Update Your Business Profile
Professional editors desire to work with equally professional photographers. All too often, talented artists forget/forego the business side of the equation. Make sure your online presence is commensurate with your photographic skill. Register your domain name, create an email address tied to that domain, and set up at least a basic website. This advice may sound like Business 101, but you’d be surprised at the number of photographers reaching out from a personal Hotmail account and a public photo hosting-site URL. It’s immediately off-putting in the sense that if the individual has yet to establish their business properly, how experienced will they be in practice on that first assignment?
Place your contact information (phone, email, location) visible on the site. A web form for email isn’t sufficient. Editors need a source from which to cut and paste your information into their contact database of choice. Further, forms rarely generate an error like a traditional email client should an address bounce. Many hesitate to list email addresses due to potential spam collection, but my response to that is “get a better spam filter.” Most opportunities arise on relatively short notice; give the editors the option to call. If editors have to work to get ahold of you, it’s likely lost business. With location, your aspiration may be “available for assignments worldwide,” but most editors are probably looking to work with you, at least for the first time, in your backyard. Add similar contact information to any social media profiles. These often-overlooked steps make it all the easier for editors to find and contact you.
See where you place in search results when Googling your name + “photographer” and have friends in different geographical locations do the same. Search engine optimization is beyond the scope of this article, but put in the work to learn SEO best practices if you place far down the list of search results or if other, similarly named photographers rank higher. We’re not talking about leading for search terms in “photography”; we’re talking about people already knowing your name from a credit line or a colleague and wanting to contact you.
Finally, I recommend adding a brief bio and a self-portrait with a bit of personal style, as both will speak a little more to your personality and how you might, in turn, represent the extension of the publication or brand when the editor sends you on assignment. Further, it helps the editor to match you to the project at hand. Access is a fundamental key to photography, and your overall presence goes a long way to ensuring the trust of your potential photographic subjects.
When gathering and curating photos to represent your work, remember that less is often more. Ten to 20 images for a genre are plenty to give the editor a feel for your style. Further, portfolios, like chains, are only as strong as the weakest link; bloating collections of great photography with lesser-quality images draws the whole set down. Editing is a constant challenge for any photographer, myself included, as we’re tied emotionally to our work. Seek help from fellow photographers and editors to help pare down and prepare your work portfolio.
Building New Connections
Now that you’ve created and curated your business profile, it’s time to get to work seeking new connections and opportunities. Collect the names of directors of photography, photo editors or those in other relevant positions. Brands and advertising firms may not be directly forthcoming with staff names on their websites, but you can often search “art buyer/art producer + XYZ brand/agency” and locate interviews or campaign mentions in trade magazines or similar places where these staff are listed. Build a list of potential clients where your work might be a solid fit.
Prioritize those initial contacts. Targeted efforts of individually curated work will always generate more interest than generic portfolios blasted out to large lists. Busy editors will always appreciate a bit of proper preparation. Take the time to research your client, and do your best to ensure you’re a good fit. Sadie Quarrier, senior photo editor at National Geographic, is always surprised by the number of promotional efforts she receives featuring glossy portraiture or high-end food photography, far out of line with the needs of the legendary storytelling brand.
“New photographers reaching out to me always start by sending/showing a bunch of single great frames,” notes Quarrier, “so right from the beginning I always explain, ‘If you want a story assignment here, please start with sending examples of three stories where you did a deep dive into a topic.’ We’re looking for visual variety, a unique eye, an arresting, in-depth coverage of a topic, etc.”
If pitching a particular story project or photo set, make sure that publication hasn’t just run a similar story in recent months, often a common mistake by budding freelancers. It quickly exposes to the editor that you don’t read their publication on a regular basis and thus may not understand their brand.
Bringing well-researched story ideas or partially/fully executed photo projects is a fantastic way to get noticed. Creative ideas for new stories or campaigns are highly prized, as compelling content sells itself. My mentor, Rich Clarkson, former director of photography at National Geographic, used to quote a former colleague who once lamented, “I’m up to my elbows in great photographers, but I’m only up to my ankles in great ideas.” Whether it’s a new idea or a fresh angle and approach to an often-covered subject matter, research and preparation are key.
“The most recent new photographer that I’m working with, I’ve been friends with for years,” adds Quarrier. “He came to me in January with a very compelling story idea. It’s a great fit for his strengths and connections, and a good fit story-wise for us. He was already on a grant for the project, so I reviewed his initial selects, gave feedback on what I liked, as well as what I’d like to see him examine more fully.”
Once you’ve made that initial contact, try to strike a reasonable balance to stay in touch. Correspond perhaps quarterly with updates on where you are, and representations of compelling new work are sufficient to remain on the radar. Be sensitive to the editor’s time and the volume of pitches and new contacts they likely receive on a daily basis. Once-a-month contact is likely the most frequent you should strive for before your contacts shift from informative to nuisance.
As photographers have turned to low-cost digital marketing, tangible print mailers are once again offering a great way to stand out above the endless waterfall of new emails. “I think the best promos can be simply ones that let your work speak boldly, so on nice paper and large sizes,” says Marv Watson, photography specialist at Red Bull Photography. “I’ve seen some magazine-size promos recently, which still sit on my desk, one of which is often picked up by colleagues, as it’s appealing to flick through a magazine. It’s only 26 pages, with 24 images, but definitely looks attractive and keeps that photographer’s work in my mind.”
Keep an eye out for open portfolio reviews hosted by brands, publications and associations (American Society of Media Photographers, National Press Photographers Association, etc.) or similar industry events, too. Entering contests, especially major ones like PDN Photo Annual and World Press Photo, gets a broad range of decision-making eyeballs on winning entries. Finally, multi-day workshops that feature established photographers and working editors have launched many careers. Spending some days in close company at a seminar gives editors and established professionals a way to get to know you as a person, your personality, your sharpness, your organization, etc., in ways far beyond your marketing efforts or a short in-person meeting. [Editor’s Note: Wilhelm spent years running a high-end workshop, and I’ve seen numerous people land jobs through the connections made at these seminars.] In the end, they’re hiring and entrusting you as an individual, not just your photographic talents, with their publication/brand and hard-earned budgets.
Beyond your artistic gifts as a creative photographer, rising to the top and staying afloat in a crowded marketplace will require careful planning and ongoing diligence. Rejections are common, but they’re a necessary step on the path to a long photographic career.
Brett Wilhelm is a photographer, videographer and technology specialist working for a variety of national clientele, including ESPN’s X Games, Red Bull, the NCAA and The New York Times. He specializes in action/adventure sports and environmental storytelling. Visit Wilhelm’s website at wilhelmvisualworks.com.