The Addiction of Sports Photography: Building Credibility and Promoting Yourself
“Build it and they will come.” That approach worked for Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, in the film Field of Dreams. But it won’t work for sport photographers. You must actively promote yourself to become a successful sport photographer.
Promoting myself was one of the hardest things I had to do. It’s not because I’m not good at what I do. It’s because bravado and boast are not a part of my persona. I had to step outside my comfort zone to establish my success.
And I’m not alone. Most photographers consider themselves artists, and believe their work should speak for itself. Unfortunately, there are more starving artists than successful ones. And starving artists usually become famous after their death.
Conversely, if you are known, you don’t have to be the best to get the work, you just have to be good. Here are some suggestions on how to build credibility and promote your sports photography business without first having to die.
Building relationships is the most natural thing in the world to do. Especially when you share a common interest like sports or photography.
However, it’s easy to ignore relationships while on the job. You might be protective of our work, trying to keep what you think is a competitive advantage from others. You might be insecure of your work, thinking it won’t stand muster against others. Or, you might be so focus on what you are doing, that you simply lose sight of the opportunity to build relationships.
Relationship can be built in two different ways: personal interactions and on-line interactions. Let’s start with the personal interactions.
The people you will be working alongside fall into two categories: teams and media services. The teams include the front office members, players, officials and arena personal seen at the games. Media services include sports reporters, photographers and videographers working for newspapers, television stations and news services.
Working with Teams
As we mentioned in an earlier chapter, most teams are starved for high quality images. Unfortunately, these teams are also starved for budget. So far, we talked about exchanging images for access. Next, let’s talk about how to use that entre to promote your value to the team and build credibility.
Depending upon the sport, there may be as many as two to ten photographers that are exchanging images for access at a game. Your mission is to move from being one of the many, to the only one they think of when asked: “Who do you recommend as a sport photographer?”.
Begin by building good relationships with the team’s Public Relations / Communications Manager and the Marketing Manager. In some case they might be the same person. Before each game ask “what do you need.” Many times, they will say “everything.” If that is the answer, then ask “help me prioritize.” Other times the answer will be “we need images of #17, he just got called up.”
Increase your importance by getting the fully edited images to the team in a timely manner. Early in the season, when the team has few stock photos, this means getting them the images immediately after the game. Make sure the metadata
includes the player’s name and number in the title or caption field. This makes it easier to search on the player from either MS Explorer or Apple Finder.
Become a part of the team by following the team. Check the team website and social media page before each game for last minute changes. You come off really sharp if you already know that “we need images of #17, he just got called up.”
Share your observations. The game you view from the sidelines is much different than the game they see from the press box. For example, when Hanser Alberto, now an infielder for the Baltimore Orioles, made a seldom-seen fielding error, he returned to the dugout and gave his bat to a fan as his penance. The front office would never have known this if not for my report, and I had the photographs to show it!
And don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the senior member of the front office, just don’t waste their time. Other than the big leagues, the front office staffs are small. The president of the team may be greeting sponsors and season ticket holders one moment, and be directing traffic in the parking lot the next.
Your relationships go well beyond members of the front office. You’ll have access to the players, and overtime you’ll get to know them. They love photos of themselves. Don’t be a pest.
Just to set expectations: building relationships with players doesn’t buy you much, other than a feel-good factor. Unless, of course, LeBron James takes a liking to you. Unfortunately, 99.99% of the players you will encounter won’t rise to the level of King James.
Take the opportunity to get to know the officials, at the appropriate moments. I’ve had officials in professional hockey and basketball ask for their photographs. After all, the officials were aspiring athletes that either didn’t have the full skill set, or are beyond their playing days.
Be sure to introduce yourself to the security guards. I consider security guards to be one of my “must make” relationships. These folks make $10 per hour, but they have latitude in where you can and cannot go. I’ve asked security guards to watch my equipment while I left the court to process photographs at halftime. They are good friend to have.
Working with Media Services
Always introduce yourself to the photographers, videographers and reporters covering the game. Many of the photographers will be like you, but at an earlier stage in their career. New photographers may be a little unsure of themselves and a bit insecure. Try lending them a hand if you can.
