As a veteran or aspiring commercial photographer it’s really easy to get depressed about this industry and want to throw in the towel on a daily basis. There are so many amazingly talented photographers out there and so few making a great living shooting big advertising campaigns or editorial feature stories on a regular basis. Are you one of the successful one’s? If not, why aren’t you?
For every very successful photographer there are easily 100 aspiring photographers just trying to make ends meet doing commercial work. Since I’m speaking about commercial photography, when I say successful, I’m talking about making money. I guess the real question is what separates these successful few from the many aspiring photographers? There is no simple answer to this question but let’s look closer at the things successful photographers are doing right and what many of the aspiring photographers are doing wrong.
1. Stay in the Game – The reason why a lot of aspiring photographers never “make it” is because they give up to quickly. Dale Carnegie says, “The most important things in the world have been accomplished by people who kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all”. For some photographers their career can take off after a few years, for others it may take 10 years, or even longer. Most advertising campaigns are shot by photographers who have been in the game a long long time. The reality of the industry is that it takes time to build connections and work your way up the ladder, and it’s the patient photographer who successful at the end of the day.
2. Make a Plan, then make a new plan – It’s incredibly overwhelming for an aspiring photographer to know where to start. When you’re just starting out I find it’s best to set small goals, and as you complete those goals, make new goals. When meeting with students fresh out of photography school I ask them what their plan is; and I’m amazed how few of them have a real plan. Saying your plan is to shoot fashion spreads for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Elle is not a plan. Saying you’re going to assist other photographers first to get some income and learn the business, then start promoting your work by sending 50 promo cards a month is a plan.
3. It’s a business stupid – I can’t possibly emphasize this point enough. Photography is an art; commercial photography is the business of selling that art to businesses and publications. Photographers take pictures for themselves; Commercial photographers take pictures for other people for profit. The sooner you treat commercial photography as a business the sooner you start making money. I’ve written a few other blog posts about this so I’m not going to dig deeper here, if you want to read more, read my old posts on business.
4. Love what you do – If you don’t believe in your work, nobody else is going to. You have to really love the idea and the realities of being a commercial photographer. I love taking pictures, and I love running a business: Only loving one of those will make it hard for you to succeed. Don’t let fear of failure get in the way, just believe in what you’re doing and let people know you believe in yourself.
5. Market your strengths, work around your weaknesses – Self-awareness is key when trying to market yourself as a commercial photographer. If you know that you’re a great conceptual problem solver, then market the hell out of that to the people who are looking for someone like you. You think you’re really fun to work with? Find a way to show that to potential clients via your bio, behind the scenes footage, or a fun promo card. Now, if your weakness is that you’re not a really technical photographer, then hire a technical assistant. Being aware of what you have to offer potential clients, and knowing how to express that to them, will help you get more jobs.
6. Make Clients Happy, no matter what –If you want return business you need to do everything you can to please your clients. Since commercial photographers have multiple personalities; the artist and the businessperson, sometimes the two personalities clash during a shoot. Often times the artist has a creative vision for a shot and the client doesn’t like it because they’re set on what they want. This is where the businessperson needs to step in and tell the artist to shut up and take the pictures the client wants because that is the only thing that will make the client happy. Maybe down the line the photographer can try to sell the client on his creative vision, but telling the client they are stupid and what they want is stupid won’t win you return business.
7. Lazy photographers are broke photographers – In order to make it as a commercial photographer in a city like NYC, you really need to work for it. Ever worse than a a lazy photographer is a lazy photographer who blames everyone but himself for why his career isn’t flourishing. If things aren’t going your way, keep you head up and keep on trucking. Telling everyone you know how bad things are and how desperate you are for work will only hurt you more. “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy”. – Dale Carnegie.
8. Change with the times – Charles Darwin says it best "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." Faster than ever the photography business is changing and it’s hard to keep up. If you want to survive and stay in the business you must always be adapting to new technologies, client needs, and ways of finding new business.
In a world where photography is more accessible than ever before it has become harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. When I’m being considered for an advertising job I know that I am likely competing against the very best photographers and businessmen around. All I can do is try to be the best photographer and the smartest businessperson I can be, and believe in myself no matter what the world tells me.
“I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
- Bill Cosby