Category Archives: Business

copyright Aloha Lavina

Hey Photographer! Who are You and What do You Believe?

If you are thinking of taking your photography a step further and making it a business, it’s more than just waking up one morning and telling yourself: OK, this is it. I’m going to make money from my photography.

Before you delve into making a strong business plan, you first have to ask yourself some tough questions.

How will you balance your creative work with the tasks that go into running a business? What is your marketing strategy? How will you differentiate your work from the other creative photographers? How will you stay current and fresh? These questions and more demand answers if you are going to be ready for the nuts and bolts of creating a photography business. Answering these questions is even more important if you want to sustain your business using your creativity.

Creating a manifesto is one way of strengthening your vision for your photography business.

Creating a manifesto for yourself could spell the difference between finding out later that your business plan is killing your art, or discovering that your business is an exciting extension of your creativity.

The following manifesto is a combination of statements from some of the most artistic businesses that have shared their creativity with the world. Preparing a talk for some business types who are curious about how to create without limits, I searched for ways to express my own beliefs and attitudes about my work as a travel and editorial photographer. Here’s what I learned.

A Manifesto for the Business of Creativity

Appreciate work as idea and idea as work.

Frank Lloyd Wright listed this tenet as number six in his atelier, and I place it first in this manifesto because I am not just a photographer; I am also a teacher, a writer, a TEDx curator, and a student of creativity. Combining these roles I play in my daily life, I discovered that there is one central focal point around which my various life activities pivot—ideas. Ideas excite me and fuel my work. If ideas become my work and I see work as engaging in ideas, I always enjoy what I’m doing.Processing copyright Aloha Lavina.

The greatest marketers do two things: they treat customers with respect and they measure.

This is number 2 in Seth Godin’s manifesto. I list this in my own manifesto because I believe that respect governs all transactions—whether it is a transaction of meaning, or a transaction between a creative and her client. Any relationship governed by respect will always remain a good relationship.

Measuring means always evaluating how things went; this goes hand in hand with respect because if you respect your work and the client, you will value the client’s feedback and use it to improve.

Learn. Knowledge makes everything simpler.

This statement from John Maeda’s manifesto is third on the list because it follows logically after the marketing statement. If you value your work and make the effort to measure it after you complete it, you will find that you are always willing to learn something new to add value to the next job.

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.

This next one is also from designer John Maeda’s manifesto. I add it here because I believe that if you really understand what it is you do, you can simplify it. Have you ever watched a master at work? The master makes the work seem effortless. This effortlessness is from a lifelong engagement in creativity.

Mastery happens when you have taught yourself all the skills that help you overcome and triumph over challenges in your work. The honed skills you possess make it easy for you to simplify what you have to do; your fingers find the controls and change settings just as fast as your brain clicks the solution into place to get a shot.

At mastery, you can concentrate fully on making meaning—creating images that speak about your vision, without technical issues getting in the way.copyright Aloha Lavina.

Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.

This long statement is from the writer Leo Tolstoy. He makes two points here. The first is that goals make success within reach. Specific goals that have a timeline and a plan are more likely to be achievable. The second point is that sometimes, the creative has to make a sacrifice. For example, you might have a chance to photograph an anorexic, and know that your images will get a lot of attention. But you might also recognize that the attention would catapult the sick person’s persona (through your images) into something akin to self hate. Would you sacrifice the subject to your sense of humanity? Perhaps you will.

We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can focus on the few that are meaningful to us.

This is fifth in Apple’s manifesto. I include it here because quite a few people I know are suffering from too much work that is meaningless to them. Meaningless work, work that you do only for money and do not get excited about, actually kills your creativity. To sustain your inspiration, you have to do work that means something to you. This is what vision gives you: it gives you a creative edge. This creative edge can be a commodity for which others hire you.copyright Aloha Lavina

We don’t settle for anything other than excellence.

Also from Apple’s manifesto, this reminds that no one, least of all yourself, should strive for mediocrity. Everyone begins at the beginning, but there is no reason why one cannot get better. Your benchmark for excellence might change a year from now when you’re closer to 10,000 hours of making images. But right now, you need to give it all you know. Always giving a hundred percent in everything you do ensures you measure your work from within and motivate yourself into getting better.

Time makes inspiration grow.

