Not getting enough inquiries or sales? Are you constantly under-priced by your competition? Sick of struggling and know that you need to change something?
Without exaggerating, the solution is positioning, and I’ll try to convince you why.
Amateurs are buying a DSLR (or even using their smartphones) and immediately calling themselves “photographers”. And they’re charging too little. The entire photography industry is saturated, and it’s harder than ever to get more clients.
But photographers who understand how to differentiate their business and adjust their online presence accordingly, are finding it easier than ever to get clients (that are happy to pay them what they’re worth)
This article will give you a new way to think about your business (instead of treating it as just a passion), and is a must-read for:
- beginner photographers eager to build a strong business from their passion
- established photographers struggling with getting more clients, looking to modernize their business or to pivot to a different niche
- previously-successful photographers affected by recent market changes
Prepare to have your mindset changed, if not by my arguments, then by all the quotes from established photographers that I’ve spread out throughout the article.
Here’s an in-depth article featuring me as an example on how to position yourself as an expert in your niche (web-design for photographers, in my case): Branding for Creatives
This is not a technical article that you can just skim through the get some quick information. This is best “digested” slowly with a good cup of tea or coffee. Save it for later if you’re not open to reading such a piece now.
Part 1: The state of the photography industry
I once asked my newsletter subscribers: What’s the number one thing you’re struggling with (in your photography business)?
50% said something about getting more clients, leads, sales, or income.
The rest were split between:
- knowing where to start
- lacking skills or good images
- needing a new website
- lacking time
- lacking confidence
Favorite answer: “Knowing what I don’t know.” 🙂
Let’s start to deconstruct this
Why are so many photographers having such a hard time getting more work?
Since the invention of photography (and especially since digital photography took over), there’s been a hierarchy of value and pricing delivered by photographers:
Free images are shared with anyone who is willing to use them, usually as a way of getting attention and leading to other sales down the road. Think of free stock photography, free wallpapers, or sites like Unsplash.
Mass photography is the inevitable result of a digital medium where the cost of making copies is inexpensive. So you get stock images for $5 or photography magazines for pocket change. Mass content has been the engine of popular culture for a century.
Limited content is something rare and thus more expensive. It’s the expensive fine-art images that everyone can’t possibly buy. It’s the 7-day photo workshop or the limited-edition signed print.
And finally, there’s bespoke work. This is truly expensive, truly limited. A one-of-a-kind photo. Hiring an architecture photographer for custom work. Getting your portrait taken by a famous photographer.
“I think the decline in the purchase of stock photography is multi faceted for sure. But one specific way that the decline is felt by me and my business is the ubiquitous rise of images available in general, and the number of people who have a presence online in social media and other online portals.
Because of this, photo budgets have been susceptible because there are cheaper images out there. There are still those who want the customer service and quality of unique images, but it continues to decline.
Here is an email from a long time local client (our local tourism branch). It think this describes, in general, the influences.
<< Just so you understand the position I’m in regarding photo rates…
I despise negotiating photography prices. I have the utmost respect for your talent and what you go through to get such wonderful images. The last thing I would ever want to do is offend you or any photographer by low-balling an offer.
[…] I’m always cautious to get the most out of the money I have to pull from it.
As I mentioned before, with the help of social media and other online resources, we’ve been blessed to acquire some great images from amateur and up-and-coming photographers. Several of the images we’re using this year were given to us at no charge and others come with longer term use rights (up to three years in any of our materials) plus rights to distribute to media doing stories. The highest we’ve paid this year is $1000 for such a license. So, as much as I love your photography and working with you, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to justify the difference in prices. >>”
Alaska stock photographer Patrick Endres
“I am glad you are writing about the saturated photography industry. It is such a huge and complex topic.
Firstly, I feel the biggest challenge is that the industry is not regulated. Anybody can be a photographer in the UK if you own a DSLR or a mirrorless camera. You don’t need a degree, a qualification nor you have to be a member of photographic association. Therefore there are no industry standards.
I also think that in the UK photography is not regarded as Art, like in continental Europe for some reason (perhaps because of the above and below :-)?)
Furthermore people often expect you to do photography for free and there are plenty of weekend warriors who drop their prices because they can.
There are also plenty of free images available from the crowd or enthusiast willing to give images away for free for a bit of credit.
The biggest issue / paradox because of all the above mentioned though that in this saturated market the qualified and/or talented photography pool is shrinking possibly because the average individual can’t distinguish between an amazing and an average photograph (this is a biological fact!).
So very complex issue but it is still possible to shine if you continue to invest into your development, if you produce artistic / unique images with a superb customers service and a big smile :-)”
Wedding photographer Maria Szekelyhidi
Three things happened recently
- Almost anyone can now publish almost anything. You can post photos without an editor, you can publish a photo book without a publisher, you can host a workshop without a management company. You can sell your images without a gallery! This leads to an explosion of choice. (Or from the point of view of the photographer, an explosion of clutter and competition).
- Because of 1, attention is worth more than ever before. The single obstacle for almost all success in photography is “do people know enough about it to choose to buy something?”
- The marginal cost of one more photo in the digital world is precisely zero. One more giga-byte of photos, one more viewer on your site, one my blog reader – they cost the photographer almost nothing to produce or deliver.
As a result of these three factors, there’s a huge sucking sound, and that’s the erosion of the paid-photography mass market.
Fewer people buying prints and digital downloads, more people engaging in free stuff (or at microstock levels).
And many photography service industries have been inundated by choice.
“I know there are people still creating unique images/footage who do well at it. There are those who are good at researching upcoming trends and producing images that fit who also do well in stock photography. However, I now see so many royalty free sites selling images for unreasonably low payouts that stock photography does not seem like a viable way forward for photographers.”
Architecture photographer Jimmy White
Many photographers are struggling
Some photographers are struggling, and they’re complaining that they’re struggling.
But as a pro photographer, I makes no sense to complain that your competition is lowering their prices, or that “they’re playing the game unfairly”.
It makes no sense to complain that the market has poor standards these days.
The market is selfish, it doesn’t care about you in particular. It’s just choosing someone else that’s telling a better story.
Sure, that story sometimes is about price. So don’t place that game. Tell a different story, a better story about how you’re different. Not based on price, but based on the outcome for your clients.
Take a listen to this 1 minute of Seth Godin talking on “The Moment with Brian Koppelman” podcast (1/1/19):
While others are instead actively looking to reinvent themselves, to pivot, to find new ways to grow their business despite the realities of their specific photography niche, demonstrating that IT IS POSSIBLE.
“I think photography as we know it is changing. With the advent of really great cell phones and so many people doing it as a hobby, the money will be in providing photography for people who require quality imagery to generate their own income, hence my shift to personal branding.”
Family, landscape and personal branding photographer Vanessa Kay
What separates them? My guess is it’s what Carol Dweck describes as having a “growth mindset”:
Where is this heading?
By headcount, just about every photographer is in the business of shooting, distributing, marketing, and selling copies of their original creative images to the masses.
Photographers aren’t going to go away – they have no choice but to create more. But the infrastructure around monetizing images (that used to have a marginal cost but no longer does) is in for a radical shift, though.
Photography projects of the future will be cheaper to shoot, faster to market and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.
It’s a struggle.
But, overlooked in all the complaining, is a rise in the willingness of some image consumers (editorial clients, businesses, picky brides, niche experts) to move up the chain and engage in limited or bespoke ways.
