What's The Difference?

As a freelancer, two of my roles in this operation are marketing and sales. I hear all of the experts: branding blah blah blah differentiation blah blah blah engaging blah blah blah. Can you hear it? Obviously that's all important and unless I or someone I hire does that for me, I will be a very lonely freelancer indeed. It's a given that exposure to the right audience is essential. There is a ton of advice out there on the tubes of the internets as to how to go about making that happen.

But what makes what I do different from all of the other photographers out there who are marketing to the same people? I have actually read articles that say things like: 'you don't have to be the best photographer to be a success'. While that may seem encouraging if you, like most of us, have insecurities about your work, it's also a really convenient excuse to let up on pushing yourself to create more and better work. The race to the middle! Is that where success lies?

If 5 photographers make themselves visible to a potential client through their effective marketing and sales efforts, and they all seem to be the same in the eyes of that potential client, which one does she choose? (If no one raises their hand I will have to call on someone!)  The answer is: they choose one at random, or one who answers their email request for a bid. Clearly, there are other factors that, in the real world, come into play such as a usable web site, as opposed to one that re-sizes the browser, plays music, has slippery, ever moving and morphing navigation controls that scream: GET ME OUT OF HERE! What other factors might make a potential client choose one photographer over another, all things seeming equal? Proximity of the photographer, referrals and references, the consistent message put forth in their web presence, etc.



Have I led you up to the precipice of the obvious yet? What's the real differentiator? Remember, if no one raises their hand...  Answer: It's the work!  Photographer Nick Onken has written a good piece here that you should take a look at, BUT COME BACK! http://nickonken.com/blog/2011/01/the-quality-diversity-of-your-product.html

People have a penchant for sameness much of the time. Kids don't want to be different. It seems to be an instinct at some point in our human development. At times it does makes sense to emulate success. That's clearly valuable as a learning tool. I think where it becomes destructive is when it is a mantra, such as the misguided conventional wisdom that standardized testing of school children is going to generate a well educated population. I can tell you that if there had been a standardized test to graduate from high school when I was that age, I might still be there now trying to pass it. But say such a methodology were to be successful. What has been accomplished? Millions of identically informed people who have never been encouraged to be different, to think critically or to be creative. There's a prescription for success...





Assuming that your marketing and sales thing has been taken care of, although it is always ongoing, and the presentation of your work is of a high quality and consistent, both on-line and in person (read: have a great book*), THE most important thing is the work and how it is better, more creative and different than all of the others from whom a client might choose. It's so important to keep pushing yourself, to keep growing and stretching, both technically and artistically. And equally important is to push yourself to do personal projects as well as the work you do for business. Hopefully, you soon will be able to see the two come closer together so that the work that people hire you to do is the kind that you love to do.

*If you are not sure of what I am referring to at the asterisk, please call my friend Selina Maitreya, or read one of her books!      http://selinamaitreya.com/








I have sprinkled this post with some recent work that I like, for no other reason than to show it. Plus getting it out there will force me to go out and create more :-)  So here are even more!

Networking and the Photographer

For a while now I have been working on a self-assigned project to photograph people in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. One of several goals of the project is to show the work in an exhibit that I will be doing with painter and pastel artist Bill Tyers. That goal, along with the always-present desire and requirement  to expand my portfolio, has allowed me to meet and be introduced to many people whom I may not have otherwise met. For this I have utilized several of my networks. A few of my subjects were either part of, or were introduced to me by members of some of the business networking groups that I belong to in Lowell, Chelmsford and Westford, Massachusetts. Other meetings came about as a result of simply asking clients and Twitter contacts if they would pose, and if they could think of other people who might make interesting subjects and might pose as well.

One such person, referred to me in the latter category, was Fru Nkimbeng, originally of Cameroon, and now President of the African Cultural Association of Lowell. The association puts on the Lowell African Festival along the river each year, and which took place just last weekend. Fru works in Information Technology, so between our common experiences in that and our short conversation in French upon first meeting, I think the trepidations that Fru had in my photographing him were lessened. But being very active in the local African community, we both thought that he should be shown in traditional dress of Cameroon. For a photographer, the oranges, reds and blues in his garments were a gift.

If you are a photographer, and you like to photograph people, but don't know whom to ask, my advice is to just start somewhere. Ask that first person if they will pose and then ask if they might know other interesting people who would also be interested in posing. Keep doing that and after a while you will have a very long list. Networks work for more than just getting referrals for business in the traditional way.


