Seven weeks ago, online photography marketplace Lokalphoto went live. Based in Baltimore and founded by marketer-turned-entrepreneur Marianne McGinley, the site hopes to be more than a transactional space. Unlike traditional sites, McGinely told me, Lokalphoto is creating something that works for both clients and photographers alike. “I want it to have heart and soul,” she said.   

“Exactly what I didn’t want to do”   

I first became aware of Lokalphoto after receiving an email linking to a Resource story about Snappr, the “Uber-Like Startup Devaluing Your Photography”. The sender of the email, Ms. McGinley, had recently discovered Snappr, and was out to prove that her own competing company—Lokalphoto—was different. What Snappr does, she said, “is exactly what I didn’t want to do.”

“Photography is an art form, not a service”

Snappr’s most Uber-like innovation is the “Book Now” button on their homepage. In the click of a button, it promises, you can have a professional photographer in your home or office, and for only $59! Just as Uber rid cabs of their idiosyncrasies by matching drivers with passengers through an algorithm, Snappr fits its photographers into generic packages, allowing the site to market a price point—”book now from $59”—rather than a real, human, photographer. “Our instant matching algorithm,” they tout, “matches you with the best photographer for the job”.

The problem, McGinley says, is that photography is not a service to be rendered on-demand: it’s an art form. While the best way to drive from A to B may determined beforehand by a computer, the best way to have all parties exit a photo shoot satisfied is not liable to such a solution. So on Lokalphoto, an artist controls all aspects of their offered work: length, image count, location, and price. If an employer, browsing these options, finds what they need, a match—100% human—is made.

How does it work?

Photographer profiles are free on Lokalphoto. Along with a list of offerings, artists can also provide a direct messaging link for clients to discuss the possibility of modifications to existing packages. Once an agreement is reached between them, payment is made in full to Lokalphoto, which holds it in escrow until the job is done. Afterwards, photographers are paid out—minus a 3% fee to cover credit processing. The site, McGinley told me, “doesn’t actually make any money from photographers.”  

Instead, Lokalphoto charges clients a 5-15% fee above the booking price depending upon their chosen package. One could argue it has the same effect on a photographer’s bottom line—$200 budgets are spent on $200’s worth of photography whether a fee is assessed beforehand or afterwards—but the move reeks of Lokalphoto’s earnestness. One gets the feeling they’d never make employees wear identical blue t-shirts.

“You assume that surely something like this exists”

So why start Lokalphoto?

In 2015, McGinley’s oldest daughter was one. A consumer insights researcher, McGinley had had little experience behind a camera. But she was determined to capture family moments, she said, “while we still had them.” Naturally, she turned to Google. Seeking a photographer to capture her proudest moments, she wanted to search by vicinity. To her surprise, she couldn’t find a site offering her the ability to do so. “You assume that surely something like this exists,” she told me, “but it didn’t.” So the first-time entrepreneur set out to service this demand for local photography which—with her own children growing up at warp speed—she felt acutely.

McGinley via the site’s “About” page

A site shaped by artist feedback

McGinley told me the first thing she did in creating Lokalphoto was ask for photographers’ input. If the site was going to work for clients and artists alike, she knew, she’d have to hear from both sides. In doing so, she found that a primary concern raised by the group was a desire to work on their own terms and not ones set by a faceless booking corporation; hence Lokalphotos’ decision to allow photographers to fully customize their package options.

Concern was also expressed by photographers who didn’t want to list their prices outright because they would rather negotiate directly with clients. This was the birth, McGinley explained, of the direct messaging link. While it’s helpful to display pricing ideas to avoid mismatches between a client’s budget and their preferred artist, the addition of direct messaging allows packages outlined to be catered to individuals’ needs.

Finally, for the less tech-savvy of the bunch, she told me, there was trepidation about entering an entirely new software system which they would have to learn from scratch. In response, Lokalphoto allows artists to provide links their own digital galleries, as well curating a few choice shots for potential clients to browse on-site.

“I want Lokalphoto to have amazing customer service”

One nagging concern I had after hearing all this was how Lokalphoto would regulate its community. Unlike Snappr, which has some sort vetting—as dubious as it may be—Lokalphoto can be joined by anybody. And without a fee to do so, it leaves itself open to the possibility of disreputable photographers or clients.

When I asked McGinley about this, it was clear from the speed of her response that this was something she had considered at length. “I want Lokalphoto to have amazing customer service,” she said, which includes holding photographers and their clients to the highest standards. But with no outside funding, budgets are tight. So McGinley has been doing all of this work herself: researching photographer’s history, resolving disputes with clients, and “continuing to refine [the] community” even as it grows in number.

If the site continues to expand, her current method will become untenable. While she didn’t give specifics about what Lokalphoto would do at that point, it’s clear that her approach towards regulation is humanistic: each case is viewed on its own merits, and an informed judgment is made accordingly. Outside of some clear cut rules—a 72 hour cancellation policy, for example—her stance is flexible enough to accommodate the fact that “these are human interactions.” Just don’t confuse this understanding for weakness; when asked if she would ever ban poorly-behaving clients of photographers, she unhesitantly responded, “absolutely”.

“Definitely want to learn and adapt”

Lokalphoto comes off as something like the yellow cab of photography booking sites; employing it over your Lyfts and Ubers means you’ll be getting a heck of a lot more personality, and a well-deserved sense of moral superiority, perhaps at the cost of some peace of mind. It’s like the reason why Donald Trump only eats McDonald’s burgers—they’re so standardized he knows there’s no way they’re going to poison him. But if you’re brave enough to take on the 1/1,000,000 chance of that happening, you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of consuming a delicious, juicy, and most importantly, real hamburger (for the record I don’t condone eating beef, but the analogy works.)

McGinley is well are of this. In giving so much free reign to photographers and clients alike to strike their own deals, she understands that problems are sure to arise. And she also knows she isn’t necessarily always the person to solve them—but solve them she will. So when we ended the interview, she told me to relay to my readers that

“If there are people who have a passion what I am doing, please tell them reach out to tell me directly how I can grow the business. I have an open door policy and I absolutely love feedback. My direct email is posted right on the site. It’s new, it’s early and we’re agile enough to create growth that really works well for photographers and creates sustainability in the marketplace. I definitely want to learn, and adapt.”

Contact Lokalphoto here.