Here Is How I Always Beat My Competition in Photography

Here Is How I Always Beat My Competition in Photography

As a commercial photographer, I have a ton of competition from other photographers. There are a lot of other people who take fashion pictures. There are even more people who claim they take fashion pictures. All in all, it seems like I’m up against the world when it comes to working. If you ever wondered how to beat your competition, here is an approach that always works. Always, without exaggeration.

It is ever so common to hear people that I coach complain about obscene competition and just about everyone always stealing work from them. It seems to be a common problem in the industry. There is always more and more competition, someone who does it better than you do. There is always someone who takes a better image, poses the subject better, lights better, someone that does everything better. They are the reason you are not getting the work you deserve as a photographer. It is all their fault. I can easily understand this point of view. It is a very interesting one as well. If you perceive everyone as a threat to your work, you will indeed see them as an excuse for not shooting and creating greater. That threat is competition. If you feel like you’re up against people that do the same thing as you, I strongly suggest you analyze your work. Because the truth is, the truth is quite different. What if there was no competition at all? What if you are your greatest enemy? Let’s see what competition is and what it isn’t.

Papa John's Versus Dominos

The classic definition would go something along the lines of independent firms that sell the same product in order to achieve a business objective. In the case of restaurants, it could perhaps be Domino's and Papa Johns's. They both sell a pizza, and they both make a good one as well. Without going into Pizzathematics, people usually make a choice based on price, taste, and a few other factors. But the average consumer who wants a pizza would probably order from either without considering the individual characteristics

While I don’t like fast-food chains, I have a Big Mac every now and then. It is never about the burger or the “authentic McDonald’s experience,” it is more about “body needs food, body gets food.” When wanting a quick calorie fix, I will gladly take anything I can get. The same applies to coffee. I drink a Nespresso in the studio, simply because it is the only available coffee. If I had a Nescafe machine, I would drink Nescafe. For me, they fulfill the same purpose: caffeine. 

Canon Versus Nikon

Having defined competition, let’s see how it translates to the world of art, namely photography. Camera companies try to stand out from one another by introducing cool-sounding features and updates that make them stand out. The sad truth is that there has not been a bad camera released since Canon 5D Mark II. Any DSLR or mirrorless you buy will do the job very well. At this point, I personally can’t tell which camera the image was shot on simply by looking at the image. In a recent article about iPhones versu traditional cameras, this was also pointed out. The point is: competition is not between cameras themselves, it is between the camera brands selling the idea that their camera is better for photographers. There is simply no other reason you’d buy a Leica if it was about the tech. If you’re someone who simply needs an image-capturing device, you will buy a camera, not a Canon or Nikon because of 50+ years of heritage or other marketing tricks. If you want to buy a camera that was used on the moon, you will buy a Hasselblad because it is a unique and authentic product.

Now, having established what is and what isn’t competition, let’s apply it to photography and see where photographers compete and where they don’t.

Competition Among Photographers

There are essentially two levels at which photographers are hired: the need for pictures and the need for authentic work.

Someone who needs pictures doesn’t really care who does them. Usually, the decision is based on price, available dates, and other factors. It is almost never the style, human qualities, perspective, or anything about the individual. It is about the purpose that that individual fulfills: get pictures. The most effective way to get a client like this is to out-price whatever the other person is charging. While this sounds like it’s ruining the industry, it is not. There will always be someone who is happy to do it for cheaper. The other problem is that after a month or two of charging way less than they should be, they will realize that in order to live a normal life, they ought to up the rate. A new person will come and replace them. The “cheap” client won’t really notice any difference. They will continue to find someone who can do it for even less and less. Long story short, these are the clients we don’t want. These clients are the “problematic” clients which often lead to disputes and unnecessary stress for no money.

The clients we want are the higher-end clients: the people who hire you for your style, for your take on the subject, and for your perspective. There are a lot of these clients, and their budget is way higher. Because these clients are hiring you and not a “person who takes pretty pictures,” there can’t be any competition. It is simply impossible for anyone else to do what you do. You are an authentic human being who is completely different from the next. You are your own thing, and you do your own thing. No matter how hard someone tries to be like you, they ultimately can’t be you. What makes your work special are your experiences, influences, traumas, and pleasures. Someone who lived a privileged life is unlikely to understand someone who had to flee a war-torn country in search of safety. The work of these two individuals will be completely different. This is exactly why you can’t compete against other photographers. You simply are not even in a race against them. If you’re a turtle, they’re a cat. Two different animals, two different beings, two different species. You need to learn to speak the language of photography, speak it with your own dialect, and use your own phrases.

