Over the past decade, many photographers have witnessed a blurring of the line between amateur and professional. A digital SLR camera and some editing software are often all people need to break into the photography business.
Some professional photographers saw the changes coming early on and successfully capitalized on them by refocusing their talents. Because of both their skills and connections, "professional photographers are in a good position to branch out," says Angela Wijesinghe, a marketing specialist at the Professional Photographers of America trade group, who has noticed an increase in photo-related startups.
Here are three former professional photographers who have built successful ventures:
The Lens Maker
Craig Strong invented the selective focus lenses for SLR cameras that are sold on Lensbaby.com. Photo courtesy of Kevin Kubota
Craig Strong had long worked as a both a staff and freelance press photographer, but it became increasingly difficult to compete for work. "You can buy a digital camera and within a year get the experience it takes to launch your business" as a self-employed photographer, he says. "That's a much lower barrier to entry."
To save money, he had been making his own lenses and camera gadgets and soon realized other people were interested in his designs. In 2003, he cofounded Lensbaby, a Portland, Ore.-based website where both amateur and professional photographers could buy his lenses. "We're most known for [lenses that provide] a sweet spot of focus, which is one area of sharp focus and a gradually increasing blur," says the 45-year-old entrepreneur.
Nearly a decade later, Lensbaby has 35 employees and offers more than 20 lenses. Strong likes being on the product development and marketing side, watching how the world of photography is changing. "I still get to create, but I'm creating more long-term pieces of art," he says.
Finding time for innovation is now one Strong's biggest challenges. "Today, much of my time is spent in meetings, dealing with administrative details," says Strong, who tries to regularly block off time for long-term thinking and projects. This "came naturally when I ran a much smaller photography business [but] is more challenging with a larger team."
While Strong declined to reveal financial results, he says the company has had double-digit sales growth in the last five years as it launched 20 products.
The Storage Manager
Grover Sanschagrin is the co-founder of Photoshelter.com, a portfolio system and storage site for photographers. Photo courtesy of Photoshelter
For photographers, figuring out where to safely store and share thousands of high-res images is often a challenge because of the large files. That's what inspired Grover Sanschagrin, a 46-year-old former newspaper photographer, to create PhotoShelter, which lets professionals store their images while communicating with potential clients about their work. "It started with me wanting to help out my friends," he says. "I saw there was more opportunity in technology than actually covering the news."
Sensing more growth in digital photography and fewer traditional newspaper photographer opportunities, Sanschagrin decided to switch gears. "I saw the writing on the wall," he says.
Since its launch in 2005, the New York-based startup has grown to include more than 70,000 accounts and 29 employees. Photographers can show their images using Photoshelter's online tools, while clients in a different location can collaborate on image selection and sequencing. Monthly membership costs are $10 to $50, based on amount of storage space and features.
Sanschagrin has tried to transform the site into an online community, with webinars on such topics as "secrets of great portrait photography" and "the anatomy of a great multimedia video project."
"We spend a lot of time trying to educate people, and people really appreciate that approach," says Sanschagrin, who declined to disclose financial results but notes that the company's revenues have grown 20 percent to 30 percent over the last two years.
Related: 9 Great Photo and Video Apps
The Business Advisor
Sarah Petty is the founder of Joy of Marketing, a firm that helps photographers market their business. Photo courtesy of Rod Evans
After starting a photography studio in Springfield, Ill., Sarah Petty, 44, began doing speaking engagements about the business and marketing side of her company. With her advice increasingly in demand, she decided to create a new business, Petty's Joy of Marketing.com, which helps both amateur and professional photographers learn much needed business skills.
With increased competition and many consumers taking professional quality photos on their own, Petty says, the marketing firm enabled her to create a business with more growth potential than her boutique studio. "I would receive emails and calls after I spoke from photographers needing help," she says. But "I knew that for me to help them, I needed to find a way to charge for it, or my photography studio…would suffer."
The company sells various monthly programs, including Jumpstart Your Brand in 21 Days, an online course for $399. In 2012, the Joy of Marketing doubled its sales, which are approaching $2 million a year, Petty says. "We teach everything including branding, pricing, marketing, selling, but we don't teach the photography part."
Although JoyofMarketing.com takes most of her time, Petty still manages to do photo sessions with family members and regular clients. "I still like to hold the camera," she says. Staying involved as a photographer also helps her better understand customers' needs and provide valuable information, she says.