By Deb Pang Davis

The word “marketing” makes most photographers cringe but, the “M” word is not the dirty, spammy, I-need-to-take-a-shower kind of self-promotion you might think it is. Ew.

Contrary to popular belief, marketing is not constantly talking about yourself and tooting your own horn. Marketing, according to Bernadette Jiwa, is “understanding your customer” and “focusing on their wants and needs.”

Marketing connects who you are and what you offer with your audience. Marketing helps manage the perception of your brand.

Marketing is a way to build and maintain authentic relationships. Those relationships turn into successes: assignments, collaborations, projects, partnerships. When you send out postcards, portfolios, emails, tweets and status updates, you are helping people connect with you.

You can’t reach everyone and you don’t want to reach everyone. That would be a waste of time. Marketing should be targeted. Ideally, you want people who are a “good match” with your values and who understand your value proposition. You want to create and mobilize a core audience to be your “brand advocates” -- people who love who you are and what you do, something marketing expert and author Seth Godin refers to as a “tribe.”

Marketing requires a vehicle, a medium, to carry your message. Idenity (Logo, business card, stationery) mailed promotion pieces, websites, email newsletters, blogs, and social media postings (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc.) all carry your brand message and feeds an ecosystem that establishes and maintains a connection with your audience. 

The words and photos you publish and share—to connect with your “good match”—should be purposeful and focused to answer your audience’s burning questions. Your value and your influence is based on meeting their needs, desires, and how you help solve their problems.

So, while digital media now arguably dominates most marketing streams (more on this later in the series), print is still a powerful way to connect with your audience. It provides a different type of interaction and can leave a meaningful impression. And because it can be tacked or taped to an office wall or passed around the office, it can keep your message top-of-mind with your audience in a more tangible, physical way.

Visual Identity & Print Promotion 

A strong visual identity with stellar promotional pieces can help you stand out. You’ve probably seen a wide variety of high-priced approaches: self-published artist books; letterpress printed business cards; single, folding or accordion postcards; intricate boxes; toys, food, and more.

It seems you need a lot of money to stand out. Not true.

While strong design helps to convey credibility, trust and professionalism, spending a boat-load of money on a logo, a swanky portfolio case or a custom book won’t get you clients unless you ground your design with a clear understanding of yourself, your brand.

Your identity pieces, promotional pieces, email newsletters, your print portfolio and your website presentation should represent your brand promise. Each element helps identify you and your business but you don’t have to break the bank to be effective. Guard against letting your emotions cripple your cash flow.

Branding and marketing expert Jasmine Defoore agrees: “I think this is really important. With so many examples online of slick and expensive marketing pieces, photographers can get duped into thinking they a) need to spend that kind of money and b) that it guarantees their work gets a lot of attention. Of course in an ideal world, you have strong work and beautifully-designed pieces to show that work off. But sometimes people are working with small budgets. If the work is really strong, I believe you can print a small stack of cards at home and write a nice note, and that can make as much of an impression as a $3,000 print project.”

So how do you start creating a visual identity and presence that doesn’t break the bank? Here are some tips to get your creative juices flowing. 

Create a mood board. The choices of color, backgrounds, typography, etc. can feel daunting. Start by gathering ideas from other places. Get some magazines and clip words, textures, font examples. Go to the hardware store and pull color samples from the paint department. Go with your instincts. Now make a selection of small prints from your portfolio. Next, create a colllage by glueing them on a large piece of posterboard. It can be messy. It can be neat. Make as many as you want. 

If you’re prefer the digital route, there are tools that can help you create a moodboard from all sorts of digital media. Check these out:

The mood board is a starting point, a brainstorm, something to live with and go back to. If an element doesn’t work, try again. The process is like creating a successful photograph, try and try again. This exercise will help clarify a style that feels comfortable and helps inform decisions you make moving forward.

Go simple with a wordmark. It is not a requirement for photographers to have a fancy graphic icon as their logo. Invest in a high-quality, well-designed typeface and create a wordmark. Visit online type foundries, access their type tester, type in your name and see how your name wears a typeface. Go back to your moodboard. Which typeface is consistent with your brand’s personality? But remember, check in with a designer friend who can help you with the nuances of setting type. It doesn’t take long and the result will have more polish.

Handletter and get crafty. Write your name and scan it. Create a custom rubber stamp and use it to “print” your business cards. Got a vintage typewriter hanging around? Use it to manually type your thank you cards. Explore different kinds of paper. Use stickers. Try screen printing or use paints. Have some fun.

Go digital — printing. Printing doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Many printers offer digital printing services as an alternative to offset printing. Inexpensive, elegant promotional postcards, magazines, books, business cards, stickers and more can be ordered in a few clicks, delivered quickly and unlike offset, your print runs can be smaller. Be sure to ask for samples to see the quality of printing color, extra options and paper samples before you pull the trigger.

Look to products and interiors for inspiration. You may find that the products you love and the places where you love to eat can be sources of inspiration for how to package and design your identity. Pay attention to how your favorite coffee place or restaurant is designed. What mood is created by the materials, colors, type, paper and language they use to appeal to your senses? Even the hang tags attached to the clothing you buy can say a lot about the brand. 

Go for cohesive. Your identity is seen and used in many environments—social media icons, websites, print promos, mobile, etc. Try not to let “consistency” rule out flexibility and don’t be afraid to mix and match colors, patterns, typefaces, paper, icons and more to identify your brand. Consistency can be similar in terms of texture and even contrast.  Just like in fashion, there are guidelines but not hard and fast rules of what pulls a visual identity together. 

Get started. Don’t feel like you need to spend a lot of money to take the stage. But always remember your audience and make sure to keep your identity pieces unified as a package representative of your brand.

You strive to make meaningful images. Meaningful is more important than expensive. Try not to compare yourself with other photographer’s solutions. Craft what feels natural and is truly reflective of you. 

Be steady and non-spammy. Keep your brand alive and fresh in the minds of your audience. Trust in yourself and others will trust you.


In the next installment, we will tell you how to transform your website from a mere online portfolio to a nexus for an integrated marketing platform.

Sources and Resources

Branding & Marketing 

Typography and Design

Type Foundries

Digital Printing

Letterpress and/or Silkscreen


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.