By Deb Pang Davis

Type in any keyword combination of “branding” and “photographers” into Google and you’ll likely get results in the tens of thousands.

Most of the results lead you to articles emphasizing the importance of a logo or a business card or some fancy promotional piece. An article may talk about mood boards, color combinations, typeface choices or any combination of the above.

They've got it wrong, or at least only 10% right.

Your logo, your color palette, your website or your latest killer promotional piece are only small pieces of the brand equation. They don’t drive your branding efforts, your branding efforts drive them. Focusing on design before articulating your brand is putting the cart before the proverbial horse. 

Your Brand and Branding

Your brand is the sum of all the feelings, opinions and expectations others have about you -- good and bad, objective or subjective, real or imagined. Your brand is based on your audience's experience of you in any venue and from any source, direct or indirect.

Branding is the planned process of understanding and making the impressions that generate feelings and opinions about you with an audience – be they clients, peers, readers or recommenders. It is a notable part of your overall business plan.

The branding process is a never ending cycle of discovery, articulation, rediscovery and adjustment. Your brand map is the sum of three important parts:

  1. Who you are
  2. What you do
  3. Who you do it for

Discovery: Know Thyself

The branding process starts with developing a clear understanding of yourself and how your audiences precieves you.

Understanding who you are, what you believe, what you are good at and what you are not,  is essential to building a branding plan that will guide you to deliver experiences that ring true with your audience. 

Knowing who you are builds the confidence to attract an audience. Confidence builds trust.

The greater clarity you have about your own values, beliefs, passions and aspirations, the easier it is for you to develop a plan and ultimately reach the audiences that will help you reach your goals.

You are discovering the levers you can move to take your business where you want it to go. Strategy is simply choosing which levers to move to achieve your goals. 

How do you start?

“Tell the truth”, says branding consultant Bernadette Jiwa. You have to be honest with yourself before you can be honest with others. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Motivations: Why do you do the  kind of work you love to do? Why does it satisfy in you? Why does it drive you?
  • Success: How do you define success? Where do you see yourself 1, 3 and 5 years from now? Be specific. Add details. Rank them.
  • Values: What are your values? What personal characteristics do you prize in yourself and those you WANT to work with? What are your beliefs?
  • Skills: What are your best skills and abilities? What areas do you know you need improvement? Oh yeah, and how does your portfolio reflect all the above?

Write your answers in a journal—digital or paper. Your answers here create the first crucial part of branding: Who you are.

For example, Toni Greaves, a Portland, Oregon based documentary photographer has a clear mission: 

 “I want to do good in the world. I want to create things/energy that helps people in some way”, says Toni. “Whether that includes visual stories that bridge a gap of understanding or personal values of trying to bring positivity and light to situations or people I’m around, I simply want to be a force for good. Obviously, the fact that I enjoy shooting for NGOs is part of that, along with my personal projects that try to open a window to understanding something in the world.”

Taking the time to get confident about what you value, why you do it and how you define success will help focus your everyday energies as a photographer.

Sometimes that focus is intuitive—you instinctively graviate toward the stories you feel are important, the topics that interest you but there’s a lot of noise—competitions, influencers, your personal life.

Chris Cappozziello, a photographer focused on long-term projects and a founding member of AEVUM explains, “I’m constantly trying to understand myself and find out who I am. It is a lifelong struggle and as I move throughout life, my values change which, inevitably changes what I photograph and how I approach work.”

Your answers will change a little or a lot but these answers will help you sort through the myriad of business decisions you will face. It can help manage analysis paralysis. Plan to revisit your answers as your business evolves. 

 Discovery: Focus and Know your audience

The days of the generalist are over. It’s time to specialize and for those of you who work at newspapers this may seem super tough but editorial photographer Lianne Milton who was laid off in 2009, offers this advice:

“Experiment and don’t fall into the trap of being everything. Most of us who were laid off were newspapers photographers. We were trained to do all kinds of stories within our communities, from sports, to breaking news, and food. We photographed everything very well. With this new life, allow yourself to follow what really moves you. It is one thing to diversify, but don’t put it all in one box.”

Ilise Benun, founder of Marketing Mentor and Co-founder of The Creative Freelancer Conference often puts it this way, “go vertical rather than horizontal”. Offer a set of skills and services that go deep to a core audience rather than trying to do everything for everyone.

The key is to position yourself as an expert. This is the second crucial part of your branding map.

Perhaps you rock at making pictures of sports or portraits or news events or long-form essays. Narrow the focus even more. Perhaps rather than sports, you focus on basketball. Rather than portraits, you focus on celebrities. You could also add your technical superpowers such as lighting or soft skills such as an awesome ability to make people laugh. Maybe your expertise is a topic or issue such as the environment, immigration or health. It’s worth asking: How could I narrow the focus even more?

See how getting to know who you are helps you to stand out? Knowing what makes you tick helps you identify your audience.

But, only research will help you reach your target audience; the second phase of your branding process.

