Today I met with a Seattle photographer who I have a ton of respect for. She’s a beast. We met over coffee, the exchange being an iced latte for SLR video settings and a full-access pass to TheAfterHour video starter pack.
It’s a real thing.
Some people would say I’m stupid. She was a bit surprised at first too.
But what’s more stupid is believing that ideas and camera techniques on their own are worth anything. I mean, I learned most of what I know online. The romantic narrative of me struggling and fighting for information and traveling to the depths of the earth to find these secrets for myself is absolute bull. The information is on YouTube. Most people won’t even take the time to do that.
That’s the point.
I always try and give you, the reader, my fellow aspiring artist, value. (Like seriously, the resources I frequently link out to hold incredible value if you really want it)
Because deep down inside, I doubt anything will come of it. I don’t think you have the patience or the mental fortitude to see it out 1 year, 2 years, 5 years down the line to take this info and take my clientele away from me.
But I hope you prove me wrong.
Because that is what I love. The photoshop-torrenting, piggy bank emptying, no sleep, YouTube scraping, client hunting hustler who simply stays at work to master their craft. The ones who play for the end-game.
The truth is, I want to see people succeed. In whatever they do. I’m a fan.
I’ve been blessed with work that suits my personal lifestyle and fulfills my individual measure of happiness and I have no problem sharing what I know. I know what my absolute bottom line is. And I’m crushing it. I’m not looking to scale up. If everyone is my market, then no one is my market. I’m staying in my lane.
I am open to giving you my secrets. The rest is up to you.
Starting is the easy part. The real challenge is differentiating yourself from everyone else.
I hope you stick it out. I’m right there with you.
Years before UBER, there was Magic Cab. Samsung had a smart watch in 2013. Everyone has great ideas.
Ideas alone are worth nothing. Execution is everything.
A quick note about creative balance. Lately I’ve found myself out of rhythm and heavily overwhelmed with work.
I’ve revisited my college-esque all-nighter- food scattered - sporadic sleep routine and I’m sitting here wondering how the hell I got here.
The movie version of my life shows me in meetings, shooting different clients, pumping out work and driving off into the sunset in my Toyota Camry blasting B***h Better Have My Money.
While some of these aspects are true, the romance isn’t there.
And as I sit here auditing my day-to-day and re-visiting my commonplace book as I often do, it’s clear that my problem lies in the illusions surrounding work and priorities.
By now, you know that I am a huge believer in “Work versus Talk” where work simply trumps all 110% of the time. But I’m also a repeat offender of over-working. I forget that my non-creative habits are just as, if not more, important than my creative work I do every day.
Here is what I (try) to do every day:
Wake up. Eat breakfast. No email. No Phone. Write. Gym. Eat. CREATIVEWORK. Serendipity. REACTIVEWORK (emails, texts, admin work, business). Eat. Read. Social. Sleep at midnight.
When I stick to this routine, I’m a beast. I’m flying. Most importantly, I’m productive.
But a few weeks ago, I went down to California. I ate poorly, I stayed out late. Cali stuff. And I came home to a lot of work and found myself trying to catch up by ditching the routine, and just working all day.
The irony is that working more made me less productive. Not to mention sluggish and unhealthy.
For me, it’s all about balance. I operate with a clear head. And this is made possible by eating right, staying active, reading, and saving emails and phone calls to 10am and 3pm only.
My non creative habits make this possible. I actually think of them as creative habits because they foster the inspiration and creation process.
Here’s the quote I re-visited today.
“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” – Gretchen Rubin.
Yes, I create videos and photos and that is one measure of my success. But it’s all made possible by the things I choose to do every day outside of work. And it’s extremely valuable for me to do them.
If you are looking to eliminate daily noise and streamline productivity in your work, email me at TheAfterHourPhoto@gmail.com with the subject line “Cut The Noise” and I will happily share the resources that have helped me. We are in this together.
This is a great question. The journey from hobbyist to sort of professional to full business is tricky to navigate. Artists create because it feels good. Running a business exists on the other end of the spectrum. It’s a weird paradox.
I’m going to answer this by explaining how I did it, what kinds of jobs I started doing, and what helped me go from shooting friends for free to shooting ads for magazines and big fortune 500 companies…. sometimes still for free.
The Beginning: Everything is Free
Let me begin with the most important part of this whole thing. Work trumps all. Your ideas, visions, plans for success aren’t worth anything on their own. When you start shooting, no one owes you a penny. All you should be worried about is shooting. A lot. Use your friends, use your family. Ask your school. And do it for free.
That’s what I did. For the first 2 years, all I did was shoot my friends. Some were conceptual shoots with limited production, but most were me texting them to put on pants and meeting me somewhere to shoot for 20 minutes. Then I reached out to organizations on my college campus. I shot sorority fundraisers and open mic events. I also did a short run with nightclubs. These were paid jobs but it paid shit. At the time I thought this was the most valuable gig for me. I shot celebrities and made some money. Oddly enough, this turned out to be the worst investment for me in terms of the big picture.
The Value in Free Work
As a photographer, you are playing for the end game. The long haul. Your first job is to get your name out there and build a portfolio. Everyone with a phone is a photographer now. What makes YOU different?
Doing free work is valuable for a few reasons.
It Gives You Time To Learn. It gets you out into the community and in front of people. Take this time to build your portfolio, make connections, and most importantly, master your camera. Know it front to back. Learn what different lenses do and what kinds of lights you need. Put in the time. Without a portfolio, you are just another instagrammer.
