Thank you Scott and Brad for the opportunity to participate as a Wednesday guest blogger. I’ve been a long time reader and consider it an honor to be included. I thought I’d share the story of how I was able to find a niche market and turn my love of photography into a viable business. Many part time photographers have another full time job to pay the bills and can’t possibly give up a reliable income to start all over. This was my situation and yet my journey is a little unique. In 2008 my wife accepted an international assignment in Paris, France. I resigned from my day job; we packed up our Seattle home and soon settled into a classic Parisian apartment a few blocks south of the Eiffel Tower. The “package” she received allowed me to concentrate full time on my photography. I hit the ground running looking for work, scouring Craigslist for “creative” jobs. I soon shot a wedding for a young couple, photographed a few apartment interiors to be rented and through a friend of a friend, I was asked to shoot the fashion shows during Paris Fashion Week.
This was all great fun and I made some money, but I soon grew weary of hustling up the next new job. I wanted to leverage the Internet and have business come to me, so I came up with the idea of conducting and leading photo tours. Paris is the most visited city in the world, so there’s an endless supply of camera-equipped tourists arriving daily, some with just a few days to spend in the City of Light. My goal was to create a tour business to escort them to the iconic landmarks, find the hidden gems in between and show them interesting ways to compose their photos. After registering my domain name, PhotoToursInParis.com, and building a simple website, I was up and running. I chose this domain name because it was a natural search phrase. I wanted ParisPhotoTours.com, but it was already taken. Some time ago I learned that most online searches begin with the city name with the subject following. I’m not an online marketing expert, but knew I wanted to get as many inbound links as possible. I submitted my site to Google and Bing and any other travel-related site I could think of or find online. I left my business cards with many of the hotel concierges and encouraged them to reach out to me if their clients were looking for something interesting to do while in town. About three weeks later, the first photo tour inquiry arrived in my Inbox. To prepare for my first tour, I had already mapped out a walking route that included landmarks as well as interesting parts of Paris tourists may not find on their own.
My goal was to help my clients become better photographers, learn their camera settings and show off Paris. I went over some of the basics of photography like the rule of thirds, foreground, middle ground and background, and how shutter speed, ISO and aperture all work together. I explained that anyone could stand below the Eiffel Tower and take a snapshot that was similar to the millions of other shots, but moving over 100 feet and including a foreground made for a much more interesting photograph. I explained the composition I envisioned in my mind, shot the scene and then showed them my LCD screen. They would then eagerly use their cameras to capture their own photographs.
Roughly 75 percent of my clients use digital SLRs, while the remainder use point and shoot cameras. Of the digital SLR photographers, over half are new to the technology so they are shooting in Auto mode, yet wanting to learn more about exploiting the features of their cameras. I am a long time Nikon user, but quickly became very familiar with Canon camera settings. When I first struggled to figure out how to change a Canon setting for a particular camera, I would look it up on YouTube so I was ready the next time. Some of the more common settings we discuss are Auto rotate (turning it off or on), the over/under exposure button, programming a button to review images faster and more easily, viewing the histogram, etc.
Business grew dramatically each and every month. During my first year, almost every photo tour consisted of only a single photographer (I let non-photographers tag along free). By the second year, my business really took off. Initially I was doing a tour a day for groups of 3-5 photographers, but demand kept growing so I soon included an afternoon and evening photo tour to the mix.
One afternoon I took out a U.S. photographer living in Prague who was in a similar situation as me. His wife had taken a job in Prague and he wasn’t working. I suggested he start a Prague photo tour, but he said he didn’t know how to get it started. Instantly it dawned on me that I should start a Prague Photo Tours business! I went home and found PraguePhotoTours.com was available, as was RomePhotoTours and many others. I invested in these names and built new sites for Rome, London, Prague and Venice. And when people wanted a photo tour in another city like Barcelona, Istanbul or Athens I would set it up for them as well. Once again, I leveraged the Internet. To find quality photographers in these cities, I placed a Help Wanted ad on Craigslist. I was inundated with responses and interest. I considered the quality of their responses and their online portfolios when selecting who to hire as contractors. I put a lot of faith and trust in these photo guides and relied on a gut feeling about their ability to lead a great photo tour. Once they complete a photo tour, I pay them via PayPal.com.
One of the reasons my business has grown is my commitment to exceptional customer service. I respond to every email inquiry or question as quickly as possible. These speedy responses differentiate my service from my competition. Just think about how many times you’ve sent an email to a company without receiving a response, or receiving it so late it no longer mattered. I also offer a ‘No Fault’ cancellation policy. If clients need to cancel due to their travel plans changing or being cancelled, or if bad weather halts a photo tour, I refund their entire fee. Having a No Fault cancellation policy reduces risk so people feel more comfortable booking tours. Cancellations happen so infrequently that I more than make up for the loss with added bookings. I send every client an email in which I thank them for their business and include links to interesting photography sites and blogs (including ScottKelby.com). Also, clients are more willing to book night tours (which are more expensive), because they can borrow tripods for free, which saves them the hassle of packing them.
After two years of living in Paris, my wife was reassigned back to the U.S. Fortunately, I found two excellent photographers to lead my Paris tours. Once back in Seattle, my former employer hired me back. Now I use the Internet before and after work to manage my photo tours business from home. It keeps me extremely busy working my day job and managing the photo tour business off hours. Although I’m not out taking photos on a daily basis any longer, I’m happy to be involved in the photography industry.
The photo tour business model isn’t new. There are several companies in Paris offering the same type service. In fact, I have a professional relationship with one in which we exchange leads when we are overbooked. In Seattle, there are three companies offering photo tours and I helped a friend set up a photo tour business in Melbourne, Australia.
Business has been very good and extremely rewarding. I’ve taken out photographers from over 35 countries. Several men have shared their plans to propose mid-tour and asked me to capture the special moment. Many clients have become friends of mine; we keep in touch via email and Facebook and we often share photos.
You can see more of Randy’s work at RandyHarrisPhoto.com and check out his photo tours at PhotoToursInParis.com