The top 25 percent rule: How to succeed as a photographer

March 18, 2021

As told to Martin Bauman by photographer Marlboro Wang:

Professional photography doesn’t come with a roadmap. Running your own business is like building a plane while you’re flying it: you’ve got to make half a dozen, even dozens, of adjustments and alterations to keep the thing airborne.

You can study the craft for years — learn composition, lighting, shadows — but it takes living it to really learn. You need to fail. Try things out. Remodel the engine; taper the wings.

A couple embrace during golden hour. Photo by Marlboro Wang.
Credit: Marlboro Wang Photo

Read more: 3 ways to fix your photography website

When I started in photography, I failed plenty. I was a good enough photographer, technically speaking, but I hadn’t learned the business end. I was an artist, not a salesperson; I hadn’t learned how to present my business in a way that would bring in clients. I could take the photos, but struggled to sell the shoots.

I was only good at half the job.

Two paths to success

I’m a voracious reader. Give me a spare afternoon and a book, and I’ll be happy. One story from Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans has stuck with me. Ferriss is a world-class entrepreneur and thinker; he’s a best-selling author multiple times over. But it’s his ability to distill wisdom from other top performers that’s truly special.

A newlywed couple shares a kiss on a suspension bridge. Photo by Marlboro Wang.
Credit: Marlboro Wang Photo

One of the sources Ferriss turns to in Tools of Titans is cartoonist Scott Adams. The creator of Dilbert, one of the most successful comic strips from the past 30 years, Adams has a unique perspective on what contributes to success.

He doesn’t hold any illusions of being the world’s best drawer. He doesn’t profess to be the funniest person either. 

What he has is just enough of both to set himself apart.

If you want to stand out from the pack, Adams argues, you have two paths to follow:

  1. Become the world’s best at one specific thing.
  2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

It might not be reasonable to become an Olympic-level athlete or Pulitzer Prize-winning author overnight. But anyone, Adams believes, can follow the second path with the right effort.

The photographer’s dilemma

Too often, photographers attempt the first path. They figure skill behind the camera will automatically lead to bookings.

But it’s not enough. You can be more skilled than 90% of photographers, but if you haven’t learned how to market yourself, your business will plateau — and you’ll watch as other photographers, even lesser-skilled ones, fill up their booking calendars faster.

A young couple embraces during golden hour. Photo by Marlboro Wang.
Credit: Marlboro Wang Photo

You can attempt the other path, too — focus purely on marketing and ignore the craft. You can build up an Instagram following of thousands and still not generate any bookings.

Being a professional photographer takes both — and more. You don’t need to be the best at either. You just need to be good enough.

Find your differentiators

“Capitalism,” says Adams, “rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more ‘pretty goods’ until no one else has your mix.”

Becoming decent with a camera is a start. So is learning to interact with people on a shoot. So is marketing yourself: learning how to tell your story in a way that speaks to your ideal clients.

Read more: How to stand out in a saturated photography industry

Any one of those traits on their own doesn’t guarantee success. But add them together, and you’re in the top five percent of your field.

So, which traits matter most? How do you know where to focus your efforts? It takes understanding your ideal clients to know what matters most to them — or rather, focusing on the strengths you already have and using them to reach your ideal clients. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Focal can help

We created Focal’s free Business Accelerator program to set your photography business on the path to success. Through one-on-one mentorship sessions, we’ll help you take a hard look at your business, your customers, and yourself — then chart a course for the future, so that you can earn what you’re worth.

Find out how photographers are using Focal's Business Accelerator to reach their ideal clients.

Join the Business Accelerator

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