Eye on Image-Making: Business Aspects, Part I

I’ve been thinking recently about the business aspects of image-making. Perhaps this is because some of my students have taken, or are about to take, the plunge into “the real world.” Or, perhaps it is because I find discussions about the profession of image-making inherently interesting. In any event, Black Star has asked me to branch out and write about more than just my classroom experiences as a teacher of visual communications. So, “Notes from the VisCom Classroom” will be posted at the beginning of the month, and this new column, “Eye on Image-Making,” will be posted at the middle of the month.

It is a cliché to say that the world of professional image-making has undergone a revolution in recent years. Analyze any aspect of photography or videography — from capture to cataloging to distribution — and you will uncover new technologies and new philosophies. Indeed, it is tempting to say — as the dot-commers of the late 1990s and early 2000s maintained — that the old ways of doing things do not apply to the digital age.

Laying a Solid Marketing Foundation

But if we learned anything from the dot-com boom and bust, it is this: although the technical trappings may change from time to time, there are certain fundamental realities that we overlook at our peril. Among these are the importance of (1) laying a solid marketing foundation; (2) developing/maintaining client relations and growing your business; and (3) making a profit. This posting will deal with the first of these three issues; subsequent postings will deal with the other two.

During the dozen or so years that I was a staff writer for Photo District News, I had the pleasure of interviewing many image-makers at the top of their profession. Many of those encounters were memorable; a few have formed the foundation of my own professional career and the basis of the business knowledge I try to pass along to my students –whenever I get the chance. My next few postings will highlight the wisdom these professional photographers passed along to me — with my humble thanks for their generosity and willingness to give back to the profession that has proved so rewarding for them.

One of the first people I interviewed for Photo District News was Cliff Hollenbeck, a Seattle-based photographer, videographer, and writer whose travel images are used by leading airlines, cruise lines, resorts, and tourism publications. Cliff told me something that has stuck with me to this day, nearly 20 years later: your job, as a photographer, is to get your pictures and yourself in front of the people who buy the kind of images you love to shoot.

Despite all the changes to the business of image-making, this statement rings as true to me now as it did the day I first heard it. To me, this sentence represents the essence of laying a solid marketing foundation. It requires the image-maker interested in assembling a profitable client base to ask a soul-searching question: what kind of images do I love to make? Clearly, for Cliff, the answer was travel photographs. I have no doubt that Cliff, accomplished professional that he is, could shoot a wide variety of photographs — not just travel, but landscape, architecture, wildlife, etc. But those subjects are not his passion. His vision would be muted. And he would be competing with other image-makers who have devoted their entire careers to getting the perfect landscape, architecture, or wildlife shot.

Your Client Is a Person, Not a Publication or Company

Cliff’s question also requires another answer: who buys the kinds of images I love to shoot? At first glance, this seems a trivial question. If you love to shoot travel photographs, you sell to airlines, cruise lines, resorts, and travel magazines. And this is where many photographers fall short. They fail to realize that Cliff’s question asks “who?” and not “what?” For example, some travel photographers think their prospective clients are United Airlines, Carnival Cruise Lines, Hyatt hotels and resorts, or National Geographic Traveler. To answer the “who” question, you need to come up with the name of a specific person — the person who has the power to commission your services as a freelance photographer or videographer.

This kind of research takes hours and hours of work, much of it frustrating. There are few shortcuts. I am sure the Internet has made some of this work easier, but for the most part, it is still a matter of picking up the phone and finding out the name of the person at XYZ corporation who is in charge of hiring freelance image-makers for various types of projects. In some cases, especially with advertising and annual reports, you will learn that most of the hiring is done by an outside agency, and your research starts over. In other cases, the corporation will have people on staff who handle corporate public relations, event coverage, and in-house publications. Whatever the specific situation, your goal for each and every phone call is to come up with the name and contact information of someone who has the power to pay you money in exchange for the use of your images.

You still need to tackle the third and potentially most vexing part of Cliff’s seemingly simple sentence: how do you get your images and yourself in front of your potential clients? Because this is where the magic happens. No matter how much soul-searching you do, and no matter how much market research you undertake, there comes the moment of truth: your images (and, hopefully, your personality, style, and vision) need to be powerful enough to convince someone to take a chance on hiring you. Because that is exactly what you are asking — take a chance, take a risk, on me.

What Do You Offer That Others Don’t?

Consider this: Do you regularly buy your photography equipment from the same dealer? Use the same assistants? Have your digital prints made at the same lab? Shop at the same supermarket? Eat at familiar restaurants? Patronize the local dry cleaner? Then what makes you think an art director, graphic designer, or corporate communications director — with potentially huge consequences riding on the outcome — should be willing to take a chance on you? Unless you do a great job of convincing your potential client that you have something special to bring to the table, all your efforts will probably be in vain.

What do you offer that other image-makers do not? A unique personal style or vision? An ability to solve complex shooting problems on the fly? A knack for making extraordinary images from ordinary, everyday situations? Whatever your special qualifications and experiences, you need to be able to communicate them to your potential clients — to overcome any and all objections they have to hiring you.

So, despite the fact that so much has changed in our world, some things are constant: laying a solid marketing foundation is as important now as it was when we were all shooting Kodachrome. Or (pardon my French), “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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

  1. I sat down at my computer this morning, my coffee by my side.. decisions have been made.. corporate photography, headshots, events, now how to market to these "people". I had a rough outline in my head, how to approach marketing to Communication officers.. Blackstar was the first site to pop up in my research and there was this column. Thanks for the confirmations.. wow its as if you wrote this just for me. Thanks for the column.. can't wait for the next!
    thank you David and thank you Blackstar!
    Wendy D

  2. Thanks David, nice column, I especially appreciate the 'basic' and practical advice. Can never hear this message too many times it seems.

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