Making a Living in Photography in the Age of Social Media

After finding myself in yet another strange new world last week, I began to reflect on the future of photography and steps necessary to protect the profession we love.

The other night I went to a promotional event for a well known fitness brand. Not the biggest name in the market, but large enough to afford some rather posh retail space in higher rent districts of major cities for their stores to thrive. A growing company with an upscale product. Perusing the shelf, I noticed a pair of sweatpants coming in at a healthy $130.

How I was invited is somewhat unbeknownst to me. I am a commercial fitness and activewear photographer. I’ve been banging on this particular company’s metaphorical door for a couple years now. Sending promos pieces and cold calls in their direction. I like the brand and would love an assignment. But this particular invite wasn’t to fulfill a brief. I was strictly there as a guest.

They were offering a free fitness class and mini-reception at one of their stores in an upstairs fitness studio that I didn’t even know existed. Being both a fitness fanatic and a cheap bastard, the offer of free sweat generation was too much to pass by. I also figured it might be a good time to do a bit of networking, unintentionally intentionally dropping my own name and photographic specialty into every conversation just in case it might somehow make its way into the right set of ears.

I didn’t really know what to expect and the invite was a bit vague. But it was a Thursday night, and my internet (and thus Netflix) was on the blink, so my remaining options were digging into my DVD collection or going out for a bit of adventure. I chose the latter.

Once it was confirmed that my name was on the guest list, I ascended the stairs to the area reserved for the reception. The room was filled with people mulling about and looking over the company’s products as well as those of separate vendors brought in for the event. Freebies were everywhere, including a fresh workout outfit with my name on it, already prepared at the designated dressing stand. The new clothes were a decided upgrade over my own makeshift combination of sweat-worthy attire which looks great in my home gym but are admittedly not runway ready.

As I emerged from the dressing room to begin my meet-and-greet, I was struck by two things right away. First, the room was filled with women. And while I don’t think it’s a good idea to objectify other human beings, it was impossible not to notice that every one of the attendees (other than myself) was incredibly photogenic. Have you ever paid attention to the background extras in a Hollywood movie’s depiction of “real life” and wondered if the casting director had simply stopped by the local modeling agency to request the use of their roster? Well, apparently those Hollywood scenes do happen in real life, and I had just walked into one. It was also hard not to notice the gender imbalance given that, other than the sole male employee of the store, mine was the only Adam’s apple present in the room.

And yes, I will state for the record, being the only man in a room full of beautiful women is not necessarily my idea of a bad day. Although I will admit that I did wonder for a few moments whether I was really meant to be invited to this event at all or whether the company had mistaken the name Christopher for Christina when they put me on the list.  

On a side note, it also felt a bit strange being the only man in a room full of beautiful women wearing skin tight clothing and not think to myself that many of the women probably assumed me to be some sort of pervert just there to stare at the pretty girls. I know that wasn’t the case. I was there to workout and network, not to glare. But, still, I was walking on eggshells for those first few moments, keeping my eyes firmly affixed on the ceiling, and being extra careful not to bump into someone without looking and suggest my intentions were anything but honorable.

The second thing I noticed is that at least half of the attendees were holding semi-pro cameras and/or spending the bulk of the pre-workout time taking selfies. I also began to recognize more than a handful of these faces were “Insta-famous.” Some were fitness trainers I’d followed on Instagram and had stolen a workout tip or two from. Some others were fitness models who I knew via other fitness models with whom I had previously worked. 

As I began to introduce myself around the room, I did realize that they all had one major thing in common. They all had a lot more social media followers than me. Not that this is a particularly difficult feat. I only just learned what a hashtag was within the last year. And I’ve never put a large emphasis on the number of social media followers that I have, instead focusing my marketing efforts far more on a targeted approach towards specific individuals within my market. That’s not to say that mine is the correct strategy. It’s just what is most efficient for my personal goals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t lead to having 500,000 followers on Instagram, which I was quickly learning from my conversations at the party seemed to be the lower limit for the other attendees in the room.

