Have you ever sat down and really thought about what you, your business, and your brand stand for? Have you ever thought about who exactly is it you want to connect with, how do you plan on really serving them, and what your promise to them is?
I’m asking about the things that go deeper than just promising a certain amount of images or a time frame. The photographs you create, and the time a client spends with you, has the potential to mean something on a deeper level. Very few photography brands are only selling photographs. And the sooner you realize the more intangible things you provide, the sooner you can use your brand message proactively, and stand behind a brand promise that means something.
Understand your ideal client
If you don’t know who you are talking to, then no one will ever listen. Having an understanding of your ideal client is really important, because it allows you to understand the person on the other side of everything you do. Every blog, social media post, site copy, etc, is meant for someone. A potential customer. If it’s not, then that is likely one reason you are feeling so frustrated.
Knowing as much as possible about your ideal customer means that you have the ability to tailor all those things directly to them, and then you know who you are talking to. You’ll know what to say. And you’ll be able to stop trying to be all the things to all the people, and instead just be one really great thing to a few people. You don’t need all the clients. You need just the right few clients.
Some questions to ask yourself:
What is your ideal client like? Where do they live, what do they do for a living, where do they shop, how do they spend their time?
What is their family like?
What do you, as a brand, need to do to gain the trust and respect of those potential clients?
Understand their problems
We often talk about the problems that keep our clients up at night, and how if you can solve those problems, your business will thrive. And that’s absolutely true. But do you know what else keeps people up at night? Their dreams.
Some business solve problems, some business stoke dreams, and some do both. Because often, isn’t a dream just a good problem? And if you can offer the solution to get from dream to accomplishment, you’ve provided a service just as valuable as anything else.
No one stays up at night worry that they don’t have professional photographs of their family. So if you follow the traditional advice and only try to solve your clients problems, you’ll quickly feel stuck. But people do dream about their family legacy. About beautiful things to have in their home. And especially if you work with families, parents definitely dream about holding onto right now. Those are problems you can absolutely solve.
Some questions to ask yourself:
What are your client’s big dreams or goals? How can your brand help them make a step towards achieving those goals?
What do your clients value? Where is the overlap between what you value and what they value?
What matters most to your clients?
Understand your brand voice
Your brand voice is just the way you portray yourself or your business online or in person. It’s the style of writing or speaking you have, and it’s a really important part in helping your brand feel like a real person, and when it’s consistent it builds trust and familiarity.
Put simply – it’s just the way you write and speak about your business. People to tend to overthink this one, thinking it’s complicated or that writing is too difficult. But really all that matters is that you understand your tone and how it represents your business, and then utilizing that tone consistently across all platforms.
And just be yourself. If you try too hard to be something you aren’t, your tone will feel forced and unnatural, and it won’t connect the same way. Often the best version of ourselves is the one that is simply authentic.
Some questions to ask yourself:
What are three adjectives you want associated with your brand?
What feeling do you want someone to have after reading or hearing something from your brand?
If your brand was a person, how would they speak? What type of personality would they have
What type of emotions do you want to inspire?
Understand your brand message
When you can pull those things together, and then take the next step in identifying what you do, who you do it for, and what your promise is, you have a brand message. Your brand message is ultimately the thing that tells a potential customer how you can serve them. And it’s why the branding process should be about so much more than just fonts and a logo. Those things are important, and nothing will make your business look less professional than a poorly done logo or website.
But at the end of the day, those are just visual representations of what you do. And if you don’t know what you do, who you do it for, and why that matters, then your business will always struggle.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Who do I serve?
What value do I offer them?
What’s my promise to them?
How do I back that promise up with tangible proof?
When you start to understand these things, that’s when you’ll find that you’re developing a clear, consistent brand. And you’ll find that you’ll always know the next step, because you know exactly who you are speaking to, how to speak to them, and what your promise is. And once you’re there, things become so much clearer, which is an amazing feeling.
