This is a public service article for bloggers who have been in the imaging business less than five years, think they know everything about photography, and are in (publicly aired) despair about how hard it is to make a living "just" taking photographs.

Photo of Ameerah Tatum, actor. At the old studio on San Marcos St. 

Dear __________,

You seem to do a great job attracting other photographers to your blog but I'm here to tell you that they (the vast majority of your readers) won't hire you to do great assignments and make great photographs. They love to read your stuff because many of them wish they had the balls to leave the apparent safety of a corporate job to try their luck in this tough game. They are having a vicarious but safe experience watching you agonize through the process.  If you really want to do this for a living, and want all the trappings of (at least) a middle class life, then you'll have to change gears and start marketing to people who can actually hire you and pay you what you need to earn.

You love to write about gear so you must think it's the vital part of making a living at photography. No, you would be dead wrong. 95% of clients just don't care at all about what kind or brand of gear you shoot with. In fact, I have a handful of clients who enjoy teasing me about my fascination with new gear. They think it's cute. They also think that this buying habit is what keeps me from getting rich..

But if they don't care about gear then the clients must care about how well you can make and print technically perfect images, right? No. Wrong again. Clients care about how well you can incorporate their message into a photograph and then bundle it together with a charming visual sensibility that makes the image attractive and comfortable to ingest for a demographic that is disposed to buying the client's products or services. Some demographics love to have their heartstrings pulled (that requires superb people casting and direction). Some love to play the testosterone game (pick up truck buyers, lawn mower enthusiasts, beer drinkers), and some demographics like the genuine feeling of a snapshot aesthetic (millennials?); the anti-thesis of "sharp to the bone", and harder to do well than it sounds.

All clients like to work with people they enjoy being around. If they wanted to work with sullen, compulsive engineers they'd give their own compulsive engineers cameras. But they do like people who are warm, effusive, open, sociable and ..... happy. They like to work with happy people; surprise! If you approach commercial photography as though there is a set series of formulae to follow, and a metric to measure its successful completion, you've already failed. Big time. Winning means that, not only did your new client like and enjoy the photograph you created, they also liked you and enjoyed hanging out with you and working with you because you brought both your unique vision, and your sense of humor and humanity along for the ride.

How do you market to these clients since they are not photographers, do not read photographer's blogs and don't pay to attend workshops on how to find intersecting patterns in urban architecture, and then capture them with high sharpness? Cute pictures of your significant other?  Or headshot workshops, for that matter... ? Well, you speak to them directly in their language. The language of advertising and marketing, not the language of lenses and cameras. You send images to them that they would be likely to appreciate because they are the kinds of images that they would like to assign and then use in their projects.

Most of the images that successful corporate and advertising photographers create are photographs of people. People doing things, people making things and people enjoying a lifestyle. The images that seem to be most sought after, and most successful, show people directly engaged with the camera. It gives the appearance of having the model, or talent, or portrait subject directly engaging the viewer. Many years ago David Ogilvey (book: Ogilvy on Advertising) did the research that still underpins a lot of advertising creation. He found that when test groups were shown images the highest response rate; by far, was for pictures of people directly addressing the camera. Not of products, buildings, food or urban street scenes.  People looking at, and seeming to engage the viewer directly. (not to say that a good niche specialty like architecture isn't profitable too...).

The majority of people who do well in this business learn that working with ad agencies and corporations returns the most profit because those are the entities that have the most money and who need, most often, to invest in ongoing advertising that works.

I love to take portraits but would never open a portrait studio because individual, retail clients won't give me the level of fees that would make it worthwhile, nor will they repeat their visits as often as I would need them to in order to make enough money.

Most of us enjoy looking at black and white prints; some of us even like looking at color prints, but I would never depend on gallery sales to make a living for the same reason. If I had to make money from prints I would approach large corporate users of interior graphics and try to sell to them. But that would take lots of time and energy that I'd rather spend shooting.

If I hustled I guess I could market workshops and spend a lot of time traveling, and teaching other people to do what I would rather be doing than teaching. Every day, hour, week or month spent on teaching workshops, as a business, is that same amount of time lost to you for the creation of your own work. Time you will never get back; traded for one time (non-recurring) fees...

Finally, if I lived in a very bad market for the kind of work I wanted to do I would either move or go to the place that does have ample amounts of work in the style I want to do, find the clients there and convince them to use my services. We live in a global economy now. Head to NYC or London (but stay out of Austin, okay?).  I may need to travel back and forth to shoot, and visit clients, or I may be able to shoot from my location, but either way I'll be better paid for it than sitting in a crappy market complaining about the competition or the clients. And don't get me started about bribes and kick-backs....

If you want to do something at the peak of your ability (thereby gaining entry into the most affluent and profitable markets) you need to get clear on what it is you really want to do. Do you want to teach? By all means, open up your school and maximize the value to you and your flock. Do you want to try making money via selling art prints? Then dive in and make a bunch of work that sells to your (researched and targeted) audiences, and then spend some quality time building gallery relationships all over the world. But if you are truly up to the big boy business of making money shooting real images for real clients then you need to buckle down, market well, delivery great stuff, and make it all fun for the clients you would like to work with. It should be a joy for them  to call you and start out on a new project; not something approached with dread, fear, or the expectation of confrontations. I think you know as well as anyone else that your can't spread yourself too thin and be successful in everything you try. Stop taking your eyes off the actual prize.

Whatever logic you used in other industries might not convey well into a niche profession that's perceived to be an "art business." The sooner you get over the idea that you can measure everything, and then apply a formula to its creation and sale, the sooner you and your new clients will be happy, and the sooner you will be prosperous.

I can't think photography by itself will ever make us rich but saving money every year, and applying the magic of compound interest to everything we save, might just make us well off, over time.

I think it takes five to ten years to really become successful in the imaging businesses. Photography, video, etc. If you don't want to take the hard path of proving that you are competent, fun, and here to stay, then you might want to look for another way of making a living and keep photography around as an enjoyable hobby.

Here's a book that may be helpful:


Dave said...

I've seen more than one post of this type, so I assume there is a blogger that has provoked this with some kind of self indulgent post(s) recently. Sadly, I'm out of the loop enough to have missed this important post.

Kirk Tuck said...

Nope, just a culmination of reading too many blogs from entitled, would be professionals who want instant success and, not finding it in the core pursuit, rummage through all the permutations of workshopping, gallery pumping and, well, blogging to try to hold it all together financially when what they really need to do is get to work. The core work. Licensing the rights to use their images for money. Again, and again and again. Everything else is a distraction and trying to write from a position of competence when you admit you can't figure out how to make photography a profitable career is dishonest.

George Beinhorn said...

Bravo, Kirk. Same for any field. If you don't know what the work is, and you don't enjoy it, yikes. Maybe you should be doing something else. (Thus spake an amateur photographer and pro writer.)

Nick in Mass. said...

On the other hand, maybe you just don't know the right people…


Is this the world's most photogenic potato? Photo sells for $1.08m