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The PRO-Files: How Coffee & Beer Can Contribute To A Pro Photographer's Bottom Line

When asked if she would be willing to share some secrets to her business success, lifestyle stock and advertising photographer Inti St. Clair doesn’t hesitate. “Coffee and beer,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I know it sounds funny,” she continues, “but it falls under spending money on marketing. And marketing is the most important thing that you can ever do for your business, of course.”

The two most important line items on one thriving photographer’s marketing budget are coffee and beer. Here’s why.

In an era where social media has made a sizeable dent in interpersonal communication, St. Clair says spending real time with real people has never been more important to build a thriving photography business. “Too many people rely on social media for marketing these days,” she says. “I think the reality is that if you’re going to get the big money jobs, you’re going to get them because people know you and they like you. Your work obviously has to be good enough, but your work being great, I think, doesn’t get you hired as much as the combination of people liking you and wanting to work with you. End of story. There can be five photographers who are up for a job and they’re all great. They’re not being asked to bid if they’re not great and if they don’t fit the creative, but the person who gets hired is the person the agency wants to work with.” And how you do that is…

Coffee and beer.

St. Clair says that these two beverages are a great way to build meaningful relationships with customers and colleagues. “I think coffee and beer,” she says, “is a simple way of saying ‘try and spend time with people, try to meet them.’ Take people out for coffee, take people out for beer. Whether that is somebody in an ad agency or maybe it's just literally peer support and creating a network. You think, ‘Okay, I’m on my own lonely island as a photographer and I have all these questions about this, that, and the other thing. Am I doing it right? What's happening in the industry?’ If you spend time making connections with people it only leads to you becoming better and knowing the industry better and furthering your career.”

“Coffee and beer can be taking the photo editor from a magazine out,” St. Clair says. “It doesn't have to be advertising. It can be taking producers out. Getting to know your producers is so important when you have a job and you need a great producer. And they also get you work. I have producers who know how I work, who know the imagery I create, and believe it or not, they have recommended me for assignments before, and I've gotten them. They also know what's happening in the industry. If you become friends with the producer, even if there's no room in the budget for a producer on that particular job, they are such a valuable resource because they really are seeing what jobs are costing or what people are spending on jobs that are across the board and not just your own narrow view. It can be all of those things. It’s just so incredibly valuable.”

Re-imagine Pay-To-Play

Coffee and beer are also a proxy for one of St. Clair’s primary marketing expenses: paying for portfolio reviews. The personal connection that can be established and reinforced at these face-to-face meetings is immensely valuable. So the photographer is willing to pay for the privilege.

“It's really hard to get meetings,” she says. “It's really hard to meet the people making those decisions. So how you do that is the pay-to-play meetings. No one loves pay-to-play, but it’s a real thing. I spend a lot of money doing it, and I think it's the number one thing that I do for marketing. I think it's the most important.”

“There are a number of reviews around the country,” St. Clair says. “For example, The Palm Springs Photo Festival does portfolio reviews in Palm Springs and they also run reviews as part of PhotoPlus Expo every fall. I would say that those generally are geared a little bit more toward art: fine art and some editorial, a little bit of commercial, but a little bit more up and coming photographers too. Some photographers who attend those maybe aren't as far along in their career, so they can be good for really just getting feedback on a portfolio and having pros tell you what you need to do and where you need to take your book to elevate it and to start getting bigger work.”

“That said,” she continues, “I’ve heard of photographers who go there because their work looks amazing compared to some of the other people who are up and coming, So going to portfolio reviews can serve different purposes. I was going to actually going to go the reviews at PhotoPlus last fall, but it conflicted with New York Fotoworks, which is what I usually do around that time. New York Fotoworks and L.A. Fotoworks both happen twice a year and I think they're very good. They're run by Boulevard Artists, which also does a bunch of other meeting situations around the country. But you don't have to be a member of Boulevard to do New York or LA Fotoworks.”

“I also do Workbook and APA,” St. Clair continues, “and workbook's barrier to entry is pretty high. It's expensive. But I think any way that you can get meetings… These days it's harder than ever, even if you dedicate yourself to calling and asking, it's just so hard to meet anybody. And I think that the number one way to meet people at this point is to pay. It's a bummer but it's real.”

The Coffee & Beer Network

St. Clair says her coffee and beer philosophy also carries over into the importance of building a professional network with other photographers. Colleagues and collegial competitors can be a tremendous resource when confronted with a unique business challenge or a new type of assignment.

“For example,” she says, “I got this job shooting a cover for a major American magazine, and I had never done that before. It was not in my genre, I don’t do celebrity portraits, but I got tapped because they needed a picture right away and I happened to live reasonably close to the subject. When it popped up, I didn’t know what to charge for it. Through my network, though, I was able to get in touch with a well-known photographer who shoots that type of stuff all the time. He was like, ‘This is what they’ll want to pay, this is what I used to get for it,’ and so on. I ended up charging way more than I would have. That advice I received was right on point! He told me that they would want to pay $5,000, but we couldn’t get them to answer what their budget was. They wouldn’t give us a ballpark or anything. I think they were hoping to get it for less. We bid it for $14,000 because we were though ‘Well, they need this tomorrow and they don’t have anybody else so we’re going for it.’ And they came back with, ‘We want to spend five.’ We responded with, ‘Ok, we can bring it down a little,’ and I ended up doing it for $12,000.” It was well worth the investment in coffee and beer to make that connection!

“If I didn’t have that peer network,” St. Clair says, “I’d have been at a loss. I think taking time out of working to, network is incredibly important. There are certainly photographers who are very closed book and tight-lipped, but I don’t live that way. I think that we are all better off if we support each other, whether that comes from, ‘How did you light that?’ to ‘How much should I charge for this?’ All of that. I think it’s super important to build that network.”

And building that network starts with two simple things: coffee and beer.

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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