The Rules of Exposure: Leveraging Photography As a Self-Promotion Tool

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Designers don’t need to be told that rules were made to be broken. But what if the rules were made by rule-breakers themselves? Keep reading.

Designers often double as photographers—whether it’s using photography in design pieces, taking photos of their own projects for self-promotion, or even showing their own photographic art in galleries.

Here, five photographers pipe in to offer some insight on leveraging your photography work to be a more successful creative professional. By promoting yourself as a photographer, you just might elevate yourself as a designer.

Work Hard & Do What You love

Bill Sweeney, an energetic, insightful photographer and designer who works as a design lead at Squarespace in Portland, OR, has done everything from revive the online presence of the creative studio BUNKER to personal projects like the B Project, where Sweeney constructs the letter “B” through found objects, such as bottles and bolts.

Sweeney thinks that promoting yourself all comes down to being honest, being nice and having integrity. “Work hard, very hard,” Sweeney says. “Try things. Fail. Try new things. See what works. See what makes you excited. See what makes others excited. Stay hungry. Rest. Think critically. Do.”

While self-promotion seems like an easy feat, it can be one of the hardest things one can tackle. “It’s not always easy to look in the mirror,” he says. “We are the hardest critics of ourselves and we can’t always articulate who we are. It will be hard work to define your identity. Do what feels right and what you are excited about.”

squarespace-circle-01 squarespace-com-01 Bill Sweeney’s photography and design work at Squarespace

Leverage Your Skills & Your Personal Style

A photographer and graphic designer who divides her time between New York City and Connecticut, Fredda Gordon shoots portraits, concerts, interiors and a black-and-white documentary series called “Musicians Offstage.”

While she has always been a photographer, Gordon was able to take her work to the next level when she started working as a graphic designer. “The pairing of the visuals with my technical knowledge has brought me to this place of artistry,” she writes on her website. Gordon is also the president of Professional Women Photographers, a non-profit organization helping support women photographers since 1975. Before selling yourself to others, Gordon believes in creating a positive image.

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Photo from “Musicians Offstage” by Fredda Gordon

“Even if you are critical of yourself, it’s best not to let people see that; present yourself to the world as strong, talented and reliable,” she says. “This message should come across with everything you do, including the presentation of your work, the way you approach social media posts, replies and in your responses to all emails.”

American photographer Alexander Coggin, who recently moved to London from Berlin, is known for his stark, simple aesthetic. He has honed his skills doing cultural coverage, like studio visit portraits of Berlin artists and art gallery coverage and he has also shot for VICE.com. All in all, Coggin is known for revealing odd moments, be it the quiet calm of the eerie suburbs or tourists caught off guard. His advice to photographers and designers goes beyond self-promotion; it comes down to polishing your content. “Corner your aesthetic and delight yourself,” he says. “I think the goal of selling is to understand how people identify images as your images, and it’s essential that you understand what gets you off visually. Shoot constantly and show constantly and don’t let your work look like anyone else’s. Then, I think, the work will come to you.”

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photo by Alexander Coggin

Finding your own style is crucial in a time when everyone follows trends, Coggin says. “I also think it’s a bad idea to be looking at others’ work all the time, staying ignorant will help you find your voice,” he says. “Careers are built bit-by-bit, authenticity speaks louder than emulation.”

Authenticity and originality are the best qualities for creative professionals looking to make a unique mark. A Barcelona-based photographer originally from Portugal, Luis Pedro de Castro has caused some serious buzz around his gender-bending photography. Since documenting the cultural underground, Castro (who goes by “Strangelfreak”) has a philosophy: “Normality is an excuse for the unimaginative.”

Be Professional

One of the biggest mistakes Toronto-based photographer Craig Boyko has seen is being unprofessional with a client. “That’s one way to never be hired again,” Boyko says. He’s referring to things like being late, not meeting a deadline and having a bad attitude. “The client is the boss and needs to be treated with respect. People should always keep in mind that you are the brand you are selling.”

An award-winning photographer known for his portraits, Boyko has shot everyone from the comedian Steve Martin to the Wu-Tang Clan rapper Raekwon. He has honed his skills in commercial photography and editorial projects with clients including Nike, Adidas, EMI Music and the Canadian Football League. One memorable shot is his photo of Toronto Argonauts player Bryan Hall. “The advice I have for selling yourself and your work is honesty,” says Boyko. “Be honest why you want to be in this industry. If it’s for the right reasons and the want is great enough, it will happen.”

While Boyko feels that shooting famous people shouldn’t be any different than shooting anyone else, “their time is more limited, so you have to work faster,” he says. “If you’re a fan of whoever you’re shooting, save all the excitement for when the shoot is done. You’re there for a reason, get the shot and then tell them what a fan you are.”

He recently shot Martin, who was curating an art exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. “Once the shoot was done, I walked alongside Steve and I told him what a big fan of his I was, he thanked me,” said Boyko. “I then mentioned that I had grown up watching his movies and without missing a beat, he turned to me and said ‘and now I’m growing old watching you.’ Very cool moment.”

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photo by Craig Boyko

Shout It from the Rooftops

Many opportunities can be used to blend photography and design for self-promotion. “Don’t be afraid to advertise yourself,” Castro says. Castro notes that making products people can buy is key, citing his online shop, where he sells his photographic prints, as well as iPhone cases, leggings, t-shirts and wall tapestries with his images.

As serious as he is, Castro playfully suggests faking it till you make it. “Selling yourself as an image of success is what slowly but surely will transition you to a successful position,” he says. “Acting like you are begging for something makes other people overlook your achievements. You should be your own biggest fan.”

