Finding and Keeping Commercial Photography Clients
NOTE: This is a course for emerging commercial photographers. The methods we discuss may be of interest to consumer photographers as well, but are highly focused on the commercial part of our industry. Thank you.
This is part one of a five part free course on finding and keeping commercial photography clients. It is an introduction to a far more robust course that will be offered July 1. There is no ‘selling’ in this video – or the next three, but in the last one I will show you how to sign up for the more detailed and comprehensive program. These videos are high in value and even if you do not sign up for the full course, you will find them extremely helpful.
To get the remaining 4 videos, please signup for “In the Frame”, my weekly dispatch. The classes will come to you one per week. You will find the sign up on the right hand column. Thank you for being interested, now let’s talk about your portfolio.
On assignment in West Texas, we decided that the local characters would give the well a lot more context.
Some Things Change, and Some Things Stay the Same
The constant, and rapidly changing landscape of photography continues unabated. Some may think of this as a very scary time to be in this business. They may be right… for them.
For me it is nearly a miraculous time to be in the photography business. From amazing gear to incredible innovation, it surrounds us every day. Perhaps it has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even see it when it is staring us in the face.
Change, baby. Everywhere.
I just read an article about some wedding guy going with Micro 4/3 and giving up his Nikons. Another article on what looks like a very cool 300WS studio flash with TTL for under $300. One photographer is shooting on a massive camera on handmade paper, while another is exploring Iceland with nothing but an iPhone. Both of them are getting images that are amazing.
The business part is changing as well. A recent study by web folk who study this sort of thing found that people respond more to big photographs on web pages than they do small. They also found that the cheap, crappy stock image is worse for the site than if there were no image at all.
Photographs WORK? Photographs help sell stuff? Good photography matters?
Dang… who could have known?
Well, WE PHOTOGRAPHERS SURE AS HELL KNEW. Most competent ad agencies and graphic designers know. (Although there are a lot of graphic designers out there who have obviously bought into the free or dirt cheap RF stock junk. Too bad, losers.)
Now we are being backed up by non-photographers.
Our job now is to let our clients know how valuable a photograph is. Let them know that skimping on photography is a fast way to fewer sales and pointing them in the right direction is one of our purposes.
And we do that by doing the best work. Always the best work. No slacking, no hacking, no short cuts. We do the best work we can, and we do it over and over again.
We have to be able to show the client the difference between hack crap and good imagery. If we can’t, we may find that we are not making much headway.
I recently did a portfolio review with a photographer who was struggling a bit. He was having trouble connecting to his audience, and getting clients to say yes was becoming a very difficult endeavor. He was showing his book diligently, but getting no offers.
Problem was that while his book was that of an emerging photographer, the work ranged from ‘meh’ to good, and a few ‘greats’ thrown in almost as an afterthought.
When I remarked on is truly impressive images, he would say something like “yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.” And he was sure about the mundane boring stuff?
The reality is that he was nearly totally cut off from the world of commercial photography. He took his cue from Model Mayhem, 500PX and G+.
When I asked him about some commercial shooters in his town (Google is your friend), he didn’t know who they were or what they did. He didn’t look at magazines or online publications. He was in a vacuum, and nobody can hear you scream in space.
When you show your work, you will be judged on more than the individual images, you will be judged by how well you understand the genre you are presenting. Is it within the genre of the client?
Wine bottles lit by umbrellas, ‘fashion models’ who are obviously 5’1”, car shots of last years models, food shots that look cold and stale, bad natural light still life work… all can lead to a single image bringing down the entire book.
The question becomes “why are they showing me this? Do they think this is cool? Can they not see it is horribly presented? How did they get all those other shots I wonder?”
Doubt. And doubt doesn’t close deals.
Some truths about this highly competitive business:
Showing 10 great shots is far better than showing those same ten great shots mixed in with 20 other turkeys.
You cannot edit your own work (mostly). Find someone to help you. A mentor or good friend who you TRUST.
Do not be defensive, but do be strong. If three people you trust say ‘take it out’ then I would consider that some strong indication that while you may love it, it doesn’t ‘fit’ in your portfolio. Perhaps you need more of that kind to give it some context
Make no excuses. Yeah, it was a crazy day and the MUA was late and it rained and three rabid wolves chased off the stylist, but once the hail stopped you were able to get a few shots in before the lightning destroyed the set, they look pretty good, all things considered. Bucky… on one cares about the things considered. Your ‘masterpiece’ under fire is a dud.
