Bill Cramer is the founder of Wonderful Machine, a production company that helps ad agencies, brands and publications find photographers, stock photos and produce photo shoots with a network of 700 photographers around the world. He talked with Alex Garcia about photojournalists transitioning into their own business.
ALEX: Can you share a little of your photojournalism background?
BILL: I went to Penn State University and worked on the student newspaper as a photographer, and that was a great experience. And I was able to put together what really in retrospect was a professional portfolio so that when I graduated from Penn State in 1985, I was able to basically waltz into The Associated Press and get an assignment right off the bat. I was doing four or five assignments a week for the AP at 50 bucks a pop, and I loved it.
I just gradually expanded into shooting magazine assignments. … That was a scary proposition for a 24-year-old photographer thinking that, "Geez, I've got this big assignment on the line for …"
ALEX: What do you think are the transferable skills that ended up being very useful for you?
BILL: One of the things that they [photographers] need to understand from a portfolio standpoint is the idea that as a newspaper photographer, you really need to be a generalist. Because even if you're working for a big newspaper, you might do a food picture one day and then a sports picture the next day or even on the same day.
But when transitioning to a commercial portfolio, what a photographer needs to understand is that commercial clients don't need a range of skills. They want specialists because any commercial client is only going to hire one photographer to shoot one assignment at a time. You need to think about what specific area of photography do you want to compete in and then build a portfolio that has a depth of skill that you can demonstrate, rather than having it be shallow but broad.
ALEX: Does the same principle hold for video as well?
BILL: From what I can see with video and with directors and DPs, cinematographers, is my sense of it is that there's a little bit more room for variety in portfolios with directors in video. I think the most important thing is to cultivate a signature style that can go through all the different projects you do.
People with something to say and a way of saying it are the people who are making money.
ALEX: So, getting back to your experience: Where did you learn to think like a businessperson when you were starting out?
BILL: I feel like I've always been interested in business, and I feel like I've always thought about myself as a businessman or a businessperson.
I think sales and marketing and, in general, growing a business, being an entrepreneur has a lot to do with being able to endure failure, to be able to have an idea and commit to that idea and go out and take a chance and spending money.
You have to be willing to risk that stuff in order to have even a chance at growing, and you have to be willing to accept, to fail over and over and over again, and then sometimes you're going to succeed.
There's something called a sigmoid curve. If all you do is sort of have one product, and then you don't develop the next product, that product sort of has a life expectancy. And what you need to do is once you find success with a particular product line or service, before that sort of runs its course, you've got to be thinking about the next service. So that while your first product is still strong, that's when you take the chance and risk developing a new product.
‘I think Instagram is critical. I used to use to think a blog was really important. Now I think that I’d rather have somebody put all their energy into having a strong Instagram presence than to have a blog’
ALEX: Now that's a really interesting idea, and I'm wondering in terms of translating it to photographers. Have you seen their specialties change or evolve almost in the same way that you're talking about?
BILL: One of the things that I can vividly remember thinking when I started out as a photographer in Philadelphia is that when I was 23, 24 years old, I looked around, and there was no working photographer above the age of 45.
One of the things that made a big impression on me was this idea that I needed to have a Plan B. I sort of did the photojournalism thing for about five years and then sort of reinvented myself as a magazine photographer. I did that for like another 15 years, and then I invented Wonderful Machine.
ALEX: What do you see is their biggest challenges for photojournalists - somebody who's starting out and basically jumping into the market?
BILL: I think you've got to start with this notion of reconciling what it is that motivates you and what are you willing to sacrifice for that and then finding the balance that works for you. For example, if you decided that you wanted to be a freelance photojournalist, you've got to look around and research what are all of the publications out there in the world that need freelance photographers. There's a lot of publications that are not necessarily name-brand news outlets, but they do use photojournalists to cover their stories.
In in the age of the internet and the age of sort of mixed media, you've got all kinds of clients that you didn't have before. For example, NPR hires photojournalists. CNN hires for photojournalists to do still photos. You have to be inventive and curious about what the possibilities are. You have to be a detective to make sure you know who all the possible clients are.
Once you've researched all those people, you've got to connect with them. You've got to set up appointments to show your portfolio and say hello in person, and you've got to have a mailing that you can send out every few months to remind them that you exist. Then you've got to continue to expand that circle of prospective clients
There are some clients who you can take your photojournalism skills, and with very little modification, you can be working, instead of $400 a day, you can be working for $1,400 a day. But then to make the leap into advertising, it is more of a quantum leap. That's not sort of an incremental leap. That's where assisting other photographers can be really valuable.
ALEX: Getting to the idea of the photographer, the photojournalist, as a storyteller: There's such an emphasis and priority on storytelling that I see commercial photographers positioning themselves as storytellers and, in a way, photojournalists.
BILL: We've added a category called Brand Narrative to the photographer search on our website which basically describes what you're talking about - these sort of storytelling pictures for commercial use. It's actually deceptively challenging to take a photojournalist and have them transition to commercial narrative storytelling photography. Having been a photojournalist then having attempted that transition myself, I can tell you how difficult it is. So much of being a photojournalist is about seeking the truth. And so much about being an advertising photographer is telling a fiction and sort of telling a tale. I think so many newspaper and wire service photographers have it ingrained in them that they want to tell the truth that it's really just very difficult for photojournalists, I think in many cases, to make this transition. Psychologically, it's difficult. And then of course, creatively, technically, it's difficult because you have to be thinking about making a universal picture. And that is a real skill, and if you can do that, that's super valuable.
