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Self-Promotion and Marketing

The Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job by Tony Luna, November 2008 (updated July 2009)

photography by Aric Mayer, Mark Alberhasky and Timothy Bailey


Introduction | I: Presentation | II: Client Contact | III: Self-Promotion | IV: Estimating Fees | V: Estimating Expenses | VI: Coordination | “VII: Execution:/learn/photography-business/freelance-photography-advice/execution/ | VIII: Expense Accountability | IX: Billing

This is the third in a series of nine articles on the nine steps necessary to complete a successful freelance photography job. In the first two articles, Presentation and Client Contact, we examined how to put your portfolio together to present the most effective presentation of your work, and then how to select the clients that would most benefit from viewing your work, and for whom you would most like to work. In this article, we will move to the next step which is how do you keep those potential informed and interested so your name is at the top of their minds when they are looking for the right talent for their next project. In other words how can you promote your work most effectively and market yourself most efficiently.

Before we get started, let’s make sure we appreciate the fact that this phase of the Lifecycle of a Freelance Photography Job is all about the media (promo cards, ads, announcements, etc.) you put out in promotion of your talent when you can’t meet with people face to face. The question you have to ask yourself is what will make an Art Buyer or Art Director or Photo Editor want to save any references to my work? What will not only get their attention, but also compel them to hang onto examples of my work so they can easily retrieve them when the time is right? What causes a potential client to sort through tons of collected samples, select their top ten initial choices from their reference files and then eventually pick one artist over another?

To answer many if not most of these questions we have to revisit our old friend, The Six Elements of an Effective Presentation, the first article in this series and apply them to any medium that will resonate with the smallest number of people who need what we love to do. That is, our two-dimensional printed or digital promotion items must have:

  • a point of view
  • continuity
  • professionalism
  • a simple message
  • uniqueness
  • relevance to a specific audience.

When it comes to Self-Promotion, we have to add a sixth element and that is our promotional materials must be presented as part of a campaign. When you take a look at the most enduring self-promotional items, besides memorable images they have one other thing in common and that is that each of them reinforce the look or brand of the artist. To create a campaign you have to take a long range look at how you are going to present your work as an extension of your personality and your vision. You have to approach your self-promotion campaign to attract, inform and reinforce who you are and how you approach your craft.

Another way of looking at this is that it is useful to employ some of the techniques your clients use in promoting their clients—namely they find out what is unique about their client’s product, build a culture around their products, and then reemphasize that brand concept with every promotion. Now, I don’t mean to imply that your work should be sold as a box of soap, but I do suggest that you find that special thing that separates you from the rest, and that you highlight it in every promotional you send out, each item strengthening the last. Again, this is not to pigeon-hole you, but it is to build awareness in their minds and bring you to the forefront.

Let me give you a little story to demonstrate my point. This is a story from my early days as an Artist Representative for my friend photographer/film director Dan Wolfe. One day I had an appointment with an old school agency Producer at a major ad agency. She was a tough cookie (I can see her now, she had a cigarette clenched in her teeth) and when I walked into her office she took the 3/4” VHS reel from my hand and she said, “So tell me, what makes you think I’ll remember this reel over the 250 other reels that I have on my office shelves?” I don’t remember how I responded then but I do recall that there was not anything that differentiated those reels from one another except for the type on the spines of the reels stating the names of the directors and cinematographers. It was then that I suggested that we print in bold letters the core proposition of the company, “DAN WOLFE SHOOTS FOOD.” The text was printed over a photo of a towering hamburger and it made you hungry just looking at it. The point was that I wanted my potential clients to put that reel on their shelf, glance at it from time to time (and get hungry), and reinforce all of our promotional materials with the Dan Wolfe Shoots Food mantra. Then, when their boss would run into the producer’s office saying, “Get me the reels of ten food shooters right away!” I wanted the producer to say in reflex action like Pavlov’s dog, “Dan Wolfe Shoots Food,” and grab for the reel. At least that way we would be in the mix, be reviewed, and have a shot at getting the job. Your promotional must have that kind of impact, that kind of response, thereby having the ability of getting you into the mix. After that it is up to you to sell yourself when you speak to the Art Director about your vision of how you will execute their concept using all of your talent and magic. You won’t get the chance to explain your interpretation unless you get their attention first.

