This is the second in a series of nine articles on the nine steps necessary to complete a successful freelance photography job. In the last article, Presentation, we took a look at some useful guidelines that help you to create a portfolio that highlights your talent, skills, and passion. In this article we will examine the topic of defining your market and how to identify the people and companies you want to attract, another step in the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job which I refer to as Client Contact.
I have found that a lot of photographers have a very hard time with this topic primarily because they look at it as something involving salesmanship, and they dislike the idea of schlepping their artwork as though it was some kind of commodity. The fact is that once you open up your book to show it you are asking a total stranger to look at the work you have created and it takes an iron disposition to prepare yourself for the comments they may make. My experience of showing books and film reels for directors and cinematographers for thirty-seven years is that most of the time the viewers are cordial and professional, but every once in a while someone will make a comment that scrambles your brain. When that happens it could be that I had not done the research necessary to know if that person is the appropriate potential client and I am wasting both his time and mine.
When I first started I had no marketing or sales training except for selling Christmas cards and other fund raising items for the parochial grammar and high schools I went to as a child. I had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to promote the work of my photographer friend and business partner. It took me a while (I am a slow but steady learner) but at some point I decided to examine my approaches to selling the work and to try to come up with more efficient ways of defining the markets I needed to sell to, and how to get in the door. I knew there had to be something I was missing and until I found it I would be putting out more energy than was needed.
The Conventional Sales/Marketing Paradigm
Like everyone else, I initially looked at how other photographers marketed themselves and fell in line. In retrospect I have come to call this course of action the “Conventional Marketing Paradigm” and it takes the following form. First we look at the various media and try to determine what currently sells best thinking that if someone else is getting work with this style of work then I too can cash in. We then put together a portfolio that ends up looking like every one else’s book in the hopes of getting any work that we can. We follow that up with buying the largest mailing list we can afford, make up a printed promotional piece, mail out thousands of promos, and then sit by the phone in the hopes that the perfect job will come in. Sound familiar?
The problem with this approach is that our work ends up blending in with all the other artists and gets lost in the crowd of photographers begging for notice. After several rounds of this, years of small returns on investment, and significant amounts of money spent, the photographer and their rep get dismayed and disillusioned—any normal person would.
The Passion First Marketing Paradigm: Step by Step
Let me propose a slightly different approach, one I call the “Passion First Marketing Paradigm.” As you can already appreciate from the preceding articles in this series I believe that everything in our business (any art-based entrepreneurial business) begins with passion. That is to say your marketing has to first and foremost portray what is in which you are the most passionate, and how you uniquely interpret the world through your tool of choice, the camera, to share your vision.
Now, here comes the fun part. I am going to ask you to do something a little unconventional, but I assure you, if you put away your inhibitions it will pay dividends. I have tried this with hundreds of clients and students, and the results have been hugely rewarding.
First of all find a place where you can yell at the top of your lungs. That’s right, find a place where your yelling will not disturb others. Maybe it’s in a ball park where a crowd is already yelling, or maybe it’s a freeway overpass where the noise of the cars below will drown out your bellowing. It doesn’t matter where you are only that it be somewhere you can let it all out.
Once you have the right location I want you to yell out, “WHAT DO I LOVE TO CREATE?” and then belt out your answer, as in “I LOVE TO SHOOT PICTURES OF BEAUTIFUL WOMEN,” or, “I LOVE TO TAKE PHOTOS OF EXOTIC PLACES,” or “I LOVE CAPTURING THE MAGIC OF CHILDREN BEING THEMSELVES,” whatever it is that you know down deep inside that you have to create or else you will feel an imbalance in your personal universe, or a hole in your being.
I know what you are thinking as you read this; you are thinking “this guy is crazy.” Well, that may be the case, but what do you have to lose by doing this? Several things are for sure; if you are going to be serious about this business you have to make a declaration of your commitment, you have to make it honestly, and you have to make it loud. It won’t do you any good if you are timid about this. You have to be prepared to declare your creative individuality.
The interesting thing about this step is that when I make this statement during a lecture, on the first go around, I notice that each individual in the audience kind of smiles and politely says what they love to create. But I then coax them on to do it a few more times, and by the third time some are on their feet, fists pumping in the air, exclaiming their commitment.
Now you have to understand that I did not start out by asking you to declare how much money do you want to make, or how famous do you want to be. It is my belief that if you start out with those premises you may want to consider another field. Yes you can make a healthy living or become well known as a photographer, but if you want to have a sustainable career in photography it must be founded on the bedrock of your insatiable desire to create memorable images. This is why I call this the “Passion First Marketing Paradigm,” not the fame and fortune marketing paradigm.
Now, once you have unabashedly made your declaration you are ready for the next step. The next question you must ask is, “Who NEEDS what I LOVE to create?” How do you determine who needs what you love to shoot? There are a number of ways to search out the general direction to get you started.