Always be shooting. You should be adding new work to your site weekly if you are emerging as a shooter. That’s the time you have to DO the shots you want. Once the ball gets rolling, it may be tougher to find the time to do them. And they are VITAL to the ‘warm fuzzies’ for art directors and designers who may be following along.
The business is changing rapidly, but there are some things that are not changing… and showing top notch work, developing a body of work and keeping your work in front of people who buy is still as important, if not more important, than it has ever been.
So enjoy your new “mirrorless” or MFT, and dig into that Medium Format with gusto. Grab those new strobes and tell us all about them on the various social media… but remember that the words won’t count as much as the images you create with them.
If your client is looking for a technical writer who knows everything about every lens ever made, you may get a shot at it. But if they are looking for a photographer, you better make sure your portfolio is up to snuff, full of new work, and ready to be shown
That much will stay the same for a while longer. I’m sure.
I would love to hear your comments on the ways you are working to keep your portfolio up. Add them in the comments.
I have known Selina for many years. I have all of her books, and have trained with her. I consider her a mentor, coach and friend.
Selina has joined us here on Lighting Essentials many times, and each time is a delightful experience for me.
Selina was perhaps the first commercial photography rep in Boston (or perhaps anywhere) and she represented some of the biggest names in the business. Today she is working with photographers to help get them motivated, moving and most importantly… out of their own way.
I have known many photographers who have gone through here one on one’s and her portfolio rebuilding exercises, and all have benefitted greatly from the experience.
Now you have the opportunity to experience Selina’s approach to becoming all you can be for absolutely free.
Always wondered about that term, so I looked it up.
According to the Urban Dictionary;
“The original phrase is “The proof of the pudding is in the eating!”
Which means you have to eat the pudding to know what’s inside of it.
The modern version of ‘the proof is in the pudding’ implies that there “is a lot of evidence that I will not go through at this moment and you should take my word for it, or you could go through all of the evidence yourself.”
That is pretty much what I thought.
Check out these free videos from Selina Maitreya. Seriously good stuff!
Your portfolio is sort of like the pudding in question. It’s proof that you can do what you say you can do right there on page, screen, or tablet.
Can you light a wine bottle and show the wine and the label – and do it from an angle that makes remakes a simple shot into a real challenge? Can you be set up and waiting for the moment when the semi-celebrity who promised you 30 minutes comes in 27 minutes late and declares that he has no time, and to get on with it – and nail the shot with confidence? Can you bid a complex job so that there are no surprises, no glitches, and no “extra fees?”
That’s the pudding baby… and it is the proof you need to your prospective clients as well as yourself.Cause if you aren’t sure, they aren’t sure. And you will not be getting a PO.
That doesn’t require being cocky or arrogant. (OK, a little arrogance is fine, just don’t let it go to your head and forget where you came from… ) It means you are sure of your self, and your abilities, and know how to get the stuff done that must be done.
It also means being aware that there are occasions where it is simply not possible. Shooting fashion on the beach during a torrential rain is going to be a cancellation day, as is the afternoon the power grid goes out on a big location shoot at the clients offices.
But most of the time we can pull a rabbit out of a dingy, soon to be recycled old hat. It is, ahem, what we do.
We make crappy products look amazing.
We make mediocre food look appetizing and delicious.
We add new life and interest to a 56 year old townhouse.
We make OTR crap look ‘cool’ enough for someone to want to buy it.
We help people sell stuff, and we do it with skills and a vision and a surety of purpose that we know what we are doing.
The ‘proof’ is in the pudding… fine, but remember it’s OUR dang pudding. We know what went into it and how it should be served. We are the masters of our own vision.
If we let others mess with our work, without giving us a chance to do what we do – the way we do it, it can be both frustrating and bad for business. We are hired to do a job, and we should be willing to fight to do it right.
Our job is to make the VP of Finances smile by making images that grow sales beyond projections.
Our job is to make images that bring more people to the website than ever before.
