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Networking Versus Self-Promotion: Which Helps Your Photography Business Grow Faster?

Networking Versus Self-Promotion: Which Helps Your Photography Business Grow Faster?

Is this an age-old debate? Probably not, but I hear many voices touting the need for photographers to self-promote in order expand their client base. At the same time, I get many invitations to networking events for photographers with the intention of building their businesses. Are these the same thing, or not

I have found some confusion about what constitutes both and I'll admit to not being the best follower of the information I have had gained. While I don't hold myself up as any sort of expert in the area of career development for photographers, I often get asked how to start or grow a passion for photography into a real business. I suppose that question comes to me because I have been actively doing that for 20-plus years, but that only means I have access to one window into the industry of professional photography. This is what I can see from my window.

It seems to me that self-promotion is to networking in the same way that advertising is to marketing. Self-promotion, like advertising, can be a bit like standing on the highest hill and shouting about how good you are as a photographer. Maybe it even comes with a sample of proof that indeed you are a great photographer and worthy of all of the praise. The problem I find with that message is that it might not fall on an audience that is in need of your greatness at this time or any other. You're putting it out there hoping something will stick.  

Samples of my 2017 self-designed, self-promotion pieces which I send to a tightly focused mailing list that contains a mix of past clients, likely potential clients and dream clients for fashion advertising and catalog work.

Networking, much the same as marketing, is a bit more like listening than shouting. Maybe it's just the way I do it, but networking to me is identifying potential targets like publications, businesses, or individuals who are more likely to be in the position to need and hire professional photography. Then I try to find out more about their past needs for photography and get into a dialogue about their current needs for photography. If the vibe is right, I get the opportunity to show how my skills as a photographer can apply to their needs. 

I have found that networking to yield greater results than self-promotion. By that I mean I have gained a greater amount of growth in my client base by staying in touch with past clients, following up with individuals at clients as they change jobs, and listening to stylists, makeup artists, and models about the work they are doing. In doing so, I can chart a great amount of the work I have done in 20 years in what I call my "career family tree."

My Career Family Tree which roughly splits the sources of my work between the two sides of the tree with one contact leading to another, and on, and on. Earlier in my career I was more focused on children's fashion and advertising. My current work is more bridal and casual fashion.

My tree has two distinct branches that trace a great amount of my career by those branches. Near the beginning of one branch is simply my phone number left in a Rolodex (yes, really that long ago) at a publishing company when one art director left and another one arrived needing a photographer for a simple event photo. Collaboration with the new art director led to a long-term relationship resulting in numerous shoots and referrals to even more clients. Plus, when that art director went on maternity leave I had the opportunity to meet a new art director and later follow her along to a new magazine and more opportunities. And so on, and so on.

The other branch of my tree is a little more complicated, but I can still follow the links all the way from my summer internship at the deservedly glorious National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. all the way to the work I currently do. I left the internship with seminally important information, but I also gained a recommendation from the senior studio photographer to one name in the New York City photography industry. That name led to a studio name where I assisted for a year, where I met a stylist who passed my name along to another photographer working for a magazine, where I learned a lot about the editorial process and ultimately got my first assignment, where I also met an editorial assistant who later became an editorial director at another publishing company, and so on, and so on.

I would never have guessed that my career would hopscotch from such different experiences and different connections. This kind of networking or network-building has delivered new clients and new projects to my door and even enriched the view I have about my strengths as a photographer. Not every link in the chain delivered an actual shoot assignment, but all were important to building the total picture. Certainly I have independently promoted myself to potential clients and found some success, but reflecting on the effort to success ratio, networking has been more efficient than promotion. 

So what does that mean to you? How do other photographer’s build networks or start their own career family tree? Here are a few suggestions intended to help:

  • Look high as well as low. It is a common thought for photographers to look at the top of the industry for inspiration. It makes sense: shoot high. Talented and professional clients are almost always easier to work with and have a better understanding of the value of photography. A gifted art director can both commission and inspire a photographer to take better photos. However, another perspective is that focusing market efforts towards companies and publications who are already doing a great job at hiring professional photographers and displaying excellent images are harder to break into. Shooting low is looking for companies and publications who are not reaching their potential can often yield greater potential for photographers to break in and maybe even improve the client's business. While possibly less financially rewarding initially, there is often less competition for their attention.
  • Who do your friends know? Models, makeup artist, stylists, and even especially people outside of the industry are frequently great sources for leads into companies that might need occasional or even frequent photography. Walking in the side door with an invitation from a friend or contact generally has more traction than knocking on front door with uninvited self-promotion. Even current clients have knowledge and contacts for parallel and contrasting opportunities. And certainly pay attention to the assistants and juniors at clients because they will be the directors and seniors in the future.
  • One client or one job does not make a whole career. The client or job you are shooting today doesn't have to define your whole career or where you take it. I believe that one of my greater strengths, or possibly luck, is that I have frequently been able to see how shooting for one small client, though not entirely on-point to my goals, can lead me one step closer to my ultimate goal or career. Especially when starting out, work is good. Tackling challenges and delivering useful images to clients is rewarding both financially and in terms of experience. In several cases, I was assigned to shoots that were several degrees away from my core portfolio, but delivering good work to those clients led to even more rewarding work that was closer to the projects I wanted.

Unless a photographer is incredibly well connected (I'm talking about you Brooklyn Beckham), or very lucky, self-promotion is a reality that most photographers will have to face. Getting the word out there can be a bit of a shotgun approach with a very low percentage of response, but then again the amount of people in the population who hire a professional photographer more than once is a very small number. Certainly you can change the odds of the success of a promotion by focusing on more likely targets. For commercial photographers, outlets like The Workbook, LeBook, and Production Paradise are established directories of professional photographers which are promoted to manufacturers, advertising agencies, and publications who are likely to hire photographers. Similarly, wedding photographers can advertise in directories like The Knot where brides-to-be look for wedding services. But there is little way to force those potential clients to contact you if they do not connect to your work or already have their needs covered by another photographer.

Another route to getting your work on the desk of the right people is research. Building a database or list of likely buyers and send your message directly to them can change the efforts versus success ratio of individual promotions. Companies like Bikinilists and Agency Access have searchable lists of publications, agencies, and corporations, but access to these services comes at a price. I personally use Agency Access to research potential targets for my promotional efforts and refine into a mailing list. Agency Access includes an email campaign building function that works in conjunction to their database. More general services like Constant Contact offer email marketing services to broader audiences. Blogs like No Plastic Sleeves and A Photo Editor give interesting perspective from a talented graphic designer and a magazine photo editor who share the best self-promotion efforts that come across their desk.

There is no one formula for photographer career building. I hope that these suggestions and links can provide some help to guide photographers growing their business.

Dan Howell's picture

Dan Howell has been a New York City area photographer specializing and fashion and portraits for catalogs and magazines for the past 20 years. He began photography with photojournalistic aspirations but found a more comfortable fit in the fashion and commercial world.

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Great read Dan! Thanks for sharing from your experiences.

This is likely the most relevant article on ways to marketing your brand I have read online.
Thank you so much!