Lesson 3: Take advantage of the oversupply and target your brand, your niche, your fans, your customers

BY Taylor Davidson | October 10th, 2008
Abundance, London, England, 2008

In Lesson 2 we discussed how demand has splintered and how photographers have an increasingly larger set of options for products, versioning and pricing. In Lesson 3 we’re going to address the other side of the market, the supply of photographers and images. How can a professional compete against the vast oversupply of photographers and images?

The basic economics of the photography industry have been absolutely, fundamentally, permanently upended, flattened by the democratization of the tools of the production [and distribution] and a shift in the technologies, mediums and methods of communication.

Technology has democratized access to the tools of production and distribution, leading to a surge of creators, squeezing the middle class of the industry; the long tail of photographers are getting squeezed.

We are seeing a massive mismatch of supply and demand; photographers have flooded the market with an oversupply of images created and distributed using mediums and based on economic models no longer in demand. (link)

Forget about fighting the market. Stand above the market and create your own.

Most photographers understand this; creative professionals have always innately understood the need to find a personal style, a personal vision and “something to be known for.”

What’s changed is the range of ways now available to define yourself; demand has fractured, product opportunities have expanded, the Internet has created and aggregated a wider range of niches. There are more routes to commercial and artistic success available than ever. And defining your route is even more important in a struggling, confused and down market; in down markets the mediocre get flattened and only the great succeed.

Find your niche.

Why?

Chase Jarvis says it perfectly:

“Try to speak to everyone, and you’ll speak to no one.”

“Try to please everyone, and you’ll please no one.”

Determine your goals, set your strategy, and then choose your tactics.

Copying tactics is not the route to success. Don’t confuse tactics with strategy. Don’t copy someone because it’s been successful for them; you’ll find it pretty hard to be great by simply choosing how someone else became great. The journey we take, not the destinations we reach, creates who we are; take your own journey.

Even though “everyone is a photographer” (or at least everyone thinks they are), not everyone defines what kind of photographer they are.

How should you determine what kind of photographer you are? How can you find your niche?

First, a step back.

Let’s take a slightly tangential step back. Expanding on the four kinds of free and the applicability to photographers covered in Lesson 2, there’s another framework to help us think about how photographers can create value outside of just our images.

Photographers suffer from a bit of the problem musicians face: once we put our content out on the market, it’s fairly easy to copy and redistribute (in at least some form). We lose our control over how our creative output is viewed, used and redistributed once we release it, copyright and rights management notwithstanding. And once content is easy to copy and redistribute without our control, it’s unlikely we’ll get paid for it.

It wasn’t always this way: controlling our negatives used to be a fairly reliable way of controlling the market supply of our prints, even if it was always possible to recreate prints without negatives. But it required some knowledge of the craft and access to somewhat specialized tools (e.g. darkrooms, enlargers). Now, with the advent of digital imaging, personal computers and the Internet, the tools are available to everybody.

The lesson: if you can’t stop content from being copied easily and distributed incredibly cheaply without your knowledge, it will probably happen, especially if you’re popular. Instead of trying to fight it, take advantage of it: use your easily copied content as a platform for creating additional value.

How?

  • Immediacy. Even if something can be copied, content can be differentiated by how and when it’s delivered. Imagine the difference between images delivered instantly over the web, or later in a hardbound book, or over time as a subscription, etc.
  • Personalization. Images that are available to everyone need not be the same. How can you personalize an image? Make it important to them; add a story that means something to your customer.
  • Interpretation. Critical analysis is an important part of art. Photographers have a vast potential to supply context to their work and themselves by providing interpretations to their fans and customers: portfolio reviews, support, critical analysis, etc.
  • Authenticity. Artists have always used and understood this concept; examples include limited, numbered versions of prints, autographs, signatures, proofs of authenticity.
  • Accessibility. Even if we can get a copy easily, we may not want to have it with us at all times. It’s a difficult concept to apply to a photographer, but it’s a fundamental part of many businesses serving photographers: security, organization, backups, hosting, file and rights management, etc.
  • Embodiment. There’s more to the images than just the image: there’s you. Make yourself available to people; give talks, exhibits, workshops, educational sessions, “performances”, autographs, share your time to provide portfolio reviews and critical thought to people’s ideas, whether it is about their images or just photography in general.
  • Patronage. Make “it” about more than just the image. Following up from the point above, create an intangible connection from your fans and customers. Support artists and their projects, connect, critique, advise, promote industry causes; being a patron of the community makes your content more important and more valuable.
  • Findability. There are a ton of images out there, but they’re poorly organized, difficult to find and hard to access. Be professional. Find the right way to sell yourself and your images, regardless of whether you have representation. Make you and your images easy to find, make yourself easy to deal with and use platforms that make it easy for people to find, search, view and buy from you without having to deal with you. Josh McCulloch is a perfect example how to do it. I happen to be a perfect example of how not to do it..

