How is my work perceived? What message am I sending? As a Creative Coach at Wonderful Machine, most of my conversations with commercial photographers have more to do with addressing marketing misconceptions, reframing perspectives, and thinking outside of the box than the actual photography business itself. I’ve also worked professionally on the “other side” hiring photographers for magazine editorial. Despite the desire to do so, photographers find it extremely difficult to get out of their heads and be creative about being creative, when (often self-made) obstacles are in the way. What doesn’t seem to be working? Let’s reconsider some of these roadblocks.
Commercial photographers are perplexed when I tell them, Tip 1: your website isn’t for you, it’s for the public. In any kind of business, we work in two spheres: the public sphere, and the private sphere. If your archived collection of your favorite photography is in the private sphere, what is in the public sphere? The audience you are targeting is who dictates what’s on your website. Consider it theirs! The famous phrase “give the people what they want” is the mantra to keep in mind.
A good comparison would be a private home vs. a retail store. It’s likely these two places would be designed for the function and people they serve. And sometimes the best sellers at the retail store are not the owner’s favorites. Just like a new retail store, a service-focused website has a learning curve.
Another useful practice is to get feedback from other creatives and non-creatives alike. It might surprise you what resonates across the board. Also remember, a website is organic, always growing and/or changing with new work over time. It is never “finished.”
Who is the target audience that dictates what’s on your website? There are many questions you need to ask yourself. Can your target audience see themselves represented in your content? If you have images of your work published, like the cover of a magazine for example, could they imagine themselves in that layout? Do you offer or align with what they need? Keep in mind that it’s also not always the Art Director looking at the website, but it could be a colleague of theirs who doesn’t know much about good photography. They will, however, not be distracted by beautiful images, and they will know immediately if you are worth contacting.
Similar to the online dating world, you want to present a dating profile that will be attractive to a potential match. Photographer and client can be a great relationship when you see eye to eye. Tip 2: Define your audience.
More wisdom in a tired cliché: you don’t want to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” What kind of photographer are you?
I like to explain this in my Photographer Party (made-up) scenario: I walk into a party of different photographers and I start to make some small talk, “What kind of photographer are you?” One says “I’m a food photographer. I work with test kitchens and have the benefit of tasting everything!” Another says “I’m a landscape architectural photographer. I’ve been working with drones, and I’m trying to perfect my technique.” The third one says, “I’m a great photographer. I can shoot anything.”
Everyone is a great photographer (even if they’re not), and every client wants to hire a great photographer, obviously. Does that mean you will be hired for something specific? Probably not. The client will look for and find the expert in their field. It’s important to find your subject that people respond well to, own it, and perfect it. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot anything else, but be an expert in something. Be the master of your craft. Tip 3: Define your expertise. I can illustrate this with a diagram.
Also, what else do you offer? Color correction, post-production, editing, printing services, video, drone, studio space, special equipment, or styling? Anything extra that clients might need instantly puts you ahead of the competition. In my experience, it can be hard to find and schedule a photo studio on a time crunch. If I can hire a photographer who also has a studio that I can rent, my project just got significantly easier and much more manageable!
If it’s commercial photography for commercial clients, reframe the mindset that your work is your art. Tip 4: You are providing a service. While an artwork is a creative expression of oneself, a service reflects the interest and message of your customer or client. It’s like when deciding between two restaurants that have the same menu, I’d prefer to go to the one that provides the better service.
A commercial photographer is going to wear many hats and answer a lot of questions. It is a business-to-business relationship that requires communication, collaboration, and recognizing that the client’s satisfaction is most important. As motion designer Thomas Colony points out in Creative Boom magazine, “When you become a freelancer, you’re not just taking on one role, you become the project manager, the accountant, the CEO, the client manager… freelancing is running a business.”
It’s very likely you are the most creative person in the room, but a brand will not be happy if you take the most gorgeous, glamorous, award-winning photo… and the product is in the shadows, obscured or far away. With your expertise, it’s possible that an aesthetic compromise can be met with a client, or the client might defer to you. But no matter how much you feel you can improve the client’s taste or intention, it will never work in your favor. It’s imperative to remember Tip 5: the product is the star, everything else has a supporting role. I can illustrate this in a diagram.
Visitors want the quickest way to get from A to Z. How fast can I find the one thing I need? It’s important for every business website to be user-friendly, and that includes easy navigation, a presentation of your expertise, and how to contact you. Things need to be crystal clear, and easy for the non-photographer to understand.
