CAPIC: How to Sell Your Work as a Photographer

Mark Busse – 3 Comments

I was recently honoured to be invited to sit on an expert panel at a CAPIC event for their Portfolio Series called Your Body of Work: Launching a Creative Vision for your Photography. The event was about how image makers such as photographers and illustrators can best promote themselves using portfolios, websites and marketing initiatives.

The panel was made up of me, Anya Lewise and Cathy Mullaly from Canada Wide, John Edmonds from Grey Vancouver, Tim Hoffpauir from DDB and Chris Peacock from Cossette—all experienced in choosing and working with photographers. We were all asked to consider some key questions which we then later discussed in an open forum, sort of townhall meeting style. The questions plus my notes and thoughts are reproduced here now:

1) Would you prefer to see a portfolio online or in a book?
Online only if it’s done well. Seeing a photographer’s book in person still has merit once the relationship has been initiated, but in person presentations are unrealistic these days. Web is really best to vet candidates once we’re aware of a photographer as we don’t hunt for them online often.

2) Are there certain formats that you would like to see from portfolios?
Any portfolio should be easy to use. Large photos so we can see details (especially ads or if special effects or retouching). While not always appreciated in advertising circles, we’re a big fan of seeing an image in context and the process behind it, so a couple carefully selected case studies that demonstrate the challenge, approach, process and results as well as the role played by the photographer or illustrator can be very useful. Describe how you overcame hurdles or accomplished shots for clients, otherwise they’re just pretty pictures and we’re not sure if you just pulled the trigger or added real value beyond that of technician.

3) What can image makers do with their books to help your decision process of selecting new talent?
This seems a little redundant and obvious after the last question, so I’ll refer back to my answer above. The bottom line really is that an image maker has to impress the heck out of us and that often happens OUTSIDE of their books. We hire people we like, get along with, know how we work and our clients, laugh at our jokes, are flexible and nail it every time. We don’t care how amazing a book is if any of these don’t work, we won’t hire them. Period.

4) How do you prefer to receive portfolios from local talent?
Again, this is a redundant and already answered above: Online first, then in in person. Bear in mind that word of mouth referrals trump portfolios every time.

5) What is your preferred follow up on a portfolio; e-mail, post or a telephone call?
We prefer email, though a really well-written letter via post can be very memorable and effective. Consider the teasing before meeting or reviewing an book. Example: Todd Blevins at Trigger in Calgary told me a story about receiving a blank manila envelope with no return address containing an 8″x10″ art print of a gorgeous shot of a n astronaut without any marketing message, website or logo. Just signed “Hi Todd. Thought of you when I shot this. Enjoy.” This was followed by another a few weeks later—again in a blank envelope. After showing the prints to all the other Art Directors at Trigger, he finally figured out whot eh shooter was and both are framed on his wall. Guess who he’s planning on calling in for his next shoot?

6) How many images do you prefer a book to have?
Like any portfolio really, we think a book should contain 10-20 of their best and most relevant work. An image maker should have dozens or even hundreds of quality examples of their work at the ready, but the ability to customize their book for us depending on what we’ve told them we need or their research on what kind of work we do. Don’t supply too many similar images that may suggest you have only one style.

7) What makes a book stand out for you?
A book that says something about you as a person, your vision and your process—beyond merely the technical proficiency of your work—always gets my attention. When those books also combine an elegant, clean aesthetic, professional tone and ease of use, you have a winner.

Obviously eye-catching images get our attention, so feel free to include some shock value (i.e. nudity, destruction or impossibility) to leave us wet, panting and wanting more.  But if anything is sloppy—i.e. crooked, poorly printed, typos, glue showing, etc—then we’ll assume your work for us will be of the same standard and the relationship will be over before it began.

Remember that many Art Directors are attention deficit and obviously LIKE ART, but avoid highly conceptual “artsy” photos that make you look like a cheeseball stuck in art school—the world really doesn’t need any more photos of cracks in walls, burned out light fixtures or elevator buttons.

