Outsourcing Photography – Yes or No?

Marketing managers all over the world need to make the decision whether they want to outsource their photography to an external photo studio, or maintain or set up their own in-house photography department.

Every situation is unique and therefore needs to be looked at and treated separately. Therefore, the aim of this article is to simply give a general overview about the pro’s and con’s or advantages and disadvantages of outsourcing photography.

To look at the situation from many possible angles, it is essential to reflect upon the advantages in respect of the disadvantages of outsourcing.  Let’s first look at the disadvantages often dwelled upon when you outsource photography:

  • Possible Loss Of Control Over The Process
    One of the main drawbacks of outsourcing are potential unwanted results. Photography is a highly subjective matter which needs a lot of understanding and collaboration. So appointing an external partner always comes with the risk that your partner simply does not get what you need or want.
  • Risk of Weak Performance
    Whoever you appoint as your photography partner, there’s a chance that the studio does not live up to your expectations. Slow response times to your requests, or slow issue resolutions need to be considered when dealing with external partners.

  • Extra Or Hidden Costs
    Of course a company will sign a quote or contract with the studio, but there will always be the chance that something goes wrong. Therefore, there’s the risk of hidden costs or extra charges.

  • Confidentiality And Security Issues
    Whenever you appoint an external photo studio, there’s a confidentiality risk. Also consider that other third parties such as logistic companies usually also get involved, or that the studio might also work for one of your competitors.

  • Tied To The Financial Well-Being Of The Appointed Photo Studio
    Photography companies are typically not large enterprises with huge financial backings. So if you outsource, you are to one end or the other tied to the financial well-being of your photo studio. If it closes its doors, a lot of know-how, time and money might need to be written off.
  • Bad Publicity Or The Loss Of Jobs
    Outsourcing work to another company often brings up the “say no to outsourcing and save our jobs” question. A potential outsourcing of you photography to an external company might also bring up this question. Compared to heavy industries, this is however usually a smaller issue.

Now, let’s talk about the most important advantages of outsourcing photography to an external studio. Please consider that regardless of the amount of (dis)advantages, just one a very few key (dis)advantages can be already worth the decision to (not) outsource your photography.

  • Improved Business Focus
    Outsourcing photography allows a company to focus all its attention on its own key competencies, while tapping in to the readily available knowledge base of the experienced photography partner. 
  • No Time Wasted
    The serious amount of senior management time which gets freed enables a company to focus on its core competencies while not having to be concerned about outsourced routine activities. 
  • Costs Saved
    To setup a professional in-house photography department is a lengthy and costly plan. Following minimum investments are typically necessary (varies greatly depending on your need, location, etc.):

    • Equipment (camera, lenses, simple light setup, table top, grey cards, approx. $5,000)
    • Hardware (computer, monitor, approx. $5,000)
    • Software (Adobe Creative Suite, Capture Software like Phase1, approx. $2,500)
    • Training by senior management (approx. 25 hrs x $100 = $2,500)
    • Total required investment: $15,000

  • Freed HR Resources
    Photographers are creative minds who eventually and understandably will get bored of their work and than move on. Consider that even top photo studios or photo agencies loose their best talents, and often because of a lack of interesting jobs. Following issues will come up:

    • Dissatisfaction due to limited career development paths and
    • Awareness that photography is only a side-division in the company
    • Discontent due to the fact that there are not enough other like-minded creative minds
    • Dissatisfaction due to a limited shooting type variety
  • Access To Experience and Professionalism
    By appointing the right studio, you get access to top-notch facilities, talents with experience, ideas and the right equipment. You can tap in to and benefit from a readily available knowledge pool.
  • Staffing Flexibility
    Your external photography partner can easily adopt his operations to your seasonal or cyclical demands. Additional resources such as more photographers, producers or retouchers can be brought in and released when needed.
  • Continuity & Risk Management
    Periods of high employee turnover will add uncertainty and inconsistency to the operations.             Outsourcing will provided a level of continuity to the company while reducing the risk that a     substandard level of operation would bring to the company.

  • Return on Investment
    The common misconception among non-marketing experts is that marketing is an expense AND that it’s expensive. However, money spent on marketing, or photography, is in fact an investment which, if done right, ultimately will return a bigger return than the actual investment. If your marketing uses great photography, it will help to increase your sales throughout all channels, be it in retail, online or in direct marketing.

Final closing thoughts:

  • The single biggest mistake companies which try to set up an in-house photography process make is to underestimate the amount of micro-managing managers have to deal with in order to ensure a quality, on-time and in-budget delivery.
  • To keep photographers or creative talents in general, you need to offer a wide enough variety of jobs and challenges. Consider if even large retailers spending millions of $US on photography outsource 100% to external studios, compare it with your situation and ask yourself if investing money and time in a non-core competency area really is the right decision.
  • My advise is to find one reliable photography company which you can build a long-term relationship with. The studio should have large enough working facilities, be flexible, understand your priorities and show an interest in developing a great business relationship with you (for example, as a producer of industrial products, try to avoid studios which do a lot of fashion shoots).

My personal advise and opinion:

After working as general manager of a China-based photography company in the business for over 6 years, I have talked to many leading marketing managers and decision makers of numerous multinationals from around the world. The general opinion among them is that a) besides the obvious setup costs, the critical issues are the “invisible investments” such as time of senior management, loss of focus, etc. and b) it therefore does not make much financial,  strategic nor business sense to have an in-house photography department.

The principal recommendation is to consider photography as well as marketing in general as an integrated and important part of the entire value chain and not (as many companies do) as a separate one-time expense which is due once the product is ready to be marketed. Investing 3 to 20% of the product’s expected sales or revenues is common, depending on your industry.