One way could be that you go to a large bookstore, one that has a huge display of magazines for example. I have my Photography students complete this exercise as an assignment. I ask them to sit in front of the magazine display for a few minutes and just notice the large array of publications. Then I ask them to note which magazines look interesting to them. Are they drawn to sports, and, if so, which ones? Are they attracted to team sports (baseball, basketball, soccer, etc.), or individual sports (surfing, rock climbing, kayaking, etc.). Do they automatically fixate on cooking, or automobiles, or architecture, or science, or alternative energy? The point is to have an open mind and allow your interests to lead the way here. In my home state of California you are not permitted to own ferrets (you know those weasely little animals), yet last time I looked there were three monthly magazines for ferret lovers at my local national chain bookstore. Somebody has to be buying magazines about ferrets in California or else they wouldn’t be selling them. There’s even a perfect bound monthly magazine dedicated to pizzas; pizza dough, pizza sauces, pizza toppings, pizza ovens, everything you wanted to know about pizzas. Every month they need photos of things related to those doughy sauced-up delights for the pizza aficionado. And even if you are not attracted to anything the magazine racks have to offer you can get up and wander around the bookstore to see if some other topic catches your fancy, such as biographies, or calendars or some other visually rich medium. What all of these media have in common is that they need images and somebody has to supply them with those images so their readership is compelled to buy them. Without alluring images their products go unnoticed.
In other words those media need your product. Now make a list of as many of those magazines, books, calendars, ads that have caught your attention. The more personal the reasons why you selected them, the more pertinent they are to your eventual marketing plan.
Once you have defined your audience (and this should not be done in a trivial manner) now you are ready to ask and answer the next question, “What is the SMALLEST NUMBER OF PEOPLE who NEED what I LOVE to create?”
That’s right; what is the smallest number of people who need what I love to create. The objective here is to pare down the list you just created to the most targeted number of people you can develop a relationship with, and who will have the highest probability of immediately seeing your work fulfill their needs. Obviously, this phase takes some hard core research. In this phase you will have to call colleagues, old teachers, read annual reports, do on-line searches, read newspaper and trade publication articles, get your hands on any resource material that will help you to understand and appreciate their world, their concerns. Too often we have the tendency to jump up and down telling prospective clients what we are capable of doing without understanding their needs. A smarter approach is to figure out what will be of benefit to them, and then tell them how your skills and interests will assist them.
Today, you have the Internet to help you in your discovery process and that is very handy indeed. But the Internet gives you only bits of data and information and you have to try to get the back-story as much as possible in this phase of your research. You may read in the business section or in the trades that two companies are competing for some piece of business, but what you need to appreciate is that, when one of them is awarded the account what is the mindset of the team that did not win? Do they now have a chip on their shoulder and are looking to do more creative work; work that you could fulfill? If two companies merge it is important to stay in touch with the survivors, but equally important to find out who are the talented personnel who were laid off because they may end up forming a new entity and become the next hot shop. The best, most creative jobs come from clients who set aside fear and want to make a point. Your job is to find out who needs you to crystallize their vision and turn it into an evocative, emotive, mobilizing, eye catching photographic image.
Now that you have done your due diligence on discovering the highest probability potential clients you are ready to move on to the next phase. In this phase you have to ask, “To which MEDIA and ASSOCIATIONS do the SMALLEST NUMBER OF PEOPLE who NEED what I LOVE to create involve themselves?” I call this the "like-minded people stage because you need to immerse yourself in the media and associations that people who share your interests become involved in. For every trade, hobby, industry, cause, product, or shared belief there most likely already exists an organization. If there isn’t an existing organization you can start one. Once you demonstrate your level of enthusiasm for their cause you are ready to establish yourself as a necessary part of the group because you bring with you the added value of being able to execute professional photographs, and every group needs documentation to advance their agenda. I know this sounds simplistic, but the logic is clear; put yourself in the middle of the things you love to do and show your willingness to help advance the goals of those who share your interests.
Let me give you an example. A number of years ago a photographer friend of mine was exasperated as he showed his portfolio of portrait photography to Art Directors. He had carried his book from ad agency to ad agency, but he kept being asked to drop off his book, and when he reclaimed it a few days later he was never sure who had seen it and what their reactions to it were. Then one day he attended an annual Art Director’s award banquet. While waiting for the typical rubber chicken dinner to be served he leafed through the printed piece which showed the winners of the various categories. He noticed that the photos of the judges (mostly Senior Creative Directors) in the front of the pamphlet appeared to be shot by different photographers and ranged from mediocre to poor. He had an inspired thought. He approached the organizers of the annual event and asked if he could shoot the portraits for the next annual banquet, and he asked if he could have a few minutes with the judges to show his portfolio of portraits. They agreed (they too must have noticed that the images needed to be of a higher quality) and the next year he executed the portraits and had each Creative Director’s attention for a few minutes. Here’s the best part. Most of the Senior Creative’s were impressed with his work and gave him the contact name of an Art Director at their agency that would be interested in taking a look at his book. This task turned into a great networking opportunity and opened the door to meeting the right Art Directors, some of whom eventually became his clients.
