PhotoSesh CEO, Chris Seshadri talks about the new marketplace model the photography industry is evolving to with Digital Trends Magazine...
By Daven Mathies — Updated June 2, 2017 3:27 pm
From transportation and lodging to food delivery and beauty services, the sharing economy is disrupting how traditional industries operate. Led by startups that are built around technology, like mobile apps, the goal of such companies is to take an existing service and make it more available and more convenient.
The photographic industry is not immune to this. Apps promising to be the “Uber of photography” – a nod to the ride-hailing company that’s considered the pioneer of the sharing economy – have sprung up around the globe. And these services are looking to reinvent the photographer-client relationship.
We took a closer look at this phenomenon by talking to four such companies: PhotoSesh in the United States, Pinpic in Canada, Perfocal in the United Kingdom, and Snappr in Australia. All of these companies have much in common, including a vetting process to onboard only qualified photographers, but each is taking a unique approach in its attempt to change how clients and photographers connect. Some see this as an inevitable future for working photographers, while some see it as a new market working alongside the existing one. But there are also others who aren’t convinced.
Among these names, Australia’s Snappr is perhaps the most recognizable to photographers otherwise unfamiliar with the nascent on-demand photography business model. It drew the ire of the professional photo industry in 2016 when news broke of its standardized pricing model that some working photographers felt would grossly undercut their businesses. Resource Magazine introduced it as the “Uber-like startup devaluing your photography.”
Snappr’s rates are based on the length of the shoot and number of photos included. A seven-hour session that includes 40 photos is just 450 Australian dollars (about $336), of which the photographer keeps just 80 percent. What’s more, clients are granted a full copyright over all images received, allowing them to use the photos for commercial purposes, according to Snappr’s FAQ. For a business in need of advertising images, that’s a steal, but it’s easy to see why a working commercial photographer would feel like she’d been robbed.
However, as a subsequent interview revealed, Snappr didn’t really intend on competing with the traditional professional market, but nor was it expressly a platform for inexperienced shooters to cut their teeth. Like the other companies we are profiling, Snappr sees itself as creating a new market, one the established industry doesn’t reach. It wants people to consider using a professional photographer more often for a greater number of occasions. “Around half of our customers tell us that they wouldn’t have paid a photographer if they didn’t discover Snappr,” co-founder Matt Schiller told Digital Trends.
This, of course, is a challenge – low pricing brings in more clients, but also can deter experienced photographers from signing up. So Snappr offers to handle marketing, payment processing, and insurance, which it hopes adds value to photographers. It’s a tradeoff that may not be worth it to everyone, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of photographers from applying to the service.
Snappr’s biggest goal is removing the pain points from the booking process. “So many potential photography jobs just don’t happen because of the difficulty faced when trying to find and book a photographer, especially at short notice,” Schiller said. “The most common of these are shorter-length shoots for small personal and business events – the kinds of shoots that would have previously been shot for free, or not shot at all.”
This is a sentiment echoed by U.S.-based PhotoSesh. “Our initial goal was to help hosts find talented photographers for their casual events,” said CEO Chris Seshadri. “Think birthday parties, engagements, showers, anniversaries, etc.”
Seshadri’s idea for PhotoSesh was born of his own frustration as a photography customer. Before founding the company, he worked extensively with charities that often needed photographers to cover events but had limited budgets and limited time. The traditional method of hiring a photographer is difficult for such organizations, as photographers’ websites aren’t standardized and pricing and schedules are often not public.
Snappr sees itself as creating a new market, one the photo industry doesn’t reach.
Seshadri realized there needed to be a system that could match this customer need with a professional photographer that offered value for both sides.
“We also learned that even the most in-demand photographers still had gaps in their schedules and they wouldn’t mind filling them with these smaller, simpler gigs if it was convenient to them,” he told Digital Trends. As for clients, “usually people that don’t have the time to sit and research different websites and poke around with too many steps will benefit the most. Think event planners, realtors, and anyone that has massive workflow.” A PhotoSesh photographer even covered the Bachelor reunion in December 2016.
