Making a Living in Photography in the Age of Social Media

Making a Living in Photography in the Age of Social Media

After finding myself in yet another strange new world last week, I began to reflect on the future of photography and steps necessary to protect the profession we love.

The other night I went to a promotional event for a well known fitness brand. Not the biggest name in the market, but large enough to afford some rather posh retail space in higher rent districts of major cities for their stores to thrive. A growing company with an upscale product. Perusing the shelf, I noticed a pair of sweatpants coming in at a healthy $130.

How I was invited is somewhat unbeknownst to me. I am a commercial fitness and activewear photographer. I’ve been banging on this particular company’s metaphorical door for a couple years now. Sending promos pieces and cold calls in their direction. I like the brand and would love an assignment. But this particular invite wasn’t to fulfill a brief. I was strictly there as a guest.

They were offering a free fitness class and mini-reception at one of their stores in an upstairs fitness studio that I didn’t even know existed. Being both a fitness fanatic and a cheap bastard, the offer of free sweat generation was too much to pass by. I also figured it might be a good time to do a bit of networking, unintentionally intentionally dropping my own name and photographic specialty into every conversation just in case it might somehow make its way into the right set of ears.

I didn’t really know what to expect and the invite was a bit vague. But it was a Thursday night, and my internet (and thus Netflix) was on the blink, so my remaining options were digging into my DVD collection or going out for a bit of adventure. I chose the latter.

Once it was confirmed that my name was on the guest list, I ascended the stairs to the area reserved for the reception. The room was filled with people mulling about and looking over the company’s products as well as those of separate vendors brought in for the event. Freebies were everywhere, including a fresh workout outfit with my name on it, already prepared at the designated dressing stand. The new clothes were a decided upgrade over my own makeshift combination of sweat-worthy attire which looks great in my home gym but are admittedly not runway ready.

As I emerged from the dressing room to begin my meet-and-greet, I was struck by two things right away. First, the room was filled with women. And while I don’t think it’s a good idea to objectify other human beings, it was impossible not to notice that every one of the attendees (other than myself) was incredibly photogenic. Have you ever paid attention to the background extras in a Hollywood movie’s depiction of “real life” and wondered if the casting director had simply stopped by the local modeling agency to request the use of their roster? Well, apparently those Hollywood scenes do happen in real life, and I had just walked into one. It was also hard not to notice the gender imbalance given that, other than the sole male employee of the store, mine was the only Adam’s apple present in the room.

And yes, I will state for the record, being the only man in a room full of beautiful women is not necessarily my idea of a bad day. Although I will admit that I did wonder for a few moments whether I was really meant to be invited to this event at all or whether the company had mistaken the name Christopher for Christina when they put me on the list.  

On a side note, it also felt a bit strange being the only man in a room full of beautiful women wearing skin tight clothing and not think to myself that many of the women probably assumed me to be some sort of pervert just there to stare at the pretty girls. I know that wasn’t the case. I was there to workout and network, not to glare. But, still, I was walking on eggshells for those first few moments, keeping my eyes firmly affixed on the ceiling, and being extra careful not to bump into someone without looking and suggest my intentions were anything but honorable.

The second thing I noticed is that at least half of the attendees were holding semi-pro cameras and/or spending the bulk of the pre-workout time taking selfies. I also began to recognize more than a handful of these faces were "Insta-famous." Some were fitness trainers I’d followed on Instagram and had stolen a workout tip or two from. Some others were fitness models who I knew via other fitness models with whom I had previously worked. 

As I began to introduce myself around the room, I did realize that they all had one major thing in common. They all had a lot more social media followers than me. Not that this is a particularly difficult feat. I only just learned what a hashtag was within the last year. And I’ve never put a large emphasis on the number of social media followers that I have, instead focusing my marketing efforts far more on a targeted approach towards specific individuals within my market. That’s not to say that mine is the correct strategy. It’s just what is most efficient for my personal goals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to having 500,000 followers on Instagram, which I was quickly learning from my conversations at the party seemed to be the lower limit for the other attendees in the room.

