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Personal and Professional Fears

Lesson 3 from: Building a Successful Photography Business in a Small Market

Clay Cook

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Lesson Info

3. Personal and Professional Fears

Lesson Info

Personal and Professional Fears

Generosity is the key to success, but fear can be the biggest barrier, I think, you know, the one thing throughout my entire career is that I've had to overcome a series of fears, I've had to overcome a series of barriers, and it was important for me to push past those to get to this next level. While relationships are at the core, and of course helping others can fast track opportunities, fear can be a massive hurdle for you in your overall growth. So I found these in that survey to be sort of the top five fears of the average artist, so let's break these down, and go through them. Failure, I think that all of us are terrified to fail. Fail as an artist, fail as a business, this is something that we're, as human beings, we're terrified of, but just remember, fear is nothing more than just a state of mind, regret is worse than failure. This past year, it was in May, I recently had the opportunity to work with an NGO on the grounds in Iraq, the NGO focused on helping people restore thei...

r lives after they've been displaced by ISIS, so we were working with a lot of religious minorities that had been pushed out of their homes, overnight by the Islamic state. And so I almost turned down the project, because I had the fear of death. Would I be willing to die for photography, would I be willing to go into this crazy scenario and do this, and I'm so glad that I did it, because I truly believe that I would have likely regretted that decision for the rest of my life if I had not gone, so regret is always worse than failure. Many of us are afraid of the opinions of others. And scared to face the feedback, that's, you know, that's a common thing especially in the world of media these days. We post a photo and we're like, hopefully we get positive feedback, but what happens if you get that negative feedback, you know, it can really push you down. I think you just have to get the mentality, of you just don't care what other people think, you do you, be unique to you, and be proud of it, it's okay to live a life that other people don't understand. You know, I have to think of like, what did photographers do before social media? They just did what they loved, you know, they didn't care what other people thought, I mean, so don't conform your photography to what other people think, you do you, be unique to you, that's a very important stand above that social noise. Not earning enough, so some of us have family, I know this is a big thing with being a photography business, some of us don't, like me, I can barely take care of my dog, (laughs) but we all need to eat and we all have to put money on the table, of course, some way or another, and many of us are afraid that photography can't sustain a good life, I think that's a big fear. So if you're not earning enough to make ends meet, change your approach, totally change everything. In 2016, when I felt that my brand sort of hit this plateau, I changed everything in my life, I rebranded my photography, I rebranded my image, how I looked, I rebranded my business. And in 2017 this year I doubled my annual revenue because of that, so, if you kind of hit a plateau, you're like where am I, change your approach, do something way different, drastically different, you fail, great, you learn how to do it again, you know, you are worth it. Be confident in your product and value your identity and who you are, it's very important. I think as photographers, we often look for others for inspiration, but that can often backfire, when we see another photographer's work, I know that when I look at a few particular photographers, my colleagues, it'll just send me into a day of depression, just like, oh my gosh, they're so good. I'll never be this good, one glance at their work, I'm just like, forever. But you know, if you're at a cross roads, and you see those photographers, then let it motivate you, you know, what did they do to get there, you know, ask for help, never stop learning, and never stop creating, you never want to be in your comfort zone, or stuck in your comfort zone. If you don't know what you're doing, you're probably doing it right. (laughs) It's true, I've been on many sets, and like, I don't know what's going on, but you know, I'm going to do my best, I'm going to make this work, and I felt uncomfortable, and it was a lot of times it produces some of the best results. Saying no, the word no can be an extremely important asset, extremely powerful asset. I think unfortunately as photographers and entrepreneurs we don't often look at the big picture, especially when we're set within financial parameters, learn to say no, that's really important. Look at the picture and sort of seek the long game, saying no to a small job will brand you as more expensive, and put you in a caliber for the big jobs, it also gives you opportunity to focus more on your objectives, rather than the objectives of others. So that might include personal projects, and many personal projects have led me to big jobs. Many of the traveling stuff I've done, for example, I'll tell you a story, I did this project in Iraq that I told you about, and I got a phone call about two weeks after it and it was from A&E networks, and A&E networks said they loved that project so much that they wanted me to do production photography for a couple of their upcoming TV shows, and so I've done two big projects for A&E just because of the project that I did in Iraq, and it's crazy to think that if this little thing happens and I didn't overcome this fear, then I would've never had that opportunity, and of course they were good budgets, I made good money on it, so, focus on your objectives first, everything else, come later. I love this quote, I live by it. "If you're offered a seat on the rocket ship, don't ask what seat, just get on." By Sheryl Sandberg she's the CEO of Facebook. You guys got to put in all your cards, put all your cards into play, and risk it all. What are you willing to sacrifice for photography? I always say like, you've got to be obsessed with your craft, you really do. You've got to do it because you love it, not