It’s fair to say that, as a group, photographers tend not to be “word” people. Nevertheless, if you’re going to be successful, there are times when you’ll have to communicate with phrases as well as photos. Whether descriptive prose for a blog, pithy captions for your social media feeds, the precise language of a licensing agreement, or a thoughtful plan voiced in a creative call, knowing how to put words together is often what separates good businesspeople from merely good picture takers.
Here, we’ll consider some of the ways photographers can use words to build their businesses.
Bios are sometimes overlooked or under-appreciated by photographers who might rather let their pictures speak for themselves. They can be tricky to write — “what am I supposed to say without sounding full of myself?” — but you need to set those concerns aside. One of the things that clients think about when they’re hiring a photographer is that that person is going to (for better or worse) represent that client. While the photographs themselves are certainly important, a thoughtfully written bio will assure a client that you’re going to be a good representative of their organization. And for clients who know they’re going to spend hours or days on set with a photographer, a bio helps them get a sense of said photographer’s personality ahead of time.
There’s a fine line between listing your skills and successes and sounding pompous, a balance you need to strike. One way to avoid appearing too arrogant is to include some personal information and perhaps even be a bit self-deprecating. Some of your bio can be serious, but most of it should be upbeat. And you should always include background info unrelated to photography to give the reader a better sense of who you are as a person. What else do you care about? What about you is interesting enough that it will stick with a potential client?
As important as the bio’s content is its length. Few clients will have time to read a long essay about your life and aspirations, so keep things short and sweet. A few brief paragraphs followed by a client list — and adjacent to a nice picture of you — is sufficient.
Read more in our Expert Advice article on Writing a Photographer Bio, see some of our favorite photographer bios on our Pinterest page, and learn more about how we helped Christie Goodwin find the right words in this case study.
As a photo editor, the first thing I check when commissioning a new project is the photographer’s Instagram account. This gives me a quick sense of their style and tells me if they’re working a lot. Only after that do I move on to the photographer’s website to see more and make an informed decision about hiring them.
While you want to be present on all the biggest social media platforms, Instagram is the most important and good captions will help your images stand out. This is your chance to share the story of the photo you’re posting and let clients learn more about you as a professional. Describe what’s in (or what’s happening in) the image, but also consider things that aren’t in the photo. Did something funny happen on the shoot? Is there a backstory to your subject or how the project came to be? Did you learn something along the way?
Keep in mind that your scrolling, passively attentive viewer will see only the first two to three sentences (around 125 characters) of your caption. To know more, they will have to click “read more,” so make sure your first few thoughts — and the image itself — are compelling enough to reel them in. Consider adding a relevant quote from a conversation you had with the subject or addressing the reader directly with a question or prompt.
When you’re first starting out, make sure to post something new every day. The more often that scrollers see you in their feed, the more likely they are to give you a follow — and the quicker you’ll establish your voice. Once you build up a substantial audience, like Stephen Matera and his 174K followers, you can dial back your posts to once a week or so (Stephen’s current clip). Taking a look at Stephen’s captions, it’s clear the man has a fully developed voice and understands the importance of hashtags. Stephen’s stream-of-consciousness writing style makes for an incredibly personable read; you feel like he’s conversing directly with you.
This style isn’t going to work for everyone — some people, like Serhii Chrucky, prefer short captions that usually just label the picture — but it speaks to the importance of figuring out how you want to sound on social media. And no matter a caption’s word count, you should always add hashtags so you can appear in as many feeds as possible.
Once you’ve posted to IG, share it verbatim on Facebook, Twitter, and any other platforms you use. Keeping your profiles connected and captions consistent will help build familiarity with your followers which will help you build your professional brand.
Even though social media has long since taken over the cultural space once occupied by blogs, if you’re someone who has a story to tell, a blog can still be a good place to tell it. While most social media platforms favor brevity, a blog is where you can tell the whole story of a shoot. A blog can be a digital journal where you can record your experiences in a way that your readers (hopefully clients) can gain insight into your personality and creative process. Most website templates make it easy to create a blog, and since most photographer websites are thin on searchable content, blog posts can provide SEO-friendly text that will help funnel visitors to you.