Our job is to createiImages that help seal the brand idea with the visitor so that there is no doubt in their mind that THIS is the company they want to do business with.
Our job is to help business make more money by making a better visual product.
Professional commercial photography should be viewed as a profit center, bringing clarity, consistency and brand loyalty to the front of the mind of the viewer. Great images create great brands.
Think of our largest, premium brands… the ones that get to a level all their own.
Do they understand that excellent imagery SELLS better than crappy stock or amateurish attempts?
Yes they do.
They know it.
We know it.
Now, how do we get our prospective client to know it? The guy who called and wanted your bid for some interiors, and reads from a script on what they are looking for – or the woman on the phone who doesn’t introduce herself, but simply blurts out “How much do you charge for a shot of a …”
Yeah… we get those calls. And part of us wants to jump on the bid right away. We are in the mindset of “we are right for every job that comes in and if we don’t get every job that comes in we are lower than the grub worms that crawl in the dirt because we NEED every job that comes in to validate our recent Broncolor system…” or whatever variation works for you.
Hey – guess what – you don’t really need the “howmuchayoucharge” crap. It will never pay you enough, and you will begin to doubt that you are worth more.
I get these calls as well… and I am always courteous, friendly and sincere. I ask them to hold up for a minute and begin to ask them questions about the possibilities of the gig. I ask outright how many other photographers are they calling and if they had seen my website.
If they are calling more than a couple and they have not seen my website, then I politely tell them I am probably not the right photographer for them. I do not try to ‘educate them’ nor do I ridicule their poor business sense. Too much water under that bridge. You can try if you want, but my experience is that their mindset is on ‘cheap’ and it covers more territory than just photography.
However, I will also ask for an email address so I can send them something that is indicative of what I do, and most of the time I get one. I want to give them a taste of the pudding, and reinforce why they should consider photography or design (especially mine) to be more than a line item on their budget.
I want them to realize that great photography and design MAKES more money than it costs.
We will get the kinds of clients that we look for.
We will get more of the kind of clients that we work for.
Whether they be cheapos or premium, the laws of attraction seem to work that way.
We also earn a reputation for what we do… and this is one terribly difficult thing to rebuild if we let ours slip.
Do we have a reputation of a premium shooter, who helps their clients create stunning work for stunning results? Does our portfolios say that we are problem solvers, and that our work makes a difference for our clients? Do we make careful, thoughtful, powerful images that produce results?
And can we articulate why professional photography, and ours in specific. can enhance their needs beyond a piece of flat art representation? Can we justify our photography as a revenue investment instead of a line item?
What if I told you it was not the industry, the bad economy, where you live, what camera you shoot with, how many lights you have or how small your Facebook following is that is holding you back. None of those are truly capable of stopping you, they are only challenges for you to meet.
The same challenges everyone who creates art or starts a business has to meet and beat.
The things that are truly holding you back are your own beliefs. Belief that it IS one of those reasons above. Believing that it is a geography thing that keeps you from excelling, or what gear you use or how many lights you take with you is more damaging than any REAL challenge you will ever have to meet.
Because they have no substance, these limiting beliefs can grow to fit any size needed to keep you from moving forward.
If it was simply a wall in front of you, there would be many different ways to move on. Scale it, go around it, blow it up… all sorts of ways to get it done.
But if the wall is a creation inside your mind, there is no way around it, it will grow higher than any ladder you have and it becomes impervious to any and all attempts to blow it up. It does this insidiousness because we want it to. We control its size and power.
So lets look at ten beliefs and maybe offer a suggestion on how they may be more in our heads than in our reality.
We must have professional level gear to be a pro.
No. We may need it at some point, but before we get to that point we need to make a gazillion images with the gear we have. And if we cannot make images that people want to pay us for with what we have, chances are they will still not want to buy them when they are made with pro gear. A crappy image is a crappy image no matter how many pixels there are.
We have to live in a big city.
No. You may have to have access to a big city, but then you do have Internet, FedEx, the USPS, and a phone. There are many photographers who are working for major clients while living in the rural town of their choice. They simply wanted to live there more than the big city, and they found the ways to do it.
We must have a portfolio equal to Avedon or McCurry to even be considered.