To differentiate their work (publications, business branding, personal or commercial projects), they need more specialized and higher-quality images.
The photography market is “saturated” for them too. When looking for new images, some photo buyers are thinking: “Too much fluff. I need something different. I need something special.”
“Buyers have consistently told us that they appreciate when a photographer exhibits a clear specialty—whether that be style, location, subject matter, or talent. Having a specialty will help when buyers need to recall a photographer who does something exactly the way you do. Plus, it will help the buyers place you and your promotional materials into both mental and physical storage locations for reference later on.”
PhotoShelter – The 2017 Photo Business Plan Workbook
That’s your opportunity as a photographer!
Is this enough to replace the money that’s not being spent on mass? Of course not. But no one said it was fair.
“Today’s challenges have never been greater.
Not only do you need to win the account from your neighboring photographer, but you’re also competing with stock collections, free content, in-house production departments, pro-consumer digital cameras giving clients the opportunity to take their own images, enhancing software to fix ordinary images, and an authentic trend of embracing “real photography” taken from smart phones.
Ah, but there is a silver lining to our future, our industry has never needed visual content more than they do today.
Where in the old days (say 2010) brands used traditional marketing to advertise their products on a quarterly if not yearly basis, today’s brands are forced to engage with their customers daily.
They desperately need you to create content for them.
Though you might feel weighed down by the realities of this industry, if you can rise above the clutter and visual noise out there, you can have a very successful career.”
Agency Access – The Photographer’s Survival Guide to Marketing
It can be done
There are famous pro photographers who have already spent a lot of time, effort & money to get ahead. They managed to make a name for themselves.
The solution though might be to carve out a niche within your niche, where you can become the best out there when people try to work with YOU specifically.
The ideal scenario (which can be reached through years of hard work) is to become a one-person niche, the “go-to” photographer for a specific type of client.
When you’re narrowly positioned, people start seeing you as the expert in your field. Potential clients start saying “We want to do this. Get me [your name here]!”, because you’re the photographer that’s really well-known for that type of work.
Maybe not worldwide (at first), but at least in your local area.
Not only do clients trust you more because they see you as the expert. They also feel like taking a lower risk with you, than going with a generalist.
“Yes, I feel it is absolutely possible to make a living out of taking photos – but it is nothing to do with equipment and education. It is all about hustle and connections.”
Event photographer Nigel King
What would a professional do?
Every day you work as a photographer. You do a photo shoot; you buy and test your gear; you update your website; you try to find new clients.
And clients only care about getting the most value for their money. Professional photographers are specialists doing industry-standard work for hire (depending on their niche).
But if you consider yourself an amateur, you have to realize that you’re competing against professionals, who are, generally speaking, better than you.
You have 3 valid ways to think your way out of this situation:
- Realize that professional-quality work is not (yet) required in your niche.
- Work to become as good as a professional.
- Have the courage to do work that even professional wouldn’t dare do, and use this as a significant advantage.
The first option is usually a trap caused by false assumptions. Is doing sub-par work actually costing you in the long run, because you’re not measuring things, or because you’re ignoring the consequences? Try to think of all the amateur-level experience you’ve had as a customer yourself, times when someone pretended to be a pro but offered you poor service. What was your internal reaction then?
The second option is smart and first requires admitting that you aren’t a pro yet. If your life depends on having a successful photography business, then invest the time and money to become a pro in your field.
The third option is the most exciting of them all: the freshness and transparency that come out of pushing the envelope are better than what a professional could do.
For example, Ben von Wong is doing AMAZING photography projects that people wrongly think are just photoshopped. Sure you need resources too, but it’s intention and courage that actually move things forward. Have can you create something unique? When you’re the only photographer who could have done what you just did, you basically become a proud “amateur”.
How bad is the situation?
“Glass half full” quotes from professional photographers
[Where is the photography industry going?] “Not doom and gloom. Only those in a rut will see it/feel that way! It is what you make of it. There’s so much opportunity. I’m excited smaller, mirrorless cameras are becoming better and better and would hope to downsize my kit at some point. I think quality photography services will always be utilized. Shoot and burners will thin out. It’s not a sustainable model.”
Lifestyle & newborn photographer Katrina Ferguson
“For the individual freelance it is very difficult unless they have considerable resources to market themselves professionally. A quality website is a must, and you must have at least the $5k to invest in it’s creation. Then you need another $5k of resources to rank for 2-3 key words on page 1 in a big city location (or pay for ads)
For the savvy who can professionally shoot and create a strong brand online I see many more opportunities for the future. Focus on your own website and 2 key other rented (Social media) platforms. Email marketing and video will become even more important for the startups. Without your own website prospects just don’t put you in the same league, this is from my own perspective with business clients. Other opportunities will be to partner up with 1 or 2 others who are very good at particular niches and go from there. Local search is next my list of things to focus on.
I moved away from social media to focus and strengthen my brand and it’s perception. Social media is too crowded with people who are prepared to work for very little in my niche. There must be millions of photographers on social media.
Improving my websites position in SERPS has been the most important contributor to receiving enquiries and honing my skills in conversions. (Still a work in progress in many areas).
Business isn’t booming but I am seeing much better results after changing where I invest my time. I can’t control or get enough traction because of social media algorithms. At least with Google they have provided a road map on how to rank and be seen.”
Business event photographer Orlando Sydney
[Where is the photography industry going, in your opinion?] “Booming! Though challenged/transitioning due to the amount of photography platforms, smartphones etc.
It’s changing big time! As an educated photojournalist, I’ve seen digital trends run down newspapers and the traditional old-school photographers.
Now more and more are working on a freelance-basis, doing more communications work than editorial. Personally I don’t mind, since the world is more visual than ever before! It’s just about market adaptation. I’m excited about where we’re going.
Documentary photographer Simon Skipper
“All is constantly changing. Nothing has stayed stagnant since the onset of the digital revolution approx. 20 years ago. Am keeping a close eye on AI developments and continuously putting a big emphasis on marketing, promotion, SEO and SM related matters, brand and website integrity and customer relations… among many other things. Overall though I remain excited, passionate, positive and optimistic. There really is no other way if you want to succeed.”
Architecture photographer Marian Kraus
“I notice a real return towards analog photography by young people who were born in the digital age. I presume people will end being “fed up” with the quantity of “empty” photographs uploaded and shared on social networks.”
Fine art photographre Jean Daubas
“It’s so much easier for nearly anyone to get a decent camera and watch some YouTube tutorials and set up a website. But I think there will always be a place for a dedicated and skilled photographer that people will be willing to engage with.
I remember years ago when I was interested in calligraphy. I had the idea that I could do some part time work handwriting wedding invitations. I mentioned this idea to a colleague and he basically shot me down in flames saying that everyone who has access to a computer can print their own invitations, choosing whatever font they like. In other words no one would be interested in paying someone to write them. Unfortunately, I accepted what he said must be true and abendoned the whole idea. I realize now that was a mistake, there will always be a market for personalized and unique special products such as beautiful handwriting or photography.”
Landscape photographer Thomas Adams
“I think the industry weeds itself out very nicely. I’ve had three acquaintances start and stop operating a business in the last year. It’s just too hard to hustle for clients. I will forge on.”
Pet photographer Angela Schneider
“Glass half empty” quotes from professional photographers
[Where is the photography industry going?] “Lower prices and lower quality. More photographers willing to give their work away for free to try to get in to the market and thus adding to the downward pressure on prices.”