Closing Thoughts

I see competition as a petty excuse to stop progressing and creating further. There is no problem at all with that. As humans, we are naturally lazy. Instead of searching for a petty excuse to not be creative, find an excuse to go out and make something! It requires effort, and it requires time, but the result is something unique. Something that has your soul and spirit. Something that is a reflection of you. Nobody can ever create a “better” reflection of you than you can. So, stop moaning, and forget that there is competition in photography! That will be the only way you can beat your nonexistent competition. 

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Jeremy Lusk's picture

This comes at a good time for me, as I just lost a client to someone cheaper after doing several jobs for them at a discounted rate in the hope that it would eventually lead to a good opportunity. And when it did and I told them what it would cost to do it right they just found someone to do it for less. I trust that person will also eventually grow tired of doing too much work for too little money, and then they’ll find someone to replace him. Or they’ll realize they should have paid what the job cost to begin with and come back to me, the person who told them what quality work actually costs.

Chase Jarvis said something that’s always stuck with me: you never turn the $500 client into the $5000 client. When a business can afford to pay that they won’t give the job to the rookie who’s been with them from the beginning, they’ll hire the pros who always charged more.

Charge what you’re worth and as long as your work justifies the price eventually others will pay for your talents.

Benoit .'s picture

Discounts upfront are the same as setting your price.

Mike Ditz's picture

That why you offer the discount on the second or third job :) if you offer discounts.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Great comment, Jeremy! Chase is absolutely right about the $500 vs $5000 client dilemma. Knowing your worth as an artist goes a long way in helping you create the work you want for the money you deserve.

Mike Ditz's picture

Reminds of when I was in biz for about 5 years and I told a friend/mentor/former employer that I was getting every job I bid on, I figured it was my charming personality...He said it was time to raise my rates to mid level from low level as I was getting mid level clients who were paying low rates, (he was high level.)
I did that and did not get all the jobs I bid but made like 20% more with 30% less effort.

David Vivian's picture

Not sure what I just read but sure I didn't miss anything.

Benoit .'s picture


Mike Ditz's picture

First of all the idea that we are all super creative geniuses who are shooting things in a way never seen before and therefore get the job is super rare, some are and the rest of are doing good work that we are hired to produce.
I know people who hire commercial / advertising photographers and have had some conversations about who and how they do it. The thing is that many times the decision is made by deciding who of 20 photogs they know that can do the job to the client's specifications. That might be 10 of them, the next question is who do they want to work with through the prep - days of shooting - post and that might be 5. Then who is available when needed and that might be one or two, so they get the job. But there was one photog who was very "difficult" but their work was so good clients would hire them anyway!
In most situations there are plenty of people of equal talent / skill / creativity / cost who can do the job their way.

Of course other times they just want a commodity shoot and get the most bang for their buck.

Pedro Pulido's picture

Illia, this is an excellent article and a very truthful analogy of today's market. Brilliant. great read. Thank you.

Nemanja Rakic's picture

So you beat your competition by being you....and we dont want cheap clients....what wise words of wisdom.Very low effort article ful of bla bla bla.

Walid Azami's picture

Thanks for sharing your experience. It was a good read and good photos. The comment section of this blog is sometimes unkind but keep on making great work and expressing your opinions despite the people who like to sit at home and destroy their peers online.

Illya Ovchar's picture

Thank you for your support and encouragement, Walid!

Thomas Demma's picture

I'll share a quick story, somewhat on topic, somewhat not. I handled dogs for twenty year. Since this was a side job for me I never charged much in comparison to the professionals you see on TV. And the more dogs you show, the more your face is out there and the more requests you get.

At one point I had a professional pull me aside and tell me I needed to be charging more. I'm paraphrasing now but I was basically told 'You do a good job. Don't give away a skill someone else cannot do.' I remember walking away with two thoughts; You don't want someone out there undercutting your fees by a substantial amount. And number two, he's right.

(It eventually reached a point I was handing off my own dogs for people to show so I could show a client's dog. Nope. That was the end of it all for me. That's not why I got into this to begin with)

Thushara Verhoeven's picture

I like this article.

The essence of this piece is that no one can be you... but you. And that's exactly why clients book you.

Very nice and well-written.