Reinvention: Four Photographer Success Stories

Posted on 3/11/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

At ASMP’s recent Strictly Business 3 education weekend in Philadelphia four photographers explained how they had reinvented their businesses in the current challenging business environment. Here are their stories.

Kevin Brusie

Kevin Brusie is a Visual Solutions Provider based in Portland, Maine doing business as Kevin Brusie Photo and Wonder Dog Films. He has been a still shooter doing editorial, corporate and advertising work for 20+ years. For the last six years he has also worked as a Director of Photography producing corporate films, TV commercials, music videos and documentary films.

In the still environment he specialized in environmental portraiture on location. Most of his client base is in healthcare and finance. Prior to his making a transition to photography in 1990 he was in international banking in New York City. This experience helped him understand the numbers and what it takes to make a living. It also helped him to understand how to navigate in the world of corporate executives – to speak their language and understand the etiquette of the corporate board room.

Prior to 2002, 40% of his income was for corporate and editorial shooting for national clients. As an example Meredith Publications art directors would send him on national assignments, with travel budgets and decent creative rates ($1,500 per day for inside editorial and extra for covers). Through New York City design firms he did corporate communication and human resources photography for a few Fortune 500 companies. His other clients were mostly based in New England.

By 2007 the national work was gone. He attributed this to “a convergence of situations where I failed to adapt, along with me dropping the marketing ball.” There was the advent of digital capture, clients improving their Photoshop skills, declining budgets and increased competition for the available work. He saw the changes occurring, but failed to market in a way that would keep new work coming in. At this stage his income was predominately from local agencies and in house corporate with perhaps 15% from local editorial shoots for national publications.

Even a fair share of the local corporate (banking and insurance) was vanishing as the locally owned corporations were being acquired by out of state and foreign corporations. One annual report that he had shot for ten years was cancelled in mid-production when the bank was sold. At this point his income was down 40% from the 2000 to 2003 high.

He went from being visible on the national scene, with high hopes of really making it, to being invisible to all but a few local agencies that were easily accessible. He went from a large waterfront drive in studio in 2001 to a shared studio for five years and then a move to a home office. Prior to 2001 he rarely needed to make capital investments. He had a complete lighting kit, and great 35mm, medium and large format gear that would last a lifetime. Now technological advances require that to stay current he must spend $4k to $8k for cameras that are completely out of date in four years. In addition there is capital investment for computers, software, digital storage and better lenses.

The lifesaver has been the video portion of his business. It started when his wife decided to change careers. She was an artist and massage therapist who also worked as on-camera talent. In 2006 she decided she wanted to be involved in more meaningful film projects instead of the crappy heartless TV spots she was being asked to ‘act’ in. She took a crash course in film making at the Maine Photo Workshops and talked here way into Maine PBS as a freelance producer. Within one year she was their favorite freelance producer and was editing her own spots.

Then they approached some of Kevin’s corporate clients to do video work for them. Kevin’s job was working the camera and lighting for his wife which was NOT an easy transition. He had been king of the hill on his sets for nearly 15 years and now SHE was calling the shots. He remembers their first corporate job where they argued for 20 minutes in the parking lot before getting started, but they have quickly learned to respect each other’s talents and found a good balance of power.

This part of his overall business is slowly gaining momentum. While not a big income generator yet, it is filling the income gaps. The main advantage is that Kevin is no longer ‘just a still photographer,’ but now is able to provide both still and motion for his clients. They have been able to leverage that position quite successfully at a local level. They are able to shoot both TV ads and still assignments for some campaigns effectively tripling their income from the project. For one large regional health organization they produced three 30 second TV spots, plus testimonials of happy patients for print use. They won the job, not because they were low bidder, but because they could light for TV and shoot stills on the same set. What might have been a $3k or $4k still job became a $23k still and video job. Keep in mind that when adding video there are significant additional expenses due to equipment rental, more time spent in editing and hiring support specialists for various aspects of the video production.