The service allows for some pricing flexibility, with photographers able to set their rate between $30 and $75 per hour (PhotoSesh also takes a 20-percent commission). While this is on the lower end for many established professionals, PhotoSesh isn’t trying to take over a working photographer’s primary business. Instead, it could help photographers fill gaps in their schedules with jobs that may pay less, but are also less involved and come with worry-free payment processing.
All of the companies we spoke to made it clear that convenience was a key factor to their business models, not just on the customer side, but also on the photographer side U.K.-based Perfocal employs a matching system that automatically connects a client with a particular photographer based on that client’s needs and the photographer’s experience, location, and availability. The client can accept or decline the photographer after the match, and if he chooses to decline, the request will be sent to the next photographer. The goal of this system is to ensure that clients don’t spend hours scrolling through profiles and that one photographer isn’t inundated with multiple requests for the same date or for jobs she isn’t comfortable with.
Perfocal’s founder and managing director, Tony Xu, sees this as an opportunity for photographers to save valuable time. “Photographers also have to spend a great amount of effort in things other than their actual work – taking photos – say, promoting themselves, website building and maintenance, [and] replying to numerous non-converting enquiries.”
Xu explained that while the automatic match system will remain a core feature, it is perhaps best geared toward corporate clients who just need a job done efficiently. Perfocal is still in beta and a more robust profile search and viewing capability will be added in the future for clients looking for a photographer for highly personal work, such as weddings, where they don’t mind spending more time browsing profiles.
With Snappr, a client inputs details about the job and an algorithm returns a selection of photographers that can meet that need. The client can then choose one, but Snappr doesn’t allow clients to browse portfolios without first entering the details of their shoot. Snappr asks clients to trust its evaluation process that has vetted every photographer appearing on the platform. “We assess photographers on their professional experience, equipment, customer service skills (by interview), and most importantly, their portfolio of work,” Schiller said. The other companies here take a similar approach.
Like Perfocal, PhotoSesh offers two different ways to find a photographer, based on the type of job. For standard jobs, clients can “like” a selection of photographers in their area and send a request that goes out to all of them. Photographers will see the request instantly and can accept or decline it. The first photographer to accept is given the job. This can result in the client getting a booking confirmation in as little as a few seconds, not at all unlike hailing a cab. Alternately, clients can simply browse profiles and portfolios – with up-front pricing and schedules – and reach out to just one or two photographers directly.
“We want people to leave the selfie-stick at home, at least on special occasions.”
While Snappr, PhotoSesh, and Perfocal all help clients find photographers in their home area, Canada-based Pinpic does just the opposite: it exclusively connects travelers with photographers local to their destination cities and countries.
“Our goal was to help travelers, mainly families, honeymooners, and anyone traveling for a special occasion (including a surprise engagement or milestone anniversary) to bring back the best of their memories from their trip,” Pinpic co-founder Urooj Qureshi told Digital Trends. “We want people to leave the selfie-stick at home, at least on special occasions, and find and book a local photographer who can only enhance their overall trip experience.”
Pinpic was founded on the leading edge of a growing trend in travel photography. Spurred by vacationers’ demand for social media-ready images, some travel and tourism companies have taken to providing professional photographers as part of the package. But for those traveling on their own, Pinpic sees an opportunity to offer them a similar experience, by connecting them directly with a vetted, trusted photographer.
The Canadian startup took to Kickstarter to fund its app, but the ill-fated campaign fell very short of its goal. “We spent months planning and preparing, which took a lot of time away from product development, and still we did not come up with the right ingredients for success,” Qureshi said of the campaign. Still, the experience proved valuable. “We did learn a lot about who our real target audience was [and] potential price points the on-demand market is willing to pay.”
Looking to a cab-hailing app for inspiration in how to disrupt the photography industry could lead to a pitfall, as these are two completely different types of services. With taxis, convenience is clearly the most important factor. It matters less who the driver is or what kind of car she shows up in, provided both meet certain base requirements.