Consult a Graphic Designer

One of the most useful ways to build that awareness is to consult with a Graphic Designer when you begin to design your next promo pieces. Then create a graphic look that will be consistent with each successive piece you send out. This does not mean every piece has to look the same until the end of time; your business will come to an end very shortly if every piece looks the same. There has to be a sense of an ongoing campaign that will tie all the pieces together. By doing this over a period of time you will build a meme in their minds as to what you love to shoot the most and give the most effort.

By way of example let me share with you a few promos sent to me by Aric Mayer. I have received a number of Aric’s self-promos over the years and I always seem to hang onto them because they are so well executed. I know Aric to be an exquisite landscape and location photographer among other things. In one instance he sent out some compelling shots he took of the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. They were very moving and somehow I could not do anything but stop dead in my tracks to consider the impact of this disaster on the lives of the people of New Orleans every time I looked at them.

Sometime later, Aric sent out another set of landscape images that totally captivated me for their mystery and magic. Two entirely different sets of subject matter unified by the common denominator that they were locations he found that told a story. His approach was so direct that his pieces immediately made it into my files and I continue to collect examples of his work because I love to see where he has been and how he has grown.

The Selection Process

I have asked a number of Art Buyers, Art Directors and Photo Editors what are the determining factors on how they select talent and their responses were remarkably similar. Many of them get tons of unsolicited self-promotional materials sent to them every day. More than one ad agency I know of has an art department assistant sort through the mail and throw away most of the self-promos keeping only the ones he or she likes. Those which are spared are passed on to the Art Buyers who then decide which they want to keep and they place those in file folders with descriptive titles such as “landscape,” “table-top,” “auto-interior,” “auto-exterior,” in large lateral file cabinets. Items that are too large to fit in the folders are tossed. Those that are too small and precious, or too unwieldy to open are put aside (most people don’t want to struggle to see the work). Those file folders are cleaned out periodically when items become dated or the files are too crammed to fit in any new work. However, I have heard of some items, which have managed to stay in the files for long periods of time because the work was so compelling (which in this case usually meant the Art Directors wanted to use that person some time in the future when the time was right), and/or the work represented a campaign that grew over time and the Art Directors wanted to hang onto them because they showed an evolution in the art and they wanted to wait until they could find a reason to use the artist. There’s that word campaign again.

I am reminded here of one of my former students who took the idea of a campaign to heart and built a successful career in part because he created a brand identity around his work. His name is Dean Siracusa and he was one of my first students when I started teaching over twenty-five years ago. He had a specific vision right from the beginning; he wanted to build his business taking photographs of anything that moved. He loved cars, and planes, and boats, and he loved taking pictures of them. Early on he connected with a fellow student who was a Graphic Designer and they chose to use a variation of the road sign signifying an S-curve as the logo for his business; “S” for Siracusa, and the road sign to convey the thrill of driving. Brilliant. Early on every promotion piece he sent out had some reference to the S-curve and over the years he became known as the sheet metal shooter with the S-curve brand. Interestingly enough this did not keep him from shooting other kinds of work because he is so talented all he needed to do was to get in the door and then he could show his ability to shoot other subjects in a multitude of conditions.

Now, here’s the really interesting thing I have found. When their bosses ask them to pull examples of work and recommend talent for a photo shoot most of the Art Buyers I have spoken to say they usually first go to those folders in the lateral file cabinets, then they go to the resource books which contain ads by photographers, followed by calls and conversations to other Art Buyers and Artist Reps whose opinions they respect. Some may begin by going to web sites they have bookmarked and then proceed to the printed files. The printed work shows how their work translated in the tactile, kinesthetic world, while the web sites are used to see depth of talent, and breadth of expertise. Anyone who is looking to hire a professional photographer wants to know he or she can execute the specific task they have in mind, but also needs to know what else they can carry out should their client have more extensive needs. They want to know that the images on the printed cards were not just lucky shots and the photographer has more to bring to the table should the situation arise.

