It’s difficult to make a living as a professional photographer even if you say yes to every client who comes your way. So imagine the challenge of growing a business if you use the opposite approach: instead of taking every assignment, you accept very few. Instead of doing someone else’s bidding, you shoot only for yourself. Along with many hurdles, this approach brings one distinct benefit: eventually you will have built a well-defined brand based on your unique creative vision.
As a photographer specializing in selling fine black and white prints as her primary business, Anastasia Petukhova is doing just that. And, as her growing reputation and budding business show, she’s making it work. Fellow photographers can learn the importance of clear vision, hard work and, most importantly, following your heart from her.
Petukhova is a prime example of an artist remaining true to a vision. She chooses black and white as her primary means of expression and knows that even though she is limiting her pool of potential customers, the result is that when clients do call, they are more likely to recruit her to produce exactly that kind of work. That’s the case with one of her main clients, American Contemporary Ballet, which reached out to offer an assignment that has opened many doors and led to repeat business.
“Black and white is my choice for photo work,” she says. “I like the rawness of it. I like that black and white takes out the color, which frequently is what people resonate most with. If it's gone, you need to impress with something else, which is harder to do. So the challenge is what’s exciting. I don’t see my black and white focus as a limitation. I shoot what I want and then try to find clients for it. That's how I connected with the ballet company; they wanted me to do what I do. Color might open up many more doors, but that also puts you into a giant pool of other photographers. If you see my work, most of the time you can tell that's me.”
Her desire to be her own boss, pursuing her own vision on her own terms, stems from negative experiences Petukhova had early in her career, working for a type of customer that is likely familiar to photographers everywhere.
“The worst thing always happens when someone gives you money and doesn't specify what they want,” Petukhova says. “Instead of paying you to turn their vision into reality, they’re paying you so they won’t have to think and have a vision. And there I was, chasing people and getting the blame for something that wasn’t looking ‘cool’ enough in their mind. So I had all of those experiences early on and they really turned me away from having that kind business. I have no problem executing when it’s my own vision. I decided I'd rather work on that than chase someone and drag some ideas and feedback out of them.”
“The reality is that any time you have a client who's the boss,” she says, “chances are they rarely know exactly what they want. And if you're not spending a ton of time ahead to clarify the expectations, the job might not be worth it. You spend too much time up front without a paycheck in your hand and typically these clients have an easy way to bail on you. In short, I knew I wanted to create my own art and sell it.”
Because of her approach, Petukhova’s business model is based on print sales rather than assignments. It’s a consequence of doggedly going her own way, not just in what she shoots but also how she sells it. As a result, she has to have a keen head for business (Petukhova has two business degrees) and can’t afford to simply sit back and wait for the phone to ring. She’s definitely a go-getter, and throughout her still-young career she has had multiple websites selling various items. At the moment she maintains one site for her photography portfolio and fine print sales (asildaphotography.com) and another that sells unique items she creates, including patches, pins, stickers and t-shirts (asildastore.com).
“This was a very deliberate business focus,” she says. “I decided to keep the two separate, mainly because I want to outgrow asildastore.com being just about me. My photography and asildaphotography.com will always stay the way it is, with me being the face and the main person in operations. The store, ideally, will go beyond just me. The two identities are also a bit different, in the mood and visuals.”
A notable branding lesson from this business-minded visual artist is that there isn’t much crossover between her sites. One is aimed at a wider audience with interests in photography, as well as an interest in the outdoors and travel. The other site is much different, positioning Petukhova’s photography at the higher end of the market, to be sold as limited edition fine art prints.
“I don't have many commercial assignments,” she continues. “I mostly sell prints to clients. I want to be in control of everything, so I shoot what I want and then try to sell it. That's my way of doing things.”
“I’ve had a few agencies reach out because of the work I put on my site and social channels,” Petukhova adds. “I don't plan to deviate. I want to control my narrative. I think it's challenging and it makes me, and the viewer, think. That doesn't mean commercial success will come easy. There are so many more things you can do to sell photos, but for me, I can make money through my store and keep my photo art as art. If I want to push print sales, it doesn't mean I need to shoot anything new, I just need to be a better marketer. That’s pretty simple after all.”
“I think the sales process is a personal preference,” Petukhova says. “I think print sales are very much about one-on-one, just like selling wedding photography. You need to invest more effort than just buying Facebook ads to sell expensive prints. So I approached it, first, with cold emails to chosen designers. I used to spend hours on Houzz searching for designers that I thought would enjoy my work. Then it was a lot of personal follow-ups, holiday cards, catalog shipments, etcetera. Once you work with a designer, that person can become a lifelong partner in the business. That’s how I see it.”
“I didn't have a very clear idea about my print buyer audience when I was starting out with print sales four years ago,” she adds. “Now I have a more defined focus and I’m getting into hospitality projects like big resorts and luxury hotels. What didn’t work was going after markets that have no interest in coastal and black and white stuff. I tried to go broad and realized I was wasting time.”
At a time when it can be a struggle just landing shooting gigs, Petukhova’s business model offers a different vision. It’s not about a lofty notion that the artist shouldn’t be compromised by commercial or economic pressures. It’s really about an artist creating a viable way forward where economic success as a clear goal. Petukhova is running a business and she has a plan. At the core of the business is her vision and the brand she’s established with her distinctive photography.
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.