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Tuesday, 21 August 2018


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I did the freelance photog thing for about ten years. Your list is spot on.

There is an alternative for a handful of professional photographers: find one of the few remaining staff positions. I've been in one of those at a small university for 21+ years now. Of course that still requires most of the things on your list -- maybe even all of them. I'm not so worried about "sales" anymore, but I do take some care to keep up with the marketing and branding of my work, to maintain my employer's conviction that it's a good idea to keep me around. :)

The cool thing about this staff gig is that I've been able to build long term relationships with my subjects and my many clients (designers, writers, editors) on campus. I know who is doing what research, which professors and administrators are easiest to photograph, and where to find great light and a good backdrop any time of the day. It's nice being part of the community that I am covering. In many ways it's very similar to my first staff newspaper job, at a very small town paper right out of college.

Fair enough, actually totally fair. I don't pretend to be a pro photographer. I've often said that if I'd had to rely on my networking and sales skills, I'd have starved.

"Know thyself."

Mike, you have hit upon the very essence of marketing -- but rarely understood as such.

I started a small company and managed to take it to a public company. Yet, I never really understood marketing until I reached my mid-40s, years after I had retired. People tend to think of marketing as an outward facing function, commonly understood to encompass marketing communications in all its related bits, including branding, positioning, segmentation etc. What most miss is that an equally, if not more, important marketing function is inward facing: knowing the organization's true strengths (and weaknesses), its history, culture etc. It is the proper cultivation, utilization and communication of outward knowledge (of customer and market needs/trends etc.) and inward knowledge (core competence, capabilities, history etc.) which should drive product planning and business development.

Good businesses know "thyself". Those who don't, or forget who they are, tend to flounder, or fail.

I sort of fell into a job with a big company, but somewhere along the way, realized that it's the best place for me. I'm not an entrepreneur, don't want to market myself, find work, research health insurance options, taxes, retirement savings or any of the rest. I just want to come in and do the work I'm paid to do. So I put up with the corporate BS because it's better (for someone with my temperament) than the alternative. It also seems logical and efficient: civilization advanced when we moved beyond subsistence living and were allowed to specialize. So it makes sense for me to spend my time on what I'm good at and let marketers do their thing, let HR and IT do their jobs and so on.
I give lots of credit to those with the passion and drive to run successful small businesses. I know I'm not cut out for it.

Mike says: What If You Hate Marketing and Sales?

Me, I'm in favor of hiring others to do all the scutwork (a medical term, tasks that are tedious and monotonous or trivial and menial). If you don't like marketing, it is wise to hire an agent. Even though a 10%er will take a percentage of sales you will still make more money.

I'm colorblind and abhor retouching—why should I do it when hired-help can do a better job?.

There used to be a number of institutional, in house professional photographers. Not a ton, but some. There was a guy employed by the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth for years. He retired. Now I think they hire out. If you somehow managed to find a job like that, you would be a professional who would not be concerned with marketing.

Another option is to work for one of the big wedding photography businesses, the branded ones with a large staff. Then someone else handles marketing, and you handle shooting. Someone else might even handle the processing.

Really excellent post, and (at least in my experience, very good advice.
I was an avid photographer from age 15. I worked for the college paper covering sports and general news on deadline.
After college I enrolled in NYIP back when they had a campus. I took their Commercial Photography Program, then their Portrait photography Program and did well enough that they offered a Job teaching which I took while figuring out how to break into Professional photography.
My first job was as an assistant to a successful Commercial Photographer. I worked on set , in the darkroom, delivered proofs, ran to Duggal Color with chromes (2 1/4- 8x10) ran back & forth with 'clip tests' Kept track of where every piece of film was, wrote numbers on the frames with a radiograph & india ink.

What amazed me is that we worked hard Every day. If there was no paying job, we did testing with the same rigor as client work.
My studio had a REP. but I was amazed at just how hard my boss worked to keep work flowing. From promotional pieces , hand delivered to AD's to exceeding every deadline, If the client wanted 4 looks we gave them five, Warm calling AD's he knew to say "Hello" to cold calling AD's he wanted to work for. (Though the cold calling had to stop for contractual reasons with representation.

Then he had to be a collection agent as we upfronted lots of costs which were reimbursable, along with our fee, but it could take time.
......"The Accounting department has a question about .........."

You have to love photography, be a really good technician, and be able to think on your feet to deliver what was asked.
We got lots of good business because we were good problem solvers. There were hundreds of guys in NY who could make the shots we made. I would say we were hired 80% of the time for our problem solving abilities, and 20% for our 'artistic abilities'

It may be different for people who shoot sports or news but your advice is spot on for generalist Studio / location photography

But truly, it is no different than any small business.
Running ANY business successfully, is very hard work. If you are looking for nights & weekends off, go work for a large company .