I think it is especially interesting that in these days of access to more information than ever, Art Buyers are talking to each other, sometimes even between agencies, to find the right talent for a particular job. There seems to be more openness to trade information today than in times past and that is a healthy thing. If anything it could be that access to more information has made it harder to find the appropriate talent because there are so many ways to “discover” an up and coming artist. An Art Director, Photo Editor, or Art Buyer has to be constantly looking for new artists, but their time is consumed with getting more work out than ever before. The new technologies have put increased pressures for productivity on those who fulfill the final ad or photo spread in a magazine so we have to be more targeted and responsible in whom we send our work out to.

Keep in mind that self-promos don’t have to be flashy or costly to be effective, but they have to speak to your unique take on things. One of my recent photo students created a great example of this principle with his first promo, one that I think will get him lots of attention. His name is Timothy Bailey and his approach was to design a fold-out promo with images that exemplified his specific abilities to create humorous scenarios of people on location. I am including the following images of his promotional showing the front cover when the triptych is closed, the open two page view, the open three page view, and the open three page view of the reverse side.

I will not be surprised when I see this promotion piece thumb tacked to the bulletin boards inside the cubicles of Photo Editors and Art Buyers.

Your Virtual Promotions

Let’s talk a little about web sites. I am sure you have seen a lot of web sites for photographers that have taken your breath away, and then there are those that have caused you to gasp or sigh. The ones that take your breath away are well organized, have a point of view, are easy to navigate, and give you a total picture not only of the creativity of the photographer but also their philosophy. Sites that are hard to open, require that you jump through hoops to open, or ask for too much information before you peek into their inner pages may put you off, seem foreboding, maybe too legalistic, and are generally unapproachable and therefore bypassed. There are some sites that are so media heavy that they take an eternity to get to the first image. You can guess where this is headed. Along with showing your abilities as a photographer your site must convey professionalism; it must mean business. The same rubrics that apply to effectively putting your portfolio together apply to your web page. If anything, a simple message and ease of use stand out because the potential client as a viewer needs to see the best of what you have to offer and see it expressed in many different ways (depth and breadth as I mentioned earlier). On top of that it should have a bio included so the viewer gets to know your background, which may reveal further reasons to hire you. It must include an easy way to get in touch with you through phone numbers and a link to your email. I know this sounds obvious but you would be surprised at how many people spend significant amounts of money on their web sites and make it hard to get in touch with them.

On a similar note I should mention here that it is imperative that when you are designing your printed self-promos you must place your contact information on each page. I know that this sounds like a no-brainer but I have had numerous Art Buyers ask me to remind my photo students to prominently place their contact info on all pieces because the individual pages sometimes get mixed up in their files and they may come across an intriguing image that is just right for a project but don’t know how to get in touch with the artist. It is frustrating for the Art Buyer and counter-productive for the artist.

The Importance of Email

I have spent a lot of time talking about printed pieces and web sites but I must mention the enormous impact email has had on promotion. It wasn’t that long ago that many Art Buyers with whom I spoke told me they did not like email promotions because they were intrusive and flooded their email inboxes. Quite a few Art Buyers have more recently told me that they don’t mind email promos as long as they are:

  • easy to read and to the point—the message is concise
  • have an intriguing image embedded in them—the email contains a thumbnail image of something relevant to the type of work they do, applicable to their clients
  • a link to the photographer’s web site—a link they can use to go directly to the web site for more examples

The ones that pass the muster are then bookmarked for later reference. Don’t expect an immediate response from the Art Buyers because they are too busy to respond, but make it worth their while to take notice. Also make sure you provide an “opt out” line at the end of your unsolicited email so they can let you know if they wish to be taken off of your mail list. Many of the mail list services will provide email addresses in which the recipients have approved the receipt of unsolicited email, but you must give them the opportunity to opt out as a professional courtesy.

Once you have approved email addresses a world of opportunities open up as now you can let your prospective clients know of your accomplishments thereby giving you increased credibility in the marketplace. Make sure that you let the appropriate individuals know about any photography competitions you have won, or any gallery openings you are a part of. Also make sure you let them know of any pro-bono work you are doing which will also let them know of your interests and involvements. Be certain to use the email options to fill them in on where your work has been featured in magazines and books, on the web, or in alternative media.

