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The PRO-Files: Social Media & Personal Brands Create A New Niche For Pro Photographers

Last year, while trying to find just the right photographer to meet her needs, The Modern Tog founder Jamie Swanson had a revelation. A photographer and photo educator herself, she was looking for someone who could make lifestyle photographs to help build her personal brand. She needed an efficient shoot to produce a library of photographs she could use in blog posts and social media for months. Her ideal photographer would be a kind of hybrid between a family photographer and a commercial assignment shooter, but she found very few people who fit the bill.

The more she investigated the more it became clear: there are a growing number of entrepreneurs and social influencers out there who, like her, have a specific set of photographic needs, but very few photographers catering to them. So Swanson decided to shift her entire business to become a personal brand photographer and refocus her education practice to help others learn how to become personal brand photographers too.

“I know how to find a photographer,” Swanson says. “So I went looking and found plenty of talented photographers out there, but are they serving or understanding who business owners are and what business owners want? How the rights are different, how the pricing is different, how all of that is different from consumers or even traditional commercial photographers? For example, for The Modern Tog, I didn’t want traditional commercial photography and I only found four or five people in the U.S. who were really showing me that they understood who I was and what I needed. That’s when the light bulb went off. I started a free workshop, just telling The Modern Tog people about what an opportunity it was, and it’s taken off. I’m pivoting everything into personal brand photography. It’s such a massive opportunity and I’m seeing people having real success in it.”

Just What Is Personal Brand Photography?

Personal brand photography is commercial photography with the authentic look and feel of family and personal lifestyle photography. It’s somewhere between traditional marketing photography and family portraiture, and it’s exactly what entrepreneurs and online influencers need.

“I have a lot of entrepreneur colleagues in a variety of industries,” Swanson says, “and I saw them needing photographers. They might have worked with a photographer before, but not someone who understands that they need images that can be used for Facebook ads or for website banners. It’s very hybrid. It’s really taking little pieces of the commercial photography industry and little pieces of the portrait photography industry and melding them together, with a strong focus on growing your profile on social media. Because that’s where people tend to grow personal brands and grow audiences that they can sell to or promote a cause or whatever it is. These entrepreneurs are using a personal brand to grow their business endeavor.”

“The biggest thing that I’ve found resonating with entrepreneurs,” she says, “is that they don’t want to be completely tied to social media but they need to post consistently. And so when they have more money than time they’re ready to have somebody else create those images with them. The idea of batch creating images to allow a personal-brand-driven entrepreneur to get some freedom from having to be constantly connected to their phone all the time has just blown up.”

The Best Photographer Is The One Who Understands Their Client

A wedding photographer for a decade, in 2011 Swanson started The Modern Tog as an online community where photographers could learn the business of photography. Her audience there is largely made up of new photographers with just a year or two of experience in the family and portrait space—a business-to-consumer photography model. Once they gain a few more years of experience, she says, many begin to stagnate or wonder what’s next. Personal brand photography is perfect for them, she says, adding that it’s also a viable new market for commercial photographers as well. In each case, it’s not the photographic technique that’s new but the understanding of the clientele and how to market and price these services.

Building a personal brand online requires content—lots and lots of fresh content. And very few small business owners have the deep pockets to produce a traditional commercial marketing shoot of the scale required to deliver distinct images for three months of daily use—much less pay the licensing fees on those images. These entrepreneurs and influencers need a large pool of images to draw from, they need it refreshed every few months and they need it to come out of a one- or two-day shoot.

“It’s not just for social media,” Swanson says, “but that’s the bulk of what they use the images for. They can’t be paying several hundred dollars for a single image licensing fee because they need 90 images a quarter. For the photographer, it’s less money than traditional commercial usage, but the tradeoff is that it’s also probably going to be less produced than a traditional commercial shoot.”

Making It Happen

To get hired in this fast-growing arena, Swanson suggests photographers keep it simple without devaluing their work. “The personal brand entrepreneurs need the commercial license, but they come in with a consumer mindset,” she says. Those coming from a consumer market are especially likely to underestimate the value of this kind of photography. Likewise, she says, while traditional commercial photographers may be used to larger productions and bigger fees, personal brand photography can still be very high end and deliver a viable bottom line along with a benefit that is exceedingly rare in professional photography: recurring income.

“I tell photographers they should probably be charging a minimum of $2,000 a session for a small package and go up from there, depending on the usage. That is much higher than what you’re going to see on the consumer market, but significantly lower than what you would be charging if you were doing this with a commercial client making 90 images. I don’t think we’re undercutting traditional commercial photographers because these entrepreneurs would never hire a traditional commercial photographer.”

“Plus it’s recurring income,” she says. “That’s the biggest thing! You could be doing a shoot every quarter and set up yearly packages where they pay up front for a much higher fee. So even that $2,000 shoot is an $8,000 client per year, and it only goes up from there. Or you can set it up for an initial deposit that will cover the first shoot, approximately, and then have monthly income coming in. Most of the students I’ve worked with only need 12 clients to hit a six-figure income goal per year. That’s gross sales, not net, but it’s still significant. And many of them are set up with their pricing to have 12 clients a year billing $200,000 because they can get the people who really want to work with them in depth.”

Swanson says the potential exists for this market to offer a lifeline for photographers who are talented and hard working, but have still seen their businesses falter. “For years I’ve been seeing it getting tougher and tougher. People who I know are amazing marketers and phenomenal photographers—and they’re not slacking and they’re not getting complacent, they’re working their tails off—they’re in this trend of being hired less for weddings, or the packages they’re being asked to deliver are smaller. They’re feeling burned out because what they’ve been doing isn’t working anymore in the same way. They’ve reached a certain level and they’re having to work harder to maintain, or they’re working harder and seeing it decline.”

“I’m really passionate about this,” Swanson says, “and I feel like personal brand photography is the future of where professional photography, at least on the consumer side, is headed. So if I can help photographers who are really talented, who are super hard working, to actually see what’s happening and find a way for them to do this profitably—which they can—that’s a big win. I believe the demand and the opportunity is there.”

Jamie Swanson began her professional photography career in 2008 and launched The Modern Tog in 2011. In 2018, she shifted her focus to personal brand photography. Learn more at personalbrandphotography.com and go here to join her Facebook group.


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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