No. We must have a portfolio of course. And it must have wonderful images in it, but everyone starts somewhere, and clients know that. You may not get picked up by Vogue for a shoot with a small portfolio, but there are indeed other magazines that will hire you, and pay you, and help you build your work to be worthy of Vogue.
We have to have thousands of hours experience.
No… mostly. We DO need experience. We DO need to have some work under our belts in order to get the big gigs. But we need to do a lot of small gigs to build a book that will get us the bigger gigs… and then the really big gigs. It is a process, one that starts small and grows.
We must never work for free.
No. Working for free is sometimes the ONLY way to get the experience, credibility and inroads that allow us to work for pay. NEVER be exploited by working for free, but learn to recognize opportunity as a huge currency that is many times worth more than the paltry fees the gig may pay. (Note: If you are not sure which is which, you may NOT be ready… so keep working on learning the business.)
We must have a huge internet following to be considered.
No. In fact most working photographers have only a portfolio and simple blog. Some do indeed have a big following on some social platforms, but the majority do not. Instead they have a following of clients that they work hard for, and couldn’t care less about social media fame. The working world still has not caught up to the interwebs, and although I do think that building a solid online brand is important, it will mean less than diddly when you are pitching a real client for a real gig.
We obviously suck because the pros do it so easily.
No. The pros simply have more experience, more hours setting up lights, a ton of history in doing that same thing… and they are still busting their ass to make it more perfect, more special than last time. They do make it LOOK easy, but take it from me – they are still sweating bullets – they are better at hiding it than you are.
“All we need is…”
No. We call that the magic bullet syndrome. All we need is “one good job” or “that new lens” or “a bigger studio” or… NO. There is no magic bullet, no shortcut, no “easy” button or challenge buster that can be purchased. There is only a commitment to the struggle, and a focus on the outcome.
Professional photographers are special, with special talents and special lives.
No. They are just like everyone else. They didn’t get there by luck, or anointment – they worked hard and long and with focus to get to that point. Yes, some have incredible ways of seeing the world, but then they have worked at that as well. You see, they take a lot of photographs… a heck of a lot of photographs to develop that vision
No one is able to make a living in this business anymore.
No. That is horse apples. There are thousands of working commercial photographers. And they are going to be shooting tomorrow. Some you may know, and most you will not have heard of – or from. Not every photographer is on Facebook whining about how bad it is out there… only the ones for whom it is bad out there. And I can assure you for every photographer that is complaining or whining about it, there is one doing it. Making the images, doing the marketing, creating their vision and always ALWAYS holding that picture of what will be in front of their eyes.
Yes, there are a lot of other challenges that must be met. It is a different world than it was a dozen or two years ago, but it is still an occupation that has growth and possibilities. They youngsters know it. One couple turned weekend trips into free image giveaways that is now making them a a tidy living while starting to accept assignments. Another photographer who shoots for major corporations lives in a tiny town in West Texas. I know a product shooter who lives in Portland, and is marketing all over his region – and nationally.
I am not a Pollyanna, but I am a positive person when it comes to people and their capabilities. You may have to give up some things in order to do other things – we call that “duh” – but that is still in YOUR control. Watch less TV, spend more time making pictures, capture a weekend a month for project work, and make building your photography business a priority.
Whether you want to go into business or simply make better photographs, the power to do that lies within you. What you listen to, what you agree with, and the people that influence you all have a big measure of influence on how you see yourself and this world of images.
You can control that measure of influence. It is YOUR life, and I would suggest you stop participating in the pity parties and the “oh whoa is us” crowd and make images. Obviously it didn’t work out for them, and now their main goal is to stop you from making it a go. What would it mean to them if you succeeded where they failed.
Far easier to blame the world for their failures than to watch someone else actually win. And even if that is not reality, it can BECOME their reality if they believe it strong enough.
Before you believe everything question everything. When someone says “nobody can make a living in this anymore” look around for someone who is, and find out what they are doing. If something sounds improbable, it may be. Research it. Nail it down.
There is a simple way to work around these challenges. Make more images. Make images that compel others to view them. Making images is the best possible thing that photographers can do to advance their work and their business. So put this computer away and go out into the world… click, baby, click!
Recently Stefan Sagmeister posted a video in which he excoriates designers for using the word “story” in their descriptions of what they do. Whether you agree or disagree, it is a compelling video. Personally, I am not 100% on board with his statements. There are some merit, but it all seems a bit pedantic to me.