The other photographers will be seasoned veterans. These are the ones you want to get to know. Try breaking the ice by asking a question, like “what settings are you using?” or “who are you shooting for?”. Photographers on-staff at newspapers will be open with information because their jobs are secure. Some freelancers, however, may be protective of information because they often live job-to-job.
Videographers either work for the arena or are sports reporters. Sport reporters are a very different breed. They work together, helping each other out. Many a time I’ve seen one reporter hold a video camera for another while they are interviewing a player. There’s less competition among sports reporters because they have equal access to coaches and players, which is regulated by the Sports Information Director (College) or the Communications / Public Relations Director (Professional). This is unlike the news desk which is extremely competitive by way of breaking news.
Relationships like these have gotten me work as a team photographer and as a freelancer, and has doors opened to very desirable sports venues. I even shot alongside a Pulitzer prize winning photographer, helping him out when he was in a jam. I never got any work from that one, but it makes for a good story, like now.
On-line interactions have advantages and disadvantages over personal interactions. Personal interactions are one-to-one. On-line actions are one-to-many and are very scalable. Unfortunately, many people aren’t familiar with, or aren’t comfortable with, the many on-line options available.
There are three basic categories of on-line interactions: Websites, Social Media, and Searches. Let’s start with the websites.
If you’re seriously about sports photography, one of the first things you’ll need is a website. You’ll need a site to prove your capabilities when requesting credentials and to demonstrate your worth to potential clients.
Give thought to what you call your web site. What impression do you want to leave? What do you want your brand to stand for? What you call your web site defines what you will be.
Many people name their website after themselves, like “Andy Nietupski Photography”. I find this very limiting. First, it tells the world that I am a sole proprietorship. It also says that I just do photography.
Instead I call my website “TTL Sports Media”. Most people think TTL stands for “Total”, but it also stands for “Through the Lens.” And “Media” allows me to do many different thinks, which I do. And using “Sports” implies a specialization, versus being a generalist.
Technically, your website’s name is called a “domain name.” A domain name is the address where Internet users can access your website. My domain name is “TTLSports.com.” There are a number of companies that can help you obtained you domain name. These companies are called “Domain Registrars” and a few are presented in Figure 7. On average, it costs around $10 to $15 annually to purchase and hold a domain name.
People usually use a “Hosting Service” to present the content of their site. These services have a large number of templates from which you can select to build your website. Some of the more popular hosting services for photographers are presented in Figure 7. The cost of a hosting service ranges from $50 to $300 annually, depending upon the features you choose and the number of photos posted to the site.
Select the hosting service based on your vision for your website. To start, you want a site where you can post your images and organized them into galleries. You may want ability to write short articles on what you are doing, or do this regularly in the form of a blog. And finally, you may want the ability to sell photographs via the site.
If you plan to sell you images, you must first have a plan on how you will drive traffic to your site. Here, social media plays a significant role.
The easiest way to promote your work is through social media. The four top social media platforms are Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook (Figure 8). Each platform has its strengths.
Facebook and Twitter excel in the sharing of news, content and stories. Instagram and YouTube focus on sharing of informative and entertaining photos and videos. Facebook and Instagram are the most frequently accessed social media platforms, with 74% of Facebook users visiting at least once per day, and 65% of Instagram users. Twitter is the least visited at 42% of users daily. Facebook plays to an older demographic with greater income, while Instagram plays to a younger demographic with lesser income.
Research on the platform demographics and content format directs your selection of a platform. Regardless of your choice, claim your user name on all platforms, just to retain future flexibility. Preferably, the user name should be the same for all.
Twitter is popular among professional and collegiate sports teams, which then draws their fans as followers. Teams can share text messages, up to 280 characters, as well as photos and videos. The best received tweets include text plus an image or video. Up to four images can be included in a single tweet, but I prefer using just one image to better draw attention to the picture. I also prefer posting images using an aspect ratio of 16:9 so the entire picture can be seen without clicking on it.