This is something I have learned again and again. For a skill to get better, you need to invest time. There are simply no shortcuts to mastery. Investing time for your creative pursuits is the best investment you could ever make if you want to start and maintain a creative business.

Design your own job.

I learned this from Cody McKibben, who is a location independent professional. Cody usually does his work from locations that we would consider exotic—a beach in Thailand, a balcony overlooking rice paddies in Bali. He leverages all that he knows, and he creates his work based on the combination of all things that is Cody.

Why should you be just a photographer? Why can’t you be a maker of images but also an inspiration like David duChemin? Or a photographer and a cultural ethnograper? Or a photographer and a storyteller? The idea of mashable things is here, so why not create a mashup of things that you can combine to make a brand that is unique and creative?

Sell an experience.

If you create a brand that is unique to who you are and what you can do, you are giving your clients a richer experience. Rather than just selling clicks for cash, you can sell the entire experience of working with you, and create situations where those who linger in your creativity might become enchanted, to borrow a term from Guy Kawasaki. Nothing else is as memorable as an experience that the mind associates with joy. That memory of joy and engagement is delicious, and the person who experiences it (hopefully your client) will come back for more.

Creating a manifesto is a process full of epiphany and inspiration. In the process, you might just find your brand—a business that is meaningful, valuable, vibrant.

What’s your manifesto? What do you believe?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

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Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos


winter portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Sell an Experience, Not Just Photos

A friend of mine lamented the other day, “Why aren’t my clients coming back?”

If you’re a photographer who relies on sessions for regular income, you want to build a business base that includes return clients. You have to ensure that clients will come back; this is something you depend on.

But future business is not something that is easy to structure into any enterprise. If it were, hard work wouldn’t be such a strong human value.

We all know that to get clients to come back, we have to assure them of the continuous, consistent quality of work that we produce. Or we could launch a super duper ad campaign, spending money and effort on marketing that according to Seth Godin is really dangerously (and expensively) outdated.

But if that was the only reason why clients return to a service, everyone would just have to step up their game and shell out the big bucks for marketing, plain and simple. With the myriad of choices out there for photographic services, some of which can afford to spend hours and money on marketing, why do clients go back to some photographers, and not to others?winter portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

The answer might be in the type of culture you create in your business model.

This article I found recently in Alltop’s Holy Kaw! has an interesting idea that could change the way you serve and keep your clients, and establish more return business for you. The article says that the key to keeping someone within your organization is to ‘embed’ them in its culture. If someone perceives that they adhere to your principles, for example, they’ll stay with you.

Now the article is talking about employees and employers.

But let’s think about the relationship of gain and trust that is similar between employer and employee versus photographer and client. Just as an employer and employee hold a relationship of mutual gain and work together with mutual trust that those benefits will manifest in the relationship, so it is for the client and photographer.

Do you wonder what more you could do to make those clients come back?

I started thinking about another friend of mine who trains other photographers. She’s quite busy, holding several workshops every month, and it’s apparent that her workshop have strongly perceived value in the client’s minds; some clients come back four, sometimes seven times to learn essentially the same workshop lessons.portrait at f/2.8 in red dress copyright Aloha Lavina

Now that’s a good business model: you give the same thing, over and over, and people pay you for them, over and over. Not bad. You could buy stock in that company.

But I don’t think it’s just the matter of clients getting the same thing for more money. I think what those clients are paying for is the experience of working with the photographer.

So how does this idea translate to things you can do for your business this week? Here’s what we can learn from this case study.

The goal of selling the experience of working with you is to change the client’s perception of value. Instead of just ‘selling’ the stuff they get, add the value of the intangibles that they feel they get.

 1. Separate the people from the tasks.
Tasks can be automated, listed, and outsourced. Relationships cannot. While making sure that tasks are done in a professional, efficient and high quality way, you have to cultivate the relationship with the client. For example, the good trainer I was talking about? She hooks up with people on Facebook and ‘Likes’ and comments on their posts. It’s important that she does this sincerely, instead of as a drive by afterthought. Sincerity in dealing with clients is a must to build a solid relationship that will add value to their perception of you.

