The habits of successful photographers, part II

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There are very few behind the scenes photos of me working – you’ll find out why below.

Continued from Part one. Today’s post concludes with an examination of the commercial part: whilst there is a good portion that’s simple common business sense (or not common, judging from the overall failure rate of small businesses) – there are elements and applications that are specific to photographers only, which I’ve tried to distil here.

The commercial photography part

Be visible. Put simply: nobody can hire you if nobody can find you. There’s no shortcut to this, unfortunately – whilst eventually you will probably build up enough of a client base for referrals and repeat work, it’s going to take some time, and the first year or so is really the critical period during which you have to gather enough critical mass to stay in business. The landscape of how clients engage photographers has changed dramatically – at all levels. The ‘traditional’ method of agents and ad agencies etc. has almost vanished in a bid for the bottom line; all of my current clients and almost all since 2014 or so have been direct commissions, from the very small to the multinational companies. This means you need to be visible to the individuals doing the scouting and decision making or proposal – and right now, the best bang for the buck is via social media. That said, thanks to the continuously changing monetisation policies of FB and instagram, it’s quickly turning into a race for those with the deepest pockets to pay for sponsored posts etc. or How are the next generation going to get visibility? I have no idea. One more important and related point: photographers are not image buyers (duh) so unless you want to run a review/referral link site, you’re not going to make a living as a photographer this way. (And even then, there are 100001 of them now, mostly containing opinions of people who do not actually have enough experience to make an informed judgement…)

Be persistent. Put another way: the only possible outcome is ‘no’ if you don’t try. Once your career is mature you might find yourself being awarded commissions first time, or having proposals accepted immediately, but until that point…I honestly don’t remember how many pitches got rejected or worse, passed on to somebody else to execute cheaper (or because they were paying kickbacks). Still, you have to keep self-promoting, because if you don’t – nobody else will. But do it in a professional, non-obnoxious way. And never promise something you can’t deliver.

Be service-oriented. I don’t entirely agree with the ‘customer is king’ philosophy, but I do believe that all good working relationships are partnerships rather than transactions – especially for bespoke products or services. If requests are reasonable, and clients are polite, I’ll do everything I can to accommodate. Even for basic things like responsiveness to communications – never be the one being waited for. Be proactive with updates. Write communications clearly and effectively. I almost always deliver more images than commissioned – on a ‘good’ shoot you start to get experimental and come up with things that weren’t on the shot list; on a ‘bad’ one you hope the client will come around and use some of your ideas instead of theirs eventually. But if there’s significant excursion from scope, then be prepared to bill. If I had to sum it in one line: promise a bit above expectations, and always try to deliver more than you promise. This signals reliability and commitment.

Show what you want to shoot. It’s very easy to get stuck in the trap of producing repetitive, catalog-type work – this is not really photography; it’s more like visual documentation. There is no creativity involved – almost everything is dictated from lighting style to angles. You simply won’t make anything unique in this kind of situation. It’s easy work to get, but not well paid because it doesn’t require a lot of skill, either. Though such jobs can be necessary to pay the bills especially early in one’s career – if you do too much of this you’ll find passion and creativity soon evaporate, leaving you unable to do the kind of work you want to. The only way to change what you’re known for is only to show the work you want people to see and remember – if you show a catalog of everything you’ve shot as opposed to everything you’ve shot that you’re happy with – then you’re going to get hired for stuff you might not necessarily want to do. This also means you’re probably going to have to do experimental shoots on your own (i.e. no client) to make the portfolio to demonstrate you can shoot what you want to – which is also great for one’s own creative development.

Make hay while the sun shines, but don’t be afraid to say no. Those who enjoy commercial success tend to do so because they do the jobs of five people but get paid for two or three – which as an absolute amount is great, but on a per-effort basis, it’s dismal. There is no shortcut to hard work, unfortunately: and if you don’t accept a job when offered, you never know when the next one might come (or not). This means we tend to have the tendency to be perpetually tired and overworked, or anxious that there’s nothing in the pipeline. I think it takes some experience to balance doing too much and burning out and not doing enough to stay afloat; unfortunately it tends to be either binary in either direction – more work equals more visibility and exponentially more opportunities; less work, the opposite. Knowing when to say no is also important because we do ourselves and our clients no favours if the creative or professional fit is poor, or we don’t have the bandwidth to execute the job properly.

Always try to see if there’s an opportunity. I’ve gotten a lot of work in the past by simply asking follow on questions – sometimes clients don’t realise what a photographer can bring to the table, and it’s our job to explain how effective visuals can help communication. Sometimes it means taking on tasks that might be a bit outside your normal scope – basic layout design, or video direction, for instance – but there’s no harm in having an expanded skill set, and from the client’s point of view – it’s generally preferable if they can get everything with one already known party. Increasingly, I’m finding we are becoming more like full service creative agencies (without the agency markup). Just know when something is outside your expertise, and preferably have a network of partners you can work with to fill the gaps.

Identify your niche. I’ve explained in the past why all good specialists are really also generalists – though from a commercial standpoint, everybody wants to hire an expert. What needs to happen is you must position yourself as an expert and be known for something – but have the experience and skillset to go beyond. The reality is nobody shoots in their speciality 100% of the time; asking around fellow pros seems to suggest it’s 50% at best. A lot of the time, we get hired for one thing on the basis of being an expert in another.

Do not work for free. We need to define the concept of ‘free’ very carefully here: zero value, which is not the same as zero monetary value. However, there are very, very few situations in which one should consider working for zero compensation; I would limit these to a) early on in your career when you actually, desperately need the exposure, but even then; b) when you have absolutely no choice to do work for family or friends out of obligation. Simply: if somebody sees value in your work enough to want it, and they in turn derive value from it, why shouldn’t you?

