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Photographic skill without marketing is just a hobby

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Photographers – skill without marketing is just a hobby

Why without active marketing, profit is just a concept


Over the years I’ve looked at a number of photographers’ businesses as part of seeing how we could improve our own. Accepting that there are probably better ways of doing things, and looking for them is a key element of success for any business.

I’ve also come across quite a few that are failing, and from a financial point of view barely a ‘going concern’. Looking at these businesses in several different areas of photography, I’ve found what to me seem like common themes.

In this short article, part of our Business of Photography theme, I’ll look at some of what seem failings to me and offer some thoughts about different approaches. I’ve also included links to other short articles expanding on some issues.

As ever, comments and suggestions are welcome.

photographer for hire

A misconception – fame and fortune

In photography, there’s often an impression that the ‘famous’ photographers are successful because of their photographic abilities and that they are invited to work for prestigious clients, almost without any effort of their own.

This narrative is further reinforced by promotional pieces emphasising their vision and relevance – all stuff straight out of the brand development playbook.

Nothing could be further from the truth – they invariably worked hard to promote themselves and their business and produce work that clients were willing to pay for.

The fame is what people see, and can’t but help being swayed by. It’s almost as if ‘good photography’ sold itself, whereas in actual fact it’s a product to be marketed like any other.

Most of the photography businesses I’ve looked at have no desire to operate at the ‘rockstar’ level, but all too many are influenced by the gloss, whether on a TV arts programme or more ephemeral ‘social media fame’.

As I’ll come back to:

The key is being able to take photos that people want to pay for. To do that you need to know who they are, what they want and make sure that they know you exist.

But it’s my art dear…

Sure it is, oh and perhaps it’s time dust off some of those inciteful ‘artist statements’ you wrote at college?

There are times when the conceit of adopting a single word name for yourself might fit in with your developed brand and marketing plans, but I’d suggest that those marketing plans need to be in place and tested if you are going to get away with it.

Very few people will have the personality, photographic ability and business abilities to pull this sort of stuff off – and make a profitable business from it.

Just because it works for a few people does not mark it out as a general route to success.

Artistic vision is a good thing, but without marketing and relevance to clients, is just a hobby.

Good photos sell themselves

Oh, if only…

Leaving apart considerations of what is ‘good’ to you or me, there is the matter of who is going to see your images and whether that’s going to make the slightest difference to your business.

Marketing gets your images out there – successful marketing gets your images seen by people who can directly or indirectly get people to pay for them.

There is a whole industry built around the supposed benefits of social media as a source of marketing tools – treat it with the suspicion you should give to any other marketing scheme that wants your time and money.

For a commercial photographer like myself, I’d ask if two hours a week on Twitter is better spent on, research, building up email contact lists and following up with previous clients?  Sorry, but a lot of the old fashioned and tediously dull sounding stuff still works very well – mix and match to your needs, but watch out for the snake oil…

A few success stories trumpet photographers ‘making it’ through exposure on Instagram or the like and everyone piles into the ocean of images out there.

Illusions of social media sourced success for photographers are like buying lottery tickets and wondering how you’ll spend the prize money.

I’m sure some will instantly trot out names of people who have been successful via this route, but then again, with a little research I could respond with a list of lottery prize winners.

There’s no way I’m saying that social media is irrelevant, just that it needs to placed in context –for your specific business– and evaluated like any other aspect of your marketing approach.

Take a more critical look at how other photographers at the level you’re at and want to be at, market themselves – look at where they are working, with whom and what they actually do.

Who are those customers?

One recurring theme of all successful photography businesses that I see, is that they know who their preferred clients are, where they can be found and most importantly what it is they want.

They also know where their work fits in to their clients work or projects and how to work with other people and businesses involved.

My going along to a new building to photograph it needs me to understand who the images are for and who I’m going to interact with on site in the same way that a wedding photographer needs to liaise with a location and various service providers, not to mention brides and their mothers… (did I mention why weddings are not part of what we do?)

One of my broad areas of work is architectural photography – this encompasses a lot of potential clients, right from architects, through to designers putting together a commercial property brochure.

Requirements differ, but in general, architects don’t like their work portrayed like this

highcross car park at dusk taken with Laowa 12/2.8

Whilst designers are much happier with such extreme angles – if you are going for a particular market, know what is needed.

