Originally written for my international listings site at Clik-trip.com
“Shoot triangles!” I heard him say, too enthusiastically for a humid Mumbai evening. The street photography workshop I had signed up for was in full swing.
The lecture and slideshow had concluded (all material from which was lifted from an Eric Kim video, I later discovered) and the workshop guru lead us outside to the streets of Mumbai to put theory into practice.
I’m being generous when I say ‘us.’ I was the lone attendee who had signed up.
Despite the adapted material and the Bruce Gilden-esque street performance of my workshop chief, a seed had been planted deep within my brain which would later blossom into reality: I too could run a street photography workshop – minus the triangles.
Fast forward a couple years or so. I had posted an itinerary on my website for a workshop which didn’t contain a single lecture, was designed around small groups of seven or less, and would be available on a continuous basis. My clients would choose the dates, I’d simply confirm. No slideshows, no photographing geometry, no plans of wowing my clients by sticking my camera in people’s faces to prove that I’m fearless just because someone famous had done it. I would simply show people around places I found interesting and help them out with their camera settings. I’d also offer my assistance in how to go about shooting street photography.
To be honest, I didn’t have hopes for any business. Mumbai is not known for its tourist attractions. And although street photography as a genre was arguably still trending upward back then, I couldn’t picture many of the middle class Indians who could afford my workshop prices actually being interested in photo-touring their own city let alone paying a foreigner for the privilege. It turns out I was mostly correct about my last doubt.
I was pleasantly surprised when clients starting booking me a few weeks later. The trend became clear. My clients were all foreigners like myself. They were from the United States, Britain, and Australia. The second surprise was that they didn’t need my help at all. In fact, many of them were packing better cameras than what I was toting around back then and had thousands of dollars worth of lenses in their bags. A couple of them had also been practicing photography in some form or another since before I was even born.
The not-so-sexy truth had dawned on me: I had become a glorified guide in all but name. So what did this mean to me as a freelance photographer?
I want to share with you a few key insights and tips I learned from my experience transitioning from a street photographer to a workshop operator. I hope other photographers out there may take away something from my experience and be able to put it to practice. It’s also my intention to connect with my potential clients, by way of brief introduction here at Clik-Trip.com.
Be Transparent A little story to illustrate this point and how I actually got started. I was searching around for a photo tour which included the world-famous Dharavi slum, which was showcased in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. At the time I simply wanted to see a different part of Mumbai that I wasn’t familiar with. I couldn’t care less about the “slum” aspect as I had been already accustomed to exploring them on my own and with local friends. My curiosity was largely exploratory – I only wanted to see a new place and take pictures.
But when I started contacting tour operators who offered photo walks in Dharavi, I quickly became disgusted with the responses. None of them would share an itinerary or offer much in the way of details. They intentionally mystified the place as a selling strategy in order to make me believe I couldn’t tour the place without them. When I asked them why they wouldn’t share an itinerary, they all claimed they were afraid that other tour companies would steal their tours! This ticked me off to no end. Why would I book a tour with an operator who was already hiding something from me? What else could they be hiding?
Which is why I offer my workshop itineraries to the public, including pertinent details, like how to get there and when’s the best time to visit, for absolutely free. This solves at least two problems in my book. First, I have a full itinerary which would serve to answer most questions people may have prior to booking. Two, I’m justifying my pricing structure. If you want to explore this itinerary on your own because you’re independent and don’t need a guide or maybe don’t have the spare cash for my services, be my guest. Go see the places on your own. If you want me along, you know my fee and most details prior to booking.
I’m also very up-front about my terms and conditions, which are more strict than most services I personally book. All of my workshops are payable in advance to secure the date and are nonrefundable, non-changeable. Why am I so strict? I learned long ago when I worked in the travel industry in the wholesale business that these restrictions attracted only serious customers. People may not like the terms, some may not even book with you because of all the what-ifs in life. But that is precisely what travel insurance is for, covering losses due to legitimate reasons of cancellation. I highly recommend travel insurance for all who book with me or for any holiday they may be considering. It’s a life hack well worth adopting.
