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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?