Just as it’s always been possible to build a business without direct mail marketing or radio advertising, it’s certainly possible to run a business in the 21st century without making use of social media. But it’s a little bit like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Sure, intermittent posting on Instagram and Facebook might help, but some photographers go much farther—not just branding but actually connecting with an audience that includes clients. In the best-case scenario this can lead directly from social posts to photo assignments.
Sony Alpha Imaging Collective photographer and writer Erin Sullivan (@erinoutdoors) is an ideal example for social media inspiration, both because of the inspiring travel experiences she chronicles through photos and stories, as well as her ability to make a business case for building a distinctive social brand. Sullivan says her customers turn to her for more than typical photo assignments. They want to share in that connection to her audience.
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“Most of my clients,” she says, “they’re not just hiring me for commercial photo stuff. They’re also hiring me because they want to be associated with me on the blogger/public figure/speaker side. I think any photographer today needs to wear many different hats. Photography is maybe 20% of the job, actually being in the field shooting.”
"You Just Have To Pick Something"
The need to diversify is now more important than ever. It’s hard to make a living purely from traditional assignment photography. But with the challenges of professional photography today also come countless benefits. For instance, every complaint of falling licensing fees and paltry day rates can be countered with the reality that brands have never been this photo-hungry. The dichotomy can make it overwhelming, particularly for up-and-comers concerned about whether they’re choosing the right path. But worrying about which steps to take is less important, Sullivan says, then to simply get going.
“There are more platforms,” she says, “there’s more opportunity. And I think it's easy to get overwhelmed with that. I get a lot of questions from people who want to do photography full time or who want to start a business. And they're just overwhelmed with figuring out which thing to do first? ‘How do I start?’ is such a big question. My response is: you just start. You answered the question. You just have to pick something.”
Why Authenticity Matters More Than Audience Size
Sullivan simply started using social media to show off her photography. Instagram, for instance, wasn’t something she thought of as a marketing tool so much as a natural way to share her work. Consequently that allowed her to focus less on selling and more on simply communicating—sharing what she does and who she is. If there’s one thing an audience responds to it’s authenticity, for sure.
“I view my social media as a way to show my work, of course,” she says, “but it's also showing who I am and what I care about. I'm always going to be me on there because I would rather work with a few really aligned brands. I'm not trying to get the attention of a bunch of little brands, or a bunch of brands that are kind of a fit. I'm trying to target brands, companies, outlets that are 100% a fit. Like REI. They came to me for that job, I didn't even pitch it. That’s the perfect thing." It’s the kind of photography-adjacent work that so many successful professionals are doing, and that comes directly from her social media presence.
“It’s because I was loud about who I am and what I do,” she says, “and what I'm about. For example, if I'm shooting for a destination, like one job I did last year was for Fort Myers and Sanibel—which are some really lovely places in Florida that were trying to appeal to a younger demographic. So I went down there and photographed and they licensed some images for digital usage for one or two years, and the rest of it was a blog post on my blog and Instagram posts so that I was communicating with my audience about the destination. It's a package.”
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“They're hiring us both as the photographer and as the advertiser,” Sullivan continues. “So if someone is paying me $5,000 to come to a destination—which is relatively common for small tourism boards—if they're saying ‘okay, we have a $5,000 budget,’ instead of just paying to license two photos for a billboard they're getting more. They view it as getting more because they also get to reach my audience, which is unique to me and my interests. If you're really clear about who you are and what you do, then that can be really beneficial to you and to the client.”
Fundamentally, Sullivan says, social media offers a way to showcase who you are and what you do to a targeted audience that’s into that. And it’s fine if it’s not a huge group of people.
“You're not going to be for everybody and that's okay,” she explains. “Because if you're trying to be for everyone then you're not for anyone. Take photography for example. If I'm looking for a dog photographer I'm going to look for a dog photographer. I'm not going to look for someone who shoots dogs and portraits and engagements and landscape and food. I'm looking for a dog photographer. Because I'm clear on what I do and what I don't do and who I am and who I'm not.”
“I’m technically a ‘micro influencer,’” Sullivan continues. “Brands are looking at micro and nano—which is under 10,000—because they’re closer to their audience. I always hope I’m coming across as a photographer first, because my hope is that my influence comes as a result of the work that I’m doing and not because I’m just posting pictures of myself. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I want to be known for.”
“There are so many ways that you can be creative,” she adds, “but you can't just be creative when you're behind the camera. You have to be creative in your overall business, too. People put themselves in boxes. They say, ‘Oh, I can't be successful unless I have this many followers.’ But through the years I've known people with hundreds of thousands of followers who have come to me and asked ‘What's a pitch?’ Or ‘How do you do this?’ or ‘What should I charge for this?’ And I say ‘Wait, you don't know this?’ I think it's about creativity when you're behind the lens and also behind your desk. Because again, the photography is only part of it. The rest of it is entrepreneurship.”
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.