Landscape photographer Scott Masterton
“While demand is up, I see photography becoming more and more of a commodity item where the cheapest price wins.”
Wedding photographer Bruce Clarke
“Hobbiysts [will be] turning a hobby into a well paying side gig while maintaining their day job. Instagram filtering their work and running a sick social media campaign and thus making it “look” like they are awesome and beating anyone who has put in years but is not social media (young person) savvy.”
Wedding photographer Arsheen Raza
“Unfortunately, I believe it’s going to become a hobby profession with a few exceptions for those consumers looking for real art. All cameras are getting so much easier to use with professional results that people are diving into business without truly creating a sustainable business. So photographers fade in and out, with the new guy always waiting to replace the old one that gives everything away for pennies.
There will still be true professionals that make a good living and have elevated their business to provide discerning consumers an amazing experience with matching art. But they will be the exception, not the rule.”
Newborn photographer Amber Drake Sehrt
[Where is the photography industry going, in your opinion?] “Doom”
Vineyard photographer Kathryn Elsesser
“Glass… well… it depends” quotes from professional photographers
“In my opinion the photography industry is at a tipping point. Things could get better for professional photographers or they could go drastically wrong with the influx of amateur photographers and non business-oriented creatives that don’t know how to run a business. Talent and creative work is at an all-time high but that could all go to waste without proper pricing structures and strategic planning, dooming both the amateur photographer and the professional photographer.”
Architecture photographer (prefers to remain anonymous)
Part 2: The impact of the global pandemic on certain photography niches
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of photographers were severely affected business-wise:
“If there is anything to take away from the data is that the industry has by no means even begun to fully recover and that overall, there is still a good deal of uncertainty around how things will go for the rest of this year and even in the coming years.”
Survey Details A Still-Struggling Photography Business Landscape
With so many photography businesses struggling BEFORE the pandemic hit (with its lockdown periods and general disruption of the event industry), differentiating your business is even more important for survival.
When a health or financial crisis hits, the specialized experts survive, while the mass-market generalists usually suffer. You’re likely better off being a dependable go-to expert in your small photography niche than being a dispensable jack-of-all-trades photographer.
Sure, the pandemic likely accentuated the problems you had in your businesses. But everyone in your niche was affected in some way. So think of this as a clean slate, as an opportunity to redefine your business and build something more sustainable for the following years.
Having a growth mindset is even more important in trying times. When the dust settles, do you still want to be under-priced by tens of other photographers offering the same services in your area? Or do you want to stand out in some way?
People will still need photography services. Do the hard work now to become the ONE they choose next.
“Though whatever happens in these uncertain times, one thing I am sure of, the wedding photography industry will not fade away. There is a very strong demand from couples these days expressing their desire for the best wedding images they can afford. I have a feeling when Covid becomes more under control, the wedding industry will thrive and flourish beyond our expectations.”
Wedding photographer Bob Lambert
When asking pro photographers about how their business was affected by the pandemic, the most frequent phrase I heard was “pent-up demand”:
“People are working from home and there is a lot of pent-up demand here. I predict a big surge when things finally correct. I saw it last fall when restrictions were lifted and then at Christmas they locked it down again. Demand has gone down again. As a photographer you had better be ready for it or you’ll miss the boat.”
Headshot photographer Todd Langille
“My hunch [is] that the weddings business at any rate is going to bounce back full steam ahead fairly soon because of pent up demand. I still think corporate events is a different proposition but time will tell.
I thought you would be interested in this article about the state of the events business in NYC from the New York Times since you said you were planning an article the impact of COVID on the events industry. Private events such as weddings are certainly coming back, but still not corporate events. Everything corporate such as conferences are still virtual. I think it’s going to be a while before companies are comfortable planning large in person events. Of course the travel situation also has an impact since many large events involve international travel.”
Event photographer David Gordon
“I’ve experienced an uptick in inbound requests over the last couple months. People are starting to think and plan again. Personally, I even have a large project taking place over the course of the summer so I’m feeling quite hopeful!
I think it will be a while before things get “back to normal” – but I’m sure we’ll get there.”
Conservation photographer Ben von Wong
Although it’s not yet clear if things will fully recover:
“I think that the words ‘Pent up Demand’ are actually ‘pent up frustration’!
I suspect this business will never be the same, but for a few years, with a lot of guys simply dropping out of the business due to nothing to shoot and no money to pay for it, things may ease up, but will never recover as before.”
Sports photographer Stephen Hearn
“I think the pandemic has changed the industry in a few different ways. I know of many experienced photographers who have decided to step away from photography or shift their focus to different genres. There has also been a flood of part-time photographers looking to make up for lost income by offering cheap photo sessions. I think some of them will go away once things resume to normal and I think for those experienced photographers who managed to ride it out, 2022 could be a very good year. As far as weddings go, I think there will be a shift towards smaller, more intimate weddings and elopements with smaller guest lists, shorter timelines and the need for less photography coverage on the day.”
Event photographer Bruce Clarke
Part 3: Positioning crash course: How to stand out from the crowd as a pro photographer
The solution is to be different from the sea of amateurs out there. To find other ways to be different from your competition.
The quality of your images will always matter most, of course, but with so many talented photographers out there, that’s usually not enough these days.
Instead, the way forward is to choose a smaller audience that you can serve well.
“Years ago I created a stock agency selling only bird photographs. Competing against broader stock agencies that offered thousands of subjects, my work was easy to find for those who needed just bird photographs. This sort of niche programming seems counterintuitive to people just starting their photography business, but it’s crucial to success.”
Scott Bourne – The Truth About Getting Paid For Nature Photographs
That smaller niche needs to fulfill a few criteria:
- smaller is better, sure, but it still needs to be viable for you to build a business upon. Specialize as narrow as the market supports it. Figure out your idea annual income, then do a bit of math. You have three variables to think about:
- The number of potential clients in the market.
- The average lifetime-value for such a client.
- Your “market share”.
- When going for a smaller niche, #1 goes down, sure. And most photographers are afraid of this fact, while ignoring the upsides: #2 and #3 go up.
- When specializing on a smaller market, you learn how to offer better services and to raise your prices over time. And you can attract more clients.
Take just two minutes and listen to this:
Ditching Hourly Podcast (by Jonathan Stark) – “Plenty of Fish”
Being the go-to expert for a smaller but dedicated group of people will ensure that you have a steady stream of clients, regardless of the market saturation or financial crises. Sure, there will always be ups-and-downs as in any business, but you’ll be in a better position. And, dare I say it, you’ll also enjoy doing it more.
“The problem is photographers don’t specialize. I have had many many people come to me because they understand that this is my speciality. They have told me that they want someone who is an expert. Of course I do other photography but I believe I win business because of that.”
Headshot photographers Todd Langille
Look around. There’s no “normal” anymore.
People are accepting their own unique-ness. And not just accepting it, but embracing and celebrating it.
There’s no longer a “standard” way to photograph an event. Or if there is, that “standard” has become boring.
Instead there are pockets of uniqueness all around, each one forming a tiny market you can specialize in.
It’s up to you to figure out who you want to serve.
“Specializing” vs “niching down” vs “positioning” vs “differentiating” yourself as a photographer
In case you’re overwhelmed with all these terms (which mean different things), let’s shed some light on them.
Back to the start.
What’s the whole point of all of this?
Getting MORE and BETTER clients!
How do you do that?
By offering value to a specific audience, so that it’s profitable for both of you.
