The Next Step

In The Big Q by David15 Comments

Q: I’m a nature photographer with what I’ve been told is a reasonably solid portfolio, and I blog fairly regularly. I make a little money with my photography, but I think I could do more to increase the income a bit. I’m ready to take the next step toward living my dream. I need to market myself beyond my local area, but I just don’t know where to begin, since like other photographers, I suck at self-promotion. WHO do I reach out to and HOW do I approach them? Suggestions appreciated. ~Ron.

A: Ron, thanks for the willingness to be honest about this stuff. I hope you’ll be OK with a little tough love, because I’m not sure any amount of beating around the bush is going to help. All the same, this is just my opinion. Take what resonates, sleep on the rest, then discard what doesn’t stick.

First, your portfolio is full of nice images. Fine images. Technically competent images. But I don’t get a sense of what sets you apart from any other photographer out there that is shooting pretty landscapes. The next step for you might first be the pursuit of some deeply personal projects, and the struggle to create bodies of work that work together in a more powerful way than your images do now. You might sell a few of these images, but if you want to place them consistently in larger publications or curated stock libraries, you’ll have to give them something more. That something, I truly believe, is you. More of you. I don’t know how to tell you to do that, but I don’t sense you’re taking risks, or telling stories you are passionate about. I don’t get a sense of depth and for the most part see nothing – yet – that I’d call an identifiable style. Style isn’t something to strive for, it’s a by-product, but it matters. Nevertheless, that’s a lifelong journey. You’ll strive for this for the length of your career. But if I can be crass, I don’t get a sense that you’re shooting with your balls.

Second, if you suck at self-promotion it’s not because you lack the genes. I hear this from photographers so much and it drives me nuts. What most of us mean is “we haven’t taken the time to learn to promote ourselves,” or “we haven’t taken the risks required to put our work in front of new audiences,” or, “we haven’t been creative enough and we stopped when we ran out of our first ideas.” So I’m going to bounce the question back to you, but I’m going to reverse it because you can’t know HOW until you know WHO.

Who do you want to work for? All of this stuff, selling our work to any audience, comes down to this – what value do you offer to them? What itch do you scratch for them? What audience has that itch more than others? Is it magazines? Is it postcards? Stock? Is it prints on the walls of doctors and dentists? Is it prints in a local gift shop selling to tourists? Is it all of those and some I’ve not mentioned? Hopefully you’ll cast your net wide and see what lands. But until you’ll come up with a list of possibilities, and then go and talk to them – it’s basic research – about what they need, you can’t know how to make a valuable offer, or pursue mutually beneficial collaborations. Every audience is different. They all have different needs, and we can meet some of those better than others. Find those. Get to know them. Meet people. Have honest conversations. This is all – all of it – a relational game. Yes, you need – NEED – to have something they want, and that’s partly a really great product or service, but it’s also how you bring that product to them.

So my suggestions? Work your ass off on bodies of work that make you deeply happy and be so good at it that people take notice. Then find a way to make that work valuable to an audience. Make a list of your top 20 possibilities. Then hit the bricks. Talk to those people. Take them to coffee. Ask them the hard questions: would you pay for this work? Does it have value to you? Would your customers see value in this work? Am I missing something? How can I serve you?

Find an audience with an itch that you are excited about scratching. Then do that every day in every way you can think of. Serve them relentlessly. Listen to them relentlessly.

All sales comes down to an honest, relational, scratching of itches. Find an audience to whom you bring value. Maybe it’s not direct sales of prints or licences. Maybe it’s live lectures because your photography is good but combined with your public speaking, it’s a killer combination. Maybe it’s not finding clients at all, but teaching others. However you do it, it’ll be different from the way anyone else does it. No systems, no shortcuts. In my experience, photographers – otherwise very creative – don’t get creative enough with their thinking on this stuff. Easier to just think about our next lens purchase, right?  Many, many photographers struggle with this, and it’s not always because they don’t have amazing work – in fact there are plenty of rather mediocre photographers (relatively speaking I’d include myself in this category) making a good living because we hustle and we think creatively and we don’t give up when the first ideas, all the obvious, low-hanging fruit, haven’t worked.

