In his seminar, “Learning to Thrive as an Artist: Business, Marketing and Style for Photographers,” during PhotoPlus Expo this past week, Seattle-based commercial photographer John Keatley neatly summed up one of the themes of the 2015 PhotoPlus Expo conference: In a market in which technically proficient, beautiful photography can be and is created by the masses, professional photographers are “hired [by commercial clients] to create something scarce.” Personal style and vision are essential, in other words. “Anyone can learn to master technique,” Keatley says. “No one can replicate your decision-making process.” The talk was an abbreviated version of the three-day workshop Keatley puts on a few times each year.

On style

In his relationships with clients, Keatley defines his style through the work he chooses to show, and how he talks in meetings and during creative calls as he’s bidding on jobs. Keatley says his “goal in talking to a client is to show them that I think about photography in a different way.” He shared with seminar attendees the dictionary definition of style and said he believes style “is not something you choose, it’s who you are.” He made an analogy with acting style, sharing a video in which the actor Brian Cranston talks about a revelation in his career when he stopped worrying during auditions about getting a job and started concentrating on showing who he was as an actor.

Keatley urged his audience to contemplate who they are as photographers by coming up with 7 to 10 words that describe ideas, attitudes and other things they value, and thinking about how those values manifest themselves in their work. Keatley also urged his audience to understand that developing one’s style “is a journey,” and it’s something that a photographer develops and evolves throughout their career.

In more practical terms, style is something photographers define by creating personal images. “Take personal work as an opportunity to show who you are,” he says. Early on, Keatley was filling his portfolio with images made on assignment. Those images told “someone else’s story,” he says. That doesn’t mean photographers shouldn’t take assignments that don’t perfectly fit their style to make a living, but, he says, “be selective about what you show.” When Keatley decided he wanted to make celebrity portraits, he found friends and other subjects and photographed them as if it were a celebrity sitting, which showed how he might approach editorial portrait assignments. When he reviews other photographers’ work portfolio reviews, Keatley says, it’s the personal work that usually stands out.

On business and marketing

Keatley bluntly dismissed the idea that artists can claim not to be good at business and succeed. If you (want to) make a living from your art but say, “’I’m not really a business person, I’m an artist,’ expect to go out of business,” Keatley told the audience.

Some artists don’t want to use social media, a major marketing tool for photographers, he noted. Keatley thinks that is fine, so long as the photographer has alternative strategies for how to market their work. For a couple of years, Keatley chose not to optimize his website for mobile viewing because he didn’t want people to look at it on mobile devices—he wanted them to see the images big on a desktop or laptop. At some point Keatley recognized that 75 percent of his site’s visitors were viewing his work on a mobile device. He realized he had “better be concerned with that experience,” he recalls.

In discussing how to price one’s work, Keatley offered up a formula for calculating a “shoot minimum,” the minimum amount a photographer should expect to receive for a shoot. The formula is to add expenses and desired yearly salary, then divide that by the number of shoots the photographer expects to do in a year. If you take a job that pays less than the “shoot minimum” you calculated, you should have a reason to do it, and you should have a plan to leverage that work—and any work—by marketing it to potential clients.

Keatley encouraged the audience to let clients know what you are up to even if there isn’t an immediate response. “You cannot expect to send out an email and have somebody hire you [immediately],” Keatley says.

Keatley says he creates a marketing strategy and annual budget, and schedules his emails. He also suggested photographers “speak the language of the locals,” when they are creating promos. For instance, when he wanted to market to advertising agencies, he created a targeted promo that used copy that mimicked an advertisement. It worked: he had more opens and clicks on that promo than he’d had before.

Finally, Keatley emphasized that building relationships and being generous are essential. Each month he’ll take a client for happy hour or dinner, and he also goes out of his way to recommend his assistants to clients for jobs. He says those efforts pay off in the form of improved relationships with clients and, often, assignments.

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