Slow times and the need for disciplined marketing. You're not a professional photographer if you don't have any work...

Steve G. for Ottobock Healthcare. ©2017 Kirk Tuck.

Over the years I've read a lot of stuff (mostly tangential to reality) about what makes a photographer a professional photographer. The definitions and fine points range from having complete mastery of your equipment to understanding all the theories of photography. I've also read too much about what you need to have in order to be a professional photographer. The lists include: Big, Heavy Cameras. Big, Heavy Lenses. European brand electronic Flash Equipment. Business Cards. A Website. A Logo. More Big, Heavy Cameras. A Laptop with which to Tether. A four wheel drive vehicle for transport to far flung shooting locales. An Entourage of helpers who fetch coffee and hold lights. Big, Heavy Cameras that shoot at 12, 14, 16, or 20 frames per Second. Black Vapid camera straps. 600mm f4.0 lens for Canon or Nikon. Truck with which to haul 600mm f4.0 lens. Latest iPhone for Instagramming. Coffee. 

The one thing I never see on these all encompassing lists of "must haves to be pro" is the single and only thing that makes a photographer a professional photographer. That one thing is: Actual Clients who can Write Checks or Transfer Money to you. 

Photographers put in so much time reading about new gear and then reading stories about other photographers who've just gotten the new gear and want to gush about it. Occasionally they read articles about how to copy the work of other photographers
using the same gear, which they just bought because they read an article in which a photographer gushed about....his gear. 

Rarely do I see photographers really hunker down and research "how to market." "how to sell." "how to grow their businesses." But, if you are really intent on being a professional photographer the acquisition, care and feeding of clients is mission critical. In fact, it is the only mission. Everything else is hobby time. 

I'm writing this, in part, to remind myself and few of my close friends about the necessity of engaging with marketing to real clients on a continual basis. Once you've been in the business for a while, and you've had some solid periods of success you begin to feel as though marketing is no longer necessary; work just seems to keep coming. You imagine that somehow you've tapped into the magic of "word of mouth." 

I've lived through many marketing cycles as a photographer. They go something like this: Business drops off after a busy period of time. For about a month you tell yourself that it's just a temporary thing; that business will come roaring back. That everyone is on vacation right now. Then work hits "zero" on the income gauge and you start to get nervous. Thinking about the house payment, thinking about the car payment, and that balance on your Visa card. 

You buy a book on marketing for photographers, or you start wading through the same kind of material online. This spurs you to re-do your website....and then nothing happens. Now you get a little freaked and start believing that you'll need to figure out who to target and build a plan to reach out directly to them in some way. After all, how the heck would anybody know you've re-done your website if you don't tell them?

You look back through recent projects and find a killer image that has a killer "how I made this" story, and also a "how this worked for the client" success story, and you create a postcard to send to the list you just made of all your past clients, all the people whose business cards you picked up at Ad Club happy hours over the last year or so, along with a list of new people you'd like to work with in the future.

You find that you have about 200 people to send your postcard to. You address, buy stamps and light a candle for Saint PinholĂ© (patron St. of photographers) in the hopes that he will guide your message to your list at just the right time. You mail out, remembering to send one card to yourself so you can gauge how well it goes through the mail. 

A week later you follow up with an e-mail blast that revolves around a different image or campaign you did and, in that e-mail, you provide a link to a gallery of your recent work that's on your new website. 

Then you start calling everyone you worked with in the last year or so, directly (you have their numbers, remember, you worked with them) and you start calling and checking in. You can offer to meet for coffee and catch up. If you both like each other enough you could probably do more good than damage by inviting them out for lunch. On the most basic level you might ask if you can drop by and show them your new reel or portfolio. 

