If Documentary Photo Sessions Become Popular, How Do I Stand Out?

A question from a fellow photographer dropped in my inbox and took me by surprise. I’m probably over thinking it, but it’s not often I’m left speechless! With documentary photo sessions on the rise, she can’t be alone in thought.

Take a moment to think of the photographers in your area. We’ve all Googled local photographers and there is probably one or two you can think of that you’d hire in a heartbeat, the ones you wouldn’t hire, and even the ones you cannot believe are getting any customers (oh come on, we’ve all thought it once!), yet it looks like they are stomping out sessions like it’s no big deal. Ask yourself why you would or wouldn’t hire them.

Most likely, the reason you’re drawn to those you’d likely hire is because you’re in love with their photos (obviously), you feel connected to them somehow, and/or you feel they have built a trusting connection with their followers.

You are likely put off by the photographer you wouldn’t hire, because you don’t care for their photos, their site seems cheesy or like a cookie cutter to everyone else, and you didn’t make a connection with the person behind the webpage.

Simmer on all of that for a bit. And pin this post while you’re at it to refer back to:

documentary sessions become popular

 

If documentary photo sessions become popular, how do I stand out?

The emailer didn’t mean in a popularity, becoming widely-known, sort of standing out. She meant standing out in a field of many. An even more interesting add to the question, she was wondering how she (herself) could stand out when she is trying to make the sessions all about the clients. Meaning, sure her fingerprint was on her images in a way, but she was trying to shoot to create sessions for their perspective more.

My initial response: I don’t have an answer in the form of a perfect recipe. There is a balance between artistry and business. Talented, artistic photographers that can make you weak at the knees, burst into tears, and crave more can struggle to find clients if they don’t know how to run a business. There are photographers that can fill their calendar and become popular, yet produce funky colored, crooked photos that leave you thinking, ‘WTH?!’ Remember the internet’s response to Kim & Kanye’s wedding photo that circulated around the web? Yeah… No matter what genre you shoot, I believe the factors below apply.

 

The artist factor

You can put 5 photographers that shoot the same genre together. One is going to be searching the internet for shooting inspiration, one is going to look to the photographer she looks up to for shooting inspiration, one is going to have a posing ebook on replay in her mind during a session, and one is going to try her damnedest and well, suck.

The other one is going to shoot solely based on her own senses – clicking the shutter evolves from what she sees, what she feels, and she will make a relatable connection to the scene. Photo after photo will go beyond “telling a story” (a term which has become insanely popular). This photographer will put all of your secret thoughts into the photos like a thief. Your jaw will hit the floor when you see the photos and you’ll sign up to be a client for life.

Bottom line, skill in making clients feel emotion from your photos is obviously the biggest piece of the pie here. The YOU in your photos is your signature, your fingerprint, your DNA, in which will make you stand out.

There will always be someone better than you, someone copying you, and then there will always be you. Ask yourself, are you shooting from within or are you trying to shoot like the photographer you look up to? Are you discrediting your photos by shooting how you think your clients want you to shoot (rather than your instinct)? More on this topic in the post: Income and Intuition.

Workshops or hiring a mentor are a wonderful way to find guidance when you are starting out and also to push you even when you become an experienced photographer. However, become a student of your own photos and learn from yourself. Push yourself by shooting regularly, take breaks from the camera to only observe, try new ways to shoot, and dammit close that Pinterest app!

All the smart business sense and mental stockpile of inspirational photos in the world aren’t going to make you a better photographer. Showing up and putting in the time will.

 

Personality factor

If your personality is missing from your website + social media platforms, your audience is going to have a harder time connecting to YOU. If you sound like most of the crowd that posts photos with captions like, “I swoon over this!” or “I die!” or your philosophy page says things like, “I want to capture your most cherished moments” or “I want to tell your story,” you’re probably not going to stand out.

To say I’ve looked at hundreds of photographer websites is an understatement. I used to seek out photographers for interviews at a previous job and here at Fearless and Framed, I’m constantly looking to feature photographers for our Iconic Photo blog series and more. Wanna know one of the top things that makes me close my browser tab on them (aside from the photos)? The words. In fact, I’m embarrassed of my own photography website, because I threw it together when I first started out. The content is honestly based off of what I learned from others. Not personal. Not heartfelt. (It’s on my to-do to revamp. I haven’t blogged over there in over a year!)

When I land on a photographer’s website, Facebook, etc., I want to see personality. This doesn’t mean your words need to sound like butter on bread like Jasmine Star’s amazing way of writing. You don’t have to make each blog post into a deep, personal journal. Hell, sometimes minimal is better. The point is, let yourself be a little vulnerable in knowing people could land on your page and immediately not like you.