I don’t believe he was, but I thought it important to address what he said and defend the idea that a single photograph can tell a ‘story’.
Not a novel, of course. Nor a novella or an article or much of anything that is linear… that would take several photographs usually. We would have a beginning, middle, and end photograph to give that linear flow that stories – complete stories – have.
With one single photograph, we are looking for something that is not as linear, but more of an excerpt. We may have to intuit or create the beginning and imagine the end… or any variation there of, but we definitely see more than the simple flat representation.
I believe the vast majority of images made are not designed to tell a story. They are reportage, representational, pretty, or a form of social proof that one did something. A visual diary of an adventure – big or small – and a fascination with the power of context a frame can give something simple or majestic.
But there are a few images and image makers that work diligently to present images that inspire us to think story… at least snippets of stories. The power of the still image is that it can help us recall emotions and moments of our own lives that may have nothing at all to do with the image before us.
This photograph by Sally Mann is compelling in ways that belong only to the viewer. The image of a young girl with the candy cigarette and very serious face leads the viewer to moments in their own childhood… and what happened before and after this brief sliver of time is up to the viewer to fill in. However it is seen, it certainly is a moving photograph.
Brian Sokol’s image of a cyclone victim is full of stories. We share context with this man, we share a known set of variables. We may not know the particulars, but we know what has happened. That is story.
Bert Stern used the context of Buster Keaton’s slapstick humor to make this image connect. Those of you too young to remember Keaton may not see what the image was conveying, but those who share the experience of seeing his off the cuff silliness know. Stern used this to make an image that conveys a message far beyond “drink smirnoff”, and introduced another level of connection between viewer and subject. Story – no matter how brief or different each viewer’s experience is.
What does it take to make an image that would be considered to tell a story? Wow… that would be almost as difficult as describing what makes a good melody.
Most of it would have to do with context I believe, and shared experiences.
Context is how the photographer frames his subjects, what the subject is doing in the image, and whether or not the viewer can see that relationship between subject and surroundings enough to form a glimpse into possible scenarios. Context is arguably the most powerful part of the image making process.
A flat surrounding may not offer any glimpse at all into the environment, and in that case the subject and how they are reacting to the camera would be the focus of the story. Scenarios that include backgrounds may use them to set cultural equivalencies that help us with our shared experiences.
A large silo on a flat landscape can say midwest, while cactus and canyons signify the west. Old row houses and fog may bring us the shared idea of New England even to those who have never been there. We’ve seen it, we share its characteristics.
We all know what a devasted town looks like. We may not be able to see the tornado, but we knew it was there… and now it is not. A single image reminds us of that fact… town = tornado = destruction = healing. The emotional toll is captured in a single frame, but the shared experience provides a narrative.
In commercial photography it becomes harder to tell a story if all the client wants to tell in the photograph is that their coffee machine has bigger buttons than the competition.
But there are opportunities to create more compelling and narrative driven images and when given the chance, commercial photographers can use all of their skill at crafting images to help craft the narrative as well.
This photo by my friend Jan Klier shows us something we have probably not seen before. There is a narrative here, something that is driving the women to be in this position at this precise moment in time. However, we have no idea what it is… so we provide our own. I think one could tell an entire short story based on this image… go ahead. Give it a shot.
A food shot by photographer Sampsel Preston tells a delightful little story of texture and color and design. This is not a novel, but we can see the context of the colors, shapes and textures, and deliver a narrative on what is happening here. Perhaps all we wonder at is the beautiful colors and exotic looking food in the containers. Fine… that wonder is a bit of a story, isn’t it. Not a long one, or one with lots of plot twists, but a very fine little tale that holds our interest.
I love the still image, and I am constantly amazed at the stories some of them can conjure within the viewer. A few of my favorite photographers adept at telling little stories in their single, still images.
I think that the goal of telling even the smallest story in a single image is a tough one to achieve, but it is worth the struggle. Even if we are not totally successful, the image we work to will be more compelling than if we had simply clicked the shutter without a vision of our own.
Because our own vision, and its creation, can be a story in itself.
What do you think? Can a single still image convey a story?
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