The Business of Photography and Fear.

It is so easy to become paralyzed by fear. Especially in a fragile, freelance business where nothing is certain and change is always on the menu, and the menu is always on fire.

Will the clients send the checks they promised? Is the marketing working? Will the economy tank again? Will your skill set become obsolete? Have you hedged your bets? Will your bookie break your legs?

Through my many years of hard won experience I can now tell you the answers:

Yes, some clients will send the checks they promised, right on time. No, some clients will always need to be cajoled, reminded and prodded to get a check to you and those are the first ones you cut loose and never work with again. Why? because they help fan the fires of work anxiety and you don't need em. Find the clients who keep their promises and nurture and respect them by always keeping your promises.

Is the marketing working?  Yes. No. Maybe. Good marketing is consistent and it's done over time not in sporadic binges. The marketing itself doesn't bring in signed contracts it brings you an invitation to come in and pitch in person. But you have to ask if you want to be invited in. Marketing is the introduction. Some of your marketing won't connect with the markets. Some will. The most important parts of the puzzle are to craft materials that show the benefits of your work to the client and to do this consistently. They want to know how you can help them and not the other way around. In advertising circles there is an old saying from clients: "Only half of my advertising works. If I only knew which half I could save a lot of money..."

Good marketing identifies client needs and offers products, services and features which benefit them.

Will the economy tank again? Yes, probably the split second you get yourself out of debt, get into a groove working on your marketing plan, and feel like you've finally found your pace. But if you can make it through the trough okay you'll have no trouble riding the next wave. That's the trade off. When the market tanks again the one thing you really can't do is to stop marketing. The players who market in the depths of the downturns aren't using marketing to look for work tomorrow they are making sure they are well positioned to ride the next wave.

Will your skill set become obsolete? No. Visual talent and good taste never go out of style. Yes. Everything we do now will need to be re-framed in a new way just minutes down the road. We had to learn the mechanics of digital imaging but digital cameras didn't change the way we saw. We had to learn the technical side of non-linear video editing but the new approach to technical issues didn't change the ever present need to tell good stories. Cameras and computers should be like water. They should swirl around the image and the story not BE the image or the story. Work on having a point of view. Work on crafting a narrative. Be flexible with the tools you use to record these treasures. Most people just have the tools. If your only mastery is of the tools then you sit precariously on the edge of constant obsolescence. If you can tell a story the tools are only tools....easily interchangeable.

Have you hedged your bets? Did you make those monthly contributions to the retirement account? If haven't you should know that crafty investors don't look at their retirement accounts so much as a final allowance to be carefully husbanded until the end but as a giant buffer against all kinds of lessons life delivers. The more you save the easier it is to say "no!" to bad clients and their bad work.
The more you have in the bank the easier it is to do good work. Did you start other businesses or pieces of business that are separate from your primary freelance business? It's nice to have a secondary source of income for those times when you need to spend a little while creating a new set tool set for the primary job. I write stuff. It makes life less scary when the photography business slows down.  If I couldn't write I would find something else. Make my own vodka. Own a laundry. Something unrelated.  Old wisdom says "invest in your business." New wisdom says, "Be diverse and spread the risks---and rewards."

Ah. the bookie. I'm betting most of us here don't gamble. Or at least don't gamble big. And certainly not with organized crime in the mix. But if you are running your own business you are already playing the odds and some are looking for the big pay off. I find that the business of photography is a long, long play with no big, unexpected payouts. It's the anti-lottery. You just pull on your boots everyday and go ride the fences of commerce and make sure your stock is healthy and the watering holes aren't dry.

Fear is a price we pay today for something that may never happen. It's good to be prepared. It's good to acknowledge risk and uncertainty, and it's certainly good to plan. But the way to deal with fear is to acknowledge the things that trigger fear and then move on. You'd never make payments on a car you'll never receive and that's how I try to look at fear and panic when they erupt in my brain. If I do my work as well as I can and I make decisions based on facts instead of emotion I generally have a fighting chance of talking myself out of the fear and anxiety and just do my work. When I finish each day I can stop and look over what I've done, figure out how to do it better tomorrow and then walk out the door----free and calm. At least that's the goal. Everyday.


Malcolm said...


Perhaps for your next book you should consider writing something about marketing, because what you say applies to a lot of small businesses.

I write software in the UK (with a product from Austin, TX as it happens) and when I started out on my own two years ago I had your words about marketing ringing in my ears. Since then my technical skills have developed a lot, but my marketing skills have only developed a bit. I need to put more effort into that but I'm not sure how. Keep on saying it, I need the encouragement!



Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Malcolm, thanks for the note and suggestion. Back in 2010 I wrote a book that Amherst Media published entitled, "Commercial Photography Handbook." The title is misleading because while it is about the Commercial Photography the whole book is about the BUSINESS of commercial photography, from copyright to marketing. With a heavy emphasis on marketing. It was selected as a text book for several, large college photography programs and did quite well in the academic market but I think the title was too opaque and general. It should have been called, How to do business as a commercial photographer. At any rate it's still available on Amazon and you can do the "Look inside this book" thing to see if you might be interested. If anyone here on the blog has a quick opinion about the book for Malcolm please feel free to chime in. Thanks!