Last weekend was PDN’s Photo Plus Expo, and like a lot of east coast photographers I was in attendance. It seems like every year photo conferences get bigger and better drawing in massive crowds and yet there are still photographers who don't see any value in them. It makes me wonder if people understand and are taking full advantage of these events.
For about the last decade I've been attending Photo Plus Expo among other conferences. I was lucky that in college as an editor for the school paper attending educational events like these were fully paid for. I’m extremely grateful for those first couple of years because without them I wouldn't have learned just how important they really are within in the Photo Industry and to becoming a Pro. Since I just returned from Photo Plus Expo I’ll be referring to it for examples but most of what I'm going to talk about applies to almost all conferences, workshops, national organizations (ASMP, APA, PPA etc), and even camera clubs.
We all know about the obvious benefits of attending and the organizers put a ton of effort into making them better for us every year. The expo floors are packed with booths, big and small, with every new toy on the market to demo. Over the last couple years there has been a change on the floor with the big players really going all out bringing in sponsored photographers to show off their technique or do lectures on various topics. Even creating elaborate staged photo opportunities with models.Most the larger conferences, Photo Plus included, have great seminar packages offering lectures and workshops on countless topics for photographers of all levels. Photo Walks and Master classes have become very popular recently adding even more educational value. They also offer portfolio reviews, photo contests, and keynote lectures by some of the biggest names in the industry.
Though these things should be more than enough to convince any photographer from beginner to pro to attend, if you still do not see the value then here is the real reason those photographers in the know attend.
It sounds so obvious and simple how could this be the secret? Well it is simple and it is not. No matter what level photographer you are, networking will improve, increase, and build your business and brand. There is no better place than these events to network with your peers, vendors, and all the other various industry people in attendance. Why would I want to network with other photographers? How would I get started? What is the proper way to go about it? Let's break it down.
Why Networking is Important.
Networking is the best most cost efficient marketing tool any business has. Without a doubt. There is no argument. If you’ve ever admired or followed a pro photographer and wondered how they got to where they are, it's networking. In today's world where we are constantly bombarded with amazing images it is more evident than ever that talent may not be enough. Building long lasting beneficial relationships within any industry will only have a positive impact on one's career.
Advice, Encouragement, Feedback.
At its most basic level, knowing people within any industry gives you an outlet for answering any question you have about your work and business. One of the most common questions I see on any camera forum is, “How much should I charge?” Who better to ask than photographers you have a relationship with. Even the most veteran Pro sometimes has questions about career opportunities and seeks out advice from his peers. Maybe you're a wedding photographer and unsure about licensing for a commercial client. Or need recommendations on assistants and venues in a different region. There are any number of scenarios for why you would want to have photographers, editors, or vendors available to reach out to.
Word of Mouth.
This isn't just important for your clients. We are all both consumers and producers. We all want an editor to like and share our work but it's not just them you should be focused on. Photographers share other photographers work all the time. I’m not a wedding photographer but most people I know still come to me asking for advice on finding one. I will always give recommendations for individuals whose work I respect and know to be reliable professionals. You're a portrait photographer, but a client wants something you're not comfortable shooting. The client doesn't have a big enough budget, so you pass the job to someone you think can handle it. You've booked a job, but last minute have to cancel because of an emergency. You don't want to lose the client so reach out to a peer. Word of mouth is about building Authentic personal connections with people who can become your clients and/or refer clients to you.
Partnerships and Creative Personal Growth.
You are your brand, not the final product you create. Your work should speak for itself, but when we build a network of peers within our industry we create people that can talk about you as more than a product. They sell you as a person, a vision, a talent, your passion. They inspire you to push yourself. They become Mentors that can guide and nurture you. Our peers can open our eyes to new paths we may have never thought of. Just recently, a photographer told me a story about how they had been shooting the same thing everywhere they went for years just out of habit. They never put any thought into the images and they sat on a HDD in his archive. Then one day another photographer saw some of these images and commented on how it would make a great personal project. The 1st photographer had never thought about the images as a collection and what together they might represent. Since they had already shot hundreds of images, it quickly became a new book.
How to Get Started.
The Expo Floor.
You can't just show up and expect results. The most important thing to remember is that relationships take time and have to be genuine. When I first started attending conferences I ran around all crazy and overwhelmed. I tried to get as much free Swag as I could, even revisiting the Kodak and Fuji booths for extra free samples of film. I was still a college student after all. I was looking at all the big company signs hanging above me when I should have been looking at the name badges hanging below. You could be standing next to Jay Maisel and not ever know it. A great photographer friend once told me a story about how when he first started he would go to events paying close attention to everyone's name badge. When he recognized a name he would introduce himself. If he new about their work he would talk about it, if not he would ask what they were working on. He wasn't interested in the Swag or even what was happening on the floor. Every event, year after year he would do this wandering the event floor inspecting name tags. Eventually one day he started walking into events and people came up to him. They knew who he was. Some of those people became friends others just recognized him as a peer, but for almost zero investment just attending an event and introducing yourself he created opportunity.
You have to pay attention to what info is given on the badges. Are they a photographer, editor, or vendor? Do they work for a company or are they freelance? Steer your conversations towards them and what info you have available. Introduce yourself to the people around them. Introduce them to the people you're with. Walk the floor always looking for people you know, people you want to get to know, and be there to be seen by the people who might know you.
