With every passing year, we see many professional photographers go out of business and twice as many aspiring professionals try to pick up their mantle. If you want to stay in business, it's as easy as investing in your clients.
First and foremost, I’d like to wish everyone a belated happy New Year and I sincerely wish each and every one of you success in all of your personal and business endeavors. With each year that passes, we lose a decent percentage of professional photographers due to financial or personal reasons, and we gain an equal number of photographers interested in replacing them. To those of you who made the cut, welcome back. To those of you who just picked up your first camera this holiday season, welcome aboard!
As a way to stay competitive, I spend some time every December really analyzing where my money comes from. For example was it from personal sessions, commercial clients, or something else and then plan my next year in order to maximize my investment on time. During 2014, I spent a considerable amount of extra time with new and existing clients discussing their personal brands and what role my photographs have in emphasizing their creative vision and direction. That was absolutely refreshing to see, because it meant that clients trusted me enough to help them develop their personal brand. It gave me the opportunity to be more creative and less technical in my photography, which is really what I'm really passionate about.
TAKING THE ROLE OF AN ART DIRECTOR
Most large commercial clients will employee a dedicated art director, whose sole job it is to guide the visual direction of the shoot, from the lighting to the editing. Your job as a photographer becomes more technical than creative and you're essentially told to shut up and take direction — but hey, it puts food on the table. However, most smaller clients and small businesses generally don't have the budget for an art director or brand manager (e.g., law firms, doctor's offices, independent designers). They're generally putting things together on the fly because they're more focused on providing services in order to pay for overhead, and they're turning to you as the photographer to provide them with creative direction.
It may sound intimidating to step into the role of an art director or brand manager, but once you really break it down it's a lot less nerve-racking. The four basic questions that you want to ask yourself are as follows:
- WHO EXACTLY IS YOUR CLIENT?
- WHAT EXACTLY DO THEY DO?
- WHO EXACTLY WILL BE LOOKING / JUDGING THEIR PHOTOS?
- WHAT DO THEY WANT TO BE KNOWN FOR?
Be specific. Every detail you jot down will only help your cause. Yes, brand identity is a bit more extensive than those core questions. It also involves many more considerations such as logos, tagline, colors, and such, but every small business needs to start somewhere. Most small businesses will have their logos, tagline, and everything else selected, and your job is to interpret what they want and make it happen. For example, say if I was approached by a men’s hair product company who specializes in pomade. Their core demographic client is men 25–35 years of age who ride Harley Davidson motorcycles. They want to put together a marketing campaign for their new line of products catering to their core demographic. Taking those factors into account, I would lean toward something edgier than a clean and elegant image, maybe even something vintage inspired.
Now as simple as that may seem, it really differentiates you from the competition. By investing your time into a potential client’s brand, you’re simultaneously vesting yourself into their business and don't forget, building long term relationships can keep you in business. If you believe that branding is just for the larger budget clients, think again. Even individuals with smaller needs, like a portrait for someone trying to start a new business, can define how their potential clients see them. Heck, even men and women on dating sites (I won’t mention any names) want to set themselves apart from the crowd. What exactly makes them different from everyone else? What exactly makes them better than everyone else doing the same thing? What value does their product or service have? When you think about photography in that capacity, you realize what weight your photos have in terms of your client’s marketing efforts.
Something else to consider is offering "Forward Agreements," which are contractual agreements that states that your client agrees to commit to two to three future shoots at a specified rate at specified times. I often slightly discount my rates for clients willing to commit to forward agreements as an incentive to work with me long-term. This guarantees that I have work in the future and also guarantees that the client’s images remain consistent over the course of the next few sessions. I started offering this after being introduced to clients whose ads were inconsistent. You'd have three photos shot with flash on camera, three photos shot with natural light, three photos that were high key, and three photos that were dramatic. Consistency is key when you're trying to build brand identity. Customers associate your brand with your imagery, the same way building a niche helps build your rapport in a specific market of photography.
What I mentioned above is great for those of you who have larger accounts. For example, If you land an account for a hospital's staff portraits, offer a lesser rate if they agree to sign a forward agreement for the next three years. You'd provide you portrait services quarterly at that discounted rate (a total of 12 days in three years). This guarantees that all of the incoming staff's images are consistent, and you have guaranteed income for the next three years, assuming they're still in business. I consider that a win-win situation.
Expanding on building brand identity, consider personal branding with individual portrait sessions because the same rules apply. If you're getting piecemeal portrait sessions, still engage with those clients and figure out:
- Why do they want to shoot with you?
- What are the images being used for?
- Who exactly will be looking or judging those photos?
Often we get so distracted by trying to take beautiful imagery that we often forgot about all the small details that make up an image. In 2014, I also got tired of clients who would arrive on set looking halfway put together and who expected me to retouch the rest to make them look their best. Instead of complaining, I found a solution. I started incorporating the same styling techniques that I used while shooting fashion editorials with my private clients.
Here's a photo from my Facebook page of Jim Catechi on game day and during a shoot we did on creativeLIVE.
Attire not only affects how we're perceived, but it also influences how we feel about ourselves. I love being able to make people look and feel their best. Thanks to Jim for being part of my creativeLIVE segment!
Let me begin by saying that styling is a lot less complicated than it sounds. You're focusing on specific "accepted rules" when it comes to attire. For instance, a man in a suit should always show a 1/2 inch of cuff at the sleeve, and not a centimeter more. Why? Well because it's a generally accepted practice that emphasizes a man's attention to detail. Remember, personal appearance is much more than good lighting. I honestly play the role of image consultant quite a bit on my shoots. This means recommending the best clothing for a shoot, not only in terms of color, but also correct fit. Now, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some really talented fashion stylists who specialize in making people look and feel their best. Unfortunately, not many photographers have the accessibility of having a stylist on their photo shoots. Fortunately, the basic elements of styling men isn’t difficult to learn and can easily be implemented into your body of work.
Here’s a cheat sheet of correct suit fit from a Men’s Styling Guide I put together that’s available here. Sorry ladies, yours is coming soon!
Very blatantly, your client should look put together. If they look like they didn't think twice about what they wore during their photo shoot, their current and potential clients are going to assume they conduct their business in the same manner. Your visual styling should emphasize a strong personal brand identity. What is your client's story? Businessmen like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson all have their own personal stories that people hold them up to. What makes your client different? What message are they trying to convey? Their images should reflect what they are trying to pitch. Be their storyteller. Just like with businesses, personal brands are always adapting. Therefore, make your client's vision happen and chances are they'll be a repeat client.
I'm a firm believer that you don't need to be the best or most creative photographer in the world to be financially successful. Most of the professional photographers that I know who make a great living in this field are far better businessmen/women than they'll ever be photographers. The most important thing is, however, that they love what they do and they make a living doing what they love. I also sincerely believe that most of their successes have been built on their reputations to invest in their clients. Their talent really shines when it comes to validating the value in their imagery, regardless if it's $100, $1,000, or $10,000. Focus on creating long term relationships with your clients that will keep your business alive for years to come. Make 2015 your year.