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The PRO-Files: The Photographer’s Surprising Secret To Self-Marketing

Photo by Don Smith from his recent blog post on his Northern Arizona Workshop.

In the PRO-Files we’ve been diving deep into marketing strategies lately because it’s one of the best ways for a photographer to be proactive to find work. In the process of looking for specific keys to marketing success, we spoke to photography marketing guru Maria Piscopo. During that conversation Piscopo dropped a bomb: “A successful marketing plan is like a ladder: you can’t get to the top with just a couple of rungs.”

That simple statement really resonated. We’ve talked to some great photographers and talented marketers, and no matter what specific marketing techniques we were discussing, to a person they each told us of the importance of doing a variety of marketing tasks—from emails to direct mail, portfolio showings to social media. There’s no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy, they say. Instead, marketing success comes from taking a well rounded, little-bit-of-everything approach.

It’s All About Eyeballs

“It’s a little bit hard when it comes to marketing to know exactly what’s working and what’s not, right?” That’s what lifestyle photographer Inti St. Clair told us. She says that she employs a lot of different marketing tools, but her newest focus is on landing face-to-face meetings. Ideally that means meeting with art buyers who call in her portfolio, but it also comes from opportunities that arise when she hand delivers deluxe promotional materials (like the gorgeous coffee-centric promo piece we wrote about in a recent PRO-Files) or even paid meetings at portfolio reviews such as FotoWorks in New York and Los Angeles. Person-to-person, she says, is the best way to stand out in a crowded marketplace, because clients hire people they know and like.

“Frankly,” St. Clair says, “nowadays there are a freakin’ million photographers. We’re like a dime a dozen. Whether or not a photographer’s portfolio relates to their experience on a big commercial set is another story, so there’s something to be said for experience… but realistically there are hundreds or thousands of photographers out there who are just as good or better than me. I’m not a unique snowflake.”

“And I truly, firmly believe,” she continues, “that having great work that fits with what someone is looking for only gets you in the door, but it does not get you a job. I think the reason that people actually hire photographers nowadays is because they like you and they want to work with you. It’s a personality thing. So yes, my work is good, but I would say that my work does not get me work. My work combined with people liking me gets me work.”

Her diligence with a variety of marketing tools also helps St. Clair get work. “I still do print promos and I try to get meetings,” she says. “I have a rep, I signed up with Workbook, I’m on Boulevard and Wonderful Machine and ASMP… Those are all additional ways to drive traffic. It’s all of those things. I think it’s a whole broader picture of everything. If I could sum it up in one thing, it’s all about eyeballs. How can you possibly get eyeballs on your stuff? As many avenues as you can work to do that, do it.”

Being Social

Longtime landscape photographer and Sony Artisan Don Smith agrees with St. Clair’s assessment about eyeballs, and the importance of a variety of avenues to find those viewers—and ensure they’re the right ones. He does paid advertisements for his workshops, but the majority of his marketing time is spent spread across a handful of targeted online efforts.

“My current marketing approach is a ‘regular,’ by which I mean ‘daily,’ dose of social media,” Smith says. “This includes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Aminus3, 500px and weekly blogs. Ninety-five percent of new clients in my workshops find me on Facebook, then they start following my blog. Instagram is where everyone says I should concentrate my efforts, but the older crowd with the disposable income to take my workshops is all on Facebook.”

“There is no one social platform that I am passionate about more than the other,” he adds. “Rather, it’s about trying my best to keep a constant presence on all of them.”

Someone who share’s Smith’s view of the importance of social media marketing is Shannon McMillan, a photography rep with great ideas about marketing for photographers. Like Smith, and many other photographers and marketers we’ve spoken to, she says a social media presence is crucial for photographers trying to build their brands, even though it’s so time consuming.

“Sometimes I think oh, I wouldn’t be on any of it!” McMillan says. “It just drives me nuts sometimes, and I just obsess over it. It’s a full-time job.”

Targeting Matters…A Lot

While social media is crucial, she says, it’s okay to use it naturally and not feel like you have to constantly promote your work. In fact, simply posting about things you find of interest, even if it’s another photographer’s work, is enough. That way it’s more likely an audience will find the content engaging while not feel like they’re being sold to all the time. Still, McMillan says, social media is essential and time consuming, but it’s still just one part of a well-rounded marketing plan that includes sending regular promotions—whether print or electronic—to a carefully curated audience.

“With an email promo,” McMillan says, “try to do it once a month, or every other month. And when you do it, make sure that it’s not just some broad blast—that you’re not just like boom, it’s out there. You need to do your research and make sure you’re targeting your audience. Don’t send car photography to a food magazine. Make sure you’re targeting your audience, because when people get your stuff and they know it doesn’t apply, they simply delete or unsubscribe.”

Does McMillan suggest photographers pay for pertinent contacts from list rental services? “I think you should definitely invest into something like Agency Access or Yodelist,” she says, “and definitely invest the money in using a list. With Agency Access, what I like about their list is you can see the agency and then who their clients are. Not only will it give you an idea of who is there but it will also give you an idea of who their clients are.”

Knowing the clients an agency serves ties directly to targeting promos appropriately. This applies to emailed as well as printed promos, the latter of which McMillan suggests sending three times a year, followed by an extra-special promo every other year or so. Anything unique, she says, will grab attention. “What I did at the beginning of the year,” McMillan explains, “is instead of doing something for the Holidays, I waited until mid-January and I sent out a Happy New Year note with custom bottles of wine where my illustrator created the wine labels. I also did custom chocolates. It’s a little pricier, so I had a really targeted audience. I did get a few emails saying thank you. People were taking pictures of it and posting them on Instagram and tagging me. Just having that handful of people send me emails was great! My message was communicated and it didn’t just go in the trash.”

Site Check

McMillan is a big fan of both printed and digital promotional materials. The ultimate digital promo, of course, is a photographer’s website. After all, it’s the first stop for anyone who wants to know more about a photographer and her work. McMillan says there’s one thing not enough photographers think about when it comes to their websites: its mobile functionality.

“So often people in our industry are reviewing work on their mobile devices,” McMillan says, “because they’re on the go, they’re in meetings, sometimes they’ll go back and look on their computer but usually with social media and email blasts, people are not in front of their computers, they’re on their mobile devices. The other mistake I still sometimes see is the stupid scrolling picture bar. It’s terrible! You want the site to be user friendly, you want to be able to easily click through it. Because the average person just spends seconds on a website. They click and then they’re on to the next category. It just needs to be clean and easy and uncomplicated. And then you have the one where photographers have a really creative conceptual website but then they grab so much attention and it helps in their favor for marketing, because it’s so creative. But most of the time not everyone’s going to be that creative. So just keep it simple. Not too many categories, and make it mobile friendly.”

See more of Inti St. Clair’s work at www.intistclair.com. Visit Don Smith’s website at www.donsmithphotography.com. And for Shannon McMillan’s Homestead Creatives, go to www.homesteadcreatives.com.

Photo by Don Smith from his recent blog post about his Northern Arizona Workshop. Sony α7R III. Sony 24-70mm f/2.8 G Master lens. 1/25-sec., f/16, ISO 100

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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