This is it! The very first installment of our new column here at F STOP called Ask Maven. Maven has fifteen plus years of experience in the advertising world and for the last six years has been an art buyer at a highly esteemed international ad agency. She’s here to answer your questions and does so brilliantly below in her first column.
Email Maven your questions: maven (at) thefstopmag (dot) com.
I’ve been shooting for about 6 years now. I’ve created a high quality body of work that’s targeted towards getting ad work. I’ve won many major awards…communication arts photo annual and so on….based off of work I’ve created on my own dime, just to get the attention of art buyers. And I’ve been sending out bimonthly email promos and annual print promos to art buyers for years now. I’ve also had plenty of meetings with art buyers and always receive very positive feedback in my work.
Here’s the problem…I only get a couple of ad jobs a year and they’re not even the creative type of work I really desire to do (conceptual landscapes might be the best way to put what I do). I make my living as a photographer shooting mostly weddings and other events and make a living of about $150,000 a year but it’s not what I want to be doing. I want to do creative ad work. I feel like I’m almost leading a double life…all this great work that people like on my website and wins awards but I actually just really
My questions….is it normal for people to be promoting themselves for 6 years and not get any type of creative work? How long does it take for photographers to start getting regular creative work? What types of annual earnings to ad photographers make? Can you give me a range? I’ve always assumed that it’s more then a wedding photographer like myself makes but with this recession and all I have no clue.
– LA anonymous
Dear LA Anonymous,
Thanks so much for writing in and being the first in what I hope are many posts from me to the creative community (photography specifically) at large. Your questions and frustrations are completely normal, so don’t freak out. It’s often very hard to break out of what pays the bills, but you simply must follow your heart if commercial work is what you’re after.
It sounds like you are doing all the right things in terms of promoting yourself as a commercial photographer. Hats (and lenses) off to you. Without seeing your website or promotional materials, it’s hard for me to pinpoint the root of the problem- though I will say, and I quote a dear agent friend of mine= “if you want ad work, you must show ad work in your book”. I am sure you are wondering how the heck you can show ad work if you’re not really getting any gigs in that world, but make sure your 360 presentation (meaning the full monty of mailers, e promos, website and hard portfolio) showcase your capability to not only tell a story, but sell a product. When you say you shoot “conceptual landscape” my mind is immediately taken to the fine art zone- that’s great- but it may be hard for you to captivate a commercial audience when your book screams fine art. That said, in recent years, a fine art aesthetic is not a bad thing- you simply need to show how you can apply that arty goodness to a commercial application. If you shoot weddings and make a nice living at it, you are probably wonderful at shooting people in environment and in action. Sounds to me like modern lifestyle could be a good fit for you commercially.
Also bear in mind that this is an excruciatingly subjective business- I may just go bats over your photo of a Reno sunset while an art buyer in Tennessee finds it all kinds of wrong. My advice is to find some people whose taste you trust and whose agency is doing the kind of work that lends itself to what you can offer as a photographer. That is why targeted promotions are the most effective- rather than sending 5000 direct mail pieces or shooting out 5000 emails to get lost in the ether, why not send out 50 mailers or emails to the agencies you would just love to work with or who have art buyers who love the work you do? It shows great insight to send promotional material to agencies whose work is in line with yours. If you shoot cars for instance, why would you send your work to an agency that does not or has never had a car account? Senseless really. What if the last six years had been spent marketing to those folks on your commercial bucket list?
And in terms of this six year itch, yes, this is normal (and what is normal in our business, anyway?). I have certainly heard of stranger things. I am assuming you are based in LA from your signature, and I have to say- that’s a tough market to crack, as are the other major photo markets like New York, San Fran, and Chicago. I say this because it’s even more important to have a super tight presentation in those photo capitals and you better have a specialty- in regional markets it may be cool to shoot kids, food, and cars, but in the big markets it’s best to stick with something you simply excel at and live there (think still life, location photography, portraits, fashion, lifestyle, etc.) Yet with every rule, there are certainly exceptions. For instance, folks like Nadav Kander can shoot what they please in terms of subject matter because agencies tend to hire folks like him because he brings a unique point of view and signature “style” to his work, regardless of subject matter. He’s that great. So maybe this six year sentence is more of an identity crisis- focus on what you are great at and sell that, always mindful of the need to appeal to a commercial audience. (Look on the bright side though- major life shifts come every seven years, so take heart in that- this could be your time to break through).
In terms of your question on what a solid commercial photographer can make, that range is quite vast. According to said rep friend above, you can expect anywhere from $100-350K in the mid-line- and you can obviously go up from there as I have worked with photographers that can make $350K in a week. (one can only imagine how this is possible, but trust me it is…)
I think you are indeed fortunate to make the living you do with weddings- if it has been lucrative for you I would keep doing it as you focus on tailoring your presentation to those of us in the industry. I caveat that there is a real paradigm shift happening in the photo world- a huge time of questions and reinventions as we all wait to see what is going on with the print medium as well as interactive and how photography will adapt to fit that new genre of storytelling.
Now is a fabulous time for creative reinvention and discovery- there has never been a time in history (or at least as long as I have been around) where creativity itself is being called to the task- think of all of us that now have a forum and outlet for our voices and artistry like never before (look no further than blogger superstars and sites like Etsy where people who make stuff by hand are able to promote and sell their creations). The rise of social media and blogging has suddenly empowered people to express themselves in new ways, and to me, that’s a huge opportunity for all of us, as well as a challenge. (Don’t worry- the need for trained and skilled photographers is still the norm- I am not at all suggesting someone snapping away with their iPhone is going to take food out of your mouth, just saying it’s worth watching what you eat these days.)
You may want to ask yourself- what’s your point of difference? Maybe it’s to aligning yourself with a solid team of producers, crew, stylists, and the like that can help sell you as a production rock star (insert screaming fans here). An important aspect of what we do is finding photographers that “get” the demands of creating commercial work as well as coming up with solutions to our often challenging production conundrums. It is always about the work itself first and foremost, but what can you do in an over-saturated market to stand out? Here’s another something to chew on- I have yet to see a photographer come up with an amazing non traditional promotional strategy-think of what advertising is doing now to challenge and market to consumers-I feel photographers should be doing the same thing- go beyond the mailers and email promos and think differently. It will go a long way, especially to people so entrenched with whipping up ways to innovate in terms of marketing to an ever elusive and jaded audience.
Well my LA friend, that’s that. I hope this advice helps a bit. I say keep at it and follow your dream- it’s all about reinvention right now for all of us and you, mon ami, are no exception. And to the rest of you F STOP fanatics, write to me and write often. I am here to offer advice on your endeavors and am damn glad to be here. Catch ya next week.