You can’t compete without being unique

And you have to take responsibility for that

No doubt there’s more competition in the photography field than ever before, and it’s not just with other pros. Today we face the competition of the cell phone camera, ever-more-affordable professional equipment, and the constantly evolving dynamics of how people spend their time and money. But I’m here to offer both a lesson and a solution to this real challenge.

The lesson

Before I delve into the solution, I want to share a lesson. I’m a huge proponent of personal accountability in business. Sure, we can whine about all the things that make being a photographer and a small business owner challenging, but in the end it’s up to us to do something about it. To wish things were different or to try to recapture some fictional golden past is a waste of time and energy that could be better applied to making a difference in your business.

In my 32 years as a pro, I’ve seen many changing tides. There have been times I’ve worried whether or not I’d be able to stay relevant. I’ve even wondered if those curmudgeons who foretell the end of our profession could be right. No. I’m still relevant and professional photography is alive and well.

If you want to make a living in this profession, I suggest you look at what role you’re playing in what’s been lost and what role you can play in getting what you want.

Ian Chamandy is a strategic planning specialist and co-author of the book “Why Should I Choose You?” He proposes we find answers to the question of why clients would hire us. It’s up to us to know that before we can convey it. In fact, he advises, we should ask a series of questions from a client’s perspective: Why should I choose you? Why should I come back to you? Why should I pay more for you? The answers to these questions should be so obvious to clients that they don’t even have to voice them.

I’ve always been struck by the oddity of the advice, Don’t take it personally; it’s just business. As photographers, we’re in a business contingent on personal relationships. How can we not take it personally? And by taking it personally, I don’t just mean the emotional impact on us but also our level of personal accountability. It’s simply not good enough to complain. What are we willing to do to get the results we want?

© Jeffrey Shaw

The solution

Now let me offer a solution on how to stand out in a competitive field. In today’s business climate, our biggest foe is conformity. I’ll be blunt: The photo field is a sea of sameness. Family, children, boudoir, product photographers—all of them are saying very similar things to their audience of clients and potential clients. If you want to stand out—and of course you do—you have to point out what’s different about you in a sea of sameness.

Let me offer a couple of examples of photographers I’ve coached. The first is a boudoir photographer. When asked, “What is the result you want for the women you photograph?” she said, “I want to help women find their inner beauty.” While this is a noble desire and a heartfelt reason to become a boudoir photographer, it’s not unique. So if that’s the message you market, you’ve just plopped yourself in a pool full of similar photographers. And to be frank, the message isn’t very inspiring. To help someone find her inner beauty implies the client doesn’t know it’s there. The message isn’t uncommon or strong enough to compel a woman to pick you out of the crowd.

Upon digging deeper, the photographer realized that what she’s passionately committed to is helping women love who they are—beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside. So we created the marketing message “Be unapologetically beautiful.” It’s what I call a standout statement, a powerful branding message that distinguishes you from everyone else and represents your values. “Be unapologetically beautiful” is an empowering message that many women will want to get behind. And some will want to hire this photographer because the message and the type of images she creates will resonate. In fact, that marketing message has been such a game-changer for the photographer that she has it printed on t-shirts, which she gives to all her clients—a terrific way  to market her studio’s work without having to post intimate boudoir portraits on social media.


My second example is a family photographer who was looking for a way to capture what she values most about families —that they go through a lot together. Tough times can challenge the very fiber of a family, and she wanted to set herself apart as the photographer who understands that and to call forward clients who stand strong together as families. So we created the standout statement “Unbreakable families, unforgettable portraits.” I assure you, she’s the only photographer out there promoting family photography services with a message like this. 

In both of these examples, the photographers have answered the all-important question, Why should I choose you? They’ll be chosen because people like what they stand for. Not only do they stand out, but there’s genuine emotion in their core messages. Their messages compel clients to put their cell phone cameras aside and hire a pro.

In the end, how to stand out in a competitive marketplace is to discover what makes you different. By different I don’t mean your quirkiness. Discover what’s different about your perspective. Each of us has a unique viewpoint because none of us has the same life stories and past experiences. What we encounter in life makes impressions, and these impressions affect our perspectives. The reason you’re a newborn, child, or glamour photographer is different from anyone else’s reason.

Whatever you’re passionate about doing, discover what makes you different, and take a stand. Standing out is the only way to compete and succeed in professional photography.  

Jeffrey Shaw is a photographer, speaker, and business coach in Miami Beach, Florida. He'll speak at Imaging USA 2017 on how to realize your financial potential.

Tags: branding  marketing