This is where “positioning” comes into play: it’s the place on this simple two-axis grid made up of “niching” (the vertical line) and “specializing” (the horizontal line).
“Niching” (the vertical axis) means focusing on a particular target audience to create value for. Also known as choosing a market vertical.
This is usually the easiest career path for beginner photographers, because it provides a clear path to follow (just choosing a specific type of client to work with) and offers feedback and possibilities for course-correcting along the way.
In the graph above, the bottom means little-to-no niching, aka working with anybody that wants to hire or buy from you. The top of the axis means working with a very very small group of people, even down to a single individual or company (there are many photographers out there that have made a career out of collaborating with a single client for many years – whether that an individual, a well-know event, or a company).
Choosing a narrower niche (moving upwards in the graph) usually allows you to command higher prices for your work.
You might be thinking: “Yeah, but MOST PEOPLE won’t pay higher prices in my saturated market”. Absolutely. Most people won’t. If you want to grow you’re business, then you’re not really after “most people”.
The horizontal axis represents “specializing”: becoming an expert at something, honing down your skills, developing stuff you’re truly great at.
Some of this comes with experience, sure, but it can also be a business choice.
On the far left of the graph, you have little-to-no specialization, which means being a “full-service photographer”, doing any photography-related work for your clients.
On the far right, you have the super-specialized expert photographers (think: “studio isolated-on-white product photography specialist”).
Positioning is a combination of the two. Every photographer falls into one of the four quadrants.
Take some time know to figure out where your photography business is situated in the graph.
Still unclear? Let’s explore the quadrants one by one:
Bottom left: Generalist photographers working with anyone
This quadrant is terrible, it’s where most amateur-ish or semi-pro photographers operate.
When you’re in this category, there’s usually little that differentiates you from the competition, so the only meaningful difference is probably price.
And being in a price competition is the last place you want to be in. Because if buyers don’t see a “meaningful difference” between you and other photographers, of course they’ll choose the cheapest ones. Or, at best, they’ll pick 3 and choose the middle one.
It’s extremely difficult to build a successful business by under-pricing your market. You can not become the Amazon of photography. If you’re selling services (which is another way of saying that you’re selling your time), it’s not scalable to gather a large enough part of the market to justify the lower prices. And if you’re selling prints/downloads, good luck winning against Getty and all the microstock websites out there.
Instead, you should aim to reach higher-value clients who value your work, by positioning yourself in the other quadrants.
If you take anything away from reading this article, is to try to change your photography business to move to a different quadrant.
- “I’m a wedding photographer” – a little specialized, but definitely not enough to move to a different quadrant, considering the saturation of the wedding photography market. And no sign of niching here, sounds like they’d shoot weddings for anyone getting married.
- “I’m a wedding photographer in young couples New York” – this is the previous example but with a little niching on top (clients restricted to a specific location), but still not enough considering the size of the New York area. Location specificity only works in a small enough city/area (being the only wedding photographer in your local remote village makes you the go-to person for such work).
- “I have a DSLR and I can take portrait photos. How can I help?” – an extreme example, and obviously a sign of an amateur constantly struggling to get work. If you got this in an email, you’d likely mark it as spam.
“Going back to the amateur photographer or ‘jack of all trades photographer,’ a photographer that emphasizes more than one specialty like architecture, portraits, weddings, or family photos hints that they are not a true professional in one specific area but just trying to land as many clients as they can without proving the knowledge or skill set for each according area. To be clear, I do not mean to rag on a photographer that does have skills in each of these specific areas and does showcase a great portfolio for each of these areas, but new entrants to the industry need to pivot their style towards one direction versus trying to master each and every photography style, or they will just end up hurting themselves in the long run both digitally and for their business.”
Architecture photographer (prefers to remain anonymous)
“Here, in France, it is very difficult to make a living from being an artist. So, even to reach a very low level of income, I had to offer services which are completely different from others (shooting pictures for other artists, designing documents for them, organizing classes, etc.)”
Fine art photographer Jean Daubas
Here’s what a photographer once wrote in a project questionnaire:
What is your target/existing audience? “Anyone who can spend $100+ on photos.”
Awful positioning to say the least.
Top left: Generalist photographers working with a few types of clients
In this quadrant, you’re still offering a vast array of photography services, but only focusing on a specific target audience.
Moving from the bottom-left quadrant to this one is probably the best way for established photographers to improve their business positioning if they’re struggling. Moving to the right of the graph (aka specializing) works too, but it usually takes more time and work. Instead, niching provides plenty of feedback along the way (you learn a lot by only working with a certain type of client).
- “I’m a portrait & event photographer for senior citizens in Birmingham.” – they narrowed down the target audience by both “age” and “location”, slowly becoming a well-known photographer among that group of clients (and word-of-mouth is a great way of getting more work).
- “I’m the official photographer of a series of recurring international races/events.” – a good example of becoming the go-to photographer by a small set of clients. Depending on how specialized those photo services are, this might move into the top-right quadrant.
- “I’m a Microsoft collaborator and I do all sort of photography projects for them.” – very narrow “niching” (only working with one client) but low “specializing” (doing offering many photo services). There’s risk in putting all your eggs in one basket (having a single “whale” client), so niching can sometimes be taken too far, unless it allows time for exploring other business avenues.
- “I shoot portraits, but I only work with senior citizens” – a simple example of how you can become “the expert” to a specific demographic
- “I’m an experiences wedding photographer, but I only work with interracial couples these days, most of my inquiries come from word of mouth” – and that’s one of the best forms of marketing there is :-)
- “I do interior architecture shots, but I’ve become well known in the hotel industry, so I’m only working with major hotel chains” – a good example of niching as a way to command premium rates
- “I started out as a generic travel photographer, but I’m now working exclusively with environmental organization” – becoming the “go to” photographer to a specific time of business
[What can photographers in your niche do to differentiate themselves?] “Quick turnaround, personal service and expanded to offer videography plus photography to tell stories.”
Wedding photographer Bruce Clarke
Bottom right: Highly-specialized photographers working with anyone
Becoming hyper-specialized can pay dividends as well: you can drill down into a specific photography skill and learn all of its nuances.
In the process, you might become the go-to person (in your area, or even globally) for that specialization, and you’ll start getting plenty of clients (from no apparent niche, anybody who needs the thing that you offer).
This path of specializing requires time, dedication, and courage (because you don’t get a lot of feedback along the way, it might take a few lonely years before you become an “overnight success”.
- “I’m a well-kwown expert in indoor group portraits using strobe lights” – such a tightly-defined specialty, combined with networking, and you can imagine that this photographer gets flown in by companies all over the world, for large fees, to shoot group portraits at events.
- “I’ve always shot portraits, but now I really specialize in large group photos, so I get brought it for various events around the world” – an excellent example of becoming an expert in a “narrow” specialty
- “I shoot wedding like many other photographers, but I’m a master at obtaining a cinematic black-and-white look that some couples are really interested in”
- “I specialize in aerial shots of construction sites” – a nice example of settings yourself apart from other architecture photographers
- “I used to take all sorts of travel photos, but now my entire portfolio is made up by documenting the effects of climate change around the world”
“I offer composites in newborn photography that go beyond standard newborn photographs. I also have a high touch boutique business model with pre-session consultations and in person ordering appointments to make the experience more personalize and fulfilling in the end.”
Newborn photographer Amber Drake Sehrt
Top right: Highly-specialized photographers for a tiny audience
Combining both “niching” and “specializing” puts you in the top right quadrant.
