We asked a handful of our amazing members to share the stories of their big breaks, the proudest moments of their careers and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. Whether the invaluable stories and insights shared here encourage you to try something new or reinforce the business decisions you’ve already made, we hope you’ll be motivated to shake things up when it comes to your approach.
The biggest takeaway? There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to your business or your brand. And we think that’s what makes it all the more fun.
Cover image by Jody MacDonald.
An adventure sports and documentary photographer with countless awards under her belt, Jody MacDonald is not one to shy away from adventure. She’s sailed around the world (twice!) and traveled to over 90 countries in search of untold stories and communities. She says that she’s “passionate about stepping off the beaten path in pursuit of documenting issues that blend insightful storytelling, big adventure expeditions and social change inspiration in the hopes of promoting the preservation of wild places.” We had the pleasure of checking in with Jody between shoots:
I would say there are three things I wish I’d known starting out.
First is that I wish I had learned to embrace failure earlier. It’s such a critical part of the creative process and an amazing learning opportunity, and once you can look at failure that way, it changes everything. If you can love the process of learning, getting better, and making mistakes, then you are more likely to be adaptable, resourceful, and be open to new opportunities that present themselves. I think having those qualities is key to being successful as a documentary photographer.
Second would be that I wish I had known how to create a brand message and style early on and focus my photography more so that my work consistently fell under that scope. I know that it may sound easy, but for me, it has been difficult because I’m interested and curious about so many things. I think figuring out and staying focused on my brand message would have gotten me farther, faster in my career. It’s important because it gives you a clearer vision for the type of work you should be focusing on and a better understanding of what your goals are. It is so easy in photography to drift away from what you’re really passionate about, especially when you’re offered different types of work that might pay more.
Lastly would be knowing more about the business side of photography. Most photographers are great at the creative side and taking photos but suck at the business side of being a professional photographer. It plays a critical role in your success.
Asanka Brendon Ratnayake
Aussie native Asanka Brendon Ratnayake specializes in reportage, news and sports photography throughout Australia and Asia. Represented by Lonely Planet/Getty Images, he’s been published in The Guardian, TIME Magazine, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic and beyond. Because of his photographic range and expertise in ethical practices, we asked to pick his brain about his career thus far:
Figure out exactly who you are trying to appeal to and cater your branding to them. In my case, my website is built purely to appeal to photo editors in the editorial space. Consequently, my website is built with this in mind. A photo editor doesn’t have time to navigate or ‘figure’ out your website, it should just all be there. In my case, I’ve ensured that potential clients don’t need to click more than once to find exactly what they need, be it my folio, contact details or biography.
The current NPPA Regional Chair of the South, Julia Robinson is a Texas-based photojournalist who blends incredible documentary-style visual storytelling with intimate portraiture. Her clients include The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, The Texas Observer and Reuters. She’s also the founder of a monthly gathering for Texas photographers called Austin Photo Night. Check out her advice below:
I wish someone had told me to get a business savings account. Putting 30% of every check into a savings account has ended the feeling of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Paying taxes is never a surprise and I usually have a nice slush fund at the end of the year to upgrade gear or give myself a nice end-of-the-year bonus. It only took me 6 years of working for myself to adopt this method. Maybe I’m a slow learner but this really transformed my finances to be forward-looking instead of playing catch-up.
A true lover of nature and adventure sports, Louis Arévalo is an outdoor adventure, lifestyle, travel, and portrait photographer who inspires everyone to get up and go outside. From photographing the teamwork of two climbers discussing their route in Castle Valley, Utah to taking intimate portraits of a cow in Switzerland, he has a knack for capturing the spirit of his subjects and their surroundings. Lucky for us, his business advice is as honest as his work:
When I took on my first commercial projects I wish I’d had a better understanding of the actual costs of doing business. It was easy to calculate the immediate costs of equipment, time, crew, talent, travel, etc. for each project, but it took years to figure out the costs of the day-to-day of running a business. i.e. business insurance, marketing, advertising, software, education, estimating, etc. and work them into the bigger budget. I am still figuring this out.
Editorial and documentary photographer Salgu Wissmath has been on our radar for a while now. They’re a member of Authority Collective, AAJA, NPPA, NLGJA, Diversify Photo and Women Photograph and have been published by The New York Times, The Guardian and The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, with countless non-profit clients like Clara’s House and the Sacramento LGBT Community Center. Not one to feel committed to the status quo, we knew we needed to include Salgu and ask them about their photography career advice:
My branding advice is to be unapologetically yourself. Show the work you want to be hired for. And show the work that feeds your inner artist. I personally believe in not overly worrying about branding. For example, on Instagram photographers often ask the question of whether to include personal moments or only professional work. I do both, but honestly, I am a lot better about posting photos I take for fun. I let my website be my professional portfolio rather than rely on Instagram for that. I try to not worry about whether a photograph is “on brand” in order to post it. If you look at my Instagram account it’s a lot of self portraits because that is what feeds me creatively. For me, Instagram is a tool for my creative process. My photos of everyday life from my phone are often “sketches” that become bigger projects later on. Especially since some of my favorite personal work is my self portrait series, Without Disguise, I have no shame in posting selfies.
Have your own career insights or advice you want to share? We want to keep the conversation in the comments below. Plus, keep an eye out for our branding and marketing guide coming out in July!
Update: The Photographer’s Guide to Branding and Marketing in a Distracted World was launched on Thursday, July 18th and can be downloaded here.