Six Investments To Level-Up Your Commercial Photography Business

Six Investments To Level-Up Your Commercial Photography Business

Throughout the course of my creative career, I’ve overdrawn my bank account a lot, shed tears over stress, and stared in the mirror for hours in dejection. I’ve made my share of professional and personal mistakes and certainly learned the hard way from all of those choices. I’ve lost, I’ve won, I’ve sacrificed, and I’m blessed to have earned.

It’s taken me a decade to realize that success isn’t power, money, or fame. But, moreover personal clarity, health, and a sustainable love for my art and craft. Success isn’t like the lottery. It’s not a contest or competition and it certainly doesn't happen overnight. Success is a slow burn. If you hope for the day that you’ll suddenly realize it, it may never come. Success will probably hit home when you’re hard at work.

At the end of the day, it’s important to understand why you create photographs in the first place and why you desire success. Ask yourself, what is success to you? What drives you? What is your mantra that makes you tick?

This all may sound like some philosophical jargon, but I could have never reached the level of success I desired if I didn’t have my feet firmly planted in place with the passion to pursue every goal with relentless obsession.

I’ve been fortunate to personally coach many photographers and many of these photographers are extremely talented. Technical knowledge is readily available and it’s actionable. But, most of these photographers are at a glass ceiling, confused on how to even start the pursuit of gaining clientele and most importantly exposing their photography business to potential commercial clientele.

If you have defined those questions clearly, and truly believe your ready to break through the glass ceiling that so many photographers hit, then here are 6 investments to take your commercial photography business to the next level.

Hire A Freelance Photo Editor

Photography is subjective. When we snap the shutter we instantly bridge a heartfelt connection to the picture, which is hard to let go. When I first sought the advice of a photo editor, I was terrified. Terrified that many of the photographs I’ve come to love in my portfolio would end up in the digital trash can, forever forgotten.

A photo editor consultant is very similar to what you would see at a publication or newspaper. Except a consultant would take a collection of your photography and select, position, and place the images to form a body of work, also known as a portfolio. The edit is designed specifically to capture a certain audience and look the absolute best to all those who view it.

It can be a tough to rely on another person to judge your body of work you put all that sweat, blood, and tears into. But, every editing consultant comes from a perspective on the other side on the industry; the art buying side. They know what will make you money based upon production value, emotional response or attraction.

When I first worked with my photo editor and friend Stacy Swiderski, I started to understand why a portfolio must be shaped and organized as they are. She not only did the job, but also coached me through the process and explained the collection and order. If you’re stuck with a body of work that is confusing, muddled, and hazy I recommend reaching out to Stacy to consult. She will take your portfolio to a clear, concise focused collection that is easy to digest and more importantly has a greater potential to convert a lead into a client.

Having a photo editor is like having a really good friend who understands your work, your vision, and the industry, but who also isn't afraid to be honest and critical of your work. A photo editor will help you notice trends, habits, and themes within your images that you may not be aware of. And, a photo editor will help you understand the bigger picture, own your vision, and ensure that you maintain a unified and cohesive brand as you move forward with your career.” - Stacy Swiderski

Hire A Freelance Producer

The dictionary describes a producer as someone who produces. So, I can certainly see why this crucial position is often misunderstood in the photography community. Photography producers run the business side of every project. They estimate, negotiate, schedule, vet, and deal with the client, so the photographer can focus on doing what they do best: creating photographs.

Producers are organized, detail-oriented, experienced, and can communicate well, and those traits will give any client the confidence that a project will be successful. Additionally, a producer allows the photographer to focus their energy on the creative elements of a project, thus alleviating their need to worry about everything else that goes into a production. While a producer is an advocate for the photographer, they can also relate to and communicate with a client in a seemingly neutral way, especially when it comes to discussing money. Producers aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions.” - Craig Oppenheimer

Working with my producer Craig Oppenheimer at Wonderful Machine has alleviated a lot of the pressure that comes along with running a commercial photography business. I can rely on him to take the pressure out of pricing, negotiating, and contract development. Craig has gone to bat for me time and time again to get what we want and that is an ally I need.

Below are two real world initial estimates, that Craig produced, created, and eventually negotiated on my behalf.

Let’s dispel a myth. You don’t need an rep (agent). You don’t need a producer. A freelance producer isn’t a rep, but can act like one. A rep can be a producer. A rep tends to take a percentage, whereas a freelance producer takes a flat fee.