The same building, but with the verticals not leaning.

Highcross car park at dusk

One is not better than another – just an example of knowing what fits the particular market you are working in.

This isn’t to say you need to subvert your desire to make great images, just that your favourite approach may not be what the client needs – but you knew that, since you always discuss such things with clients before a job…

Newsflash – customers don’t actually care

One aspect I’ve seen in good photography marketing is the selling of benefits rather than features.

Too much ‘What we do’ on a web site as opposed to ‘How we benefit you’ suggests a lack of interest in the client’s precise needs.

Sell the benefits and answer the “What’s in it for me” question that’s behind almost any serious enquiry for your work.

Being able to show the real benefits for a client choosing you, also allows you to move away from being price driven to value driven in your discussions. That said, an enquiry that has price as its first, third and fifth questions is never promising.

One other thing is that even your best clients can will forget you. Repeat work is profitable and much easier than looking for new clients all the time. Repeat work comes from developing relationships with clients and regular contact.

Remember that people buy from other people – successful photographers establish working relationships  (yes this is marketing 101, but many photographers are awful at this sort of stuff)

What’s your message – is it clear?

What is it you do?

If I go to your web site, what’s the first image or images that catch my attention?

Think of how people have found your web site, most likely through search, which means they already have questions they want answered.

Many (but not all) web sites attempt to answer this right up front with a clear display of what sorts of work the photographer covers.

Some sites seem little more than a collection of photos – that looks great for other photographers, but does it really answer visitors questions?

I’ll unashamedly say to people that if they are looking for an industrial photographer, then why look further on a web site that has pictures of brides or babies on the front page.

Similarly if someone wanted their wedding photographing, I’d hope the industrial and commercial photos on our front page would save them wasting any more time on our site.

It could be a fair bit of work, but I’d seriously suggest that if you want to be seen as a specialist photographer, you need to pay careful attention as to what messages you convey.

Why a specialist? – well, there are a lot of photographers about and you need to find ways for your business to stand out from the crowd

So, do I have some answers?

The secret of success?

Sorry, it’s a really boring one.

You need to think of your photography business as a business and plan accordingly.

  • Know your potential clients
  • Understand what it is you offer and its benefits to clients
  • Differentiate your offerings
  • Know how the work you do is actually profitable – and how to maximise that profit
  • Find ways of interacting with the people and organisations you wish to work with
  • Don’t lose contact with existing clients
More photography business related articles

Business related articles (50+) are listed on the Photo-business page.

Some specific articles that may be of interest:

More of Keith's articles/reviews (Google's picks to match this page)


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  • ipdouglas

    Absolutely true .. if you are sure you have the skill …….

    Many marketing photographic services look to be self-deluded and have less skills than ‘hobby’ photographers. Remember the latter are made up of many with 30-45+ years of experience, a professional career in their own right and no desire or need to compromise their ‘art’ with sales.
    …… on the other hand we have the marketing professionals that have just left art college and have perhaps 4 years experience and photograph what other people tell them ………

    So who has the skills and who has the marketing/self-promotion? Indeed, who has the massive investment in expensive professional gear, studios and professional printing services and who does all this themselves? Not many in either camp to be true. But some hobbists do – we are the true professionals and have no desire to sell our art or need to make money – so less pressure.

    So many half-baked photographers around even RPS panel applicants who cant and do not print their own images!!! Everything dumbed down for the masses. Its a sad era and the ‘art’ (small ‘a’) in photography is dying with pay-and-display group sessions with professional theatre groups.

    All the same these negative changes make work and money for some pro printers. Changes inevitable.

    Wise advice in this article to those starting out in business but dont fool yourselves in either thinking you have better skills or are more professional than hobbists – you may be you may not. Its all based on definitions.

    • Keith Cooper

      Good points, although, since these articles in the ‘business theme’ are primarily aimed at ‘working’ photographers, I’m using a basic definition of professional here that just means you’re earning a living from your photography.

      I’ll leave other definitions of what ‘professional’ mean to different people for another day…

      From my own POV I just remember that in all the years of giving talks to groups about different aspects of photography, the worst response came from part of the audience at a talk where I was invited by one of the UK’s ‘professional photography organisations’ – just as well I can deal with hecklers ;-)