The exchange between an artist and a buyer often embodies much more than just an image, a print or a book. You create your “footprint” through everything you do and embody in the past, present and future. Buyers remember your footprint more than just your images. Clients remember the complete experience of a shoot and base future decisions on more than just the images you created. Collectors value what you mean to the industry, your popularity and your potential. Hobbyist enthusiasts buy from you because they know you, or because it’s a funny story how they met you, or because your image represents something meaningful to them. Relationships outside of the images matter. It doesn’t mean you have to be liked; sometimes it is more important to be respected than liked. But choose carefully how you create and manage relationships to fit the requirements of your niche.

So how do I choose a niche?

First, know yourself. In the frameworks covered in Lesson 2 and above, we’ve discussed a wide range of ways to create value. Some of these will appeal to you, your skills and interests, some won’t. Be yourself. Choose a niche that fits your goals in photography and in life.

What does it take to succeed?

  • Know your passion. Know your eye, your mind, your viewpoint and what you enjoy creating. We all see the world through our own biases; knowing how to use our biases to create our own interpretations is perhaps the key to finding a personal vision and style.
  • Know your goals. Not everyone wants to be a professional photographer: not everyone wants to put in the time, make the sacrifices to succeed as a professional. Different niches require different sacrifices, risks and ancillary life decisions. Being a conflict photographer requires a vastly different approach than a commercial product photographer, or a child portrait photographer, or an outdoor stock photographer.
  • Know your customer. Know how you make their lives better. Know how you’re solving their problems. Develop ways to solve problems they haven’t even realized yet.
  • Know your market and your competition. What are other people doing? What skills are they developing? How is the market changing? What opportunities are expanding or closing?
  • Target your passion to create the right products for your customer and go get them. Create your niche based on your passion, your goals, your products and your customers. Determine the best way to reach and connect with your fans and customers. Market relentlessly. Do not depend on people finding you, you have to go find them.
  • Sell. Learn. Adapt. Sell. Be consistent. Target your niche. Learn from your successes and failures and adapt your approach.

If this means you’re best at creating images for general interests (e.g. “postcard” photographers), use the do-it-yourself sites to create a range of products that amateurs and hobbyists like to purchase: postcards, t-shirts, greeting cards, calendars and coffee mugs, for example. Target your business to reach those people, learn about trade shows, retail outlets, product distribution, catalog marketing, etc.

If you have a geographical niche, market yourself heavily in your geography and create a range of products that focus on your area.

If you’re best at creating high-brow, conceptual art, then eschew many of the more commercial, general public routes and learn everything about exhibiting, publishing, grants, museums, etc.

If you’re great at shooting stock, then setup your entire business to focus on creating and promoting stock. Learn everything about the Internet, SEO, stock buyers, stock agencies, license terms, industry news and developments.

If you are best at commercial photography, figure out how people get established in the industry, meet other professionals, assist, intern, use the right equipment, set up a studiio, live in the right cities, network, etc.

If you’re best at teaching, critiquing or helping people, find ways to give people what they want. Go to school, get an MFA and teach. Give workshops and sell books to amateur photographers. Teach people how to use Photoshop, Lightroom, create websites and use cameras. Review and critique camera technology, write articles about industry trends, etc.

If you’re best at creating products or businesses based on photography, then go out and create the next SmugMug, Flickr, TinEye, Photojojo, Zoomr, Photoshelter, liveBooks, etc.

You get the picture. I don’t have the answer. You do.

At the end of the day, you want to be known as a leader in your area of expertise. For example: if someone asked about outdoor adventure photography, I would say check out Jimmy Chin. Or conflict photography: James Nachtwey. Or sports photography: Vincent Laforet. Or fine-art photography critique and analysis: Jorg Colberg. Or Chicago wedding photographey, or commercial product photography, or Nashville music photography, or Indian cultural photography, etc.

In the cases of the above, the fact that I named them doesn’t mean they are the absolute best, but that they’ve created their name, defined their mark, reached an audience and created their niche.

Oddly, the possibilities of running counter to trends are intriguing: instead of making more, make less. Be more exclusive, or mysterious, or harder to understand. Be available in less outlets, or harder to reach, or anonymous. Or show off your flexibility and target multiple niches or create multiple businesses. But in all of those cases, be known and appealing specifically because of your counter-cyclical decisions.

But in whatever you decide to do, make it a conscious decision.

In the Introduction, we talked about the general photography industry, in Lesson 1 we discussed the changing nature of demand, in Lessons 2 and 3 we covered demand and supply and talked about how to determine your product decisions. In Lesson 4 (early next week), we’ll dig into how to market and reach your customers…

Introduction: Five Lessons: How Photographers can Create New Business Models