How to Be a Professional Photographer in a Small Town

How to Be a Professional Photographer in a Small Town

Not all of us chose to live in New York, Paris, or London, but that doesn't meant that we can't be professional photographers. 

It isn't ideal, but you can make it work. This pretty much sums up being a photographer from a small town when you have big aspirations. I know, I should move to London, but I have lived there before, and I have lived in other big cities around the world; it isn't for me, and it doesn't suit my life outside of work. So, here are some bits of advice so you too can have your cake and eat it too.

Overheads

In smaller cities, our overheads are generally lower. This means that we can be somewhat cheaper too. However, this is often a mistake that photographers from small towns make, feeling like you can’t command the same fee as those in bigger cities. The fact of the matter is there is less work outside of those bigger cities, so your day rate needs to be comparable; otherwise, with a lower day rate and lower volume of work, you will quickly become stuck. Finding the right balance is tough. It took me about six years to pitch it just right. I now charge a fraction under the going rate in London, which equates to their first class train ticket to my studio, which is also often quicker to get to than other studios in London!

Travel

I live in a place called Leicester, in the UK. It is a very small city, so small that it is hard to walk down the street without bumping into several people you know. The economy is also very small. Out of my client base, I currently have two clients in the area. This means that I am often sleeping in hotels and traveling around the country and into the rest of Europe. There are loads of advertising agencies in the city, but only three work at a similar level to what I shoot, so travel becomes a big part of my life. I charge a half-day rate for any serious travel, but generally speaking, I just crack on and make my way there at my expense (which is built into the day rate I charge in a king of swings and roundabouts way).

You have to be willing to travel if you live outside of a big city. I will often lose a day traveling to London for a one-hour meeting. It is just a fact of my life. I now enjoy the travel and see it as a nice break from the hustle and bustle of my day-to-day world. Being able to sit on a train for an hour with my headphones in is pretty relaxing.

Quality of Work

This might sound obvious, but just because you are not based in New York doesn't mean that your work doesn't need to be as good as those who are. Your work needs to be as good as those from the major cities in your price point. If your work is of a low standard, it wont matter where you are based, you won't get enough work. This is even more important when you are out of the way. I see the photography world in a kind of level system, if you want to be shooting at level 8 and you are outside of the major cities, you need to be producing level 9 work and so on. Once your work is of a high enough quality and you are well known, clients will not care where you are based. I have several clients who have booked me from different countries to shoot their brands' advertising campaigns. The work is far more important than the location to them.

Understanding Clients' Needs

When I started to get big jobs, they were re-shoots. Usually some big name had fluffed it, and they didn't want to cause an upset, so they gave it to an unknown photographer from out of town to fix it up. This way, everyone saved face. This often meant tight deadlines, stressed clients, and being very hush hush. Understanding what these clients needed in order to save the campaign really helped me get a hold on the food photography world. After about a year of doing re-shoots and fixes, I started to be the guy they called up first for the smaller jobs and social campaigns. Then when bigger campaigns came in, if they were already on the phone to my agent, he would manage to pull a few my way. For these clients, the needs changed. I would rent a big studio in a big city and pretend to be a big deal in front of their client. Then, when it wasn't client-facing, we would shoot from my studio via a weblink.

Specialize

You need to be the photographer who people think of when they need a certain type of image produced. While you are out of sight and out of mind, you need to make sure that there is something about your work that stands out. If someone needs a very specific type of portrait taken and that is your niche, you will always get the job over someone who shoots headshots, portraits, and architecture. No one wants a jack of all trades for their campaigns.

Chose what you love and run with it. You can make a living from pretty much ever genre of photography if you get good enough at it.

Social Media

In commercial photography, Instagram is king. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, you can engage with the right people and get your work seen by art buyers who would usually turn you away at the door because you are not from London, New York, or Paris. Invest time into Instagram and get your message out there. But more than just posting, make sure that you are active in your community of people that you want to be working with. From photographers to stylists, it is important that people know who you and your work are.

Being Ready

Photography is usually the impulse buy at the end of the planning. Unless they had grand plans for a named photographer to be shooting their campaign, you are probably the last on their list, and you can bet that the print deadline is fast approaching. I have often had next day bookings that need overnight delivery to meet a billboard print deadline the following day before lunch. When these jobs hit, it usually means not sleeping until the work is done. It is hard, but we charge enough as photographers that we can then take the next few days out to recover from the stress and sleep deprivation.

