Are you a wedding/portrait photographer whose sales are flat or declining? Are your prices the same or lower than they were three years ago? Do you think that improving your photography is the answer to increasing your sales? If you have a sneaky suspicion that the problem isn’t your photography, you’re probably right. The problem may be that you’re swimming in churning red water, not calm blue water.

Red water is churning, foamy, water that’s infested with sharks and barracudas in a feeding frenzy. Those sharks and barracudas are your competitors, killing each other to book the same customer. In red water quality doesn’t matter, originality doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is having the lowest price. And, the only way out of red water isn’t improving your photography, it’s finding the calm, blue water where you can swim alone.

After years of successfully defining itself as one of the best photographers in the Washington, DC area, Freed Photography unexpectedly found itself in 2009 stuck in churning red water. Coming out of the recession of 2009‐2010 we could see that there was a dramatic increase in the number of people calling themselves professional photographers and we could also sense a dramatic change in the attitudes of our brides. Pre‐recession brides were primarily concerned with hiring the best photographer – and we were often their choice. Post‐recession brides were singularly concerned with getting the most stuff for the absolute lowest price. We often didn’t want to be their choice for that amount. We could see that this market was overcrowded with photographers and quality was taking a back seat to price in the bride’s decision hierarchy. They no longer wanted “the best,” but they were looking for the most at the lowest price. This led us to the question of where is the blue water?
Serendipitously, we were approached by a client at this time to photograph her children at their school. She was sick of getting an order envelope home, having to pick a package and put in a check, and then having to wait to see if she liked the photograph, which she never did. The school wanted to upgrade and she wanted us to do it.

There’s a saying that when opportunity knocks, make sure you open the door, well we almost didn’t. We had no interest in doing school photography, and we told her no, three times. But, she kept asking and eventually this led to our calm blue water.

What we noticed right away was that nobody was happy with school photography. “Sit here, smile, click, next, next, next.” The old approach had gotten old. Schools, students, and parents were uniformly unimpressed with the quality of the photographs and school photography companies were alarmed by the declining parent participation rates and shrinking sales. As H.J. Heinz (of ketchup fame) said: “To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success.” We realized that we could find our blue water by doing school photography in a way that nobody else in our market was doing it, by taking uncommonly good school photographs.

We could take time to engage with each student, we could take more than one photograph of each student, we could let the students have fun in the photographs and we could let the parents see the photographs before asking them to buy. In short, we could take advantage of current technology to bring school photography into the 21st century.

These few changes in total, allowed us to create a product and sales method that was dramatically different than all of the other school photography companies. The other companies were stuck in their own ocean of red water, competing on price or how much money they could give away in commission while we were signing school after school where commissions were barely spoken about. By taking a different approach we were able to identify blue waters where we were the only ones swimming in our part of the ocean.

As Mr. Chan and Ms. Mauborgne report on Cirque du Soleil: “Despite a long‐term decline in the circus industry, Cirque du Soleil profitably increased revenue 22‐fold over the last ten years by reinventing the circus. Rather than competing within the confines of the existing industry or trying to steal customers from rivals, Cirque developed uncontested market space that made the competition irrelevant.”

If your business is stagnating or not growing as robustly as you would like and you feel buffeted by events beyond your control, maybe you’re swimming in the wrong part of the ocean. The solution may lie not in improving your photography as much as in charting a path over to calm blue waters.

Neal Freed is the owner of Freed Spirit, a studio in Bethesda, Maryland. School photography is a major focus of the studio where they promote it as “The New Face of Student Portraiture.” Their staff of photographers are talented and experienced in various types of photography and bring those talents to the school picture industry to provide a product and service that parents prefer over the typical “smile, click” service but at the prices that parents are used to paying. Neal was an instructor at the 2016 Texas School of Professional Photography. Learn more about Neal at www.FreedSpirit.com