Why Photographers and Filmmakers Should Not Follow the Advice of Many Books or Lectures on Business

Why Photographers and Filmmakers Should Not Follow the Advice of Many Books or Lectures on Business

There is an abundance of books on making business. They cover a lot of ground, mostly emphasizing marketing and selling, especially the latter. How practical is their advice to you as an artist?

A Century of Economy in Seven Sentences

Almost a hundred years ago, the majority of the workforce was in goods production and manufacturing. That included farmers, craftsmen, and workers in the factories. Less than 10% were engaged in services. Craft industries were not deemed "services." Services were transportation, wholesale and retail trade, banking, accounting, government workers, lawyers, etc. Today, it's exactly the opposite. Services are more than 80% of the economy in most countries.

Too Many Books and Lectures on the Same Topic

Today, some of the most common services are in the retail sector and all kinds of consulting business. As these are the majority, many of the business books and workshops are aimed to reach that broad sea of potential customers. This may earn the authors the most profit, of course. With so many similar businesses, it's hard for them to sell their services and commodities. This opens the door for consulting, books, and lectures on business (whether they work or not).

There is also a countless amount of research on advertising: what colors to use, what words to use, how music helps to bring the message subconsciously to the viewer, etc. There is a huge amount of psychology involved in that. And all that is again for the purpose of equipping businesses doing consulting and retail.

The Old Way of Advertising

If you see ads from old times, they were very direct, very honest, and emphasized the advantages of the product. Today, we have more of an emotional and subconscious way of advertising and lots of books, videos, workshops, and seminars on marketing and selling.

Vintage advertisements

What is the difference between the old times and the modern era that it requires such a massive indirect and subconscious marketing approach? The current type of economy requires it. There are many retail stores that sell the same kinds of goods together with services that are so similar that they try to win the customer with something extraordinary. Most times, the "extraordinary" part is not the product or the service, because there are many others who offer the same thing. This is where marketing psychology trickery comes into play.

But I Am an Artist, Not a Historian

How is that related to photography and filmmaking? That's the whole point. The majority of books on business, workshops, and education are based on the current type of economy, which is trying to sell commodities for the most part. If you try to find a reason why your business is not growing, there's very little chance to succeed applying retail-based advice.


The way craftsmen advertised themselves in the past was with their name, their products, and their advantages. We may live in modern times, but I don't see a reason for artists to advertise themselves differently. They need to make a name for themselves (which takes time), they need to show what they do, and show why they're worth hiring. Usually, the last part is subconsciously shaped in the mind of the customer, based on blog posts, portfolio presentation, and personal contact with the artist.

The Major Reason For Artist's Business Struggle

The biggest problem with today's craftsmen is, believe it or not, the global market. Before the Internet, people usually worked with locals. This made the locals profitable whenever there were people around them needing such services. With the expansion of the market, the local businesses became invisible, because instead of walking down the local market street, people would search online. The Internet opens many opportunities, but also makes it much more different for small businesses. When a business is not profitable, the owners tend to follow any business advice that comes their way, and most of the time, it's not designed for their craft.

Then What?

This is why, I think, the solution to a business crisis is what comes very natural to any artist: working on a portfolio, including lots of personal projects, honesty and transparency in your pricing, and building local connections, so that local people know you by word of mouth. These have worked in the past, these still catch the eyes of the clients today. If you want to be seen, you have to present something that's not a commodity. In case your portfolio is of only portraits of beautiful women on a blurred background in the park, people won't really remember you for that, because there are many others who have the exact same portfolio. Put a personal fingerprint on your work. Nobody says it will be easy, but if you want to be successful, you have to do something that requires effort. A quick and easy approach will lead to nothing but misery. The best results are based on hard work, skillfulness, patience, and wit, not on psychological retail trickery.

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Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's what I've been doing for years.

Broken Canon Art & Photography's picture

Heir Heir. Just another reason I've been self taught since I was a child. it takes a careful eye and timing to create may of the art and images I've done. But they don't always turn out. I just have to keep doing what I do in the hopes that it matters to someone other than myself.

Really nice, honest, article. It's funny, I tell my college students the same things. It's incredibly hard for contemporary kids to think beyond Instagram, or 500px. Solid images, a focus on local business, and great client relationships make money. Trying to out filter twenty thousand other shooters on the Gram doesn't.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Most of them think the bank account of your business is in sync with the number of your Instagram followers, likes, or posts. Nothing can be further from the truth.

I agree with your POV on local businesses which you need to work on as an artist.
BUT "The Major Reason For Artist's Business Struggle" is because artists still try to sell their art, its quality, their talent, ... In most of the cases, that doesn't work anymore. Instead, they should focus on solving BUSINESS problems for their clients (using what they do best as a tool).

They should ask prospects what are the biggest problems they're facing right now, define a corresponding desired future state in which the client will be happy, find a way to measure the progress toward that state (so we will know for sure when the goal is reached), find out what business value this will bring to the client, define a price as a percentage of the latter.

And only after all this, find a way to solve it efficiently with your art.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That is correct. People pay for art less and less. This is one of the reasons I'm doing mostly commercial work.

Some modern writers on marketing, like Seth Godin, talk about exactly this approach. I'm sure there are others out there, but he's a good one.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Interesting. I'm not listening to speakers much, but it's interesting to hear there are famous ones who talk about that.