Put your camera down. Over there. Immediately. You don't need it if you want to earn more money as a photographer.
The single greatest lesson I've learned about the business of photography in the past few years is that the images I make are less important to sales than my ability to connect with people. That's why when I'm out shooting on location, I make a genuine effort to be as friendly and as inviting to speak with as I possibly can.
This strategy has caused me to miss countless shots. But it has successfully earned me many more sales than any other marketing strategy I've used.
I like to think of the business of photography as being similar to writing a great three-act play. Act I, believe it or not, isn't making the images. Act I is the back-end part of the business: maintaining a website, streamlining social media workflow, balancing books, etc. Without this strong opening foundation, nothing else you do is going to matter. Act II is making the photos and all that comes with it: pre-shoot prep, shooting, post-production. This act sets you up for the payoff (quite literally). Act III is marketing and ultimately, selling your work: talking with people, hosting gallery exhibitions, engaging on social media.
Act III, of course, relies on the foundations built in Acts I and II, but like a theater production or film, if you don't finish strong and leave your audience feeling something, it will leave you as a businessperson feeling empty (especially in your pockets).
I shoot a lot of surf photography, and when the waves are pumping, it usually draws a crowd to the areas where I shoot. While I do my best to focus on the work at hand, talking with the people around me is arguably more important. After all, they're my audience. Right there in the sand next to me are the people who are most likely to be interested in my work. If I can connect with that audience — make them understand who I am, why I shoot, the effort that I put into every image — they're far more likely to take a business card, look me up online, and hopefully, make a purchase.
In addition, it gives me the opportunity to learn about them. I'm able to get feedback in real-time about what's important to them. I can learn about what they do for a living (which can help with the ever-tricky task of finding a suitable price point), what their family life is like, what draws them to the ocean.
These conversations help me to understand my audience better, to know what they look for in a great surf photo, to know what they find appealing about the sport and the medium. Understanding their point of view helps me make images that will better appeal to them.
For some people, starting a conversation with a random passersby can seem daunting, but sometimes, it's as simple as a smile and a hello. It gives the person an opening to approach you. They may want to ask about your gear (this is by far the most common conversation-starter people approach me with), or what you're shooting. Any opening to begin talking with them could lead to a sale, so make sure you give it to them.
Case in point: huge waves are the cornerstone of amazing surf photography, but during a recent day of shooting a few dozen surfers in chest-high surf, I generated several sales by spending nearly as much time talking as I did shooting. I chatted with several people on the beach as well as a number of the surfers who were coming out of the water. These weren't the best surf photos I've ever taken, but they meant something to the people who bought them, who were there and saw or rode the waves that day. Nothing beats seeing a potential customer's face light up when they get a quick preview of a shot of them carving up the lip of a wave.
It's simply marketing at its most basic level, but it's easily forgotten when you're focusing on making the best images you possibly can.
After all, if you aren't effectively marketing your work, it doesn't matter how many wonderful images you create. Peter Lik, for instance, has mastered this aspect of the business of photography, and while some critics will argue the merits of his work, as a businessperson, it's impossible not to admire what he's accomplished with his photography.
The same principal applies to most, if not all genres of photography. Wedding photographers, for example, use their portfolio to show potential clients what they can do, but there's no doubt that connecting with the client during that time is just as important as the images you're showing them.
A landscape photographer who treks deep into the wilderness to capture an unknown vista may never cross paths with another human being, but when it comes time to sell that image, hosting a gallery exhibition and meeting people will likely go further towards sales than posting the image to Instagram. Again, you're getting the opportunity to meet, connect, and understand the precise audience you're courting — in this case, someone interested in viewing fine art, who may be looking to make a purchase, as opposed to someone scrolling through their Instagram feed while sitting on the toilet.
Like the the gun that is loaded in the first Act and gets fired in the third, your online presence — website, social media — will come back into play when you meet your audience and hand them a business card (some people will argue business cards are a waste of money, but I find them critical to sales). Because you've already put in the work in those areas, your audience can now go home and continue to engage with you and follow up to make a purchase.
So, go ahead and put your camera down or pull your eye from the viewfinder, look around, and smile at the people around you. It may just spark a conversation that will leave you feeling ready to take a bow.
