The Business of Commercial Photography: The Survival Guide

Lesson 30/30 - Investing in Your Career & Moving Forward


The Business of Commercial Photography: The Survival Guide


Lesson Info

Investing in Your Career & Moving Forward

Alright, so investing in your career. As we mentioned it takes, there's a lot of risk. Sometimes it's going to take financial risk. It's going to take financial investment. This especially is true for your personal projects that we've talked about. Chances are a personal project that you're going to do is going to cost money. There's ways to streamline and there's ways to get it done maybe for a little less. And you can get creative with all that but you've got a set aside money and put it into this. And it's going to feel risky and you're going to have all kinds of excuses. I just did a shoot. I'll tell you, I did another Uniform shoot. I'm working on publishing my first book and so I did another Uniform shoot a couple weeks ago. And there was a couple days before the shoot where I'm like what am I doing? Like this is, what am I doing? I had all kinds of questions and starting to wonder if this was a good decision and looking at what it's gonna cost and all this kind of stuff. But you...

've got to commit money and time to those kinds of projects. If you don't take any risks you're never going to get anywhere. And in addition to money, it's going to take investment of your time. It's going to take investing in relationships. This is going to be meeting new people, putting yourself out there. This is all coming from the outreach that we've talked about. Some investments in your business are going to not necessarily seem like they're going to pay off immediately but all of the stuff we're talking about again it's attached to a long time game plan hopefully for you. And as I've mentioned risk requires introspection. It requires controlling your brand and not letting other people tell you what you should be doing with your brand. You've got to set the course for your brand. And sometimes it's easier to kind of do what's in front of you or what people want but usually what you want is going to involve more risk than doing with other people want. Sometimes it can be as simple as filing away old imagery. You might have a favorite picture and it doesn't mean that that favorite picture is always going to be applicable to what you're trying to do or getting you towards your goals. So you might have to make a really tough decision to file away something old. I mean Marin and I went through this recently where I've had a lot of images in my book for a long, she's like, let's take a new look at some of this. And it's like, yeah you know, this has been a good image and people have enjoyed it but it's starting to look kind of old you know? It's kind of, it dates itself a little bit or you know, It doesn't mean it was bad, it served it's purpose. But I think it might be time to say goodbye. And that can be really hard sometimes. You're like so sentimental. You're like, but I've always, people have always loved this image. Or we've got so much work from this image. Or it just makes me so happy. And maybe if it really makes you happy and you can justify that maybe you don't put it away but even then sometimes deep down you know like, if my best work is something I created five, six years ago there's a problem there too. Like my best work should be the next thing I create hopefully. You don't want to hold on too much the old stuff because you're just kind of living in the past and that's not allowing you to move forward. So how do we move forward? You've got to have confidence, as we've talked about. And you've got to have excitement. And you've got to project that as you move forward because no one's going to want to move forward with you if you don't even believe yourself in where you're going. You've got to convince others about where you're going and why they should be a part of that with you. So again you need to identify strategies that are going to help you reach your goal. We've talked about marketing strategies. Who to target. You've got to be really focused here. Again it's okay and it is important to have a broad reach in who you're reaching out to you but again you do want to have a clear path of like these are the types of people or jobs that I want to be connecting with. You've got to be consistent and also patient. Hopefully that's come across in multiple ways but I remember with my first rep when I first went out there and met with them, I was this young, brash, overconfident kid. And we sat down and we talked about my goals and this sort of thing and one of the things that he said was it's going to take five years. And I hated that. I was so upset with that and I thought in my head, forget that man, I'm going to do it in two. Like I'm not gonna sit around waiting for five years. And I don't think he was saying I have to wait around for five years. I know he wasn't saying that. I know that he was saying from experience and from wisdom that it takes five years. Now that doesn't mean you don't try to work as hard as possible and maybe it happens in four years. But you're not gonna see something really start to click until five years. And I can say in hindsight there's truth to that. Now what is "it"? I want to be careful about that word or phrase because you never make it, ever. There's never a point where you've made it. There's a point hopefully where you can realize like, wow! Look how far I've come. Or I really started to make some traction. There is something kind of magical about the first five years though. There is something about around year five where you can start to say like whoa, I'm getting some advertising work now. Like it can take that long sometimes. Depending on where you're coming from. Depending on where your work's at. That largely is not even necessarily a reflection of your work, the quality or the type of work that you're doing. It's more a reflection of what we talked about. It takes 20 interactions with the brand for someone to make a memory. For someone to even remember that it exists or that it's there. So how that's tied to the five year mark I mean I guess it is kind of clear but just keep that in mind. It's going to take patience and focus and some of these risks that we're talking about again, you're not necessarily going to see the rewards from those risks. Or know if it was a good or bad decision on your part. It's not going to happen right away. But again that's why we keep this list and we keep adding to it because it's really cool to be able to look back and say maybe this decision wasn't so great or maybe that studio was not the best decision but what did you learn from it? And then look at all the other things that actually did go well. It's important to build your confidence up by maintaining that. And then finally leverage, is one of the most important things that you can utilize when it comes to growing your business. You have to leverage what you have to get the next opportunity. And so I'm going to talk to you guys a little bit about just exactly what that looks like. Things that can and should be leveraged, I mean, the list goes on and on but relationships. That sounds a little dicey, leveraging people or relationships. But really what that means is we all have relationships. We all know people. And it could be as simple as you know you want to work for company X. And your friend does business with company X. Just simply asking your