Allow me to give you one more example. In the article I recently wrote for Photo.net, How to Rediscover Your Passion for Photography-Part Two, I highlighted the work of the extraordinarily talented Dr. Mark Alberhasky. While writing this current article he sent me some striking images of his recent trip to Africa. It is clear that what he LOVES to capture photographically is a complex mixture of vibrant color woven into patterns using his sensitivity to composition, and celebrate nature and people wherever he may be in the world. You not only get a sense that you are right next to him when he shot the image, but that he invited you to wait with him for the moment to be just right; the light being at the correct angle, the lines of the zebra’s stripes being aligned, the elephant’s trunk bisecting the frame. In that earlier article I suggested that he is a photographer of the stuff of dreams. Now I appreciate that his work affects me in that way because his photographs trigger emotions hardwired to imagination, and the admixture of color, composition, and subject seem to take us to another world.
It has been said of Mark that his “method is straight forward: follow the light until the subject, and the moment, reveals itself.” He began his professional journey by promoting his photographs to windsurfing magazines and now has marketed his work to a broader yet still targeted audience. With each assignment, he capitalizes on the opportunity to stretch his talents as they are paired to his interests. He has learned to create work consistent with his personal objectives, but which is industry relevant on many levels. Corporate clients like Nikon and Lowepro appreciate how his talents highlight their products. Publishers recognize the value of his content and style in holding a readers attention, and photographers around the world find his images and pursuit of excellence a continuing source of inspiration. His acclaim as a photo educator teaching as a Nikon mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks, is yet another example of realizing a related strength and applying it successfully to a targeted niche.
From the Specific to the General
You will remember from the previous article on Presentation, I stressed the issue of Uniqueness among the Six Elements of an Effective Presentation. You will also recall that I do not want to pigeon-hole you or handcuff your talents but you must look for those elements of your work that separate you from the crowd. You can now see that by making your work unique you can identify those like-minded people with greater accuracy. Another value of proclaiming your uniqueness is that, once you get your foot in the door and prove yourself then you will become a trusted member of that group and they will ask you to do more varied projects allowing you to show your other skills. Each time you meet or exceed their expectations not only will they become more confident in your capabilities and continue to give you work, but they will also be willing to recommend you to their trusted group of colleagues. That is how you build professional relationships, and that is how you build a foundation for your career.
Of course you could be reading this and say, “Well that’s all fine and good for the average Joe Blow photographer, but I’ll just go out and get a Rep or Agent and they will do all this for me.” But let me provide this perspective. Artist Representatives and Agents will not make any money from working with you until you start making money. Their commission will depend upon your ability to attract work. I frequently get the question, “When should I get a Rep?” and my usual answer is that you should start out being your own Rep so you appreciate what it takes to get in the door and make the sale. When you start out representing yourself you get a unique perspective on how to talk about your work, how to listen for clues about what the prospective client’s concerns are, whether or not you would like to work for/with them. You learn professional protocols and get a feel for the working environment your potential client lives in. Once you start making money and have less and less time to do your own sales Representatives will start knocking on your door. When that happens you will be in a position to call up the Art Directors who have worked with you and ask them which Reps they trust and which they feel could best represent you. I don’t mean to overstress the point but in my opinion an Artist and Representative relationship is somewhat like a marriage in which you must be able to share the same goals, have totally open communication, and have respect for one another. You will go through good times and not so good times, and you will have to learn how to grow together. By representing yourself in the beginning you will be better able to understand the traits you will look for in your Representative and you will approach this topic more maturely. The last thing you need is a Misrepresentative out there carrying your book.
After analyzing the first two phases of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job, namely, Presentation and Client Contact, you have (if you’ve done your homework) defined your vision and started to zero in on the audience that is right for your work. What you have accomplished so far takes some people years to complete, but you have been able to cut down on that time because you have focused on the things that separate you from the rest of the marketplace, and the things that make you desirable to potential clients. The next consideration is to help you create a sustainable presence, one in which you can reinforce your sincerity in not only being a part of the photographic marketplace, but being an ever evolving creative talent. Coming up, part III of this series will focus on Self-Promotion.
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Lifecycle of a Freelance Photographer
Other Articles by Tony Luna
- Rediscover your Passion for Photography: The Drive to Create
- Rediscover your Passion for Photography: Reclaim your Creative Passion
Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony presented a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.
Text ©2008 Tony Luna. Photos ©2008 Mark Alberhasky.
Text ©2008 Tony Luna. Photos ©2008 Mark Alberhasky.