On The Move
The gig is up. For one reason or another, it is literally time to move on.
If you are like me, you are not the kind of person who can spend a lifetime in one place. A new patch of grass is seldom greener but it is new. In the past fifteen years, I have lived in the mountains of North Carolina, in the historic sections of Prague, in the suburbs of Seoul and in the bustle of Tokyo. Every few years an internal alarm sounds and lets me know that it is time to go.
I am a bit of a nomad. This doesn't mean that I don't experience great amounts of stress and anxiety each time I move. Of course moving is something we all do with hesitation. The task of packing up and shipping your life to a new location is nerve racking to say the least. As a portrait photographer my stress is compounded. Even the thought of moving to a new city makes my mind spin.
Why is moving so daunting for portrait photographers?
Let's get specific.
- Your Client List Disappears
In the song Leaving On A Jet Plane, John Denver wrote about a man ready to ramble on. This lad is holding on to the notion that his lover might actually wait for him while he is gone. Now lets suppose you, a professional photographer, are the subject with your bags packed and ready to go. For giggles lets pretend that your clients are the lover being left behind. Do you think, even for second, that your clients are going to wait for you while you are gone? Hell no they aren't. They might smile for you and kiss you goodbye. But trust me, they will let you go and find a new photographer to serve their needs.
Don't believe me? The proof continues to roll into my inbox. Here is a message I got just last night.
More often than not, portrait photographers lose most (if not all) of their clients when they move. Unless you are a regular Annie Leibovitz, your client base is location specific. For most of us, setting up shop in a new locale turns our multipage client list into a tabula rasa. Those who paid the bills over the past years have to find a new photographer and you... Well, you are left with pleasant memories and blinding white space on your client roster.
- Local Search is Decimated
Photographers don't work for years to reach the first page of Google for nothing. To rank highly in local search rankings equates to a steady stream of clients. If you move, the countless hours behind your console devoted to achieving locale search engine steam will seem worthless.
- Your Network is Gone
You have cultivated relationships that are just as valuable as clients. Your network is that extended group of people with similar interests. You interact and remain in contact for mutual assistance and support (You know, those "preferred vendors" and your buddy that works at the regional magazine). You will still know them personally, but their value as part of your network has significantly decreased.
Perhaps more devastating than losing a network is losing a team. Behind every successful photographer is a solid team of carefully selected makeup and hair artists, production managers, stylists and photographer's assistants. Your team are those who provide you with a sounding board, who help you reason, who make you a better photographer. This core group of professionals is the oil in your machine. While you will still be able to connect with your team virtually, they will more likely appear in your Facebook feed than by your side. That fact is a gut punch.
Let's get real.
You crafted that client list. You worked for the search ranking positions. You built the network. If you move, you will likely lose it all.
Yes. A photographer on the move has large obstacles along their path. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't pack your gear and head to new pastures. Quite the opposite. You can rebuild. If you did it once, you can do it twice. The chance for a fresh start is worth the time and energy it takes to rebuild your photographic empire. After all, the move itself can be just the spark you need to take your creative practice to the next level. Luckily, there are ways to soften the blow of the move so that your business and mental state doesn't flounder.
The following action steps should be considered as you plan your move and transition to a new location
Before The Move
There are countless positive aspects of moving to be excited about but before getting lost in a daydream or looking too far into the future, it is wise to spend some mental energy in the present. Prior to your move, take stock of your current situation by being completely honest with yourself. Think deeply about your current practices as a portrait photographer. What is working? What isn't? Strip all of the b.s. away and touch base with who you really are as a photographer and business owner.
Use these questions as a guide:
2) The Web
The internet brings the world into our living rooms. Most of the information you could ever want or need about your new location can be accessed within seconds. Take full advantage of this resource before you take the leap from your current base of operations. You should find out as much information as you can so that you can make informed decisions moving forward.
Here is a sample of questions I wanted answered:
- What does the market look like?
- Is my niche market saturated?
- What is the going rate for various kinds of portrait sessions?
- What marketing strategies are other professionals using?
- What are types of portrait sessions are being offered?
- Is there any information on shoot locations I can easily access?