Photography, on the other hand, is rarely something you need on super short notice. While corporate headshots, nonprofit fundraisers, and school portraits may be simple enough, some areas of photography are much more complex. Couples looking to book a wedding photographer, for example, are already putting many hours into planning the event, so investing some old-school Google time isn’t as big of a hassle as it might be for other occasions.
This is also where more loosely defined metrics come into play, like a photographer’s artistic style and even his personality. Clients may even “shop” multiple photographers, meeting with many of them before selecting one.
This is a concept that the companies we spoke to understand, and is central to how they are growing and adapting. As PhotoSesh’s Seshadri put it, “We are not here to commoditize the photography industry. Some events need shooters, while others need artists.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in how clients find and book photographers, even for weddings and other more personal or artistic purposes. Seshadri believes the biggest challenge for clients is simply the lack of transparency.
“Most photographers do not have pricing up on a website,” he said. “That alone makes a potential customer apprehensive. Rating systems? There really isn’t a standardized review system.”
One potential concern for photographers would be a non-compete clause, but in PhotoSesh’s case, it is pretty relaxed. “We do not try and prevent photographers and customers from working together offline for future gigs,” Seshadri said. The company does ask that any discounted rates be offered only through PhotoSesh for clients originally found via the platform, but otherwise encourages photographers and clients to interact offline and continue working together in whatever way suits them best.
While apps like PhotoSesh, Perfocal, Pinpic, and Snappr are specific to the photography industry, they are certainly not the first attempts at unifying the highly fragmented world of freelance services. The problem, as Snappr’s Schiller outlined, is that traditional freelancing directories try to put photographers into the same box as other contractors, which just doesn’t make sense.
“The biggest challenge in building the Snappr platform was in making it suited to the highly-visual nature of the industry,” Schiller explained. “Platforms that were also designed to deliver cleaning and plumbing services lack the element of showcasing and delivering the end-product, which meant that they just didn’t cut it for photography.”
HOW PHOTOGRAPHERS SEE IT
There are differing views among photographers on whether such services and apps are generally good or bad for the industry. Even without trying to take over a photographer’s full business, if these companies grow large enough by providing discount professional photography to the masses, photographers may have to adjust even their “out-of-network” rates to stay competitive.
This may be something the market figures out on its own, with high-end photographers simply choosing to remain independent with clients who are willing to pay more for their talent and experience. However, a client who grows accustomed to being able to hire a photographer for a birthday party for $50 may question why she’s being asked to shell out north of two grand for a wedding shoot.
Many working professional photographers with an established reputation and client base will also likely be hesitant to do any work at lower rates, even if there’s a whole in their schedule, as it could change the perceived value of their work. What’s more, many simply aren’t in need of a service that promises increased convenience or exposure.
Professional photographers with an established reputation and client base may have less need of such a service.
Giulio Sciorio, a commercial photographer in Austin, Texas who has been shooting professionally and running his own business full-time since 2005, has no trouble finding new clients through word of mouth or in-person networking. Over the years, he has moved from shooting over 100 editorial and commercial jobs a year to working on just one or two larger jobs per month. He has experienced plenty of shifts in the industry, but keeps an open and optimistic mind about the future.
“There’s always room for innovation with the photo industry to which I’m quite open,” he told Digital Trends. “Any photographer that gets comfortable is in trouble.”
However, he is apprehensive about signing up for a service that would cut into his revenue, even if it offered additional exposure. “I already accept credit cards and bank transfers with no fee to the client and they can pay directly through the invoice. Booking me is already straightforward.”
Photographers who have been in the game for a long time tend to have their marketing and booking procedures figured out. While a photographer-for-hire app wouldn’t work for Sciorio now, he sees how it could possibly help out amateurs and semi-pros who haven’t yet been able to establish themselves. “Maybe [it’s a good thing] on the low end of the market, which is the largest demographic for photographers,” he said. “Thing is about the low end, is that it’s often more headache than anything else and the sooner a photographer can grow away from it, the better.”
