How to Stand Out as a Professional Photographer

Updated: March 2, 2022

At Rocky Mountain School of Photography we train students to be professional photographers. But a successful career is built on more than a great education. It involves continuous striving to create images that are unique and that stand out. We asked one of our instructors, adventure photographer Michael Clark, about the techniques he uses to make his own work stand out from that of other professional photographers. In the article below Michael gives us his 5 TOP TIPS for standing out.

Standing out from the crowd as a photographer is a difficult task, but there is more to standing out than just creating solid images. In my twenty-five years working as a professional photographer, I have tried just about everything possible to get my work noticed. As a one-person business, as is the case for most photographers, it is a long-term marketing endeavor to build your career. In business, nothing happens overnight. Whatever successes you have will always be the result of hard work and smart strategies.

The image above entailed some serious work lugging in hundreds of pounds of gear to this remote location. Because of the extreme effort involved, and the world-class athlete shown here, it is highly unlikely that anyone will be able to copy this image or any of the images created on this assignment.

Improving your skills as a photographer is an important process no matter where you are along the career path. For those that have been through the RMSP Professional Intensive program, you are much farther along that learning curve than most photographers starting their careers. Indeed, those that have gone through Professional Intensive are years ahead of where I was when I started out. But the reality is that for any professional photographer, the learning never stops if you want to stay successful. Here in this article I am going to list a variety of ways that will help photographers separate themselves and their work from the masses. Let’s dive in.

Create images that are different.

What most photographers fail to realize is that it all starts with the product they are trying to sell. If the products, in this case the images, are not better or different than what is already in the market then it is a hard sell to get a client to hire you over someone they have already been working with.

Creating work that is better than what is already out there is extremely difficult — especially if you are working on a national or international level. Depending on what you photograph and how much control you have over the situation it might be extremely difficult or relatively easy to create something new and different. I would not advise worrying if your work is better than that produced by other photographers, but I would suggest trying to create work that is different. And because it is different, that will set you apart and make prospective clients sit up and take notice. Of course, this new different work also has to be good, not just different.

This multiple exposure image above, created in a studio setting, was the result of experimenting with the multiple exposure settings in my camera and also figuring out how to make this scenario work. While this image was shot for a client on an assignment, I tried out this process on a personal portfolio shoot a few months prior to this assignment. It is not as if this type of image has never been created before, but it has only been produced by a few photographers on rare occasions.

The process of creating work that is different and unique will massively help out your marketing efforts, but be aware this is an ongoing process and you will have to continue to come up with new and different images every few years — if not more often. What I have seen happen is that when someone comes up with a new successful style, hundreds of other photographers copy that style. This is just part of the game. Hence, I do not recommend chasing any certain style. You do you. Follow your creative process and let your work arrive somewhere different without copying someone else’s style. As an example, if you are using complex lighting or some other difficult process to create new and different images, then that will hold back the masses from trying to copy what you are doing because there is a barrier to entry — which in this example could be the gear and/or the difficulty of pulling off those images.

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How do you know if your work is different than what is already out there on the market? As a working professional photographer, a big part of your job is educating yourself on photography and the photography industry. Part of your job is to look at thousands upon thousands of images from a wide range of sources — not just Instagram. By looking at a wide range of photography, and especially hundreds, if not thousands, of images pertaining to the subject you are currently crafting images of and educating yourself on what has been shot already you will have a good sense of how your images fit into the larger picture. This is critical not just in your own education and growth as a photographer, but also when it comes to marketing. Another good indicator will be how effective your marketing is when you start to shop around your new work.

Set aside time for portfolio shoots.

So, the big question is, how do we come up with these new and different images? The answer is to set up personal shoots for your own portfolio. These portfolio shoots are ones that you set up and shoot on your own time and your own dime. You are your own client. I highly suggest you treat these portfolio shoots with the same, if not even more, importance than any assignments from actual clients. This is how I started out my career — it was a long series of personal portfolio shoots that eventually led to assignments.

Just a few years ago I spent three days working on my portrait techniques. I asked twenty or more friends to come in for a one-hour portrait shoot and I tried to mix it up with different lighting styles and techniques that I had never used before. Some of the portraits were quite successful and others, while still solid portraits, just didn’t live up to my expectations. But I learned a lot over the course of those three days. Above are two of my favorites from this portfolio session. The left image is an in-camera double exposure.

If you are looking to improve your photography, and also create something different, then you will have to experiment and really push yourself to shoot in different ways than you have in the past. To get different results you have to work in different ways than you are used to.

