Foreword by RMSP: You may remember Mike Tittel from a January.Q&A we did with him on the blog. If you don't, hop on over and read that article next! Mike is a graduate of our 1999 Summer Intensive course, a talented professional sports, adventure, and lifestyle photographer, and the instructor of our Adventure & Lifestyle Professional Studies course in our Career Training program as well as a Business Reboot: Energizing your Commercial Photo Business two-day workshop. He has been working in the commercial photography industry for 17 years, and throughout that time, he has learned many lessons. Like any great teacher, he wants to share those with you. Read on to learn three truths that Mike has found vital to his own career.
© All images created and copyrighted by Mike Tittel.
Emerging photographers frequently come to me with all kinds of questions. Over 90% of these have to do with building their business. Should I sign a work-for-hire agreement? How should I market my work? Do you have any tips for working with ad agencies? Is working trade for a brand I love going to shoot me in the foot? And on it goes. These kinds of questions are certainly valid, and I do my best to help people out. But usually the conversations end up taking us back to the one thing few photographers pay attention to when they are first starting out: vision.
Building, investing in, and solidifying vision is at the root of almost every major business decision a good photographer will make. It all comes back to who you are, how you see, and where you want to go.
Over the course of my 17-year career, there have been many pivotal moments that have shaped the way I think and approach my business as a freelancer. None of the following points are groundbreaking, but they became “ahh hah” type moments for me when I fully embraced and started implementing my own journey. Whether you’re just starting out in photography or have been at it a while, these three areas have powerful influence over what the rest of your career will look like.
#1: Start with Your Vision
The first 8 years of my career, I gave little thought to what vision meant. I just created photos and shared them haphazardly without much thought to my style. As I started chasing after bigger and bigger clients, I realized I needed to be more intentional in my approach. I learned the hard way that marketing without a cohesive, vision-based body of work is challenging at best. So honing my vision became a huge priority. I knew who I was, but my business needed to own that unique “vision” my work brought to the table. For photographers, vision is all those things that make you different from everyone else in the world and ultimately it’s vision that lands the jobs.
For photographers it’s a combination of the way you see and use light, your personality, how you present yourself to the world, and the way in which you are perceived.
Shooting what you are passionate about in a way that is uniquely you is the single most important thing you can do while building your career. It shows clients the real you and what makes your photography unique. This is especially important in today’s super competitive marketplace. Anytime you photograph things that excite you, challenge you, and cause you to grow, you build vision. And the stronger your vision, the more memorable you are and the more valuable you become. Once you have defined your style, its all about creating new, vision-based work on a regular basis and then getting it in front of potential clients through as many different marketing channels as possible. Shoot. Present. Repeat. It’s really that simple.
Goal setting is also a critical part of this first step. This seems like a no-brainer but I’m amazed at how few young people actually do this when starting out—myself included. I’m not just talking about career goals here, but an overall evaluation of life. All too often I see aspiring photographers chasing after the life of another without any real thought as to what they want out of life.
Ask yourself questions like...
What do you value? Are you a home body or do you like to travel? Do you want a family? Kids? What makes you the happiest? Where do you see yourself in a year? Five years? Ten years? What does success look like to you?
Once you start to get a picture of what’s really important to you, setting goals becomes extremely important. They provide a long-term plan and short-term motivation while helping to organize time and resources so you can build your vision—and your business—surrounding the life you desire.
#2: Invest In Your Vision
It’s almost never hard to convince an eager emerging photographer to purchase a piece of equipment. We photographers have a reputation for dropping serious money on the latest and greatest tools. But real growth comes from investing in your vision and personal projects. This is a challenge for many early in their careers since there is little-to-no income. But the reality is that nobody cares whether you shot an image on a $50k medium format camera or a simple point-and-shoot. What’s important is the vision behind the work. Yes, the tools you use are helpful, but you’ll get to where you want to be a lot quicker if you make investments in your vision a priority throughout your career.
Initially, this might look like renting some lighting equipment or paying for talent instead of relying on a friend. As your income grows, so does your ability to invest more seriously. One area to think about when starting out is getting outside help. It seems like a hard pill to swallow (to hire someone) when resources are so limited, but it is extremely important to fully acknowledge and recognize both your strengths and weaknesses. By inviting people into your business who bring expertise and knowledge in areas where you may fall short, your business will take on a whole new life. Consider what advantages people like consultants, stylists, producers, retouchers, and other creative professionals could bring to your overall vision and quality of work.
#3: Stand by Your Vision
Finally, be confident in your voice as an artist. Don’t apologize to yourself for who you are or get bogged down in paralyzing analysis and distractions. Sure, there is always room for growth and change, but stay focused on your main goals.
I have a good friend who introduced me to a saying that forever changed my decision-making process. It goes like this: “The main thing is to keep the main thing THE main thing.”
When we cut out all distractions and learn to say no to something that doesn’t support what we are truly after, we free up more of the one thing no amount of money will ever buy: time. What precious time we do have can then be focused on the things that truly matter and can help us achieve the life/career we are after.
Clearly, this can be especially difficult if it means passing on potential income from a client or job that doesn’t support where you want to go. It’s scary to turn away work that no longer fits within the realm of what’s valuable to your vision. But saying “no” to one thing allows you to say “yes” to something else. When you stay focused on your end goal, the decisions about where to spend your time and resources become pretty easy.
It’s also important to check in periodically and make sure you’re really doing something. Creative people are easily sidetracked, drifting around in their own ideas, possibilities, and details. We’ve all been there—evaluating, pondering, questioning, doubting to the point where it holds us back. And then we get stuck in that useless place of analysis paralysis, twiddling our thumbs, so busy deciding what to do that we never actually DO anything. Of course it’s scary to think of making the wrong choice. But fear is our worst enemy. Protect your vision from it. Over the years I’ve learned it’s far better to do and fail than to do nothing at all.
At the end of the day, folks, you gotta have vision. Start with it, invest in it, stand by it. But more than anything, no matter where you are at in your career, always be building it. If you get assignments that push and inspire you creatively, that’s great. If not, make it your mission to give yourself the opportunity for growth. Your business will always thank you for it.