Not sure what to write? Write what you know (so says Mark Twain)! As a commercial or editorial photographer, your job is basically to be a creative problem-solver. So write about one of the recent puzzles that you solved. Start by describing the creative brief (whether supplied by a client or by you) or how the original idea came about or how the client found you. Then, share a little about what you envisioned for the shoot and how it actually played out. Did you experience any surprises along the way? Did you learn anything? Were there any funny moments or disappointments? Did you work alone or with a crew? Did any of those creative partners make the experience or the resulting images special (don’t forget to share the credit for your successes)? Along with those descriptions, you will naturally want to share behind-the-scenes pictures or videos in addition to the final assets.
Some people can just start writing, but breaking down the story into a list of bullet points or an outline can transform one big writing assignment into several bite-sized pieces that are less intimidating. Once you get that first blog post under your belt, others will come more easily. And when you do commit to a blog, it’s nice to post on a regular basis (usually somewhere between once a week and once a month).
Blair Bunting, who’s blog is shown above, does a great job taking everything we discussed and applying it to his articles. He posts consistently — once a month or so — and covers a nice variety of topics, such as his favorite gear, recent shoots, and stories about past work. Each piece has lots of photos and they take just a few minutes to read. Since he’s been blogging for some time now, Blair has developed a casual, conversational style that makes his stories very “readable” and easy to relate to. And the way he describes the backstory to his pictures makes you appreciate them all the more.
Once you’ve spun your little yarn, and before you post it to your own site, consider whether there’s someone else in the blogosphere who might want to publish your story. For example, when our photographer in Istanbul, Tara Todras-Whitehill, recently wrote an account of her experience shooting remotely using Zoom, we pitched it to Petapixel, who shared it with their 1 million viewers, and then DIY Photography and ASMP both saw it and asked to repost it. Granted, the audience for those blogs is overwhelmingly photographers. But even so, when you have other people talking about your photography business on the internet, it just makes it that much easier for clients to find you.
A quick word of caution about knowing your audience: at Wonderful Machine, we’ve learned all too well that it’s really easy to create engagement with photographers and really difficult to create engagement with clients. If you’re someone who makes money from photographers as well as from clients (like Joe McNally, for example), then writing for other photographers may make sense for you. But otherwise, avoid the temptation of chasing followers and likes from people who will never hire you for a photo shoot.
Read more in our Expert Advice article on Blogging for Photographers.
Even as we are all saturated with electronic mail, email marketing can still be an effective way for photographers to reach prospective clients. Success depends on your ability to combine the right words, the right pictures, and the right design, with the right mailing list.
When considering design, less is more (at Wonderful Machine, we just say, “less is.”) Boiling down your message into its essential parts will give you the best chance to be memorable amidst a sea of messages. First, consider your message: have you launched a new website? Are you sharing a new project? Start with a punchy headline, then follow with just enough text to set the scene – leaving it up to your images to tell the rest of the story (significantly less copy than a blog post, but a bit more than a social media caption). Even good emailers mostly get ignored, but if your words and imagery are eye-catching enough to draw at least one recipient’s attention, you’ll have done your job.
There’s a lot to like with Jody Horton’s emailers, and this example of one of his recent emailers stands out in more ways than one. Let’s start the with the obvious: the email subject line, which doubles as the emailer’s headline, grabs your attention. Jody uses the word “MOFO,” and though this is a family website, we all know the profanity he’s employing. In a cheeky manner, the Austin-based photographer has earned the reader’s undivided attention.
The next thing Jody does well? He surrounds a few lines of text with a nice mix of still images and GIFs, keeping things fresh from a visual standpoint as we navigate down his emailer. Finally, Jody adds a little personal note at the bottom, letting clients know what else has been on his mind. Jody’s newsletter-style emailers tend to include 2-3 different stories — usually recaps of recent commissions — and every new talking point comes with a blurb that only takes a few seconds to read.