It quickly became clear that I’d somehow made my way into an influencer event. There was a reason why every one of the guests was both so photogenic and skilled with their selfie game. This was obviously part of the company’s marketing strategy. Invite in social media influencers with a large following. Dress them head-to-toe in your product. And let their need to be constantly posting and adding to their Instagram stories take care of the rest. Without spending a dime (other than leveraging a bit of free product), the company has effectively done over a hundred or so individual photo shoots that will reach over a hundred or so marketing outlets (the influencer’s feeds) in one night. And they’ve done all of this without having to hire a photographer or pay the models. Brilliant return on investment for them, major marketing challenge for those of us who make our living creating customized photography for companies like this.

This company is hardly alone and this is by no means an isolated example of this technique. A least half of the comments I get from startup brands on my own Instagram are from companies wanting to “collaborate.” In other words, they want me to take professional level pictures of their products, post them all over my feed, allow them to post them on their feed, all in the name of “exposure.”

And even many larger companies have invested heavily in an influencer marketing approach in lieu of larger professional campaigns. It’s not illogical. As print and other traditional media continue to decline in prominence and the influence of social media grows, a marketer’s job continues not to be to create art, but to reach customers. If customers are gravitating towards social media, then marketers need to reach them on social media. While a traditional global campaign may need to fill a certain number of billboards, paid pages in a magazine, or thirty seconds of airtime, social media’s thirst for new content is insatiable. For smaller companies, the financial costs of acquiring all of that content via assignments can be prohibitive, adding all the more luster to the idea of getting your customers to advertise your product for you.  

The concept itself isn’t even completely new. It’s the same reason why certain brands plaster the company’s name across the back of their jackets or offer you free decals with their logos to presumably stick to the back of your laptop. They make money from your purchase and then turn you into a literal walking billboard. The rise of the internet and social media marketing has simply allowed this tactic to accelerate at warp speed.

There’s no use in trying to put that genie back in the bottle. It makes too much fiscal sense for marketers to continue down this path. But what do we as photographers, who make our living creating assets for these companies, do in the face of this new outlet competing for our client’s marketing dollar?

Well, as in all things business, step number one is to remember that you are in business. And how do you stay in business, whether you are a photographer or a gardener? You provide value. If you want to charge more money, don’t start by offering more product for less. Make sure that the value of the product you are offering is valuable to your customer.

So why is a professional photographer valuable? Is it because you can take a photograph that is in focus, in color, and of high resolution? No, anyone with enough money to buy even a basic digital camera can do that these days. Thinking you are professional because you can afford a “professional” camera is no recipe for success.

Is it because every now and then you take a really good photo? Well, no. Even a busted clock is right twice per day. By the law of averages, if you shoot enough you’ll get one really good shot in there somewhere. But can you do that every time? Are you, even on your worst day, still capable of producing a superior product to what they can get from your competition?

What separates a professional photographer is not what gear he or she may have, or their ability to take a good shot occasionally. What separates a professional photographer is dependability. What separates a professional photographer is repeatability. What separates a professional photographer is being battle tested and knowing that when things go pear-shaped that you will still find a way to get the client the asset they need to succeed. You’re not paid the big bucks to take pictures. You’re paid the big bucks not to fall apart under pressure.

I was recently in a meeting with an art producer discussing the pressure that even they feel from their own bosses to hire photographers based on social media following rather than experience and talent. Again, the thinking of some clients being that what they are buying is the following, not the photographs. The art producer mentioned how, time and time again, this approach has backfired. Sure the influencers they hired could run and gun and use filters, but what about sourcing talent beyond their immediate group of friends, negotiating contracts, getting city permits, bringing the most out of on-screen talent, legal boundaries, how to adjust when weather conditions were adverse, or being able to control light to match a very specific brief?  

