It’s clear from Christina Peters’ deliciously bright, immaculately presented, cuisine-focused website that her niche is food photography. But that wasn’t the case for the first 10 years of her career. Like many beginning photographers, “I shot everything,” she says. “I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none,” and her website reflected that. It had 12 galleries of images—from pet portraits to chef portraits, from food products to florals. “You name it, it was on there,” she laughs.
When photographers are starting out, they think, “If I have everything, every potential type of photography that is known to man [on my website], I’ll get all the clients I can get. Thousands and thousands of clients,” she says. But all you’re really doing is confusing people. “They’re going to bounce off your site.” Peters also found that having too many specialties was a marketing nightmare, as she needed different lists and marketing strategies for each target group.
After a decade of photographing a little of everything and working with small, local brands in Los Angeles, she decided to pick a focus. “I really love food,” she says, so she dumped all unrelated online photography, reshot her portfolio, and launched a new website. The response was immediate, and her marketing was much easier to manage since she was targeting only food-related clients.
The best way to get a foothold in commercial photography is to attract and impress the ad agencies that handle campaigns for the brands you’re interested in photographing, she notes. This is a topic she’ll discuss at her session “How to Get Consistent Work with Ad Agency Clients” at Imaging USA 2023. Following are some of her tasty tidbits of advice.
Some commercial photographers, when they give an estimate to an ad agency for the work they’ll do, present two numbers: One is their fee and the other is expenses, which they don’t explain or break out. In the end, if the photographer spends less on production than they estimated, they typically keep the remaining “expenses” for themselves.
Peters has a different tactic. Her estimate is very detailed: There’s a prep fee, a shooting fee, a post-production fee, and licensing fees based on how the images will be used. In addition to overhead expenses, she estimates the production expenses but tells the client that any budget that isn’t used for production expenses will not be charged. She itemizes production expenditures and presents receipts when requested after the job is complete to back up what was spent.
“The fee is paying for my time, but the [production] expenses—that is not my money,” she reasons. “That is the client’s money.” When she does come in under budget—and she almost always does—that money stays in the client’s pocket. “Usually, they are shocked by that,” she says. It’s a great way to establish a positive relationship. It’s also a simple matter of treating clients the way she’d want to be treated: “Ad work has a generous budget, and I am respectful of that.”
It’s not enough to use social media as your marketing go-to. A well-rounded marketing plan will incorporate social media direct messages, emails, postcards, and in-person meetings to pitch your work. Since you never know which mode of communication your recipient is most likely to check, it’s best to cast a wide net. Peters recommends one email, postcard, phone call, etc., per month. Any more can be a bother to the recipient, and any fewer is not enough to worm your way into their brain. They might not need what you provide right now, but if they see your emails or postcards at a regular clip over the course of a year, they’ll remember you when the need arises.
• Leverage postcards. Many photographers see direct mail marketing as outdated. And that’s exactly why it’s so effective. People don’t receive as many marketing materials in the mail as they once did, so postcards stand out. Also, while people will scroll right past an email in their inbox, they rarely trash their snail mail without checking each item first, Peters points out.
• Carefully craft your emails. An ad agency friend once told Peters that she receives 1,000 emails a day from photographers—so many that the agency hired assistants to cull through them. With so much competition, it’s important to get your email right.
First and foremost, Peters recommends following the seven rules of the CAN-SPAM Act to make sure your emails clear spam filters. For example, the subject should make it clear it’s an advertisement for a service. Take one of Peters’ go-to subject lines: “What’s for lunch? Food photography by Christina Peters.” The question gets the recipient’s attention, and “Food photography by Christina Peters” makes it clear the email is an advertisement. Per that act, your emails should also include a business address; if you work from home, consider getting a post office box so you don’t have to share your home address.
If you have the money, Peters recommends using a platform such as Agency Access for customizable email templates that are sure to hit the inboxes of the proper ad agency professionals. Keep subject lines short, clever, and to the point, she advises, as long ones will be truncated. Emails themselves should be no more than about 100 words, with text broken into paragraphs for easy reading. Never send images or your signature as an attachment. That’s a surefire way to get trapped in the spam folder.
• Get on the phone. Many of the photographers Peters coaches are extremely reluctant to call in a pitch. But simply leaving a follow-up voicemail after an email is a great way to set yourself apart from other photographers.
• Set up in-person meetings to share your portfolio. Every so often, Peters plans what she calls a city tour. In the six months leading up to the tour, she markets her work to ad agencies in that city. About two weeks prior to her trip, she reaches out by email or telephone to let the agencies know she’ll be in town for a few days and would love to meet with them and show her portfolio. It gives them a sense of urgency to set up a meeting with her while she’s in town, she says. Those meetings are also an excellent way to forge lasting relationships.
If you’re interested in pitching your work to a brand, the images in your portfolio must directly reflect that brand. For example, if you’re pitching Omaha Steaks, but you don’t have any steak photos in your portfolio, you won’t get the job. “You need to have at least 10 photos of the exact product the client is selling because if you don’t, they literally don’t know whether you can photograph it or not,” says Peters. They don’t have the vision to look at your body of work and assume that because you were able to photograph strawberries, you’ll be able to photograph tacos. “It doesn’t work like that,” Peters says. “We have to show them the image they want to hire us for. We have to have it in our book over and over.”
When prospecting, Peters uses social media to study up on brands she’d like to photograph and then looks at her own portfolio to see if her style matches up with theirs. If it does, the agency will see her as a natural fit. She knows she’s targeted and pitched well when the client points at one of her photos and says, We’d like that photo but with X product in it.
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.