a pricing structure I used when I was taking livestock photos full time, and how to get started pricing your own work.
I can tell you many producers think the upper end of this price range is too high based on other photographers available in the marketplace. This particular pricing structure was developed to attract large producers who were having annual or semi-annual production sales. I liked this because I enjoy building strong relationships, getting to know a neighborhood, and being a part of the bigger picture. I also know that people who have large production sales count on that income to run their business, so working for bigger, more reputable operations also increased the likelihood of getting paid, and getting paid on time. Additionally, they were more likely to value to the work I did in representing their ranch, because their ranch was their life and their livelihood.
Even so, and even though I loved my work, the bottom end of this scale wasn't working for me as a business model. It didn't leave my family with a strong profit in the bank to advance our direction in life.
The Profitability Factor If you're running a photography business, you need to run a business. That means your business needs to be profitable. You need to be paid for your time, your equipment, your expertise, and your overhead expenses (including taxes), while also making sure there's enough money in the bank at the end of the year for your family (even if it's a family of one) to be in a better financial position at the end of the year than you were when the year began.
All too often, I see people who create ag-industry service businesses who do it because they love it. You want to be a designer, or a photographer, or fitter. You want to be around livestock, and livestock people, so you hang out your shingle and call yourself a business owner and entrepreneur. I know, because I did it too.
But we have to be careful! We can be so enamored with the work, and the opportunity to do something we love, that we forget business owners and entrepreneurs don't just make a living, they make money. You've got to get paid, and paid well, for doing this work.
I've seen so many friends who were willing to underprice their work, or undercut the competition, because they loved their job and they value the opportunity more than the work they were doing. This is the easiest thing to do in business, but it ends with the same story at the end of the year. You're frustrated, tired, and confused as to how you worked so hard, so-freaking-hard, but just don't have anything left to show for it. I know, because I did it for a long time.
The cost of a photo is your overhead expense (equipment, meals, vehicle, office space, etc.) + your time (time spent actually doing the job, driving to the job, editing, customer service) + opportunity cost (nights away from home, clients turned down, family events missed) + costs of goods sold (any materials needed to deliver your work) + PROFIT, then divide this out over the number of photo days you want to work and the number of photos you think you'll take on an average day.
Here's the deal, photography can be a good business, especially if you live in livestock country. It's absolutely an amazing side hustle. A few hundred to a few thousand bucks on the weekend, on top of your consistent income job is an amazing bonus, and I think that's where livestock photography and videography fits best in 2020 and beyond.
There's more demand for the work than ever before. That trend is not going to go away. So if you can develop the skill, and develop a list of consistent customers in your geographic area, you can do great things with livestock photography to enhance your family income.
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