There is a Restaurant in Montauk that started 60 years ago as a one room Lobster shack and has evolved into 75 Ocean Front acres of restaurants and shops as well as a dock and wholesale and retail Fish markets. Started and run by one family all these years.
The Matriarch of the family once said "Running a Family business is Not hard work, it is Indentured Servitude. You have to love it with your whole being, or it can't work"

I believe that you just described Kirk Tuck. His blog is a primer for how to succeed at hoot graph you.

Spell check just turned photography into word salad in my previous post. Sorry.

By those standards, I shouldn't have been a photographer at all.

I'd suggest that all of those sensible caveats aside, the single, greatest requirement is not on the list: the overwhelming desire that precludes any other option for your life. If you don't enjoy/suffer that, I'd suggest you think of doing anything else except photography.

If you are prepared to do absolutely any kind of work that you can get that involves a camera, don't have an overpowering drive in one direction, then I fail to see why you'd put yourself to the hassle, the constant state of insecurity, the massive shifts between great years and fallow.

Any advice I hear these days from people doing it at a high level is that the thing is in a constant state of flux, and that the way ahead is ever more with motion and not stills, though you do need both to stay afloat.

Of course, if you have the right connections, then you could always become an art photographer... you wouldn't necessarily need to be a great photographer to become rich.

Medicine and law are great careers.


Darn, your note about yourself does describe me pretty well. And still I would like nothing more then earn a living of photography, in some way or form. Always follow your dreams, they always say, but I agree you need to do that knowing your strengths and weaknesses. And I found there is nothing more dificult then that.

I flirted with the idea of going pro when I was made redundant about 20 years ago.

But if I turned it into a job, I knew that I would stop doing it for fun. In which case, what would I do in my spare time?

Thanks, Mike, for inspiring me to take another break from this book I'm doing on business to comment...
When I dropped out of grad school and looked at how to make a living, I considered continuing as a race mechanic but that had little earning potential in the late 60s before racing became more professional. So I used my physics degree to convince a very high tech company to hire me as.ta da..a salesman! Turned out that selling in a high tech environment was easy - solve a customer problem and you get an order. That attitude let me triple sales in my territory in no time.
Along the way, I took a bunch of courses on selling. I thought a lot about sales and developed a philosophy about it. Advertising and sales of consumer goods, the kinds of things that fill most advertising you see, is designed to create a desire. Successful advertising and sales of most everything else is oriented to fill a need.
A good sales person knows how to show the potential customer how they can provide a good solution to their problem - whether it's some high tech industrial product or photographs of a product, event or wedding. A portfolio of photos from a similar project establishes your ability to satisfy the customer.
My attitude changed as I gained experience and confidence. I knew I could provide a really good solution to the potential customer, and if I could not sell that, someone else would get the business and probably provide a lesser quality solution.
If somebody was going to get the order, I wanted it to be me! From that point on, my attitude changed. I was not reticent in telling the potential customer that I had a great solution and they would be satisfied.
I never sold on price.
Over time, I also learned when to walk away from a sale. Some orders you just don't want. The reasons vary - you don't have the best solution, the customer doesn't know what they want, or maybe the customer seems hard to satisfy. The most important thing to learn is when to not take business.
Aside: I only did one photography job for $ and learned that I am not of a mind-set that allows me to do creative work on demand. Same as a writer today - I do my thing only.

Based on reading his blog almost as much as yours, I'd say you described Kirk Tuck

Except for the “chronic, low-level intermittent unipolar depression” part.....me reading those lines you posting in the small print was like looking in a mirror. Metaphorically speaking.

If you hate marketing and sales, but your income depends on it, you'll learn to do marketing and sales. You'll probably still hate it though, which after a while will negatively effect any enjoyment you get from what you consider your main job.

I was once self-employed and surprised, shocked, saddened, enraged, frustrated, and driven mad to find out how much of my time was consumed by marketing and sales. Then, after all that work, I still had to do what I thought was my main job. What happened to all the freedom of self-employment and running my own business? I was, however, successful for the 3 years it lasted until I decided to go back to work for someone else. I considered my employment with them as actually just paying someone else to get customers for me. A trade off well worth it, I thought.

Nowadays, I am back to having some responsibility for sales, but in spite of being an introvert, it doesn't bother me like it once did. I mainly look at it as having a possible answer for a need (or problem) a client has. That sounds like just sale-speak, but it isn't. If I believe in a service, and I believe that we can help someone with it, I don't find it as stressful as I once did. I think the biggest difference is that I don't feel like I am selling myself like I did when I was my own sales rep.

"But if I turned it into a job, I knew that I would stop doing it for fun. In which case, what would I do in my spare time?"

You'd have no spare time :P


"But if I turned it into a job, I knew that I would stop doing it for fun. In which case, what would I do in my spare time?" -Steve Jacob.

Don't worry, if you are doing professional photography correctly you will not have any spare time. Problem solved.

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