I'm assuming you decided to pursue photography because of the instant gratification that comes with shooting something cool, the (seemingly) flexible schedules and the ability to work for yourself. Either that or you did it to meet girls. I fall squarely into the second category.
There is a powerful sense of independence that comes along with being a photographer. You're a lone wolf. Have camera, will travel. More often than not, however, the freedom you imagine having as a photographer is an illusion - at least in the early days while you're getting your business off the ground. You're going to have to do some work to make this happen. What kind of work? Two words: BRANDING & MARKETING.
This post is designed for those still relatively new to the craft but who have decided to strike out on their own and start marketing themselves. Advanced level photographers may find this post redundant but if you're still getting started, read on.
Ask a hundred experts how best to market your services as a photographer and you will get a hundred different answers. However, there are some basic tools and concepts that always come into play and form the foundation you will need to move forward.
YOU ARE THE PRODUCT
The most sophisticated part of any image capturing system is located in your skull. It's your creativity, your originality - in other words it's you. When a client hires you, they are hiring your eye - NOT your camera. They want a look that ONLY you can bring to their project. Throw out any fear or doubt you may have about what equipment you do or don't have - YOU are the product. For this reason, I actually feel very strongly about operating under your own name rather than a 'business name.' YOU are the artist - YOU are the brand.
With that in mind, it's vital that you brand and market yourself properly. To do that you must have the proper tools:
- A portfolio
- A website
- Business Cards
This is the bare minimum. There are literally dozens of other ways you can put yourself out there but for the purposes of this article lets start small.
BUILDING A PROPER PORTFOLIO (Also known as your 'book')
Before you can start attracting work, you need to show people what you can do. That means getting your portfolio together. Assembling a portfolio may seem like a daunting task but it's really quite simple. Remember, we only want to select the best of the best here. No one wants to look through every photo you've ever taken. We need to distill it down to the top 10%...
- Go through every photo you've ever taken and choose the best among them. Set those aside in a special folder.
- Sort through your photos individually and group them according to 'look.' LOOK is an entirely subjective term but the idea here is that we want all photos of a similar style to live in a common set. This step is important so take your time here. If this part gets screwed up, it makes things difficult later on.
- Now that your photos are organized by look, you will notice that one set is probably larger than the others. This set is likely (not always) the set that represents your individual style. I know that because if you're taking a lot of photos using similar techniques, odds are those photos will share a common look. If that's the case, odds are that's how you will approach future shoots; thus THAT is your STYLE. (NOTE: Your style can and will change over time as your skills progress. Your portfolio should always reflect your most recent work.)
- After isolating your style, pick the photos that 'pop' for you. Here we are looking for the best of the best. The top 10% distilled down from your greater body of work. Group them together. This is your portfolio 1.o - we will improve on it later but for now, this is our jumping off point. See? Easy.
- Create a folder somewhere on your computer and call it "PORTFOLIO" or something along those lines. Inside that folder, create a sub-folder, call this one "PREFORMATTED." This is where the original version of your photos will live. Put your portfolio set in that folder. Over time, you will need to reformat each photo for different purposes. Some might go on a website, for example. Those photos will need to be cropped and adjusted accordingly. Others might go on your business card. Those will need to be adjusted differently. Still others might be turned into a physical book. You get the idea. (The important thing here is to stay organized and not allow your original photos to mix with different versions of the same photo. This can really screw you up as you take thousands of photos in the future and your work spreads out over multiple hard drives. What I've described is the simplest system I can devise and it's what works for me. You may organize your work differently but I highly recommend using a simple folder tree structure and keeping each set of different formats grouped by their ultimate end purpose. I will cover this in more depth in a later post on workflow.)
- Review your portfolio work. You should be able to isolate 15-20 solid images that really 'sell' your look and style. If you can get close to that number, good for you. If you're short, don't freak out! This just means you have some work to do. At this point, your goal should be to produce work for your book. Go online, spend some time surfing around and check out some other portfolios. I recommend 500px.com, it' a fantastic resource and full of inspiration. We'll go into them more later. Once you're all nice and inspired, put a shoot together (or a few shoots) to go get what you're missing. (Go slow here - this part is key. This may take some time and you shouldn't expect to fill out your book in a single shoot. As you conceptualize new opportunities, approach each one slowly and methodically. Bring your A-game and do your best work. You're building the central core of your entire marketing plan so it's key that what you produce accurately reflects you as a photographer and not simply be 'filler.')
REMEMBER, THIS IS FOR THEM - NOT YOU
As you assemble your book, remember your audience. You want people who actually sign checks to like your work - that means you're putting a portfolio together for art directors, editors, marketing people and ad people, to name a few. There must be a 'flow' and a variety to your work that is clearly demonstrated and obvious to someone who's never met you. For more on this topic, check out Chase Jarvis's interview with portfolio expert, Allegra Wilde.
ONLY THE STRONG SHOULD SURVIVE
Your book is a living reflection of how you see the world through your lens. It SHOULD change over time. As you develop your style and create new work, make sure to keep your book current. You should be reviewing your work every few months and replacing the weakest parts of your portfolio with your most powerful new stuff. Make a habit of it. It's important.
