Photographers are, nearly unilaterally, horrible business people.
Most have grown organically without much thought or training. They are passionate about photography, and believe their passion equates to ability in all areas of business. They run illegally (“I don’t need a state sales-tax ID; I use my social security number.”). They do their own taxes (“I totally write off my car, it’s so sweet!”). They design albums without paying themselves. They cobble together contracts that would make most lawyers lose their lunch. They don’t plan for retirement. They don’t have adequate insurance.
And, inevitably, they do their own marketing and branding.
Too many forums begin, “Check out my new logo design—what do you think!?” For years, I tried telling people what I thought. Long, thoughtful posts about what a logo should do and be, and why the one they were exhibiting wasn’t working. This led to the predictable pile-on fights about subjectivity of art and who was I to hurt so-and-so’s feelings. I realized people weren’t asking for constructive criticism—they wanted encouragement.
To put it in a different light: If a bride came to you and said, “I really like your work but my cousin Jerome is just getting into photography and will shoot our wedding for free! Isn’t that great?” Your stomach would tighten, your face would take on a mask of constrained pity, and you would finally blurt out–against your better judgement, “Oh, please! Don’t do that! You don’t have to hire me, even, but hire a professional! It’s your wedding!” I doubt many of you would encourage them; in fact, encouraging them would be irresponsible.
I was an “ad man” for about 13 years. I’ve served as a designer, art director, writer, producer, and creative director. That doesn’t make me special, but just like a photographer who has worked for over a decade, I learned my trade.
Both marketing and photography have rules. Of course, those rules can be broken. We see novices break them—with tragic results. Occasionally, a studied master will break one and achieve something remarkable. The true avant-garde study their craft deeply before discovering ways to turn it on its head.
For example, in portraits, there are rules about where shadows fall, what f-Stops should be used for a group shot, angles that are flattering and unflattering, or things you should say and not say. In logo design there are rules, too. How letters relate to one another (kerning), how a logo works at the size of a quarter or in black and white, how reversed copy is technically harder to read than positive copy, etc. There are rules for headline writing that differ from subhead or body copy. There are rules for positioning and how to compete successfully against other brands. There are rules that govern the way a business presents itself and communicates. There are many rules and they are, in large, respected by the great marketing houses. There are differing schools of thought, different tacts and techniques, but they are paths well-worn.
Why would you want to go down such a path? Because those paths lead to success with greater frequency than hacking your way through a very big forrest.
I’m not suggesting you buy a bunch of marketing books (though, if you want one, I recommend “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”). Nor am I advising you to learn “the rules.” That would be foolish like you telling cousin Jerome to pick up a few books on wedding photography before shooting the event. If you’re running a photography business, you don’t have time to learn the trade of marketing—and if you did, you may not have the gift to make it work. You’re a photographer—stick to what you know. There are specialists who are equipped to help you create a professional, unique, and successful set of marketing tools. A little research will turn up many sources in your city.
If you’re thinking of taking a crack at building your own brand (logo, website, contracts, letterhead, business cards, marketing, copy, ads, etc.), I’m saying to you, “Oh, please! Don’t do that! Hire a professional! It’s your livelihood!” You spend tens of thousands of dollars on your gear—is it not reasonable to spend a few thousand on your marketing?And while you’re at it, get a CPA, lawyer, and a sales tax ID for your state (most states require it if you’re making more than 3 sales in a 12-month period). Get a financial advisor. (do you have an IRA? Savings?). Get a good insurance agent. And on and on.
If any of those sentences caused you a pang of fear—you’re not prepared.
For most of us, this isn’t a hobby. We have kids, mortgages, debt, and people depending on our provision. Starting a business isn’t just about being able to take great photographs—that is the baseline, the bare minimum. “Going pro” is more than buying an expensive camera body.
With the economy worsening and competition becoming more fierce, having an advertising professional will help your chances of success. It guarantees nothing, but I’d rather be walking on a proven path than taking my chances in the woods.
Written by Kevin Swan
Marketing guy for 15 years. Shooter since 2004. KISS Books since 2007.