The next step, my friend, is to go all in. And to keep at it. Find an audience with an itch that you are excited about scratching. Then do that every day in every way you can think of. Listen to them relentlessly. Serve them relentlessly.

If you want more of this, Ron, check out my books: VisionMongers, Making a Life and Living in Photography, and How To Feed A Starving Artist.

 While I’ve got the time I’m trying to be more available to my community. If there’s something you’d like to engage with me on, leave a question in the comments. I’ll try to answer all that I can – some in the comments themselves, some as blog posts. Ask me anything.

Comments

  1. Your thoughts are very inspiring. And your questions examples are exactly what everyone must answer for themselves. Only when you know the answers to these questions, you can start with self-promotion. And then the decisions are easier, because you now know what you want.

  2. Thanking you in advance for any advice you might give me. I’ve been asked to display my images as part of a local gallery event. There will be a painter, sculpture a photographer (me) doing a display on “Force of Nature”. I am not worthy of their invitation and I’m terrified. Not only do I know what to display, I would like advice on how best to display my work. Does simple black frames and white mat work best? Or should I mat and frame according to the print itself? What method gives the strongest display? Thank you!

  3. David, thanks so much for taking the time to respond. I appreciate your honesty and the straight-forwardness of your suggestions. For what it’s worth, I agree with your assessment of my images. Obviously, I like them, but they’re not very ballsy. Figuring out how to show yourself and shoot with passion is much more difficult than it sounds, and I’m not sure I know how to do that other than to simply keep shooting until something clicks. Heck, even figuring out what I’m passionate about is more challenging than it seems, especially for someone who likes lots of stuff. But you’ve given me some great things to think about and some action steps I can work on. So that’s where I’ll begin.

  4. Man! Tough love indeed! And a great insightful blog! Definitely something I need to be considering/implementing as I plot my path…

  5. David,
    Wonderfully written response! It’s not easy to be that honest without being brutal but you pulled it off beautifully. Bravo!

  6. Everything you’ve said here is really useful. But man, every time I read the word “hustle” I just hear the Theme From Shaft in my head!

    Getting out into the world, making connections and figuring out how to build a business is essential. But, hustle just never feels like the right world, to me at least.

    1. Author

      I guess there are a couple meanings to the word Hustle. I hear my gym teacher yelling, “hustle! hustle!” meaning “move your ass!” But looking it up, some use of the word are more positive than others. Dammit, now I need a new word. 🙂 Suggestions?

      1. Personality? OK, it’s a big of a crap answer, but let me explain. In football (soccer), it’s said a player needs four key attributes, technique, intelligence, personality & speed.

        Personality is the way a player makes their mark, the face the game changes because they are on the field, which I guess is like “hustle.”

        That fits a little better with how I try to do the business side – it’s not about the hard sell, it’s about the hard reveal.

  7. I’ve started asking myself (and others, when it comes up), “What do I enjoy doing enough that I can work really, really hard at it, and keep working hard at even when it becomes difficult?” that’s sort of how I think about effort given toward a goal (hustle, if you will). Not as neat and tidy as “hustle,” but maybe without the negative connotations some are perceiving.

  8. Finding what we are passionate about is difficult for everyone no matter how young or old we are. Often it’s right there before our eyes. It’s been with us for so long that we just think of it as being a part of us, something ordinary and not necessarily worth exploring. I think people feel to be successful they need to stand out from the crowd and be “different” or “unique”

    Over the years through traveling, my art as a story teller and photographer I slowly began to notice how others see these ordinary things and learned that to others they can be extraordinary at times. They are things people identify with but had yet to find the voice to express it. It may have been uncomfortable or awkward for me at first, but eventually I found the value of celebrating the similarities I share with people rather than the differences and trying to stand out.

    I know this might not be pragmatic advice but it’s food for thought I hope. The best ideas are usually the simple ideas.

    1. Author

      Couldnt agree with you more, Mark. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

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  10. David,

    How do you know when you have a distinct style? I know that’s not something you should chase for, but how can you tell when you have a body of work that’s yours and not merely a reflection of other people?

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