Being an amazing photographer is a great thing but it doesn’t pay the bills. Like any other small business owner the only way you’re really going to make it is by relentlessly marketing your skills.
Most photographers approach sales with roughly the same enthusiasm as a root canal, but the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is being able to effectively market your services. If you’re on the fringe of a decision about turning pro, this one element will make or break your chances. Notice I didn’t say anything about your photography? Certainly you have to take compelling images that are head and shoulders above other photographers but if you were thinking that your work would sell itself, that’s not going to happen. You have to be all that and a great salesperson.
There’s something really personal about being turned down in person. They’re not just rejecting your work, they’re rejecting you! Yet lobbying for jobs in person is where the money is and it’s what separates the successful photographers from those doing a different job three years later. You have to be really passionate about photography to face that kind of rejection day after day.
If you’re still here then here are the ways to market yourself that will, with great humility and persistence, eventually lead to the really well paying commercial photography gigs.
Step one is researching your local market. You need to know who the local names in commercial photography are and what they’re charging. The two biggest mistakes you can make are charging too much and charging too little. Your prices need to be in line with the local market and nine out of ten of the rookie photographers I know are bidding WAY below market rates. If you lowball your rate customers will lose respect for you and undervalue your work. Much better if you can be somewhere in the middle of the pack.
You’re also going to need a list of the advertising agencies and marketing companies that hire photographers. All of them already have a regular group of photographers they’ve worked with for years and now you come along and want a piece of the pie. Be prepared to show them something they can’t get from their regular photographers, a niche that you can own.
Join a Regional Photographers Association
In most areas there will be a professional association of photographers in the local market that meet regularly and discuss the local business climate. They’ll all know why you’re there and every single one of them was there once themselves. From them you can pick up invaluable knowledge about who hires photographers, the going rates and a lot of tips for shooting better work.
Do keep in mind they’re used to seeing people come and go rather quickly, so don’t be surprised if you have to go to meetings for quite a while before they start warming up to you.
Any sane person hates cold calling because it tends to be the most brutal rejection there is, but to make a living you’re going to need to approach advertising agencies and other agencies that hire photographers in person. They get a million emails a week and to compete you’re going to need to call and introduce yourself and set up an in-person meeting to show off your work. Then use email to follow up.
This is why you have to know local rates before you walk in the door. If they see something they like and it happens to line up with a need they have right now, you could be walking out with big time commercial work. It would be great if you had a boilerplate contract with you, but you can work that out later, just make sure it’s signed before you commit any time or money to the project.
There’s another reason to be an active participant in the regional photographers association and that’s to meet other photographers who are already members of the American Society of Media Photographers or ASMP. Sometimes your regional photographers association is part of ASMP and that means you’re in luck. Your job will be getting two of them to like you enough to sponsor your membership and be able to raise $300 to pay your dues.