What Marketing Ain’t

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on November 11, 2012

in This is Business

The Vurdict performs at the Guadalupe River Club in Kerrville, Texas - photo by Outlaw Photographer James Taylor
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Now don’t let me come off as cynical.

But one of the biggest mistakes I see my fellow part time photographers make early on is to desperately focus on what won’t grow their business, to the exclusion of what will.

It’s easy to fall into the trap where you obsess over minutiae, and oversimplify marketing to just advertising.

Advertising is certainly a piece of the puzzle that forms the marketing for your business, but it is only one piece.

What is “Marketing” for a part time photographer?

Marketing is:

– Your art

– Your smile

– Your wardrobe

– Your community involvement

– Your reputation

– Your confidence

– Your preparation

– Your business card

– Your web site

– Your e-mail newsletter

– Your Facebook page

– Your Google search listing

– Your knowledge of photography

– Your knowledge of your business

– Your ability to help folks look good

– Your way of making kids laugh

– Your turnaround time for orders

– Your flexibility

– Your patience

– Your kindness

– Your generosity

– Your portfolio

– Your sales method

– Your customer experience

– Your referral program

– Your photo events

– Your co-op projects

– Your volunteer work

– Your sense of humor

– Your sense of gravitas

– Your showmanship

– Your honesty

– Your compassion

– Your passion

And this is not an exhaustive list.

But you notice what’s not on there?

– Your prices

– Your gear

– Your name

Yet these three topics exhaust the vast majority of a new professional photographer’s time, concern, and mental energy.

Why?

Because it’s what everyone else is talking about.

“What should I charge for a 3.02-inch by 10.17-inch glossy lustre coated archival quality print on acid-free Peruvian yak paper with gold flake, a textured custard mat and cherry wooden heirloom antique classic frame?

Yak, indeed – I want to yak every time I see the grognards lay into these questions with the ambiguity and hatefulness of partisan political pundits.

The same goes for what equipment you “should” use and what the name of your business “should” be.

Yet these three choices have next to no influence on your success. Surely, they are choices that have to be made – but for the sake of your sanity and momentum, make them swiftly.

Here’s what you need to know to wrangle these three progress-killers:

Pricing

The better you communicate your value, the more you can charge.

If your art and marketing are weak (as they are for all of us in the beginning), ask a very humble price for your work. Even with my aggressive suggested pricing for new professionals, you’ll be surprised at how much money you earn per shoot. This number only gets better as you get better – at art, at marketing, at business.

When your focus is on communicating your value through good marketing, pricing becomes a tool for increasing, steadying, or decreasing your total number of bookings. You’ll raise your prices for a season when you want to slow down your bookings, and you’ll lower your prices or offer sales or specials when you want to grow your customer base.

This is a completely different discussion than the grognards have about their pricing – their solitary goal is to maximize profits by squeezing the customer for every last dime they can get. Upsell the coating! Upsell the frame! Upsell the paper! Upsell the black and white “treatment”!

They all but foam at the mouth.

If you’re stymied by pricing, just roll with my suggestion of no session fee, no minimum order, buy what you love – prints and files starting at just $10.

It takes pricing off the table as a reason to stress, and it eliminates price as a potential reason why you’re not booking as many shoots as you want. This lets you focus on the many other pieces of your marketing puzzle that will actually make a difference in your success.

Camera Gear

The truth will set you free:

  • 1. What you have is more than good enough.
  • 2. Don’t buy a single piece of kit until you can pay for it with your photography earnings.
  • 3. Don’t buy that piece of kit unless it is guaranteed to make you more money than you’re making now.

It’s too easy to let yourself fall in the trap of lens-lust – just about every photographer has it. I won’t even lie, I love ogling and fondling camera gear better than mine, and then I pine and ache for it. I read professional and buyer reviews from other photogs. I read blogs about it. I put it in my online shopping cart at bhphotovideo.com, just to see what the total price comes to.

But truthfully, it’s all just window shopping – indulgence in an overpriced fantasy.

Not to sound like Grandpa, but I’ve been shooting with the same camera body and lens for five years. Most of the photographers I mentor have newer, better gear than I do. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter:

What kit you have that has lit the flame in your soul to become a professional photographer is more than good enough to be that professional photographer.

Start your journey as a natural light location photographer. It requires the least amount of monetary commitment, which translates to maximum profit for minimal investment.

