… and 5 ways you shouldn’t differentiate.

There are a lot of photographers out there. Actually, there are a lot of really talented photographers out there. What separates you from them? How can you differentiate yourself from the throng? How to stand out, be noticed, be remembered and build a business that thrives?

Well, you can do killer work for one thing. That is sort of expected. There is no room for mediocrity and ‘meh’. Standout work is what you do. Now, we have to look at a few other things that can help separate ourselves from the herd. Things that seem simple are not. And things that help you stay remembered means you have started to make an impression on the clients and prospective clients you are meeting with each day.

Here is a short list of Five Ways to Differentiate Your Photography, stand out a bit in a crowd and build your business on solid principles that will stand the test of time.

1. Be courteous and respectful of your clients.

“Sheesh, Don, that is kinda lame…who wouldn’t do that?”

A lot of small business people don’t do that. They may think they do, but they don’t. They don’t return phone calls, or emails. They don’t send on the info they said they would. They don’t deliver the work when they said they would. They don’t charge what they said they would.

And the dirty secret of this is that it is both easy, and damn hard, to meet this goal of being courteous and respectful. Especially in this digital age. It isn’t as easy as simply returning phone calls and getting the work shipped.

There is a constant struggle between compressed time, expectations of the digital life, and the real world. Have you ever noticed that your computer crashes at the exact time when an image must be resized and sent to a client in a short amount of time and you have to leave for a meeting? Compressed time, unrealistic expectations… and you are behind time.

In a recent audit of my personal brand, my friends and clients indicated that this was an area that I could, uh, well… use some improvement in. And they are right… in fact, when I sent it out, I knew that last question would be in regard to that flaw in my work. I don’t always get right back to someone when I should… something else comes flying out of left field… and off I go.

I have a plan for fixing this flaw (and then I’ll be perfect… heh) and will share it as I get on it and tweek and fiddle to get me right. I am good on the delivery and charging fronts. My billing is easy to understand, and deliveries are made with nice packaging, logos, and delivery memos.

Truth is, this little part of our business life may be the most important to our clients. They are not interested in the shiny thing that caught our eye, or the emergency we put out for someone else… what is happening to their work is ALL THAT MATTERS to them. And we tend to forget that to them it isn’t about us, it is about them.

And no one likes surprises on their bill. If changes were made, and expectations were changed, use a Change of Work Order to document the fee (or at least note that there was a fee that you gave them gratis… just let them know it IS a COST ITEM.) Do not just add it to the bill with the ‘expectation’ that they “shoulda known” it was going to be billed. That is somewhat lame to me.

– Answer the phone, or return phone calls at FIRST available minute. Use a voice recorder to make notes.
– Return Email at pre-determined times. Not all during the day. GMail has a new feature to make this process even better. Train your clients to not EXPECT an answer in 30 seconds.
– Get the work out on time, and make that time realistic. Better if you deliver before you promise than later.
– No ‘surprises’ on the bill. Use the ‘Change of Work Order’ documents.

More after the jump…

2. Presentation

One of my friends, Kirk Tuck, takes around 16×20 prints in protecting sleeves (interview here). Ken Easley has a small box with 15 mounted and laminated prints that he uses (interview here). Simplicity itself.

Matt Lovell in Athens Georgia is trying the iPad method, and my bud Keith Taylor has two of the most beautiful bound books I have ever seen. Both supplement with smaller books, and Keith hand prints and binds his.

And here’s the thing… all of them are doing what they are doing because it is EXACTLY what fits their work. If you meet Kirk, you will know why the large-format, buck the system with big prints thing works for him. Keith’s book with the leather binding is perfectly Keith.

The presentations don’t have to be overly expensive or fancy… but, this is YOUR WORK. How do you want it to be seen? How important is the presentation to YOU? It is a major sign of respecting your client to present the work in a smart, well put together presentation.

Lost Luggage, Brewer Cantelmo, and Couture Book are some of the ones I would like to have you look at… None are terribly expensive, and all are well crafted tools to use for showing your well crafted images.

Presentations should be memorable. Your work should be memorable. The two together should show a bit of the personality of the photographer. They are also part of the photographer’s personal brand… you do have a personal brand, right?

3. Personal Brand

There’s that term again. We see it everywhere these days. It sounds so ‘hip’ and modern… so ‘web2-oh!’

Really… it isn’t new. It has been around forever. Actors have it. Remember James Dean, Marilyn, John Candy… brand that outlived their life. Musicians have it… it is one of the reason they all wear so many strange clothes and weird hair styles… Lady GaGa… are you kidding? Brand, baby… brand.

And here we are: photographers who want people to remember our work, our presentation… and us.

I am telling you that the answering the phone, getting work out clean, returning emails, having a great presentation, showing up on time… these are components of your personal brand. It is who you are, defining what you do.

If you don’t think that what you wear helps define your personal brand, you are kidding yourself. It does. Some photographers have neatly-trimmed ZZ-Top beards, some wear cargo shorts all the time, others have big, floppy safari hats. And some wear t-shirts, scruffy beards and jeans.


Ask your GF/BF what looks good. Get a consultant for a few hours. Describe the brand you want to project. Make it happen. Caveat: Only if you love the look that they and you come to agree on. If you don’t like what you are wearing, it will show in everything you do and quite probably say. We are very self-conscious creatures.

Take a look at what you are doing, showing and looking like… that is the first thing to becoming conscious of a personal brand.

(And, no, it isn’t your logo… although it is a part.)

4. Sharing and Giving Back

One of the things I love most about being at this stage of my life and career is working to help others have as much fun and delight as I have.

Sharing your work, your knowledge, your IP and your opinions can help distinguish your business from the ones that don’t. It can be wonderful for the soul, and great for getting the buzz out.

Share your tremendous gifts with those who can benefit, and you will benefit. Do you shoot annual reports for free? Uh, no… we will pass on that. Ads for free? Nope. Helping folks with things that are cool, and being into the game… cool.

I am referring to things “Photographers Without Borders” and Jeremy Cowart’s fine Help Portrait effort.

Being involved in online forums – the ones that want you to be involved – can be a wonderful way to pass on the info you have spent years accumulating. Photographers want your knowledge and insight. Helping them keeps the industry strong and vital and can help stem the lowering of the bar… at least a bit.

5. Create Projects.

A wonderful way to get back in touch with Art Directors and Editors is to show work on a project. Something that is personally driven, and with an eye to #4 above maybe.

Getting people interested in how passionate you are about photography is one way you can create some ‘buzz’ in your work. Doing something that is on-going, has personal or community interest, and can be work that shows off your intuition, approach, art, handling of subject and presentation can be a wonderful side door entry into showing off what you do… to the people who need to see what you do.

Projects that are tied into other philanthropic projects can raise your buzz as well. Get involved with the local SPCA, or Heart Hospital or Cancer Survivors groups. Find ways to use your photographic talent to do something positive, raise funds for the Children’s Wing… whatever. There are a million ways that a good photo project can be used to help raise awareness… and you “do good by doing good.”

The five ways to not differentiate yourself?

Ignore the five things above and do things the way ‘most’ other photographers do. We can see how well that works, can’t we?


Thanks for coming along on this little rant on differentiating your work and business as a photographer. Be sure to check out our Wednesday and Sunday evening video casts. Something different each time. We meet at 6PM, Pacific / 9PM Eastern and chat, answer questions and have a great time discussing photography.

If you are interested in taking a workshop and upping your game, visit Learn to Light and check the schedule. Follow me on Twitter and get all kinds of strange and interesting takes on the world of photography.

See you next time.

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