2. Focus on mutual interests.
Interests are not the same thing as tasks. Interests imply values that the client holds and that you hold as a professional. I love the way my friend gives each potential client a questionnaire before every workshop. She asks about their expectations and skill levels, and makes sure that they know she is tailoring the way the workshop will be delivered to their needs. On the receiving end, she also makes sure that the experience of the workshop will be smooth and fun for the participants, by telling them her expectations—what to bring, with the added note of the schedule and how much energy they need to have a successful learning experience. This thoughtfulness adds value to the experience, even before they meet.

3. Brainstorm together for mutual benefits.
The next step after finding out each other’s expectations is to brainstorm together. With the list of benefits you and your client expect from the experience, it makes a lot of sense to also bring your creativity together to enable you to produce good work.

It’s not enough to have a contract spelling out what the experience will be like. (You can’t say “so and so photographer ensures that it will be fun for the client” on a contract.) It also means feeling out the ideas that could nudge the project into something that both you and your client will enjoy working on, together.winter portrait at f/2.8 copyright Aloha Lavina

 4. Measure the outcome together.
Feedback from a client is essential to shape your business workflow. Without this feedback, you might lose a client simply because they felt the transaction was impersonal. Remember that in this business transaction, the client’s feedback on satisfaction is the important benchmark of your work. This also adds to the value of the client’s experience because by asking their feedback, you put them at the center of the whole experience.

Selling the experience of working with you is a positive way to add value to your business. It’s the room with the wow factor in the real estate of independent employment. Using the principles of influence, you too can create an experience that will keep your clients coming back for more.

What tips do you have to keep clients coming back? Share with us in the comments!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. You might also like:
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Shoot for Yourself


children in Thai dress copyright Aloha Lavina

Shoot for Yourself

I never imagined that having 12-16 clients a day was a bad thing.

But for my students Dani and Apple, a day of 16-18 clients means 10 hours of shooting and sometimes, processing up to 200 portraits in a day. It means constantly being bombarded with emails about bookings, dates, schedules, where-are-my-photos demands, and no free time.

That these two portrait photographers are working is a very good thing. They are able to earn their living from doing what they love: making images. But when I speak with them these days, what I hear is the pressure in their lives to juggle family and friends and very long working days. I hear the struggle to keep up with clients who don’t read the contract they signed and demand something outside of it, and the feeling that they are being overextended. And I see that they are unhappy, unhappy because they are good photographers and their services are in high demand.

How can that be a bad thing?

Bangkok street stall street food copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Apple writes to me, “I’m done with this business. I’m going back to what I love—travel photography.” She’s coming to Asia again, she says, and would I take some time to shoot with her then, like we did in Bali four years ago? Dani and I spend a day walking around and making photos for no reason except that we want to, and she ends the day laughing and telling me, “I think the reason Apple and I are so unhappy is that we never get the chance to take pictures just because we want to.”


Working 16 hours a day on repetitive tasks that are below the threshold of challenge is—to be blunt—boring. In the spectrum of creativity and learning, there are two extremes: the end where your skills don’t match up to the task and you get frustrated, and the end where your skills surpass the task and you get bored. The balance rests in finding challenges that are fairly new but allow you to stretch skills you already have. For my two students, they are doing the same thing day in and day out—the same lighting, the same poses, the same processing, the same tasks. Because it’s their bread and butter, they have to, but somewhere in the mad crush of building a business, they’ve forgotten to take walks and just shoot.

man on bike Bangkok copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Shooting for yourself can do wonders. Engaging in tasks that are challenging but not frustrating is enjoyable. This is, I suspect, what draws you into a career in photography in the first place, the thought of doing what you love and being paid for it. But neglecting your own need for artistic expression has the potential to damage your passion and burn you out. Even if it’s just a few hours a week, taking time to shoot for yourself can balance out the repetitive tasks that you have to do because it’s ‘work.’

This is all well and good, but what about the money? Can you be creative and make money too?

children in Thai dress copyright Aloha Lavina

Copyright Aloha Lavina.

I have to be honest and say this: creative vision is a precious commodity. At the risk of sounding snobby, I have to say that there is photography that you can do which produces work that looks like it’s been mass produced by a photo booth, and then there is photography that you can do which looks like only you could have created it, with your unique creative vision. This creative vision should be what clients seek you out for, and pay you to express.

Think back on the photos you made that made your heart leap and gave you the dream of doing this for the rest of your life. This should be where you begin your business plan. Any other compromise is just going to kill your art.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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