So, you’ve progressed rapidly as a photographer and are starting to produce magazine-level results, and people (maybe even companies) are starting to throw money at you to shoot for them. Congratulations, you’re becoming a professional!
Being a professional freelance photographer is exciting, rewarding, potentially lucrative, and a lifelong dream for many people. But make no mistake, as a pro photographer, you’re not just an artist who creates beautiful work and lives comfortably on money that falls from the sky like a gift from the Photoshop gods.
You are a business person now, and now you need to commoditize your skills to make money, pay your bills, and eventually mold your art into a self-sustaining business.
Cohesion is Key
If you’re already starting to take commissioned shoots, odds are you’ve accumulated a body of work that is both impressive and cohesive. I won’t really get into that here since I’m talking about branding and not photographic technique, but alas: cohesion throughout your portfolio is vital. Anyone who has seen your work before should be able to recognize it instantly going forward.
The same goes for your brand.
What is a brand, really?
As a photographer in this day and age, your goal may be to shoot weddings, senior photos, or content for corporate entities—either for ad campaigns, social media marketing, what have you. Great, but before you can become a rockstar king/queen of photographic industry, you need to understand the fundamentals of branding and brand identity.
So what is a brand, and why does it matter? Seth Godin defines a brand like this:
“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
That’s a beautiful, succinct, and poetic definition that I think captures the core essence of a brand and how people relate to it. But I’m going to give you a checklist. For the purposes of a newly professional freelance photographer, a brand should consist of:
- A logo
- A color palette
- A consistent use/treatment of the color palette
- A typeface (or two, but no more than two)
- A brand voice/personality
Now, there’s a lot more that goes into a corporate branding initiative than five bullet points, but thankfully, branding for a company of one is a little more simple.
And why does this matter? For one, it adds a substantial layer of legitimacy to you as a business, forcing your clients to take you (and your invoices) seriously. It also establishes distinction and visibility for your business, setting you apart from millions of other photographers who want to compete with you.
Logo design is intimidating for a lot of photographers, as it requires skills photographers often lack, like illustration and visual design. Unless you happen to have mad design skills, you have a few options here.
Go dirt simple
I’m going to preface this by saying it is much easier said than done. In fact, no matter what option you choose, you should strive for a dirt simple logo mark that is timeless, simple, meaningful, legible, and immediately recognizable. You know, like Nike, Apple, or any other iconic brand that has a logo worth billions of dollars. It sounds hard, but that’s because it totally is.
That being said, I’ve seen some non-designers create some incredible logos with zero fancy drawing skills. Think of something that represents you, your work, and your mission statement, if you have one. Be sure to do some “research” which can be as little as asking some friends—or better yet, strangers with no concern for your feelings—if they think your logo sucks.
Use your words
Not every logo mark needs to be illustrative. A lot of major corporate logos utilize a word mark next to their glyph/symbol, and some of them use a word mark exclusively. Maybe your name/business name looks super dope as is in your brand typeface. Awesome, then just roll with it for now.
Hire a designer
If you can’t think of a logo yourself or you don’t know how to bring your idea to life, hire a designer whose work you love. Yeah yeah, I know, you’re trying to start a business and any money you spend on anything else is funding being stripped away from the pursuit of your dreams. It sucks, but hey, that’s exactly how all your clients feel about hiring you, too.
Your brand—your identity as a business—is worth investing in, and your logo is your first impression with every potential new client. So spend some money if you need to.
A color palette is critical and indicative of your brand’s personality, so you might even want to consider deciding this before you finalize your logo since it may affect the design.
Your color palette should be almost painfully clear to anyone who looks at anything affiliated with you or your brand. It should be pervasive throughout your website, your invoices, your emails, etc.
Many corporate color schemes are decided based on research and psychology, which is great, but start by picking colors you like that go well together. As a photographer, your brand should reflect you and your artistic tastes first, and psychological associations second.
Establish a set of 2-3 colors in addition to a variant of white/light and black/dark, and stick to them for dear life until you inevitably decide to pick new colors.
