Two Secrets to Success in Photography: Your Skill Set and Relationship Building with Skip Cohen
It’s been over six years since I wrote my first article for Shutter Magazine. During that time, I’ve covered virtually every important building block in establishing a successful photography business. I’ve also taught at every ShutterFest except this year’s. I’ve spoken with thousands of photographers and listened to their challenges.
I’m still amazed that so many photographers are clueless about the two most important ingredients to their success: building relationships and fine-tuning their skill set. Great photographers need both. Neither of them ever stops being important. Year after year, I hear photographers say, “If only I had the money for better gear.”
Put a dozen new photographers in a room, and you’ll hear the new-gear argument along with “If I only had a nice studio” and the complaint about all the Uncle Harrys who often have better gear than they do.
I don’t want to dwell on the challenge, but for years, we heard the industry battle it out over Canon versus Nikon. It’s like the arguments when I was a teenager over Ford versus Chevy.
Today you’ve got so much to choose from, especially in mirrorless. My favorite is Panasonic’s Lumix line, but you’ve also got five other manufacturers to choose from. The argument over product lines was never a relevant issue. While there’s no question about great gear making your life easier, great images come from a great skill set.
Vince Laforet is one of my heroes. Years ago at a workshop, he talked about never having the right gear when he first started. He looked at the audience at one of Skip’s Summer School sessions and said, “You know what you do when you don’t have a long enough lens? You move in closer.”
Then there’s Joe Buissink, who talks about the gear fever he had when he started out. He decided he needed to invest in an expensive tilt/shift lens. All it did was tie up his cash flow; after it sat on the shelf for a few years, he sold it at a loss.
Having the very best camera gear won’t make you a great artist any more than owning a new Porsche will make you a racecar driver.
There’s no question that technology keeps changing and gear keeps getting better. But you’ve got to keep practicing so you can take on any challenge with whatever gear you’ve got. You need to produce results that exceed client expectations.
Upgrading Your Gear
I’m talking primarily about new-gear fever suffered by artists who believe their gear is at fault for their business failures. New gear is always fun, especially if it’s enhancing your ability to cover an event better and expand the parameters of what you can photograph.
But too often, like Joe Buissink in his younger days, photographers tie up cash flow with big-ticket purchases when there are alternatives like these:
- Rental houses: Before you shell out the money for a piece of gear, rent it first. Confirm whether or not it needs to be in your camera bag.
- Lease vs. purchase: Leasing new gear gives you a chance to use somebody else’s assets without depleting yours. It’s another good alternative and always worth checking out if you’ve decided the new gear is a must-have.
- Partnerships: Over the past year, I’ve heard some great stories about photographers sharing space, and the same applies to equipment. Equipment includes everything from cameras and lensed to large-format printers. I wrote about this in a recent article.
Fine-Tuning Your Skill Set
Photography is a career where you never stop learning. Technology and consumer trends never slow down. You have to take advantage of every opportunity to raise the bar on your skill set. That means attending workshops and conventions, watching online programs and following the blogs of those artists you admire the most.
Years ago, I heard Michele Celentano speak at a conference. She had 75 photographers in the room, most of them relatively new. She told them, “Twenty years ago, I was sitting right where you are now and wondering how long it would be before my work didn’t suck.”
Today, Michele is one of the finest family portrait artists in the world, and she’s never stopped expanding her skill set. Her passion is the family side of the business, but there’s nothing she can’t shoot. She got that reputation by taking every workshop she could and building a network of friends and associates who helped her grow.
Attend conferences like ShutterFest where you can take hands-on shooting workshops with your peers and some of the most exceptional imaging educators. Take classes outside your expertise, because growth happens only outside your comfort zone.
One of my favorite books on marketing is UnMarketing, by Scott Stratten. The newest edition is out and includes coauthor Allison Stratten. The subtitle of the earlier edition is Stop Marketing. Start Engaging. The new edition has that crossed out and these words written under them: Everything Has Changed and Nothing Is Different. The book is a great read, and I recommend you hit Amazon and order it. It should be in every business owner’s library.
You’ll meet a lot of photographers whose foundation for success is rooted in relationship building. Angela Carson is an old friend and an outstanding children and family photographer from Detroit. I did a podcast with her several years ago when the economy was in shambles. Detroit was one of the hardest-hit areas of the country, but Angela’s business was strong.
In the podcast, she revealed that her secret was to keep in touch with her clients all year long. She’s worked hard and with total sincerity to weave herself into the fabric of their families.
Angela knew she needed x number of sittings a year, and approximately 65% of her clients were repeat business. She made it a point to track birthdays, anniversaries and special occasions in their lives. She also made it important to know about new babies, graduations and even family members who passed away.
Sure, it was a means to keeping her business healthy, but there isn’t an insincere bone in Angela’s body. Her love for photography isn’t about her business as much as it is her love for people and her passion to please—in other words, exceeding client expectations.
She’s worked for years to make herself habit-forming, building a business of loyal clients. Her success is tied to relationship building and an unstoppable skill set. Strong relationships are an essential component of every success story. Each relationship becomes a necessary network contact. It’s not just about your clients, but your associates, opinion leaders in your community and the vendors whose products and services you use.
In the old days before the Internet, we all collected business cards and stored them in our Rolodex alphabetically or according to industry or service. The process was the same: come home from a convention, sort your collected business cards and then put them into storage.
Social media changed all that. The Internet gave us the ability to keep in touch more often and to know exactly what was going in people’s lives. Privacy as we used to know it went up in smoke, but at the same time, we had an opportunity to share more and expand the definition of friendships. You no longer had to wait to catch up with somebody you wanted to meet at the next convention. In the same respect, you had a chance to keep in touch with your target audience. Whether through your blog, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook or Facebook forums, social media is one of your greatest tools for building your business and brand awareness.
It’s December, and the year is quickly coming to a close, but a new year and tradeshow season are right around the corner. The first quarter of the new year is referred to as the slow season, but if you do things right, it should be anything but quiet.
Use this month to send your personal holiday card out to your clients. Use your blog to share content to help your readership with picture-taking tips through the holidays. Use December to exceed client expectations by sending holiday orders out on time. Then, take the time leading up to New Year’s to do a little dreaming about how you want 2019 to look, and plan accordingly.
Plan your schedule so you can attend every possible conference/convention you can in 2019. Follow your favorite photographers on their blogs and YouTube. Think about your business and where your biggest weaknesses are, and figure out how to turn them from liabilities into assets.