8) Do you prefer to see tear sheets or a client list or do you like the work to stand on its own?
Again a little redundant, so I refer to my answer on question two above. As said previously, context is huge, so we like to see the work in situ, so if tear sheets are available, that can be effective. We’re not huge on seeing a photographer or illustrator’s work done specifically for an ad without the rest of the ad.

9) What expectations do you have from local talent in regards to their books?
Why would I want local talent to have any different books than others? A book should show thought, care, professionalism, a strategic use of graphic design, an understanding of the kind of work out there and a clear vision of the kind of work they want to pursue. Show us why we should hire you instead of the next guy, or—god forbid—buy stock photography?

Like any industry, the key is to demonstrate a differential and advantage to choosing you—but as mentioned, that is often not able to be communicated via your book. There is no secret here: hard work, persistence and professionalism pays off in the end.

10) Do innovative or non-standard portfolios catch your eye or do they waste your time?
This can go both ways. We’ve seen a clever approach captivate as easily as annoy a busy talent buyer. We’ve seen some old pros go to great lengths and expense to create very fancy, expensive portfolios which completely detract from the work within. A key is to do your homework and determine ahead of time what kind of approach will work for the person you are selling to and be flexible enough to work within their preferences. Try to balance uniqueness against practicality so the book doesn’t come off gimmicky.

Suggestion: find an elegant vessel to display your work in. Check out Shrapnel Design‘s portfolios made right here in Vancouver.

11) What kind of leave behinds do you like?
Something simple, easy to use that shows something beyond what you just showed us. And instead of bringing it with you, send a follow-up with a *well-written* thank you letter. Perhaps offer to take that first job for cheap or free if that’s what it takes to earn their trust. But create something with perceived value, like a frame-ready print, as a way to stay top of mind. Remember that 95% of all leave behinds are destined for the G file.

12) What are some of the things you’d like to see Vancouver image makers doing with their portfolios that makes it more pleasant for you to view?
In this market, being a generalist is useful, but find your passion and shoot the shit out of it until you’re able to position yourself as a specialist in that area. If you love cars, then shoot cars—lots of them. But be warned—you may need to shoot other stuff and have a separate portfolio to pay the bills.

Do your homework first and customize your approach—a generic shotgun blast is a waste of time.

Instead of buying a web template (i.e. with limited effectiveness, invest in a professional web designer and put them online in a manner that is fast, easy to sort, navigate, zoom in, etc. Can’t afford one? Swap services with a designer

Remember, more so than the average consumer—inundated daily with a myriad of media, image and talent—buyers are time-strapped, attention-deficit, lovers of art. Appeal to that however you can.

Extra) What did you forget to ask me?
– Answer this question: why choose you? What makes you different? Why do you matter to ME? It’s usually a human choice, not technical or rational.
– Confidence without being an arrogant jerk is attractive. Clients want to feel in good hands.
– Synergy and compatibility often trumps a portfolio, but only for those known to be proficient shooters.
– Being involved in your professional association has numerous obvious advantages, but you won’t find work here—certainly not the work you’re looking for long term. Join the associations of related industries like advertising, marketing, design, etc and attend their events—but DO NOT bring your book and start schmoozing like a cheeseball amateur. Be confident and foster real relationships—earn their trust.
– Find a mentor: a busy photographer who learns to trust you and recommends you when they are forced to turn down work
– Ask for critiques from potential clients or photographers you respect and be willing to receive negative feedback and guidance from those more experienced than you.
Flickr, Behance, deviantART, Computerlove, etc. are great online sites to post work, but keep professional work separate. At least keep the low res work hard to acquire without coming to you formally.
– Be a polite stalker and use a personal touch via telephone, in person, hand-written notes.
– Be passionate and shoot endlessly. This works for the self-taught, just check out Vancouver’s Kris Krüg—he’s self taught and in high demand because iof his passion and tenacity.
– Word of mouth is far more powerful than web, email and DM.
– Don’t be afraid to name drop. It works. Who else have you shot for?
– Old paradigm: “Cost. Quality. Timing. Pick two.” new paradigm: “Cost. Quality. Timing. I want all three.” Be all three.

Good luck!