Two of my favorite resources for creating palettes are Coolors and Colour Lovers. You can also start with a color you already like and use Adobe Color CC to generate the rest of your palette. All of these are free.
Using your Color Palette
Above, I mentioned choosing two or three colors in addition to a light/dark, or a white and black. Now, that definitely comes from a bias in my own personal design philosophy, so take it with a grain of salt, but it also stems from mistakes I see frequently.
A lot of inexperienced designers will take a color palette and use all the colors equally, which is almost always a terrible idea. Remember, having legible text is more important than utilizing your full colors, so stick to dark colors for text on light backgrounds and vice versa.
Your light/dark colors should probably account for more than half of your palette, and the 2-3 other colors should be used more as accents.
I want to stress that there’s no right or wrong way to use color, but be aware of legibility and accessibility as you form your identity, and don’t forget to get feedback from friends, family, and unbiased strangers/acquaintances.
As you probably guessed, “typeface” is basically a fancy designer term for what everyone else thinks of as “fonts.”
Typefaces are complicated, and type designers are undeniable geniuses whose skills are criminally underappreciated, so don’t take this decision lightly.
There’s a lot of psychology around type, and the other aspects of your brand should weigh heavily on your choice of typeface. Different kinds of fonts have different psychological associations, and it’s up to you to figure out which style you want, and which individual typeface is the most you.
Here’s a great article on natural psychological associations with typefaces.
I recommend trying to choose one font that works for all purposes, but sometimes the right pairing of two fonts can look amazing. If you use Google Fonts, check out Font Pair for some guidance.
Note: don’t use Helvetica, Arial, or some other obvious system font. I know, Apple used Helvetica for decades, but they’re Apple and you’re a newly established business that needs impactful branding, and type goes a long way for that.
Brand Voice and Personality
This one is easy, or at least it’s easy when the only voice and personality in your company is your own. However, it’s important to understand brand voice, especially if you shoot or want to shoot for brands.
The marketing industry’s favorite example of brand voice these days is Taco Bell. Ever read Taco Bell’s tweets? They’re not just dumb tweets. They’re funny. They’re extremely relatable for their target demographic. They’re on brand. They’re consistent.
They communicate that Taco Bell, the brand, has its own personality, independent of the personalities of their marketing team or their CEO. Executing a slightly risque, edgy brand voice at the level of excellence at which Taco Bell has takes years of research and iteration.
You don’t need to tweet like Taco Bell, and you don’t need to research how to talk to your clientele or follower base, but you do need to be consistent about it. Remember that you now represent your business, and your clients will look you up online before they work with you, and your online presence is the biggest megaphone to your brand voice.
What is your brand voice saying about you right now? Does it tell the story you want your clients and followers to hear?
I talked a lot about the relationship between having a strong brand and shooting for brands, but branding is absolutely imperative for wedding and other consumer-oriented photographers, too. Who do you suppose good branding and marketing is most effective on: professional marketing teams, or consumers?
Be sure to apply these principles to any and every part of your business. The website, marketing emails, advertisements, letterheads, invoices, business cards, etc. Basically, if you have the option to put your logo, colors, fonts, etc. on something, do it. Everything your business touches should be unmistakably yours.
As you build out your brand, take influence from companies you admire. Check out their brand guidelines/book—they’re usually easily accessible online and contain a lot of great information and backstory to the decisions that led to the final state of the brand. If you’ve never read a brand book, I highly recommend it before diving into your own. Skype’s brand book is a great read, as is Mailchimp’s. This parody brand book for Santa Claus is hilarious, but well done enough to be somewhat educational for a branding newcomer.
Hopefully, my checklist generated some action items for you to further your success in your creative career. If this is all old news to you, awesome, you’re way ahead of the curve.
While a great brand can’t serve as a substitute for a killer portfolio and strong interpersonal communication skills, it’s critical for the success of your business and goes a long way for first impressions with new clients. Best of luck building your own brand and riding it to the top!