Self-assigned photo shoots are really a necessity. Shooting for yourself keeps things interesting and on your own trajectory. When the paid jobs are not where you want to be or where you want to go, it's doubly rewarding. Sometimes, for one reason or another, those shots may not be ones that you can use or ones that fit precisely into your portfolio, and your portfolio needs to represent exactly the kind of work that you want to attract. This latter point took a long time to sink in for me, but it is one of the most important things that a commercial photographer needs to learn. We all want to show work that we are proud of and that shows the world we are versatile and capable. But you need to ask yourself if any given shot in your portfolio is the kind of work that you want to continue to do, and further, if it is consistent with a focused message. Who are your ideal clients? What do they look for? Show them what they are looking for! Chances are, if they are looking for that specific thing, they probably don't want someone who does that thing along with all sorts of other, unrelated kinds of work. I'm sure this is not news.

For photographers, as well as many other disciplines, self-assigned work is really magic. It's an avenue that is freeing, useful and necessary. If you're building a new portfolio, especially one that is heading in a new direction, or if you are unhappy with the alignment of the work you are shooting for pay with your goals, self-assigned work is the answer. It's freeing because the what, when, where, who and how are all up to you. It's your chance to create a world from play-doh, to appropriate a phrase that someone used last week who I unfortunately cannot recall.

But here's where it gets tricky, for me at least; that clean slate. Which way should I go? And when I choose, who will give me permission? There's that word: permission. I used to be a professional musician, and there was always an undercurrent of guilt when I was practicing or working on something that wasn't income-generating. That's a pretty debilitating way to be if you are an artist. I'm not sure what made me like that, but as a musician I was always wary of the people who I would encounter who had “real jobs”. Well, I am older now, and my coping mechanism has grown from the unwavering support of my wife and the fact that I have seen the other side, and I know now that I have it so much better. Now I can give myself permission to work on something that has no practical value at this moment and is not generating income. I can do that because I know that what I am working on is part of what I want to do to be where I want to be, so that I can be sought out by clients, to do that thing.

The essential factor in giving yourself permission to do self-assignments is structure. Where do you want to go? My friend, photographer's consultant Selina Maitreya, talks consistently about “vision”. Without that, where are you going? I am reading David duChemin's new book and he has almost the  identical message. In order to get where you want to be, you need to figure out where that is. Once you have done so, make it happen. And if you don't have enough work that leads you in that direction, create it. I find it very useful to get myself into a situation in which I must create such work. For me, it has been taking the form of art shows. I create the kind of work that I want because no one is really dictating content, and it gives structure and permission to do so. But whatever form the structure takes, make sure that it leaves you free to create the work that you want to keep creating.

Building The Book - My People Portfolio

I have been spending a lot of time recently building a new portfolio book of my portraits. The portfolio content is exactly what I show on my web site, at least initially. I envision the web version being somewhat more dynamic in content. This is my web-based people portfolio : http://www.adrienbisson.com/people

I settled on a Lost Luggage, green translucent, hard plastic housing. Someone looking at it recently asked me if it was glass. It's not, but it definitely doesn't have a "plastic" look. It's a very rigid and thick, ground-glass-looking, and translucent material.

Preparing the prints is a much bigger job than you might think going in. I have 25 shots in the book, plus a cover and back page, with contact information. So 3 books makes it 81 pages. And my book is 11x11, so I used 11x17 paper. Moab, who manufactures the paper that I am using, makes an 11x14, but it required a special order which would have delayed this for a couple of weeks. The waste is perfectly usable for 5x7 prints or proofing, so I didn't throw anything away, which is a bonus. I use a Moab paper called Entrada Rag Bright 190. It is double sided, although I am printing only on one side. But not having to check orientation is a plus. On the other hand, it is very heavy, and needs to be fed manually into my Epson 3800, which is pretty tedious. But it has a really refined, rich quality to it that makes the colors really pop. It is well worth the effort.

Putting the book together was mildly frustrating. You need an extra hand to thread the posts through the hinges. Plus if you have more than about 8 pages, you need to buy the extension posts from Lost Luggage. Otherwise, the separators don't fit. You can use fewer separators, but that pinches the hinges together. The hinges take a little practice, but once they are on, they work very nicely. Although these strips of Mylar with adhesive are a little pricy, they really do the trick, allowing the pages to turn freely and not folding the prints themselves.

And here is the final product. It does look really nice when you have it all put together.