Have a Studio and All of the Gear

If I lived in London, I would walk into a rental shop, leave with a heap of gear for the day's job, and walk into a well-equipped studio. The same could be said for any major city. However, in little Leicester, that is not a possibility. There are no rental stores here, and there certainly are not any studios that are suitable for the work I do. As far as I am aware, I am the only person with a prop house, kitchen, workshop, and fully kitted out food styling area. I have just spent the last two days improving my studio, as it is so important that it is there when I need it. I will often be traveling to locations for food shoots in studios outside of Leicester, but when someone needs me to have my own studio for a shoot the following day, I will always get the job over someone who doesn't have the right space.

What are your tips for being a professional photographer in a small town or city?

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14 Comments

Scott Choucino's picture

haha, certainly would make life easier in some ways.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed it. I hope your move goes well!

Mark Hazeldine's picture

What a refreshing article. Great to read about commercial photography in the UK. There's so little written about it. Very interesting to hear your views on Instagram. Maybe you could write an article on your experiences with that?

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Mark, glad you enjoyed it. I have a few instagram articles to put together over the next few months. Finding the time to write them is always tricky though.

Ben Bezuidenhout's picture

These tips will not fill up my car.

Scott Choucino's picture

I wouldn't even know how to begin filling a car with tips

Richard Bradbury's picture

Great article Scott. This is definitely the case for me being in the relatively small town of Stockport.

I landed lucky on my studio space in terms of both the unit size ( it's not too bad) and cost. It's enough for most of the work I do for now but I would like to move on to a larger space at some point.

Location wise whilst not prime is good for transport links without being in the town centre and dealing with those rates. I don't need a high street front so no point in being in a town centre unit.

I am working on my social media and marketing.... Instagram, FB, Linked-in and YouTube being the main platforms. One day I will figure it out... maybe.

My main love and focus is portrait work, head shots. Other work is done but they will be the focus going forwards. Food work is still of interest to me but I have to pair down and focus on one thing at the moment.

I also enjoy teaching and helping other which my studio space has facilitated. Speaking of which it is almost where I want it to be, gear wise it's good ( bar 2-3 more C-stands ) but I have a few plans to improve the layout to may better use of storage space.

The rest if keeping moving and working... let some stuff go and give myself a break now and again.

Rick

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Rick. I didn't know you were using youtube, what's your channel?

Derek John's picture

Interesting and well written article. I looked up Leicester on Wiki, population of 329 000 so it's hardly a small town, more like a small city. I moved out of Sydney (pop. 5m) to a small town of only 11 000. No traffic lights. No buildings above 2 stories.
The first year was interesting getting work, lets just say I did a lot around the house.....
Slowly I built up my business though and as you say quality of work is very important. I was used to working for stressed Sydney clients where now I'm in a much more laid back environment but a no less professional one.

Also I've had to diversify and find myself shooting construction, mining, real estate, people and aerial where in Sydney I was mainly in architecture. Occasionally I head back to Sydney for a shoot.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thats great that you managed to move from such a big city to such a small town and continue working. Props to you.

Derek John's picture

Thank you for replying Scott, I have found that with a small town you really have to be prepared to work outside your comfort zone. The first year as I mentioned was pretty quiet (and scary!).

Jeremy Center's picture

Nice introduction but I feel it's almost a fluff piece. I would like to see something detailed such as weekly/monthly routines, marketing plan, how you network and uncommon places to find work, etc. I live in a small town and struggle. It would be nice to see how others actually do it. That's why this article caught my eye. I was hoping for something more substantive.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Jeremy,

you are probably looking more for a book/ebook than an article. I don't think many people would read 5000 words. I could certainly put something together about a weekly schedule though.

Igor Warzocha's picture

Love the "Understanding Clients' Needs" paragraph. So true. Also applies to a case of "we cheaped out on the photographer initially, and now there's a problem".

I'd absolutely pay for such an ebook, especially since most of the materials on the web are USA-market-based. Haven't lived in the UK for too long, but the difference as to how people approach photography as a business seems huuuuuuuge.