Photo by Barry Schwartz
Over the last couple of years, I had an “aha” moment regarding my career that more resembled an “uh-oh” moment. Not even a moment, really, more like a slow unfolding of embarrassment.
I teach a class in business practices for photographers at a local college, using holistic thinking on how to build a career, consisting of, roughly, three main parts:
1. Technical knowledge. You can’t do any gig of any kind if you don’t have chops. This is not news to anyone. Well, maybe a few people. I don’t spend any time on how to make pictures; that’s not the subject of the class. We talk about computer health and happiness and building an efficient digital workflow, however, topics rarely covered in school. And backing up. You can never do enough backing up.
2. Business practices. This is primarily why people come to the class, and I cover issues such as copyright, releases, and contracts, along with marketing, negotiating, networking, and all the different kinds of careers a photographer can have. Proposals and contracts, particularly, scare people. And negotiating – scares them the most.
3. Soft skills. Understanding the cultures of clients: how do they think and what do they think about? Entrepreneurs of whatever kind have to develop a handle on what clients need and how their businesses work. You need to feel your clients’ pain. You need to do research. This is a big one, and for some students, the hardest to grasp. Part-and-parcel are people skills like how to dress, talk, write, and act. (Spell check! Call when late!) We talk about how you use social media differently as a professional than civilians do. No beer-bong photos on Facebook.
Desperately important: what do clients need to see on a photographer’s website? During class, we spend a whole lot of time doing close readings of photographers’ websites. I pass along what I’ve been told by photographers – and particularly what countless photo editors, art buyers, reps, gallerists, and art directors say they want to see. Which, since you asked, consists of: big pictures that load fast, clear navigation, make it really easy to find your contact information. The basics; not that complicated, really. And links to social media so people can find out more about you, whether you’re a freelancer or looking for a job as an employee (remember the beer-bong photos?).
My aha moment occurred while staring at the ceiling at three in the morning after my business had slowed to a crawl. After some number of nights of this behavior (I will not reveal how many) I came to understand I had not been taking advice I give to my own students: my website was bloated with too many categories, each stuffed with too many pictures. The photos were not big enough and the sequencing not that great. Navigation was clunky. I was not doing enough active marketing (phone calls and emails). I was not doing nearly enough social media (OK, almost no social media). I could go on, but I think I’ve embarrassed myself enough already.
So I went to town on my site, fixed the pictures, re-did my bio, added a blog and a Tumblr, started using Facebook like a professional, and got my Linkedin profile up to snuff. I made my proposals and contracts “friendlier”. I made marketing calls and wrote follow-up emails. It worked, I got busier.
It’s like the story of the frog placed in a pan of water on the stove, with the water getting slowly heated so the frog doesn’t even realize what’s happening and never saves itself. A little morbid as an analogy, but it points out the importance of staying alert, awake, and flexible. You don’t need to be a frog to understand the value of that.