You usually can get there directly (in a diagonal move in the graph), but, instead, you end up there by slowly moving from the top-left or the bottom-right after years of experience.
If you’re now in the top-left quadrant, you can keep your narrow audience but slowly move from generalist services to only a specific photography service.
If you’re now in the bottom-right quadrant, you might get sick of offering your hyper-specialized services to everyone who knocks on your door and instead decide to only work with a small subset of clients.
- “I’m a campaign photographer for political candidates” – would this combination of niching and specializing be financially lucrative? You bet.
- “I shoot destination weddings in a black-and-white cinematic styles for same-sex couples in and around Sydney” – for future couples in that demographic, who on earth would they hire for their wedding? It’s a no-brainer, almost regardless of the cost.
- “I take still-life images of luxury watches” – although this sounds like “just specializing” because you can work with any watch brand across the industry, it also assumes a certain type of luxury client too (“niching”)
A few possible downsides of being in this quadrant:
- If you’re not careful, you can overdo it and end up with not enough work, especially if you don’t have the experience and the industry connections to make it work. Although I’m constantly surprised by the weird “niche jobs” I hear from some photographers, so everything is possible. You might end up being Elon Musk’s personal SpaceX launch event photographer :-) (hyper-specialization combined with hyper-niching – you’d be working for a single person after all)
- Speaking of “niche jobs”, this quadrant sometimes makes it feel like more of a job and less of a freelance career. In other words, you might realize that you feel like an “employee” at times. So it’s worth thinking about your priorities.
“I focus on my local market as opposed to trying to be a destination photog. And I focus on small mom-and-pop businesses and small weddings. I find people are attracted to me because of this differentiation.”
Event photographer Chelsea Bollhoefer
By now, you should at least understand the difference between vertical positioning (“niching”) and horizontal positioning (“specializing”), and how you can leverage them for your business.
Now let’s take some time to think of ways in which you can position your photography business:
Part 4: Define your photography business positioning
Reading some of the niching and specializing examples above might have already sparked some ideas for you. If not, here’s a reliable process that can help you figure it out:
a) Do internal research to see the patterns
First, let’s document the positives.
Start a document (or take a piece of paper) and make a list of all the past clients that you’ve enjoyed working with.
If you’re just starting out, list out personal or side projects you’ve enjoyed working on, or think of ideal projects you’d like to focus on.
Try to rank each of them from 1 to 5 based on:
- how much you enjoyed working with them
- whether you’d like to do more of that type of project
- how much you liked the actual people you interacted with
- the amount of impact your work had for the client
Then, underneath, list out all the reasons why you chose the people above. You’ll basically end up with 2 lists: one of ranked past clients, and the other of reasons for choosing those clients.
Now, this is important: repeat the process by focusing on the negatives: list out bad clients that you didn’t enjoy working with, and the reasons why things went wrong.
At the end of all of this, you should start noticing some patterns emerging. That’s the very first sign of a good niche that you specialize in.
But let’s continue.
b) Do online research to validate and get new ideas
Just do a Google search for “[specialty] in [location]”.
Or if the location is not that relevant for your business, just search for your specialty or the type of product that you offer (“Alaska stock images”, “Cityscape calendars”, “Insect macro photography”, etc.)
Take some time to look at the results and to study your competition’s websites, then answer these questions:
- Were you positively or negatively surprised by anything you saw when doing this quick research?
- Is your photography niche over-saturated?
- Do big stock agencies already cover what you have to offer?
- How are competitors pricing their services? And is strong competition pushing down prices in your field?
- Or are you uniquely positioned in your niche with no direct competitors?
- Have you noticed any creative ways in which other photographers are differentiating their services/products?
- What value can you add to the market that’s not already being offered?
- What are clients in your audience expecting from a photographer, and how can you exceed those expectations?
Answering those questions gives you a lot more clarity going forward. More precisely, you should end up know both the similarities and differences between and your competition.
c) Now define your positioning
As a pro photographer, you’d need to be able to fill in this statement:
I’m a [SPECIALTY] who helps [TARGET AUDIENCE] with [PROBLEM/SERVICE]. Unlike the alternatives, [DIFFERENTIATING FACTORS]
Try to fill in all 4 elements.
You can learn more about defining your target audience here, but you should at least have an idea of your new specialty and your differentiating factors. The ways in which you can stand out from the crowd.
“This sounds more like a marketing problem than anything else. There are those clients who are price-conscious and those who are experience-conscious. The ones who are looking for a deal, don’t care so much about the experience and the opposite is true of those vying for a positive and transformative experience.
So, it comes down to the individual photographer to figure out who her or his clients are and serve those in a way that makes sense for them both creatively and financially.
I believe that there are opportunities everywhere. We may have to spend a little bit more time looking and connecting, perhaps, but that’s also part of the process that we need to embrace.”
Seshu Badrinath commenting here
And when it’s a toss-up between two positioning paths, don’t forget about the “interestingness factor”. Choose something that sounds not only profitable but also interesting to you.
Ask yourself these two questions to know if you’ve now properly positioned your photography business:
- Are you enthusiastic? The right path should get your adrenaline going when you imagine all the possibilities. And this feeling should last for many years, as you keep finding new people to help, clients who value you as an expert. If you’re not feeling energized, you need to back to the drawing board.
- Are you a little bit afraid too? When you’re choosing a more narrow focus, it’s normal to feel like walking away from a large market. Fear is a good sign here, it shows that you’re not positioned too broadly.
Still not sure?
Here’s an excellent resource for learning how to choose a niche for your photography business: The Niche Notebook – 100+ Photography Niches Actually Picked by Photographers.
It’s a free download with great examples of photography business niches for your inspiration.
Part 5: Pricing for photographers: Raising your prices as a positioning tactic
“How much do you cost?” – Is this how clients judge you?
Let’s talk about prices a bit.
“The reason it seems that price is all your customers care about is that you haven’t given them anything else to care about.” – Seth Godin
It’s what Seth Godin calls “the race to the bottom” – the situation where competitors or trying to out-price the competition.
But as a photographer, you can’t win that “race” because you end up selling $1 images, which is completely unsustainable if you’re a solo photographer. You can’t command the required selling volume like a big micro-stock company.
So get out of the “race to the bottom” because you might win! Or, as Seth says, you might come in second, which is even worse.
Maybe it doesn’t feel like that because you’re actively trying to raise your prices. But it’s like climbing a mountain when the whole mountain is sinking in the sea.
“What about increasing my prices as a way to position myself to premium clients?”
Yes, PRICE is a differentiator too.
And not in the way of underpricing your competition. As Seth Godin famously put it, that’s a race to the bottom. And you don’t want to be in that race, because you might win. Or even worse, you might come in second (which means stress and bankruptcy).
I’m talking about over-pricing your competition, as a sign that you have something special to offer.
An interesting anecdote comes to mind:
Or as the old joke often mentioned by pricing expert Jonathan Stark:
Of course, higher prices have to be substantiated by quality work as well, otherwise, it will all backfire.
So how do you know that you can “afford” to ask for higher prices?
- How many of your quotes get immediately accepted by your clients with no sign of any negotiation intent? If that number is higher than 50%, it means your prices are too low.
- Raise your prices until a larger majority of your leads have “price shock” or try to negotiate. To what degree? It depends on your appetite for risk, your acute need for money, and the number of leads knocking on your door on a recurring basis. Once you have a steady stream of interested potential clients, you’ll be more likely say “no” when the wrong client comes to you. And with a differentiated business, you’ll be attracting better clients right from the start.
