Documentary photographer and photo book connoisseur Dan Milnor spoke with…
The world of commercial photography is associated with high stress situations, characterized by big budgets and big pressure from clients. As the photographer, you’re responsible for showcasing products and merchandise in a way that will compel an audience to buy. Without those sales, both you and the client are out of luck.
It may sound flashy and stressful, but it doesn’t have to be – nor do you have to subscribe to that mindset. Plenty of commercial photographers maintain a laid-back attitude, while still running a successful business. We talked to one of our favorite commercial photographers, Alexa Miller, whose focus on relaxed yet vibrant lifestyle photography has made her a success — and a stand out in the helter skelter world of commercial photography.
Alexa’s clients include big names like Polaroid, Columbia Sportswear, Ski Utah, Men’s Health, Cosmpolitan, Outside magazine, and more. She’s been able to conserve her knack for capturing real moments and authentic emotions, which is likely why these clients keep returning to her for repeat business.
Alexa has one of those too-good-to-be-true stories: she’s been shooting since high school, but initially pursued a career in medicine before traveling the world and starting to build her portfolio. After taking additional time to compete in ski competitions and attend the Art Center College of Design in California, Alexa moved to Montana and cut her teeth working for local clients.
She quietly started visiting New York City to pitch to bigger clients, and after a few failed trips she finally got her first gigs – which sent her right back out west to shoot in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and California – the land she knows best. So we wanted to know, What’s the secret to breaking into such a high-profile industry and still maintaining a sense of authenticity? Here are her six takeaways:
1. You don’t have to start out living in New York City or L.A.
This is definitely the notion among commercial photographers looking to “make it”. Because of that, everyone goes to those cities and then the markets become over-saturated. On top of that, many companies no longer have the budget to send photographers on location. That means they’re seeking out commercial photographers in their destination of choice. Take a hint from Alexa, who built up a portfolio of Western U.S. landscapes while living in Montana for years. Then she took that book to New York and clients seeking that type of imagery were suddenly ready to hire.
2. Make your dream client list – and make sure it vibes with your style.
Alexa suggests that commercial photographers make a list of dream clients they’d love to work with, and put their energy in working toward that goal. You might not get the cream of the crop in the end, but the exercise will force you to think about where you might be a good fit and who would value your skills. “Tenacity, perseverance and forcing myself to make those calls and emails, on a schedule, no matter what” is what keeps Alexa moving froward.
“The inherent challenges of commercial photography is that it’s ruled by a lot of fear,” says Alexa. “The budgets are big, jobs are on the line and that can bring in an element of fear. It can be hard to balance your own vision with pleasing your client. It’s also very competitive, so just getting your foot in the door, and finding that first client is really hard.”
3. Get used to cold calling & asking for in-person meetings.
No one likes cold calling. But for better or worse, it can be an effective marketing tactic. That’s how Alexa got her first gigs: “I’ll sometimes call 10-20 times before the client picks up the phone. It’s nerve-wracking! But you have to catch them live. Then I do a quick intro, and just ask if they are interested in meeting with a new photographer.”
At her first big meeting with Fitness Magazine, Alexa really paid attention to the office and saw that they had big, beautiful blow-ups of their covers. When it came time to flip through her book, she realized that only one or two of her shots reflected those cover images. “I got all fired up after that and realized that I need to make my whole book look like what was represented in the magazine.” The next time she met with Fitness six months later, with a new book, they hired her for a shoot happening that week. It might be the stuff of dreams, but the takeaway is the same: make sure your book is appropriate for the client you want.
4. Start using story or moodboards to set expectations before the shoot.
Storyboards give you and your client a direction. It also gives you a sense of security on the shoot, without making the process too rigid or contrived. And perhaps most important, it helps ensure that you and the client are on the same page. “Make sure that you understand the client’s needs and visions, beyond just your own,” advises Alexa. Once Alexa feels that she’s fulfilled the client’s needs, she let’s the shoot “run wild,” which is sometimes when she gets her most authentic looking shots – the ones that bring viewers right into her space, and also the ones her clients love.
5. Don’t be afraid to outsource some of your business.
Sometimes you just can’t do it all – at least not everything at full force. Outsourcing parts of your business, whether that’s marketing or editing or accounting, can be a smart decision for busy commercial photographers. Or simply because it’s smarter to let the experts handle it. Alexa uses Agency Access to help build new lists of clients to reach out to, and also design her email promos. This helps her stay on track and focus on the other aspects of her business.
6. Make a commitment to developing a brand that reflects who you are.
We can’t say it enough – creating a unique brand that speaks to your style and personality is key to a successful photography business. For commercial photographers, Alexa suggests doing some soul-searching. It might sound cheesy, but figuring out the truth of who you are as a person and photographer will help you communicate that to clients.
“The days of anonymous photography are really over,” says Alexa. “As photographers, we are pointing the lens and interpreting the world. We can be as honest or constructed as we want to be. I choose to go with radical honesty, because I find it easier to just by myself rather than trying to create something. That makes my work go ever deeper.”
Bottom line: your brand needs to reinforce whatever work you’re doing. And if that brand is authentic, it will make your life a whole lot easier and your business a whole lot more successful.