Photographer’s Survival Guide: What To Do When the Market Dips

More than once I have heard photographers note how the wedding photography industry is somewhat insulated from economic dips because “people will still get married.” The couple has ostensibly already saved and budgeted for their big day and nothing will get in the way of it, save for some emergencies. That being said, the portrait and wedding photographic market can also take a hit when the economy takes a dive. Particularly the portrait-session businesses, as those are really considered a “luxury” item and people will likely cancel their shoot if they fall on hard economic times.

The commercial and advertising fields are a whole different animal; when the market dips, usually the first thing to go in a company is the marketing budget. But, the good news is that the first thing to return when things are looking up is also the marketing budget.

Here are my Top 5 Tips for Surviving Economic Slumps:

#5. Self-Assignments

This is the time to work on the portfolio. Address your work, weed out the weak shots, refine your focus and assign yourself some shoots that fill in some of the gaps. Be deliberate and focused about this, one image at a time. Plan and craft the image you feel you need in your book. But, also leave a little room to play and experiment. You never know where the idea will take you. Go with ideas that allow you to shoot on your own, or with just a skeleton crew. Save the big-budget ideas for later. Write them down in a journal; sketch them out, complete with prop / model lists and gear and lighting schematics, so that you can reference them later on. If you shoot portraits, begin by looking at your work and what “market areas” you are lacking. Maybe you want to shoot more senior portraits – now is a good time to find some people in that age category and bribe them with cash to model for you, or mine your friends and family for willing models. As a wedding shooter, this one is a lot tougher so you may need to skip to the next tips.

#4. Submit to Stock

Now is a great time to take some deep-dives in your catalog of images and take care of those keywording chores. Begin marking images for stock submissions — there are a ton of agencies out there to explore and join. Be sure to read their submission guidelines and make sure that you adhere to their minimum technical requirements. Retouch your images at 100% magnification (minimum) to ensure technical perfection before submitting. When the market swings back up and budgets become flush again, you’ll have built out some libraries out there for passive income.

As a commercial shooter, you may also shoot other topics for fun and now you have some time to address those images and what to do with them. Perhaps you have found yourself with more time on your hands, but not a lot of “stock worthy” images. As you research some stock sites, you’ll find that many of them address what they are missing in their library, and you can take that list and take it to Tip #5 and plan something very specific to shoot to fill that need. This could possibly mean a higher chance for a sale since you are addressing the needs of that agency’s buyers directly.

#3. Work on your social media

Scour your Facebook account. Are there a bunch of political posts or really pointed dialog that could reflect poorly upon yourself as a business? Perhaps consider deleting those posts to clean up your presence. Have some old photos on there of you drinking out at nightclubs? Google how to download your archive of images from Facebook (yes, this is doable) and then go in and delete images that paint you in a non-professional light. Clean up your image.

Then tackle your LinkedIn. In the Profile Edit area, there is a place for “Headline.” Make this succinct and encapsulate exactly what you do. Don’t be too lofty or vague. Be specific, be laser-focused on who you are and what you offer. This is your “elevator pitch.” Consider it like what you’d immediately say to someone at a cocktail party when they ask, “What do you do?” Rather than a lengthy boredom-inducing or jargon-heavy explanation, cut to the chase and give them what you do in fewer than 10 words that are easily digestible to those outside your industry.

After cleaning up your LinkedIn, hit up your Twitter account and treat it like your Facebook. Clean up anything unprofessional. After this, hit up your Instagram and take a long look at your grid and determine if the overview represents who you are as a photographer, what your focus is, and what you offer the marketplace as a shooter.

If your Instagram is lacking, then go to Tip #5. If you are always torn between posting your pro work and pictures of your kids, then create a separate personal account for all the personal stuff. I am an amateur musician and have a whole separate Instagram for that so I can post all my fun music stuff there and not bog down my photography feed; I treat that feed like a portfolio with occasional BTS (behind-the-scenes) or glimpses into my personality. But, mostly pro work. I even have separate ones for my wedding videography as well as my digital tech persona. Keep them separated, I say. This is a profession. Be professional.

#2. Design new marketing materials

Now is the time to brush off those Photoshop and InDesign skills and work up a few new marketing campaigns! Brainstorm new ideas; not all marketing has to come in the form of printed materials, emails, or ads. Get creative and if you can’t afford the idea right now — write it down for later. I’ve heard of everything from expensive ideas such as a bottle of champagne with mini promo card attached (the art buyer I heard this from said she enjoyed the champagne but it didn’t mean the photographer got the job). No need to spend lots of money like that. I’ve seen people make handmade salve with their logo on it so that it sticks around the office for a while. Brilliant! I’ve seen food photographers send non-perishable items such as local honey and replace the label with their own logo. And down to the lower budget ideas such as refrigerator magnets — although somewhat cheesy, they get the same idea across. You want to stick in their mind for longer than 2 seconds. You don’t want whatever you send to go immediately to the “circular file,” but to stick around for a bit. The longer it sticks around, the more you and your branding is on their mind.

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If you are video-savvy, perhaps it’s time to set up some cameras and audio and do some BTS (behind-the-scenes) on one of your self-assignments to show how you work. You’ll need to be good with editing to create an engaging piece, and be sure to consider both YouTube and Instagram TV as avenues for this sort of work.

Truly, the best part of designing marketing materials is it can get you excited about your own work! I usually get a rush of excitement when I design up a new promo because I can see my image on its own and I choose my most eye-catching pieces. It gets me stoked on my own work and reminds me that I have good images to show and offer the marketplace.

Perhaps you could design up some “leave behinds” for the various wedding venues you work with so that when couples ask them, “Do you know of any good photographers?” it’s your leave behind they hand out. For the portrait shooters, now is a great time to assess marketing campaigns for your target clients. Do some re-design as necessary and prepare materials for when things begin to pick up again.