The Power of Networks

It is more important than ever to attend trade shows and belong to organizations that can use your photographic skills. Once the word gets around that you have the ability to promote their services you will open up a multitude of opportunities for yourself. The more chances you have to connect with what I call like-minded people, the more likelihood you will have of having your work appreciated. Nowadays, we can’t overlook the power of social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, etc. These web-based social utilities have become the virtual communities that potentially make it easier to promote our work. They are like going to a conference without leaving the privacy of your studio or office. As I have mentioned before our business thrives on connections and that is why you have to search out every opportunity in which to show your work.

There is also the power of the blog. The blogosphere is crowded with special interest groups but I have noticed that photographers have been especially adept at using blogs to exchange information and I am sure there are Art Buyers and Photo Editors and other prospective clients who look in to see what is evolving in our industry.

The Functional Promotional Item

Personally, I am not a big fan of promotional items such as those ubiquitous ball point pens or over-sized Rolodex cards in order to advance a photographer’s career. Most of those kinds of things are kitschy. I do have a fondness for well thought out, well executed marketing materials that can stand the test of time. There is nothing better than having your work in front of your potential client instead of stuffed away in some cluttered drawer or hidden in a file. I am always on the lookout for self-promotions that people feel compelled to keep on the top of their desks and refer to every day.

One instance of the well executed functional promotional is Mark Alberhasky’s quarterly calendars. Mark is able to send out an email with a download from his ftp page of a three month calendar. Once you receive his two or three sentence email you can click on the link, print out the calendar, which has one of his latest shots, follow the instructions and fold it into a free-standing desk calendar. By so doing he respects the recipient’s email box by not sending a large attachment, makes it easy to print any number of calendars, and it is a cost effective way to keep up to date with a large number of colleagues and potentinal clients. It’s a great way to see what he is currently shooting, have a desk reference, as well as keep him in mind for the next shooting opportunity.

Then there is one of my personal favorites, one which I had a hand in many years ago. I was searching for a way to have the contact information for the photographer I work with somehow always present on the desks of clients and people I wanted to have as clients. One day, while at a computer expo I noticed a man who made personalized mouse pads. When I told my photographer he came up with the idea of using a shot he had done for a pharmaceutical company as the main image. It wasn’t long before we started sending out Wolfe and Company Films mouse pads and seeing them show up on desks all over the place. They became such a hit that people became possessive about them. The best part was that they didn’t have to search for the contact information if they wanted to contact us; they just had to refer to their mouse pads. It turned out to be a successful promotion.

Any discussion of the topic of marketing and self-promotion for professional photographers must include an acknowledgment of Maria Piscopo and the wonderful work she has done in helping untold numbers of photographers promote their work. Her book, “The Photographer’s Guide to Marketing and Self-Promotion-Third Edition,” Allworth Press, is the bible on how to get your work seen and appreciated. In a recent conversation with Maria I learned she is working on the Fourth Edition, which will include new strategies on how to get your work noticed in our challenging new marketplace. Make sure you refer to her books filled with insights and interviews for the most comprehensive discussion on this topic. And be sure to consult her web site at www.mpiscopo.com.

Summary

In many ways, the contemporary business of photography has been a metaphor for the evolving world of commerce. We are based in the twin disciplines of art and innovation. We are some of the first to embrace new technologies and take them to new levels, and in so doing we create possibilities for the future and develop employment opportunities. We frame and capture life as it is happening on film and in pixels, and we provide vision. None of this can happen unless we let others become aware of our unique ways of interpreting the world and its unlimited possibilities.

So far, in the first three articles of this series we have explored the ways we need to present our work, to whom we need to present our work, and how to keep them informed. We have seen that the most important aspect is to make ourselves unique in the marketplace and to allow others to buy into our personal perspective.

Next, it is time to take a look at how we need to go about pricing our work from the expenses side and the fees side. We need to consider what to say when that prospective client actually calls with a job and how to negotiate the terms. This is probably the trickiest part of the process, but it is essential information and we will tackle it in Part IV of the series, the one titled Estimating.

More

Lifecycle of a Freelance Photographer

Other Articles by Tony Luna

About the Author

Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony presented a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper. More »


Text ©2008 Tony Luna. Photos ©2008 Mark Alberhasky, Aric Meyer, Timothy Bailey.

Article revised July 2009.

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