Introduction: As I mentioned yesterday, Austin, Texas, commercial photographer Kirk Tuck's new book, Commercial Photography Handbook: Business Techniques for Professional Digital Photographers, from Amherst Media, will begin shipping from Amazon.com this morning. (I believe the release date for the U.K. version is October 8th, although you can pre-order it now.) I asked Kirk if he'd answer some questions from TOP readers, starting with a few of mine...
Mike Johnston: Kirk, welcome to TOP.
Kirk Tuck: Thanks very much. I wake up every morning and read The Online Photographer before anything else. Amazing to think that one morning soon I'll wake up and read this. Warps my idea of the time/space continuum.
MJ: You're not the only one who thinks I warp things. Insert rimshot. Anyway, your previous two books were a matched set about lighting, one about lighting on location and one about lighting in the studio. I particularly liked those books because of your clear and simple style, but also your clear and simple way of thinking about lighting, which is pretty rare. But tell me, why the change of direction with this new title?
KT: I loved writing the first two books because they are purely about lighting. I've spent the better part of thirty years lighting stuff, so at some point it just seemed natural to share it. I thought I'd write one book and that would be it. Who knew that we'd sell out the first book in a bit more than a month? I certainly never thought so. But it seemed to resonate with photographers who wanted to learn about leveraging small, battery powered flashes, and who actually like to read.
But after two titles, it seemed that if I wrote any more books about lighting, they would start to be very reductionist and I'd end up writing about stuff that was more and more obscure.
It was my publisher who suggested that I write about the business of photography. He had listened to me talk about the challenges of being an ASMP* Chapter President and how much new photographers needed to learn about the business and the marketing end of the business if they had any hope of making a decent living, and he suggested that I write a book for a whole new generation of shooters who know tons about post-processing but very little about getting a client and servicing and keeping that client. Based on what I'm hearing back from people who've read the book, it's really hitting a nerve...in a good way.
And the change of title was good. How many books does one really want that start the title with "Minimalist Lighting..."? It can get confusing.
MJ: So who is this new book for? Is it just for people who are already commercial photographers? That might be a pretty small audience.
KT: I think this book is perfect for all the students who've sat through two- or four-year courses and learned to light and pose and print, but never learned how to assist and market and follow up on a direct mailer. It's for the IT guy who got laid off and thinks he might try his hand at professional photography. It's for the "mom with a camera" who's decided to get serious about her part-time business.
But what I'm finding to be the biggest market are legions of photographers who were content with surviving on the "low hanging fruit" only to find out this year that all the stuff on the lower branches dried up. Now they either need to pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the business or hang it up and learn how to make coffee. But finally, there's a huge segment of our market (and perhaps among the readers of TOP) who have great careers doing something else but always wondered what it would be like to step out of a traditional career and see what it's like working on the bomb squad, diving for sunken treasure...or trying to make one's way through life as a working photographer.
In the end I'm reasonably sure that my mom will buy a number of copies....
I just thought of one more group of potential readers: photographers whose specialty has become less than special who are contemplating a move to a different subject matter. A different niche. Stock photographers who may be looking for a less "stock-able" subject matter, like architecture or executive portraits....
MJ: So basically anyone who has ever done any work for pay, or who's been contemplating working for pay. Got it.
Next question, what does this book offer that typical "business of photography" books don't? I assume it's more readable, for one thing (I should mention to readers that I haven't seen the book yet). Some of those titles can be, shall we say, yawn-inducing.
KT: I was thinking about offering a "yawn free" guarantee with this book, but my publisher said that would bring up too many liability issues!
To make it less about me and more about the concepts, I include three spreads from three incredible photographers who inspired me in my career and who are still working and surviving the recession. One is Wyatt McSpadden, who had an incredible photographer's book on Texas BBQ published this Spring. It's called Texas BBQ, and it is one of the most amazing books on the culture of food I've seen. Next up is architectural photographer Paul Bardagjy, who came to the field from an academic background of art history and design, and finally, Will Van Overbeek, who's worked for more cool magazines and Fortune 500 clients than anyone I know. He did a show of images taken at a local spring-fed pool, and the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin bought the entire show!!
Of course I am wildly opinionated and given to hyperbole, but only in the pursuit of getting concepts across.
Look, I've read a ton of "business of photography" books and they all came across as, "look at me, I'm a wealthy photography expert knocking down seven figures." I wanted to write a book that really opened the kimono, acknowledged that fact that the lessons we learn best are generally learned the hard way, and that my career is also a work in progress. The important thing that any book can do is to provide a new framework to build with. And I think a little humor is like the mortar in the building process. Thanks for the nod to my writing style but I just write the way I talk. (That's why the books are so long....)
MJ: And how about nuts and bolts? I'm surprised sometimes that people have ambitions to be art photographers but don't know about portfolio drop-offs, or want to be wedding photographers and don't know about marketing to wedding consultants. And I don't think most photographers have the slightest clue about the "buyer chain" from the AD on up to the client, or how it impacts how they have to sell themselves.