- What are the laws regarding photography in the municipality?
- Does anyone in my extended network operate in the area?
- Are there groups of photographers who meet regularly?
- Are there studio rentals available and, if so, at what rate?
If you want to see yourself high in search engine rankings, you have some work to do. Starting the necessary work prior to your move will open up the time for other tasks when you actually do step foot in your new digs. Naturally, your own photography website is the first place to start.
Since you have taken the time to reflect about your photography and your business (See #1 above), apply your discoveries to your website. Does your current portfolio reflect the work that you would like to undertake in your new home? Is your "About" page representative of you as a photographer? Look at your website holistically and as objectively as possible. Identify the changes and make the modifications.
Once you have reworked your website into a tool that best represents you, it is time to invest energy into what really matters on a website. As you know, It takes more than a few keywords on a webpage to reach page one. Headers, footers and metadescriptions should all be changed to reflect your new location. However, those items are just beginning of the work.
In a world where content remains king (at least for search engines), a big slice of your time should be spent preparing content. Go ahead and outline (or better yet write) content for the coming months. It is this content that will propel you in rankings.
(As you work, keep in mind that cheap tricks and " black hat" SEO tactics just won't do. The results won't serve you in the longterm and there is a very high chance that Google will penalize any attempt at beating their algorithm. Instead, employ ethical SEO practices for photographers. It is better to put in the hours and do the work properly than to climb out of a hole with Google.)
Changing your current location on your Instagram and Facebook pages will just be a drop of honey in an ocean of vinegar. However, your social media accounts remain valuable tools. Without exception, you will have company in your new location, other photographers already making a name for themselves. Sure, these industry professionals could be seen as competition. I prefer to think of fellow photographers as colleagues.
In my article Collaboration - 8 Ways To Work With Other Photographers, I outline how photographers can work together to collectively support each other while individually developing their own artistic craft. But to collaborate you have to engage. Spend some time introducing yourself to other photographers and photography groups via social media. Be polite, honest and, of course, remember that first impressions leave a lasting impact. I have found that photographers are eager to make new friends and to welcome new members into their group and these connections may very well be the beginning of a network,
After The Move
I get it. It is difficult to think about finding new business associates and a solid creative team when you don't even know where the grocery store is. Moreover, networks should not be contrived. They should be organic. These new relationships should come stem from camaraderie and be built upon mutual respect. But, you have to start somewhere. You have to start with "hello."
For me, the easiest place to begin was with social media. I had already made the first move by introducing myself (see #2 above). So, I followed up with a few of those preliminary connections. I extended an olive branch and invited a fellow photographer for a drink.
At first it will feel a bit like blind dating. Thats okay. If 22% of actual romances start online, surely you can find a mate or two to talk photography with. I urge you to brave. Invite a fellow photographer or creative out for a coffee. What's the worst that can happen? Sure enough, you will click with someone and that someone will become a contact, acquaintance or even a friend.
When you are feeling bold, take it one step further. Go on a photowalk or attend a local photography meet up. Photography clubs and meet-ups are a great way to connect with like-minded people. You already know you have something in common with every attendee. Look at the meet-up like speed dating except with Canons and Nikons instead of bottles of water and a bell.
Do you want to get freaking crazy (insane for those who, like me, are very weary and overwhelmed by unfamiliar social situations). Drop by the offices of a local publication. Even the smallest city has a magazine or newspaper. Whether it is your city's version of Time Out or the mom-and-pop outfit that prints classifieds, stop by and introduce yourself.
The more willing you are to put yourself out there, the quicker you will rebuild the network you once enjoyed.
These days, to be "on the hustle" means to do anything necessary to make money. I like to think of hustling in a more traditional way.
Among his many other adages, my father said, "There will always be someone better. Just make sure they don't out work you." Dad was right. For me, the photographer's hustle is simply good ole fashion hard work. While you slowly rebuild your network and earn paying contracts, there are many, many things to do.
Alan Watts said, "plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance." If you can adopt this attitude about your move, your transition will serve you well. Be grateful that you have the opportunity and initiative to make the leap into the unknown. Work hard and be brave. Happy moving.