Vision: as a photographer, as a business owner

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on July 17, 2011

in This is Business

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The longer you’ve been a photographer, the more developed your vision is.

Your vision, perceiving the world as an artist, is your talent for seeing that which others do not see.

You’ve heard the expression “to the untrained eye.” Just like an old-school gumshoe can see clues in a crime scene that the young bucks can’t, a learned photographer can see artistic potential in the play of light, line, color, texture, wardrobe, expression and pose.

Admit it, you “see the light” all the time and say to yourself or a friend, “That would make a lovely photo,” or, “This would be a great place to bring my next client.”

You don’t need me to talk about developing your vision, your third eye, your sixth sense when it comes to art – but what you probably haven’t considered is that a good business owner (as you aspire to be as a professional photographer) has the same special vision when it comes to seeing business potential and opportunities.

As photographers, we take pride and joy in our ability to see the potential for art that others miss. But when it comes to doing better business, often our untrained eyes leave us with our hands in the air, crying “I don’t know what to do!”

There are four major arenas that make up the whole of your business:

  • Product: This is your art, what your clients directly pay for (beyond the great experience you provide). The better your art, the easier it is to market your services and sell your photos.
  • Marketing: These are the methods through which you bring in paying customers, either new business or repeat. Marketing is a wide swath, a huge part of your business, which is why most of what I write about here on PartTimePhoto.com is on this topic. The better your marketing, the better you’re able to communicate the value you offer as a professional photographer to the people who need to know it.
  • Experience: This is the next stage after your marketing has done its job – once your client is in the door, beyond producing a great product for them, the experience you provide is what earns you repeat business. These are the touchpoints, the opportunities to go above and beyond and create positive memories your clients can’t help but talk about. This is where you do all the little things that elevate a client’s experience from being a consumer to becoming a superfan. The better your clients’ experience with you, the more referrals you’ll get.
  • Workflow: This is the backend of your business; not what your customers see, but the work you do behind the scenes. This is your routine, your system, how you get’er done. The better your workflow, the less time it takes you to do business, and thus the greater per-hour profit you earn for yourself and your family.

Vision is all about inspiration and where it’s found. Developing your vision as a business owner as you have as a photographer, you will see inspiration everywhere for great marketing, great customer experiences, and great ways to improve your business. It has a snowball effect – the more you develop your vision, the more ways you’ll recognize business inspiration, and the more quickly you’ll innovate in your business practices.

Within the four above arenas, here are some ways to exercise your vision:

Product

The quality of your product is the baseline for your business – the better your core product, the easier it is to market, get referrals, and charge above-average prices.

Great art multiplies the efficacy of your marketing time and dollars. Great art impresses clients and sends them bragging about you to their family and on Facebook.

But art does take time – few start out their adventure of part time professional photography as wildly impressive artists. Odds are you’re definitely better than the average Guy With a Camera, otherwise friends and family wouldn’t be encouraging you to do what you do professionally. But growing as an artist and improving the quality and consistency of your product is a long-term cycle of inspiration, education, and practice.

Again, I don’t need to talk about artistic vision here; as a photographer, you know where you find inspiration: in the forums, in photography competitions, on photo blogs, in magazines, in other artists’ great and award-winning work. You find it in a walk through the park, in a sunset, in the way light dances through a window in your home.

For inspiration in the presentation and polish of your product, look no further than Apple. Theirs is so refined that their many, many customers buy out of passion and desire as much as for the tangible usage of their products. When was the last time you saw a sexy MP3 player? A stylish laptop? A luxurious monitor? Apple has mastered the quality and presentation balance to a point where they can sell a technically inferior product with such style and desirability that folks pay above-standard prices for the privilege of ownership – they’ll even stand in line all night on release day.

Look for inspiration in any product that is highly-praised by its buyers, whether its a video game review on Metacritic or a car review on Edmunds.com – what do they say about the best products, and what’s the real takeaway from each? Often, the takeaway is to over-deliver on client expectations – be better than your brag. One boon to being an artist is that you are always getting better, especially at the early end of your professional career.

Work to bring something new to each shoot. One additional pose, one additional joke to elicit a true smile from your subject, one additional scene to shoot at your preferred location, one new post-processing method. You’ll see your repertoire grow with every shoot, and you’ll see the fruits of your learning and practice as your per-client sales averages grow accordingly.

Marketing

You can’t turn your head without being inundated by some manner of marketing: banner ads on the internet, billboards on the highway, print ads and press releases and advertorials in magazines and newspapers, radio ads, TV ads, newsletters (and worse, spam) in your Inbox, coupons in the mail, blathering boxes set atop gas pumps that harass you to buy discount hot dogs and sodas inside the convenience store…it’s bloody endless.

Most marketing is pure, unfiltered crap – it couldn’t convince a flame-engulfed billionaire to buy a five-dollar fire extinguisher.

But some marketing stands out. It’s exceptional. It’s subtle, or it’s bold. It doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence. You can’t ignore it. It slaps you across the face and makes you like it.