Kevin is quick to emphasize that his secret weapon is a wife/business partner who is a great interviewer, editor and director. Still photographers contemplating getting into video need to recognize that it is a collaborative team effort rather than the individual effort most still photographers are used to. Rather than doing it all it is important to build a team of professionals you can work with.

Deborah Gilbert

Deborah is sole proprietor of Deborah Gilbert Photography in New York. Everything required to create and bring her images to market is done by her.

In explaining her work she said, “I’m known for black and white photographs -- mostly still lifes and people -- that are hand colored with oil paints. I started utilizing the hand colored technique when I did a series of portraits of circus clowns and thought it would be an interesting metaphor (since clowns paint their faces), and because I had a background in painting. I liked the technique and have stuck with it. Up until now I have shot film exclusively and just recently purchased my first digital camera.

“I market the photographs directly to retail consumers by exhibiting in Art Festivals and Craft Fairs around the country. I started doing festivals about 15 years ago out of the basic need for immediate cash flow. Previously I had been a staff photographer at The Image Bank. While there, I edited over 700,000 images in 4 years for their collection. In addition, I shot some commercial jobs, mostly for pharmaceutical companies and hotels but this work was not generating the revenue I needed to support myself. I was attracted to art fairs because I could sell a picture on Saturday and have cash in hand rather than having to wait 60 or 90 days (or longer) to get paid after completing a commercial job.”

She continued, “But art fairs offer a unique set of challenges that are not for everyone.
They are physically demanding and you must be a people-person. It is very different from selling your work in galleries where other people represent you. At an art fair customers want to meet the artist face-to-face. Selling your work is almost as much about you -- the narrative you create and the personality you project -- as it is about the work. When customers show the work at home, they want to be able to say they met the artist. You have to give them not just a good photograph, but a personality to take home.

“In doing shows, I learned a lot about what retail customers want through their comments and questions. They ask for larger pieces, brighter pieces, different subjects, etc. Knowing who your customers are can be a big advantage when you start selling your work on-line. If you only sell your work directly to consumers online, your customers are abstract. For me, my best customers are Gay men and Jewish women which is great since I'm a Jewish woman and I love my Gay boys!”

Deborah says she, “tries to keep the voices of her customers out of her head when creating but those voices are definitely a factor when thinking about how to present the work. I offer a wide range of options both originals and reproductions, in a variety of sizes, and prices points from $15 (for matted greeting cards) to $500 for hand painted originals. That way I am prepared for whatever crowd shows up. I might make 2 or 3 thousand dollars by selling 4 or 6 originals, or at another show, the same amount at $15 a sale.

“One up side to Art Fairs is that they occur on weekends when your regular commercial work may be slow. The downside is you ARE ALWAYS taking a chance. There are shows that do not go well and you can lose money for any number of reasons (bad weather, poor planning on your part - or on the show promoter's part, bad booth location, or just the wrong work for the crowd that shows up). One summer six of the shows in a row that I attended were rained out. I lost a lot of money that year because show booth fees alone can cost anywhere from $100 to $1200, and then there are the added costs on top of that for travel, hotel, materials, display, etc.
“Anticipating profit or loss on any given show can be tricky because return from the same show can fluctuate from year to year. Even finding a good show is no guarantee. I may have a fabulous show one year, but then be unable to get back in the following year. The application processes can be treacherous,” she added.

“When I first started doing shows, my income for the year was about 30% stock, 30% assignment and 30% art fairs. Slowly the art fairs became my biggest source of income. As that happened, I began to neglect the other aspects of my business, stopped shooting stock and gradually gave up on commercial assignments (except for those that found me as I was exhibiting in shows).

“For a while that was fine but then I had some health issues which made it difficult to do the physically demanding work of travel and setting up the canopy and booth. That put me in a bad place financially. Those health issues are now under control, and I plan to be back with a full schedule of shows this season. I am currently expanding the way I bring my photos to market by offering online print sales.

