How the US and UK Photography Markets Differ

Q. “As an American living in the UK how have you found the differences between the UK and the US photography market? I spend a lot of time on websites where 95% of the people are American and there is a lot of talk of photographing seniors, newborns having a family photo taken for the Christmas cards.  This all seems so different to what I grew up with in the UK where having photos taken by a professional seems to be reservered for just wedding photos, the obligatory yearly hideous school shot or perhaps the occasional visit to an overpriced photography chain.”

A. I jumped for joy to get this question! Honestly, I find the UK market so frustrating and I don’t want to come off as taking a dig at the Brits but since you asked!

{First, some Definitions}

Defining some American markets for those who need some explanation:

Senior Photos – Seniors are kids in their last year of school. Equivalent to the end of College here in the UK. Even when I was graduating 10 years ago, having photos was an assumed necessity. They went in the invitations to my graduation and grad party and were sent to family allover the country. They were hideous studio head shots with me in my cap and gown. But now, it’s so much more popular for Seniors to have proper shoots complete with wardrobe/location changes and all that jazz. It quite often culminates in a coffee table book or other costly product. It’s a ginormous slot in the American photographer’s market and one I yearn to benefit from. But here, there’s no such thing. Heck…even prom isn’t all it is in America. It’s just not as big an event as is leaving school in America.

Newborns – I think it’s widely accepted in America that when a baby is born, he’s photographed. Even before I cared about photography, I had my babies photographed when they were itsy bitsy.

The Christmas Card – Again, even before I cared about photography, we had Christmas cards printed with our photo. Among the upper and middle classes, this is a normal, yearly practice. If you’ve seen the film ‘The Blindside’ you’ll know what I mean :) That’s pretty typical.

{Some Experiences}

I loved sociology in college. I love learning about cultures and understanding why they are the way they are. If you listen closely to the world around you, you’ll pick up plenty of tidbits here and there that will help you better understand why your culture feels the way they do about photography. Now, there’s an exception to every rule and my clients love photography. They love displaying it in their home and showing it off to their friends. But I had to work hard to find these people while in America, they’re everywhere. One of the main things I picked up was in a conversation with one of my friends when talking about big canvases. She got a bit stiff and bug-eyed and said “oh gosh…isn’t that just a bit too showoffy?” And, folks, that says it all right there: the Brits hate to show off.

In my experience living here for 6 years, I have come to realise that showing off is strictly off limits. Children are kept painfully average, homes are very sensible and photos are as tiny as humanly possible. If I think about my best clients, there’s a common thread in that they’re either from somewhere else or have had experiences living in other places. And then there are the few who are just outta-this-world-awesome and rebel against the worst parts of British culture.

The British also have a very dark and depressing history with regards to war and deprivation. While Americans known as The Pioneers were hitching up their horses and forging through new lands, building their own societies and playing Little House on the Prarie, the British were living in the Victorian Ages which is marked with work houses, children being sent up chimneys {and dying in them} and other horrible atrocities. So it’s no wonder that somewhere deep in the British psyche, there is a sadness and a feeling that life might not be all that awesome and “why would I take pictures of my life?”

And don’t even get me started on the class system.

Now, I’m not at all saying Americans have it all together. In fact, I’d say we need to learn to be less into ourselves and not think we’re God’s gift to the world. I mean look at me…I’ve figured out the whole of the British culture out in one little blogpost! I’m a total knowitall and I have a whole blog to prove it. There’s good and bad in every society.

{Now, my opinion}

7 years ago when my little guy was in preschool in America, the photos were a billion times more evolved than the school photos I’ve seen taken here in the UK. And at times, I’ve had to downplay my talent and take painfully average school photos due to the fact that when I pulled out all the stops and did full-on white seamless studio stuff with the kids, parents were displeased and unhappy that the kids weren’t just sitting with a lovely faux marble sheet behind them. I find this so extremely frustrating. Another place I rarely go (unless a client requests it) is the styled, accessorised period-look children’s session. In America you pay top dollar to have it. Here, I have only found that, maybe, 1% of my clients ‘get it’ and actually like it to the extent that they pay for it.

Another example of where this problem gives me hardship is that every single last photography prop I’ve wanted to buy has had to come from America. Groovy knit hats, vintage headpieces for newborns. I’m even about to have to order my faux wood studio flooring from America which is going to cost me a pretty penny in shipping and import taxes. But you just can’t get that stuff here! Note: after first writing this post, I bought a piece of vinyl flooring from a carpet store which was far more economical. 