This is the kind of marketing you want to draw inspiration from. Not the late-night drivel on the network TV stations, not the back-of-the magazine ads to multiply your libido. Look for the best advertising and marketing campaigns in the world. The internet makes this dead easy.

Look to what marketing has inspired you to check out or even buy a product or service. Your car dealer, your realtor, your grocery store, your cycle shop, your favorite restaurant – how did you learn about them? What convinced you to choose them to spend your money with? Whether through a marketing piece, a story in your local paper, an ad in a magazine, a window display on Main Street, or a recommendation from a friend, it’s all marketing.

I find a lot of inspiration in reading business magazines like Fast Company or Inc. Great articles on innovative businesses, and great magazine advertising within. The content puts you in the mindset of a knowledge-hungry business owner, which primes you to be inspired by the good ideas you glean within.

Great small business marketing blogs like Duct Tape Marketing can also keep your mind open to new business and marketing ideas.

I originally read these resources to find specific ways to improve my business. Now, I enjoy both those ideas and the discovery of new and interesting ways to present my business, based on the best practices I see in use by other companies. Ever see an Apple product announcement? “One more thing…”? The associated e-mail newsletter, the associated resources added to their web site? The media buzz? It’s all on purpose. Be on the lookout, and when you separate the wheat from the chaff in all the marketing messages thrown your way, pick from the best and apply them to how you expose your business within your market.

Workflow

The gems of good workflow, of a good business system, are harder to spot. These are the behind-the-scenes practices that help keep everything running smoothly and efficiently. A good workflow lets you keep your gear ready, your backups handy, your archives safe, your photos processed, all in the smallest amount of time required to do a great job.

Pareto’s Law applies fully here: 80 percent of your results will come from 20 percent of your actions.

For example, when post-processing a shoot, 80 percent of what your client will see and care about will be a result of 20 percent of the time you invest in post. If you’re a perfectionist (as most artists are), you’ll lose a ton of time trying to achieve that extra five, 10, 15 percent of improvement beyond 80 percent.

When you’re getting paid thousands or tens of thousands of dollars each job, then you can afford to invest that kind of time in attaining near-perfection; in fact, at that level of art and clientele, it’s likely a requirement. But in the trenches, here on the start-up end of the industry, you’ll get far more return on your time investment by strictly following the 80/20 rule.

That extra hour or two (or four) spent chasing perfection in post is surely better spent directly serving your clients and marketing your services.

So where to look for inspiration?

One of the best sources for me has been to read books about businesses, about business innovation, such as business biographies, stories of business successes, and such. Online and in the forums, you can also read real-world talk from people in the trenches doing the work, like here on PartTimePhoto.com.

Study fast food restaurants. Study car dealers. Study any business that benefits from a business system that maximizes efficiency and consistency.

Have you ever experienced exceptionally fast turnaround from a business? What’s their backend system like that makes them so much faster than the competition? Find me a service station that can turn around an oil change consistently in 15 minutes or less (with washed windows and vacuumed floorboards), and I’ll gladly pay extra. As a parent, add in a small play area with clean, fun toys for kids and a big screen TV with ESPN or CNN on, and I’ll probably never even consider going elsewhere.

Photographers eat a lot of time on post-processing. Can you learn to create Photoshop Actions that will make your workflow go much faster? Could you use different software for culling and processing photos (I use Bridge and Camera Raw with Photoshop)? Could you give yourself a time limit and no matter what, adhere to it?

At its simplest, ask yourself, what would make your job easier? What would make it simpler? What can you outsource (especially web design, another realm where photographers can endlessly sink time in trying to exercise control and indulge perfectionism)?

Parkinson’s Law says that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. You may find that simply giving yourself a hard time limit for tasks that otherwise have the ability to spiral beyond control (post-processing, blog reading, hanging out unproductively in the forums) forces you to focus only on what matters most – the 80/20 rule – what gives you the most results in the least amount of time.

Watch for how others apply the 80/20 rule to their business to maximize their per-hour profits.

Experience

There’s a reason I preach about the Customer Experience every bit as much as marketing and art: it’s where most companies fail, and where you have the immediate ability to make big improvements in your business.

In seeking inspiration for how you can better the experience of your own customers, ask yourself or others you respect: what experiences as a customer stand out in your memory as exceptionally positive? When have you received great customer service or enjoyed comfort or simplicity above and beyond the norm? What customer experiences have you had that you’ve gone out of your way to tell friends or family about?

The customer experience ties into every touchpoint in your business, from how you answer the phone to the jokes you tell during a shoot to the wrapping you use to deliver your client’s purchase. A great customer experience is so rare as to be downright refreshing nowadays. It goes beyond customer service – it’s a level of thoughtfulness that shows a business both understands its customer and truly strives to delight them at every step.

