Commercial photographer proves that passion beats bottom-line

by Martin Hall Larsen

Growing up in the Dutch capital of The Hague, Chi Qing was always surrounded by beautiful landscapes, blooming flowers and some of the world’s most famous art treasures.

“I have always known that I wanted to work with something creative, and I have always been interested in art,” the 34-year-old photographer said in an interview. “I started to take photos when I was 15, but it wasn’t until I started studying it in college that my passion was ignited.”

Chi, born in Hong Kong and raised in the Netherlands, has her own studio and photography business in Beijing’s posh, international neighborhood of Sanlitun. But she readily admits that it hasn’t always been easy turning her passion into a successful business enterprise.

Many photography businesses fail due to heavy competition, lack of business acumen or poor marketing skills. This field is particularly challenging in China, where professional photography services historically have not been in great demand, and making a living as a commercial photographer is risky.

“Multiple times I have considered giving up on photography in favor of pursuing a new profession, as the market for professional photography is demanding,” Chi said. “But I’ve kept going and the joy I derive from pursuing my passion has proven to be far greater than the heartless bottom-line can quantify.”

Chi is one in a growing group of professional women who are foregoing the traditional route of corporate employment to run their own small business in China. Beijing, the burgeoning capital, has been a magnet attracting young women seeking success on their own terms. Chi first came to Beijing as an intern at The Dutch Embassy more than ten years ago, and while there she met her now-husband, a native “Beijingren,” and settled down.

Her clients sometimes want something less traditional like an outdoor photo shoot.

Wedding photography is the most lucrative segment of Chi’s business. Higher profit margins for wedding photography are, according to Chi, due to an increasing preference among Chinese couples for Western-style weddings and and all the professional wedding photography that entails. The higher the demand for Western weddings, the higher the demand for professional photographers to shoot the celebrations.

While quality work is a must, competitive pricing is important, too.

“In the consumer market, I mainly focus on pleasing my customers through good customer service, high-quality work and a wide range of package deals to price differentiate my products based on the varying purchasing power of the consumers,” Chi said.

She explains that upper-middle to upper class customers typically buy photography packages that include wedding shots at the studio in Sanlitun, in addition to photography at their wedding location. Middle to lower-middle class consumers typically only buy her services on location, which leads to a lower package price.

While weddings pay a handsome sum, the heart of Chi’s business are private clients. In the business-to-business market, Chi tends to focus more on the marketing and sales of her products. In the consumer market, a majority of the business comes from word of mouth. The business- to-business market is less profitable per working hour, because she spends a considerable amount of time organizing sample events for future clients, editing photos, and pitching ideas to magazines and businesses.

“On the other hand, once the contracts are secured they are on average long-term and provide a stable revenue stream,” Chi said. “It’s important to my business in the sense that it reduces the volatility of the top-line, and enables me as an owner to sleep well at night.”

Running a business is demanding. Chi believes that creative types like herself aren’t always aware of the dedication and work necessary to keep the wheels turning on a small business.

“There are numerous daily tasks that go unnoticed for somebody unfamiliar with running a business, “Chi said. “Behind the on-shoot photo sessions and glamorous corporate events are grueling, and often unbillable, hours of accounting, billing customers, and business-to-business sales.”

To complicate her life, she says, conducting business in China can be time consuming due to the extensive bureaucracy. Luckily, she’s fluent in Mandarin and has a good network of friends that actively help her with daily routines and introducing her to their network.

Although it would have been easier for Chi to just work for someone else, she loves the flexibility and freedom her own business provides her.

“I am able to choose the projects I work on and where I want to do them,” she said, “Some periods I work long and intense, so that I can take a longer vacation when I want.”

In more than a decade working as a photographer in China, Chi has met prominent people and experienced extraordinary moments. She has worked with movie star Fan Bing Bing, know from the X- Men movies, and supermodel Liu Wen. She also had had many unusual experiences.

“I have been in a submarine, been sitting in the cockpit a Boeing 787, been working in exotic locations to make travel stories, met a lot of interesting people, and have been able to go many interesting places that I otherwise wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for my profession,” she said.

Chi encourages young hopefuls to not be afraid of trying new things.

“Have an open mind, experiment, never give up, get inspiration from others, but stay true to your own vision,” she said.