Instagram is the platform of choice for the photographers, requiring still- or video-images in each post. All professional and collegiate teams use Instagram, but often recycle content posted on Twitter. Instagram favors posting images from a cell phone, but it is possible to post from a computer. Lightroom has a plug-in that allows direct posting of up to five images at a time. There are no restrictions on the image’s aspect ratios. Instagram does not limit the number of characters used in a post, but the viewer must click to reveal the entire message.
Most still photographers are dismissive of YouTube because it is video. But I suggest that every still-photographer have some video content in their portfolio. This content may not rise to the instructive or editorial content found in YouTube, but it can include five- or ten-second clips of exciting moments like teams entering the field or celebrations. Those clips can be posted to Twitter, Instagram, and, yes, even YouTube.
Taking still-images and video-images requires two very different skill sets. Technically, I believe it is harder to take a high quality still-image (i.e., sharp as a tack), but both still- and video-images require a high-level of stylistic expertise. Videos can be taken either with your camera or phone, and lightly edited with the device’s firmware.
And finally, there is Facebook. I saved Facebook for last because there is so much that can be done with it. At a minimum, Facebook can be used as a surrogate website with pages for Home, About, Events, Photos, Videos, Community and many more. I suggest you develop a standalone website with your own domain name if you intend to move beyond local athletic teams and organizations.
Facebook’s real forte, however, is building relations with organizations and entities that are known to you. Your Friends should include local athletic teams and organizations, and your shared content will make them aware of your work.
A common trend is to market your business on Facebook. Facebook claims that the chances of ‘Likes’ being converted into ‘business’ are higher on their platform than any other social media platform. Facebook also says that their ad campaigns are more effective because of the comprehensive audience reach.
Regardless of the platform you select, here are what I consider to be social media best practices:
- Post your messages very quickly: content has a short shelf life;
- One photo per post, add a meaningful caption and watermark your photo;
- Include a link in your posts to your main photo body of work, using URL shorteners;
- Include @username of the players and teams shown in the image;
- Vary point of views by team (e.g., the home team loss, the visiting team won) and make multiple posts;
- Keep it interesting: avoid the obvious;
- Report on up-coming games as well as game results;
- Follow your favorite teams, players, coaches and front office staff;
- It’s considered a courtesy to follow those who follow you; and
- Make liberal use of re-tweets, re-posts, Likes, and Hearts.
Many books have been written on search engine optimization (SEO) and it is beyond the scope of this chapter to attempt that discussion. But there are two things that I did to dramatically improve my discovery by the Google and Bing search engines: I registered my website and business.
The Google Search Console and the Bing WebMaster tool allows you to register your website with the search engine and post a SiteMap. A SiteMap is a listing of all the pages of your website, their organization and their structure. The SiteMap makes it easier for web crawlers to index your website and its metadata. Most Hosting Services can build a SiteMap, or you use a third-party service.
Each web page has metadata similar to that used in your images. The metadata includes a page description, key words, and a short summary that is presented when that page is discovered.
Both tools provide important analytics like total impressions, click through rate and average search position, and diagnostics for user issues like broken links and mobile useability.
Additionally, both search engines offer free services to local and small businesses call Google My Business and Bing My Business. Each service shows your business listing in local search results, making it more visible to online customers. Posted content includes information on products, offerings, services, events, updates, photos and reviews. My on-line visibility increased dramatically using these services.
You are in an amazing position if you have made it this far. You have amassed a solid portfolio through your relationships with the teams, and you have a solid online present through your website and social media activity.
But don’t worry if these things are not in place, yet. In the meanwhile, give thought to where you want to take sports photography. If you know you will never go beyond taking photos of your kid’s team, or of your local youth athletic league, then put together a good Facebook page.
But if you think you might want to go beyond that level, then begin to lay the foundation. You don’t necessarily need to get there overnight, or spend a lot of money, but at least you won’t have to go back and do a lot of rework once you get stated.
And finally, get organized. This is true for your gear, your images, your web site and your social media presence.
About the Author
Andy Nietupski founded TTL Sport Media in 2015 after a corporate career of business start-ups and turn-arounds. TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques. TTL Sports Media publishes thousands of pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items. On behalf of its client interests, TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes 1000’s of social media posts.
Copyright 2020 Andy Nietupski and TTL Sports Media