Learn more about self-promotion in the latest issue of HOW Magazine, or subscribe to get HOW all year long.

Sweeney says the most valuable self-promotion tool is your website, even if you have a strong social media presence. “Have a place online which is yours alone—where you can put your brand on display,” said Sweeney. “When your work is only in a social media context, you lose a bit of authenticity; the key is to strike a balance between the power of social media and the ‘official’ you online.”

When it comes to your online portfolio design, Sweeney says less is more. “Your first impression has enormous impact, present your work with simplicity,” he said. “Ditch the bells and whistles, focus on the content. Have a few unique touches that make it yours.”

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photos by Luis Pedro de Castro

Don’t Undervalue Your Photography…

In the age of Instagram, the price of photography is sometimes devalued.

After all, publicity is important, but Castro warns not to give your work away for free. “Getting proposals for ‘exposure’ is nice, but you should learn to value your work,” he says. “Appreciate and value the amount of time you dedicate to your work.”

Gordon agrees. “Many think that they shouldn’t have to pay for your talents; they will offer exposure, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills, nor does it get clients,” she says. “Of course, you can use your discretion, and if you choose to volunteer or give your work away, it is your choice, but it shouldn’t be done without a strong reason.”

Another common mistake is pricing your work too low. “Our industry provides real value to business, and our work deserves to be paid well for,” Sweeney says. “Don’t be afraid of pricing your work so you feel you are getting paid well. But also keep in mind your experience level. You probably won’t get the rates you are hoping for when you are first starting out. You have to prove yourself first.”

And don’t forget the obvious—the small print. “Always have a contract,” Sweeney says. “Get the expectations clearly documented and signed, so there are no surprises for you or the client, and so you get paid.”

Further reading: Check out 9 inspiring designer self-promotion projects.

… But Be Selfless Too

Remember it’s not all about you. “Always give credit where credit is due,” Sweeney says. “Attribute your work to the other team members involved; your honesty will show through, your team members will thank you for being fair, and you will naturally gain credibility—even though it’s not all about you.”

True to her nature as a non-profit president, Gordon recommends joining organizations or creating your own network. “Socializing is very important, especially if you are freelancing on your own out there,” she said.

In terms of mistakes, she comes from a place of generosity when thinking about the direct community around you. “I think the biggest mistake that people make is to not help out others along the way,” said Gordon. “I have seen many bridges burned for this reason; fellow photographers contain a wealth of information and referrals. If you treat them badly, you will lose opportunities that you never know you lost.”

Focus on the Right Things

When it comes to photography, especially when it comes to leveraging it for graphic design and self-promotion, Sweeney says it’s less about the expensive cameras and more about having a good eye. “The idea is so much more important than which camera model you used or which design software you installed,” he says. “If the idea is strong, you can make magic with just about anything.”

In the end, Sweeney says the most important thing for any creative professional to keep in mind is the higher purpose. “Always come back to the main goal,” Sweeney said. “We tend to get stuck in the nitty gritty of our jobs, but if you can remember to zoom out, it will help you to weigh the small decisions, and make forward progress.”


About the photographers

Bill Sweeney

Bill Sweeney is an award-winning designer and photographer who works as a design lead at Squarespace in Portland. Among his projects, Sweeney has done everything from revive the online presence of the Bunker creative studio to personal projects like the B Project, where he has constructed the letter “B” through found objects, such as bottles and bolts. Known for his minimal aesthetic, he has won design awards at the Art Directors Club and The Webby Awards. billysweeney.com


Craig Boyko

Craig Boyko is an award-winning photographer based in Toronto. Known for his portraits, he has shot everyone from the comedian Steve Martin to the Wu-Tang Clan rapper, Raekwon. Aside from shooting celebrities and architecture, Boyko has honed his skills in commercial photography and editorial projects with clients including Nike, Adidas, EMI Music and the Canadian Football League. One memorable shot is his photo of Toronto Argonauts player, Bryan Hall. craigboyko.com

Luis Pedro de Castro

A Barcelona-based photographer originally from Portugal, Luis Pedro de Castro (whose artist name is “Strangelfreak”) has caused some serious buzz around his gender-bending photography, which he defines as “post porn.” Since documenting the cultural underground for art magazines in Europe, Castro’s philosophy is this: “Normality is an excuse for the unimaginative.” He is best known for photographing the wedding of famed sex expert Annie Sprinkles and for participating in projects led by cult horror filmmaker, Bruce LaBruce. Instagram.com/strangelfreak

Fredda Gordon

Fredda Gordon is a photographer and graphic designer who divides her time between New York City and Connecticut. Gordon shoots portraits, concerts, interiors and a black-and-white documentary series called “Musicians Offstage,” which offers insight into the life of musicians. While she has always been a photographer, Gordon remembers her work being taken to the next level when she started working as a graphic designer. “The pairing of the visuals with my technical knowledge has brought me to this place of artistry,” she writes on her website. Gordon is also the president of Professional Women Photographers, a non-profit organization helping support women photographers since 1975. www.freddaphotography.com.

Alexander Coggin

Alexander Coggin is an American photographer who recently moved to London from Berlin. Known for his stark, simple aesthetic, he has honed his skills in cultural journalism, like studio visit portraits of Berlin artists and art gallery coverage and he has also shot for VICE.com. All in all, Coggin is known for revealing odd moments, be it the quiet calm of the eerie suburbs or tourists caught off guard. www.alexandercoggin.com


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