Never say never, but there are several quick reasons that make business cards with images a bad decision — even for a photographer. Every rule has its exceptions, but for most, a photographic business card is certainly not something you should automatically assume to need or even want.
Back when double-sided color printing required an arm, a leg, and selling your baby into slavery, having a color photograph on both sides of your card may have been about as amazing as your card could get. It told your potential and current customers that you had the success to afford the cards, and also served as a great way to showcase your work in a way that no one had seen before. But times have changed, and here’s why:
Aside from perhaps being the art critic’s favorite, most used, and ironically banal word, that is exactly what photograph-impressed business cards have become: banal. They’re everywhere. Proper or traditional support for this argument isn’t even necessary; that’s how common these cards now are. And that alone is enough to stay away from the monotony and commonality that is the photographic business card.
2.) Print and Paper Quality
Text looks incredibly amazing in print today. Somehow while we’ve managed to obliterate real wheat, organic vegetables, and hormone-free meats, creating the need for some fantastic and imperative rehabilitory farming programs, typography, fine papers, and printed text quality need no such rehabilitation. Those never got lost in the post-modern world of plastic and genetic modification to begin with, perhaps because of Apple, the technology revolution, and the 2010's resurging love of hand-made, well-designed, form-conscious materialism.
Photographic printing, unfortunately, has taken a real hit in part to an effort to remain a quickly attainable reality as opposed to a costly option available to those with good, spare money to invest in quality. We can thank the digital age for that, too. Digital imaging brought increased speed of file delivery and, with it, a demand for a similar increase in the speed of printing. Art directors didn’t take long to lose patience for the art of printing from a true emulsion, which became too time-consuming to let live. And thus was born the crappy print.
Today’s photographic business cards, with little exception, arrive to customers on thin, poorly crafted papers with horrible sheens or with the dots of the low-DPI printers still visible at arm’s length. Too many photographers opt for a color photograph over great paper, and it’s all to the detriment of the customer’s experience with their brands.
3.) More Time ≠ Better Interaction
How many times has a fellow photographer fanned his or her cards out toward you and asked you to pick which card you’d prefer? Sure, you look for a minute and try and decide which one to pick as your “favorite,” all somehow without insulting the others. And all the while, the photographer is assuming the interaction is a good one based on the length of time. But in reality, it’s just uncomfortable, especially if the work is on the less inspiring side of the spectrum. Even if it is amazing work, everyone has different tastes. About two to five percent of all art really speaks to me, personally. The rest just isn’t for me. So to put people in the position to choose something that may not resonate with them is something you want to avoid if possible. In the end, acknowledge that not everyone is your customer (or fan). Don’t make them choose. Choose nondescript (but good) design over something that will create an uncomfortable situation. Besides, you’re better off using the always-limited time you have with a potential customer talking about what he or she wants as opposed to discussing the differences between three images you took two years ago.
4.) Medium of Presentation
How many of us want our images to be displayed as glorious four by six-foot prints hung in galleries around the world, if they’re not already? Okay, put your hands down. Is it odd to anyone that it somehow seems appropriate to put what is likely your best work onto a tiny two by three-inch card? Is that the way in which you would prefer your first interaction with a customer to be presented? That’s not even 0.002 percent of the surface area of your lovely four by six-foot print. Is it not hard enough to deal with the reality that our websites will be viewed on laptops just 11 or 13 inches wide, let alone the more likely reality that a customer’s first impression of us will be on their 4-inch smartphone? And you want to put that first impression into an even smaller presentation? Let’s just think about that for a moment.
5.) Mystery, Or a Lack Thereof
This leads us directly into mystery. If your card is designed well enough and printed well enough, adding an image will only destroy any mystery associated with that word we all love to put on our cards more than our own names: Photographer. It takes us all enough time to stop putting “future photographer” in our profiles or to quit describing ourselves as “up-and-coming” in our biographies on the web during and as we come out of college. And when we finally get to the point at which we feel comfortable putting those lovely 12 letters up, some of us choose to destroy any level of mystery and romance associated with this term of endearment with a photograph on the reverse side. Stop it. Let the word sit there and hang in the air. Let it make your customers see you with a permanent “squinch,” or “smize,” or whatever you want to call it.
Here’s a million-dollar piece of advice: For all of you who are still belittling yourselves with “future photographer,” or “photographer-to-be,” or “up-and-coming” — you name it — stop that right now. You either are or you aren’t. If you aren’t, you better fake it ‘til you make it. We all start somewhere, and that’s totally OK.
There’s little worse than being a poor photographer (or poor at anything you do). But being a poor “future photographer” is certainly a part of that “little worse.” It’s much, much worse. You’ll never wake up one morning and go, “Now I’m a photographer. Time to order new cards.” You’ll look back after three or four years and think to yourself, “I guess now I’ve really been a photographer.” For the time being, quit beating around the bush. You should always take yourself more seriously than your clients do. The minute you stop doing that is the minute you stop growing. Dream it, own it, become it, or go home.
“Well, crap. I still have 1,500 cards in my closet with a variety of images on them that I ordered last year. What do I do now?”
If we didn’t make these mistakes, life would be too easy. Learn from it, and move on.
A lack of a huge, central photographic interest demands fantastic design. Invest in a great design that can carry your business. Find a company that places as much of an importance on whether or not to emboss, and what kind of paper to use, as they do on the design and logo elements on your cards.
It won’t be cheap. But it’ll be worth much more to you and your business than that fourth or fifth lens you have saved in your B&H Photo cart. Do it once and be done with it. And then good luck to you.
“What do you know? You have photographs on your cards!”
Or do I…? No, you’re right. I do. You caught me! But the cards are old, I made them when I was still in college, and I’ve been meaning to (and currently am) finding a place from where I can source the perfect cards I’ve had in my head for over a year now. It’s happening. If you don’t join me, no problem. I’ll see you later on the side of the road.
There’s Always an Exception or Two
Mike Kelley is a perfect example of a photographer whose images just beg to be seen in every presentation. As much as I’d love to say it’s the man himself that creates the time and place, the geometry of his architectural work (for which he has been fortunate to shoot some of the most outstanding examples of manmade structures) is something that reads extremely easily at any size.
Meanwhile, Kelley’s recently-gone-viral “Wake Turbulence” provides another example of one of the few exceptions to the rule of photographic business cards: recognition. When a project you’ve created is successful enough that there’s a chance that someone would recognize an image you’ve made, but not your name or your face, you want to put it out there when you meet people as often as possible. That recognition is hard enough to come by — you don’t want to give up on it because of some silly article you read here.
Finally, there are times at which your business itself simply lends itself to the photographic business card. Such is the case with Austin Rogers’ Awesomatic photo booth based out of Columbus, Ohio. In this case, The Awesomatic’s quirkiness lends itself so perfectly to the equally goofy photographs captured in a photo booth environment that including it on a business card instantly fills the receiver of that card with happiness. Instantly, potential customers get the feeling that the photo booth gives on the day-of before they’ve even given Awesomatic the job. But again, Rogers’ extreme care in photo selection is evident: not a single photograph is a less than perfect example of the never-ending fun that you might have with an Awesomatic photo booth.