If you've done this process well you start to see interest tick back up. You get a couple of "would you be interested in....?" e-mails. You start getting included in the estimate processes. You nail down some headshot assignments (the last of the "bread and butter" assignments...) work starts to trickle in and momentum builds. You just realized that these same people you are mailing to are in the same market as you and perhaps a thousand other local photographers. You might know that your business is the center of the universe but chances are nobody else is privy to that fact yet. You need to remind all those people with checkbooks that you actually exist, that you are still breathing. that you still know your way around an ad shoot. You can still deliver the goods. 

My (Creative Director) friend, Greg, once told me that the person who will likely get the nod for the next great project will be the last person to see an art director or designer, with a great portfolio, just before the next big assignment crossed their desk. Why? Because last photographer seen occupies the top of mind awareness with the client. Because the photographer took the initiative to reach out. Because we just might not be the center of the universe, minute by minute, in the minds of our clients. They need to be reminded regularly of how much fun it is to work with you. 

If you decide that June was not a busy month because everyone was on vacation, or whatever, you've just delayed the process until the inflection point of poverty pain makes itself felt. Only when you have work rolling in and you are making money with your camera do you have the right to call yourself a professional photographer. 

I've been equally guilty of falling victim to my own business fantasies in too many cycles to list. I'll do a big project for a great client and I'll coast. Big projects have a tendency to be like dropping a big rock in a quiet pond. There's a big splash! And for a period of time there are lots and lots of concentric ripples in the pond. But over time the entropy of existence quells the strength of the ripples until they cease to exist. You can stand by the pond, looking at your own clear reflection (see the myth of Narcissus) and waiting for something external to happen to create new ripples or you can grab rocks and start tossing them in the pond. Ride the splash and then prep up for the next cycle. 

In Glengarry Glenross, Alec Baldwin's character tells the salespeople in his company: "Always be closing (the sale). ABC. Photographers don't sell in quite the same way as real estate scammers but my advice for anyone who wants to make consistent income in this field, and be professional (paid) is: Always Be Marketing. 

It didn't happen (your award, your big job, your beautiful photograph) until you put in in an e-mail, on a card, etc. and showed it to someone who can hire you for the next one.  

If you think I am pontificating from on high I'll confess, we had a job booked for the first week of June. The post production of which would have lasted for several weeks after the shoot. The shoot got cancelled for reasons that were out of the client's hands. I decided to chill for the first week or so of the time that (unfortunately) opened up. Certain that I had built up momentum. But after spending time reading novels, walking the dog, swimming, walking with cameras, and eating Tex-Mex lunches with friends, I realized I was breaking the marketing rules I learned time and time again. 

Here's the number one rule: If you aren't shooting you better be marketing.

end of sermon.


Don said...

"Here's the number one rule: If you aren't shooting you better be marketing."

It is also rule number 3 and 8, interestingly enough.

Gato said...

One of my mentors used to say "Photographers only do two things: You shoot and you sell. If you're not shooting you should be selling."

If I'd listened better I'd have made a lot more money.

Dave Jenkins said...

I am definitely with Gato on this one. I did okay with the shooting. The selling...not so hot.

I'm saving this article for "Kirk Tuck's Guide to Professional Photography."

Unknown said...

To be fair, I think there is a lot more online content today geared towards learning aspiring photographers about running a business and marketing their services than there was ten years ago - or perhaps I just paid more attention to them as I moved from "aspiring" to "working"... :)

However, I definitely agree with your sermon and I guess an "Amen" is probably all that is left to be said.

Unknown said...

The vapid stap and iPhone photos of coffee made me laugh. I feel like most websites dance around the subject because a lot of them don't know what they are talking about.

Doug said...

Great post, you have to be as (or more) obsessed with sales and marketing as you are with that new lens.


Excellent article. Sound principles that apply to many businesses.

Andrea said...

Some time ago a casual friend asked to me "What professional camera can you recommend to me?". I answered " A professional camera is the one used by a professional photographer. A professional photographer is one that earns his montlhy income with photography - thus, ANY camera that he finds useful can be called a professional one. The "professional camera" as a category is a myth created by camera companies to sell expensive gear to wealthy amateurs."