- Study your competition
- Sometimes, photographers are surprised to see how other “worse” photographers in the same market have higher prices. Life isn’t fair. And sometimes the solution is just a bit of extra courage and self-confidence.
- Ask your past clients
- What was your hesitation when initially looking for a [specialty] photographer, and what ultimately made you work with me?
- Based on those answers, you’ll get a sense of how impressed people were with your work and your marketing efforts BEFORE working with you, which in turn will tell you if your corner of the market has more flexibility in terms of price.
Need even more of a nudge? Read these excellent notes by marketing consultant Kai Davis:
“I have a reminder for you.
If you’re in demand…
If you’re booked solid…
If you’re solving expensive problems for your clients…
Charge more. You deserve to charge more. You deserve to make more money.
If you’re waiting for permission to raise your rates or charge more, ✨, I’ve now given you permission.
Your homework? Take a look at your rates and bump them up by 10%, 25%, or 30% for new projects and clients. (Raising your rates on existing clients is an advanced approach that we’ll cover in a future letter.)”
Value-based pricing for your photography services
Put your thinking cap on. This is long and a bit abstract, but it can help shape your photography business going forward.
This all stems from an interesting email I read from Jonathan Stark.
If you’re not familiar with him, he’s an expert on moving away from hourly billing and transitioning to value pricing your services. He even wrote a fascinating book called “Hourly billing is nuts!” and runs a powerful course called “The Pricing Seminar”. And here’s his email archive if you want to read more of his stuff. (Not trying to promote him, I’m just a genuine fan of his content).
On this daily newsletter, he recently sent out an email titled “Can you value price wedding photography?”
Even if you’re not a wedding photographer, you can extrapolate this concept of differentiation and try to apply it to your own business.
With his permission, I’m sharing it below, along with and the subsequent conversation I’ve had with Jonathan on this topic. Because I did push back initially and tried to play devil’s advocate.
The result is something that I hope you’ll find insightful, that will make you reassess your business future.
Can you value price wedding photography?
Almost nothing we buy has a bottom line dollar value return on investment.
What’s the ROI on your morning latte? What’s the ROI on owning a dog? What’s the ROI of a Disney vacation?
And yet, once we’ve bought it, we know whether it was worth it to us or not.
Ask yourself this:
How do you decide if that coffee or dog or vacation is worth it before you buy?
Which is exactly how your clients make purchasing decisions. It’s completely subjective. Different from one person to the next, even for the exact same product.
So let’s say you’re a wedding photographer. If you wanted to value price a wedding shoot, youwould start by having The Why Conversation with the happy couple.
You’d ask them things like:
Why hire a professional wedding photographer?
Why not have your guests shoot it on their phones?
Why not shoot it yourself?
Why not have your cousin’s husband who does amateur landscape photography shoot it?
By answering questions like these, the client will be letting you know why they want to hire an expert, what their desired outcomes are, and roughly how much those outcomes are worth to them.
Then and only then do you have what you need to value price the project.
I thought this was an interesting idea, but I knew things weren’t that easy.
Having worked a lot with wedding photographers, I knew that they often struggle to make a living.
The wedding photography market is so so saturated that clients often use price as their primary decision basis.
Sure, top photographers can differentiate themselves through quality, through content, etc. But they won’t entirely escape price comparisons in this market.
I’ve watched video recordings of couples browsing wedding photography websites. Looking for prices was one of their main actions.
The story of choosing a wedding photographer for my own wedding
I’ve already mentioned this story a couple of times in podcast interviews I did, but it fits well in this context.
When I got married a few years ago, we decided to hire the best possible photographers we can afford.
Having been a photographer myself, I deeply value this craft, and I wanted to pay them what they’re worth. Those photos were going to last us a lifetime.
And the photos turned out fantastic, we couldn’t have been happier with them.
But when sharing them with friends and family, the first thing they asked about was “How much did they cost?”
The same question. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
That speaks to the nature of the wedding photography industry.
My wife and I felt we chose the photographers based on quality, and how they positioned themselves and proved they’re experts at their craft, but the vast majority of people use price as the main criterion.
I understand we were privileged to afford above-average photography services, I get that, and I’m not here to judge how other people make purchase decisions.
But sometimes, in a very saturated industry, it is how it is.
Back to Jonathan’s email, I agree that having the “Why Conversation” allows value-based pricing. But it’s not that easy. His email seemed to be ignoring other factors that come into play. When you have a commoditized industry, value pricing is incredibly tricky.
I knew that if I took his email and showed it to a photographer, if I recommend to them that they have a conversation with their leads asking them why they don’t shoot the wedding themselves or have guests shoot it on their phones, they’d laugh and say that was naive.
Those questions are obvious to clients. (In fact, if we break it down, the “Why this?” and “Why now?” questions are pretty clear to wedding couples. Only the “Why me?” question would pose real importance here if the photographer did a good job of positioning themselves).
Then I told Jonathan something really harsh. That a tiny subset of photographers can carve a smaller niche for themselves (like “outdoor weddings with a retro look”) and become the go-to persons for that (and then be able to command value-based fees). But for the majority of the wedding photographers, who can’t differentiate themselves that way, just having the why-conversation won’t save them, the market is “broken” for them. Their usual service has become a commodity.
Jonathan agreed at first:
Yes, I suppose my “Why questions” were over the top. Guilty as charged 😎👍
And, I agree with you that the “Why Me” questions are the most important for a wedding tog. “Why Now?” is obvious (i.e., because the wedding is on [date]) and “Why This?” is pretty close to a no-brainer, too (i.e., hiring a professional photographer is a sensible decision when you’re getting married).
And yes… there will always be price buyers – people who are “looking for the best deal” or who “don’t want to get screwed on price.” These are bad clients and experienced togs would do well to drive them away with high prices.
There’s another kind of buyer who looks at price first, not because that’s all they care about, but because it’s the only way they can tell the options apart. When all the alternatives appear the same to the untrained eye, price is the one differentiator that everyone can understand.
But things took a turn for the better :-)
Jonathan, being the pricing expert that he is, clarified some things and added extra arguments to give photographers hope.
Stand out from the pack. Be different, unique. Create a category of one. Zig when everyone else zags.
I am not a tog, but I have a lot of contact with them. I don’t think the space is commoditized so much as it is homogenized. Same shots, same poses, same products, same website templates, same business models, same same same same same.
What about offering an all-expenses paid wedding shoot in zero g? Or parachuting naked into the Grand Canyon? Or on stage at a Foo Fighters concert?
Tacky? Maybe. Different? Definitely.
If you don’t like those ideas, I’m sure you can come up with your own.
NOTE: Don’t limit your thinking based on the kinds of buyer who you’re used to working with. Think bigger. What would Kanye or Elon or Bezos be attracted to in a wedding photographer?
Differentiating yourself seems to be the best path forward to rise above the average. You have to clearly define what your business is all about.
And if that didn’t make things clear for you, Jonathan then came back the next day with more thought-provoking words:
A few folks have sent in stories about successful photographers they know. For example, this one from reader Bernard Jansen:
“My wife’s cousin (also a South African) has based himself in Colorado from where he runs his wedding photography business. He has positioned himself at the super high end market and have asked $90,000 for a wedding shoot.”
