Dane Sanders was named one of the 30 Most Influential Living Photographers of the last decade by PDN magazine. His work has been featured in Rangefinder, Shutterbug and Professional Photographer. He’s also the author of the Fast Track Photographer and The Fast Track Photographer Business Plan. These two inspiring books teach pro photographers to market themselves and grow their businesses by focusing on their strengths and taking creative risks. Read his challenging advice below.
Getting Started – Tell us about how focusing on your strengths led you to a book deal.
Well, it’s easy to people look back and think, “Oh, that’s cool, he wrote a book” but at the time I was waking up in a cold sweat thinking, “I have to write this book” and “no one’s going to read this book. Write a book? Why would I ever do that?” I didn’t have a publisher, I didn’t have an agent, I just had ideas. I got busy writing and thanks to helpful feedback from some friends I eventually self-published it and a lot of people said nice things; it got great reviews. It got more and more grassroots support and eventually Random House called and I got a two-book deal. My publishing process was completely backwards from the way you’re supposed to do it but it worked for me. It worked because I took time to prioritize, to get clear on what was most critical for me to do.
Even now I’m in a perpetual habit of pausing and thinking: “how can I focus more? What should I be doing from a strengths-based mindset.”
Advice for Others – Your book explains how focusing on one’s strengths can lead a photographer to create his or her “Signature Brand” differentiating themselves from other photographers. How important is a unique, differentiated look to the “Signature Brand” photographer?
So, when I first wrote about the need for differentiation I didn’t know how important it would eventually become. At the time I thought it was true but it’s definitely been borne out by the increasing number of photographers.
If you’re in any profession where the ranks are growing and you don’t want to be invisible you have to stand out. There’s no question: standing out is important in any comoditized industry and photography is one of the most obviously comoditized industries. It’s important to stand out in other genres of creative expression and in other businesses as well. In a sense what I wrote wasn’t that novel because it’s true in other competitive spaces but at the time it wasn’t clear the extent to which photography was going to be such a busy, competitive space. It wasn’t always this easy to get into the pro photo game. Now it is – everybody is a photographer. If you own a phone you’re a photographer.
You talk about the need to differentiate oneself but there are still lots of photographers trying to be everything to everyone by producing safe, lower-common denominator work. Do you know why many photographers don’t make more of an attempt to differentiate themselves?
The number one lament I get from un-differentiated photographers is, “I can’t get any leads” well, there is a reason why and that reason is no one knows you exist because you just blend in – you look exactly the same as everyone else.
Honestly, I think the reason is fear: they’re scared to stand out. It often comes down to a lack of courage in deciding whether to stand out or just fit in because the truth is, everyone has some original ideas. It’s amazing to me how many people give up their creative birthright – the thing they say they want – which tells me they don’t really want it.
There’s an opportunity for those who are courageous enough to take a bet on themselves – the opportunity is plain as day. Which is why it’s the best of times – and the worst of times – in this industry. We have a massive problem: the photo industry is filling up and it’s becoming harder and harder to get noticed. It takes more work to stand out but the benefits of doing so are tremendous.
One fear many photographers have is that they’ll spend all this time and energy building a creative personal brand and others will just come along and jump on the bandwagon, copying them. How do you counteract that?
Right, so when other people copy it just means you’ve done something real. I don’t understand why people lament the fact that others are copying them – that’s the nature of creative industries. When the Edge came up with a new sound for guitar and everybody copied him, everyone hearing one of his imitators thinks:: “oh that sounds just like the Edge.” That’s not a problem! That’s a good thing.
The trick is, when you come up with something creative you’ve got to repeat it in front of as many people as possible so they associate it with you.
People will rip you off – this happens all the time: look at Trey Ratcliff, even Annie Lebowitz, anybody really successful is copied endlessly. And that’s okay – it just means they’ve done what they set out to do.
That said, if you want to go after one creative accomplishment and be done with it, this is the wrong industry for you ‘cause you gotta go again. And then you gotta go again!
The good news is that, as you’re creating again and again you’re building a body of work and you don’t need 10 million new concepts. A portfolio of eight original concepts is great! I love to see photographers with eight concepts that no-one else has done. People ask, “eight, really that’s all?” If you think of famous photographers there are only a handful of images that come to mind. That is all that’s required but it takes massive courage.
You know, that picture of Yoko Ono and John Lennon in bed is now a classic but when it was published the response was ridiculous – it was too intimate. But that’s what made Annie Leibowitz Annie Liebowitz. Think of what Jeremey Cowart does in Hatti – He’s on CNN for Pete’s sake. Everyone asks, “how does he get on CNN after being a photographer for 6 years? How does Joey L get the Twilight deal? He’s only freakin’ 20 years old!”
The reason they got those deals is because they actually take a risk every time they pick up a camera. You do that every time you pick up a camera and you will be copied but you will also have a career.
That’s great portfolio-building advice. What about first getting started? We all know it involves a lot of trial and error. Do you have any funny or inspiring stories from the beginning of your photo career?
Most of my funny stories are about me blundering my way and feeling like a fool. I got started a lot later than most photographers – I was in my 30s and at the time all my colleagues were in their teens or early 20s. At first it was a struggle to keep going and keep learning but I loved it.
I love what I do now. Last Friday a client was in my studio looking at portraits of her daughter who’s going to college next year and she starts crying. She’s feeling the reality of what she’s in the middle of and while it’s just a portrait on the wall the emotions it represents are awesome. There’s something incredible about knowing you’re contributing to the legacy of a family.
I love that I get to be a part of it.
Read more of Dane’s advice and see what others have said about his books at the Fast Track Photographer online.