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Pro photography approaching ‘new’ normal

‘Wow what a difference a few days can make,’ remarked commercial photographer, Robert Edwards, when asked how the business of photography is currently going in Sydney. ‘We’ve now been put into lockdown with an uncertain immediate future.’

In March and August, Inside Imaging first contacted a few experienced professional photographers to get a gauge on how they’re navigating the business during the global pandemic. Robert, along with Melbourne photographer, Anthony Leong, and Victorian videographer, James Anderson, kindly shared their experiences with Inside Imaging and were open and honest about the lack of work, or the little niches they had carved out to survive.

In March it was fast-paced and exciting, if patchy. Hotel quarantine and contact tracing hadn’t entered the everyday lexicon; weddings and holidays were still booked, or at worst would be postponed until November. But events were becoming non-events one after the other – James was set to shoot the Formula One, only to have it cancelled after the 11th hour. By August professional photography in Melbourne was illegal as Victorians underwent a seemingly endless lockdown, and Sydney resembled a ghost town.

Mid-last week Inside Imaging touched base with Robert, Anthony and James again, with anticipation that business would have become more buoyant. The plan was to publish a cheerful finale to our trilogy of ‘how’s business’ articles. Today it’s hard not to feel an eerie sense of familiarity as parts of Sydney lock down and borders once again tighten.

‘I’ve been back behind the lens for about four weeks now and work has been coming in fast,’ Anthony, director of fashion studio, Modform Photographers, told Inside Imaging. ‘It’s been quite a surprise and frankly, sorely needed. August we were still in lockdown and it’s just since late October that we were finally given the “okay” by the Department of Health and Human Services, and restrictions about using the studio and models were lifted.’

During the lockdown Anthony covered the overheads for his studio despite having barely any work scheduled for months. To make matters worse, he feared some clients were either folding or losing the budget for photography, leading to an inevitable knock-on effect. Fortunately, this proved to be a false perception.

But the business of photography didn’t emerge unscathed from the lockdown. While it weeded out many of the amateur or semi-pro types who hadn’t established a business capable of withstanding hardship, it’s also had an affect on pricing, as clients have become more cautious with spending.

‘I’ve been forced to lower my prices by a few percentage, not disastrous I know, but still it eats into the profit where one still has to pay for the studio rent, upkeep, new equipment – I love the new Spyder X Pro for calibration – phone, electricity, and on it goes,’ Anthony said.

James of Turbo360 has been inundated with jobs since December. While events were once a major income stream for his business, he pivoted to virtual 360-degree tours, which were a big hit among panicking real estate agents. The hype didn’t last, and James has gone from capturing 100 virtual tours per month during the lockdown, to around just 15. Live streaming, on the other hand, has taken off.

‘Things have actually gone a little crazy, especially over the first two weeks of December,’ James said. ‘We picked up 32 school events to live stream over the first 17 days of December to parents who couldn’t be there in person. School graduations, religious confirmations as well as Christmas carols and productions, so needless to say – the last few weeks have been a little hectic.’

Weddings are also coming back to life, but in a weird new Covid-friendly way. ‘Live Streaming and having a smaller wedding has been a big line of inquiry from the leads coming in, with most weddings opting to beam the event into lounge-rooms across the globe. We have also enabled two-way “Zoom-style” stream (with professional quality), with large screen TVs at the ceremony site, so the father of the bride can give away his daughter with real-time two way conversation during the ceremony. I am finding much joy in enabling this for clients, and all clients are so grateful to bring everyone together.’

It’s possible there will be another Covid lockdown, but James’ previous experience has left him prepared to deal with whatever happens next.  ‘I would like to believe that we all have a better grasp on things now, and we have grown to expect the unexpected and adapt accordingly,’ he said. ‘Next time it won’t be such a shock and we’ll be in a position to pivot to other elements of the business we have grown and developed as a result of recent times. We will come out of this with a suite of new talents, learnings and offerings in our digital media agency.’

Anthony didn’t diversify or move into new areas of photography, but with an established studio that’s fully equipped and ready to go he’s been able to quickly bounce back.

‘I failed mysticism and mind-reading at Monash and RMIT, but from what I’m getting, there is a lot who are raring to go and beat the economy back into shape,’ he said.’ I feel we’ll be okay, judging from the comments of clients over the past few weeks. Even the industry appears buoyant among those of us who do this for a real living, rather than dabble! The major holding-back is client expenditure not being what it used to be or what it could be. There’s nothing we can do about that in the short-term, but it’s happening slowly.’

The Melbourne photographer plans to renovate the studio and resurface the cyclorama. Anyone with a contact in Melbourne who can pour a matte white epoxy floor please get in touch!

Sydney looking more uncertain

Robert, a commercial photographer with a diversified client portfolio, said some work sectors like tourism and events had completely dried up by August. With far fewer photography gigs available, Robert planned to revamp his Digital Asset Management (DAM) consulting business. Since then, he’s put the DAM business on hold.

‘Well I’m more optimistic than our previous interviews but still very cautious. Covid-19 has hit some businesses more than others and the same is true for certain professional photography genres,’ he said. ‘My heart goes out to retail photographers, everyone in Victoria, as well as suppliers.

‘As of mid-October my commercial photography has essentially returned to normal. Well, the new normal. Sydney is bustling with people and the Christmas rush is evident with shops and car parks full.’

That response was on Wednesday, December 16, and by December 20 Robert provided an update that the near-future is less certain with the Northern Beaches Covid outbreak. A stark reminder just how quickly things change.

However, he’s maintaining a packed schedule of corporate, commercial and industrial photography, while events are still non-existent. It’s typically busy this time of year, but there has also been a fair few ‘catch up’ jobs. ‘I’m over-booked until new year with the regular bookings returning for 2021.’ – A good problem to have.

Professional photography is continuing to stabilise. The hardest hit sectors, weddings and events, are slowly emerging from a long hibernation. The outlook isn’t looking too bad – not as bad as it could have been.

If the last year is characterised by the havoc wreaked by Covid, then hopefully the next 12 months will be signified by a major recovery.

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