It quickly became clear that I’d somehow made my way into an influencer event. There was a reason why every one of the guests was both so photogenic and skilled with their selfie game. This was obviously part of the company’s marketing strategy. Invite in social media influencers with a large following. Dress them head-to-toe in your product. And let their need to be constantly posting and adding to their Instagram stories take care of the rest. Without spending a dime (other than leveraging a bit of free product), the company has effectively done over a hundred or so individual photo shoots that will reach over a hundred or so marketing outlets (the influencer’s feeds) in one night. And they’ve done all of this without having to hire a photographer or pay the models. Brilliant return on investment for them, major marketing challenge for those of us who make our living creating customized photography for companies like this.

This company is hardly alone and this is by no means an isolated example of this technique. A least half of the comments I get from startup brands on my own Instagram are from companies wanting to “collaborate.” In other words, they want me to take professional level pictures of their products, post them all over my feed, allow them to post them on their feed, all in the name of “exposure.”

And even many larger companies have invested heavily in an influencer marketing approach in lieu of larger professional campaigns. It’s not illogical. As print and other traditional media continue to decline in prominence and the influence of social media grows, a marketer’s job continues not to be to create art, but to reach customers. If customers are gravitating towards social media, then marketers need to reach them on social media. While a traditional global campaign may need to fill a certain number of billboards, paid pages in a magazine, or thirty seconds of airtime, social media’s thirst for new content is insatiable. For smaller companies, the financial costs of acquiring all of that content via assignments can be prohibitive, adding all the more luster to the idea of getting your customers to advertise your product for you.  

The concept itself isn’t even completely new. It’s the same reason why certain brands plaster the company’s name across the back of their jackets or offer you free decals with their logos to presumably stick to the back of your laptop. They make money from your purchase and then turn you into a literal walking billboard. The rise of the internet and social media marketing has simply allowed this tactic to accelerate at warp speed.

There’s no use in trying to put that genie back in the bottle. It makes too much fiscal sense for marketers to continue down this path. But what do we as photographers, who make our living creating assets for these companies, do in the face of this new outlet competing for our client’s marketing dollar?

Well, as in all things business, step number one is to remember that you are in business. And how do you stay in business, whether you are a photographer or a gardener? You provide value. If you want to charge more money, don’t start by offering more product for less. Make sure that the value of the product you are offering is valuable to your customer.

So why is a professional photographer valuable? Is it because you can take a photograph that is in focus, in color, and of high resolution? No, anyone with enough money to buy even a basic digital camera can do that these days. Thinking you are professional because you can afford a “professional” camera is no recipe for success.

Is it because every now and then you take a really good photo? Well, no. Even a busted clock is right twice per day. By the law of averages, if you shoot enough you’ll get one really good shot in there somewhere. But can you do that every time? Are you, even on your worst day, still capable of producing a superior product to what they can get from your competition?

What separates a professional photographer is not what gear he or she may have, or their ability to take a good shot occasionally. What separates a professional photographer is dependability. What separates a professional photographer is repeatability. What separates a professional photographer is being battle tested and knowing that when things go pear-shaped that you will still find a way to get the client the asset they need to succeed. You’re not paid the big bucks to take pictures. You’re paid the big bucks not to fall apart under pressure.

I was recently in a meeting with an art producer discussing the pressure that even they feel from their own bosses to hire photographers based on social media following rather than experience and talent. Again, the thinking of some clients being that what they are buying is the following, not the photographs. The art producer mentioned how, time and time again, this approach has backfired. Sure the influencers they hired could run and gun and use filters, but what about sourcing talent beyond their immediate group of friends, negotiating contracts, getting city permits, bringing the most out of on-screen talent, legal boundaries, how to adjust when weather conditions were adverse, or being able to control light to match a very specific brief?  