Let them open with price. If you are unsure of how to price your work, then let the client start: ask if they have a budget in mind. If this is acceptable, you’re good to go; if not, then assess just how big the gap is. If there’s hope, some negotiation might do the trick; if no, say thank you and decline. Lesson learned the hard way: working for less than you feel is fair will always make your feel overworked, and the client will always feel they got cheated because they paid more than they wanted to. In the end, nobody is happy. In short order you should have a fair idea of how to charge: it’s not an exact science, but needs to be a balance between total time requirements (it’s not just shooting, but also processing, admin, logistics etc.), actual shooting time, any special requirements, and where you want to position yourself in the market.

Value is not the same as cheapness. A lot of clients – especially in developing markets – want cheap; some won’t be able to tell the difference between good and bad, and those are probably a waste of your time anyway. Those who can will soon discover that they’ll have to the shoot again, and you get what you pay for. Deliver value – i.e. more quality/ quantity/ speed than expected at a given price point – but not cheapness.

Cashflow comes first. Most small businesses fail because of lack of cashflow – which is very different to profitability. Photographers fail to factor in one, two, three month (or even longer) payment times for work; I’ve had major companies not pay large invoices for six months. Had I not factored this into my budgeting, I’d have gone out of business several times. You need to have enough saying power to weather out these periods, which includes spending discipline (always finish the month with more money than you started), working capital buffers and the next point…

Run lean. Remember the caption for the title image? This is because I rarely use an assistant, for many reasons. Firstly, I tend to work in situations where they’d get in the way or self-carry is faster and doesn’t interrupt flow especially for documentary; secondly, bad assistants make your life significantly worse, especially if they mess up a client relationship or drop a piece of equipment in the middle of nowhere on a shoot, or worse, make another mistake and mess up a shoot entirely. This can cost you the job, and you still have to pay them. Conversely, a good assistant is worth their weight in gold: they should enable you to focus more on the shoot and worry less about the other stuff. And if you can do something with them you couldn’t do otherwise, then working on a % of billings as a cost is fair, I think. The ‘run lean’ principle of course applies beyond assistants: if you can keep your fixed costs to a minimum, then you have both higher margins in good times, more staying power in quiet times, and no pressure to figure out how to pay for your studio/ retouching staff/ makeup artists/ etc. Everything can be rented, and priced into a job. It might cost you more on a per job basis, but you only spend if you are billing and you aren’t paying for it if you’re not.

Consider return on investment. All equipment must be justified by financial return: buy the cheapest thing you can get away with that does the job (note: reliability is considered part of this). Too many photographers go overboard here and not only can’t recover what they spent, but they even spend in advance of getting work in the first place. My general rule of thumb is that small purchases (single body, lens etc.) must at least be covered 2x by the job they are going to be used on. Big purchases (complete system change) must be covered within six months. The cameras should be working for you, not the other way around. And on top of that, stuff breaks in the field – don’t use it if you can’t afford to repair it or write it off.

Choose your associations wisely. There is a very strong desire for a photographer to be ‘brand associated’ – but be careful what you sign up for, because it’s far more difficult to build a reputation than lose your integrity by pimping the wrong product. Only do it if there’s mutual gain, and you would use the product even if you weren’t compensated to do so. Free gear is one thing, but to be known as a brand shill can forever damage your image.

Record keeping and archiving is very important. I’m not just talking about images and backups, but also purchases, billing, etc. – if you don’t know what you’re owed or what you’ve spent, not only will you have trouble come tax time, but you’ll also be unable to manage cashflow and collections. On top of that, you also need to keep track of image licenses and who has rights to use what – this is very important especially if you have multiple licensors for the same image.

Image (sadly) matters. This may be limited to a developing market thing, but unfortunately we tend to often be assessed at face value. I have had just as many ‘shallow’ clients assess my value on superficial externalities like the clothes I wear or the camera I use, as those who look only at the images produced and forgive everything else – we need to be able to handle both types in this business. Example: I turned up to a recent shoot with two different cars on subsequent days; was ignored and given the run around (and told to park a kilometre away and walk) with the Mini, but given the full VIP treatment and a spot in front of the lobby with the 730 – go figure. It’s a tricky balance to sit at successful/ confident and not tip over to flashy/ trying too hard.

Lastly…be professional. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but it really boils down to this: deliver the job you committed to, no matter what.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved


  1. Nicholas says:

    Thanks for this Ming. Really inspiring.

  2. Please don’t get discouraged from the lack of feedback. I value reading about non-gear related aspects of photography a lot even though I rarely comment. Especially your knowledge about the business side of things is very interesting – it reminds me that I can improve even though I’m not in the same business. I often feel like the margins of winning an assignment are small, the reasons can be irrational and the experience of self-employment is hard won.

    Keep it up.

  3. Is the title image what you intend it to be? I ask because the top half looks weird (oversharpened?) to me, very unusual compared to your typical level of quality.

    • I think you’re looking at compression artefacts, and the effects of a small sensor and wide dynamic range scene (shot with an iPhone).

  4. Very few photographs of you working… but there are some

  5. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Almost no comments…
    You must have said it all!


    I hope they learnt a lesson when you came the second day.
    I once saw a VW bug with this text on the side:
    “I gave my Rolls to my butler.”
    But I very much doubt that it would work…

    – – –
    ( Btw.:
    A good article on photography in advertising: )

  6. I do appreciate your overall approach to handle commercial photography although I am just an enthusiast. I can imagine it’s hard to balance between what you’d like to do and what client’s like. You really handle it well and you can see from their perspective.

  7. Great article Ming.

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