“Over the years, I have been approached by most of the big print houses, wanting to represent my work, but their royalty structure (usually 8 - 10%) didn’t appeal to me. I decided that with all the new technologies, I can take what I have learned from my customers and expand into an online portal. But I plan to approach online customers, the same way I do at fairs; with the same kind of narrative and personality that I think is key.

“Selling on-line solves one of the biggest challenges photographers have at art fairs. Customers don’t have to make an instant decisions or the opportunity will be gone. Many people can’t visualize their space and decide on the spot how the image will look on their wall. In the online environment the customer will be able to think about the purchase and come back later to complete the transaction. My goal is for my online business to gradually replace most art fairs over time.”

Jenny Ruley

Jenny Ruley is the owner and chief photographer of Jenny Ruley Photography and Silver Box Studio in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. Like Deborah she also sells directly to consumers.

She launched her photography career in 1998 in Monterey, California doing family portraits. Due to her husband’s Navy career, they moved every three years, so it was difficult to grow a business until they moved to the DC area in 2004. However, with each move she re-invented her business.

When they lived in Japan, pursuing business outside of the Yokouska naval base would have been very difficult, so she went to each naval ship and persuaded them to let her do their homecoming and holiday photos. She was welcomed by the sailors since up to that time no one had reliably been there to provide quality images of those first moments of seeing their family after a long 6 month deployment.

Jenny is a runner and participates in triathlon events. She realized that the photos being offered to event participants were of very poor quality. She contacted race directors and made arrangements to be the official photographer for some races. She spends from a few hours to an entire weekend supporting a race and grosses between $3,000 and $5,000 per event.

When she first started covering triathlons she would cover an event of any size, but she quickly learned that she wasn’t making any money if there were less than 1,000 people participating. In order to cover these races from different vantage points she has recruited and trained three other photographers. All the members of her team have been supplied with bright red vests that make it easy for the racers to identify who will be supplying the official race images. The vests were paid for by a sponsor who gets the privilege of advertising on the back of each vest for a season.

Each photographers works from a fixed position along the race course and tries to photograph everyone who passes. One of those positions is the finish line. Often they will shoot 10,000 frames for one event. After the race Jenny pays someone $0.05 per shot to go through every thumbnail and enters the racer’s bib number into a database so the individual in the picture can be identified.

Then the image files, and database and a database of participants and email addresses are sent to Backprint for fulfillment. Backprint is then able to send each racer notifying that their picture is available on its site. The racer can go to Backprint, enter his name or bib number and all the images of him will be displayed with a large copyright notice across each image.
Backprint provides a variety of options for ordering with the cheapest 5 x 7 print going for $13.99. They also handle all fulfillment and pay Jenny a percentage of the sales.

Her most effective method of advertising has been to put flyers in the participant’s race packets. Since most athletes participate in multiple races each year if they like the photos they recommend to other race directors that they use her services. Currently she covers about 10 triathlons and cycling events per year with more than 1,000 participants.

After establishing her sports event photography business she developing a portrait business aimed at the corporate world and has also expanded into covering company events and annual reports.

In 2009, she also started offering HD video in conjunction with her still coverage of company events. This has given her an edge in getting the jobs. However, she has had no big projects yet, and sometimes she has had to learn the hard way. On one of her video projects her hard drive crashed twice.

Charles Gupton

Charles Gupton has been a professional photograph for over 30 years. He has specialized in corporate, advertising and editorial assignments and for the first 20 years of his was heavily involved in stock production. During the mid-90’s his stock sales generated so much revenue that he stopped pursuing assignment work.

Early on, he was represented by several competing agencies including The Stock Market, Getty, and Stock Boston, but when Getty and TSM each moved to requiring a non-compete agreements for active contributor he cast his lot with TSM.  Through that period, his annual income, primarily from stock sales, grew to over $100K/year.

Within a month of 9/11, TSM was sold to Corbis and within a short time, Corbis got ride of the sales staff and all but one of the picture editors. His stock sales dropped to under $20K in 2002 while Corbis reorganized.   

