LA, 2016
LA, 2016

There is a sea of photographers out there. How do you distinguish yourself from the mass of other photographers?

“Personal branding”

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

You are a unique individual with unique life experiences. You are different from all the other billions of humans out there.

Show your individuality and personal idiosyncrasies.

If you want to succeed in photography and life– don’t do what others tell you what to do. Rather, be you. Don’t censor yourself. Combine your other interests (besides photography), and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Be authentic

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When I think about you “branding” yourself– it is to build a sense of trust with your audience. Show others who you are, and make yourself naked in front of others. Be authentic, and make photos that are true to yourself.

With social media, make it a reflection of who you are. Don’t upload photos to simply get likes/comments/followers. Rather, show your audience who you truly are.

Combine your outside interests

Photo by Cindy Nguyen. Vancouver, 2015
Photo by Cindy Nguyen. Vancouver, 2015

A way you can brand yourself and make your photography stand out is to combine your outside interests.

For example, Sebastiao Salgado studied economics and was horrified by how workers were being treated. He combined his passion for humanitarian work and photography to make his work unique.

Saul Leiter was a painter and loved color. He shot photos that were essentially paintings (but on the streets).

Richard Avedon was a portrait and commercial photographer. His favorite body of work was “In the American West” where he would connect with common folks in the streets, and shot portraits of them.

Daido Moriyama was a former drug addict, and called himself a “wandering dog.” He channeled his emotion, frustration, and sense of wandering in his street photography.

Personally, I studied sociology in school, and see myself less as a “street photographer” and more of a “street sociologist.” I think what makes my approach unique is how I try to use a camera as a research tool. Furthermore, I am passionate about teaching– which has helped me start teaching street photography workshops. I also believe in “open source” information and education (growing up poor and without many resources inspired me), and now I want to empower others through information on this blog (I want to give back, because many others have given to me).

†If you are passionate about drawing and art– combine that into your photography. Adam Marelli started off with a passion in composition and drawing– and combined that into his photography and teaching. Henri Cartier-Bresson was interested in painting, surrealism– and simply saw photography as an “instant sketchbook.”

Be consistent

Photo by Emilio Aparicio / NYC, 2016
Photo by Emilio Aparicio / NYC, 2016

To “brand” yourself is to be consistent. It is to have a consistent message, and not to confuse your viewers or followers.

When we think of car brands like Toyota– we think of reliability, gas mileage, and quality.

When we think of BMW– we think of the “ultimate driving machine” and performance.

Stick to a single message. Be consistent. It takes a long time before people are able to discover who you are, what your style is, and what your message is. If you constantly change your motto, logo, or slogans, how can people follow along?

Coca-cola hasn’t changed their logo (or their motto) for decades. Pepsi on the other hand, has constantly changed to keep up (but are on the losing end).

Nike has stayed consistent to their “Just do it” motto for decades, and are consistent in focusing on athletic equipment to empower people.

My favorite chain-restaurants/fast food places are the ones that have consistent quality. In-and-out burger is consistently good, no matter where I go. Although I’m not the biggest fan of the taste of Starbucks coffee, I know I will have consistent wifi, consistently friendly service, and at least consistently-good cold-brew coffee.

So what message are you trying to spread through your photography? Whatever it is– be consistent.

Put yourself out there

eric (1 of 1)

To “succeed” in today’s economy and world is to put yourself out there. You need to be online, on social media, and visible to the public.

I think it is a misconception that truly great artists are the ones who only let their work “speak for themselves.” We need to know how to market ourselves successfully and be great photographers.

Even though Apple products are fantastic, they still aggressively market and advertise their products. The same goes for Nike, camera companies, and other big car brands.

If you want to be a popular photography blogger, you need to know how to write catchy headlines (newspaper editors have known this for decades). If you want to have a strong body of work as a photographer, you need to know how to get people to come to your exhibitions, to buy your work, and to build your name. If you want to get commercial clients in your photography, you need to know how to get people to find you (whether through word-of-mouth, through your portfolio website, or your social media channels).

You don’t need to be on every single social media platform– but use whatever makes sense for you.

For me as a photography blogger and teacher, having a blog and YouTube channel makes a lot of sense for me. I’m in the business of sharing education and information, and a blog and YouTube channel helps me achieve that.

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

For you, it might mean having Instagram and a Snapchat. Perhaps it doesn’t. Maybe it only means that you need a professional website.

But whatever platforms you advertise yourself on, know that you need to be somewhere.

Aim for being the best in what you do, but also by advertising yourself, and not waiting for people to simply find or “discover” you.

How to get started

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

If you want to get into commercial or portrait photography, don’t wait for people to discover you on social media. Contact magazine editors, and offer to either work for free, or for premium bucks.

If you have an idea for a photography blog, just write your first post. Know it takes a long time to build an audience (for me, it took at least 300 blog posts and a year of consistent work).

If you want to start a YouTube channel– put your raw and unedited thoughts out there. Don’t worry too much about editing or equipment in the beginning.

Getting the ball rolling is always the hardest thing. But once you have momentum— pushing the snowball becomes easier and easier. Then at one point, it starts to roll by itself.

Honestly, just start. Aim for “good enough.” Once your ideas are 80% realized, just execute. Action and motion is what propels us forward.

When to pivot?

Portrait by Neil Ta / New Orleans, 2015
Portrait by Neil Ta / New Orleans, 2015

With your personal brand in photography, at times you need to change, evolve, and “pivot.”

I think it is appropriate to pivot when you’re no longer having fun. When you’re no longer growing. When you no longer are the person you want to be.

For me, I have spent the last few months and year thinking more philosophical thoughts on photography. Now I am trying to take it “back to basics” and focus on the fundamentals of photography. I also like the idea of writing more for beginners rather than experts. Why? It helps me stay humble, curious, and motivated. Beginners are the best to work with because they are so open-minded. Experts tend to be quite boring, close-minded, and less excited and passionate.

Also even though “street photography” is my passion– I want to start pivoting and focusing on general photography. I started off with my small niche to build my name, but now I want to extend my reach to a larger audience to help the most amount of people possible.

Just be you

eric studying book

Once again, at the end of the day– personal branding is just being yourself, being consistent, being authentic, and having fun. Know that your “brand” will change and evolve over time naturally. But when you’re starting off, put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid. I know it is scary– to put your photography out there and risk being “judged.”

Know that the more “successful” you become, the more negative criticism you will get. But know that when you start getting more negative criticism, the more “successful” you are.

Never become bitter, stay positive– and keep “doing you.” Do the work that makes you happy, and focus on empowering others through your photographic work.

More articles on marketing and personal branding

Berlin, 2015
Berlin, 2015
  1. How to Start Your Own Photography Blog
  2. A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media
  3. Advice for Aspiring Full-Time Photographers
  4. 1,000 True Fans
  5. The “10x Principle”: The Only Difference Between “Success” and “Failure”
  6. How to Teach a Street Photography Class
  7. Why I Teach Street Photography Workshops