{What now?}

So what’s the way forward? I figure I can either lower the bar, take purposefully average portraits or I can continue to plow the fields and labor to bring the UK into the 2012 photography market where the yearly session is an event to anticipate. To be really real with you, I have to tell you that my business isn’t anywhere near as successful as it could be in America. If you’re a photographer in the UK, you have to be realistic about that. But there is definitely a little pocket of Etsy-loving-vintage-dreaming mommas out there who are clients of mine. You simply have to go out there and find where your ideal client is because whatever country you’re in, they’re out there somewhere!

Here are a few things I’m doing:

  • I set up my own styled, accessorised sessions to continually be bringing new sessions for my blog readers and FB fans to see. I hope that this will get them thinking that they, too, can have such images of their own children.
  • When I shoot schools, I take a normal head-and-shoulders shot with a backdrop and then I take an alternative shot on a separate set. Then, parents have a choice of traditional or trendy.
  • I don’t charge outrageous prices that make clients gulp. I want them to feel that this is affordable enough to do more regularly. However, the concept of ‘outrageous’ is a completely subjective one and no two people will agree on what is a reasonable price.
  • I remind clients that I am their photographer. I stay in touch, run offers and shell out a load for beautiful Christmas cards to remind them that I’m still around and I’m their photographer! I hope that this will encourage continued patronage and the mindset that photographs can be taken for any occasion or you can make one of your own.
  • Mini sessions are a great way to get clients eased into your business. Set up a day and a theme and book clients in for 20 minutes at a time. Then they can get a feel for what you’re like, get a great deal on some shots and now you can stay in touch for when they need more!

That’s about all I can think of for now. I’m very excited to be in England and love to evangelise about things I’m passionate about and photography is absolutely near the top of the list! I will get this place thinking about the yearly session if it’s the last thing I do! :*)

  • Maz Hawes

    Hi Elizabeth! I’m amazed we haven’t spoken before- you are speaking my language:)) I am GB born, bred and working, yet I think I have the US mindset, and share your frustrations. Teens are my favourite age group to photograph, yet mention ‘seniors’ here and everyone thinks of the elderly! I have been advised by one or two bigwigs in the photog world here that it’s pointless pursuing that market because ‘teens don’t have money’. I think that’s the wrong attitude, personally, and am driven to build the market in this country – somehow. Maybe we can put our heads together sometime?
    maz x

  • Louisa

    I’ve been ranting the same thing to husband!! Not only are we at a disadvantage because all our equipment costs more than over in the US but like you say, all the props etc are so readily available in the US. You’re a lady on my wavelength! Maybe we can take the UK photog market by storm.

    By the way I noticed you shoot with a 7D – how do you find it? I’m in the process of upgrading and can’t decide between 7D or 5Dm2. I’m guessing you probably made a similar decision based on your photography. How is the 7D working out you. hope you don’t mind me asking?

  • Lovelyn

    Interesting post! I’m an American living in the UK too. I took film pictures for year, but only just got interested in digital photography when we moved to the UK almost four years ago now. I find it so frustrating that so many things I want for my photography have to be shipped from the States. There really is a huge hole in the market here that someone needs to fill up.

  • Rebecca

    I thought you’d enjoy that question Elizabeth, love your answer!

  • Emma

    Knitted hats and headbands for newborns … watch this space!
    I have been busily knitting away, and have knitted nappy (diaper) covers. See my facebook fanpage for examples of what I’m hoping to sell to like-minded UK photographers soon :o)

  • Russ

    If I was a Brit, which I’m not, I would be worried about you importing your USA culture of those types of photos to the country. To me those types of photo sessions are just so American, like the stereotypical American tourist, brash, loud, look at me! Please don’t stuff up the English culture.

  • elizabethhalford

    @Russ: Well firstly, if I weren’t a ‘brash, loud, stereotypical American’, my readers wouldn’t be benefitting from this blog. Secondly, there’s no other reason to have yourself or your family photographed than to say “Look at me!” “look at us!”.

