Darren Roberts is miles from where he started—and sometimes miles from anywhere. That’s entirely the point.
Roberts, an erstwhile neuroscience student, was on the brink of a career in dentistry when he had a change of heart. “I just didn’t think I’d enjoy it,” he says. So he pulled up his roots in Saskatchewan, Canada, and relocated to Calgary, on the edge of the picturesque Canadian Rockies.
Roberts enrolled in photography school, which had a heavy commercial focus. From the beginning, though, he was intent on weddings. While earning his degree, he photographed city weddings around Calgary at a rate of about 15 to 20 per year. It was manageable and paid some bills, but Roberts’ attention kept drifting westward toward those iconic Rocky Mountain peaks. An avid outdoorsman who enjoys year-round camping, hiking, and just about everything else that involves being outside, Roberts knew that if he was to be truly happy—and truly successful—he needed to zero in on what he loved.
So Roberts began shifting his business toward the mountains. He rebranded himself as a mountain wedding photographer specializing in unique, adventure-themed wedding and engagement sessions in places such as Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise. “I wanted to promote my business to the like-minded mountain crowd,” he says. “I stopped showing my Calgary weddings and started convincing my Calgary clients to go up to the mountains for shoots. On my website, Instagram, and in other materials, I removed city images and focused on the mountains.”
At first, Roberts faced a typical dilemma: He wanted to land a certain type of client for shoots in a certain niche, but he didn’t have any images to appeal to that niche. A lot of photographers looking to make a change will stage stylized sessions or mock weddings. But Roberts says he wanted a portfolio that was more real, one that spoke to his passion for the work. So he attached himself to the brand and began demonstrating his love for the lifestyle associated with it.
“Even if you don’t have the images to support the work you want to do, show that you enjoy that area, that lifestyle, that niche,” he suggests. “Post images of yourself in the places you want to photograph. Demonstrate that you’re an expert and that you know that niche. For example, if you love downtown weddings, post pictures of yourself downtown with your friends enjoying the urban lifestyle. And then gradually transition to your client work as you create those images.”
The process would play out over the course of about two years, with Roberts gaining steady momentum in the mountain wedding photography niche. By 2016, he had gone from working about 20 city weddings per year to more than 50 mountain weddings, plus additional bookings that are handled by an associate photographer. More important, he’s photographing what he wants to photograph and working with clients who appreciate him for what he loves to do.
When Roberts first got into photography, his business was referral-based. However, when he moved away from the city weddings, he shifted away from his client network. “When I moved to mountain photography, I was no longer targeting a local clientele,” he says. “Now, about 75 percent of my clients travel to this area for destination weddings. Most of those people find me either through Google searches or Instagram. So my entire marketing plan changed from referral-based to search-based.”
To adjust, Roberts changed all the keyword targeting on his website to focus on the nearby mountain destinations. “I realized that if I targeted just the Calgary market, people who wanted to go to the mountains weren’t finding me,” he says. “People traveling from other places don’t think to look for a Calgary photographer; they are looking for a photographer who specializes in the area where they’re traveling.”
Roberts targets Banff photography and mountain destination weddings in all of his blog posts and social media, and he’s quickly built up organic search results related to those topics. He does no direct outreach and no advertising, online or otherwise. “Rather than dumping $2,000 or $3,000 on an ad campaign, I would rather spend that money traveling somewhere interesting and showing that’s what I like to do,” he explains. “Then I can post and promote those images and attract couples who are also interested in those kinds of experiences.”
Roberts still receives referrals, but these days they come primarily from other vendors with whom he’s established relationships. One of his best affiliations is with the owners of a local helicopter tour company. While making his shift to mountain weddings, Roberts pitched them on flying a couple to the top of a mountain for a wedding session there. They took him up on it, and that project began a beautiful symbiotic relationship that’s helped Roberts build a reputation as the premier heli-wedding photographer in the area.
Because Roberts understands that a photographer’s brand resides in his images, he’s dedicated himself to both innovation and consistency. The key, he says, is creating content that sets you apart and then committing to it.
“My work is about strong content within a landscape,” says Roberts. “It’s so much more than just putting a couple in a nice scene and taking pictures. There’s the sense of movement, the getting there and getting back, the story. The key is capturing those in-between moments and telling that story—not just the wow shot on top of the mountain. It’s also about everything that leads up to that wow shot and everything that happens afterwards.
“So we’re not going to just stand in front of Lake Louise and get a standard photo. We’re going to hike for 20 minutes to get to a truly memorable background. We’re going to go on a little adventure and document the experience. That’s what my clients are looking for.”
At the urging of his friend and mentor Gabe McClintock, Roberts redid his entire portfolio with an eye toward consistency. He focused not only on consistency of subject matter but also on consistency of lighting, style, and post-production. Today, Roberts’ website shows only mountain and landscape wedding photographs that look like they belong together. His images don’t just depict familiar touristy locales; they show the unique and adventurous destinations that his ideal client wants to experience.
To other photographers looking to shift their focus, Roberts recommends starting logically before chasing a fantasy. “The first thing you have to do is find out what’s realistic in your market,” he points out. “Then work with that. If you want to be a mountain photographer but you live in the middle of the plains and there are no mountains, then that’s obviously not realistic. So find out what niche you can reasonably create for yourself. Then, over time, with patience, you can build that niche. It’s a process.”
Roberts also suggests finding a mentor in your local market with whom you can speak frankly. Some photographers are competitive and guarded, but many others are open and collaborative. Find partners who will help you grow, and then reciprocate with your own insights so you both benefit.
At the same time, it helps to get involved in the community. Even if you’re targeting a distant clientele, it can never hurt to build your name and improve the perception of professional photographers in your area. Roberts hosts a regular community Q&A that brings together photographers of all ages and experience levels for open discussions. The events have helped raise his profile and boost his esteem within the Calgary photography market.
And finally, be patient. “It took about two years to get to the point where I was really satisfied with my work but also to know where I wanted to go with my work,” says Roberts. “Once I had enough content, then I could show what I really wanted. That’s when things really started to happen, and I could see it all coming together. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth the wait.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.