Eye on Image-Making: Business Aspects, Part 2

In my previous Eye on Image-Making column, I passed along some advice from travel photographer Cliff Hollenbeck: your job, as an image-maker, is to get your images and yourself in front of the people who use the kinds of images you love to make. In this column, I’ll discuss the next step in the long march toward creative success — what to do when you have found people willing to pay you for your creativity. Much of this advice comes from the extraordinary portrait and wedding photographer Joshua Ets-Hokin. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ets-Hokin, who is based in San Francisco, when I was a staff writer for Photo District News.

The portrait and wedding market offers wonderful opportunities for aspiring photographers, but it is also full of challenges that are difficult to overcome. First of all, everyone is a photographer (have you noticed?). Photography has always been — and still is — difficult to do at a professional level. But even as a hobby, photography used to require a certain level of technical expertise: exposure, focus, color balance, and working with a flash all needed attention. Today, many of those technical hurdles have disappeared, thanks to auto-exposure, autofocus, auto white-balance, and auto fill-flash. So, the average Jane or Joe can pick up a camera and make a photograph that will likely be free from the most glaring technical flaws.

This democratization of photography has presented challenges for professional photographers. For example, why should a couple about to be married spend thousands of dollars on their wedding photography when Aunt Jane or Uncle Joe can snap gigabytes of perfectly decent images? How do you build a career based on such a seemingly shaky foundation? One way, of course, is to offer something Aunt Jane or Uncle Joe cannot, whether this means a unique personal style, unusual artistic vision, creative problem-solving ability, or some other one-of-a-kind selling point.

Partnership with Others

Another way is to build your career in partnership with others, so that your success is linked to an ever-expanding web of creative opportunities. This is what Ets-Hokin has done, and his approach consists of two components. First, Ets-Hokin realized that, as a wedding photographer, he was but one of a number of professionals involved in what, for many people, is a once-in-a-lifetime event. In addition to hiring a photographer, the bride and groom also generally use the services of caterers, florists, wedding planners, musicians, etc. Just as Ets-Hokin was trying to advance his career, so these professionals were trying to advance theirs.

Thus was born the idea for building a career in partnership with others. But how to achieve this in practice? Ets-Hokin knew that every aspiring professional yearns for free publicity, such as coverage in a local publication. As a photographer, Ets-Hokin was in a position to propose articles to local magazines — articles about, say, how to find the right caterer for your wedding, or how to create beautiful floral arrangements on a tight budget. If the magazine approved the article, Ets-Hokin would photograph a local caterer or florist at work, and the seeds of an ongoing relationship were sown. The next time the caterer or florist were asked to recommend a wedding photographer to one of their clients, whose name do you think they gave?

Redefining the Concept of “Client”

This type of win-win relationship with fellow professionals represents the first component of Ets-Hokin’s approach to career-building. The second component involves redefining the concept of “client.” The whole notion of who and what a client is can be problematic. As I mentioned in my previous Eye on Image-Making column, many photographers have a mistaken notion of who their clients actually are. For example, if you are a corporate photographer, your client isn’t corporation XYZ but rather the particular person, either in the corporation or in a graphic design firm or ad agency, who decides to use your services.

But even once this mistake is corrected, too many photographers believe their primary task is to find new clients rather than cultivate the clients they already have. Ets-Hokin told me that he thinks of the people who use his services as falling into one of three groups: customers, clients, and advocates. Here’s how he defines each group. A customer is someone who pays you for your services and then is never heard from again. The person needs some photographs, you provide them, and that’s the end of the relationship. As far as Ets-Hokin is concerned, you cannot build a career on customers — because you will spend all you time (and exhaust your creative energy) chasing the next customer.

The next group is clients, defined as people who use your services on a regular basis. Having clients rather than customers is obviously a step up on the ladder to success. The care and feeding of customers — to keep them happy — is a vital task for any professional. Many photographers are overjoyed to have a group of steady clients and feel this is the goal toward which they should strive. But Ets-Hokin takes it one step further. He wants advocates. What are advocates? Advocates are people who will work on your behalf, spreading the word throughout the community about your excellent level of creativity, service, and professionalism. In other words, advocates are satisfied clients who can’t wait for the opportunity to tell others about you.

Turn Your Clients Into Advocates

For Ets-Hokin, the goal for which professionals should aim is this: turn your customers into clients, and your clients into advocates. It is a truism in the service industry that word of mouth is the best advertising money can’t buy. The cost of gaining new customers is often expensive — fancy portfolios, slick promotion pieces, paid advertising, high-maintenance Web sites. But what is the cost of turning a satisfied customer into a client, or a client into an advocate? Only this — that they feel involved enough in your business that they want to help it grow. This sense of involvement can be prompted by simple things — the gift of a print, a card during the holidays, a friendly phone call. Most people like attention, especially when it is unexpected.

Another thing you can do is become the expert to whom your clients turn when they have a problem or need advice. This can be accomplished by providing referrals if you are unable to accept a particular assignment, volunteering to speak or write articles for organizations and publications that serve your clients, and sharing with your clients information about the latest trends in the ever-changing world of image-making. In the hectic hustle for assignments and career advancement, taking the time to appreciate your clients and reach out to them will almost certainly reap great rewards.

[tags]photography business, photography advice[/tags]

2 Responses to “Eye on Image-Making: Business Aspects, Part 2”

  1. excellent little tid-bit!

  2. David, I've been a fan of your writing ever since I read my first DW article in PDN. You get to the core of most issues and speak in a straightforward, uncompromising style.

    I've been fortunate enough to have spent 40 years in photography and this year I closed down my downsized studio, for the last time. While I've never been the kind of photographer who took a camera everywhere--vacations, hikes, family gatherings, etc.--or lived, breathed and drank it constantly---I was passionate about my work and still am passionate about the profession.

    I'm considering the idea of teaching a class on the business side of photography and investigating what is out there. Came across this article of yours and as usual it was impressive DW stuff.

    Thanks, Rick

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