Looking at the most famous and successful photographers out there, it can be hard to find role models who aren’t from a metropolis like New York or Los Angeles. Sometimes you wonder if it’s possible to pursue photography in a smaller city, or if you’ll have to move to a creative hub to make ends meet. Often the advice you hear online is great if you’re in a market filled with millions of potential clients, but in your city, you might not have that luxury.
Luckily, there actually are photographers out there who are dominating their field while still enjoying small town life. This article features the advice of several excellent photographers living in smaller cities across the world, tailored towards people in similar situations to them. No matter where you live, the following tips will give you the motivation you need to overcome the obstacles of succeeding outside of a big city.
“It is a very exciting time to be a photographer. With the internet, individuals are able to access a global marketplace from home regardless of their location allowing for additional revenue streams through print sales, stock photography or work in larger urban centers through a properly keyworded website.” – Mike Crane, Whistler BC commercial and lifestyle photographer
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“For me, your location isn’t really the issue that it used to be. Many top photographers are able to work all over the world and have agents in several cities.” – Karl Taylor, Guernsey commercial photographer and photography trainer.
Diversify Your Offerings
“For small-town photographers, my best piece of advice would be to diversify – you never know what the next job will look like. Sometimes simply being known as the go-to Photographer in town might be the best (as opposed to the baby photographer or portrait photographer). My work has spanned every niche from babies to weddings to corporate to government work, and that’s part of what has helped to put food on the table for the past five years. I think focusing is important in big cities to stand out, but in small markets, you need to take what you can get.
Also, I won’t paint a completely rosy picture… I don’t simply do photography. I currently teach photography at McKenzie College (mckenzie.edu) in Moncton, NB and also provide graphic design services in addition to photography for a number of my clients.
Lastly, treating everyone you meet with respect, being kind, helpful and generous will go further than any marketing.” – Nigel Fearon, Shediac NB commercial and wedding photographer
“Much of the problem I think at the moment is that many great photographers have sprung up but we are also in an economic recession so there is probably an over-supply and currently less demand. In this situation, it doesn’t matter how good you are because if you don’t market yourself successfully then you won’t get any work. I’ve been around for a while and am fortunate enough to have several regular clients that know my work and trust me to get the job done so I’m not looking for new commercial clients. I’ve also created a separate training business which has been successful and I been very fortunate to have to not solely need to rely on just my commercial work.” – Karl Taylor
Overcoming the Market
“Growing a business in a smaller area can be challenging — there is a lower ceiling for both how many couples you can reach and also how much you can charge. The range of settings available to photograph in is also often limited. One way we have responded to these challenges is to try to reach as many couples as we can locally, while at the same time being ready and willing to travel out of the area or to a nearby metropolitan area, which we do often. This can help to not only put you in front of a much larger range of couples, it also opens up opportunities to shoot in new and interesting spaces, which can help with staying fresh creatively.” – Derren Raser, Arcata CA wedding photographer (The Rasers Photography)
“I think initially if you are starting out, then you need to work to your market whether that is your local area or if you can expand outside of it. It really comes down to your ability to market yourself to your preferred markets. Yes this is more difficult to do if you live a long way from key industries that you are targeting but not impossible. Historically, one of the reasons photographers ‘needed’ to be in the big cities is because the ‘big’ advertising agencies were there and expected it. I think that is less so now, also many clients are happy to deal directly with photographers or through their agents.” – Karl Taylor
“Make friends with other photographers in your area. It’s better to be friends than enemies with your competition (in my opinion). You can help each other out, trade and sell gear, learn from each other and refer work to one another. This is also yet another reason to specialize in a niche, because when you’re known for a specific type of photography and your photographer friends are not, they can refer that work to you and you can refer to their specialties as well.” – Tanya Smith, Spokane, WA portrait photographer
The Challenges of Business
“Don’t undercharge just because you live in a small town where it seems people don’t have a lot of money. It devalues what we do as photographers, and you should get paid what you’re worth. Competing on price is a losing proposition, because there will always be someone cheaper. Instead, educate your clients as to why you provide such a valuable service. We live in a town of 30k, a poor town. We kill it here.” – Jo and Jason Marino | Imagine Photography
“I have a fellow photographer friend who like me works regularly on high profile campaigns but is also not based in London. In fact, he has been in 3 different smaller cities in the last 3 years but is still able to make it for a shoot or a meeting in London if necessary. In my own work, if a client needs a job shot in London or wherever, then a key to success is being familiar with the rental studios and rental equipment available in major cities. That way, as many photographers do these days, then you can work anywhere. Obviously, you would have needed to build your success and client base to get to that level in the first place which is difficult. But even if you were starting out in the centre of London or New York the challenges would be the same as if you were starting in a smaller town and that is you have to start winning some clients to begin with and gradually grow your client list and hopefully the type of client.
Even if you set up in London, you are not going to win a ‘big’ commercial shoot in the early days unless you have a successful agent that was willing to take you on and promote you. For me, I like most businesses, started small and gradually grew my business over 25 years. So in answer to your question, I don’t think there is any ‘creative trick’ and the business tip would be you have to produce the best work you can and it has to be as good enough for the market you are aiming at. Then there has to be the right level of supply and demand, those are just simple business processes that affect any business. If your work is good enough and there is sufficient demand, and the market is not oversupplied, then you have a chance, but you also have to become very adept at marketing yourself or employing appropriate people to do it for you.” – Karl Taylor
“It’s easier to build credibility factors that carry weight within a small market. Plan it like you would a project (my mind works in 3,6,12 month scales): spend 3 months honing your ability and actually know how to do what you do – no bullsh*t. Make sure you can deliver, and know your equipment and trade. I’ve realized literally a tiny percentage of ‘photographers’ know their gear or any real theory or how to put it into practice. People like to shoot and not think.
Spend six months (including the first 3) seeking out credibility factors – work for the right people for free, teach at a local school, or speak at it. Get involved with a charity where your services can help. Get something published on PAPER in something local as well as online publications. Your goal is to be the name your town knows for photography in 6 months. Don’t shoot crap projects unless it’s altruistic.
Network the right way – meaning, actually care. Networking isn’t drinking with people; it’s being there when the liquor is not and nurturing relationships.
Seek out clients the entire 12 months. Go to them.” – Kishore Sawh, Miami /London Based Photographer
Photography is a complicated business, and the path to success is strewn with obstacles. However, no matter where you live, there are opportunities to stand out and ways to make your goals happen. If you’re working out of a small city yourself, I hope you can put this advice to good use, and be sure to share your own ideas in the comments!
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