Buy books on natural light portraiture, on basic portrait photo editing, and practice – practice – practice. This is what will make a difference in your art, not This Lens or That Camera Body.

By the time that you have so well mastered natural light location portraiture that you would truly and tangibly benefit from better gear, your art and business should be at such a level that you can pay cash and not sweat a penny of the cost.

If you do 52 shoots in 52 weeks averaging $100 per client, you will have earned enough money to buy just about any kit you could possibly want. In just one year.

But what if I’m not booking that many clients? What if my average per client isn’t that high?

Patience.

You have to have patience.

Nobody (including me) ever, ever wants to hear it, but – you just have to wait.

However, while you’re waiting, you should be working – working on improving your art, working on a better understanding of marketing and how to use it in your business.

Success is a byproduct of progress.

When success does present you the financial opportunity to buy better gear, you have to ask a simple but serious question:

Will buying this gear help me be a better professional photographer?

Don’t get me wrong – if you want to buy that thousand-dollar lens because it has a more buttery bokeh than what you’re using, that is a completely valid reason. Better art does translate to better pay.

Better gear should provide the solution to a specific and tangible artistic or practical problem. It should be a problem you’re running into over and over again where your art or your ability to do your best work are being hindered.

And for each photographer, it can be different: I may want better low-light capabilities with less noise, whereas you may want access to a shorter, creamier depth of field.

Don’t buy gear just because a Grognard, a Friend, a Peer, a Vendor, or a Reviewer told you you should. Only buy gear because you see it making an important and valuable difference in how you work and the results you produce from that work.

Your Business Name

I’ve written about naming your business and how easy it is to get paralyzed at this point, but the questions about it keep coming, so I’ll say it again clearly:

You are doing more damage than good for your business by obsessing over its name.

Three facts that will help you move on:

  • 1. Your business name will have no effect whatsoever on your art or your income.
  • 2. As an independent professional photographer, people are going to remember you, your art, and the experience you provide them, not the catchy name of your business.
  • 3. You can always, always change your business name later.

At best, your business name will provide you an easy theme to tie all of your marketing pieces together.

If you’re in doubt, or if you’ve caught yourself stuck at this juncture, use this method:

  • Your Name Photography. Perfectly simple, perfectly brands you as an artist, and (at least in my state) you don’t have to register a Doing Business As name. Class it up by doubling down on your last name. Such as, Taylor & Taylor Photography.
  • If your name is particularly hard to pronounce, consider using your initials, your middle name, or the meaning of your name (for myself, James Michael Taylor, my business name would literally be Supplanting Tailor Who Is Like God Photography – some artistic license may be warranted if you go this route!).
  • If it isn’t taken and wouldn’t cause confusion in your market, consider naming your business by your town, community, or neighborhood. I could easily have named my business Bandera Photography. This leaves no doubt as to the area or target market you serve. And don’t worry, just like saying you serve a specific niche like babies or seniors, you’ll still get business from other areas.

Where you’ll suffer the most indecision is if you try to name your business “something catchy,” or worse, something introspective. This is perfectly fine if you can efficiently come up with a name that you can hang your hat on, but if it takes more than a Sunday’s worth of brainstorming and discussion, settle for something simple to start with. Once you have a better grasp on your artistic talents, inspirations, and ideal clientele, you can revisit your business name.

Next Steps

Once you can fling yourself over these three hurdles on your path to becoming a successful part time professional photographer, you’ll experience a great feeling of relief and real progress.

  • Grab a pen and paper. Work out your pricing, right here, right now. If you don’t know what to do, do this: no session fee, no minimum order, you just buy what you love. Prints and files start at just $10.
  • Keep the pen and paper. Write down the three pieces of kit that would most improve your salability (through your art, through your experience as a photographer, or through the experience you create for your clients) – and most importantly, why. Write down the prices for those pieces of kit. Stick it on your monitor, and set a financial goal to earn through your business what you need to buy these tools to improve your business.
  • More pen and paper. Brainstorm business names. Pick one. Done. Move on.
  • Breathe a sigh of relief, and acknowledge that you just cleared three of the biggest hurdles new professional photographers face. While everyone else is mired in the muck, you are now free to do the real work on your business that leads to success.
  • Brainstorm session: Now that you’ve gotten past what marketing isn’t, what are you going to work on that is good marketing? Take a look at the long list at the top of this article, see what inspires you, and write down all the ways you can improve your marketing starting today. Pick your Top 3, and write down step-by-step how you plan to improve on that aspect of your business. File this away in your Brainstorms folder.
  • 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.
  • If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use the ideas here to better your part time photography business!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Unapologetically Mundane November 12, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I love this advice, especially as a photography business baby. I’ve only had my camera for a year and a half and yet constantly think about how I need to upgrade to a full-frame. I also feel intimidated by people walking around with 300mm lenses, as if I really need one when I only want to do portraits. It’s hard to trust yourself when you’re just starting out, so thanks for this reminder.

