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There aren’t many photographers who are also branding consultants or art directors at a successful design firm. Since Steve Coleman is all three things, we thought he’d be the perfect person to help photographers understand and strategize their branding efforts. His first post explained exactly what a brand is (and isn’t). This one will help you define your brand attributes.
One of Peter Lik's "destination" galleries showcasing his landscape photography.

One of Peter Lik's "destination" galleries showcasing his landscape photography.

As I explained in my first post, a brand is not a logo or a website or a design. A brand is a promise, what people trust, feel, and believe you or your product to be. Branding is how you express that promise to people. Here’s some tips to help you define your brand — only then can you express it through branding.

First, your brand will ultimately be defined by other people, mostly your customers and potential customers. They will make up their minds about you and you will usually have to live with it. Your job in building your brand is to try and influence them before their minds are made up. It is easier when they don’t yet know you and harder when they do.

Therefore, your brand can not be just anything you want it to be. It needs to be based on some truth about you, as well as client needs. Otherwise your brand will be rejected as not credible. Your brand also needs to be flexible so that it can evolve as you or the market change over time.

For example, while Polaroid’s brand was successfully built around innovation in instant imaging, its brand become too closely associated with chemical imaging in the minds of consumers and has struggled to stay connected with people in a digital world.

“When they need what you’ve got, you want them to know exactly who to call.”

Second, be clear about what you need your brand to achieve at a strategic level. For most people this will be to set you apart from your competitors, to make you top of mind and memorable. By default, a brand should also say who you are not. A strong, healthy brand never tries to be all things to all people. Strategically your brand offers a way for clients and potential clients to quickly and easily categorize you. When they need what you’ve got, you want them to know exactly who to call. Ideally your brand should also make you look like the original or the best solution, making it hard for others to copy you.

Here are some great examples of photographers who have done this successfully.

Terry Richardson has one of the strongest brands I have ever seen. He has no logo and no real design to his website. Yet he stands out. He is unique, highly memorable. He shoots some of the world’s most famous people with a small, inexpensive digital camera. Why is his brand so strong? In a world full of smartly presented photographers who all look, shoot, and feel similar, Terry is distinctly different. (Check out the video, where Terry talks about his approach and his new Belvedere Vodka campaign.)

Another example is Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik. In a market saturated with great landscape photography, much of which never sells, Peter’s business generates more than $30,000,000 per year (US!!). Peter’s photography, while brilliant, is hardly the sole reason for his success. The essence of Peter Lik’s brand is the creation of a photographic experience. In particular, his galleries are must-see destinations. What you buy is not just a beautiful picture but a small part of everything that you experience in Peter’s world.

The critical third stage in defining your brand is determining what the attributes are that make up your brand. Attributes are like brand DNA. These are the tangible and intangible, emotional and functional characteristics that you and your business, product, or service are — or could credibly become. If expressed and managed correctly, these attributes become the reasons for people to trust and do business with you.

Here’s an example. I asked 10 people who know of Peter Lik to give me 20 words that describe what they believe him to be. I put every word, including those repeated, into Wordle, which creates a prioritized word cloud showing most-used bigger and least-used smaller. This this is a visual representation of Peter Lik’s brand attributes, according to these 10 people.

Picture 92

You’ll notice that the functional description of him as a “landscape photographer” is rated low. From a brand perspective, this is excellent because being a landscape photographer is just the cost of entry, it is not enough to define him as unique. Peter has purposefully built his brand around the attributes that help set him apart. That is how a strong brand works.

So, how do you determine your attributes? Here are eight questions that will help you find them. More »

For Lisa Wiseman, a San Francisco-based editorial and commercial photographer, it’s important that her portfolio convey her “eye,” the way she sees, no matter what camera she’s using. That’s why, despite her initial hesitancy, she began showing personal work as part of her book and online portfolio last year. This year she was named one of PDN’s 30 — in part because of her “New Polaroids” personal project, taken entirely on her iPhone.

