Standing Out From a Crowd with Tony L. Corbell
Living and working in a landscape filled with new photographers delivering average or maybe even “good” work, at average or low pricing, has presented many working professional photographers with a big challenge in terms of their businesses. How do you overcome the difference in what they do compared to what you do? What might you do to stand out? What can you do to be in the best position to be noticed for the work? How can a photographer working full-time today operate a profitable business?
In this article, we will examine a number of things that can be done with very little effort to ensure your success within the community as your potential clients begin the process of selecting a photographer. We’ll also include a few mistakes that will secure your place in obscurity.
A few years ago, I was interviewed by my buddy for a blog entry, and he asked what the single message should be to pass along to new photographers hoping to become the established pros of tomorrow. It took me about three seconds to blurt out the word, “Quality!” When I said this, I meant quality in everything that you do and everything that you are. It took me a few minutes to more fully express what I was trying to say—that you have to have the utmost quality in your photography work, of course. But you also have to possess an unmatched quality in your proposals and presentations, your marketing and packaging materials, your clothing and appearance, and the look of your studio or office space.
All of these elements combine to create a complete picture of you within your community. I know photographers who will make a new handyman tool for their lighting, constructed from parts from one of the great home improvement centers. And while I can appreciate saving a little money from time to time, you cannot have a lighting tool in your studio made of PVC pipe and a random color of duct tape. Imagine the message you are quietly sending to your client. Listen, I am not saying you have to only use the most expensive gear in the industry. However, it is necessary that, as a professional, you use quality equipment that does what it is supposed to do, and not come across as someone one who cuts corners by cutting cost.
My wife, Mandy (a PPA Master photographer herself) and I were talking about the topic of this article on a long road trip yesterday, and she said to be sure to bring up the importance of follow-through. Following through on your promises to a client is really not as big a deal as you might think. However, the minute you fail to follow through, it becomes critical to the future of your business. Word will spread, and before you know it, the phone will stop ringing. You have to be on top of every order at the lab, where each SD card is from the week’s work, and what has and has not been moved off the cards and backed up. You have to know exactly what is due to be delivered and when it was promised (and I beg you to give the lab a few days’ grace to allow for shipping issues).
There is a local photographer in our town whom I have come to know, and she is really well-liked by many in our community. However, she hardly ever delivers anything when promised, and people all over town have exhibited their frustration. She is about to run out of her limited clientele. Sadly, the word has spread, and it is very hard to change opinions once they are established.
I feel that many photographers put themselves out of business while they are busy blaming it on “shoot-and-burn” new clients. One of my mentors once said that it was ok if you lose business to someone else. But it was not ok to go give it to them due to your own minor and easy-to-overcome mistakes.
Here are a few things to think about:
Top Things to Help You Stand Out
- Develop quality in everything you do: shoot, touch, and show.
- Have a clean working studio or home studio with professional equipment.
- Become knowledgeable about all of your equipment. Don’t get distracted from the client because of equipment issues. Know what you’re using!
- Follow through. Understand that creatives need deadlines. You must keep track of them and not miss them, ever.
- Do not be your own worst enemy. Instead, be known as the leading pro in your community.
Top Things to Help Ensure Your Failure
- Spend time complaining about your competition and assuming that they are responsible for your bad fortune.
- Use inexpensive equipment that sometimes fails during operation.
- Do little or no marketing within the community. Don’t get involved in the Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau, or any other local civic groups.
- Stop growing as an artist. After a few short years in the photography industry, you pretty much know everything, right?
- “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” So, play it safe. Don’t try anything fresh or new.
Pricing for your work can be individual and personal. It’s an important area we should discuss, even briefly—if nothing else, we should agree that we need to be paid for our time and our talents. The actual specifics of your pricing and the amounts for your albums and prints are not nearly as important as you might think. However, the term “perceived value” matters, and your clients will usually add to your proven business practices by helping to spread the word that you are not cheap, but the work is worth the cost. A great friend and master photographer from Kentucky, Mr. Tim Walden, once made the comment to me that in order to be paid what is appropriate for our work, we need to create larger gaps. Gaps between us and the other folks. Gaps in how we market ourselves, gaps in the quality of our business cards, gaps in everything. Setting ourselves apart is very difficult for some of us, while it might come easily to others. Just know that being a stand-out and being memorable is vital to your success.
When working with your clients, there are a few things that might seem elementary and like common sense, and yet they are critical to your overall success: being upbeat and friendly, being professional, being on time, being prepared, being well-dressed, having a photographic vision or direction (even when following a creative approach), and knowing your equipment inside and out. Being respected as the photographic leader/expert in your area takes time, and more importantly, it takes patience. But it can be done, and there are a lot of community leaders quietly hoping for your success.
Folks, this work is fun, and we all love being known as photographers. We are all driven to do well and create good work. But we cannot allow ourselves to be sidetracked or take our eye off the ball for even a minute. Stay professional day in and day out, and trust me, you’ll do great things and enjoy a long and successful career.