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Diversify to survive during lockdown

Some professional photographers have found offering a more diverse range of services has proven essential to stay afloat and withstand the lockdowns and worsening economic conditions.

Sally Brownbill and her best mate, Lany.

In early March Inside Imaging reported how photographers and videographers in Melbourne and Sydney were dealing with the onset of Covid-19. The situation was still fresh, with the Melbourne Grand Prix having just been cancelled and no European-style lockdowns in sight. Things changed pretty quickly, with Victoria and Melbourne in particular currently undergoing a truly unwelcome second wave of restrictions.

‘I think this second round of lockdown has been tougher for people in Melbourne,’ said Sally Brownbill, a Melbourne-based creative business consultant at The Brownbill Effect, who has been working closely with Australian photographers. ‘During the first time it was a bit of the unknown, so we all had a breather and had a nice opportunity to get our admin together.’

This time around the novelty is wearing thin for Melburnians – there’s only so much sour dough you can bake! However, Sally points out how quickly Melbourne bounced back in the brief interval between outbreaks.

‘Jobs started happening, studios opened up and shoots were back on, and assistants were needed,’ she explained. ‘Things were coming along nicely, and right up until the day we were locked down last week people were shooting. I’m not overly concerned. While how we do things may need to change, there is always going to be work for photographers. We will always need design, packaging, promotion and PR.’

Melbourne-based fashion photographer, Anthony Leong, who operates a studio, Modform Photographers, also recorded a ‘flurry of activity’ between lockdowns. However, the unfortunate timing of the second lockdown left some regular clients without a budget.

Anthony Leong.

‘Work has been patchy at best, because as I said before (in March), deliveries were slow. Then we relaxed, and deliveries coincided with the second lockdown,’ he said. ‘I fear one of my clients has gone out of business. They were basically a small business with low margins – imported fashion – so the whole deal about lack of supply, then supply without customers or shops means one of my regular monthly clients is no more. Two others have told me they no longer have the allocated budget because they have to survive and live first, of course. Several others just haven’t responded, although two said they’d defer – indefinitely I think!

With barely any work available, Inside Imaging asked whether studio overheads were an issue.

‘My studio is both a blessing and a curse. While I am able to work alone on product shoots, of which there is almost nil, I can’t rent it out because if even one person breaks the rules, they’re liable for a $2000 fine and I’m liable for up to $10,000. I’m just not going to risk it. So, for now I have to find rent, electricity, phone, insurance and rates. No shutter actuations means no upward movement in the bank account, so it’s all pretty hard.

‘However, I am also upbeat about the future, as I owe nothing on the studio in terms of leasing equipment or having paid for it on credit. This means I don’t have those ongoing payments so when I can rent the studio out, even without jobs myself, at least it will pay for the outgoings, if little else. I also think that after lockdown there will be a flurry of activity as happened before, so there is hope and light in sight.’

James Anderson.

While Melbourne’s Stage 4 restrictions has frozen the photo industry, there were some new job opportunities this year. James Anderson at Turbo360, which specialised in corporate events and weddings, initially took a massive hit to his business. Fortunately, he already offered a wide range of services, and it was merely a matter of adjusting his marketing to target growth areas, such as 360-degree virtual tours.

‘Well, what a rollercoaster! It’s safe to say everything has ground to a halt now,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘No real estate virtual tours, no professional photography services permitted, and all those large events which were “postponed” earlier in the year have now officially moved to online-only events – so there’s no requirement for on-site video or photo services for those events at all this year.

‘Having said that, we’re doing okay.  We managed to capture all images for a major virtual tour project we are working on for Metro Trains just before Stage 4 restrictions kicked in, so we now have plenty of post production work to get us through.’

Robert Edwards

In March commercial Sydney photographer, Robert Edwards, told us he was fortunate to ‘have a diversified client base that adds variety and helps mitigate some of the risk’. At the time work was steady, but Robert informs Inside Imaging Sydney is now a ‘ghost town’, with work drying up in obvious areas like tourism and events. A handful of jobs remain in the corporate, commercial and industrial sectors, with the only growth area being virtual tours. He’s less confident about the future than during our last discussion, and is ‘ramping up my digital asset management consulting business again’.

After James told us about the boom of real estate 360-degree virtual tours in April, ‘the rate of enquiries dropped significantly in the lead up to Stage 4’. ‘Then everyone panicked, the phone was running off the hook on the day before lockdown kicked in by agents desperate to get real estate tours completed before it was no longer allowed,’ he said. While real estate work slowed down, upcoming school enrollments led to new demand for school virtual tours, and James designed a product especially for this niche area.

James attributes Turbo360’s current stability to its diverse range of services. ‘I do feel for others who solely dedicate their photo and video services to the wedding industry and rely on that business as their only income.  Sadly, that one side of the business was the first to close down, and will be the last to reopen’.

He’s invested in three new PTZ (pan tilt zoom) remote-controlled cameras for video live streaming. ‘This allows us to set up, but then control and manage streams from a different location – keeping crew safe and also not contributing to the number restrictions of people permitted in a space,’ he said. ‘Whilst we are competing in the world of “Zoom conferences”, what we offer with this investment can be more of a high-end TV-style produced service for corporate clients’.

It’s this kind of diversification Sally Brownbill suggests may be key for photographers, and advising clients to explore new avenues has been a common theme in recent consultations.

‘The more you can diversify, the better. Some fashion and portrait studios, which have suffered enormously with the disappearance of corporate and commercial jobs, may be in a position to take advantage of the growth in the online shopping industry. Others could move into retouching. Although it’s important to manage this diversification without doing harm to existing business. If you’re retouching for one photographer, you don’t want to simultaneously appear as their competition, so maybe you’ll operate with two independent websites.’

Through the Brownbill Effect creative directory, Sally regularly communicates with New Zealand photographers, who report that prior to the Auckland shutdown, business was almost resembling pre-Covid times. While it’s worrying the virus has crashed through New Zealand’s barriers, among the strictest in the world, there is hope Australia will eventually join the Kiwis in enjoying pre-Covid business conditions.

One Comment

  1. Orlando Sydney Orlando Sydney August 17, 2020

    Good to read about how other photographers are doing in 2020, we’re all in the same slow boat, waiting for better days when opportunities and bookings return.

    We considered expanding from just business events to include virtual tours but by the time it takes to be proficient in the niche and market your new offering there would be a fairly big lag time in bookings for us. Good to see that it’s worked well for some.

    Sydney centre is a ghost town, many of the corporates have most of their staff working from home still. Melbourne would be even more ghostly right now, I feel for you guys.

    We started being more active with our mail list. Updating long form content on our website and staying in touch with event managers and planners, as this will be key when things pick up again in the corporate events sector.

    Fingers crossed for 2021! 

    Stay well and stay connected.

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