What I'm asking is, how good do you think this book is as a basic how-to, for someone who really needs action steps in order to get started?
KT: Michael, first of all I should say that the book doesn't really go into detail about wedding photography and what I would call retail photography. I mention pricing models, but working directly with the public is very different than the way commercial and advertising photographers work with their peers and clients. The pricing models are similar, but they sell to a new client all the time, whereas we try to focus on a small group over and over again. And ad clients already understand the market, the service and the pricing models.
When I meet with other photographers, they love to talk about gear but rarely talk about marketing. Having the best gear in the world is pretty meaningless from a money-making standpoint if you can't attract and keep clients. And most photographers are reticent to go out and meet people. They want to believe that all they need to do is get a good web site up and then concentrate on search-engine optimization. There's a lot more to it than that.
So here, in a nutshell, is the way the book progresses. There's the short history of commercial photography. There's a section on how we charge, and it's probably the critical concept of the book. The pricing premise (based on much historic precedence) is that you, the photographer, own the images you create and you license specific usages of those images to your clients. It's the same way Microsoft works in supplying software. You don't own their code, you are licensing very specific usage rights. This allows them to sell the software over and over and over. Once we get past that piece of pricing theory I head into a discussion of the different types of commercial photography, emphasizing all the way through how different clients and their expectations are in each niche.
Then I barrel on in to the section on advertising and marketing. What are art buyers looking for? Can you really run a profitable advertising business with nothing but an online portfolio and some tweets? (No!) How do you put together a portfolio? How do you follow up? How can you sell without selling all the time?
Then I run through an exercise of estimating a typical job for my business and walk through the billing and collection processes. Of course there are sections about insurance and the "nuts and bolts," but in my mind the marketing is where the rubber hits the road.
MJ: So these aren't marketing formulas, but principles from examples, sounds like.
KT: The interesting thing is that these are all things that have worked for me. There's nothing set in stone. And the information is presented anecdotally instead of as a fixed "formula for success." Everybody's different and what works for extroverts is anathema for introverts.
The underlying message of all my marketing stuff is that to be successful and happy you have to lose the idea of "us versus them" with regard to clients and potential clients and embrace collaboration. I know some famous New York photographers are legendary for their confrontational negotiation style, but I find that I have more long term honey when I join a client's "team" than when I demand and threaten, and that's a point that I hit on more than once in the book.
When I wrote this book, I did some research in my accounting and realized that I've had some clients for as long as 22 years. And they provide work year in year out. In fact I can probably point to one client whose payments singlehandedly bought my house...over time. Profitable collaboration.
Art photographers can benefit from the same marketing information as everyone else because their buyers (galleries) as pretty much like the art buyers in ad agencies. They do this for a living and have certain expectations as to approach and presentation. I think good business practices are pretty much universal.
MJ: Kirk, this is fascinating, and I know there's a lot more we could talk about, but we've already gone on a bit long for a blog post. It certainly sounds to me like this new book will be required reading for a lot of photographers who are interested in selling their work to professional clients. Good luck with it—I guess I don't have to explain that I think this is an important subject.
Will you be available to respond to comments and answer our readers' questions? Just selected ones, of course—you don't have to respond to every single comment.
KT: Absolutely. I'd love to answer any questions anyone want to throw out there. Thank you very much for getting in touch with me on this. I'm looking forward to reading it on TOP.
MJ: Thank you, Kirk. I'll open the floor to our readers now. Comments or questions, anybody?
*American Society of Media Photographers, formerly the American Society of Magazine Photographers. ASMP has more than 5,000 members in 30 countries.
Featured Question from Robert: "Why do all the how-to books illustrate their techniques with bad photography? The photos on the cover are banal at best. It is far better to read PDN, Aperture and the French Photo than any of the technique books at Borders."
Kirk replies: I agree with you wholeheartedly. I am not the best photographer in America or even in my own city. If I were doing a picture book or another how-to book aimed at how to take photographs, I would illustrate it with photos from people like Wyatt McSpadden, Will Van Overbeek and Paul Bardagjy, and probably just cherry pick a few of mine. But. And here's the big But: If I can make a living with the quality of images on the cover and sprinkled through the book then you've got to agree I must know something about marketing, advertising and keeping clients.
This is absolutely not a book about how to make cutting-edge photographs or images that will impress other photographers. It is steadfastly a book about how photographers who want to make money can choose a market niche, find clients and build a brand.
I work for clients who need good, straightforward images done with an eye to conservative corporate values. This book is aimed at people who are coming in to my industry and those who are looking to move up into profitable fields. The people who can already do the kind of work that wins awards and large spreads in major magazines are probably not part of the audience for the book.
I wish I were a better photographer. I really like my portrait work. But I wanted to be honest and show the kind of work that we do every day.
It's not a very glamorous business when you practice it outside New York, Milan, Paris and London. Even though it has a certain cachet, Austin is still a secondary market. Like the markets that most American photographers work in.