How Are You Keeping Your Competitive Advantage

by Alice B. Miller

Andrew Darlow

August 01, 2011 — Maintaining a competitive edge is vital for success in every profession, especially photography. How you go about keeping that edge varies from photographer to photographer, market to market, and sometimes photo specialty to photo specialty.

I recently spoke with a cross section of photographers to gain perspective on what’s working, what’s not, and how they’ve adjusted their strategies to stay ahead. What follows are highlights of those interactions:

Andrew Darlow: “My competitive advantage for my pet portraiture business is that I’ve written an award-winning book—Pet Photography 101: Tips for Taking Better Photos of Your Dog or Cat—which often opens doors and gives people more confidence in hiring me. The book, as well as sample prints and articles on the topic in magazines and online, have helped me to establish myself as someone who is knowledgeable in the area. In addition to showing examples of my work on a dedicated Web site (, I often send people to my book’s companion site to download free PDFs from my book and read about recent events, articles and interviews I’ve done. Five years ago I met most of my clients through pet-related trade shows and word-of-mouth. Now most photo session reservations come from reading my book, doing an online search for ‘pet photographer’ or through my Facebook pages.”

Mike Fulton:
“One of TriCoast Photography’s biggest competitive advantages is making a personal connection with our community. By using Facebook, emails and digital newsletters, we keep clients updated on what we’re doing. To find out what our clients are doing, we make an effort to get to know them. Volume is key in photography and we jumped into it head first. By photographing children in schools and sporting events in our area, we reach every family with children ages three to 18 with positive direct marketing and start building lifelong relationships with our clients for future weddings, baby and family sessions. Our own Volume Software (FotoVelocity) gives us a solid workflow, all the way through the entire event.”

Allison Earnest: “My competitive edge is my 28 years’ experience as a professional photographer and custom photofinisher, as well as my passion for photography and lighting. I have a bachelor’s degree in business and I teach aspiring photographers through my lighting books—Sculpting with Light®: Techniques for Portrait Photographers and Light Modifiers: A Digital Guide to Sculpting with Light® (Amherst Media)—and a third, tentatively titled The Art of Product Photography, out next summer. With so many people entering the field, I stay focused on my marketing target: commercial clients. I recently did a complete redesign on my Web site, which remains my most beneficial marketing tool.

Jim Jordan: “I’m a one-stop shop. Besides photography, I offer full production services, including casting, locations, permits, etc. My Livebooks Web site is a great vehicle to show my clients how this all works. The site has a client-only section, which allows me to make a customized presentation for clients, where I can include every aspect of what I offer so clients can see just how much time and money they will save by enlisting all of my services. My competitive advantage has definitely changed over time. As I’ve grown as a photographer, I’ve been able to network with other professionals and build a working relationship with them.”

Maria Mack: “My competitive edge is that I am always striving to be better than my last shoot or wedding. Developing a good, consistent body of work is really important, but knowing when to take risks is what helps me to stand out from my competition. Also, staying current, which includes everything from my Web site, blog, social media and marketing materials being kept fresh and up to date. I did a complete revamp of my Web site and blog at the beginning of the year and the impact has been huge.”

Ed McCulloch: “In addition to offering photography, I have a director’s reel, which allows me to take care of clients’ print and TV campaigns, saving them and their agencies time and money. My agent Tim Mitchell lets them know that I’m versatile and can handle both print and TV. He takes out ads in Workbook, Archive, sends out emails and makes monthly ad agency visits. I do fewer print mailings than I used to, and more time on emails directing people to the TV spots I’ve done on my reel.”

Michael P. Toothman: “My ability to impart a photojournalistic feel to my work as a differentiator has resulted in greater interest in my portfolio. It starts from the first meeting where ideas are discussed and concepts are storyboarded. By following reliable, repeatable planning processes, I leave nothing to chance and my team fully understands the message I am trying to convey with my image, and the essential elements in crafting that message. The result is a professional shoot that is more relaxed, less chaotic and aligned toward my overall objectives. Visible metaphor marketing collateral addresses this project management-oriented process, and describes how it brings value to the final image.”

Emily Potts: “Emily Potts Photography is the studio in town where clients are able to commission custom portrait art for their homes. In a market with many shoot-and-burn photographers, this level of service is something that truly sets us apart. Our service includes an appointment during which we design a portrait display for the clients’ home; their portrait session results in professionally printed heirloom pieces they can be proud to display. While we have always emphasized wall art for our clients’ homes, today we design collections of wall portraits that showcase multiple images versus one statement piece for a space. With this shift in design philosophy, we have printed materials featuring clients’ walls adorned with our portraits and brochures showcasing our imagery.”

Dan’niel McKnight: “My competitive advantage as a photographer in my market is my fearlessness and creativity. I have always been very creative, but I wasn’t always brave enough to show it and take risks to the extent that I do now. My inspiration has come from the experience and life-changing opportunity of photographing and getting to know singer Adam Lambert. His ability to be and accept himself, no matter what, has given me the confidence to take risks in my wedding career more than ever before. My competitors and associates tell me that I think outside the box more than anyone they know. I was the first photographer in Oklahoma to offer Trash The Dress. Now the trend is very popular. By putting aside what everyone else is doing and letting the artist inside me emerge, clients pay for the artistry.”

Martin Vrabko: “One of my advantages is how I treat people, showing no difference between celebrities and non-celebrities. We are all connected; we just play different games. Clients share their photography experiences with others. I don’t do any other marketing. Word of mouth or personal recommendation is my best marketing tool, and in my opinion, the most powerful marketing. I’m always increasing my technical and artistic abilities, and bringing those new skills and experience to my work and communications with my clients. The business situation is difficult because the world has changed, but we still have old patterns. I always am looking for new ways.”

Alice B. Miller is the owner of Plum Communications Inc. (, a Long Island, NY, editorial services and marketing-communications company that supports the photo industry. Previously the editor of Studio Photography magazine, Alice has a growing clientele that includes photographers, manufacturers, publications and associations. She is the director of public relations for the International Photographic Council.

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