Extraordinary interview with professional photographer and author Patrick Endres. He shares his experience from running a successful photography business and managing all the various facets it entails. Any stage you are at in your career, you're sure to get something useful from reading Patrick's answers!
Please tell us about yourself and your photography background.
I grew up in a small town in the rural farm country of southern Wisconsin where I enjoyed art and discovering nature. My introduction to photography began early, with a simple Kodak Instamatic camera. I was hooked later in high school, after watching a picture come to life in the darkroom.
After high school graduation, Alaska lured me north to pursue a university education and explore its wilderness landscape. I took the long road towards a college degree, exploring different subjects along the way and ultimately ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology.
Eventually, I found my way back to the arts and turned my amateur photography aspirations toward a professional career. Looking back, I see my journey in the title of Harry Chapin’s song “All My Life’s a Circle”, since I ended up working in the arts, nature and photography which was where I felt the most at home in my youth.
What are all the components of your online presence now? (personal site, social media, other profiles)
The fulcrum of my online presence is my stock photography website: alaskaphotographics.com
How do you balance photography work between commercial/assignment and personal projects?
I’ve developed a balance that has evolved over time. As my career began to grow I came to the place where I needed an employee but did not have the revenue to afford one. So I started out slowly with a part time position which eventually evolved into a full-time job. Together, my employee – who eventually became my assistant and office manager – and I, began to build an efficient and well-working team doing commercial and assignment photography with all the gear necessary for location shooting. We had a great 10-year run at it, but my heart was not in the logistics of assignment work, so I phased out of that when my employee moved on to greener pastures.
I now cherry pick commercial assignments on a limited basis. For my own work projects and photographic pursuits I try to blend both work aspiration and personal satisfaction as much as possible. This translates into choosing places and subjects to photograph that, based on my experience in the industry, will hopefully find some home in the stock photo marketplace. I consider it a great gift to have a job that I really enjoy. Of course, there are some aspects of my work that I don’t like, but that is a small percentage. The kind of work that now inspires me most is exploring and visually interpreting Alaska’s wilderness landscape. Making a living as a nature stock photographer is still a viable business model, but not an easy one, and it is getting tougher with each passing year.
At what point in your career did you start using a website and what effects did the websites have on your business so far?
The provocation to using a website as a business tool happened around 2001, just before the digital SLR revolution. My website really established my business. The advent of the Internet opened up the photo marketplace and enabled the little guys like me to have a business presence along with the big guys. Stock agencies were taking 60% of sales, and I felt like it was a ripe opportunity to go direct with client sales.
At about this same time, I took what to me was a huge financial risk by hiring a programmer to build a customized, searchable website to present my stock images to clients around the world. Back then, the many subscription services that offer this today – like the one I’m currently using (PhotoShelter) – were not available. I was spending to the limits of my budget. It felt right but it also felt risky. Within a few months, I made a big sale to Apple for a hero image which would be used on the product box for one of their new flat panel monitors. That transaction, made through my website, gave me the confidence that I was moving in the right direction.
My website really IS the heart of my business. I am currently represented by Getty, Corbis, AlaskaStock and DesigPics but the bulk of my income has always come directly from my own website in conjunction with the cultivation of clients over a few decades. The World Wide Web let me get my material to a broader audience. But being on the web and being found on the web are two different things and I worked hard on developing good search engine optimization. It’s kind of scary to think of how important Google is to my business viability. Although now, with a diverse clientele of repeat customers and publishers, it actually seems slightly less important than it used to be for general searches. If you Google what I specialize in, which is “Alaska photos”, I hope I’m still on top.
You’ve authored five books (which you sell on your site). How did you come about writing them, and how have they helped your business overall?
I’ve designed and written one eBook, self-published and designed one hard copy book, and photo illustrated 3 other books. I’ve also been a significant contributing photographer on a number of other books.
All the books I’ve written, and/or illustrated are of subjects that I have very strong imagery and experience. My eBook titled “How to Photograph the Northern Lights, is a “how to” book directed towards the photographer community and it has been very well received. I see the books as a part of the whole presence in print and electronic media, and they open up avenues for further sales and/or recognition. The printed books were single print editions with a flat fee contract rather than royalty revenue.
The eBook is a little different since it is marketed to the photographer community, and since I guide northern lights photo tours it is both an endorsement and an avenue for clients to find me.
How difficult was it to promote the book as an independent author?
I don’t find the promotion difficult, but that is largely because of the specific topic, limited competition on the topic, and that my website page that promotes it is well indexed. I have one advertisement for my eBook on a carefully chosen external website and am considering a small printed flyer, but that is it. Again, by Googling “how to photograph the northern lights” the value of SEO becomes evident.
From a design perspective, books are a labor of love which I enjoy. But making a good solid book, well organized and illustrated is a lot of work. My background in art and design offers a good skill set for this process. From a content and sales perspective, books that provide critical knowledge (rather than just pretty pictures) seem more viable, especially eBooks with ability to provide updates and keep information current.
