In order to effectively reach your clients as a photographer, you must first know what product you are selling.
I just finished reading a book written by the former star of the American version of “The Office,” Jenna Fischer. It’s called “The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide.” Basically, it’s a step-by-step instruction manual, or as close as one can get, to helping new actors find their way around a mysterious and unpredictable career. I’m not considering leaving photography for acting. I do, however, think that it’s valuable to get knowledge from outside the usual channels, and the book talks about everything from how to pick headshots (especially helpful to all headshot photographers) to how to deal with rejection (also helpful).
Now, I already know that many of you may be wondering why I am talking about a book about acting in a photography forum. But the more you think about it, the more sense it will make. While our end product may be different, actors and photographers have a great deal in common. We both have chosen career paths that many in our community find impractical. We both function in a market where supply far outpaces demand. We are both in entrepreneurial careers. Graduating from acting school doesn’t guarantee you a job in Denzel’s next movie. Nor does studying photography automatically grant you access to Vogue. And, in both cases, our careers are often what we make of them. We are independent contractors, and our ability to turn our dreams into actual careers is based largely on our ability to effectively market ourselves to potential clients.
This is where the book comes in. There is a passage in the book that poses one of my new favorite questions. Fischer is recounting a story of how she went from always picking the worst headshots to often picking the best with the advice of one of her acting teachers. In response to her frustration at not booking jobs following auditions, the teacher asked her a question: “What are your five adjectives?” This simple question changed the course of her career, and I think it could change the course for many photographers as well. I’ll explain it.
Fischer recounts some hilarious tales of headshot fails in the process of coming to the eventual realization that something had to change. After a number of really bad headshot sessions, she eventually landed on one she liked. She describes it as still being one of the best images of her ever taken. She was glamorous, sexy, elegant, and beautiful, like a model on the cover of an upscale magazine. It even got her into the door to audition for a lot of casting directors. But even after giving solid performances during the auditions, she wasn’t getting booked. Why not?
Well, if you are familiar with Fischer’s work on “The Office” as Pam Beesly or any of her other roles, you’ll know that she is a terrific comedic actress. Her characters are warm and relatable. They are down to earth. While she is obviously a beautiful woman, she leans much more in the direction of the girl next door than the femme fatale. Basically, to use a phrase favored by my college roommate, she’s “wifey material.” You want to bring her home to meet your mother.
Just to be clear, that’s not to say that she isn’t also sexy, elegant, and glamorous. Nor is it to say that one of those sets of attributes is better than the other. Rather, it is to say that upon the first impression, audiences are more likely to categorize her into the former category rather than the latter.
So, why is this important? Well, simple. If you’re an actor, you are the product, and casting directors are your initial buyers. And when you go into an audition, you are more than likely doing so in front of a casting director who has already seen hundreds of other actresses for the role and probably still has a hundred more to go after you. For sheer efficiency’s sake, they have to try and categorize you. They aren’t mean or unprofessional. It’s not an indication of your talent. It doesn’t mean that you can’t reach and play against type. But, like it or not, they are going to label you as a certain type the minute you walk in the door and, if that type doesn’t match what they are looking for, your odds of booking the job are a long shot regardless of the quality of your performance.
The problem with Fischer’s initial headshot wasn’t that it was a bad picture. It was that it was selling the wrong product. She was being called in by casting directors who, based on her headshot, were expecting a Marilyn Monroe, but were actually getting an Audrey Hepburn. In other words, the reason she wasn’t booking wasn’t the quality of the product but an inaccurate representation of the product being marketed.
All of this brings us back to the acting coach and why his words are equally applicable to photographers. Hearing of her difficulties, the teacher sat her down and instructed her to come up with five adjectives to describe her persona. What are the five words that best describe the presentation Jenna Fischer makes when she enters a room? Words like warm, relatable, funny, silly, and smart immediately came to mind. Once she settled on her five adjectives, she then went to have another look at her headshot, which was all about sex appeal and glamour. The problem was suddenly clear. It’s not that the photograph was bad. It just wasn’t “her.” The adjectives didn't match.
Now with a greater understanding of her product, she took yet another set of headshots that portrayed her closer to the warm and funny girl next door that she was in real life. The new headshot might not have been as glamorous, but it looked a lot more like the actual woman that would walk in the door for auditions. Having cast several movies myself, I can tell you how strange it is when the actor or actress who walks into the audition bears very little resemblance to the person in the picture. After considering her five adjectives and adjusting her advertising/headshot to fit, now there was a match between messaging and reality. Immediately, she began booking more jobs, including eventually getting the role of Pam Beesly, who was coincidentally described in the breakdowns as “warm, relatable, funny, silly, and smart.” She didn’t have to change her product for the market; she had to understand what made her product special and find the market most in need of her services.
So, yes, the bulk of this essay has been about an actress’s journey through her profession, but I think the parallels to photography should be relatively clear. Our casting directors might be replaced by art producers or photo editors, but the principle remains the same. A consistent brand message makes a world of difference when it comes to turning a talented photographer into a working photographer. Clients need to know what they are getting if they hire you for a job. So, while you may very well be capable of executing every type of photograph in every possible style, in order to deliver a consistent brand image and a consistent product, you would be best served to identify what your specific product is. What is that first and best impression you are giving clients when they see your portfolio, or website, or Instagram feed? Is it consistent? Does it seem to be spoken by a single voice? Is the product you are selling through the images you show consistent with the individual attributes that make your work special?
Art buyers, like casting directors, have infinite choices. As a marketer, what do you have to offer that’s different? If you had to describe your work with five adjectives, what would they be? Maybe, hypothetically, you’re a wedding shooter whose work is elegant, fashion-driven, upscale, dramatically lit, and subdued in the color palette. Once you decide that those are your defining qualities, it gives you a better notion of where your work fits into the market. It also gives you a better idea of what sort of clients your work will appeal to. If a bride and groom really just want documentary-style candids with poppy color and plan to wear flip flops for the ceremony, it’s not that you don’t have the skills to shoot it, but the odds of booking that job might not be in your favor. On the other side of the coin, if you took your portfolio to see another couple that wants their wedding shoot to look like a Vanity Fair cover, your focused brand message might just make it your job to lose.
Understanding your product is step number one to transitioning from talented amateur to working professional. It may sometimes feel limiting. But, like an actor, having a specific brand message doesn’t necessarily prevent you from ever playing against type. What it does allow you to do, however, is to stand out in a crowded field and establish your brand identity quickly and efficiently in the minds of potential customers.
So, what are your five adjectives as a photographer? Does your current portfolio reflect those strengths? Are there any stray images in there that, while they may be good, could confuse potential customers? What is the product you are selling? And how can you keep a clear and consistent brand message from promotion through delivery?