According to the comprehensive Freelancing in America study, recently conducted by Upwork and Freelancers Union, the vast majority (78%) of freelancers believe that ‘soft skills’—including the ability to communicate and collaborate with others—are just as important as technical skills.
Today, it’s easier than ever for freelance photographers to connect with potential clients, whether it’s through social media or print mailers, but the real secret is finding clients who honour your creative vision and value your time. For that, intrapersonal skills, leadership, problem-solving, and flexibility are at least as crucial as the ability to create great pictures.
A reliable client base can form the foundation of any photography business, helping to bolster both your portfolio and your reputation. Solid client relationships are worth more than just the payment you receive after one or two jobs, as satisfied customers often come back and refer their friends over time. We asked six professionals to tell us how they connect with clients and forge long-term partnerships that feed their artistic practice.
1. Cultivate a following online
“We have found that creating personal work regularly and building a dedicated following has been important for attracting clients,” the creative duo Forrest Aguar and Michelle Norris of Tropico Photo explain. “These could be portfolio projects, fun one-offs, or shooting while we are travelling, but the images that we create for ourselves have been great to reinforce our aesthetic, vision, and voice.
“We also send out online newsletters, keep up with our Instagram religiously, and, earlier this year, we created a zine that we sent out to prospective clients and agencies with personal notes inside. For us, continuing to share work with a unified aesthetic has kept clients reaching out to us with potential projects that we can then land with beautiful treatments.”
2. Pick up the phone
“Build lists of potential clients in your local area and start cold calling them,” the commercial photographer Ryan Smith suggests. “Yes, I said cold calling. Nobody likes to do it, but it’s a really useful way to get access to new clients, and it’s free.
“In my experience, this is hands down your fastest way to becoming a professional photographer. You’re not going to start out by landing huge assignments this way, but it will give you the opportunity to make some money while improving your portfolio, creating a more consistent brand, and gaining valuable on-the-job experience.”
To clarify, cold calling doesn’t mean contacting every one of your dream clients; to start, it means connecting with local brands and vendors. “Forget about cold calling BBDO. Call your local bike shop,” Ryan adds. “Call the winery that’s nearby. What about the landscaping business you keep seeing advertisements for? There are a multitude of potential clients right under your nose. You just have to let them know that you exist.”
3. Find a community
“The number one tip I would give an emerging photographer is to be involved in your community,” the Connecticut-based photographer Allegra Anderson says. “The best way to kick-start any business is to immerse yourself in your surroundings, get away from your desk, and put yourself in front of the people that can help propel your business.
“The right community can vary drastically from one person to the next. For me, I felt it was important to become involved in both a social networking group that would allow me to meet potential clients, and also a photography industry group that would help me professionally.
“That meant joining my local chamber of commerce for social networking, and also joining the Connecticut chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers, a commercial photographers group. I found joining ASMP to be one of the best decisions I made personally and professionally. ASMP’s benefits include education, advocacy, and community, to name only a few.
“From learning how to draft a licensing agreement, to sharing ideas and asking questions of peers and colleagues, it’s one of the best choices I made early on in my career. My colleagues have become my friends, and together we navigate this wild world of professional photography.
“I have met many clients through the chamber of commerce by building authentic relationships with like-minded individuals. I focus on building strong relationships. It’s not just about what I can get, but rather, it’s about what we can share and offer one another. The best ‘networking’ happens when you take a genuine interest in learning about another person or business, and figuring out ways you can help one another grow.”
4. Meet in-person
“I would say the single best way to build client relationships is with in-person meetings,” the Denver-based photographer Matt Nager explains. “All my marketing is built around getting that in-person meeting. A solid emailer campaign, occasional postcards and snail mail promotions, and an easy-to-use website (with contact info that’s easy to find) all help land in-person meetings.
“Once that in-person meeting has been had, the cycle repeats. I continue to send updates within the same marketing strategy. The idea is to have your name come to mind when a client has a job or assignment. Putting a face and voice to a website will go a long way.”
5. Do your research
“It’s very important to do your research when pitching a specific project to a client,” Matt continues. “Has this person or brand already worked on a similar project recently? If so, don’t waste his or her time. Most importantly, is the pitch relevant to their type of work, publication, or aesthetic? Lastly, it always helps if you’re ready to present new images along with your pitch. It shows ambition and that you’re serious.”
6. Scour a database
“When building a client base, I’ve found that Agency Access’s database for photographers is a very useful tool to find out what clients are out there and if they are in your market,” the Chicago-based beauty photographer Ashlley Duarte tells us.
“Using a database like the one Agency Access has, you’ll then make a list of who you would like to work with and start doing an email blast with your work to potential clients. Follow up with a phone call in a week or two.”
When contacting potential clients, do your research on them before sending anything or meeting them. Make your introduction personal to the individual you’re contacting. One targeted email is more powerful than several generic ones.
7. Attend showings and industry events
“For advertising clients, it’s best to contact them to do a showing,” Ashlley says. “A showing is where you can showcase your work and speak to advertising industry professionals face-to-face. Bring promos, business cards, and get creative on what to leave behind for them. For example, leaving a portfolio behind for them to look at for future possible projects is a great way to market yourself.
“At the same time, make sure you are going out to events where you meet advertising industry professionals as well. For example, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP) or the American Photographers Association (APA) both host regular events.”
8. Connect with a platform
“I was excited to join The Luupe, which is a great US-based community that champions women and non-binary photographers,” the London-based artist Kasia Bobula tells us. It’s worth getting in touch with platforms like The Luupe who can help you connect to the right clients. Even if your work isn’t immediately accepted, they might provide invaluable feedback and advice to advance your career, or you can offer to intern and learn more about the business. In any case, you’ll have made a new contact.
9. Create a stellar website
“Once you have an idea of who you would like to work with, the next step is to make sure you have a solid website with strong work and a design that fits your style,” the Chicago-based photographer Brian Sorg suggests. “I like to include some personal information and photos so creatives and buyers can get a sense of who I am beyond the images. That is something that is important to me and has helped me greatly in my career.
“Also, include your personal work and projects. I’ve talked to many creatives that say this is the first section they go to when they are looking at photographers. People want to know who you are along with seeing your portfolio and commissioned work. The goal for me has always been to get hired to shoot projects that look the same as my personal work. I like to dissolve that line between work-work and personal-work.”
10. Provide something of value
“Marketing to potential clients is all about adding value before asking for anything in return,” the Orlando-based wedding photography team Angie and Marko tell us. “Understand what particular needs your customer has, and then ask yourself, ‘How can I help?’
“Most of the time, your ideal client is not going to know as much about your field as you do. Sharing your knowledge can be as simple as offing photography tips to someone who is just starting out. Connect your clients to any resources or tools that would help them get closer to their goals.
“We also recommend sharing things that your potential clients will enjoy. Entertaining your clients and brightening their days can say a lot about your brand personality. Share inspiring ideas and examples, and encourage your clients to share their opinions and try new things. Show them what’s possible.
“Finally, make things simple and easy for your clients. Provide them with solutions that will help simplify their day-to-day tasks, like checklists, printables, planners, etc. to help them stay organised. What you offer doesn’t necessarily have to be something you sell, but it should be something that adds value and helps your clients save money, time, or both!”
11. Stay in touch
Lastly, remember to keep in touch with clients through newsletters, blog posts, or printed promos. If you feel comfortable, request testimonials to display on your website. Send out a questionnaire to see what you could be doing better to improve the client experience. The more you work to maintain and strengthen those relationships, the more likely they will be to come back and spread the word about your work.
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.