There's one skill that photographers (and everyone, really) need to practice and perfect. The skill is one of those things that's hard to see or quantify. For some people, it's natural; for others, it's painful. You can practice it, though! It's a skill that might not show its value in the moment, but you know right away when it's brought you success.
The photography skill you need to work on is NETWORKING. You have to be good talking with people, fostering relationships, and staying on people’s minds.
It’s in our nature to think we can predict the future. We think we’re in control of far more than we truly are. The world is random, though. We can't predict the future, not months or years down the road, not even this afternoon.
That’s why every chance encounter you have with someone at a coffee shop or the eye doctor or the playground could be a big turning point. But the turning point might not come that day--it might come months or years later. The ability to connect with someone right away, to hold an easy-going, positive conversation, and to talk passionately yet casually about your photography is invaluable.
Every job I’ve gotten since my first one out of college was thanks to networking and being in people’s good graces. Grades, college degrees, test scores, those got me the first job. But they got me nothing else, not exclusively anyway. Without a network of people, I wouldn’t get a foot in the door.
A successful photography business is all about baby-steps, perseverance, and grinding away day-by-day. Many people can take good photos, but not everyone works well with people, both as a business person, a session coordinator, and whatever other hats come with small business photography. You have to be good at talking to people, finding ways to stay in their head as a photographer, and being positive without being pushy.
Here's one example of successful networking:
Last July, I visited the eye doctor in my new hometown. I was in the middle of writing an article about flash photography, and I needed a model for some photos in the article.
At the eye doctor, I started talking with the woman who did initial intake. I told her about my recent move, my small business, and my current project. Turns out, she had a daughter who was a dancer--exactly what I needed for my article.
I ended up going to her home a week later. I photographed two of her kids for the article and spent a couple of hours getting to know her family.
A month or so later, she contacted me to plan two photo sessions. I did anniversary photos for her and her husband and senior photos for a younger daughter. What began as a random chat at the doctor’s office had already turned into two paid sessions.
As the months went by, I used social media to stay on my new client’s mind. I shared photos from the sessions, tagged her, and wrote positive comments about how much I loved the session and the photos.
Five months after that first chat and two months after the sessions, it was New Year's Day. I sent the client an email, thanking her for all of the support over the last few months. She had been the first person to support my business in Columbus, so I told her how much that meant to me.
A few weeks later, her husband contacted me. He wanted to see if I was available to photograph a benefit concert he was playing in. Of course I was available. And I did it for free. If he was donating his time and talent, then I would, too.
That charitable gesture paid off. The day after the concert, the client called me with an opportunity: would I be interested in creating all of the new photos for the doctors’ office website redesign?
Of course I was interested! Six months after that first conversation coupled with strategic and positive interactions, and here I was with a big-ticket job.
That’s networking. Staying relevant and visible, being nice, doing the extra small gestures, being patient.
Getting the big job took six months. But now I’m sure I’ll be doing more senior photos, maybe more anniversary photos, and who knows? Perhaps future weddings? I’m now “their photographer.” You never know where that can take you.
A quick word about social media. Social media isn’t networking. A positive social media presence can reinforce a relationship, but it never will be a relationship. Social media could get you an initial conversation, or it might remind someone about you, but social media will never replace good in-person communication and connection.
You can practice networking, too! The hardest part is that initial conversation. Wherever you are, coffee shop, bookstore, playground, start talking to people. Find a way to initiate conversation and be relatable. Make an observation about where you are, what you're doing, who's around. Talk about the vacation spot or school or band on their t-shirt. Talk about the book they're reading or the activity at hand. Ask what they do, and talk about what you do. Find a way to smoothly transition to your photography. Don't be pushy, be excited and positive. Have a business card ready if it seems appropriate. Pay attention to what you say, how you say it, and how they react.
You won't connect with everyone. But you never know who will come back into your life months or even years later. Like I said, the initial conversation is the hardest part. Saying those first words can be tough and nerve-wracking. Muster some courage and start talking. That one conversation could really change your life.
You never know when you’ll see someone again for an important moment in your life. Here’s one more fun story for you, especially the kids out there: kids, you never know when you’ll see your high school teachers again, so be nice. My tenth grade English teacher ended up being my boss where I taught eight years later. Yes, my high school English teacher ended up being the principal where I worked after college. She didn't hire me, but she did become principal two years into my career. Granted, it’s not so unimaginable since I went into the field of education, but I didn’t fathom any of this as a tenth grader! You never know when you might see someone again, and when that person might be your next big break. Be nice to your teachers, kids. Your life could be in their hands.
Take a look at the photos below from the eye doctors’ office. A few are the latest example of my newest addition to my business: headshots.