friend to make an introduction for you can go a really long way. The value of someone vouching for someone or the value of an introduction or even a face-to-face meeting, that's hard to replace. So you have to ask for what you want. Just like when we were talking about my solo exhibition. If you want something you need to ask people directly. You can't just send out a mass newsletter and expect to get the same results. You've got to ask for what you want. So think about relationships. Again, not talking about taking advantage of people. I'm talking about how can you find genuine ways to connect with others. Or ask a friend to help you. People love to connect people. People love to be a help, especially if it's someone that you know or care about. So think about simple ways that you can help grow your network through the relationships you currently have. Leverage your brand. You know, what is it that you have to offer. What you do is of great value as a creator. Your brand might bring particular value to someone else that they can offer something that you need. And so that there's a myriad of ways that that might apply to your situation but think about what your brand has to offer. And how you could use that in another relationship. Same thing with your product. Like we're photographers or creators, you know, how can you use that to get something else? Maybe it's as simple as you need a really great website but you're starting out and you don't have the budget that you'd like to have or this particular designer requires. Doesn't mean you can't ask, and offer a trade. Just because you're there in front of them doesn't mean they're going to connect the dots. You have to connect the dots and make the presentation and say would you be interested in something like this. Your audience and any opportunities that you have. But everything that you have should be leveraged into the next step towards your goals. Do not create for free. And don't create for credit. If you don't have, you can create for free. That's fine but don't do it just because you're going to get credit or something. You have to have a leverage strategy. What is it that you're going to get out of this situation? There's a lot of people that would say you should never create for free or anything like that. I disagree I think sometimes again, if you want to get something sometimes you have to give something. But if someone comes to you and says hey, we'll give you credit in this magazine or you'll get credit here or whatever. Credit doesn't do any good for you. That's just a passive idea that people think something might happen from that. Credit is very passive. You need to be more direct and you need to decide okay, am I doing this because this adds something to my book that I don't have or do I know if I shoot this, that positions my brand in a certain way and I know that I can approach this other person or client or project and this will give me credibility. Like that's a plan to leverage that image and that might be a decision that's worth taking. But you've got to create for love, money or leverage. Those are the reasons you should be creating. And again when I say money, I don't want to see you go down the path of just creating for money. Eventually I think it's not going to end well. But along the way there will be opportunities where you have to say okay this project, given my situation I do need to make some money. Or I'm still creating work I love and this thing's a little on a different path but it's a great opportunity that will allow me to continue creating more of what I want to do. So I'm not saying you discount money and you can never make financial decisions at all. But you've got to have some intense excitement about what you're creating. It's got to pay really well or you've got to know I can leverage this into something that I want. Not just leverage into, anything can be leveraged to something but it's got to leverage you into the direction that you actually want to go in. Only you control your brand and your perception. So as I mentioned like if someone says hey, this would be really great for your book or you'll hear this a lot when you're starting out like oh this would be a great opportunity for you. They don't know what your goal is. They don't know what you're trying to do. Only you can decide if something is a great opportunity for you. Usually when someone says that I just, I'm done. I don't even need to hear anymore. But if someone can say hey, here's this opportunity. I don't know if it makes sense for you. If they can be genuine or I feel like I'm being respected I might listen and if it actually does help me go in the direction I want to go I might consider it. But don't let other people take the reins of what direction you're trying to go in. Don't show work that you don't want to do. We've talked about that before but showing work that you don't want to do is just going to get you work that you don't want to do. If there something that you do want we've talked about the importance of showing it. You do have to show what you want but it doesn't mean you shouldn't still talk about things that you want even if you haven't achieved them yet. So for example, when I wanted to direct I did create some short films for myself. I did create that work but even before that was happening I started telling people I'm directing now or I'm going to direct. I'm working on directing and I'm writing a short film or whatever that is. And I was shocked to see how many projects started coming my way. Part of it was because people were familiar with my brand. They trusted my voice and they took a risk but they believed that my voice would translate into film or video. And a lot of my first opportunities to direct whether it was a music video or some commercial projects, they came just simply from me putting it out there and letting people know what it is that I was planning on doing. And again being confident about it. Not saying I'm gonna direct but I'm not sure if I'll be very good or whatever like, you just gotta let people know what you're excited about. And see who wants to follow. So we've talked about relationships, I jumped ahead a little bit here. There's a couple of other things that I'll talk about more specifically. So let's say were talking about leveraging I said any investment or decision you make should be leveraged. So let's say my Hasselblad for example. I bought the Hasselblad, that was a risk. It was an investment. I like to think of leverage in two ways. There's perceived value that you can leverage and then there's practical value that you can leverage. Perceived value is the impression that someone gets from something. So when I got my first Hasselblad, and it's a little more common now, more people have it. But when I got the first one, it wasn't really something that you saw very often. And so I would be on set and someone would be like holy cow, where'd you get that camera? And they'd be like how much did it cost? And I was like, I don't really want to talk about. But then I started to realize quickly like this was impressive to some people. It doesn't mean you have to brag about it but this camera impressed some people. And all of a sudden they're like this guy's the best photographer in the world. Look at this camera! And you and I know that that's not the case. A camera doesn't make the photographer. But this was clearly impressive to a client or whoever saw it. That's perceived value. Why block that? If