To be sure, some influencers are also amazing and professional photographers. The two things are not mutually exclusive. This essay is in no way meant to demean someone just because they are really good at social media. And being able to offer a ready-made following is a business asset worth noting. But, if you are shooting for a company who is devoting $50,000 or $100,000 to a photoshoot, more comes into play than just your social media reach.

And more comes into play than simple technology. You not only need to know how to take a clean professional picture. You need to know how to repeat that picture or make minuet alterations to it in order to satisfy your client’s needs. In most cases, you’ll need to be able to do it right there, on set, on the spot in front of dozens of suits, without relying on excessive post production (unless, of course, heavy post production is part of the brief, as in the case of planned composites). You need to have a complete understanding of not only the exposure triangle, but accurate budgeting, permitting, clearances, and legal concerns that your clients will face. You need to have access to top talent and resources that can add to the project and reinforce a positive client experience.

And, most importantly, you need to know not only how to take a picture, but you need to know how to create “the” picture. Your voice as a photographer is far more important than technique. Technique can be learned with practice and a handful of YouTube videos. Therefore, it can be imitated. If it can be imitated, and that technique is all you have going for you, they can always find someone cheaper to do the same thing. Your voice, on the other hand, is developed over decades of life experiences and is the one thing you have to offer that cannot be copied by an algorithm or replicated by someone willing to undercut your rates.

It’s a challenge for sure. We are living in a time of monumental structural change to our industry. We are living in a time where what was once one of our strengths, knowing the magic mathematical adjustments required to obtain correct exposure in the film days, can now be accomplished by almost anyone with an entry level camera or even a phone. Yes, I realize that the “best” exposure isn’t always the same as what the camera meter says is the “correct” exposure, but we also live in a world where fewer and fewer of our clients know the difference. Or, they do know the difference, but their budgets are spread so thin that they have to take shortcuts to keep up with demands for content. 

Of course, just because the event I was attending was filled with cameras, doesn’t mean any of the images were actually any good. Given my own limited social media count, the only reason I can think that I was even invited to the event is that someone at the company thought it might be smart to invite some professional photographers into the mix as well as influencers, and decided to Google activewear photographers and my name came up. Either that, or they already knew the name from my past promotional efforts. Likely, they were hoping that the photographers they invited would be compelled to bring their cameras and create premium commercial grade images of the event and product and post the images on our feeds for the brand to then repost to its own feed and, bingo, pro photography for free.  

I didn’t bring my camera, just like those invitations to “collaborate” with brands on social media go largely unanswered, because I personally feel that if I’m going to promote your brand, you should pay for it. That is, after all, what I am in business to provide, so giving it away for free doesn’t make a great deal of mathematical sense. Hopefully that doesn’t suggest that I think I am Annie Leibovitz, but my work does have value.  Yours does too. And, if we don’t stick to that value, we will quickly find ourselves out of business.

The answer is not to devalue ourselves with free or discounted work. The solution is to continue to build on and improve the value proposition you are offering to your customer. Make your work so amazing and consistently amazing that your clients understand the difference between you and the next photographer, influencer, or otherwise. Improve your skill set and product offerings.  

When Coca-Cola wants to add market share, they introduce new products like Diet Coke, or Cherry Coke, or other variations. What skill sets do you currently have that you can build upon in order to secure added market share? How about adding video, or stop motion, or another complimentary service. Maybe a social media influencer can provide a steady stream of candid shots of their above average looking friends doing fun and potentially viral things. And, because of their following, they provide the client with a built in audience for the advertisement. But you are not without your own set of weapons. You can provide a higher level of customer service, experience, a professional approach and a more streamlined purchasing process. You can also provide peace of mind for buyers with a large investment riding on the project based less on clicks and more on experience and positive word-of-mouth from previous clients.

The market has changed and will continue to do so, regardless of your industry. The only question left is, what do you plan to do about it?

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13 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

Hope you don't take offense...this article is pure dribble...

