There have been so many times in my photography career when I have felt like a hamster in a wheel running my little legs off - only to look up and realize I'm not half as far as I had hoped to be. Without focused intention, I find myself getting caught in “busy work” but not necessarily very productive work. We hear it said all the time “work smarter and not harder." Figuring out what is “smart” for each of us - when our backgrounds, family life, specific talents, and skill sets are all different - can be challenging. After business basics and workflow good practice, where do we go from there? How do we set ourselves apart, attract our ideal client, and continue to produce work that we’re passionate about?
Wherever you live in the world, if you’re a professional photographer, I’m going to make the assumption that you live in a somewhat saturated market. A considerable amount of people own nice cameras and claim to be at least semi-professional photographers. Photography is a competitive field that I believe is only becoming increasingly more competitive as time goes on. I am also going to make the argument that we basically all use the same gear (whether we shoot Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Sony, Pentax, etc.); we all are using quality cameras and lenses that produce quality images. Sure, we edit and process our images to add our unique flare and artistic touch, but what if we are all using the same VSCO, Totally Rad, or Mastin Labs Lightroom presets? Can our future client really tell the difference? What makes you stand out, what makes your photography special, and what will attract your ideal client? YOU. Ok, hang with me - before you give me an eye roll and say that you’ve heard that line one hundred times too many, and that you don’t feel all that unique or special - keep reading because I want to skip over the fluffy pep talk and go deep.
When you use your unique personality to develop your own photography style, it will not only automatically set you apart, but more than that; your perspective will shift to looking inward, to the core of who you are, rather than looking outward and comparing yourself to others around you.
“Find the photo that only you can take. The photo that your unique perspective and experiences will give you access to. Take that photo. Your job is to find your unique voice.” – Chase Jarvis
Comparison really is the thief of joy. Looking around us and using others as the measuring stick to gauge our talent and worth will not motivate us. It will discourage and give us a false view of ourselves. More than that, comparison and imitating others will keep us from embracing our own talents and strengths. We will be hindered from becoming the artist we are truly meant to be. Will you do a quick exercise with me for a minute? Think of your all-time favorite photographer or artist, picture them in your mind, and ask yourself "What have they done to become so successful?"
“Don’t compare your beginning to someone else's middle." – Erica Gellerman
What answer did you come up with? Is it their gear? Is it their style? Is it because their work is on-trend? I guarantee you that while those things may be contributing factors, they’re not the core reason. The core reason for their success, I believe, is that they unapologetically embrace who they are; then work really, really hard to pursue their passions.
“I have come to believe beyond all doubt that brides are choosing photographers not photographs, so stop focusing on that very thing that makes you the same.” – Jasmine Star
In my opinion, there are three specific components that we must understand and know well to become the photographer we were meant to be. They are as follows:
- Find Your “Why”
- Know Your Strengths
- Define Your Brand
1) Find Your Why.
Why do you photograph? What makes you want to take that camera out of the bag and pursue this as a career? It took me years to concisely articulate my mission statement. When you can articulate the “WHY” behind what you do, it gives you direction and intention. If everything you produce is in-line with your mission statement, you will have a consistency that your customers/clients can trust and rely on. You will be doing work you believe in - work you love. If you haven’t listened to Simon Sinek’s TED Talk "Start With Why," I highly recommend it! In fact, stop reading this and go listen to it now… but then come back!
- Why do you photograph? What about photography excites you? What about it stirs your soul?
- Why does it matter? Why does it matter to you? To others?
- Who does it serve? Are you creating a business that’s bigger than you? Bigger than likes on social media? Bigger than making money? Do you want to create work that makes an impact?
- What is important to you? What are your values? Do you have a heart for humanitarian work? Do you want to inspire people with the beauty of fashion? Do you want to photograph someone’s child so they can cherish that moment for forever?