To be sure, some influencers are also amazing and professional photographers. The two things are not mutually exclusive. This essay is in no way meant to demean someone just because they are really good at social media. And being able to offer a ready-made following is a business asset worth noting. But, if you are shooting for a company who is devoting $50,000 or $100,000 to a photoshoot, more comes into play than just your social media reach.

And more comes into play than simple technology. You not only need to know how to take a clean professional picture. You need to know how to repeat that picture or make minuet alterations to it in order to satisfy your client’s needs. In most cases, you’ll need to be able to do it right there, on set, on the spot in front of dozens of suits, without relying on excessive post production (unless, of course, heavy post production is part of the brief, as in the case of planned composites). You need to have a complete understanding of not only the exposure triangle, but accurate budgeting, permitting, clearances, and legal concerns that your clients will face. You need to have access to top talent and resources that can add to the project and reinforce a positive client experience.

And, most importantly, you need to know not only how to take a picture, but you need to know how to create “the” picture. Your voice as a photographer is far more important than technique. Technique can be learned with practice and a handful of YouTube videos. Therefore, it can be imitated. If it can be imitated, and that technique is all you have going for you, they can always find someone cheaper to do the same thing. Your voice, on the other hand, is developed over decades of life experiences and is the one thing you have to offer that cannot be copied by an algorithm or replicated by someone willing to undercut your rates.

It’s a challenge for sure. We are living in a time of monumental structural change to our industry. We are living in a time where what was once one of our strengths, knowing the magic mathematical adjustments required to obtain correct exposure in the film days, can now be accomplished by almost anyone with an entry level camera or even a phone. Yes, I realize that the “best” exposure isn’t always the same as what the camera meter says is the “correct” exposure, but we also live in a world where fewer and fewer of our clients know the difference. Or, they do know the difference, but their budgets are spread so thin that they have to take shortcuts to keep up with demands for content. 

Of course, just because the event I was attending was filled with cameras, doesn’t mean any of the images were actually any good. Given my own limited social media count, the only reason I can think that I was even invited to the event is that someone at the company thought it might be smart to invite some professional photographers into the mix as well as influencers, and decided to Google activewear photographers and my name came up. Either that, or they already knew the name from my past promotional efforts. Likely, they were hoping that the photographers they invited would be compelled to bring their cameras and create premium commercial grade images of the event and product and post the images on our feeds for the brand to then repost to its own feed and, bingo, pro photography for free.  

I didn’t bring my camera, just like those invitations to “collaborate” with brands on social media go largely unanswered, because I personally feel that if I’m going to promote your brand, you should pay for it. That is, after all, what I am in business to provide, so giving it away for free doesn’t make a great deal of mathematical sense. Hopefully that doesn’t suggest that I think I am Annie Leibovitz, but my work does have value.  Yours does too. And, if we don’t stick to that value, we will quickly find ourselves out of business.

The answer is not to devalue ourselves with free or discounted work. The solution is to continue to build on and improve the value proposition you are offering to your customer. Make your work so amazing and consistently amazing that your clients understand the difference between you and the next photographer, influencer, or otherwise. Improve your skill set and product offerings.  

When Coca-Cola wants to add market share, they introduce new products like Diet Coke, or Cherry Coke, or other variations. What skill sets do you currently have that you can build upon in order to secure added market share? How about adding video, or stop motion, or another complimentary service. Maybe a social media influencer can provide a steady stream of candid shots of their above average looking friends doing fun and potentially viral things. And, because of their following, they provide the client with a built in audience for the advertisement. But you are not without your own set of weapons. You can provide a higher level of customer service, experience, a professional approach and a more streamlined purchasing process. You can also provide peace of mind for buyers with a large investment riding on the project based less on clicks and more on experience and positive word-of-mouth from previous clients.

The market has changed and will continue to do so, regardless of your industry. The only question left is, what do you plan to do about it?