When corporations want to grow, they hire business consultants to show them the way forward. When photography businesses want to grow, they hire creative consultants to show off their images.
When photography businesses run into trouble, their owners often feel that there’s nowhere to turn. They know they can produce great pictures. They know that their clients are always happy with their work. And they know that there’s a market for their style, their approach and their talent.
They just don’t know how to reach it.
Instead of landing commissions from giant companies who want their oil rigs photographed or winning bookings from high-value couples who appreciate their artistic approach to wedding photography, they struggle to get past catalog shots for the local furniture store and nuptials for brides on tight budgets. They’re doing okay and they’re grateful that they can make a living taking pictures. They just wish they were winning more challenging work — and they’re not certain how to reach it.
And there’s no reason they should be certain. The sort of business planning and marketing skills that can take a business where it wants to go demand a whole range of talents that differ drastically from the creativity needed to be a great photographer. They also often require the kind of detachment that can only come from a disinterested observer.
Like management consultants, creative consultants aim to deliver those talents (and that detachment) to professionals working in creative fields. Unlike management consultants though, they often bring years of hands-on industry experience to their clients as well expertise in their niche.
Getting the Marketing Right
Amanda Sosa Stone, for example, studied photography at the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies. She then spent several years as an art buyer at advertising firm Draft FCB. She has been a contributing photo editor and co-authored The Photographer’s Survival Guide with Suzanne Sease. She now works with Agency Access, a marketing service for creative professionals, and provides personal consulting for photographers. The list of talent that she’s helped include Jim Krantz, the 2010 International Photographer of Year, Nick Onken, and National Geographic’s Assignment Division (with co-consultant Suzanne Sease.) More usually though, she works with commercial photographers who shoot advertising, editorial and corporate images, and with consumer photographers who photograph weddings and consumer portraits. Her aim, she says, is to provide help with editing, with creating presentation material such as branding, websites, portfolios and promotional material, and to lay out a marketing plan.
The process begins with the photographer sending Amanda an email explaining where they were, where they are and where they want to go. Amanda also asks to see current or older portfolios or any printed material the photographer might have. She and the photographer will then have two phone calls, each lasting an hour. The first call will discuss presentation and provide suggestions for ways in which the photographer can improve his or her website and portfolio. The second will focus on marketing and lay out a plan for the year ahead.
For photographers who want a Premium Consult, Amanda will then provide reviews of the photographer’s new marketing material (which includes list building), the final printed portfolio and the photographer’s new website. She’ll also follow up after six months and eleven months to see whether the photographer is still on track and moving towards his or her goals. The most common mistakes she sees photographers making, she says, are pretty basic:
“Not understanding their target market and what types of images best represent them and that market they are going after.”
Other than her knowledge of the photography industry and her own experience as a buyer, Amanda notes that what photographers really need is distance: the opinion of someone who is not emotionally attached to the images and can bring a fresh perspective to their presentation.
But that expertise and detachment don’t come cheap. A Basic Consultation costs $495 for the two hour-long phone calls, while the Premium Consult comes in at an impressive $1,495. For most photographers — especially those still trying to build the photography business they want — that’s a significant investment. So is it worth it?
Know Who You Are and What You Want to Shoot
It’s not an easy question to answer, if only because every photography business is different. Amanda works with photographers in the consumer market who promote themselves exclusively through social media but who still need a strong website “to seal the deal,” she says. Other photographers though already have a good website and focus on search engine optimization, while some need a little nudging to market consistently — at which point they see the rewards consistently too. And Amanda’s work with Agency Access enables her to reach photographers who want to branch out commercially. Regardless of the niche, Amanda has found that the same methods tend to bring benefits to most photographers.
“I will say that my knowledge and experience has served both type of photographers (commercial and consumer) and the tried and true approaches usually work for both,” she says. “There are the rare few who always need a unique approach based on their market and/or their budget.”
In general, she notes, a consultant can help any photographer who has created a consistent body of work that contains between 100-500 images, knows what they want to be hired to shoot and understands who they want to do it for.
That last condition might sound simple, but it’s also likely to be the key to creating the kind of photography business you want. A photography consultant — like any other consultant — doesn’t build a business for the client. Nor does he or she provide the client’s career goals; clients are expected to deliver those themselves.
“Know who you are stylistically, know who you want to shoot for and know how to convey who you are, what you do and your style,” advises Amanda.
If you can do all of that, the only task left will be to bring in the clients, shoot the images they want and keep them. You won’t need a consultant for that part of the job.