I would wager that if you look at any successful photographer you admire, they can articulate to you why they do what they do. At their core, they understand what fuels their passion. As Simon Sinek says, "They operate from the inside out." For example, Justin & Mary Marantz photograph because they believe in love.
“Photography for people who believe in love, because for us, it always started with love." - Justin & Mary Marantz
Benj Haisch photographs because he believes in marriage and the power of love between two people.
“I firmly believe in marriage and want to do my best to capture all that it means to get married and to celebrate that with you through photography. I’m not here to get Instagram likes or magazine features, or photography awards, I’m here to document the love of two people and that feeling in the best way that I can." - Benj Haisch
Sue Bryce photographs because she wants to empower women and help them feel beautiful.
“Beauty, it's the light that shines out of people's eyes when they look at you, and you hold their gaze and then everything else falls away, and then you see their true self and it is magnificent, and everybody has it." - Sue Bruce
Knowing what it is inside that drives you to create will allow you to passionately create work you love. This will serve both you and your clients well.
2) Know Your Strengths.
Do you know how your brain cognitively processes information because of your personality type? Knowing your strengths and utilizing them to their fullest potential will help you go the farthest the fastest. Instead of fighting against the grain, focus your energy on your strengths instead of your weakness. This is a much more productive use of limited time and precious energy. There are many tools available to help you better understand your strengths.
Two of my very favorite resources are the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator and the Strength Finders 2.0 book. You can find out what your personality type is and read all about it from 16personalities.com. When you purchase the Strength Finders 2.0 book, you will receive a code in the back of the book and directions to complete the Strength Finders Assessment online. How does all of this relate to your photography? Once you understand your own personality, as well as other people’s, you can:
- Better understand what makes people tick and have grace for those different from yourself. No one type is better than the other, although there are some personality types you will naturally clash with and that’s ok. Understanding personalities (your own as well as others) will improve your relationships, whether they are with a partner, spouse, family member, or client!
- You will better understand your natural strengths, allowing you to work “smarter” instead of “harder."
- It will give stronger customer insight.
When you know what your strengths are, you can structure your business around them. It’s really easy to overthink this, but it can be as simple as: if you’re an introvert and prefer phone consultations, do phone consultations. If you’re an extrovert and excel at winning clients over with your charming personality, ask to meet your potential clients for an in-person consultation. If you’re an intellectual thinker and enjoy problem-solving and puzzles, maybe pursue areas of photography that your specific skills will be needed and valued such as constructing a commercial shoot that has many moving parts that all need to come together. If you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type, pursue an area of photography where your flexibility and think-on-your-feet tendencies will be a tremendous asset - possibly photo-journalistic work will appeal to you. We could do an entire blog post on the different personality types and strengths. My goal today to is to encourage you to dig deep and seek self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses, then focus your energy on building a business around your strengths.
3) Defining Your Brand.
We now have come to our third component, which is your brand. Once you know your “why” (core values), and your strengths (natural talents and inclinations), combine those two things and build a brand around them.
“A brand is not a logo. A brand is not a corporate identity system. A brand is not a product. So what exactly is a brand? It’s a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” – Marty Neumeier (The Brand Gap)
As an artist, your brand is often cohesive with who you are as a person. It is cohesive with your strengths and your personality. This is why it is so important for you to refine your brand. Doing so helps you to be consistent, build a reputation, and attract your ideal clients.
You can refine your brand by choosing branding words that reflect both who you are and the work you would like to create. Keep those words in mind whenever you’re photographing, posting, publishing, advertising, or doing anything that will contribute to your brand story.
In a world of photographers who are all photographing with the same gear, using the same Lightroom Presets, website templates, etc. what would it look like if you didn’t look to others for inspiration, but rather celebrated not what makes you similar but what makes you different?
When you are honest about what is important to you, when you know the things you are naturally gifted for, and you utilize them to build your brand - I truly believe that you will not only be successful; but, you will be the artist you were meant to be and do the work you were meant to do.