Here are few ways to get to know your audience:

  • Make a list of ideal clients: Rank them and find out who can help you reach them.
  • Find their “watering holes”: Where do they hang out? Visit them.
  • Discover their “pain points”? What do they talk about? What do they care about? What frustrates them?
  • Get to know their mission: What is the organization about? How do they connect with their audience?
  • Study the images they use: What types of images do they publish? What makes them unique? Why do they use photography?

Don’t be afraid to send out a survey, interview them or ask to meet to get to know them as people. The goal is to discover their needs, their desires, their wants then articulate what you offer to help solve their problems. 

Remember: It’s not about you.

The Heart: Your Work, Your Vision, Your Portfolio

“A strong edit that speaks clearly about the kind of work that you want to be getting is key,” says Jasmine DeFoore, a picture editor and marketing consultant for photographers. “That might mean getting rid of images or whole galleries that aren’t supporting your goals. That can be hard to do. It really helps to have a colleague look at the work so you can get a fresh set of eyes.”

If the presentation of your photography is all over the map, take inventory of your images, your archives and work with your colleagues, respected professionals or a reputable picture editor to organize and focus your portfolio. You may need to fill holes. You may discover that your work can be organized into themes or moods atypical of the traditional editorial buckets.

The editing of your portfolio is no small thing. Your work is your greatest asset so invest in the time to evaluate and structure it. Edit to your goals based on who you are and who you do it for. Your photography chops make up the third crucial part of you branding map.

Lianne Milton hired a photo editor, “Because I felt that I needed a refined vision to attract editorial and commercial clients”, she says. “Ultimately it came down to the work I really want to do, which is still reportage. It’s my soul work and what really moves me. I love quirky fun lighter assignments, but what really makes me feel alive is the reportage stories.”

Having a strong vision is also central to your brand. It aligns with who you are and ultimately intersects with who you attract.

 “Vision is knowing what your photography is about and what type of stories you do,” says New York based photojournalist Yunghi Kim. “Generally people want to see good work and this can bring other opportunities for work.”

 Stay true to your style, your vision. The pictures you make are the reason people hire you. Tools such as color, camera distance, light, moment are the tools of many photographers but how you choose to use them and the clarity of what you are trying to convey and express is what attracts people. That last part is undeniably you. If you make images that simply replicate what already exists, you can’t differentiate you from everybody else.

Making your next best picture is your priority.

Action: Manage Your Brand

This may shock you, but it isn’t “all about the work”. Great work is just one layer—albeit an important one—but great work on its own doesn’t guarantee consistent calls for assignments. No one wants to work with an abrasive personality or a photographer who can’t meet deadlines.

You don’t really own your brand. Your brand is what people remember and say about you.

But, you can manage your brand. Take a good hard look at your self. How do you build relationships with people? How do people describe you? Ask them. What adjectives do they use? Are there consistent traits or themes? What kind of impression do you leave?

 “I just be myself,” says Toni Greaves. “I kinda have an attitude that whatever I deliver to a  client must be excellent, nothing else. I hold myself to high standards.”

Here are a few things that support your brand:

Your Work (Does it demonstrate)

    • Quality
    • Expertise
    • Values
    • Style

Your Presentation

    • What you say and how you say it (written or verbal)
    • How you dress (appropriate for the occassion)
    • Visual Identity (Website, business cards, stationery, email signature, promotional pieces, print portfolio)
    • Staff and Assistance
    • Office decor

Your Business Skills

    • Preparing Proposals, SOWs, Licensing Agreements
    • Contracts and copyright
    • Negotiating the above
    • Project Management 
    • Project Delivery

Your Commitment

    • Meeting deadlines
    • Meeting budgets
    • Managing and communicating expectations
    • Your subcontractors or partners

Your Personality

    • How you engage people 
    • How you collaborate
    • How you encourage, direct
    • How you listen and give feedback

Think about the choices you’ve made purchasing products and services. What goes through your mind? What criteria do you use in making a decision? There is an emotional  connection. 

Reflect on the points above. What emotional values and triggers help bridge the gap between you and your audience? It is crucial to understand the difference between your self perceptions and how your audiences perceieve you.

The branding process boils down to this: How do you make people feel?

Deliver: The Promise

Fulfilling the needs, the desires, the expectations of your clients is what ultimately matters. “Your brand is a promise from you to the customer”, says Bernadette. “It is also whatever a customer believes about you.”

If you don’t deliver what you promise, people will look elsewhere. 

Success isn’t necessarily about being the best. Branding can help you find your sweet spot—the intersection of who you are, what you do and who you do it for.

Make a commitment. Invest in the branding process. Once you define a direction—your branding map—no matter how loose, it will help make you more confident.

But as was mentioned early on, the branding process is a cycle. A more defined brand helps you with your marketing. Next you will learn how the branding process keeps your brand top of mind by creating impressions that influence people’s willingness to listen and say, “yes” to you.

Sources & Resources


Branding & Marketing Consultants

About Deb Pang Davis

Deb Pang Davis by Mike DavisDeborah Pang Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Multimedia Photography & Design Department at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She teaches typography; web, tablet, print and motion design in addition to marketing and branding for undergraduate and graduate students. She continues to design print and interactive solutions for photographers and other right-brained entrepreneurs.