Photographer-for-hire apps may help alleviate that headache in the beginning, but will need to do more if they hope to capture the attention of established professionals. It’s a challenge these companies are looking into, and Seshadri explained that PhotoSesh is investigating ways to provide higher-end photography services in the future, which will allow for higher rates. Still, if such photographers are already finding jobs on their own, some tweaks may need to be made to the value proposition to get them to sign up for a service that asks for 20 percent.
On the other hand, such apps are already helping photographers who have been trying hard to grow their client base. PhotoSesh photographer Alysse Stewart has been shooting professionally for five years, and said that the app has played a significant role in bringing in work, although she still relies heavily on word of mouth, Craigslist, and her website. PhotoSesh is responsible for a relatively small portion of her total jobs, but the payoff for the amount of work she puts in is much greater.
Some months she may gain only a couple of clients from PhotoSesh, but others have been significantly better. “The busiest week with PhotoSesh gave me four new clients,” she told Digital Trends. “Three of them hired me directly again and I believe will continue to do so when they need a professional photographer.”
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
While photographers and taxi drivers may have little in common, apps like PhotoSesh and Snappr have a similar challenge to Uber and Lyft. They have to manage both supply (photographers) and demand (clients) at the same time. With taxis and ride sharing, this is a pretty straightforward idea, but it’s more complex with photographers. In professional photography, there’s a relationship with the client that lasts longer than a ten-minute drive. There’s a plan, the shoot itself, and then the delivery of the final product.
Balancing the needs of both parties in this process can be a bit tricky, and the startups hoping to capitalize on these new marketplaces are still adapting as they try to find the right solution.
“We started out focusing on our customer segment only to realize we first needed quality supply and shifted our focus that way [toward photographers],” said Pinpic’s Qureshi. “Then we discovered it was really a balancing act. Today, we’re working on some new shifts that customers and users of our product will be seeing during the course of 2017.”
For Snappr, name recognition might be a challenge now, but there is a huge opportunity there. “There are big household brands that make cameras, like Nikon and Canon, and there are household names that distribute photographic content, like Facebook, Getty Images, and NewsCorp,” said Schiller. “But there is no well-known brand that does the important bit in the middle – taking the pictures. We want Snappr to become that brand.”
It is difficult to imagine any photographer actually making a living on Snappr’s rates alone, but this hasn’t stopped photographers from at least giving the service a shot. Schiller said bookings have almost doubled every month.
Perfocal outlined another challenge: simplifying photography without roping every photographer into the same box. “We’re trying to bring up the industry efficiency by applying limited standardization on the non-creative parts, yet still leave great creative freedom to our photo talents,” said Perfocal’s Xu. “Clients can still have their own choices with help and advice from the platform, but have things done a lot quicker and usually cheaper, too.
[PhotoSesh] doesn’t so much want to disrupt the industry as find the right ways in which to help it.
As for PhotoSesh, Seshadri’s background in charity work has seemingly given him the spirit to reach for lofty goals while being comfortable with a humble beginning. “We think it’s wise to be as simple as possible and merely introduce ourselves to photographers as we bring them leads in an efficient manner and offer a value proposition to both sides,” he said.
While PhotoSesh is working on expanding into more involved, higher-end photography, it will remain committed to the casual event market as it does so.
Seshadri explained he doesn’t so much want to disrupt the industry as find the right ways in which to help it. “Our photographers are qualified and we want to offer them higher price points for the right gigs. We get many requests directly to our PhotoSesh Concierge, where we may help in making recommendations for more elaborate or complex jobs. We give our most loyal, highest rated, and most talented artists access to our premium customers and special event requests as they come in.”
PhotoSesh may be starting small, but growth has been steady. There are currently over 5,000 photographers signed up for the service. “The past 3 consecutive quarters [of 2016] have shown triple digit growth rates, basically doubling the previous quarters’ revenue figures,” Seshadri said. “We’re pretty pumped to see what 2017 has in store for PhotoSesh and the overall industry.”
If PhotoSesh, Snappr, Pinpic, and Perfocal can find an effective way to educate customers on the value of professional photography even as they work to make it more affordable and convenient, then they may yet arrive at solutions that truly do benefit everyone.