Be prepared to fail.

If you are working in different ways, as we discussed in the last section, then you will also have to be prepared to fail. Failing is just part of learning. If you know going into a shoot that some things are not going to work out, that can set your mind at ease. I learn way more from my failures than I do from successes. Remember, these are personal shoots where you can experiment. Once you have figured out whatever new technique you have experimented with — and have perfected it to some degree — that is when you can take that technique and use it on an actual assignment.

Years ago, I set up this ice climbing shoot to test out some new lighting techniques. I had no idea if I could get it to work or what it would actually look like in the end. This was one of the images we created on that portfolio shoot and it basically ignited a whole new way of working. This image is also one of the most successful experiments both visually and financially so far in my career. This image isn’t exactly what I was trying to create, but it was close — and it was so different from anything else on the market that it made a lot of clients sit up and take notice. I went back two more times and created different images at the same spot to perfect the technique further and that has paid off incredibly well in terms of getting new clients and new assignments.

I would even go so far as to say that if you are not failing on your portfolio shoots, then you are not pushing hard enough. Creating solid images that are different than what is out there is still no easy task. By setting up and doing these portfolio shoots on a regular basis you will also grow as a photographer and grow your work.

Be professional.

In terms of being a professional photographer, a huge part of standing out from the crowd is actually being professional. It is pretty easy to be professional. Basically, just do what you said you were going to do. You would be amazed how many photographers fail to come through and deliver to the client what they need. I hear stories all the time from photo editors and art buyers that the photographer didn’t deliver the images on time or within the specs they were given — or that they never sent the images at all. Hence, by being dependable, easy to work with, clear and specific in your contracts and communications, and by following through and delivering images that are up to snuff for the client — or even better than they were expecting — you will make a great impression. They may love the images, but if you were easy to work with and came through with flying colors they will not forget that any time soon.

Part of being professional is also how you dress, how you present yourself, how you act with those working with you and how you work with the people you are photographing. If you are a tyrant with your assistants, that makes being on set an uncomfortable place for your client and everyone else as well. If you are overly anxious about pulling off the assignment, then that sends a message as well. You need to be confident in your skills and treat everyone you work with in a professional and courteous manner.

Under promise and over deliver.

“Under promise and over deliver” is a catch phrase from the retail world, but it applies to photography — and every sales situation — just as aptly as it does in the retail world. When you do get that dream assignment (or any assignment for that matter), don’t promise the Sun and Moon in the pre-production phone calls. Make sure whatever you promise in those initial discussions you can actually pull off. Even better, if you have wild ideas for things you would like to try on this upcoming assignment, you might mention some possibilities but not outline them in full detail. Once on the assignment, after you have created the “safe” images that the client requested, save some time to experiment a bit and create some images that they did not ask for. That will go a long ways to solidify your relationship with that client and most likely they will remember you for going above and beyond the next time they need to hire a photographer.

On an assignment for the Angel Fire Ski Resort, after we created a variety of skiing and snowboarding images the client asked for, I went about creating this image with a couple of strobes. The client was helping me out and skiing around the resort with me. When they saw this image on the back of the camera, it was like nothing they had ever seen before. They have become a repeat client over the years because I continually create new and different images for them.

Wrapping up, what I haven’t said here is that only a very small percentage of those chasing a career in photography ever make it actually happen. It comes down to how badly you want it, how hard you are willing to work, whether or not you can deal with the ups and downs of a freelance career and a myriad of other factors. If you are serious about making a career in this field then you will no doubt put the above advice into practice.


  • Michael Clark

    Michael Clark is an internationally published outdoor photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images of rock climbers, mountaineers, kayakers, and mountain bikers in remote locations around the world. He uses unique angles, bold colors, strong graphics and dramatic lighting to capture fleeting moments of passion, gusto, flair and bravado in the outdoors. Balancing extreme action with subtle details, striking portraits and wild landscapes, he creates images for the editorial, advertising and stock markets worldwide. As a former physicist Michael has worked on both sides of the technical revolution – helping refine the technology and using it for his current profession. Michael has worked as a professional photographer since 1996. He has been featured in Digital Photo Pro, Outdoor Photographer, Nikon World Magazine, Digital Photographer, Rangefinder Magazine, and New Mexico Magazine for his work with extreme sports. Digital Photo Pro proclaimed Michael a "Master of Adventure" Photography” in their 2011 Masters issue. He contributes to National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photo Pro, Climbing, Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Bike Magazine and The New York Times among many others.