Be prepared and have a plan. Have plenty of business cards ready and some promotional material. Think about what recent or important projects you’re working on incase someone asks what you have been up to. You want to be able to quickly and clearly give your elevator speech about any given project that might be interesting to who you're talking to. Have a plan and set goals for yourself. I want to introduce myself to three photographers whose work I admire. Or I want to start a conversation with 10 new people. Here are a few easy Ice breakers.
- How long have you been in the industry?
- What type/genre of photography do you shoot?
- Do you have any personal projects your working on?
- What other events are you attending this year?
Behind Closed Doors.
At every conference there are meetings, deals being made, and new opportunities being worked out. Companies are looking for new photographers to work with. Several of the big ones even have private demo rooms or hotel suites for meetings. Software companies are looking for brand ambassadors and feedback on new products. Workshops and other conferences are scouting for new and upcoming speakers for their own events. Photographers are catching up in the speaker ready room inspiring new collaborations or offering advice on new projects. In every room, behind every door, people are sitting down together and taking their careers to the next level through networking.
How do I get behind those doors? Well maybe you already have some connections in the industry or acquaintances that can make introductions for you. If you know what you want to accomplish you can reach out in advance and start to set up meetings. Let people know you’ll be attending and look to see who will be there that you want to meet with. Once you've started to build your network you should be able to see how these events become more important. You can start to develop the necessary resources to go beyond the expo floor to where things really start getting interesting.
The After Parties.
Did you know about the after parties? I didn't. I attended conferences for years before I got invited to my first party. It's not something often mentioned and in most cases they are open to anyone. A lot of times the conference themselves will host a big networking bash which is great, but the real networking happens at all the industry parties that take advantage of so many people in one location. Several of the big sponsors will throw parties like Sony and Adobe did this year. Other companies might hold shows, photo walks, or special events. Photo communities like ASMP and APA will sometimes host a gathering. Even Fstoppers put together a party open to the whole community. There are countless parties to attend but most don't go out of their way to let you know about them you have to seek them out.
Then there are the semi-private parties. These are the big time of conference events. Often a who's who of industry leaders. I've been to a couple and I've heard rumors of a few others. They might be a thank you party hosted by a workshop for all their speakers. Or a dinner for all the photographers a company sponsors. Usually you really have to know someone to be invited or like me accompany someone with a bit more of a reputation then yourself. This is yet another example of why we network. Each step leads us up a ladder to new and bigger opportunities. Getting to meet someone important or that you admire is great. Having someone that person respects introduce you to them is much better. This of course leads us to...
I’d imagine most people are taught and practice basic manners when interacting with people at events but it's important to remember that this is about building genuine connections. Be careful not to be pushy. You don't want to immediately show people your portfolio or hand out your business card. It's not a contest to see who has fewer cards at the end of the day. Don't just collect cards either get to know people. For a lot of people it can be difficult to go up to strangers and start a conversation. It's ok to walk up to someone and introduce yourself. That's why most of us are there anyway. Confidence and friendliness will go a long way. If you see someone you want to talk to already in discussion, be respectful and wait for the right opportunity. Don't let being new to the industry waste a good opportunity to network.
Try and ask questions about their work or company. Ask smart questions and try to find a subject or topic you are confident about. People often feel more comfortable talking about themselves and it takes the pressure off of you. Also be mindful of social cues. Are there people standing around waiting to speak with them? Do they seem distracted? Realize when to end the interaction. Be appreciative and if it seems appropriate, give them your card. If it didn't go perfect or they were too busy that's ok, try again next time. We are building a network not acquiring one.
Even with the rise of social networking face to face introductions still play an important role for photographers. By attending conferences and other networking events repeatedly we can reinforce more and bigger relationships. Before an event I always reach out to the people I know will be attending and try to make arrangements to meet up with them. The expo floor is perfect for this because it also creates a way to meet more people. Some of the best contacts with vendors I've made happened because I met up with someone on the floor and a vendor came up to chat with them getting me an introduction in the process. People remember faces better than names and that's why you want to keep introducing yourself every event you can make it to.
Maybe you only have time to attend one event each year and are afraid the people you've met won't remember you. That's ok too. After each event I try to reach out to the people I feel I made progress with. You want to put the time and effort in to grow that connection. There is a bit of personal judgment with how to follow up with each individual but here are some ideas.
- Email or connect on social media.
- Send a written note along with some promo material.
- Invite them out for coffee.
- Or offer to meet up next time you're both in each others area.
- Call them and set up a lunch or dinner.
Although getting to play with some of the newest gear on the market before buying it can be great, if you're not interested in gear, the Expo floor offers much more then this. Similarly if the lectures and workshops don't appeal to you or for some reason you feel you can't learn anything new from them, you're missing opportunities. Many photographers have made and have amazing careers never setting foot at conferences and maybe you're one of them, but for a lot of photographers especially ones just starting out, networking and becoming a bigger part of the industry community can be a huge stepping stone to being a pro. Beyond have a thriving business and lots of clients if you desire to teach workshops, get sponsorship deals, or be a leader in any of the national organizations. Putting in the face time and getting your name out there is the quickest and most cost efficient method available.