It’s ok.

The like-minded folks that land on your page will immediately feel a strong connection to YOU and will likely be better clients to work with.

Blogging is like fashion. One person starts wearing a new style and soon everyone is. I can tell you from experience, once you start browsing photographer websites, it’s like you see paraphrase after paraphrase of similar reasons why someone should book a session with you and your philosophy. The photographers that make me feel like they are speaking to me, sharing their story, and giving me a real insight into who they are are the ones that hook me every time. What shines through is their confidence.

 

 

Branding & client experience factor

This sort of ties into the above personality section. I live in Michigan and there is this restaurant I love called, Twisted Rooster. They only have a few locations and all of their suppliers are from Michigan, including serving the popular Michigan pop brand, Faygo. Rock-n-Rye, yo! So already, I have an appreciation and connection with this restaurant.

The first time I walked into TR, I immediately noticed the time and thought they put into every, single detail of the experience. It was in the artistic photos on the walls of roosters – each one different and even including details like their feathers and talons. It was in the detailing between the booths – they are wrought iron (or something) wheat. The items on their menu read mouth-watering entrees like: Soda Pop Pork Lollipops. The plate presentation is beautiful and clearly thought out also. Oh, and the food is damn good!

It’s true that a client is likely not going to choose you as their photographer, just because you have a cool business card, website, or product packaging. It’s about a connection between the entire experience you are offering and how you are presenting your core philosophy throughout.

I may go to a restaurant, solely because I like a menu item and that’s that. However, there is something to be said about when you feel like you are walking away with an entire experience. This is true with anything – shopping, accommodations during a vacation, salons, anything! Your ‘passion factor’ which you infuse into your photos and your branding + exceptional customer care will lead to your clients talking about you to their friends. #referral101

*Post update: 7/21/16: Fearless and Framed is undergoing a major rebrand. I started seeking out a brand designer August 2015 and we’re STILL working on something that is going to blow you away… promise 😉 I bring this up, because I wanted to add that in my own brand design process, I’ve paid careful attention to these 3 things: 1. My voice 2. My current audience’s needs (what you all are trying to accomplish) 3. My customer’s JOURNEY (I think #3 is what a lot of people forget).

 

“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”

Ever watch the show, Friday Night Lights? “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” is a slogan the football team said frequently during the show. This little slogan is a little truth in business and character. I believe that artistry, personality, and branding + experience are the top three attributes to a photographer’s success. Of course, only you can define what success is for yourself. At the core of each of those attributes, is your heart and your transparency.

When you believe in something so deeply (meaning, your way of shooting and running your photography business) and you carry it with you in all that you do, people will feel it. Your enthusiasm – good or bad – is contagious.

Do you want to be around someone that’s a go-getter, positive, and is likely going to feed you with inspiration and motivivation? Or, do you want to be around someone that is watching everyone else, moving forward slowly with a great deal more of caution than dream, and winging it? You want to be around the person that is going to lift you up, of course!

Dig into what you want out of your photography first, then for your business, and breathe those dreams in daily. Let every breathe out be that charismatic, passionate magnet to others. There are two types of photographers: the ones shooting from their hearts + visions and the ones looking at the photographers they are inspired by and trying to shoot like them. What it all boils down to: you and your heart.

Homework:

As you hone in on your voice, which is likely to evolve over time, there are some strategies that can help you get more clients quickly. As you grow your client base, the more word of mouth + repeat clients you’ll have. Take a peek at this mini-guide: 5 Easy Ways to Increase Client Demand to help give you a booking boost using your values to attract your dream clients!

 

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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  • Wow. Every part of that spoke to me in volumes! I have always tried to “please others” and in my old age and wisdom (Ok I’ not so old) I am trying to be the photographer that has my own style. my own personality and that those two things shine through. I am still working through both of those and you will be happy to know I have CLOSED that Pinterest app! LOL. Thank you so much for this article. It means a lot to me to have that gentle nudge from you (okay PUSH!) bc I really do need. Have a fabulous day!

  • Lovely! I am a former newspaper photojournalist turned family photographer. I spent the last several years shooting what I was told people “wanted” from family photography. I am trying to get back to the heart of my shooting and shoot family’s documentary style. It’s so soul satisfying when I can find the clients. I am still very much in a posey market and am desperate to break out and spread my wings!

  • Agree 100%. I have been trying to get my photography business off the ground properly for five years and started with trying to emulate what other photographers have done. I thought that was what customers wanted, now I have started to do sessions that I want to do, I am happier!