someone is impressed by something and it helps your business by all means, like facilitate that. But then there's also practical value. So what's the practical value of owning the camera. If you're just buying it for perceived value that may not be the best decision. There's obviously value in it but I don't know if it's going to justify the camera. Short term or long term. But the practical value, I also knew that there was practical value in this investment because we could charge for it. We could charge more and justify the cost. I also knew that my images would begin looking the way that I wanted my images to look. And I was also creating images larger which helped move me towards my goal that I knew someday I wanted to make a large prints. I didn't know anything about fine art at the time but I did know I wanted to make large prints. I wanted something tactile and I wanted to be able to kind of display the images that I cared about, that I was creating in a way that would be more lasting and memorable. So there's perceived and practical value. I'll give you another example. If you are, one thing that I always say is if you only are given five minutes to do a photo shoot act like you only wanted five minutes. So leverage that opportunity. This happens frequently when we're working with celebrities. You know, usually people will say you have 10 minutes which means you have five minutes. If they say you have five minutes, you have two and a half minutes. It's always half the time that you're given. And so there was a time when I was given an opportunity to photograph Annie Leibovitz. And they said I had about 10 minutes to photograph her. And so I went through all of these different ideas of like, oh my gosh I'm going to do this huge portfolio of portraits of Annie Leibovitz. Thankfully I realized that was a bad idea. And then I was like I'm going to do a picture that looks like one of her pictures. And I was like, thankfully I realized that was a bad idea. And then I realized like, what's the situation. Probably the situation is going to be in a hotel. And probably I'm going to have like five minutes. And it's going to be very quick. And so I don't want to create a picture that requires an apology or a justification for someone to think that it's great. I don't want someone to look at this picture and be like, it's not that good but you probably had less than ideal circumstances so given what you had to go through it's pretty good. Like nobody looks at artwork that way. People either like it or they don't. And so I knew I need to leverage this opportunity. I can't make excuses. So what can I do to make this what I want? So given the short amount of time, I'm gonna simplify. I'm going to move in close, I'm going to be direct. I'm gonna be intentional. I'm gonna be intimate. I'm going to get a picture that says I was with this person and this was something they were a participant of and it feels powerful. I don't want to just take a picture that looks like oh did he snap that when he was walking through the hotel and happened to see this person? So leverage every opportunity that you have. Don't make excuses. And find out what's the most valuable way to approach whatever that situation is. Some questions to ponder about leverage. What do I have that is desirable to someone else? How can I use this opportunity in the future? Will this opportunity create another opportunity that takes me towards my goals? And also how can I create an opportunity? Maybe there's just nothing. How do you create an opportunity when nothing's even presented to you. Again you have to kind of get creative sometimes. And it's going to take risk but I would encourage you to write these down. To kind of wrestle with these ideas and as opportunities or investment opportunities or risks come up, kind of run through these questions and think about what would be the perceived value of this decision. And what would be the practical value of this decision. Which would be a return in monetary form or a return in for example, better imagery or higher quality images or something like that. And really make sure you have a leverage plan or a leverage strategy for what you're doing. So you're not just making some emotional decision that turns out it doesn't actually have any sort of pay off in the end. Are there any questions on? I get excited about leverage so I start talking kind of fast but. Could you just outline a time in your head John when you maybe had a great moment with leverage? Like an example for instance. Do you have a concrete example you can give? I mean I think. Besides every shoot you've gotten now. I mean I think some of those examples I just gave. I don't know if I can one that was necessarily better than others but for me like another one that I didn't give I guess would be deciding to get into fine art. And then deciding to invest in what I have. You know I have creativity and I have ideas and for me it was leveraging those ideas. Taking a risk on them. Putting money, my own money into a project and deciding to commit to it and shoot it. With no guarantees of it ever paying off or turning into anything. But knowing that it's something that I believed in and something I wanted to do. And so taking a risk on myself and leveraging myself in that way, I guess. And then creating Uniform and then turning that into a show and then hopefully continuing that and selling prints and things like that. So that would be at least the one that comes to my mind on the forefront that's been the most immediate and direct in recent times. But another one would be when we built our studio. That was a huge risk but there's perceived value. You have to tell people about it first. If you don't tell anyone, there's no perceived value. But having clients come over for meetings. Or simply sharing the space that we have. That begins to build a sense of trust. Or an image of what people think we're doing and how we do it. So that's the perceived value of that decision. The practical value was we didn't have any room in our house anymore. And we had kids and I was on a business call and our two year old would come screaming and banging on the door and I'd have to say oh sorry you know, that's also a perceived, that's a perception that I don't want, you know, in that case. So, you know it's something that we've just learned to kind of think about in all of these aspects. Like what's the cost? What's the perceived value? What's the practical value? And that's something you're going to have to weigh for yourself depending on what the decision is but. And it doesn't mean it's like a full proof system. Like it's going to work every time but at least you're putting yourself in the best position to succeed. So to wrap things up where can you start investing today, tomorrow, in the long term? I would just encourage you to take this information that we've been talking about and start thinking about what are some investments that you want to make in yourself or in your business? Where is it that you want to go and what steps can you begin taking to get there? And it takes time and it's not easy and I think it's really, really important to build community and share with others and that's why it's so cool to see all of you here. And just continue to learn but if you commit to this, if you write it down, I guarantee you'll get to a point where you can look back and be like, oh my gosh. I've actually done something. Like I'm moving forward and I can see the progress.

