Strap in people, because this is a tough love lesson for anyone whose goal is to “make it” as a professional in the photography industry.
It’s easy to start out as a photographer with stars in your eyes thinking that if you just create good work, clients will be waiting for you. You ask for advice about starting your business and people tell you:
Build it and they will come.
Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Make good work, and you’ll get hired.
This is super common advice in creative fields, but it’s a trap, guys. Oh, the advice is true but only in part, and that’s where the danger lies.
Yes, your work needs to be good. That's a prerequisite, but that's not all there is to the equation. The first problem is, technically proficient work — good work — doesn’t guarantee sales, because most clients don’t see photographs the way a photographer sees them. The second problem is that if you want to run a business, the quality of how you run your business is more important than the quality of your photography. The final problem is that there are a lot (and I mean a really, really lot) of photographers out there making fantastic work, and the chance that you’ll be the photographic genius who stands above the crowd on pure talent is slim, to say the least.
This all sounds like a huge bummer, I know, but I’m offering you a choice. Do you want to stay in fantasyland and never get anywhere, or do you want to know the truth so you can actually do something about it? Truth? Then read on and let’s tackle each problem, one at a time. Then, we’ll look at possible answers.
Good Work Doesn’t Guarantee Sales
We naturally want to make beautiful photographs, but because we spend a lot of time training our eyes to recognize what makes good work, we forget that very few clients have done the same. We expect untrained people to see the technical quality of our work, recognize it, and pay accordingly, but most of them won’t. They’ll buy photographs they connect with, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with whether a photograph is technically well taken. Where we see light that isn’t ideal and a pose that isn’t flattering or that interesting, they see a genuine smile or an expression that mirrors one their father used to make. They invest in work they like, and despite what we photographers would prefer, quality and taste are able to be mutually exclusive.
This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the way a client chooses who to work with or what to buy, but it does mean that you’d better recognize this emotional truth, photographer. Otherwise you’ll be fighting the wrong battles, like working endlessly toward technical perfection, and wondering why you keep losing the war to emotion.
Stellar Business Practice Trumps Stellar Work
This is the thorn in my side, but it’s a truth we creatives desperately need. I want the maxim “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” to be true, but it’s not. It’s not true because doing what I love doesn’t put food on my table if I can’t get people to buy it. And if I want people to buy my work, I need to sell it. And if I’m going to sell it, I need to understand how business works and behave accordingly. I need to have a storefront of some kind where people can find my work and purchase it. I need to let people know my store exists. I need to understand how to do my taxes. I need fantastic customer service. I need to keep up with industry standards and customer behavior. I need to do research. I need to make contacts, send invoices, make customer service calls, and give the best service I possibly can.
In short, I need to be a stellar business owner. Because my brain, like many other creatives, isn’t naturally inclined toward systems and numbers, running a business is hard for me. It takes hours of hard work I would rather spend creating things. But properly running a business is a necessity if you want to last as a any kind of professional, and no matter how much I wish success was purely based on merit, it’s not. Great business practice + mediocre work > mediocre business practice + great work.
This Is Not a Meritocracy, It’s a Marketocracy
As much as I want professional photographic success to be based purely on the quality, creativity, and ingenuity of the work, it’s not. Success in any field has always been a mixture of hard work, good product, networking, luck, and a hell of a lot of good marketing. There are photographers out there with creative, unique, inspiring work who are languishing in the shadows, unable to pay their bills. There are photographers with a technically sound, if uninspiring portfolio, who put in the effort to meet people, build a solid business, and market their work, who have fans and enough jobs to put food on their table. There are even some inexperienced photographers who get opportunities the rest of us would kill for because of who they know, while others of us work two jobs on top of photography and still struggle. It doesn’t seem fair, but it was never about fair.
It can be painful to have our illusions shattered when likes and hearts and followers don’t translate into a steady paycheck. We have good work, so why aren’t we getting jobs? Why do our competitors seem to be flourishing while we struggle? Depressed, yet? Don’t worry. The medicine tastes bitter, but it’s necessary to the cure. Now that we know the truth, let’s see if we can’t find some answers for how to put it work.
Technical proficiency doesn’t mean much in and of itself if it’s not used in the service of a vision. There are lots of great photographers out there, so what makes your work different? What do you have to say to the world? Why should someone hire you over any other photographer who can take a well exposed, decently composed photo? The vision you serve will help cut through the slough of “good enough” photos and make your work something more. Remember, most clients can’t tell the difference between a good and a great photo, but they can tell how a photograph makes them feel. It doesn’t matter how perfectly exposed and composed your photo is if it’s dead. It’s your vision, it’s how and why you put those technical skills to use that makes your photograph something special.
Run the best damn business you can. Set up systems, keep your books, make phone calls, stay on top of invoices, show up early, stay late, over deliver, and have the best customer service in the freaking industry. Of course clients want the photographs they’ve paid for, but as far as they’re concerned, they can get those from many photographers. Treat them well on top of delivering solid work, though, and they’ll always remember it. They’ll recommend you to other people. They’ll work with you again because you can be trusted. And you’ll keep food on the table because your paperwork is straight.
Success is a mixture of hard work, good product, networking, luck, and marketing. You have control over 4 out of 5 of those ingredients, and even some control over luck, if you think about it.
Hard work requires resilience and determination. Work smarter, and be willing to stick it out for the long haul so you’ll still be chugging along when your competitors give up.
Create the best work you can so no one can ever call you out on a lack of quality. Be true to your vision because while not every client can tell the difference between the quality of technical differences in photographs, they can tell the difference in how a photo makes them feel, and it’s your voice that will resonate with them.
Get out of your dang house, or studio, or wherever you’ve closeted yourself and go meet people. Talk passionately about your work. Put yourself in front of potential clients. Network, for the love of all things holy. Network.
Marketing happens all the time, everywhere. Networking can be part of marketing, as is your social media presence and website. But you need to target your advertisements, understand who your audience is and get your work in front of them over, and over, and over again. Never stop shoving your work in people’s faces. Be as polite about it as possible, but don’t stop.
Luck. Oh, luck is fickle because it can strike anywhere, but you can give yourself the best possible chance of being lucky by putting yourself in the circumstances most likely to introduce you to the people who can provide opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise had. You can show up, over and over, in the places most likely to provide work.
This is not to say you shouldn't create the best photographs you can, employing all the techniques you know and mastering the requisite skills. You should. But you should put those skills to work in service of a vision, with a purpose, and never at the expense of the business side of the equation. A professional is someone who makes a living from their work, and if you want to make a living, you have to treat photography like the business it must be, and not simply an artistic pursuit.
Tough love sucks, but sometimes it’s the best way to break down the mental barriers and illusions we cling to to protect our fragile egos. Yes, I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else. We want our work to be enough. We want our hard won skills to prove our worth. But being a successful professional photographer is about more than that, it’s much more complex and requires fights and struggles no one tells us about when we first get started. The sooner we both realize it, the sooner we can get to work. And yes, it’s still worth it.
Lead Image models: Tessa Hooper, Bradley Garcia, Ari Williams and Lakota Leffler for Spear and Arrow Apparel.