Be honest, be up-front. Share your itinerary, explain your terms and conditions. Don’t be afraid to charge fairly for your services, especially if no one else is offering them.
Know Your Audience (clients) My audience, my clients, are largely affluent, well-traveled, and serious photography practitioners. They don’t usually need my help for their camera settings or to assist them in photographing strangers. In many cases, they’ve already been to India multiple times. They’re likely using Mumbai as a stopover to other destinations in India or are in Mumbai strictly for work reasons. They’ve all been male, at least at the time of this writing, but ages have varied from late 20s up to retirement.
I know my client base. Even if you haven’t booked anyone yet, it’s good to steer your packages towards the kind of clients you wish to have.
I already mentioned that I discovered I had become an unwitting guide. This informed my expectations and transformed my business model. Since no one was booking me to actually learn about street photography, I would show them what they came to see: life on the streets of India.
It may sound obvious, but getting to know your clients while they’re with you is important. I don’t really collect much information from them prior to booking. I know many like to offer forms for this purpose. Instead I ask the questions when we’re exploring together. Like, why did you book me? Their answers are pure gold. Learn from them.
Pricing & Researching The Competition When I began offering workshops, I had no clue how to price. I knew I couldn’t compete with the relatively cheap price structure offered by my competitors. But I was in a unique position. No one was offering my itineraries. So what did I do?
I made it up. I priced my workshops above my competitors, knowing they couldn’t compete with me on services. For one, I was a foreigner. My clients were all foreigners and I rightly concluded that they would feel more comfortable booking with me in many situations. The feedback I’ve since received confirms this.
And I can’t stress enough how putting together an itinerary which doesn’t exist anywhere else was vastly important for me when I started. Funny thing is, I didn’t do this intentionally. More on this below. But when you’re offering something unique, you’re the one to beat. What I discovered in Mumbai was that most tour companies offered single-destination packages. Or they would offer private car tours for the casual visitor. In other words, most of what I saw wasn’t geared towards serious photographers. So I filled the void.
Research your competition. Develop itineraries which don’t exist. Price accordingly. It’s also okay to change your pricing according to demand and other factors.
Special note to photographers just starting out: Don’t expect to make a living off of your workshops. I don’t know a single photographer who does, at least at the beginning. It’s important to have multiple revenue streams. Workshops are but one. Don’t stress on making a lot of money. Place emphasis on creating interesting itineraries that photographers are looking for. Which brings us to my last point.
Offer Packages That You Would Buy
I hinted at this in a couple places here already. Offer itineraries you would buy if roles were reversed with your client.
I don’t offer many one-stop destinations, for instance. Why? Because most of my competitors do this already and are staffed and prepped accordingly to handle large groups. Which is why I can’t compete with them on price. Plus, when you’re leading a workshop with only one client (which is the vast majority of my bookings) one locale could be over with in under an hour in some cases. I design multiple stop itineraries in Mumbai and prefer three locales to spice things up a bit. I’ve even inserted a stop in Kumbharwada, the fascinating pottery-making center in Dharavi.
It’s also important, in my view, to not merely offer “custom packages suited to your needs.” Anyone and everyone offers this. It’s quite ineffective too to rely on such a strategy. Ask yourself this question: do you often visit a city you’ve never been to and look for custom packages suited to your needs? I bet not. I bet you first look at what’s there and then take a call on customization, if it’s needed at all. This is why it’s extremely important to design packages that you would want to book personally, geared towards serious photographers only, and to offer something unique.
Design the itinerary you would want to explore. Make it something special no one else has. Let’s proudly show the flip side of the smartphone selfie: that there are photographers who believe in old school cameras, who make it a point to unveil hidden worlds to those who seek them.