Many times, it’s the “duh” moments, the simple stuff, the little things. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all these self-serve DVD rental kiosks showed the Rotten Tomatoes score for each movie inside? How about if you could sort inventory by score and availability? What if they let you sign up for e-mail or SMS notifications of when a certain movie was returned or newly-available? What if they had a smartphone app or web site where you could go to “re-rent” a movie and save 50 cents on keeping it an extra day, just in case you didn’t get to watch it in time?

Look not only for instances of where a business does all the little things right to give you an exceptional experience as a customer, but also for those times when businesses merely maintain the status quo (which, sadly, is most often the minimum possible), doing nothing to go above and beyond in meeting your needs or delighting you along the way.

More often than not, you’ll find that these little touchpoints, all the little moments of thoughtfulness and purposeful delighting, cost little to nothing to provide, but mean so very much to your clients. Remember above where I mention my dream service station with a clean family room and ESPN on the big screen? My oil’s getting changed either way, but I’ll pay more, tell my friends all about it, and never go elsewhere.

That’s the kind of experience you want to create for your clients, and you’ll find inspiration to do so in watching for examples of it in the businesses you and your social circle frequent.

Imitation, the greatest form of flattery

In the midst of all this inspiration, don’t find yourself plagiarizing other businesses. No more than you would identically recreate another photographer’s image, would you want to straight up jack another business’ inspired marketing campaign.

However, there is nothing at all wrong with imitation, with taking inspiration from other great work. Just as you have photographers whose art you admire and try to learn from, look to successful businesses in structuring marketing pieces, incorporating the best practices of efficient workflow, and creating memorable experiences for your clients.

Don’t just look to other photographers by any means – the worst thing you can do is grow to become “just another photographer” in your market. See how excellence is on display by businesses across many industries. Incorporate the best ideas, put your own twist on them (trust your own creative instincts), and reap the ever-multiplying awards.

Just as it took time to develop your vision as an artist of photography, it will take time and practice to develop your vision as an artist of business. But it will come. Plant the seed in your mind, make proactive efforts to exercise your business vision, and savor the newfound inspiration that surrounds you.

Next Steps

  • Go to Amazon.com, type in the name of a product you know people adore, and read the customer reviews. Study and learn. Take notes on what people are “really saying,” what the real takeaway is, and how you can incorporate these ideals into your product and business.
  • Go to Yelp.com, type in the name of a local service business or restaurant you know folks love, and read the customer reviews. Study, learn, take notes.
  • Go to Google.com, and search for lists of award-winning advertising. Study, learn, take notes.
  • Make it a short part of your morning routine to remind your subconscious to be attentive to business inspiration around you. Day by day, with practice and a bit of proactive effort, you’ll find yourself inspired by new ideas to help you do better business. A quick way to do this is to thumb through a few pages of Fast Company or Inc. with your morning coffee – it’ll prime your mind for the day.
  • For every book you buy about the art of photography, purchase and read a book about the art of business. Duct Tape Marketing by John Jantsch, Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port, The Thank You Economy by Gary Vaynerchuk, The Dip and Purple Cow by Seth Godin, Customers For Life by Carl Sewell, The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli, are great places to start.
  • Brainstorm session: Consider for a moment the best Product you ever used, the best Marketing you ever saw, the best Workflow you ever read about, and the best Experience as a customer you’ve ever had. Write down each of these, the why behind these choices, and a brief brainstorm of ways you can learn from and incorporate these ideals into your photography business.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
  • Where have you found inspiration for your business? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig July 17, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Another great post James! Thank you and please continue to spread your wisdom, I look forward to reading!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 17, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Thank you so much Craig, I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

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Kari July 17, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I’ll be in the middle of reading your posts and I realize I have a smile on my face. They are so inspiring and truly you give great advice! Tomorrow I am very much doing some research. I have been thinking about companies and how they appeal to their clients. So, now I have motivation to look more into it :). Thanks for taking the time out to remind us of things we need to know and continue to work on! 😀

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 17, 2011 at 11:13 pm

That’s awesome to hear Kari, thank you so much for the kind words! Any photographer can learn this stuff on their own over the years, but I’m happy to help give a heads-up on the lessons I’ve learned over the past 12 years. Any time I wonder whether or not I should write on a topic, I ask myself, “Would I have liked to have known this in the beginning?” Keeps me focused on what really is useful to share and know.

Thank you again for your readership!

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DeWaun Simmons July 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Wow, deep stuff, James. I’m gonna have to read and re-read this one. Not sure I can completely go without sleep, and having two jobs puts my sleep at a “premium”…but I can so fully relate to the problems in this.

You said, “As photographers, we take pride and joy in our ability to see the potential for art that others miss. But when it comes to doing better business, often our untrained eyes leave us with our hands in the air, crying “I don’t know what to do!”

Don’t know that I’ve actually cried, doing this… but my hands were definitely “in the air.” Thanks again for doing some heavy thinking for us PTP’s!

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Tyson Keefner May 26, 2017 at 5:59 am

I really like reading a post that will make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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