Since an individual’s average attention span is eight seconds, Tip 6: simplicity and efficiency of navigation are key. Similar to a white-box art gallery, your photos should stand out from the website design, and text should be easy to read. Also, if there are so many pages to click through to find something, or it’s necessary for the viewer to scroll down a lot, they could lose both interest and patience.
Most people will know within the first few seconds whether or not they want to look further into a website. In my publishing experience, I would search for a photographer who specializes in a particular subject. If not from the home page, it’s after clicking on the first category that I’d know the photographer is not a match for my project. If I am interested or curious, I’d then go straight to the “About Me” page. Long explanations about your creative journey show a strong passion for the work you do, but it isn’t a quick study for a busy commercial client representing a brand.
I recommend getting feedback from non-creatives and people outside your field on their user experience.
Andy Kerns of Digital Third Coast SEO says, “You should spend at least as much time promoting a piece as you do creating it.” It’s really hard to put a value on managing your time, but you will know when your efforts pay off.
These days active self-promotion is much of the work you need to do, and of course that will fluctuate. The more repeat clients you get, the less you have to promote (to them). With that said, a terrific website can’t do the work on its own. It’s important to recognize that Tip 7: while a website is passive promotion, social media and emails are active promotion. By passive promotion, I mean that websites wait for visitors, while social media platforms like Instagram actively engage with potential clients, and cast a wide net to bring interested people to your website. It’s usually the first taste of your work as a photographer, before they see everything else on your website.
Although the content is limited, some young photographers find success just using Instagram or TikTok, and do not even have a website. For these few, actively promoting and engaging with their audience, at least in the short term, seems to be enough.
There are limited ways to get people to your website since it’s unlikely they will land on it accidentally. It is also important to collect contact information for an email list to use for an occasional e-blast or e-newsletter. This will remind potential clients and colleagues who you are, tell them what you’re up to, and direct them to your website and elsewhere. I say occasionally because I think it’s best to send out newsletters when there is actual news. That could be anything from “look at this cool shoot I did” to “throw-back photos of the best shoot ever,” because anything old to you may be new to them. Just announcing your availability and your website consistently can work against you. E-blasts or e-newsletters can also be designed to look more directed and personal, and are effective for obtaining potential clients who may not actively use social media platforms.
How much time do you obsess over your own Instagram grid compared to others? The truth is most people don’t spend time thinking about your perfectly curated grid! Of course your best photos are important, but even more important are tags, feeds, information and engagement. And people won’t even notice you unless you Tip 8: exercise active engagement. Social media activity has a very short lifespan. Use it as a vehicle to your website. Better engagement is showing that you are friendly rather than perfect.
To illustrate the short lifespan of Instagram and other social media posts, Sivaram Kuppachi of Zamsters Marketing provides this graph. These figures appear to be the average across all my research, including TikTok’s lifespan as “instant death.”
Try posting a variety of behind-the-scenes images or video clips, and ask questions like “Which photo would you choose?” in a post. Repost things you find interesting and things from photographers or brands you admire (they will be notified, alongside other mentions).
Kuppachi reports, “It would be the biggest understatement of the century to say social media is fast-paced.” He suggests joining groups “Leveraging social media groups is an effective way of amplifying organic reach. Social media groups devoted to various topics and fields are very easy to find.”
Providing a service can feel like you are constantly selling yourself, and that means tooting your own horn regularly. Because your work is service-oriented, self-promotion and explanatory outreach are necessary. What you are selling is YOU! For the non-salesy, introverted folk (of which I am one), I like to Tip 9: see promotion as “sharing” over “selling.”
Particularly in today’s social media landscape, “sharing” seems to be the way to go. Sharing is a collaboration, a conversation, an engagement. Sometimes when we share our own news, we are indirectly sharing someone else’s too. For example, “You should hire me because I did this awesome shoot” in your mind, becomes “Check out this awesome shoot I did at (@location) with the talented (@stylist). I’ve been using my new (@brand) camera.” Save your bragging for the website, just make sure you “share” enough, whether it’s in person or online, to bring people there. Remember, YOU bring them there, they don’t go there.
Can’t get your dream client? Create it yourself, find your muse, and use what you already have access to. Maybe it’s the local eccentric, an aging parent, or the mom-and-pop cafe that has the best cupcakes in town. Photographers have the unique talent of visually expressing and documenting something or someone else’s experience. I often suggest this as a good exercise in storytelling and creating a series. Tip 10: Find the extraordinary in the ordinary. This will set you up for success when the big client arrives!