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The PRO-Files: Want Long-Term Success For Your Photo Business? Try The Long Tail Approach.

In the world of business it’s said that a company has a “long tail” if it sells a lower quantity of several items rather than focusing on big sales of a few key products. When Anheuser-Busch began offering craft beers more than a decade ago, for instance, it was creating a long tail to complement its primary offering, Bud Light. This long tail strategy has become increasingly useful for professional photographers too.

It used to be that working photographers could be that—and only that. But these days most of us augment that core offering with what could be called a “long tail” of similar offerings, or even a related “side hustle.” Either way, an increasing number of photographers aren’t exclusively serving one specific market niche. Whether it’s the addition of video to a commercial photographer’s arsenal or the workshops that many outdoor photographers now provide, professional photography in the modern era all but requires a long tail.

Detroit-based landscape and architectural photographer Chris Miele is an ideal example of a photographer who understands the importance of diversification. It’s a tricky balance to master, he says, but done right it paves the way for a sustained photography career. The first trick is to become a realist and understand that career milestones may not follow the planned path.

“By 2012 I was pretty committed to making this thing a career in what I thought was only going to be fine art,” says Miele. “But then three years after that I came to the realization that if I wanted to do it I had to be flexible. While I just wanted to sell art and make a living off it, I just wasn’t making enough income to make that sustainable. It felt like I was backtracking, like I was going into a realm where I had to offer services. I remember having a moment where I was like, ‘I didn’t get into this to offer services!’ And every now and then I still have to grapple with it, because the work that I create still comes from an artistic standpoint, but you can’t help but wonder if you’re starting to water it down.”

“It’s definitely tougher than ever to make a living doing this,” he continues. “For better or worse, I think it’s one of the most newly accessible art forms. I think that from a professional standpoint that’s what we’re all struggling with, whether we acknowledge it or not. The industry is so rapidly changing that if you don’t diversify, you better have your niche totally nailed down and your connections and market in tip-top shape. I’d wager that most people have end up diversifying in some way.”

Along with the architectural assignments he does for clients and the landscape work he shoots for himself, Miele also licenses stock, leads photography workshops, writes, produces video and designs websites for clients who have the need. He even does real estate photography and helps operate the retail store his girlfriend owns. Beyond the challenge of finding the time for these multiple offerings, it’s Miele says it’s imperative to ensure that your business branding remains on point and that additional offerings don’t cloud the message.

Miele’s brand is “Adventure Guy,” which he began for his fine art landscape and travel photography. But when he relocated from the West Coast to downtown Detroit and began shooting commercial work, he had to reexamine his branding. Ultimately, he says, keeping it simple and staying the course made the most sense, but it’s not the kind of decision to be made on a whim. Clear, consistent branding is crucial for photographers who offer multiple services, and those whose businesses evolve away from their origins.

“Because I’m not in those western landscapes as much, I was questioning whether or not I was still applicable,” says Miele. “I decided to keep moving with it because it was more about branding, and what I was hoping to create still applies to Adventure Guy. It might be a bit of a tangent to go and shoot architecture in the Midwest as Adventure Guy, but strangely enough one of my main clients, whenever I see him, gets all excited and says Adventure Guy! It’s meant to be a kind of approachable and quirky and silly moniker, and strangely it’s worked in that sense.”

“Also my last name is five letters,” Miele says, “but if you say it to someone they’ll never spell it right. I didn’t want my name to be a hindrance to why people would lose me in the ether. Adventure Guy was also part SEO-driven and a little memorable. I decided it was a little more memorable than having someone misspell my name and never make it to my site.”

“I’m really trying to combine my architecture work with my love of landscapes and nature through my brand,” he adds. “I’m trying to bark up the tree of the architects who make really wild stuff in neat places that are incredibly important to the environment. There’s ways that I still have to do more work, because it’s a never-ending struggle, but I do want to continue to keep that brand and just make sure it honors both sides. Or three sides or whatever tangents that let me continue to shoot and make a living.”

Do it all, but market only what fits the brand.

“Underneath that commercial work identity,” Miele says, “most of the work that I actually do for an invoice doesn’t appear on my website. It’s real estate listings. I shoot about five or six real estate listings in a week. I shoot it, I come home and I edit it, and I have it down to an hourly rate where it makes sense. I don’t have to think about it, people like it and I move on. But I don’t talk about it either. There are probably a lot of professionals who do work that they don’t really talk about. Sure, I could put it under commercial, but it’s not the same quality as the other work that I do.”

Another challenge for photographers taking a long tail approach is to not lose the focus that energized them in the first place. Getting overwhelmed with busywork is a surefire way to dim, or even snuff out, a creative spark. For photographers considering turning an avocation into a vocation, first consider whether a full-time photography career is the right goal. If it is, understand that it will most likely require flexibility, adaptability and a long tail strategy.

“If you want to make this a career,” Miele says, “be wary of the way you frame that. If you want to make it a career because you like to make your own hours, be your own boss and use your camera to make money – then cool. But if you want to make this a career because you want to keep doing the thing that is essentially a hobby, be wary that it may not pan out the way you hoped. Be cautiously optimistic in how you plan to make money. Some of those guys are bartenders that have great gigs. I don’t want to squash their dreams, but I also want them to be wary.”

“That’s probably a wise thing to pass on to students these days,” he adds, “because it does become how nimble and how versatile you are. In ideal practice, the more diverse you are in creative storytelling, the more it can benefit you in terms of services offered or creative things that you’re able to put out into the world. Most people are going to have to be more nimble than they thought, or wanted—especially as technology just keeps advancing—whether you like it or not.”

To learn more about Chris Miele’s architectural photography, landscape photography and workshops, visit his website at adventureguyphoto.com.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.


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