  • Michaela

    I live in the US and have been shooting senior portraits for several of the foreign exchange students from Europe. They all have so much fun during their shoot and really love their photos. They informed me that senior pictures were mostly an “American” thing – I couldn’t believe it. haha. Granted, my senior pictures were taken over 10 yrs ago, but I remember how much fun I had during my session! :)

  • Russ

    Elizabeth, this isn’t a dig at you by any means, I did say stereotypical, not typical, and you don’t have to be all those things to have a blog of course. But there are other reasons to have those shoots done, for me it would be “for the record”, shots to look back on years hence and remember how we were. For others it may be the only half-decent photos they ever get of themselves or family (judging from many Facebook-type photos I’ve seen). Family shots do not necessarily have to end up on the wall, but could be kept in a box somewhere to brought out every few years and marvelled at. But the “Look at me!” “look at us!” thing, to me, is definitely a part of your culture which I do not warm to.

  • Adele Humphries

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I am a Scot living in Georgia and have become interested in perhaps “going pro” in the near future…maybe! I can see where you are coming from and where your frustrations lie regarding making a living from photography in the UK. We are a more “reserved/reticent” group of people than Americans (over-generalisation, i know) and so it’s less comfortable for us to display photographs of ourselves or our family comfortably/proudly without feeling silghtly awkward that we perhaps look boastful. Know what i mean? Personally, i LOVE the artistic style of portraiture that’s commonly seen in America and i think many Brits do too – but we don’t want others to know we love ourselves that much to go spending a fortune on photos of ourselves! :)
    Good luck marketing yourself – i think your work is beautiful! xx

  • Dot McQueen

    I love different styling in photoshoots. The more the British public see different styles the more they are likely to accept these for their own shoots. Look how far wedding photography has come – Reportage wasn’t on the radar previously or Trash the Dress!

    The themed mini session idea is fantastic to get people in the zone without having to pay out a fortune. I think I’ll try that next. ;-)

    Please keep sharing you ideas Elizabeth – after all people don’t have to adopt them themselves if they don’t wish to (Are you listening Russ?)

  • Stefanie

    What a great topic! And, one not openly spoke about. I don’t live in the UK but I can relate to being frustrated and challenged by trying to get your clients to understand and accept how you do things. But that is just what it is, a challenge. If I can add anything to this conversation it is, DO NOT lower your bar. You set the bar and others will follow it. Trust me. You believe in you and what you are doing, and the clients WILL follow. If you don’t believe in you, your clients won’t believe in you. Where there is one client that loves your work, there will be another.

    When it comes to countries in the photography industry. I believe it was 5 years ago that Canada was behind and so was Australia, in the photography industry but now Australia is blazing trails in weddings and I see Canada showing huge promise. I will also add that the UK industry also has changed a bit. I believe your country will come around. In fact I know it will, because it has people like you leading the charge. Keep up the great work :)

  • Hollie Edwards

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I love the American attitude to portrait photography, I really wish it would be accepted over here. I’m amatuer at the moment but I hope to inject some American style into my portraits when I progress to professional.

  • Rhonda Elder

    Great article!  Although I wince for you and your struggle in the UK, often in America it is just as hard to get the clients as the market is flooded (and I mean tsunami) with photographers.  I have to be very creative!

  • Ann

    I am a photographer in America, I’m not American, i came from another Culture, and i felt in love with photography not because people want pictures to “show off” themselves, i got calls from Grandmas saying they want pictures of their grand kids, because they live far away and is something they can take with them, i have had many chances to photograph children are loosing the battle with Cancer and their families only want a big family photo, before they loose loved ones, Photos are very important, much more than just to keep them in a box in the closet, is to remind us everyday how lucky we are to have family and friends around, being part of your home and if there is a chance that we can do it in a very creative way why not?.

  • poppingpopcorn

    I’m an American living in The Netherlands and I’d love to know where you got vinyl wood floor! I need to order some! 

  • elizabethhalford

    Hello! They’re just vinyl rolls from the flooring store!

  • Sophie Callahan

    I absolutely love this post. Thank you so much for writing it. This is everything I’ve been feeling for so long.
    All the blogs I follow, all the photographers I admire, all the industry leaders… they’re all in the US. In fact, when I found your blog, I was so excited. And when I saw you’re actually from the US, well, that figured! Lol!
    Photography just seems to be so much more readily celebrated out in the US. I’m so envious of that culture!!
    I’m sharing this on my Facebook page. You never know, maybe it will make a few Brits sit up and think.
    Sophie. xx