The industry has shifted away from reps being the gatekeepers of photographers, and there are many non-traditional outlets for photographers to promote themselves without the help of a rep. Don’t get me wrong, some reps work extremely hard to earn their commission, but not all photographers are working on projects with budgets worth giving up the percentage a rep might take. An experienced producer can be a “rep on-demand”, being there for you when you need them, but not necessarily taking a commission on a project.” - Craig Oppenheimer

Hire A Freelance Digital Retoucher

I received a YouTube comment not to long ago that read something like “This photographer is a joke, he doesn’t even retouch his own work!” So, let’s take that statement and put it in terms of another creative career: “This makeup artist is a joke, she doesn’t even shoot her own photos!” A makeup artist doesn’t have to be a photographer, so why should a photographer have to be a retoucher?

Digital retouching is a standalone craft, just like photography. Somewhere in the past decade, retouching has become an essential craft for the final product. When the education industry started to blossom, retouching suddenly became a parallel fundamental skill that every photographer should know. I suppose learning Adobe Photoshop was cheaper than hiring a professional, so I fell right into it. But, at the start of my career, I thought I needed to be a successful retoucher to be a successful photographer. Except, I didn’t want to be a retoucher and I didn’t care. I wanted to shoot photographs, not manipulate them.

You don’t need to be a retoucher to be a great photographer. You don’t need a retoucher to produce a great photograph.

Eventually, I realized I just wasn’t that great at retouching. Even with my extensive graphic design background, I couldn’t keep up or desired to keep up. So, I sought a professional, an artist I could rely on to retouch and manipulate all my work to meet every client need up to the standard of the commercial re-touching industry. Jordan Hartley was that professional.

The time that used to be spent retouching can be spent taking on more jobs, networking, etc. The second biggest benefit would be that the quality of retouching could potentially be better than if you were retouching your own work. Retouching, like anything, takes a long time to learn to do well so if you want to be good at both photography and retouching you'd have to spend twice the amount of time learning.” - Jordan Hartley

Expose Yourself By Location

Believe it or not, living in a unique location is a possible trigger for a greater influx of work. Just like many of you who are young and passionate about photography, I thought I needed to be in a bigger market to succeed in any creative business. I learned over time, that as soon as I started owning the fact I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I started to receive more clientele looking for something different.

Advertising agencies, creative directors, and buyers look a thousands of images a week. They often will sift through similar portfolios from photographers in the same general market. When you bring a high-quality product in a unique location, you could potentially stand out from the crowd. I’ve been hired a lot because of the fact I live right in the middle of the eastern side of the United States. I’m not in the north and I’m not in the south, it simply depends on who you ask. We are a middle-ground for many industries.

Online networks such as Wonderful Machine, Workbook, At Edge, or Found are directories which allow potential clientele an easy online resource to look a portfolios based on location. In many cases it can be less of an investment for the client to find a photographer locally than it can be to send a production team from a larger market. I like to think a directory as a trampoline, if you keep jumping someone is bound to see you. It's a boost of exposure based upon where the client needs the production completed. Set yourself up for greater exposure through these directories.

Invest In Tangible Marketing Collateral

When I first decided to jump into the wonderful world of the commercial photography business, I knew I didn’t need to print my photography. I could probably get away with my pictures sleeping on a sever somewhere in the deep space of the Cloud. But, I quickly learned that printing your work is a humbling process. Very much like working with film for the first time or learning how to edit a video. It was a process that I learned to appreciate and respect. Along with the process, I came to love to see how photography is meant to be seen. It was first designed to be held and viewed in a tangible state. While, that tangible state as evolved to a digital platform, there is something about photography on paper that ignites inspiration and vision. A perception that holds a lot of value in the commercial photography business.

Once I felt my portfolio had reached a level to begin truly marketing on a international scale, I developed my first portfolio book. Next, I developed print assets such as a leave-behinds, promo booklets, and promo postcards through a print service (No, they did not pay for this).

A leave-behind is normally a small print card or box you leave anywhere so that a potential client or person can remember you more vividly. Sometime ago, I printed nearly 1000 4x6” leave-behind cards just to have on set, on location, or to simply hand them out like trick-or-treat candy wherever the wind may take me. Much like a business card, I have them in our kit, the studio and my everyday bag ready to be left. You might ask yourself, where is the ROI? Frankly, a lot of them probably end up in the trash. But, when you look at the big picture, the investment is extremely small for the potential return.

A promo booklet is a foldable book which usually displays a small collection of photographs from a single series or project. This booklet is often mailed to a select number of clientele which is developed from a resource list of contact information, which can be purchased for a subscription fee at companies such as Agency Access, Yodelist, BikiniLists etc. I’ve seen some extremely creative promo booklets over the past few years.