That doesn’t sound like commodity pricing to me! Perhaps, there is hope for photographers, yet :-)
One theme that cropped up in a few messages was that it seems many of the togs who can charge a lot for wedding shoots don’t position themselves as wedding photographers… they do edgy photojournalistic work and maybe pick up a high paying wedding gig here and there, presumably from fans of their artsier work.
This got me thinking… does Annie Leibovitz (i.e., the most famous photographer I know of) ever shoot weddings? Sure enough, she was in talks to shoot Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s big day in 2014. It didn’t end up working out, but clearly Annie is open to the idea of doing a wedding shoot.
I’m guessing she wouldn’t shoot a wedding for peanuts. Why? Because she’s Annie Leibovitz. THE Annie Leibovitz. She’s a legend. A category of one.
Are her pictures the best in the world? I don’t know, I’m no expert. They look pretty good to me, but that’s not the main reason I’d hire her. She has a story, a point of view, and an incredible body of work.
Having her take your picture puts you on a list with the Rollings Stones, Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and on and on and on…
So if she says it’s $100,000 to shoot your wedding, you’re not going to say:
“Are you crazy? John Doe Photo says he can do it for $1200. Tell you what… how about $1500 and three free drink tickets?”
Ha! I think we can agree that Leibovitz doesn’t need to work with folks who are price sensitive or who try to low-ball her.
But here’s the thing…
I know very little about Annie Leibovitz, but I feel it’s safe to guess that she wasn’t born THE Annie Leibovitz. For a long time, I’m sure she was just plain old Annie Leibovitz. Over the years – somehow or other – she turned herself into a household name. A category of one.
And guess what? Now she doesn’t have to race to zero against every amateur shooter with a Rebel T6 and pocket full of a maxed out credit cards.
She has set herself apart from the pack. She stands out. She’s different. Unique.
That’s what you have to do if you want to stop competing on price.
After all of this, it seems relatively clear that photographers (in other niches too, not just wedding photographers) DO have ways to price their services higher and build a thriving business IF they’re willing to put in the work.
It’s difficult, but at least there’s a path and not just the hopeless desperation that some photographers experience :-)
Part 6: Turn positioning into sales: find new clients and say “no” to the wrong ones
At this point, you should already have an idea of what you want to do in the future.
That’s only going to happen if you start saying NO to other types of projects if they don’t align with your new direction.
Whenever you compromise your integrity by saying YES to the wrong client (maybe just doing it for the money), you’re not really making progress in your business.
Specializing requires determination and sacrifices. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
Find new clients
With a new career path in mind, it’s time to start putting in the work to get new clients. The goal is to get in front of the people that need your help.
a) Try to recover lost leads: look at projects you lost recently and figure out what went wrong in your communication with them. Get in touch with them and tell them about your new specialty!
b) Schedule calls with past clients, if possible, to ask them a few simple questions:
- start by telling them how you enjoyed working with them
- ask them about their life/business
- ask why they initially chose you?
- find out what you could do better?
- see if they can introduce you to other people
c) Make a shortlist of common struggles that your target audience has, and search for them online. Simply respond to those people, offer your opinion, ask if you can help with anything.
- plain-old Google searches
- Quora is another popular site where people ask questions
- Twitter has a great search function to track down the questions that your potential clients are asking
- Facebook groups are treasure troves of relevant discussions you could be part of
- think of any other “watering holes” your audience hangs out online: LinkedIn groups, Google groups, Twitter/LinkedIn/Instagram hashtags, Slack communities, etc.
“Create products and services for the ideal clients you want to serve, instead of searching for more clients for your existing products and services. And that requires a good understanding of your target audience.”
Seth Godin – This is Marketing
Besides positioning, here are five ways to make your online presence unique
Other ways in which you can set yourself apart from the “crowd”:
1. Speak your audience’s language by paying attention to copywriting
No sense in niching or specializing if you don’t also adjust the copywriting on your website. That’s where the power truly lies.
The benefit of niching down is that you can start to learn the struggles and wishes of your target clients, and write effective copy that convinces them you’re the one they should hire.
Through good copywriting, leads SELF-SELECT without you having to do a lot of convincing.
If your website does a good job of pre-answering all their questions and explaining the benefits of working with you, clients will come to you asking not “What are your prices?” but instead “When are you available?”
Marketing through quality content is a dare-I-say magical sales tool. The text you write on your homepage and your services pages (FAQ and About pages too), along with the strong set of portfolio images, together will help position you as an expert in your niche and will make people trust you, BEFORE ever getting in touch with you.
Images matter most, sure, but with so many great photographers covering your existing niche already, content becomes an untapped differentiation opportunity.
Start by reading these 10 tips on improving your photo website copywriting.
“Most photography websites I’ve browsed are too image heavy in my opinion. They’re an electronic photo album. Not many buyers look through photo albums anymore (in my niche).
So I changed tack and decided not to do that. Instead focus on what matters most to Google, WORDS, and lots of them. Each main page needs 500-1500 of them. Long form articles get results. I reckon only google reads them, most people who browse just check you out to see if you know enough about the niche to trust you, my assumption.”
Business event photographer Orlando Sydney
“I feel that marketing and messaging can be what really sets a person apart from a very copycat industry. The ability to tell a story with an image, accompanying words and the right platforms will catch attention.”
Pet photographer Angela Schneider
2. Invest in a top-notch website design
Shameless plug here: check out my site’s Web-design page, it lists out all the services I offer (exclusively for photographers).
In fact, I encourage you to explore all those pages and learn more about the custom photography websites that I build, my web-design process & work ethic, and to view examples & testimonials from past work.
3. Raise your blogging game with consistently interesting content
Let me rephrase that: “Raise your CONTENT MARKETING game…”
Content marketing is writing content that serves both you and your audience equally.
So content marketing is not necessarily the same thing as blogging, because:
1. Blogging can be done only for yourself (or close friends) in some online journal (think Tumblr accounts, or how some people use social media profiles as a “micro-journal). In this case, blogging serves you more.
2. Content marketing encompasses a lot more than just blogging:
- all the informational pages you put on your site (to describe your services and bio, for example)
- guest posting or being interviewed on podcasts or at industry events
- social media posts too (branching out into “social media marketing”)
- guides, ebooks, resources, videos you create to promote your services
Photographers often complain they don’t have time to write, and also that their business is struggling. Yet, writing more is a critical component of supporting and growing your business.
It does require a considerable time investment, yes, but the long term benefits far outweigh the efforts:
- your work gets increased exposure; it helps you reach a larger audience
- it strengthens the trust of your existing audience
- it’s the bedrock of any good SEO strategy
- and in time, it can drive more revenue for your photography business
My complete blogging course for photographers is your next action.
Pro tip for your blogging efforts: Have a unique perspective
It’s possible that you weren’t able to choose a small market (“niching”) or a unique service (“specializing”), so you’re still targeting a broad audience. And you realized you’d still have too many competitors in that field.
A clever way to further set yourself apart from competitors is to have a really strong point of view in your content.
You firmly believe that “your service” should be done “this way”. You want to draw people into your (sometimes polarizing) point of view.
You can sometimes get away with having a broad target audience if you can add a strong perspective on top.
4. “Infuse” more personality into your site
You want to humanize your website. People don’t trust the website directly, they trust the person behind the website.
Consider adding funny images and a sense of humor in your writing, blogging about your experiences, curating your portfolios very tightly.
“Become a brand in and of yourself. Quality photography alone isn’t enough. People want to connect with and relate to a person. We need to become vulnerable and share our own stories.