Your site offers multiple types of fine-art prints. What’s your experience with selling them and what feedback have you received from customers?
I have seen trends in print sales over the years in respect to media surfaces. In today’s age you can get a print made on anything from fabric to wood, to metal. In general, for me at least, print sales have leveled off. I think this is largely because people want their own picture on a wall and the tools are there for them to do that easily. The technological advances in desktop printers and the availability of Internet-based printing houses has also contributed to this.
As far as feedback, I offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee in order to give the buyer a feeling of assurance when only having a computer screen for a reference. Over the many years, I’ve only a few people have returned a print and that at least tells me something about what I don’t hear. The feedback I do hear is usually flattering and positive.
What about calendars and greeting cards?
I self design and publish two calendars. I enjoy the design and image selection process, since it offers a chance to add a personal touch to the product. But, there is a lot of editing and review work to ensure the calendar date grid with holidays, moon phases, etc., are accurate.
One year I accidentally placed Easter on a Friday and not the correct Sunday, and that was a bad day indeed. I’m generally a pretty meticulous person and I still don’t know how that slipped by, but it did, and I got a little hate mail over that. Printed media is a tough market these days, but I think people still like a wall calendar for a quick glance reference.
Greeting cards may be purchased from any photo on my website and while I don’t promote them much, they pull in a little business. Most of these are small quantities of 10 or 25, and since they are custom print jobs they are more expensive than bulk quantities.
Your site also offers a newsletter (powered by MailChimp if I’m not mistaking). How have you leveraged it so far?
Yes, you are correct, it is powered by Mailchimp. I give myself a C or D grade on that one. While I believe there is value in cultivating and informing your constituency through a newsletter, I’ve been inconsistent with it. Your question about it is inspiring me to make it a more consistent, scheduled item, perhaps combined with special sales or offers.
I noticed you’re quite an active social media user. How do you find time to manage these accounts? And why do you (apparently) pay less attention to Google+?
I came kicking and screaming to the world of social media, and while I’m no longer screaming, I still feel like I’m kicking a lot. I followed my website with a blog, which gets posts about 2-3 times a week. Then came a twitter account (@alaskaphoto), LinkedIn, and Google Plus.
Then the wall caved in and I became active on Facebook. Although a brilliant concept, I really disliked Facebook’s look and interface, although it has gotten a little better over time.
And finally, and most recently, I became active on Instagram, which is my favorite of all the social media platforms because of its simple interface, the sharing of original work, and the absence of ads and all the other “junk” that people share on the web.
I anticipate modifying the posting schedule for all of my social accounts soon, giving them a less redundant content flow. I have made it a point to be consistent with providing content on my blog, but I’ve been a little less consistent with the other social media. Initially, I preferred my blog as the primary source, and then I would feed that to all the other accounts. But increasingly, all the platforms want direct involvement. Facebook and Instagram are the two accounts I’m now using most besides my blog. And I use Facebook only because others use it, not because I like it. I try to keep my interaction based on the subject of photography, gear, and travels in Alaska. No food photos and no politics.
As for Google Plus, it is a great environment for sharing photos, but one can only be genuinely active on so many platforms.
And let’s not forget “Photo Tours”. What success have you had with them so far?
I started guiding photo tours almost 25 years ago. At this time, I do it on a limited basis, restricting myself to a handful of trips a year. They are hugely successful and popular, with many repeat clients.
As for expanding that part of my business, I like the amount of trips I’m currently guiding since it allows me the free time to focus on my own photography projects. The trend for professional (and non-professional) photographers to migrate towards guiding other photographers in getting their own pictures is hugely apparent. As stock photo sales continue to decline and with digital camera ownership at an all time high, it becomes a logical business move for many. Because of the profusion of guided tours out there I have a little advice for your readers: If you are seeking to participate in a photo tour, please vet out your guide well and make sure they have a long list of positive endorsements.
Many photographers are looking to transition more from services to products (prints, books/eBooks, workshops/seminars etc.) Do you plan on creating even more products (as opposed to only blogging & image galleries)?
I plan to ride out the stock image market as long as I can, while continuing my printed line of goods like calendars. I’m currently working on the second hard copy children’s book in a series and I’m working on another eBook. I’d like to cultivate a more easily discernible line of print products and make the search/find/purchase process a little easier.
Right now, I think people get overwhelmed on my website with 25,000 plus images and often don’t come to a purchase decision because they get overloaded with options. It is a challenge trying to blend a stock photo site along with a fine art print site because there is so much material.
What is your least favorite aspect of managing your photography business?
That would have to be keywording and adding metadata to photos. My will power drains the quickest on this one. You can add dust stamping to the list also. I don’t mind performing post process developments on images at all. I actually like bringing a raw file to life. But the keywording – oh man, that makes me a professional procrastinator!
What inspires you? (now, in the industry)
I’m inspired by the artist who consistently produces creative, strong work, and exhibits a solid blend of the business and art counterparts, in a polished and functional manner. I’m inspired by simplicity, original thinking, and people who are being creative because it leaks out of them.
