If you’re an advanced enthusiast serious about making it as a pro, here are nine practical steps you can take to start the transition. These steps will help you break inertia, make your first sales, and establish a solid foundation on which to build.
1. Find your niche and start shooting in it.
Most enthusiasts shoot what they want, where there at, without any overarching logic. They produce a haphazard collection of different images. Then they try to sell the resulting images. Shoot first and then find a market. Pros do just the opposite: they know their market, and then shoot for it. They specialize, get to know buyers in their niches, and shoot deliberately and strategically to deepen their portfolio in their chosen areas. Starting tomorrow, spend some time figuring out where you want to specialize, and from now on spend your precious shooting time in those areas. Unless you live in Kansas and are determined to have your niche be Central American travel photography, it’s not that hard to build a solid portfolio. Just give yourself a highly targeted list of assignments. Do some at-home product shoots, or portrait or engagement sessions with family or friends. Assign yourself to cover at least 10 mammal species at the local zoo, or spend some time at some local wild areas. Take it seriously – learn about the animals or natural areas you’re covering. As long as your niche is something close to home, you can build a portfolio relatively quickly.
2. Develop your website.
In the digital age, you must have a website and it must be a good one. A website is your online portfolio and your most effective marketing tool. A well-designed site gives you credibility and provide a point of interaction with clients and buyers. Like a storefront, it is a place to which you can direct people, and a way for others to stumble into you while searching the web. Indeed, many people today find photographers today by doing Google searches. If you don’t have a website, you won’t even be found or considered. Beyond that, web sites provide a platform for selling prints and stock photos directly, and for offering blogs, reviews, and other important content that adds value for your potential clients. Over the next week, either develop your site yourself, or find someone to develop it for you. Read my best photography website template series for reviews of photography website templates you can use to create great sites fast.
3. Develop a list of buyers in your target market.
Once you know your niche and start developing your site, you need to begin defining your target market. Who are you shooting for? If you are selling to magazines or publishers, go to the book store and buy copies of your target magazines, and find the names of publishers in your field. Register at Photosource International, and pay for a list of buyer contacts in your niche. Go through Photographer’s Market, and list those buyers in your field. If you want to do commercial assignments, make a list of local companies in the industries in which you specialize. If you are going to do weddings, figure out what the best mediums are in your region for advertising to engaged couples. Over the next two weeks, consolidate your list of potential clients, with contact information, in one place.
4. Send out three submissions.
From your list of potential clients, choose the top three—those that are the most attractive to you but also the most likely buyers. Focus on those that offer the best fit with your work in terms of content, style, and quality. Send high quality submissions to these three buyers (I’ll post on how to do a high quality submission shortly). If you do this right, there’s a good chance you will make your first sale. If not, you will have taken the first step to building a relationship with what will be an important client for you in the future.
5. Sign up for photo buyer requests.
In addition to initiating contact with your target buyers, you should also sign up to receive image requests from photo buyers. First, when you contact Photosource International to obtain contact information for buyers in your niche, you should sign up to receive their weekly and daily buyer requests. You will need to apply and be approved to receive the daily list, with more competitive and higher paying clients. You should also go to Photographer’s Direct, and apply to receive their photo buyer requests. As with the daily list at Photosource International, you will need to submit an online link to your portfolio to be accepted.
6. Join a Stock Agency.
You know your niche and your market, have a growing portfolio, and have started marketing directly to buyers. Now it’s time to reach out and put your images on file with a stock agency. If you are really new, or don’t have a deep and coherent portfolio of images, then you can go right now to Alamy, and start the process of signing up with them. As long as your images meet minimum standards of size and quality, Alamy will provide you with a marketplace. You will learn how the stock universe works, and when your portfolio is deeper, you can take the next step. If you already have a strong image library, you may be ready to go immediately to a more specialized and competitive agency. Choose a smaller agency that closely matches your photography in content, style, and quality. I cannot overemphasize that last point – you’ll make your life much easier, get accepted, and make sales by choosing a smaller specialized agency that sells the kind of images you make. Do some online research, peruse the Photographer’s Market, and make a list of five agencies that are attractive and match your style. Find their submission guidelines, and follow them closely. For more ideas, see How to Choose a Stock Agency.
7. Start advertising for assignments.
You’ve started marketing directly to buyers, and started the process of putting your images with a stock agency. The next step is to start looking for paid assignments. If you are just starting, then start with family and friends. Let them know what you are doing, and that you are available to start shooting wedding or other important events. (Note: If you have not done weddings before, you should read and prepare thoroughly before doing one. It’s an important event, and you need to provide high quality images. See my list of recommended Wedding Photography books in the side bar.) You may want to do the first 1-2 events at low rates, or even free. Your friends are giving the opportunity to get started, and you are giving them the gift of your valuable photography time. Use the resulting images as a basis for your initial wedding / event portfolio. If you are more are more experienced, then you can develop a wedding website, and start advertising at local shops or online usin Google Adwords (see article on Google Adwords).
8. Get a local shop to display your images.
You’ve started marketing directly to photo buyers, starting working with a stock agency, and started looking for assignments. Now you can take advantage of one more avenue to sell your photos: selling prints. Start paying attention, and you’ll notice that many local shops, coffee houses, and cafes display artwork, often from local artists. (Even if your local shops don’t, talk to the owners and they might be willing to start.) Using an online print lab or your local lab, print large mounted prints of your 10 favorite images, take them with you, and ask shop owners if you can display your images.
9. Order some great photography books and learn more.
Even if you manage to read every article on my site, you will only be getting the tip of the iceberg in terms of the information available to help you make it as a photographer. Because there are so many books on the topic, and because I believe strongly in continual learning, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider to be the best books in different areas. If you are serious about making as a photographer, order some now and read them over the next month. They will provide the foundational knowledge you need to start thinking like a professional photographer. As a starting point, you can see a list of recommended books to the right in my sidebar.
Any other thoughts for very immediate actions steps you’d recommend?
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