WHAT DO DO WITH YOUR PORTFOLIO
Now that you've isolated your best work, the work that represents your brand as an image maker, you need to get it out there with a well conceived marketing plan. No one is going to hire you if they don't know you're alive! This means putting your website together. If you have yet to take this all important step, I'm going to offer you a few different solutions here.
ESTABLISHING YOUR WEBSITE
BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE - go get 'yourname.com' and OWN that domain. Even if your photography business operates under a different name, it's a general rule of thumb that you NEED to own "YOU" dot com. Remember, YOU are the brand. This is important for SEO marketing purposes (which I will discuss in future posts) as well as managing your google "footprint."
Next, we'll need to get your work in front of some eyeballs. Register with a professional portfolio website company. There are many to choose from but the two I recommend are Livebooks and 500px.com. Livebooks allows you to choose from a variety of snazzy website templates and customize them as you wish. The uploading and file management systems are simple and the customer support is great. Their pricing plans are fair and reasonable. I like them a lot. 500px.com is a free site that in essence acts as a social network for photographers. You create a profile and as many portfolios as you like and blamo - You're up and running. Managing your files is quick and easy. You can 'friend' and 'tag' other photogs, models etc. and as you upload new work, your friends will see it in their feed. It's a great way to meet other people in the field and it's a fountain of inspiration. The site offers free and premium membership options. I briefly used my 500px.com profile as my actual portfolio and it worked out very well. I've since moved on to a Wordpress site (www.clintweldon.com) but I still maintain it. You can also check out an outfit called SquareSpace - I haven't used them but I know people who have and they had nothing but praise.
You can also build your own website if you're crafty. As I mentioned, I use the Wordpress platform and my site is self-hosted through HostGator. The learning curve was a little steep at first but the widespread availability of professional level templates these days makes building a sharp looking site relatively easy. Googling the terms "Wordpress Portfolio Templates" will bring back a ton of great stuff. If you're interested in learning a quick and easy approach to putting together a Wordpress site, Jack Spirko has a GREAT post on that here.
SHOULD YOU PRINT A PORTFOLIO BOOK?
When it comes to branding and marketing your work, no rules are carved in stone. There are, however, basic guiding principles that you should keep in mind. One such principle is to be different. Though PDF and web-based portfolios are commonly accepted these days, it's vital that you have a physical copy of your book as well. As more and more visual artists switch to iPads and websites to showcase their work, the impact that a large, beautifully printed portfolio book has from a psychological perspective cannot be understated. It immediately puts you one step above everyone else. It also subconsciously sells your work as 'print worthy.' Seeing your work on paper tells people that you have a high level of professionalism and attention to detail as well as a commitment to your craft.
There are two primary ways that you can print your portfolio in book form. Print on demand services will generally print and bind a book for you or you can print individual pages and bind them yourself. Each approach has it's advantages and limitations so you'll have to decide which method works best for you. I will advise you to do your own binding if you're still rapidly adding new material.
TIP: DO NOT print your work at home unless you have an extremely high quality printer and portfolio grade paper. The quickest way to look like an amateur is to crank out some 8.5 x 11 prints on your Epson inkjet and start waving them around. Instead, SPEND SOME MONEY and get quality prints made. If you aren't willing to spend money on branding and marketing yourself, why would a client spend money on you?
The American Society of Media Photographers did a study in 2009 on the top 18 print on demand services for portfolio printing. They ranked the results based on color, detail, binding and cover, spread (gutter), paper, and overall value. Though it's been a few years, for the most part their results have stood the test of time. One of the 18 is no longer operational so I've deleted it from the list. From least expensive to most expensive, the results of the study are listed below:
Printer Overall Rating MagCloud 6 Create Space 4.8 Comix Press 4.7 LuLu 5.7 Apple 7.4 Adorama 7.5 My Publisher 6.7 Blurb 6.7 Pikto 6.3 Shared Ink 7 White House 7 Mpix 7.1 Bay Photo 7.4 A & I 8.2 Embassy 6.3 Paper Chase 7.3 Asuka 7.9
That's quite a list! Thanks to ASMP for the hard work. If you're looking to self-bind your book and you'd like to check out cool options for binders, I can HIGHLY recommend Lost Luggage and OFFICE. Both are fantastic companies and offer a high-quality range of choices for the discerning visual artist.
This is a short one because business cards are pretty straightforward. I suggest you organize your web presence BEFORE printing your card since your card will inevitably direct people TO your site. Make sure you've got all the previous steps squared away first, then be prepared to put some time into a well thought out card. I prefer something that showcases a strong piece of my work and also communicates my style. Depending on the type of photography you do, you may choose a different approach. I used a heavy stock, two sided card with one side reserved for an image and the other side a clean, simple design. This is all about personal taste so I can't tell you what you need here. I can reccommend that when it's time to print you use overnightprints.com. They printed my cards and the price to quality ratio is excellent.
TIP: Print the smallest run you can. Do this for two reasons. 1.) You will probably grow tired of the original design and want to change it eventually. 2.) You won't be giving out as many cards as you think so ordering 2500 cards will be a waste of money. Instead, go with 250 for your first run. I assure you, they will last a long time. Here's a picture of the card I'm using at the moment:
That's all for now. You've got work to do so get to it! More posts to come. As always, don't forget to subscribe to keep up to speed on the latest.