Let’s go back to the first batch of text and highlight the best thing it has going for it: the power of the list. We love reading things in list form, part of why “listicles” are so popular. Instead of thoroughly detailing the shoot, Jody discusses it in terms of numbers — a quick, easy-to-digest set of statistics that sums up the assignment better than a traditional recap. With shoutouts to the clients, crew, and talent bookending the numbers, Jody’s got an ideal primer for the ensuing medley of imagery. Add in the personal touch at the end — in this case an announcement and explanation for his studio taking a social media break — and you’ve got an emailer that’s as well-crafted as it is well-rounded.
Self-assigned projects are a great way to grow your photography business. They’re an opportunity to demonstrate to clients that you’re someone who’s going to bring ideas to the table – not just follow directions. Young photographers work on self-assigned projects out of necessity, but seasoned veterans can benefit from them too. Howard Schatz practically made a whole career out of his underwater photos. For decades, Craig Cutler has seamlessly interspersed commissioned and self-assigned projects into his portfolio (and gotten a lot of press along the way too). And more recently, Chris Crisman took a single editorial assignment and extended it to an entire book.
Pitching a project to a prospective client is not unlike how a writer might propose a story idea. The New York Times’s Bob Dotson swears by the “Hey! You! See? So..” approach. Adjusted for photographers, that methodology looks like this:
Keep in mind, sometimes you’ll expect to get paid for a project and other times the publicity is compensation enough. A while back, Donna Dotan who is an architectural photographer in New York, started sticking her camera out the windows of the high-rise residences she was photographing and capturing overhead views of New York that looked like a kaleidoscope. We wrote a story and then pitched it to a handful of news outlets, and it got picked up by Mashable, ABC News blog, Gizmodo, and many others. While Donna consciously chose to give that one away, it’s certainly up to every photographer to negotiate their own deals – just be clear as you pitch your stories whether you expect payment or just exposure.
Learn more about pitching projects in this case study about Clark Vandergrift’s video tribute to healthcare professionals during the pandemic and also in our Member Open House on Self-Assigned Projects with Mary Beth Koeth.
For small projects, a simple cost estimate and terms & conditions page attached to an email cover letter will be sufficient to win a project. But with bigger budgets come bigger expectations of what your proposal should look like. If the bottom line is over $10k, or if it’s your first time submitting a proposal to a commercial client, you should plan to deliver a treatment (even if they don’t specifically ask for it). While this may seem daunting, our executive producer Craig Oppenheimer is here to allay your fears. The trick, he says, is in developing a good structure so you cover all the important points.
No matter how much detail you decide to include in your treatment, the basic structure should include the following:
In his book Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis famously describes how when he was a young bond salesman at Solomon Brothers, it was as if he could talk into one end of the phone and money poured out the other. Though the numbers may be a lot lower, the stakes for a photographer trying to make a living are no less. Knowing what to say and how to say it, especially when negotiating for your compensation, is vitally important to your business. It’s a truism that you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate. And even if you have an agent negotiating for you, you still have to negotiate your deal with them.
After you’ve delivered a thoughtful treatment (if you’re lucky), you’ll be invited to attend a creative call to discuss the project with some combination of the art buyer, creative director, producer, and/or the client. It’s a rare photographer who’s not intimidated by this the first time around, so it’s really important to come prepared. First and foremost, you’ll need to actively focus on who else is on the call, what they’re saying, and when it’s appropriate for you to speak.
Unlike an editorial assignment where the creative call might be limited to, “are you available Tuesday?” A creative call for an ad campaign will require the photographer to demonstrate that they understand the creative brief, that they’re enthusiastic about the project, and that they have a plan to execute and that they’ll deliver the goods. There will be a point where everyone on that call will be looking to you to project the confidence that you have it under control. You should probably not actually say, “I got this!” But you should leave everyone feeling that you do.
To learn more, check out Craig’s Expert Advice article on The Creative Call.
Even the best writers need editors. What may make perfect sense in your head will not always show up clearly on the page. So find someone you trust to review anything important before it goes out the door.
One last thing. There’s an old adage that clear writing is evidence of clear thinking. As you progress through your career, if you’re both good and lucky you’ll get to work with sophisticated clients who appreciate collaborating with people who can express themselves with words as well as pictures. If you’re smart, you’ll continue to hone your skills crafting language as well as images.
Varun Raghupathi contributed to this article.