I know that sometimes you can do the work, answer the questions, and you still just want an outside voice helping your sort all this stuff out. If you want to talk more about your brand and how I can help you find clarity, create a strong brand voice and message, develop logos and collateral, and create a website that does what it’s supposed to: converts visitors to followers, and followers to clients, click here to find out more about my two week branding + website package. I only have 5 openings left for the second half of 2018.
And as always, these things only work if you put in the work and make it happen. I hope you schedule a little time this week to put pen to paper and write down the answers to these questions. Some of these questions would make a great theme for your morning brainstorming lists.
And I promise that if you do this work, you’ll gain an invaluable understanding about your brand that will trickle into all parts of your business.
Things have been a bit quiet here in over the past month or so. My first instinct is to tell you that my business is going through a bit of a transition. And while that’s true, it’s not really accurate, because my business is always going through a transition. I’m always thinking about what I can be doing better, what’s working and what isn’t, and I’m always looking ahead to new goals or dreams. But it can be scary saying those things out loud sometimes. It can even be scary just trying something new. But I’ve never shied away from talking about the hard things here, and I don’t want to start now.
This morning I had someone I don’t even know write something unkind on a Facebook post, and then that person took the time to email me directly about it. It was a pretty shit start to my day, and I can’t seem to shake it. I’ve had this sort of thing happen before and it’s never bothered me as much, but this one is really getting to me. And I think the reason why is because I am trying some new things. And in that newness, I’m feeling a little tender and raw, and a little unsure of myself still.
And isn’t it that the unkind comments said to us when we are at our most vulnerable, the ones that we unfortunately hear the loudest?
If you’re in business, or if you’ve ever just put your work out there, you likely have felt this feeling. It could have been from a relative who doesn’t understand, a friend who didn’t mean to be unkind, or it could have been from a rude, nameless internet stranger who seems to have forgotten that there are real people on the other side of the screen. In any case, I doubt I’m alone here, which is why I’m writing about it rather than just ignoring it like I usually do.
They say that if you want different results, you have to try something different. Which is so very true. But they don’t mention that sometimes those results aren’t all good. That sometimes there are unintended negative consequences, or people who don’t get it, that show up as well. I really struggle with those things. I want to do everything perfectly, right from the start, even though I know how unrealistic that is. And I want everyone to like what I do. That’s human nature. But it’s not possible, and it’s not good for me to keep trying to hit that unrealistic goal.
I know that some of you are trying new things. That you have big plans for your work in the coming months. And I unfortunately know that the path you’ll take to get there won’t be all unicorns and kittens. That there will be struggle – most of it invisible to the rest of us, which means it’s harder for us to see it and support you.
So I want you to know that it happens to all of us. We all have those dips in confidence, the times we second guess what we’re doing, and the moments where we just feel like throwing in the towel. But nothing worth doing is easy. And I’m holding onto that today, and if you needed to hear it, I hope you are too.
Moment is truly the heart of documentary photography. When telling a story, capturing a memory, or holding onto an emotion, it’s the moment-driven photograph that rises above the rest, every time. On one hand, moment is incredibly intuitive; something we all feel throughout the day. But on the other hand, if the moment is a half-beat off, it can make or break a series of images. And when it comes to family life, a strong sense of moment goes a long way in keeping an image from feeling too much like a snapshot.
Understanding the Flow of Family Life
The secret to understanding the flow of family life? It’s as unpredictable as it is predictable. All families have a similar routine in the flow of the day: wake up, breakfast, activities, midday meals, regrouping in the evening as family members come back together, the evening meal, bedtime routines, etc. But within that, every family has its own special nuances that make each day a little different. And when you are photographing ordinary, daily life, it’s those nuances that you want to watch for. I go into greater detail regarding specific times of days and awaiting moments later in the book, but for now I want to talk a bit more generically about how to anticipate moments and find those little nuances.
