So here we are in the second week of the new year and I'm finally ready to write something upbeat and happy. 2012 will be the year we have resurgent fun with photography. I can feel it in my bones. It's the Photographer Spring. But here's the deal: Success, markets and everything tied to them will be different than ever before and they will be exactly the same.
Hunh? Yep. All the "hype" surrounding social marketing, SEO and magic beans 3.0 will deflate like a tired little balloon and the marketing will once again mean, "I met him. I know him. I like him. I trust him. I like his work." I'm not saying that all the little digital add-ons don't have their place. All of them work in some way to drive people to our websites but real, face to face, social interaction is the spark in the spark plugs. It's the juice that makes the creative process work. Every photographer who wants to work in 2012 needs to do two things: Get your portfolio in shape. And, Get out the door and meet people.
I have some suggestions for people made "homebound" by the recession. Get out of the house. Get out of the studio. Head to your favorite coffee shop. Take a small, easy to handle portfolio and show it to anyone who is interested. Invite your favorite creatives out for a happy hour. Pick up a round. Call one new person a week. You'll meet 52 potential clients in a year. Call five people a week and you'll meet 250 new contacts this year. If you're not busy working then the calling is the work and the meeting is the pay off.
Next up. Prove it. If your work is more creative than everyone in your market you're halfway there. The proof is in the sale. If you can't sell the work it may be the most creative thing around but far less valuable to clients than good, solid work that fills a niche or a need. This is a business and we constantly have to find out what our potential clients need. It's not enough to shoot stuff just cause you like it. You also have to sell it.
If you live in a second tier market filled with industrial manufacturers the web will misguide you. What resonates on the web are beautiful images of young women like the one above. And you may sell one or two usages to the local dermatologists but if your market is all about manufacturing and not about fashion and leisure you might want to think about going after the ripe, still hanging fruit: Industrial images. Make that the most creative stuff around and you'll likely have a fuller calendar. And a contact file of people who constantly need new, high quality work.
The web seduces us with the idea that everything happens on the web. But my recent clients repudiate a lot of that. Even in the tech space lots of time and money goes into the creation of large point of purchase posters, tradeshow banners, capabilities and sales brochures, annual reports and yes, print ads. The trend in web-o-graphy might be iPhones and smaller mirrorless cameras but what that new sensibility means is that traditional, large sensor cameras become elevated into a different space. The bottom of the market may be in full retreat but the high to top of the market seems to be recovering and looking to make up for lost time.
Three or four of my most recent jobs are along the lines of what I would call "emergency re-do's." Either the original photography was attempted in-house or it was jobbed out to a freelancer based on low price. In each case the client needed images that could be printed very large and maintain very high quality. Large operations centers needed lighting and perspective control. Products needed exacting lighting and edge to edge sharpness at high resolution. And, finally, all three projects' images had to be be capable of working in large print sizes. None of these parameters had been met.
In a very real sense, the skills and mastery of tools that propelled our businesses, pre-web mania, are the same ones that clients seem to be re-visiting now, in an age where so many tools and techniques have been downsized.
An interesting and related success story. I have a friend who shoots architecture. He is the busiest working photographer I know, locally. In the last two years his competitors pushed the market. Their prices dropped and they stopped doing interesting lighting. Budget was the critical metric. They jumped into the whole "HDR-chitecture" style of washing interiors with flat light from umbrella-ed flash and then working the images over in HDR to minimize both shadows and highlight burnout. It's a quick way to bounce through an architecture job but it quickly tends to make work that all looks alike. And it's almost impossible to create a personal style or make an artful and individual interpretation of a designer's work.
Nearly everyone in the market (including my friend) used either Canon 5Dmk2's or Canon 1Ds mk3's with the 17mm and 24mm shift lenses as their "go to" optics. My friend decided to go in a different direction and bought a Hasselblad H4D camera, a shift assemble and a raft of Hasselblad and Schneider lenses. Coupled with cases of Dedolights (small, highly controllable spot lights) the camera and his style make an incredibly powerful statement, not only about his work, but also about his success in the market. The camera brings his vision to market in a way that no one (clients or competitors) can easily match. Architects can readily see a quality difference in the work and are drawn to it in spite of his higher fees. In essence, he's recreated his market. And in doing so he'll recreate the statewide market because he extended the relative curve up instead of down. He's booked solidly all over the country, two months out.
This will be the year that we go back and prove to clients just how good we can be. And just how good we are. And that means heading out the door and proving it. Not just talking about it on the web.
My friend can walk into a prospective client's office and unroll a 30x40 inch print with detail and tone that goes on forever and forever. He can't do that on his website. There you can get a whiff, a hint of what's on the menu. But when the entrée is right in front of you then you can taste the difference.
I'm excited about marketing this year. I've stuffed my Kindle Fire with photo galleries of my best work. It's a great platform to share over breakfasts and lunches. I'm biting the bullet for an iPad because it's probably the right tool for quick multi-person meetings and agency presentations. And I'm upgrading the work in my 12 by 18 inch print portfolio because it's a great closer in meetings when I'm in the running for a fun project. But each of these marketing tools requires direct client contact.
The "low hanging fruit" in the photography business may be gone but the people who bring their own stepladders will always have an advantage over the people who are content to stand on the ground and wait for the winds of change to knock something out of the trees for them.