I’m not inspired by people who make social media the motivation for their work. This quote sums up my thoughts on that:
“Woe to the one whose reputation is greater than their work”
(ancient ascetic quote)
What do you think are the qualities of an effective photography website?
- Universally functional across all browsers and mobile device platforms (thank goodness for the end of Internet Explorer 6!)
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Logical navigation
- Thoughtful use of color
- And powerful Admin/user privilege options
Oh, and behind all that, great customer service to back it all up. Now, after reading that, I better get to work on my own website!
In your experience, what mistakes are people usually making on their photography sites?
Basically, the absence of the above-mentioned items.
But in conjunction with that, organization is critical. It is also a huge challenge to make thousands of images available to everyone. Some means of drilling down to find what you are looking for is the holy grail of any search endeavor. I’m speaking mainly about a site like mine which is targeted for stock image sales. Many photographers want a site that serves as a portfolio space or resume of sorts, rather than a portal to buy images.
I think that when someone lands on your homepage they should know in a split second what it is you offer, what your specialty is, and where they should click next.
Lack of clarity, poor design, bad color combinations, unnecessary complexity, poor navigation structure and not knowing what is going on on a site are some classic problems.
What website metrics do you track and what informed decisions do you take based on them?
Did you say Website metrics? Hmmm, here comes the confessions of a once active guy on Google Analytics. My office manager used to track stats more closely and I’m in the process of reabsorbing that task.
I do some basic monitoring like year-to-date comparisons for overall unique visitors just to make sure my pages are still delivering healthy traffic. I check common keywords used to find the site, along with the most popular landing pages.
For years I had a free article on how to photograph the northern lights and based on the traffic that page received helped inform me that an eBook on the subject would be well desired by many. I think it is VERY important.
What are your plans on improving your site and growing your photo business in the next year?
Let’s see, paying Alex a little more money to make me look good :-)
A few years ago I gave up my custom designed website along with a server, software and security management, and used PhotoShelter to host and manage my photos. In the process, I lost some pretty sweet custom features but gained some Admin features that were lacking, and got rid of the stress of managing a server. Unfortunately, PhotoShelter has done very little development in the last few years towards the kinds of improvements I would like to see. For example: a revised lightbox, updated pricing calculator that is more flexible, better custom gallery management and specifically a way to rank images so they display accordingly. A lot of the changes I would like to implement are functional more than visual.
I’d like to migrate many of my static web pages out of HTML and move them to CSS. I believe that creating solid, strong image content is at the core of growth. But this needs to be linked with excellent client relationships and an ongoing customer base, in conjunction with a website that delivers your content easily.
I have many long-time clients and I’d like to continue letting them know I’m still here and offer them incentives to continue using my work. I’m also sending some of my images to larger stock agencies for a broader worldwide reach.
In this crowded market how do you avoid getting stuck in the background and start reaching the foreground of your audience?
I think my answer above addresses this to some degree.
But I place high value on the following:
- Produce new material that meets current client demands
- Have a good, functional website
- Be active and consistent in social media in ways that build a constituency appropriate to your specialty
- Be organized
- Be efficient
- Make your client experience a pleasant one, and as simple as possible.
Quick-fire round (shorten answers as much as possible):
Your favorite sources of reading material?
- Daily News headlines through Flipboard
- In-depth Tech News for industry awareness
- Classical literature for content
- Epic novels for life inspiration
- Biographies and explornography (that is a term my friend gave to the genre of high adventure biography) like “Endurance: Shackleton’s incredible Voyage”, for example
Any life-threatening photo shoot experience?
Sorry Alex, I wish I had something juicy for you here. The most career-threatening experience I had was when I forgot to take my camera bag to a commercial assignment!
Coldest temperature you shot it?
-60 degrees Fahrenheit (-51°C), I believe.
What’s in your camera bag right now?
Well, right now I’m on a plane headed for a 70 mile trek in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula. That means traveling light:
- Canon 5d Mark III
- a few filters, remote, batteries and Gitzo mini tripod.
What’s something you’re still actively learning or struggling with?
- I still struggle with getting that crazy horizon straight!
- Html and CSS coding
- Waning willpower to endure bad weather and other field work delays. Case and point: I’m currently off the grid in Alaska’s wilderness typing this interview out on my iPhone while clouds and rain are preventing photography.
- Pricing stock photography appropriate to the client.
What is your ideal morning routine?
You mean besides waking up to emails notifying me of large photo sales?
At home: Starting early, outside, getting connected to the weather and season, soaking in my hot tub, watching the sky, clouds and daybreak. After that, I greet my iMac with a cup of coffee and address business emails, social media, and then the projects of the day while streaming either radio news or music.
In the field: Waking up to a morning sky with mixed clouds, preferably in late summer when the sun actually sets in Alaska and I’ve had a chance to sleep. Then, once out of the tent or car, dive into the creative composition challenge of a dramatic Alaska landscape.
Great having you on the Foreground Blog, thanks for taking the time. Where can people get in touch with you if needed?
Thanks for including me Alex.