Some may say it’s quite the phenomenon. I only shoot commercial and editorial fashion and I seem to make a living out of it without shooting weddings, families, babies or seniors. I don’t live in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles and I don’t travel like George Clooney in the film “Up In The Air.” The number one question I’m asked on a daily basis: “Clay, how do I get more paying clients?”
There isn't an easy answer. I want to say “just get out there and shoot.” But, there is a science behind how I've become a sought-after fashion & advertising photographer in the Midwest. My right-brain came from my father who owns a successful flooring distribution company and my experience came from several years touring across the nation in a hard rock band. I grew up as the silent type, but had to condition my personality in order to socialize and make a living. I've learned it requires several elements to build a reputation and close the deal. Although now, locally, my reputation seems to sell itself, but I still use these techniques day in and day out.
Find Your Niche
I started my photographic journey with the intention of simply shooting stock photography for graphic design, but it took a strong left turn and snowballed into something bigger. Initially, I shot everything. I would shoot my friends' newborn babies or random people at parties. Sometimes I would walk through abandoned factories and find unique composition. I didn't know what type of photography I enjoyed; I just knew I enjoyed snapping that shutter and seeing the instant gratification on the back of the LCD screen. I was offered to assist on a local fashion shoot and although it felt like I was in way over my head, I found it to be very gratifying. I thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration facet of fashion photography and it fulfilled my creative pallet like music had. Immediately, my focus was directly centered on shooting fashion and commercial photography. Still having the comfort of a day job, I was able to do what I wanted and I didn’t need to shoot weddings or babies to survive. So, I stopped shooting them. It was tough to turn down the referrals, but I knew that in order to build a reputable brand in the commercial market I had to publicize myself as an edgy, but approachable presence. The first step in gaining a prospering clientele is to find your niche and the type of photography you want to pursue. Whether it is weddings, seniors, children, family portraits or fashion, it’s the foundation of building a brand.
Once I discovered my love for fashion and shooting models, I knew I needed to make a statement. I had always been inspired by films and movie posters, so I created a portrait series based on my love for James Bond and the iconic female roles in the films a.k.a “Bond Girls.” No surprise, it didn't gain a roster of paying clients, but it did gain some notoriety in the photo community. Fast forward 6 months and I started a portrait series based on Lady Gaga and her amazing world of music, fashion and all things crazy. Just like my first portrait series it gave me the opportunity to work with many talented models, once again gaining a spotlight, but this time more so from those outside the photo community. With the use of social media, my images had been spread beyond the small photo community and into the populace at large. Just a few short weeks after unveiling the “Gaga Series” I was approached by an art publication to shoot their next feature and fashion editorial. They had a photography budget and I was thrilled. Then, hair salons, marketing firms and modeling agencies hired me to shoot for their respective companies. The point is; if you don’t start with creativity then the clients may never come.
Have a drink. As ridiculous as that recommendation might be, a recent study published in the Journal of Labor Research, found that female drinkers take in 14 percent more money than their non-drinking counterparts and male drinkers earn 10 percent more than abstainers. It's not necessarily the drinking part; rather it's more about building relationships. You can always find me at a launch party for such-and-such magazine or the release show for such-and-such band. I’ve built a reputation on face to face interaction and real handshakes. It’s important to get out there, show face and talk to people. Don’t shamelessly promote yourself, just talk; the relationship comes in the follow through. In other words, after I shake hands with a peer, I always follow-up with a personal friend request while that introduction is still fresh in their mind. The very foundation of my success was built on follow-up. Give it time and the emails will come.
Market Your Brand
You can have all the right elements of an amazing photographer, but without the proper marketing, the right people may never see your work. Social media is an extremely powerful tool and every photographer has the opportunity to show images to potential clients without actually making a single print or mailing a portfolio. But, for the right people to see your work and for you to rise above this saturated market, you must put yourself out there in a strategic manner. During my time in the music business, “perception” played a huge role for tours, merchandise and album sales. If someone perceives you to be a big rock band, then in their mind you probably are. The same mentality applies to photography. I’m not advocating a lie, but pump your photography and let people know you’re doing cool things. But, don’t overdo it. In the words of blogger, Adrienne Smith; “Successful people don’t spam.” Strictly speaking, only post your best and post regularly over a time period. Target a specific audience, not all at the same time. Connect with your demographic and you’ll see not only a greater increase in engagement, but also a few more emails from the people that will pay your bills.
Just Say No
You've found your niche, made a few handshakes and are making a few deals. Great, you’re well on your way to the goal. But remember, they’re always watching (clientele), especially if they’re writing a check with your name on it. Pick your clients wisely and work with those that are reputable and have a strong presence in your community. If you stray off path, it may have a negative impact. At the end of the day, you want to be expensive but reasonable, busy but available... in order to gain that reputation you’ll have to learn when it’s right to say no and jump to a better opportunity.
You are your brand and you represent you.
This may all seem like a long-winded biography, but it’s the only way I know how. There isn't much opportunity for fashion photographers in the Midwest and I've had to fight and claw my way to get to where I am. But, if there is one thing I do know, my clientele is a direct result of my creativity. Get out, get creative and get your work in front of the right eyes. Reputation can take care of the rest. The only thing that is stopping you - is you.