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor December 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words Katie! I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site this evening, you have a wonderful personality and artistic style!

Forget the full-frame sensors, the big L lenses, all the horsesh*t that doesn’t impress anyone but photographers with nothing better to do than measure and compare their kit. You, Katie, are the most valuable and important tool in your professional career. You have an amazing personality, a great artistic eye, and a warmth and honesty that come through easily even through the digital divide. I know photographers with all the kit in the world who would give anything for the personality traits you have that will surely be one of the greatest influences on your success.

Rock what you’ve got – you may not realize what a blessing you are to your clients – 21 megapixels or not!

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures in 2013!

Reply

Travis March 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm

Hello James Taylor

I have just set out on this new adventure of being a Part Time Photographer. Found you blog by goggle “trying to name a Photorgaphy Business”. First thank you for being so strait and to the point, very refreshing. I still have a little to get finished but hope to have my first Photo shoot this Sat. weather permitting.

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 27, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words Travis!

Congratulations on stepping into the ring as a professional photographer! It’s been nothing but a financial, social and artistic blessing for me and my family since I took the dive 14 years ago.

Please do let me know how your first photo shoot went! And hopefully more since! I’d love to hear about your successes and adventures!

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Shawn May 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

I have really enjoyed reading your articles. We have definitely struggled with everything that you have mentioned. Pricing has been a big issue with us. Currently we do have a session fee, but no minimum order. I don’t think there is any better way to do it then to dive in head first and make your first mistakes. Hopefully, those mistakes will become valuable learning experiences. We have been at this for 6 months now and love every minute of it!

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Shawn, thank you so much for your kind words and readership!

I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight – you and your wife do wonderful work. So much depth and life in your photos! Your clients are blessed by your work.

Pricing drives us photographers nuts – don’t worry, you’re in good company! But as you say, what an enjoyable madness this is!

I struggle to really put pricing in a box and label it with clarity – where it really fits in our professional lives.

We’re all just trying to find clients with whom we are a great fit.

With our art.

With our products.

And with our pricing.

It all works together to tell folks, “This is where I’m at. Are you with me?”

Either those folks are or they aren’t. The onus is on us as business owners to market ourselves with clarity and honesty, to find ‘our people’ and give them good reasons to call us.

Pricing is no more or less worthy of attention than the myriad other choices we make in trying to find that perfect balance of success, failure, learning, and growth.

You guys are doing beautiful work and deserve all the success to come. Thank you again for your readership, and please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

Reply

Toni Denise Carter June 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I have to say you have really put my mind as ease. I have overly stressed myself out about everything & have continued to talk myself out of doing what I love so many times. I recently have decided to bite the bullet & start my photography studio in my home. I ran across your articles & couldn’t stop reading. It’s so awesome that you would take the time to help all of us new-by’s 😉 thank you so much!! I would love to get some feedback on my pictures. Don’t have a whole lot yet but I’m working on it. Also I was wondering if you have any advise on starting your photography website??

Reply

Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Toni Denise, thank you so much for your comment and kind words!

Congratulations on taking the leap and launching your business! Your work will be a blessing to your clients and community.

I would be happy to look at your photos and give an honest critique! Drop me an e-mail to James@banderaoutlaw.com.

For starting your web site, I can point your toward the resources I use: GoDaddy for domain, HostGator (a Texas company) for hosting, Wordpress for my site (HostGator has a push-button install for this). This is all you need for a great start. You can eventually look into free, even paid themes, that install with a click. Get your photography out there, that’s the most important part – everything else is window dressing. MailChimp is great for an e-mail newsletter, VistaPrint is great for business cards (although if you have a local print shop, work with them even at a premium – that local networking is invaluable as a start-up), I like Miller’s Imaging (Mpix.com is their consumer site)f or prints, SimplyCanvas for canvas prints, and so on. And of course, setting up a Facebook page is easy and a great way to ‘be where your clients are.’

I hope this helps! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures, and thank you again for your readership!

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