Rather than attempt to move to a new agency or re-enter the assignment market he decided to take a sabbatical from active shooting and put his energy into the repair of a house and 120 acre farm he and his wife Linda had purchased a couple of years before. During the summer of 2001, they had produced a huge garden and shared most of the bounty with friends. Encouraged by their success in growing and he says, “with all the confidence that comes with ignorance, we worked over the winter to gather enough local farmers to start a small farmers’ market and recruited enough customers to start a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program to sell our produce.”

He continued to shoot occasional assignments when called, but for the next four years focused on transitioning from his urban schedule to an agrarian lifestyle. During that time he said, “I learned more about the business of photography through the process of farming than I’d learned in the previous 20 years of photography. I came to find that the hardest day of photography I’ve ever experienced is easier than an average day of farming. By comparison, photography is a breeze.”

But, after being away from active shooting he realized how much he missed it. At first he thought about returning to photography on some type of split-time basis, but given the all-consuming nature of growing food, he realized that wouldn’t work. No one was looking to hire a ‘farmographer.’

Charles credits his wife Linda with making it possible for him to re-enter the photography business. She is a writer. They ran a newspaper together 30 years ago and worked as a team for many years producing corporate communication materials. During the transition of rebuilding his photography business, she took a job as editor of a local paper to give their family partnership a financial foundation on which to build. “Without her encouragement and teamwork approach to rebuilding, this process would have been far more daunting,” he added.

Through the years of corporate work he’d had numerous requests to shoot personal portraits of families for his commercial clients, but had always referred the requests away. However, having photographed the families of a couple of friends he came to realized that his portraits had a far more substantive impact on the family than any commercial assignment he’d ever shot, regardless of the budget.

With that realization he began to look for customers interested in personal lifestyle portraits created in the style of his editorial work. His portraits are all created on location with all interactions taking place in his clients’ homes. Currently, his baseline pricing for a shoot is $2,500 and his average sale is just over $5,000 per client. However, after four frustrating years he has realized that without a reputation in the environmental portrait field it is an uphill struggle to break into the high-end segment of the market.

Because all of the requests for personal portraiture came either directly from or referred from his existing commercial clients, he has decided to pour all of his efforts back into the commercial segment of the market that he knows and let the personal portrait requests come as they may.

Charles cautions photographers that, “If you are in one of the fields considering a jump into the other, I’ll tell you that the markets and the marketing to reach each audience is entirely different.”

He continued, “From my perspective of the last several years, the difference between the commercial and the personal portrait markets is analogous to the difference in being a surgeon and a family practitioner in medicine. A surgeon does a specific specialty day-in and day-out and seldom forms long term relationships with patients. Family practices try to keep long-term relationships that may go on through several generations. I’m trying to rebuild a business that has the some of the best aspects of both of those approaches.

“I've come to believe that the long-term success of a business is less dependent on the number of sales one makes than the number of opportunities created to get in front of one's target client.  To that end, I've been working on several over-lapping fronts to create opportunities in which I can build relationships in which clients come to trust me to handle their projects.”


I want to emphasize a few of the points. An increasing number of still photographers are looking to video as, at the very least, a supplemental source of income. Being able to supply video as well as stills can give the photographer a competitive advantage in the eyes of customers and it may soon be a necessity to supply both stills and video in order to be hired for many corporate assignments.

One of the biggest challenges for still photographers in transitioning to video is that it is almost impossible for one individual to produce quality video by himself. Still photographers are used to working by themselves. Those who also want to produce need to assemble teams with a variety of specialties and skills in order to produce a quality product.

Another observation is that in coming years still photographers interested in earning their living talking pictures are likely to be dealing much more directly with consumers. Middlemen who license images for photographers will play a lesser role. Individuals may continue to create their art and follow their passions, but few will be able to turn that approach to photography into a living. More and more professional photographers will be required to deal directly with the end users and have a thorough understanding of their customers specific needs.

There will be more success stories at the last Strictly Business 3 conference in 2011 which takes place in Chicago April 1st through 3rd.

Copyright © 2011 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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