The Long Game: Surviving in a Photography Genre without a Rulebook

I’ve often heard this said about motherhood: it’s the longest shortest time. And I always giggle a little bit because this is exactly how I feel about my photography business. The days can feel painstakingly long—especially the ones in the winter months. I’m not getting booked, and the blank spaces in my calendars feel like they stretch on for months.

I’m staring at my computer screen, waiting for a blog post or social media inspiration to strike. Or maybe I’m avoiding my Spreadsheet of Death, also known as my finances. I see the expenses piling up and the income column just looks so damn short.

But then the sun comes out, literally and figuratively. Spring arrives. Families start to send me emails asking to book. My calendar fills up, slowly but surely. The summer is consistently busy. And then the fall. Oh, the fall. It’s a mad rush from families who are desperate for images before the end of the year. Days blur into weeks which blur into months and it’s all of a sudden Thanksgiving, then Christmas and I’m slow again. It’s the longest shortest time.

I’ve been at this full-time for 3 years now. And I’ve had to adopt a mantra, an emphatic chorus that will shout at my subconscious when I need it: “This documentary family photography thing is a long game. Pace yourself.”

I am my own biggest critic. I sometimes let those blank calendar spaces and short income columns begin to define my entire business. I get so discouraged and begin to question everything. I let doubt creep in and I kiss my confidence goodbye. I start looking at full-time jobs, just to see what I might be qualified for. You know, just in case this whole thing doesn’t work out. I get anxious. Nervous. Worried. Every.single.year.

You may wanna pin this so you can revisit it when you need a boost of encouragement…

But this year, I decided to bring that mantra that has lived in my subconscious to the forefront. It now lives in front of my face, at the start of my day, and the door of my office. I remind myself every day that I am playing a long game. That each idea, followed by each execution, is just one step in a really long race.

This genre is brand new. It’s ambiguous and a little bit difficult to explain. I get the same questions from potential clients all the time:

“So, you’ll just come over and take pictures of us … sitting around?”
“You want me to stay in my pajamas?!”
“My kids fight a lot and my house is really dirty.”
“You want to spend how many hours with us?”
“But what will we do all day?”

And here’s where it gets tricky: it’s creative and based on each individual photographer so there are no rules! We are all able to set our own standards and answer these questions however we want.

Entering into a niche that doesn’t have a rulebook is equally terrifying and exciting for us as artists. Mentors and thought leaders are hard to come by. And the ones that are out there are still building their businesses, just ahead of us. We will have to pave the path ourselves—educating clients, creating pricing structures, deciding what qualifies as documentary and what doesn’t, and finding clients who can get on board with us.

So what does the long game look like? How do we play it well and with intention? There are a few different things we can do:

1. Be consistent

I see a lot of photographers transitioning to documentary family work who are still showing a lot of portrait sessions on their websites and social media pages. I don’t think you absolutely have to pick one or the other, but if you really only want to do documentary work, you should only be showing that. If you are trying to educate clients on the value of moment-driven images, the last thing you should be showing them is posed portraits. Consistency is key.

2. Be available

This is still a fairly new genre. We need to be willing to answer the same questions over and over until people understand why we photograph this way. It’s going to take several blog posts, page interactions or even conversations before clients become willing to make the switch. I have had to lower my expectations several times to accommodate for the fact that this is new and even a little strange for clients. It’s literally our job and our livelihood to have patience and be available.

3. Be flexible

I have changed my ideas and pricing structures and philosophies more times than I am willing to admit. But being flexible and courageous enough to acknowledge when something isn’t working is crucial for growth. I’m not saying to be impatient and expect every idea to have an immediate benefit. But listening to your clients (and your gut) will help you realize when or if an idea will become profitable or advantageous.

4. Be patient

The long game is about trial and error. It’s about patience and perseverance. It’s about knowing when to leave an idea behind and when to push harder.

5. Be inexplicably YOU

As always, the market for photography is saturated. The only thing that will separate success from failure is being true to who you are and your work. Set goals for yourself. Some really clear, non-negotiable ones. And then maybe some more vague, emotional ones. Find someone to gently and lovingly keep you accountable to them. Infuse your heart into your business—into every post and email. Don’t accommodate other people’s expectations of you. Do what YOU expect of you.

The good news? This isn’t all scary and intimidating. It can and should be invigorating too. We have this gift of possibility in front of us. Each day is some new unchartered territory, with more lessons to learn and problems to solve. We get to innovate, which is sometimes so much better than starting from scratch. We get to use the creative part of our brain, finding connections between what has always been done and what could be. We are on the edge of something amazing, a new wave in our industry. And we get to be ahead of it.

But let’s not be precious about this and assume that we are the first ones to do it. This industry has been non-stop evolving since the first photograph was ever made. We, in this niche, are evolving from the typical family portraits in the park or field. Those photos came from the professionally lit family portraits, done on the beach or in someone’s yard. And those came from studio photos that we used to sit for, in someone’s actual studio.

We will not be the first group of photographers to have to educate our clients on the value of images. Of prints. Of documenting memories. And just like the photographers who did this years ago, we have to gain trust, credibility and access.

Think about how long it takes to build trust. That’s what we ask of people. We ask for an invitation into their home and lives. We ask for them to be vulnerable and open, willing to have their most intimate moments on display. And that takes time; it doesn’t happen overnight.

So when you look at your Spreadsheet of Death or start comparing yourself to photographers who are a few years ahead of you or in a completely different genre, remember that this is a long game. And we are right at the very beginning.

Guest post writing and images are from photographer, Rachel Greiman.

About Rachel: Rachel Greiman is a writer and photographer in Denver, Colorado. She owns Green Chair Stories, a company dedicated to telling stories and showing people how beautiful their real life is. She lives with her giant dog (an 80-pound bernedoodle named Bernadette) and her husband, (a 6’6″ man named Travis) in a small house in the city.

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Author: Eboni Rivera
Fearless and Framed's Course and Community Ambassador + Self proclaimed "Memory Giver". Eboni is a Family Documentary Photographer and Film Artist at Luxe Art Images, LLC located in Long Island, NY. She provides emotive, heart-tugging, feel good photography and films for families who give a damn about the preservation of their memories. Her approach to photography allows families to leave behind a legacy of who they are, how much they love and just how awesome their lives truly are.

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  • I needed to read this today. You spoke to my heart. Nobody gets what I want to do. My soul awakens when I get the chance to document. I only had two clients last year. I keep pushing through because I know it is important. Some days are more discouraging than others. I just keep creating.

  • Love this!!! So needed to hear it. The ebb and flow of this work can be hard emotionally and it’s good to hear some inspiring advice. Thanks!!