Observation skills are a key part of being able to anticipate moments. Pay attention to the energy in the room, and key in on that “about to happen” feeling you get when energy changes or things seem like they are about to change. Stay focused and present in the moment. Be engaged with the scene. For example, if the kids have been lying on the couch watching cartoons, there comes a moment where you can tell they are about done with it and the TV needs to be turned off, or things are going to get ugly. That same sixth sense and change in energy that tells you that you need to step in and change something is the same thing that helps you key in on a moment that is about to happen.
Observe what is happening, but anticipate the reaction. In that same moment when you can tell that the energy is changing and something is about to happen, you want to be watching what is happening, but anticipating the reaction of those involved. That means that you’ll want to position yourself to be able to capture what is about to happen, rather than what is currently happening, as it’s often the reaction to that where the most emotion and connection occur. Pay attention to the silly faces dad is making, but make sure the resulting photograph includes the reaction from the kids.
Trust your own sense of emotional pull towards any given moment. Trust that the moments you are drawn to are the ones that you are genuinely connected to because they make your photographs more genuine. And if you are documenting your own family, capture what makes you happy. There is rarely one “best” moment in any situation, but there is often one that feels the most authentic and emotional to you. Go with that one every time.
The Observer’s Role vs. the Participant’s Role
When you approach a scene, you have choices to make:
Are you going to portray the moment from the role of observer, or from the role of participant?
Do you want the viewer to see the moment as if they were in it, or as if they were watching it?
Are you putting your viewer in your shoes by wrapping the frame around them, or are you showing them the moment by presenting it in front of them?
You likely already lean one way or the other. I’m willing to guess that if you are more of an introvert, your images likely tend to have more of an observation feel to them, but if you are more extroverted, your photographs have a more participatory feel to them. This is a good example of how your innate personality is already coming through in your work, one of many things that add up to a sense of voice that is uniquely yours.
Think about how that translates to your viewer. Your images should be a reflection of your vision and preferences, but you also want to think about how those choices change the story for someone else looking at your photographs. Are they an outsider gaining a peek at an intimate moment? Or are they meant to be part of the scene, feeling connected to and pulled into the action?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but just one example of the dozens of little choices that add up to creating a body of work that is unique to you. Of course, knowing how to achieve either of those looks is really what’s important.
Moments with a more participatory role may have:
Elements where the action spills to the edges of the frame
Subjects looking at the camera
First-person perspective to place the parent (or yourself, as parent) in the scene (e.g., taking a photograph of a child on mom or dad’s lap, with the lap clearly visible)
A participatory feel via the “pull you into the scene” feeling of distortion offered by a wider focal length
To create images that are more observational in nature, look for things like:
Foreground elements that provide a sense of barrier between the action and the viewer
Subjects who are in their own world, or engaged with those around them rather than the camera
Framing elements that provide a sense of barrier between subject and camera
Additionally, you also may feel more comfortable with a longer focal length, since the compression and added distance can make the moment feel more separate from the viewer.
To tie these ideas back to literary techniques, think of this choice as being similar to writing in first, second, or third person. For example:
Are you making “I” statements with your photographs, showing a moment that is undeniably from your point of view and expressing the emotions you feel as you are photographing the scene?
Are you making “you” statements, putting your viewer into the scene in their own way?
Are you making anonymous “this is the way it is” statements, by keeping your viewer in the observer role?
Curating A Moment-Driven Set
Culling and curating a set of images, is just as important as making the photographs. Half of what I do is in the moment, and the other half is during culling. Often the difference between a good photographer and a great one is what they choose to share, rather than simply what they shoot. The choices made during culling—in seeing and picking the right moment or set of moments and curating them into a cohesive set—are just as powerful as the choices you make while shooting.
Don’t be afraid to share fewer images, so long as they are the strongest ones, and still tell a complete story. You don’t need 10 images that are all slightly different of the same moment; one single, strong image is the most powerful. Part of your job as a photographer is curating what you share. Choose quality over quantity, and your work will feel more cohesive, focused, and stronger for it.
I’ll be back in a few weeks talking about composition within the context of documentary family photography, but if you don’t want to wait you can purchase your own copy of my ebook for documentary family photographers, Stories of Home, right here.