ALEX: It's really hard for photographers to move from an employee mentality to an owner mentality. And I also think it's a challenge because you're constantly ground into this mentality of poverty. "You'll never make a lot of money in journalism," and, "Your industry is, like, dying." "You're cheap."
BILL: That is true. I think a lot of photographers feel lucky to be working at all, and so a lot of photographers complain. I can remember an ASMP board member preaching about standing your ground with usage. And then I can remember a month later competing with him for an annual report, and I lost the job to him, and the client told me that he just gave away all the rights for a cheap fee.
I think it's better to lose out on some jobs than to always be the cheapest guy. Because in the long run, if you're going to be in the business for years, you have to take charge of that process and learn.
It is challenging, but it's doable, and frankly, Wonderful Machine has about 80 pricing and negotiating articles online. So there's no excuse for anybody to not learn about it. And it does take time, but if you're going to be a professional photographer, just as you're going to have to learn your craft of the creative part of photography and the technical part of photography, you're going to have to learn the financial and business part of photography too if you're going to have a good career.
ALEX: I really find the articles valuable, and I really appreciate what you guys do with that. I should say I have read comments on some of them saying, "Oh, this is completely unrealistic; there's no way anybody would pay this."
BILL: About 20 years ago, I worked for Steven Meisel, who was and still is a very famous fashion photographer. When I was working for him, he was making millions of dollars a year as a photographer. And I can remember just being flabbergasted about how much money there was to be made with photography. And so if you're doing $100 assignments, it's sort of hard to imagine people making $10,000 or $100,000 a day, but they do.
ALEX: Clients love photojournalists, but they really want lifestyle.
BILL: And so early on, often, photojournalists can pluck out pictures from their portfolio and put together a portfolio that looks something like lifestyle. And that's fine for a start, but then what you really need to be able to do is replicate that because the idea of being a professional photographer, especially a commercial photographer, is that you can do that on purpose. You can do it on command, and it's not about getting lucky.
If you're charging $12,000 a day and you've got another $30,000 a day worth of expenses, that client expects that you're going to be able to bring home that prize-winning picture every single time.
ALEX: What should a photographer or videographer consider when presenting their reel or portfolio to the marketplace? Should they be researching what's popular? Should they stay true to their vision? Should they look and see what everyone else is doing?
BILL: Do you do what everybody else is doing in a way or do you stay true to your own vision? It can't be one or the other. I think if you're the person who wants to just shoot your own vision, so to speak, that's a fine artist. If you're going to work on an assignment for clients, you have to be able to combine those two things because every client wants a photographer with a point of view, but they want that point of view to be serving their corporate needs.
ALEX: Where should photographers focus their time and money when it comes to marketing?
BILL: Branding first and then marketing. So in terms of branding, you want to think about having first and foremost a solid website. You want to have a logo. If you have a sense of style, you can do that yourself with plain text, but you want to have a little bit of style with that.
You're going to want to have professionally designed business cards and stationery. You're going to want to have some sort of leave-behind or postcard because if you go to visit somebody, a business card is fine, but you want to have at least some sort of postcard or little fold-up brochure. And you want to have the same thing that you can stick in an envelope and send to somebody. And then you might want to also have some sort of email template because the printed pieces are too expensive to send out a regular basis.
In terms of marketing, I think Instagram is critical. I used to use to think a blog was really important. Now I think that I'd rather have somebody put all their energy into having a strong Instagram presence than to have a blog.
When a client looks at your Instagram following, and they look at your competitors' Instagram following … if your competitor has twice as many followers, your client who is insecure, like all of us, they're going to say, "Well, why does this other photographer have twice as many Instagram followers? There must be something about them."
In terms of actual direct marketing, I think just research is super important. Figure out which companies you want to work for, figure out which people at each of those companies you want to work for and then send them an email or send them a postcard and then call them up on the phone and ask to stop by with your portfolio.
The best promotion in the world is doing a great job and having that photo editor or that art director tell their friend that you did a great job. That's always been the most effective promotion that I've ever done, and that's what every photographer tells me.
ALEX: I'm assuming you recommend personal projects as well.
BILL: I prefer to call them self-assigned projects because it makes it neutral. If the clients you're already working for aren't giving you the assignments that you want, you have to develop those assignments for yourself because nobody's going to hire you to do something that they don't see in your portfolio.
ALEX: Would you ever, in that context, in trying to build up work, discourage somebody from working for free?
BILL: Yeah, that's a tricky one. I remember I was an assistant on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue … I probably shouldn't identify him. He was a good guy, but when I did go to apply for the job, he said, "I'll take you with me, but you have to paint my barn for free first." So I spent about three days painting his barn.
ALEX: Keeping in mind the future of Wonderful Machine, what is your perspective on the future? What are you looking forward to? What are you hoping to do?
BILL: I don't pretend to know where the industry is going. I would not have predicted that Instagram would be as important as it has turned out to be. I'm surprised at how slowly the still photography and motion pictures have been to merge.
We now have 700 photographers, and we pay attention to about 15,000 clients. We now have 22 people in our company, and everybody is constantly talking to photographers, clients, crew, agents, and so all we do is communicate with everybody in the industry. So we can't help but be aware of what's going on, and we'll just continue to make these incremental changes in order to keep up with the overall changes in the industry.
ALEX: Well, that's fabulous. … Thanks so much, Bill, I really appreciate it.
BILL: All right, take care. Bye-bye.
Alex Garcia is an independent photographer based in Chicago and a member of the NPPA board of directors. He can be reached at [email protected]