How to Stand Out from Your Competition – by Laurence Kim

August 31st, 2011
bride holding bouquet

Laurence Kim is a Seattle-based portrait photographer who blogs about the business of photography and coaches photographers worldwide. We are fortunate to have Laurence write a small series of posts for us sharing his insight on the photography business. In our first post by Laurence, he shared with us the power of pre-selling for more portrait profit. Today, he goes over how to stand apart from your competition.

How to Stand Out from Your Competition – by Laurence Kim

The Situation

You are one of hundreds of portrait/wedding photographers in your area. Price-wise, you’re in that middle range. You average $500 for a portrait session and $2,500 for a wedding. You’ve got an attractive, clean, well designed website. Your portfolio is diverse and well executed. Your images are properly exposed and sharp. Your friends tell you that you do beautiful work. You do all the required SEO and social media work (blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

So why do you only command $2,500 per wedding and even at that price really struggle to get booked? How come the couples you meet seem focused like a laser beam on price and not your images?

The problem is this: It’s not too hard these days to show a portfolio of professionally-executed images. Modern DSLRs make it pretty difficult to take a poorly exposed, out of focus shot. Everyone’s got access to the same Photoshop actions, the same gear and the same workshops. You are adrift in a sea of sameness.  You don’t look particularly different than anyone else. If that’s the case, then like any commodity it becomes all about price, and you get stuck in that middle-range and have difficulty breaking out.

On the other hand, if you floated above that sea of sameness on a totally different boat, then you might have very few competitors – maybe none. NONE.
What do Ed Pingol, Elizabeth Messina and Jeff Ascough have in common? Yes, they are all successful wedding photographers, but what else? The answer is that they each have a clearly recognizable style. Make a single print from each of their portfolios and you’d be able to match them up with the correct photographer in about 2 seconds.

If you want that hyper-dramatic look, Ed has very few competitors. If you want soft, warm and pretty, go to Elizabeth. And if you want a collection of decisive moments that looks like it could have been taken by HCB, then you’ll want Jeff. The bride that hires one of these photographers does so for their style, not because they’re $200 cheaper than the next photographer.

Try this exercise

Invite at least 10 friends to a dinner party. Tell them you will feed them a great meal in exchange for a little help with your portfolio. Prior to the party, make thirty 5×7 prints that best represent your current portfolio. These are the images that are most likely already on your website. This should cost you less than $20. Just make the prints at Costco or the corner drugstore.

Lay the prints out on a table and have your friends look at them closely. Give each person an index card and have them describe your style in writing. Make sure you tell them not to write a description designed to please you. The point of the exercise is for them to genuinely describe what they feel when they see your images as a body of work. After you collect the cards just enjoy the rest of the evening.

Over the next week, read and re-read the cards and think about them. Don’t do this while you’re in front of your computer and doing a dozen other tasks. Go to a coffee shop, find a comfy chair and just focus on the cards.

Now here’s the most important question: are the responses consistent? Do some friends describe your work as soft, pretty and emotional while others describe it as cool, dramatic and edgy? Do some describe your images as “joyful” while others describe them as “intense”? If the descriptions are all over the map, then you’re probably one of the photographers I described in the first paragraph of this post. Was this exercise really difficult for them? Did they have to reach down deep to even come up with any sort of description?

I hope I’ve convinced you that the key to breaking out of that middle price range is to have a clearly recognizable style (of course, it goes without saying that the style has to be well-executed). A mish-mash of well-executed images with no discernible style means you’re part of the collective, and thus you’ll earn the collective (average) price.

Okay, so now what?

The next thing to do is to ask yourself the following question: what style of shooting would you do if you weren’t getting paid? If you were an amateur photographer who was just out shooting for fun? What style of photography has the greatest gravitational pull on you?  Is it soft and pretty?  Cool and edgy? Emotionally engaged? Emotionally detached? Images that seek out the ironic and absurd? Documentary style black and white? *** vampire weddings? Whatever floats your boat.

Let’s say, for example, that you really love the soft and pretty, Martha Stewart Wedding look. Fine.

  • Step 1:  Go through your current portfolio and eliminate as many images as you can that contradict this style. For example, one image I’ve seen so often it hurts my eyeballs is the “toy soldier” image. You know, the bride and groom standing there very rigidly like toy soldiers, no expression on their faces, taken with a tilt-shift. This image is the antithesis of soft and pretty, so eliminate it! That ultra-cool fashion image of your bride with off-camera lighting in front of the castle ruins? Gone! Eliminate all the images that don’t say “soft and pretty”.
  • Step 2:  Go through your library of images – one wedding at a time – and search out those soft and pretty images that you may have overlooked in the past. I’m sure you’ll be able to find some to add to your new portfolio. You may need to rework the post processing of some of your images – remove the dramatic actions and vignettes, reduce the contrast a little, warm up the white balance, etc.
  • Step 3:  On your future weddings shoot with deliberate intent. Your mantra:  soft…pretty…soft…pretty… Lots of couples cuddling in soft light. Lots of foreheads touching with closed eyes. Couples strolling in wheat fields at sunset. Gentle post-processing with controlled (minimal) levels of contrast and sharpening. Well, at least that’s my interpretation of soft and pretty. I’m sure you’ll have your own, but you get the idea. Over time you’ll gradually rotate these new images into your website and you’ll have a portfolio that looks dramatically different than the other thousand wedding photographers in your town – most of whom lack any sort of consistent style.
  • Step 4:  Raise your prices and watch your calendar fill up because you’re now the only wedding photographer with a “soft and pretty” signature style in Bismarck, North Dakota!

Resistance is NOT futile. Break from the collective.