A promo postcard is much like a leave behind, except usually it includes one or two photographs only with a large space for an address and postage stamp on the reverse side. I’ve developed these on my own and I’ve depended on companies such as Agency Access or Found to print and mail them on my behalf. It simply depends on your marketing budget and the amount of work you want to put in yourself to build the address list, design the postcard, print the postcard, package the postcard, and then mail the postcard.

I’m supplementing my personalized quarterly email campaigns with two promo postcard campaigns a year and two promo booklet campaigns a year. Each one of those campaigns usually includes a batch of 500 promo postcards and 250 promo booklets which are sent to specific people domestically and internationally, such as advertising agencies, creative directors, photo editors, art producers, copywriters, and buyers. Don't forget, what is on the card and how it looks is extremely important.

As long as you use these boutique marketing assets to supplement your online and social media marketing effort, you will set yourself up for a more robust marketing attack that will very likely expose yourself to a commercial client that will convert to a lead. A great online resource for seeing other photographers promos is A Photo Editor, which is run by Rob Haggert the former Director of Photography for Men's Journal and Outside Magazine.

Send A Thank You. No, Not An Email. A Real Life Tangible Thank You

The core investment for every small business should be cultivating and nurturing relationships. With the arrival of electronic commutation, the art of the human connection has gone by the wayside. A very valuable advertising client once told me it’s standard practice for photographers to send a small “Thx!” when the project was delivered. I was floored. When the client is trusting you and investing into your product, do you think that simple gesture is worth the value of what they give you? Let’s not forget, an abbreviated gesture!

At the turn of the new year, I set a goal to deliver my most valued clientele a sincere thank you gift. A gift that was “on brand,” unique, and carried a personal attachment instead of just a mailer. I eventually landed on an idea of a custom barn wood box packed with a series of special souvenirs from my home state of Kentucky. A state I love and hold near and dear to my heart. When I travel, I love to talk about the city Louisville, Kentucky and how I came to love it so much. It’s a city of rich history, which we hold tight, parallel with a modern and progressive culture.

The box was designed with the intent to simply send a bottle of my favorite bourbon. But, I wanted to supplement the bottle with a few other items to show off Kentucky, such as horseshoes, antique shot glasses, antique farm tools and local spices and sauces. I drew out the measurements and consulted with a company that constructed these custom branded, slide-top boxes. It took half a year to get all the accessories sourced and the overall idea come to fruition. A hand-written letter with a wax seal stamp accompanied the gifts and two leave-behind promotional cards was hidden in the hay that provided a soft cushion for the items. Every single box was unique. The most expensive item in the process was the die-cut black plastic sleeves to protect the box in shipping. Shipping was not expensive at all.

I sent 12 of my most valuable clientele and partners this wooden gift box. 10 of the 12 immediately responded with a very personal thank you text or call. Most have already booked me for future work or referred me for future work. Some even sent pictures or shared the gift to social media. It was a big investment. Investment in time, energy and money, but I knew it was important to show my clientele how highly I value their business. The 12 was the first wave of 25 total shipments.

This past year, I formed a very special bond with my friend Thomas Ingersoll, an advertising photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. Thomas wanted to show his value in a unique way. He did something great on a special day, which I found so unique, an act that inspires me, and should inspire you.

I am always looking for ways to onboard new clients, or nurture relations with current clients. Often times we take, but we forget to give, I wanted to change this, and it started with National Donut Day.  I decided to stop by a local gourmet donut shop and purchase 10 dozen donuts, which cost roughly $200. I attached a mailer with my work and contact info to each box, and proceeded to stop at 8 different offices. The 8 offices consisted of either clients I have already worked with, or clients I had been wanting to build a relationship with. I wanted to say thank you to my existing clients and nurture that relationship, and I wanted to offer a simple gesture of buying the office donuts to prospective clients. This simple $200 investment has paid off ten fold, and has helped me land recurring work with my existing clients, and also onboard a few new clients." - Thomas Ingersoll

If you think this article is a magic recipe to whatever success you desire, it's not. If you think this is a yellow brick road to becoming a great photographer, it's not. If you think this will immediately award you your dream job, it won't. It takes time, practice and there is no stock blueprint. If you think you have a strong portfolio to strike the match, then make just one, two or all six investments. Start small, collaborate, practice patience. Set a marketing budget or create some retail photography you don’t want to do for awhile to build up marketing capital. Just stay focused and don’t lose the will to fight for the work you want to do.