Stop telling visitors how much you love photography! Show more product! Keep users top of mind all the time: the website isn’t a platform for showing off. It needs to be useful, valuable.”
Lifestyle and newborn photographer Katrina Ferguson
[Photography websites should be] “More branded on the photographer rather than only the work (often photog’s even omit a portrait of themselves).”
Documentary photographer Simon Skipper
5. Do positioning experiments on the side
Doing a complete overhaul of your photography business might be scary. And genuinely risky if you don’t plan well, you could be running out of clients/money for a while.
The solution is to leave your existing website and social media presence intact, and just start something new on the side, in your spare time.
That means creating a separate newly-positioned website, or at least a new page on your existing site – that you can point new clients to.
Think of it as a way to beta-test your new positioning, to see what feedback you get.
Once you validate the new website or business direction, you just slowly start letting the old generalist brand run its course (and, one day, you shut it down).
“Moving images are strong and will continue to increase in importance. interactive imaging including immersive 360 degree moving images will gain importance, image-driven advertising in general will also increase.”
Corporate and industrial photographer Eric Shambroom
“Different is better than better. Shoot on large format, get a drone license, collaborate with others! It’s silly that photography traditionally is such a lone wolf industry. I see a lot of creative collaborations prosper lately. Networking is also key. I personally don’t sell images, I sell an EXPERIENCE.”
Documentary photographer Simon Skipper
Part 7: Positioning troubleshooting
“Sometimes, no, oftentimes it surely feels as if the mountain is sinking…but thankfully there are still many, many gold nuggets to be found in the gravel. The digging for them, unveiling them and cultivating them however is significantly more cumbersome and time consuming than before. One has to continuously pierce through a tough curtain on the recipients / prospects side of gatekeepers, pre-occupation, lack of time and attention, competition, do it in house approach, “my niece has a camera and shoots for us…”, etc. etc. When once however these nuggets are polished, and shining, as gold does, they work rewardingly based on old standard well proven business principles.”
Architecture photographer Marian Kraus
“I’m worried about serving too small of a market”
Positioning your photography business by niching or specializing can be scary at first because you instinctively fear having a smaller target audience.
But don’t forget that the “conversion rate” will become so much higher, because it’s a lot easier to market your services to those people.
They trust you more because they see that you specialize in exactly what they need. And over time, you also learn the nuances of working in that niche, allowing you to further improve the quality of your work and how you serve your clients.
Positioning can help you:
- justify premium fees (above market averages)
- attract more and better clients (who are choosing based on quality, not just on price)
- serve your clients better (by becoming an expert and learning all the nuances of your niche)
- promote your business more easily (because your message resonates with the right people)
- clarify your priorities (choosing between distractions and opportunities, as they align with your positioning)
“Can I add extra specialties/niches to my existing photography website (as a temporary side-business)?”
Because of the pandemic, you might have understandably decided to add new services to your website, while your main type of work is on pause.
And that’s perfectly fine, assuming that the target audience is similar. Otherwise, your temporary photography side-business should have its own separate site.
This particular decision is explained in greater detail here: Having separate photography websites or merging them?
“I don’t know how to create content to attract a new market”
This is a mindset problem: you’re seeing yourself only as a do-er.
But you’re not just a photographer that takes photos of X. You’re someone that knows how to take photos of X.
And you can create a ton of educational content for your target audience, helping position you as an expert.
You can package that expertise in a number of (scalable) ways: training courses, workshops, info-products, consulting services.
“My industry has a lot of gatekeepers I can’t get past”
It sounds like you’re just looking for shortcuts.
The internet has removed most gatekeepers of the past. You can now self-publish a photo book, sell images without access to a gallery, etc.
Sure, there are still gatekeepers at specific publications or brands, which you can’t get to without the right connections.
The solution is to be so good they can’t ignore you.
Become the expert, the go-to person in a small niche you’ve carved out for yourself, and the gatekeepers will come looking for you.
“There’s too much competition in my niche”
Stop trying to be a big fish in a big pond.
With proper positioning, you’ll have less competition.
Enough competition to act as validation that you’re in a field worth pursuing. Somewhere you know your work will make an impact.
But because you’re unique in some way, you’ll no longer have overwhelming levels of competition.
“Whatever I try, people don’t seem to pay attention”
Again, be so good they can’t ignore you.
Look around. There are many many great photographers who still (regularly) produce eye-catching work.
Sure, it’s become harder now. When seeking the attention of your target audience, you’re not only up against other photographers in your niche. You’re also up against TV, social media, games, etc. The entire digital culture is pulling the user’s attention, from all sides.
But you’re focusing on the entire market when you should instead only try to focus on a small group of ideal buyers. You only need to draw their attention.
If you do a good job with tight positioning, they’ll be drawn in by your very targeted portfolio (and copywriting). You’ll have their attention.
If you’re a dog lover, would you hire any portrait photographer to take a picture of you and your “best friend”? Or would you hire a dedicated dog photographer like Sonya?
“Clients don’t value my expertise (e.g.: my niece has a camera and shoots for us…)”
If they don’t see the value in your work, if they can’t differentiate your work from what their niece can produce, then you’re not worthy of their money. (Sorry, I know that sounds a bit harsh, but I prefer not to rephrase it!)
There used to be a technical and investment gap: their niece didn’t have a professional-grade DSLR and didn’t know how to properly edit photos.
Now those gaps have shrunk a lot, so you have to find other ways to differentiate yourself from an amateur.
“I hear crickets (aka: everything you tried was met with silence, you couldn’t sell any images or get any bookings)”
If we try to deconstruct this, it usually comes down to:
- not trying hard enough, giving up too quickly
- not choosing the right marketing channels, not trying to meet your target audience in the right places
- below-average work, so your clients are not impressed
- not serving a market that values what you have to offer, it’s not willing to pay for that type of work, you didn’t validate your business idea well
Narrowly positioning your business fixes all of these problems.
More learning material: podcast episodes and articles on positioning
Since differentiation/positioning is such an important topic for any business owner, here are some good podcast episodes you should listen to:
- PhotoBizX – 309: Philip Morgan – How to cultivate your expertise and increase your profitability
- What Works with Tara McMullin – EP 194: Finding A Niche In A Crowded Market With Photographer Janeris Marte
- Gina Milicia – Ep 146: How to find your photography niche
- PhotoBizX – 357: Zack Arias – Race to the top! It beats any race to the bottom.
And a few awesome articles you should check out:
- Event industry expert trend predictions for 2021 (by Orlando Sydney)
Don’t be the best. Be the only.
What used to work in the past is no longer relevant today.
It’s no longer that much about focusing or editing because cameras and AI advancements almost do that better than you.
Instead, it’s about solving interesting problems, about having the courage to venture into projects that haven’t been seen before.
That’s where many industries are heading toward. And quickly.
When you’re specialty becomes a commodity, you have to keep asking yourself what “better” means. Because “better” is always changing, and you have to keep repositioning your business as needed.
Positioning, when done right, can make other people in your field envious of what you’re doing.
Here’s an in-depth Branding guide for creatives, extensively featuring me as a case study: How to Position Yourself as an Expert in Your Niche
When you correctly position your work, it means that you have a good understanding of your ideal clients, that you can customize your website and write content for them specifically, and that you can narrow down your portfolio to make an impact.
Do things differently, be remarkable in some way, and then the right people will engage with your work and buy from you.