#1. Build your marketing lists

For the commercial shooters: This is the time to revisit who you market to and see if they have responded to you in the past year. Perhaps you already have a marketing list that you’ve been working with for a while. Revisit it and assess how long you’ve been marketing to each contact and if there’s been any movement. Reassess how your work fits with their roster of clients. If you don’t have a marketing list, this is the time to build one because when it’s Go Time, you’ll be ready to get your materials out there for the buyers to see, and they will be seeing it with some fresh eyes after this slump in productivity.

There are various sites you can utilize that offer the service of contacts. Companies like Agency Access, or Wonderful Machine. But, if money is tight, you can do your own research. If editorial is your game, hit up the bookstore and start looking at the mastheads of the magazines and take note of who the Photo Editor and Art Directors are — perhaps they have an Art Buyer on staff.

Pro Tip: use your cellphone to take a snapshot of the masthead. I use an app called CamScanner (I use it mostly for receipts) and it’s nice because it takes the snapshot, but then optimizes it to pure black and white to clean it up. I just need clear type and this app cleans up the shot. Then I can take a batch of images and email a PDF to myself of all the mastheads in one document.

If direct-to-client is your game, your best friend is the internet and Google Sheets (or Excel if you prefer). Begin researching the various companies you’d like to shoot for. If there’s an About page or any web page that lets you peer into who is running the show, go there and begin cross referencing their name with LinkedIn to learn a bit more about that person, what they do, and if they are indeed the person who would respond to your direct mail or email marketing. Copy and paste their complete info into your spreadsheet. And repeat. No, this is not glamorous work, but if you put in the hours, and you market to them, you only need one job out of this work to pay for the time it took you to compile it. And chances are high it won’t just be one job you receive, if you consistently market quarterly to these contacts over time.

If the wedding/portrait industry is where you reside: Consider all the vendors you work with and how you can reach out to them and network. Perhaps they are hurting too. Now is the time to figure out how to collaborate. Consider offering them some behind-the-scenes imagery of their own process/craft in trade for cross marketing. What you are wanting to coordinate here is in the form of trades, and let’s illustrate this in a case study of a wedding caterer: Perhaps they are concerned because a wedding they have booked has decided, given the economic circumstances, to reduce their guest list from 200 to 50. You can offer to photograph them in their kitchen working on a few of their best looking, signature dishes, to help them flesh out a little social media marketing blast — and in trade, they will plug your insta link and website on all of their feeds. If they want the images on their website, you could limit the amount of images they use and require a “hotlink” embedded so that anyone visiting their site could click that link and it takes them directly to YOUR website as an organic hit.

This, of course, will require that you shoot for free, in trade, for this service — so it’s a controversial issue and I don’t recommend making this a habit, but perhaps there’s a vendor you work with who is hurting and you both could use the media boost and maybe they have tangible goods to trade as well. Maybe there’s a local artisan who was going to be providing handmade “guest goody bags” for the wedding guests, but finds that budget has now been slashed. In trade for some of their goods, and some links on their website and social media, you could photograph their creations. It might be enough to give you new grist for your mill (fulfilling Tip #5, #4 and #3 and #2), get you some feel good vibes to help each other out, keep you busy and creating, and keep the Google SEO happy with organic hits and true media exposure of not only what they offer, but what you offer. However, be careful because in some cases folks don’t know anything about social media, SEO, or hotlinks, and so you might find yourself having to do all that work, too. But, if it’s something you can do, and it’s going to benefit you — perhaps working with them will allow you to craft a blog post on their website that best serves them AND you, rather than if they do it half-heartedly and you don’t get what you need out of the trade.

I don’t recommend doing “free” work — but if there’s something transactional about this that scratches their back and yours, it can only benefit you in the end between web analytics and word-of-mouth. You have to be willing to be a Giver, not a Taker, and to craft the trade as mutually beneficial at this time, in the hopes of bringing in more work in the near future. Help each other.

Conclusion: Economic slumps can really be a bummer. This list assumes maybe you have some savings to keep you fed and the bills paid for a couple months. But, maybe you did not save for a rainy day, and you can’t realistically tackle any of these things because you need to figure out how to put food on the table. That is absolutely understandable, and a reality for this current situation. Do not feel bad one bit about taking a “job job” or something that seems like a step back. We all have to live and eat and photography is not going anywhere. It will be there for you when you are on your feet again and can dedicate time to it. I hope you don’t consider it a failing to take on a regular job of some kind to make ends meet. You are human. But, learn from this lesson and be sure to put into your future plans the “Rainy Day” fund. Because these slumps have happened before, and they will happen again, so be prepared for them.

Keep shooting, move some images into passive income streams, clean up your feeds, do some design work to get you excited about tooting your own horn, build your targeted lists so you have someone to whom to send your work, and consider trades to boost marketing efforts.

Stay strong my friends.

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  • Jeff McLain

    Jeff McLain is a photographer, videographer, digital technician, and location sound mixer. After his photography education, Jeff got his start as a freelance photo assistant in San Francisco working on editorial, catalog and advertising shoots. His skills in Photoshop and computing allowed him to help photographers bridge the gap between the film days and all-digital workflows, and he stood at the forefront of the advent of the career of the "Digital Technician." Jeff then moved laterally to video capture. Locally, he is the Director of Arrowroot Productions, LLC, a commercial videography business. His background as a multi-instrumental musician has also benefited his understanding of sound design and audio capture, which can be a technically challenging aspect of film-making. He is regularly called by filmmakers and television networks to record sound-for-video. He has been a freelancer for over 20 years and takes a 'real-world' approach to his perspective of the photographic and video industry and the skills needed in today's market.