All due respect, but I think your spell check corrected "drivel". :)

Social Media is a big thing happening in many parts of the photo industry. Especially in the grey area between advertising, PR, marketing and editorial uses.
The influencers are taking the place of ad agencies, photographers, writers and spokesmodels. Not everyone is sure how to deal with it.

ETA- I don't think the article is drivel or dribble.

Leigh Miller's picture

No I meant exactly that...it dribbled on and on and on....and on with no end in sight.

As for whether or not it's "drivel"...I'll leave that others. It's an opinion...I sorta disagree with it, but the info was in there...dribbling out.

Jeff Walsh's picture

Man, I wanted to read this, I really did. Holy hell, not one sub heading to help me scan for pertinent info? Just paragraph after paragraph with no real direction, or information. After two or three, of what looks like twenty-five to thirty paragraphs, none of which were hinting at the point, I had to bail.

Without a DOUBT, this entire thing should be cut into a third of its size, add sub headings so you can get to your point quickly, and be more concise. No one wants to read 30 paragraphs of a story that has no direction, and only hints at a possible payoff with the title.

Jeff Burian's picture

I actually enjoyed the article and read it all the way through. Really liked how your thoughts developed through the article. Well done!

Fontaine Lewis's picture

This article is incredibly important for anybody hoping to go fully professional with their photography.

A lot of amateur photographers receive jobs rarely and quickly lose interest in pursuing their passion because they feel it is not sustainable in the age of social media and influencer marketing. As a creator (in ANY industry), you need to adapt and grow in order to stay relevant. And in this particular moment in time, it's important to know that simply taking a good photo is not enough to succeed or make a living. It's about character and versatility.

You need to be able to give non-photographic value to any project in order to create relationships and gain repeat customers who will also give referrals. There are many photographers out in the world, and it's extremely difficult to separate yourself from the masses by solely focusing on creating a good image. Access to high-quality photos is more available than ever, clients don't require just another person who knows how to use a camera.

The value you can offer to clients is not strictly related to your photographic ability. It's about everything else that cameras can't provide.

Good one. Always important to think from the customer's perspective.

Mike Ofstedahl's picture

I enjoyed the read.

The problem with social media is that most people are so self absorbed they hardly pay attention to what it is you are doing. Its all about look at me...no I dont want to look at you...just look at me!! I dropped instagram a while back.
I think its about reinventing yourself as a photographer...if you are a product photographer change the product. Dont pigeon hole yourself to one style or genre. Master as many mediums as you can.
The other issues with professional photography is that while many may be a great photographers, their ability to sell themselves and their product may be non existent. You need to be a problem solver first.
I suggest having a value proposition.
Build relationships.
See where the needs are (who,what,where when,why,how).
Show the client how you can help with the needs.
Have strong photographic solutions.

Be prepared to walk away and not under value your services. If they want a gmc solution and you sell Ferrari...keep selling Ferrari.

Most people are not selling Ferraris. And most clients are not buying Ferraris, but will take one at the price of a GMC...
I agree that most photogs need to re-invent, I am trying to tackle that project myself.

Mike Ofstedahl's picture

I agree...and am thankful photography is not my main source of income, which allows me to hold strong on my value. For guys fully in it a pay check is a pay check...my main point was the selling...most people don't know how. Even if they managed to get a meeting they blow it by not showing value.

German Simonson's picture

Christopher, I don’t know if you’re a good photographer, but you definitely are a good writer. This is an excellent article, explaining the realities of modern marketing to those like me, with just 4 Instagram followers. And anyone complaining about the dribble, length etc – how can you focus your camera if you can’t focus yourself for 10 min?!

Social Media has changed the platform a lot in the last 4 years, things just started to go downhill in making profits, bookings and standing out as a good photographer.