Class Description

Whether just starting out in the commercial photography industry, or ready for a new chapter in your career, John Keatley shows you how to survive in a competitive field. Known for being innovative, creative and thinking outside the box when it comes to his photography, John applies those same skills into running his business. In this in-depth course, John shares some of the key elements that allow you to be an artist and a business owner. You’ll learn:

  • How to find your style and attract the clients you want
  • How to create a bid
  • The importance of drafting a treatment
  • Estimates and billing for your work
  • Planning and scheduling your production
  • Tips on memorable branding
  • The difference between an Art Director/Agent/Art Buyer
  • Techniques for editing your portfolio

If you’re at the start of your career or ready to expand your client list, this course will be the game changer you need to create a solid foundation for a thriving business.


Bonnie Aunchman

John & Creative Live - Thank you - Best. Class. Ever.! This is a GREAT class! If you are a photographer, this is definitely a MUST GET class, but even if you work with photographers as part of a creative team - you have to take this class. (I'm a Photo Stylist) John covers it ALL in this class - it really, truly is a Survival (Success) Guide. John is so detailed, honest, and generous in his knowledge/experience/wisdom in the commercial photography industry in helping you understand the business and really succeed (& stand out). When I see that John is teaching a class on Creative Live - I'm in! (I have his other valuable courses as well)

a Creativelive Student

I was lucky to be part of the studio audience for this course. John is an awesome teacher and did an outstanding job of making sense of a very difficult side of photography for a creative to understand. He shared his 18+ years of experience, including the good and bad he has gone through. The "special guests" alone are worth the cost of this class. John has an amazing team working beside him behind the scenes. Their perspective on his business was priceless!

Amy Vaughn

Thanks to John for being so open his experience in the commercial photography industry and giving us so many real world examples. I especially appreciated the contributions by the non-photographers in the second day of the course - Nichelle and Maren. Nichelle gave a good perspective on the finance and business communications side. Maren is John's agent and offered her insight on how agencies worked. I've heard photographers discuss working with agents before, but it was helpful to hear an agent answer questions directly about her experience.