because you're paid for it, you know, you've got to really love it, you've got to put everything into it. When I first started photography, my friend Chris and I, we used to trespass on private property a lot, don't tell anyone, and I used to obviously experiment with creative compositions such as this dutch tilt here, (laughs) but we made a point to do it all the time. You know, we took risks. This is me, year one in my small office, in my first studio, it was like my living room transformed into some sort of working space, I had only a video light and a couple of small tools to point shoot something every single day. I did something every single day, whether it was just me or in this case, I would usually light test with my roommate, he actually looks thrilled to be in this photograph as you can tell, but I used beer to barter with him, you know, but this was an exciting moment for me because this was the moment when I had just discovered off camera flash for the first time, you know, I learned everything really organically, you know, there's not, when I first started, there wasn't as many educational resources out there, so I had to kind of do everything based on failure, and so funny story with this is that I knew that you could have a speed light attached to your camera with a TTL cable, one of those like, funky coiled cables, and... I wanted to you know, take it further, than what the cable could extend to, and of course, further than my arms reach, so I'd set up a light stand and like bring that coil like way back, as far as I could, to get it as, you know, far away from my camera as possible, and I'd go into the camera store, and I'm like, hey man, so do you have like, a 50 foot TTL cable? (laughs) And they're like, here's some wireless radio triggers, this is, you know, technology has come this far, I'm like, mind blow. And it just opened so many doors for me, at that moment. As a young photographer I put pretty much everything I owned into photography at first, I produced a lot of creative projects over the years, and one of my first was a project called the Gaga series, I put everything into it, because the more risk you take, the more reward, because reward is in the risk. So the Gaga series was a concept based upon the songs of Lady Gaga. I partnered with a little based makeup artist, and over a period of two years, I'm sorry, two months, we created a series of seven sets with custom, obviously, photographs, locations, hair, makeup, props, models. And every set was it's own unique sort of song. I invested thousands of dollars into it, because I had to, at the time, pay the models, rent these props, sometimes pay locations, pay hair, pay makeup, whatever I had to do, I also invested hours and hours into the project, but it was actually the Gaga series that got me my first paid publication job, so I always say, you know, the reward lies in the risk, and creativity will always lead to clients. Think differently, find your niche, and be versatile. So the photography landscape is just filled with noise, it's really hard these days, I think our feeds are crammed with people fighting for, fighting for notice, they're fighting for you know, their opinion on whatever topic they choose to share, as a visual artist, I think that you need to really think differently to stand out, be unique to you, in whatever market that you choose to call home. So find a niche, and be an expert in that, but it's also important to be very versatile. In a small market, or medium sized market. So when I first got into photography, I was experimenting with all sorts of different types of photography, everything I could, so that if I got a call, for let's say, hey we want to shoot this portrait of this person, but we also need like, some architectural shots of his business, and so they would call upon me, and of course, I could pull off the job, so experiment as much as you possibly can, with all sorts of different types of photography, so that you're versatile, now that's not all the photography you want to share, of course, you don't share any of that, you want to market yourself, as a niche, an expert, really good photography in one sort of particular topic, particular sort of type of photography. So for example, I had this publication called Pro Sales Magazine, Pro Sales Magazine is a trade publication, that focused on businesses, equity, things of that nature, pretty boring stuff, really, but we were working with this brand called US LBM Holdings, which is a, basically, a company out of Chicago that buys up companies, flips them, or buys companies and does whatever they can with them to make it bigger, so anyway, I was hired by Pro Sales Magazine to shoot the CEO that had just acquired this lumber company, and so what I did was okay, here's a company that just acquired this lumber company, I'm hired by this editorial and they just need one portrait of this guy, so I see an opportunity here, so I went out at sunrise and I photographed the lumberyard of which they just purchased, I went at sunrise, photographed the employees, photographed as many people as I could, of course. And I ended up licensing that imagery to US LBM Holdings for ten times what the magazine paid me to shoot the editorial of the CEO. So again, this comes into the play of being versatile and knowing how to photograph sunrise photograph editorial content, photograph these sort of images, and these campaigns that people can use and license, if need be, and so I got paid twice, for one job.

Ratings and Reviews

Koko Hunt

I love Clay Cook, his stories and his teaching method. He is genuine and to the point. This class is very concise and easy to follow; it touches on basic yet important points that are practical and useful. He provides good insights into commercial photography business for a small market, using some good, benchmarkable examples.


Clay Cook gets into the nitty gritty of the business side of photography. He is super informative and confidently concise about his knowledge and experience in the industry. As a modestly-small business owner, I found this course to be insightful and motivating. It is very helpful, and I highly recommend it!


I really appreciate how he just lays out numbers. I think that's super helpful for the industry as a whole, and it sets some perspective of how much guac photographers can really make.

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