How do you connect with your audience? Do you mostly use social media or host gallery exhibitions? Do you exhibit at art festivals? Drop a comment below and tell us what works for you.
Brian, spot on with your article. I've sold numerous surf photos the exact same way.........in the same neighborhood as you. I've done the same with motocross, mountain biking, cycle, etc. Like you, they aren't always my best but they make the people happy, gives me a little extra cash AND gives me a chance to practice my photography.
Excellent article,and I agree with commenter above...spot on. I’m just getting into the game of selling my landscape prints and your three act play analogy is perfect. Right now, I’m engaging with others while on a shoot, handing them a business card if they seem the least bit interested,etc. It’s the long game that is the reality and if anyone is looking for quick profits or financial success, they’ll be sorely disappointed. Thanks for the reminder article reaffirming my understanding that this business is a marathon, not a sprint.
Thanks for the kind words, David. We all would love to make that Peter Lik $6M photo, but that's the lottery shot. Photography as a business, at its heart, isn't all that different from any other money-making venture. You really must know your audience, and the only way to do that is to connect with the type of people you hope will purchase your art. And, let's be honest, it's pretty great talking to people who appreciate your artistic vision!
Same here. Work like that isn't likely to pay all the bills, but if I don't have anything scheduled, I shoot local dogs and horses, and talk to the owners. Not only do I get direct sales, but it's also led to big commisioned jobs. And it didn't even start as a cunning business plan, I just went out and did what I love, taking pics and talking to people.
Do you really find the social media part to be important? I ask because first: I don't do social media. At all! Well, unless you count photography blogs. :-) and second: I've read a lot of conflicting articles on this subject, many of which state that, when they analyzed it, social media really didn't seem to make an appreciable difference, especially relative to the time spent on it.
My experience is that it has been beneficial to my business. I've sold many photos because someone tagged someone they know in a picture I've posted, or someone has seen a post and noticed I was at a particular spot the same day they were and they reached out to me to find out if I got any shots of them.
Mileage may vary for others, but I've connected pretty well with my audience through social media, particularly Instagram. I don't have huge numbers of followers, but the people who do follow me are engaged, and that's been a boon for me.
This is an interesting topic, thanks for the insight, I'm curious about something not completely related to it but was brought up in the article.
I'm still a rookie and in occasions people have asked me about my camera, specially its price, how do you approach these kind of questions? do you openly say "this is a XX thousand $ camera" ? I feel weird answering said question like that
I don't personally mind telling people, since it's no big secret. They can Google it just as easily.
I usually tell them I got it on ebay for $57.48 + shipping. ;-) No one has ever asked a second time.
Thanks Brian, I also shoot the surf in California. Every once in a while and surfer or body boarder will approach me asking if I took their photo, for which I will show them. It makes them happy and sometimes they want a print or ask if I can send to them.
I'm also a full time worker and a full time dad. I had a website up until a few weeks ago. It was beginning to take away from family. In a few years, I'll be retiring from my day job, then, I will make another website. I had more gigs shooting without a website than when I had one.
Everything you outline here is spot on.
Even if it doesn’t result in a sale, it’s always fun to see their reaction when they see themselves surfing.
Great article, thanks.
I'm one of those photographers you mentioned that shoots out in nature with few to no people around. But I do have my photographs in a gallery in Jerome, Arizona, and I'm there for every monthly Art Walk. I talk to people at the Art Walk, answer their photography questions and just chit-chat.
I also post on social networks and write articles for my blog, and other blogs.
Several mentions here of selling the captured image - does this mean you're selling $40 prints or having them paypal you $20 and sending them a link to download a hi-res JPG? If you're selling prints, do you have a pricing guide online that they can refer to, such as different sizes and stock (glossy or matte) options?
I typically sell prints, not digital files, though I have occasionally sold digital images to clients who preferred them (one example was an international client for whom shipping a 40x60 acrylic-mounted print was going to be cost prohibitive). I generally work with the customer to make a print that fits their budget, but I do have some stock options that clients can look up in my online shop.
I understand the premise of engaging with people around you while on a shoot, my limitation is I shoot in rural areas of Texas where I meet more Cows than I do people.
I can see how that might be a limiting factor, but hey, chat up the cows and if they ever take over the world, you've already got an in. I, for one, welcome our bovine overlords.