The successful photographer

(Last Updated On: February 8, 2012)

What is success?

Success is subjective. It means different things to different people.  I divide photographic success into two distinctive areas.

The first area is the opportunity to create beautiful images.  For many photographers, successfully finding and taking advantage of great opportunities to create beautiful images means they win.  Once you decide to make photography your career, the story changes.

For photographers who wish to make a living, success still involves finding great opportunities.  The difference between the amateur and the professional in developing photographic opportunities is marketing.

The second measure of success for the photographer is all math.  Your income should be greater than your expenses and your net income should be enough to live a comfortable life.  Once again, the measure of what is comfortable is subjective.  The basic math of income over expense is not.

A successful photographer knows how much he spends each month on studio space, location fees, insurance, assistants, professional fees, equipment, and repair.  He knows how much he needs to make each day to generate a profit and achieve his income goals.  Do you?

Add up every fixed business expense, to the best of your knowledge, that will you encounter over the next year.  Then add how much you realistically need or want to make as your annual income.  Then divide the total by the number of jobs you had last year or a realistic number of days you will work this year.

You might be surprised by how much you really need to charge to stay in business.

You cannot afford to work hourly.

When the average person thinks about hourly rates, she envisions $25 – $50 dollars an hour as a professional rate.  This is not realistic.  Here’s why: Most photographers don’t spend 40-50 hours a week photographing for clients. To meet her expenses and income goals, a professional photographer needs to charge more per hour on average.

Unfortunately for the hourly photographer,  photography production takes less time than it did 10-15 years ago.   It is more important than ever to focus on the value of the image.   Pricing per image is the way to go.

The only type of photography that can practically employ hourly rates is event photography.  The photographer is required to be at the event for a specific period of time.  An event photographer can’t get out early because she thinks she “got the shot” or worked efficiently.

Great, now that I’ve explained how you may be losing money doing what you love, how do you find more photography opportunities?


When it comes to marketing, it is important to discover and understand your competition. In the photography industry it may be easier to figure out who is not your competition, because everyone is a photographer. 

If everyone  is a photographer, you must understand what the average photographer does.  What is considered average and make sure you are not average.  If someone is going to hire a photographer, that person needs to feel she brings value beyond what they can do to the table.  Great value.

One way to help make the competition less relevant is to find your And.  Create a valuable product, service, or style that no one else or very few photographers are offering.

Create demand

You may offer a wonderful service, but if no one knows about it you will have trouble making a living.  You need to develop a 2012 marketing plan.  This plan must involve digital marketing and social media.

Many photographers still resist digital marketing.  These new marketing ideas are not new anymore. They are standard and effective.  This does not mean traditional marketing techniques do not work.  Many are less effective than they once where, but if you executed them well you will earn positive results.

Cost is one of the major factors limiting the use of traditional marketing for the 2012 photographer.  Quality and effective direct mail, Workbook advertising, in-person meetings, lunches, events, posters, and traditional public relations are all expensive.  In the past, good marketing was more about the photographer’s financial budget.  In 2012 it’s a combination of money and time.  The photographer must decide which is more available and how to balance her assets.

The solar system

To keep your marketing in focus, you need to develop a plan.  I recommend using my solar system model.

Start with your website.

A photographer in 2012 who does not have a website is not in business.  A photographer’s website needs to be clean and easy to use.  The photographs must be the very best work, not a catalog of your career.  There is nothing wrong with having a photographic catalog on your website, but it is important for your portfolio section to contain only the top 10-20 images that represent your vision.  Always make sure you have contact information on every page.  It is important to make sure visitors know what steps to take next.

Your website is the foundation of your marketing in 2012.  This is where you sell.  Everything else is designed to drive traffic to your website.  Circling near your sun is your blog.  Your blog is your personality.  This is where you share outtakes, commentary, personal projects, behind- the-scenes photos and videos.  This helps photography buyers understand who you are as a person as well as a photographer. It is also excellent for attracting visitors to your website via the search engines such as Google.

The next orbit of planets are your inner planets.  These are content-sharing multi-media sites such as YouTube, Flickr and 500px.   Your outer planets are social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google +.   This is where you engage and develop your community.  It’s not as much about selling as it is educating people about what you do and developing referrals.

Note: I share more support information about my solar system marketing model in my book The Linked Photographer’s Guide to Online Marketing and Social Media.

Business in 2012 is still about people and relationships.  The difference is that relationships are now developed and reinforced online.  Social media does not replace in-person relationships. Social media and digital marketing doesn’t replace anything, it is a valuable addition to what already works in your marketing.

Digital marketing is not all social media.  Direct marketing such as e-mail and search engine marketing must be considered for your plan.  These direct marketing tools are like asteroids in your solar system and lead directly to your website for the conversion.

What is a conversion?

A conversion is the person visiting your website doing what you want them to do.  This could be a phone call, e-mail or filling out a form.  Once you get people to your website it is all about your sales funnel.  A sales funnel is the steps it takes to complete the sale.  What does your funnel or workflow look like?

An example of a broken sales funnel is all those business cards in your desk drawer.  Many business people collect the cards, but don’t do anything with them.  Another example is all the traffic coming to your website without conversions.  If you don’t know where your traffic is coming from you are losing opportunities. Take action to fix the funnel and make it more efficient so your sun doesn’t turn into a black hole.

Don’t let your sun turn into a black hole

The great thing about digital marketing is that you can test it.  Testing makes your solar system more efficient and ultimately generates more successful conversions and sales.   What do you test?  Everything!

Different keywords attract different qualities of traffic in your search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).  Your favorite photograph is not always the best image for your front page.  Often our favorite photograph has personal and emotional value, but it is not our best photograph to sell our services.  Test headlines in your e-mail campaigns and blog posts.

A successful photographer in 2012 never stops testing and experimenting.

Speaking of experimenting, a successful photographer strives to improve his photography every day.  Techniques and styles continually change.  Yours need to develop and grow, too.  Never stop learning.

Keep track of your successes.  What worked last year may not work today.  Some activities that worked in the past may have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Test them again, they may still work.

One thing that always works is to show appreciation to the people who hire you.  Thank clients and reward people who generate valuable referrals online and in real life.

Photography is an easy career in get into, but it is an extremely hard industry to stay in.   In 2012 a photographer cannot build a career just on the love of the craft.  She must have a vision, understand business and marketing,  separate herself from the competition, and continually educate and update.

What would you add?


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