I've hosted workshops and I've completed a Fstoppers tutorial that pretty much shares everything I know, technically. But, it's very hard for photographers to implement generalized business and marketing knowledge if the education isn't tailored specifically to the student and their lifestyle, resources, personal life, and experience. So, personalized coaching is my answer to that. I genuinely want to make you a better photographer and entrepreneur. If you're interested in personalized online mentoring one-on-one, then I look forward to helping you strategize your future and photography.

Clay Cook's picture

Portrait and Editorial Photographer, Clay Cook has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. Clay has shaped creative projects with History, Lifetime, Comcast and Papa John's Pizza. In addition, he has photographed assignments for Time, Forbes, The Guardian, W Magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Inc.

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Great Article Clay!

Love the advise and visuals.

Thank you for reading, Steve! Much appreciated! Share if you love it!

Very detailed, insightful and helpful, thanks a lot for taking the time of sharing... ;)

Thank you for reading, my friend! Cheers!

Some great ideas here! Love the box of goodies

Thank you Dusty! Means a lot, brother.

Well done!

Thank you, my friend!

Well written, Clay. Thanks!

Thank you Matt!

I am based in Lexington, KY. So lovely to see Mr Cook show the best of my beloved State. At age 72, so thankful to be shooting on a whole different scale. He work inspires me. Thank you Mr. Cook

Cheers to the Bluegrass, my friend! Thank you!

By far one of the best articles I’ve read. This information is so incredibly valuable. Thank you for being so generous in sharing this with us, Clay!

Wow. Thank you Emily! Share if you love, would really appreciate it!

This is one of the best articles I read about the business side. Thank you from the bottom of the heart for sharing these.
Already a big fan of your Fashion photography tutorial.

Thank you so much Arun! That means a lot, my friend! Share if you love it!

Thanks so much for putting this together, Clay. In the last couple years that I've been following your work, it always seems that you're out there on the internet somewhere offering exactly the advice I need for the spot I'm presently in with my photo career.

Now that I've got my gear in check, my SmugMug and Iconosquare set up, starting to feel like it's time to leave the nest and gather allies like you mention here. Only so much you can do by yourself, right?

From one Louisville photographer to another, it's been really awesome watching you carve the path for the rest of us. Some fantastic insights in this article that I know I'll be working to put into action for the foreseeable future. Hope we get a chance to chat in person someday!

Cheers, my man! It means a lot to have your support. Give me a shout anytime, I'm always down for a bourbon or Quills Coffee!

DUDE very nice! Really great and very necessary tips! Thanks for putting this out there!

Thank you brother! It's wild this information isn't readily available. Hopefully, this will point some great talent in the right direction. Cheers!

So good! Thanks Clay :)

Thank you David! Cheers, my friend!

Great advice, thanks!

Thank you for reading, my friend!

There seems to be an error on your website. It does not load Clay.

Thank you for heads up! Got it all fixed. It was a "https" protocol issue.

Nice article Clay. I really like the way you reach out to thank clients with the beautiful gifts. I will have to give that one some thought. I have gone the agent/producer route. The negotiations, producing, etc. would be a killer for me if I had to do it all. I think people have no idea how time consuming and stressful it is. Plus, my agent brings in work I would not get on my own. I think learning your limitations and strengths is so important and getting help with or offloading the areas you are weak in is a life saver. Thanks for taking the time to write this story!

Cheers, Jeff! Thank you for reading, my friend!

Thank you. Helpful , informative and confirming. Thank you ! Great work and I love the box with the Bourbon. Great idea !

Thank you Connie! I appreciate the read. Much love!

Thank you for the feedback Dan! Good points, all around. You're right. There is definitely a limit to what clientele can receive in the public sector, the exact value amount is $470 per year or less. I should have mentioned that.

The main aspect of every photographer's value should always be the product you deliver. But, that is such an obvious facet, that I didn't deem it nesscary to bring up. I'm also covering tips to market and expose your brand, not really the how a client will determine your value.

I believe, word of mouth is by far the most powerful form of marketing. A single thank you, or small gesture can go a long way into the referral process of advertising world. People talk, people trust their colleagues. Have I received more work because of the friendship I've formed through a bottle of bourbon? Yes. Have I analytically verified a new RFP through a bottle of bourbon? No.

Just as I said, there is no stock blueprint. Everyone has their own ways. If it works, keep doing it Dan!

Thanks again for reading, man.


Thank you, my man!

2 of my fav photographers. karl taylor and clay cook :D

Thank you friend!

Rabbit Hole!

This is exactly the kind of content that FStoppers and others should be putting on their websites! Enough with the gear, the lenses, the endless phones, the reviews. Give us more of this!!!!! Thanks Clay. Keep up the good work!