Since the mid-2010s, there have been more photographs taken each year than existed in the history of photography. The democratization of photography and the removal of barriers to entry means there are also more professional photographers than ever before in history. Given this steep competitive curve, how is it possible to stand out?
Not only are there more professional photographers, a quick review of social media will show you that there are more highly competent photographers entering the market almost daily. If you want to continue to succeed and grow, how can you stand out?
I was lucky enough to sit in on Lindsay Adler’s recent lecture: From Good to Great at ProFusion Expo in Toronto, organized and sponsored by Vistek, who hosts product launches and seminars throughout the year.
Adler explained that in her (successful) experience, her personal style is what helps to set her apart from the growing number of professional photographers.
Adler was adamant that standing out from the crowd based on price isn’t sustainable (Fstoppers is replete with similar articles). Basically, trying to be the lowest bidder at all times is only going to reduce your income and force you out of the business. After all, you need to earn enough to eat. If you’re constantly lowering your price to stand out, eventually, you’ll lower it enough that you won’t be able to sustain yourself or your business.
Not Client Experience
It’s a trend in many business ventures to offer your clients a better experience than the competition. Go try on a suit or a dress in a proper high-end boutique and you’ll get a posh, private room and maybe a glass of something sparkly. Ask your high-priced attorney a question by email and you’re likely to get a response in less than an hour.
In wedding and portrait photography, it’s become typical to offer your clients more one-on-one planning time, prettier boxes or albums, the illusion of friendship for life, or maybe photo review sessions with wine or a bag of retro candy? It’s a similar trend in commercial photography to offer quicker turnaround time, nicer studio design with fancy couches and wing-back chairs, or catered lunches and an expensive wrap party.
With a little research, everyone can figure out how to offer a better experience and, with a little hustle, implement this experience. Eventually, there will be more than enough photographers offering your particular brand of experience that you can’t stand out anymore. Eventually, a more and more refined experience will actually start to cost you money, which again, is competing on price and isn’t sustainable.
Instead of competing with such a crowded field, Adler suggests you compete in an arena where you can clearly set yourself apart: personal style.
Because a strong personal style comes only from a considered reflection of the world through the lens of your own experiences, nobody else can quite match it. Sure, personal styles can be mimicked, but a constantly evolving style, a style that continues to engage the world, will always be a step ahead of the imitators.
At this point in her career, Adler decided it was time to develop her style, a style that was as unique to her as possible.
Developing a Style
The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne - Chaucer
There are scores, if not hundreds of articles and videos online that talk about the importance of style or how to develop your own personal style. I’ve probably read most of them. However, Adler’s approach has simple instructions and a strong call to continued action that is within everyone’s reach. It’ll just require a little work.
Define Your Style
According to Adler, the first thing to do is to pick a handful of your favorite photos from your portfolio and then choose three to five words that describe your images. Here, you’re creating a type of ultra elevator pitch. A word or two should describe each of the (1) subject matter, (2) visual motif, and (3) emotion.
- Describe your subject matter
- Describe your visual motif
- Describe your emotion
As an example, Adler gave a few words to the work of her peers Brooke Shaden and Chris Knight:
I asked Adler to provide another example, this time of a photographer whose work is a touchstone in the fashion photography world:
(Explored through the realm of) fashion photography
As part of her presentation, Adler even provided an elevator pitch for her own work:
Refine Your Style
Once you can clearly define your style, you need to spend time to refine it. Adler points out that style has to be exercised for it to evolve.
It’s not where you take things from; it’s where you take them to. - Jean-Luc Godard
Adler finds that it’s best to schedule a few “play” days a month to shoot for you. These play days will help you to continue to dive into and refine your style. In order to develop concepts for these play days, Adler suggests that you take some time to look at some of the photography greats to analyze their work and keep what you like while being true to the definition of your style.
If you copy from one book, that’s plagiarism; if you copy from many books, that’s research. - Wallace Notestein (a Yale professor who was also part of the U.S. delegation to Versailles at the close of World War One)
Evolve Your Style
I was taken by Adler’s idea that once you’ve developed a strong and unique enough style that a potential client who wants that style is going to have to hire you to get it. Of course, no style is 100% unique, but Adler also pointed out that if you can develop your style to the point that you’re competing with only a handful of photographers instead of hundreds or even thousands of photographers, you’re already a step ahead in the quoting process.
Remember, the goal is to take what resonates with you and make it yours through your own process. Adler’s work and tutorials are certainly an inspiring place to start.
Your Experience Creating Style?
What work have you put into developing your own style?
Lead and inline images provided by Lindsay Adler.