Advice to Aspiring Professional Photographers: Part 2

Way back in October of 2014, I posted a blog entitled, “Advice for those looking to start a career in Photography.” I have sent a link out to that blog post quite often and I have had quite a few aspiring photographers thank me for it as well. Recently, I have gotten other questions via Instagram, Facebook and through email. One of the big ones is: “How do you market yourself and your work? How do you get your name out there?” There seem to be thousands of people interested in pursuing photography as a profession. With every photography website selling the “pro photographer” lifestyle as if you can just go out and make it happen in a few years I thought it was time I added another post with the sobering realities of the photo industry and what it takes to make a living in this ever changing career field.

Over the last few months I have had this blog post in the hopper so to speak and have added bits and pieces to it when I had time. In October I was asked by CreativeLive to present a 90-minute class for Photo Week 2017 on “What it takes to be a Pro Photographer.” That class is behind a pay wall, and costs $39 to view, but for those that are thinking of making a career in photography it might be well worth the money to watch the class. In that class I present a very realistic and sobering view of what you can expect if you are looking to jump into this field. I didn’t want to present a class that was bright and cheery. I wanted to dish it out as it really is and tell all. I did end with the cheery note that if you want it bad enough then you too can become a professional photographer. Click on the link above or on the image below to go to CreativeLive’s website and read more about the class.

I did not write this blog post just to try and sell you on a class. I won’t make a dime off that class if you chose to purchase it. I have already been paid. So, I only offer it here as a resource you can chose to invest in or not. There is a lot more to come below, but before we move on, I also wanted to note that during the CreativeLive Photo Week 2017 I was part of a panel discussion lead by Mike Hagen with Ian Shive, Clay Cook and myself as the panelists. In that panel discussion Ian Shive talks at length about the how pricing is changing in the industry. As this video is out there for free, I encourage anyone interested to watch it via Facebook.

Supply and Demand

Before I dive into how I market myself and my work, let’s discuss a few realities of the photo industry. It has always been hard to make it as a pro photographer. That hasn’t changed. While there are more outlets to get your work published there are also more photographers in the industry than at any point prior to this time. The Supply and Demand curves are not working in our favor as professional photographers. Since 2008, the supply has increased massively and the demand has remained steady or has only slightly increased, as shown in the slide below.

Basic economics tells you that if there is an oversupply then prices in that industry will nose-dive and that is exactly what has happened since 2008. Seemingly overnight, sometime in 2009 or early 2010, standard rights-managed usage rates dropped in half. In the last few years, they seem to have dropped in half again, now somewhere down around 75% less than they were pre-2008 in my experience. These days if I can get 50% of what fotoQuote pricing says an image is worth I count myself lucky. I am not putting this out there to bemoan the state of the industry, it just is what it is in my experience. In the old days, pre-2007, if a client wanted to buy all rights for a single image (i.e. to own the image and the copyright) the price was somewhere between $60,000 to $80,000 USD. These days many clients are buying out single images for $10,000 or less.

In fact, it is rare these days that I shoot an assignment and only license a few images from that shoot to the client. Unlimited usage rights contracts are more and more becoming the norm, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon. Unlimited usage rights contracts also take away another of the pre-2008 methods photographers used to make a living, namely the ability to re-license images. It still happens but it is getting more and more rare. Typically after the original usage period ends (or close to it) the client will ask to re-license an image that was still of value to them, and the standard re-license rate was 75% of the original usage rate. I understand why clients are asking for unlimited usage. It make sense for them and is a lot less hassle. Unlimited usage also is key when clients post images on social media as they have no idea who will re-post it or where it will go. Unlimited usage has become the de-facto standard mainly because of social media usage.

The photo industry continues to change on a daily basis. Standard rights-managed usage rates continue to drop, while at the same time clients are asking for more rights, more images and everything to be created faster and faster. The licensing models we have used in the past are slowly fading and are being replaced with unlimited usage agreements that give clients more images and more freedom in how they use those images. In the panel discussion referenced above, I noted that while my income continues to rise from one plateau to the next, I am having to generate more images and offer more rights on each of my assignments to generate that income. Ian very clearly discussed average image pricing at his stock agency Tandem Stock, which should ring a few alarm bells for all of us.

Regardless, the market is going to change and we can either get on board or jump off the train. As I said in my class on what it takes to make a living in this profession, there will always be room for new, talented photographers that are willing to work extremely hard and can create exciting imagery. With that said, let’s get onto the main question: “How do you market yourself and your work? How do you get your name out there?”

Marketing 101

How do you establish yourself in the photo industry? What is the best way to market yourself and your work? These are huge questions that I get over and over via email, Facebook Messenger and via Instagram. Here are my thoughts on the matter:

Step 1: Go out and create Kick-Ass amazing images that are different or better than what is already in the marketplace. Difficulty Rating: 10/10

Amazing images are normally the result of incredibly hard work and a creative mind. This is by far the hardest step. It will require thinking outside the box and getting creative in how you conceptualize and shoot a project. The quality of the work will also significantly affect how effective your marketing efforts are. If the work isn’t up to par, then don’t expect much from your marketing efforts. If the work is out of this world stellar, then it will probably market itself.

The photo industry is not a strict meritocracy. What I mean by that is even if you do go out and create jaw-dropping work, that doesn’t mean that it will automatically get you work. You still have to send it out to possible clients and see what happens. Also, be aware that clients want to see that you are not a one-trick pony. You will need to be able to replicate that stellar work over and over. Luckily, as discussed in Step 2, getting your work out there has never been easier.

Step 2: Market those images to appropriate clients. Difficulty Rating: 2/10

Getting your images out to the appropriate clients isn’t that hard. Tracking those clients down just takes time and energy.

Step 3: License the images. Difficulty Rating: 4/10

Knowing how to license your images and not give away the farm definitely takes some insider knowledge. Luckily, educating yourself on how to price your work isn’t rocket science. I highly recommend purchasing Jim Pickerell’s out of print book entitled “Negotiating Stock Photo Pricing.” The first two thirds of that book discusses how to establish pricing and how to negotiate. If you read that you will be so far ahead of the pack, in terms of understanding how to price your images, that other photographers will be calling you up to ask how to price their images.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3. Difficulty Rating: 5/10 or 10/10 depending on how easy step 1 is for you.

This is the key. No one starts off getting huge assignments right off the bat. You have to prove yourself to whichever client you want to work with. That will take time, and energy–lots of it.

Step 5: Gain a foothold as a reputable photographer that can come through over and over on assignment.

The above steps should hopefully reveal that there is no secret to making a career as a professional photographer. It is all about hard work. That’s it. If you want it bad enough, and have a few ounces of talent, then you can probably make it happen.

My sincere hope is that this doesn’t come off as a rant on the state of the industry. For more than 21 years I have made my living as a professional photographer. I consider myself blessed beyond my wildest dreams and I live a rich, full life in terms of experiences and adventures. If you do want to pursue photography as a career, it is my belief that going into this profession with a clear perspective on what it is like, what it will take and how long it might take to actually make a decent living will help when the times get tough. Early on in my career, I had enough sense to ask a few photographers much farther along the path how long it took of them to build up their career. “Five years to get established, ten to make a decent living and fifteen to really get into the golden years” seemed to be the consensus. Some photographers advance much more quickly than this, others at a slower pace. It all depends on your situation.

To finish this off, I leave you with the best article I have ever read on what it takes to build a career in any creative field. The article is entitled “The 8 Keys to Success: An Essay and thoughts on What it Takes to reach your True Potential,” by David Lyman and published on Digitaljournalist.org way back in October 2004. I have referenced this article many times over and it is still something that I read every year.

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