Zero to Niche: Building a Portfolio in 30 Days with Jeff Rojas
Photographers can get in over their heads wanting to photograph everything, especially when they’re trying to make ends meet. I understand it’s hard to pass up the opportunity for a paid gig when you’re a freelancer, but marketing yourself as a photographer who shoots everything is counterproductive. Developing your own brand, style and niche isn’t difficult, and you can do it in as few as 30 days.
Let me be clear: When you’re hungry for work, any job someone puts in front of you sounds like a great opportunity. There’s nothing wrong with taking on those types of jobs, but I’d stray away from including it in your portfolio because it can impact the way clients perceive your body of work.
Think about it this way: If I asked you where the best place is to find a television, you’d recommend a store like Best Buy. Why? Because it specializes in electronics. Walmart has a ton of great deals on televisions, but it doesn’t specialize in that niche market. If I were to ask you about stores that sell $25,000 wedding rings, you’d probably say Tiffany & Co. Did you know Walmart sells wedding rings upwards of $25,000? Yes, Walmart.
Think about that for a second. While Walmart has great deals on everything, that’s also how clients perceive them. No one assumes Walmart would sell $25,000 rings because that’s not how it’s marketed. That’s the mindset that you need to have when you’re developing your portfolio. Specialize in something memorable. If you’re a wedding shooter, stick to weddings. If you’re a portrait photographer, stick to portraits. You want potential clients to remember you for your body of work is, especially if most of your leads come from referrals.
Like most photographers these days, I stumbled into photography accidently. I never planned to become a photographer. I picked up a camera one day and instantly fell in love with it. Around the age of 24, I was laid off from my last corporate job, as regional sales manager for an education company based in New York City. I decided to pursue photography as a career. I was hired as the studio manager/videographer/video editor for a fashion photographer who also taught photography. I was always on set for everything she shot. I saw her light her clients and fashion editorials dozens of times over the course of two years. Eventually, she trusted me enough to allow me to photograph clients in her place.
When I photographed a look book for a client of hers that was featured in Elle, I realized something: While I should have been proud of shooting that caliber of work, it wasn’t my own. It was her style. It was her client. I was just replicating what I had seen dozens of times even though I did it all without her there. That was the day I decided to create my own body of work and carve my own niche.
How I Created a New Portfolio in 72 Hours
A week after my epiphany, I booked four male models and photographed them over the course of an eight-hour day with help from a wardrobe stylist. I shot two unique images with each model, and in about eight hours, I had enough work for a portfolio. (The images in Figures 1.3 through 1.5 are from those shoots.) After the images were retouched, I submitted them to a major men’s fashion site called Fashionisto, and within a couple of days, I was contacted by several agencies in New York City that wanted to work with me. My total time invested was a day of shooting and a night of editing. I submitted those images the night I photographed them, so it was just 24 hours and two days of waiting for the images to be published on their site.
Can those results be replicated? Absolutely. Earlier this year, a makeup artist I worked with was scouted by an agency in New York. Together we created the images in Figures 1.6 through 1.10.
Here are some tips you can use to find your own success.
Balance What You Like to Photograph With What You’re Good At
Society has become overly romantic and less practical. Just because you love to do something doesn’t make you good at it. For example, if you’re an introvert who hates people but you love wedding photography, don’t expect miracles. You’re probably not going to become a multimillionaire unless you find a business partner who balances out your shortcomings.
Obviously that’s an extreme, but it’s important to be self-aware. Fashion photography isn’t for everyone. I’m constantly managing creatives and egos on set, but I enjoy managing. If you have more of a laid-back attitude, you probably won’t enjoy it unless you hire a self-sufficient crew.
On that same note, think about what you’re actually good at, and find a niche that meshes with your skillset. If you’re amazing with children, why not try that niche? If you have an eye for details, then shoot weddings. Incorporate what you’re good at (aside from the aesthetics), and you’ll outshine the competition.
Do Market Research
Found what you like to do? Here’s a reality check: Just because you like doing something and you’re good at it doesn’t mean there’s a market for it. Maybe there’s little competition because there’s no market. The easiest way to become a starving artist is when there’s no potential sales leads coming through the door. The most critical aspect of carving out your own niche is analyzing the market. To be clear, your potential market is everyone you are capable of reaching and selling your photography services to. That includes personal relationships, networking opportunities and sales leads. Find a market that exists; if you don’t, it’ll take you years to develop a niche instead of days. And finally, if you’re not seeing any sales leads coming through the door, start back at square one.
Don’t jump in halfway. If you’re going to commit to something, fully commit or don’t try at all. I see it all the time, photographers who spend so much time analyzing the market and assessing the pros and cons that they never get anything done. Whether it’s because you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself or because you’re scared, you need to get over it ASAP. The longer you wait to do something, the steeper the learning curve is and the more opportunity you’re giving potential competitors to take your idea or surpass you. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, tell everyone who’ll listen—friends, family, previous clients.
This does two positive things: It holds you accountable for what you committed yourself to, and it makes you an established go-to person for that specific person. Take ownership of your endeavors and make them known.