©Lisa Wiseman (2)

Name: Lisa Wiseman
Age: 27
San Francisco
Full-time job:

Personal project name and short description
The New Polaroid — This project is shot completely with my iPhone and is an exploration of iPhone as the new Polaroid. As the iPhone is becoming a ubiquitous and trendy accessory, on-the-go picture taking is now the norm. I see people using their iPhones to take spontaneous photos in the same carefree way that cheap Polaroid has been used in the past. In concept and ideology, the iPhone mimics Polaroid; however, it pushes the aesthetic forward by utilizing a new non-film (but technologically infantile) medium. Just like traditional Polaroids had a specific size and unique look, iPhone photos are unmistakable because the technology limits them to a fixed size and resolution and imbues them with a unique chromatic aberration that says “iPhone” and nothing else.

©Lisa Wiseman (2)

When and why did you start it?
I have been shooting with my iPhone since I got it approximately two years ago. I started showing The New Polaroid alongside my portraiture portfolios on my website and in my book in June, 2008, along with other personal work including a project shot on traditional Polaroid film. It was important to me to show my potential clients another side of my shooting personality — I wanted creatives to have a feel for what the world looks like to me and what I photograph when I’m not shooting portraits. With a wider breadth of work encompassing still lifes and interiors, I wanted to show that my vision carries through everything I shoot. Showing personal work has directly led to jobs, and when I show my work in person my work seems to resonate more with the viewer because it includes the iPhone images and traditional Polaroids.

©Lisa Wiseman (2)

Do you have a particular image you are especially drawn to so far? More »

Gene Higa is a destination wedding photographer based in San Francisco, but he’s got great tips for all kinds of photographers. In today’s Tip of the Week, Gene talks about the importance of discovering and distilling your photographic style in order to build a successful brand from it.

“Shoot A LOT and figure out what you’re really good at.”

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Gene has some great tips lined up, but we’re always eager to hear what you’d like to know more about. Leave your questions in the comments (with a link to your website, of course) and Gene will be happy to respond.

There’s nothing more ego shattering than interviewing a photographer who is as old as my career is long and finding out that she has kicked my ass in a market place that I coveted for years. Shooting book covers for literary works is downright respectable in a bizarre, pseudo-erudite sort of way.

“Did you read Rolling’s Recalcitrant Ruminations of Ruskin?”

“Why no darling, but I did shoot the image for the cover of the hardback.”

“Oh, bravo. Glass of sherry?”

I tried to get into that publishing circle for years. To say that they didn’t give two shits about me is, to be honest, crediting myself with one shit too many. Which brings me to my guest, photographer Claire Rosen. She was recently contacted by the boutique global publishing firm Random House to shoot the cover (left) of Sarah Addison Allen’s book The Girl who Chased the Moon.

The folks at Random House were intrigued by Miss Rosen’s distinct style of photography when they came across it at one of her gallery openings. The assignment (I’m not joking): Read the book and pitch some ideas of how the cover should be shot. The folks at Random House chose one of the ideas and Claire was, (I promise, I’m not joking), free to go shoot it and send in the results.

That kind of paid creative freedom with a high-profile client is practically nonexistent in contemporary society. Not only do you get paid to do your creative thing, you can window shop at a Barnes and Noble on a date and feign surprise when you see your book cover. If I want to accidentally-on-purpose show off my book cover I have to start a fire in the café of the book store, convince my date that it’s safest in the photography section and then use my book to fan away the smoke. “You okay? Hey look at that!”

Gigs like Miss Rosen’s can become a wonderful source of work. In just a week since receiving her first assignment, she has landed another book cover. If you’re interested in doing this type of work, you need to keep one thing in mind: The people at publishing houses who are green-lighting covers aren’t looking for photographers. They are looking for covers.

I reached out to a senior art director at Little, Brown Books to find out what he’s looking for from photographers. He suggests going to the bookstore to find covers, illustrated or photographic, that are similar to your narrative style. Check the imprint names on the books’ spines and contact those publishers to get the name of their art director.

The best way to reach out art directors is by mailing a hard-copy promo with an example of your work. Email promos have become the bane of art directors, my contact said. The barrage of email promos from listing services has resulted in a backlash, and they are routinely deleted out of hand.

One phrase that stood out in my interview with the Little, Brown art director was “cover appropriate.” Take the time to do your research. If your work doesn’t look like any cover you’ve seen, then don’t send it to the publishers.

With all that in mind, take a day and hang out at the bookstore — you could find a whole new direction for your photography business. Just please pretend not to notice if you see a guy in the café torching a pile of coffee beans.


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