Why? well iPhone has an amazing quality, compared to a DSLR, its 1 click, 1 edit and free!! from traditional photography too DSLR there was about 100,000 photographers too 1,000,000 photographers, but from DSLR too smartphone cameras it went from 1,000,000 photographers too 1 BILLION wanna be photographers!

it's a very very drastic change. Well water is free, but people pay for bottled water? correct it's about getting people to pay, the art of negotiating. The business of manipulation and having veracity. What?

ok well its much harder for sure! I ask 10 people for my rate, and 9 people want a huge discount with stipulations. Can you shoot for free?, I have a1000 photographers that will shoot me for free!!
I want to shoot with you,--- I like your work, but I don't need to pay.

so here's the ultimatum I here more and more. It's a supply and demand issue.

Instagram has made it about the content, not the photographer. I have seen dozens of photographers in the last 2 years, stop shooting new content, and only post old photos, because no one wants to pay when they can just press a button. This is a psychological MK ULTRA MINDFCK.
Trying to negotiate has gotten much harder, with apps like snappr, and the dozens of other ones. 1 dollar a minute iphone shoots! terrific! guess I didn't need that photography degree.
50 dollar headshots, free rates, TFP ex
it's really made so many full-time photographers step back and be a needle in a haystack.
There is just to much content out there, that if you have an amazing photo, it really isn't gonna have the same effect as it did 5 years ago. It seems to get lost in translation, another pretty photo, another pretty model.

its been so hard to make the benchmarks I use too, social media has also increased the competition, where other photographers hit below the belt to steal clients, slander your name, or just be nasty because it's so saturated!! they report your photos on sm, block your hashtags, Its really hard to feel good about posting pics, when none of your hashtags work, they contact your models, slander your name, then report your picture!

Now I see so many photographers trying to sell books, and use my fans only sites, fund me pages, and their moving, selling things, getting other jobs because the smartphone and Instagram are huge corporations manipulating the market.
Instagram has a psychological effect of peoples minds, that likes are to determine self-worth. they get endorphins by comments and likes. when their likes go down, they think something is wrong with them. its really messed up!! but social media is psychological warfare and not fair to photographers, everyone is a photographer on social media.
The value has decreased, having different models on your page is not how the algorithm works. Its aIl based on the same content. half nude male models, and skin. those seem to get the highest likes, not portraits, group shots, nothing else, then your completely pigeonholed to post what gives you likes.

I have had a drastic change in followers this last year. It's like jumping through hoops for nothing!!! your followers are idiot bots all over the world. Why is it so important to increase your followers, it's impossible now, it stopped growing years ago, 50 up 60 down, 100 up 150 down. its hopeless! I see everyone Instagram going down by 1000s and 1000s now. It's pointless.

I do love photography, but it's changed so much, it's hard to get anyone to even pay my rate- everyone's so frugal. and do I want to negotiate a price, it gets really old to have to beg for my rate!! it's degrading!!
The fashion industry is drastically self-absorbed, fixed! agencies, runway hardly pay anyone, models are selfie ok.. spoiled and broke and don't really need too or want to pay. managers, showrooms, designers, I see it all the time, turn and burn!! we only need a few photos!! so its free!! how dare you ask for money!! NEXT!!

they have tons of money!! but when it comes time to pay the photographer, they are suddenly out of funds!!
its was different 5 years ago, but now you have to swim upstream, and people don't seem to care how amazing you are, they just want it for free.
Its like blockbuster video!! who wants VHS!!
It's not just me, I see tons of DSLR photographers decimated by these changes, the fashion industry, they just keep recycling new photographers, until they wake up! now with smartphones, its a lot worse. sure lots of people get paid, and that's great! but there are much fewer high paying gigs, and more cutthroat photographers trying to get those jobs, and a lot more less paying jobs, due to supply and demand.

It's supposed to be art, not politics. I have had a lot of slander and harassment because I am an amazing photographer, where agencies destroy reputations and do what they can to cover their own asses. unfortunately the part where money is involved changed drastically. I am not going to be cutthroat and have a heavy heart, to do what I love. We are not animals, we are humans. We don't live in a zoo! Artist throughout history have always been paid low and respected for their work, but the internet has perplexed the amount of photos and finding a venue in the complex social media world has to make you question, what is the value of a picture?