It lowers the stakes. If the work is free, then “just starting” is a little more acceptable when the end product isn’t great or something unexpected goes wrong. Both parties understand that there is a mutual benefit at the end of the project with time for print (TFP) as currency. It gives you a little more wiggle room on turnaround and delivery but try to give them their product as soon as you can. The flip side of this scenario is you accept a huge budget job without knowing what you are doing and you fall flat on your face. The stakes are extremely high and these clients are expecting a perfect product. If you mess up, the hope is that you don’t, you just lost a potential lifetime customer right at the beginning of your journey.
It lets you find your style: The more you shoot, the quicker you weed out the things that don’t interest you. You can identify what fuels your creativity, what excites you, and what doesn’t. You will naturally find yourself shooting more and getting better at the things you like.
I would say that 90% of my paid jobs are a result of free work I did either directly from a returning client or by referral. My sorority photos turned into 4 years (and counting) of recruitment videos and business work for alumni. My campus work and open mic photos introduced me to producers and recording artists and creatives who have ties to large music festivals and influential blogs and start up’s in Seattle, LA, and New York. A friend I shot was dating a dancer who happened to dance for Macklemore. I ended up touring with Macklemore in 2010 and 2011 and helped produce and shoot And We Danced. The Macklorettes are a huge part of my story to this day. The start up’s I invest in and our micro successes with PR, marketing and getting our product on networks like ABC can all be linked back to people I’ve met and befriended through FREE work.
The 80/20 Rule
80% of your money/success will come from 20% of your clientele. Focus on customer loyalty and over delivery with these jobs. Email, inform, follow up, and engage, GIVEGIVEGIVE with these clients and within this market and word of mouth will take care of future referrals (as long as your product is good). Try to make these jobs the ones you enjoy the most! Spend the most time doing important work that you love. Of course, sometimes the jobs in your 20% find YOU. Even if they aren’t exactly the most creative or “sexy,” they are loyal customers! Don’t blow it. These people are giving you money, don’t be stupid.
The other 80% is what helps pay the bills. These are the odd jobs, the referrals that came to you without seeing your work, maybe your schedule was open and you had time to squeeze in a quick project. I’ve done carpet commercials, weddings, events but I’ll never post them. But I will do them. I have bills.
If you are going to do free/ reduced cost work, do it for the 20% clients. They have a higher lifetime customer value than the one- off’s. There is a higher probability that your work will pay for itself many times over. Try not to do free work for the 80% clients. Here’s why:
This work isn’t your bread and butter/ style/ target market. That is more reason to charge money because you probably won’t be able to use it in your portfolio, marketing/ brand content. Don’t sell yourself short. YOURTIMEISMOREVALUABLE for jobs outside of your market. It’s also okay to say no to these jobs if it’s really outside of your strengths or beliefs.
The benefit of doing free/ low cost work is to network, get your name out with high volume, or collaborate with interesting and influential artists. So if you spend a lot of time doing odd jobs and serving off-market clients, don’t be surprised to find that more people in this market will be contacting you. If you shoot a wedding for a friend, you are now the wedding guy. If you give your name at a night club, you are the nightclub guy. Keep this in mind. Try to avoid jobs you know you absolutely hate shooting. Save yourself the trouble of having to say no or getting caught in an off-market job and having to turn down an enjoyable job inquired for the same day.
The assumption that you will make a bunch of money right off the bat is just not a reality. You might find a few jobs here and there solely on the fact that someone knew you were a photographer, but some things to consider:
If they found you via word-of-mouth alone, they may not even know what kind of work you do / your style. This can make the process very difficult. Make sure you know how your performance will be measured before you accept.
Lack of research done on the client’s end might mean a lack of importance in the project. Make sure your work will be valuable to both parties.
Be on your game. Free work is not an excuse to lack professionalism. Send timely emails, communicate, prepare for the shoot from top to bottom, and deliver the products FAST!
When you start, you are a nobody. No one owes you anything and without a portfolio, no one is going to pay you what you think your competition/ local industry standard is charging.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Find your style. Find your recipe and replicate it. That is what people will pay for over and over again.
If you have a question, DM me on Instagram with the hashtag #AskAmir.
My list of inspirational people is short. They range from dancers, to writers, to rappers, to painters, photographers, and directors.
Some of them have traveled the world, been published in Rolling Stone, helped push no budget movies into Hollywood hits. But most of them haven’t. No blue check mark, No ego placements to help validate themselves.
But they are successful. More importantly, I believe in what they do.
And they all have one thing in common.
They do one thing, and they have been doing it for a long time.
I get it. We’re all well rounded people who enjoy doing a lot of things. But this isn’t about the average person. I’m talking about the entrepreneurs who are choosing to sell themselves, as a brand.
If you’re branding yourself as a hundred different things, you don’t have any value. You don’t have a single product. And I bet you aren’t very successful at any one of these things.
This isn’t a personal attack. It’s just common sense. If you do two things, while you do one, you are not doing the other. Being great at one thing is incredibly hard enough.
A group of my friends are YouTubers. They blew up with funny blogs and skits that went viral. Over time they started making music, directing videos, and became reps for a clothing brand in L.A. They’re having fun. And that’s a great thing. But their numbers are down. Their core fan base wants skits. This wouldn’t be a problem if they moved on and did music full time, cut their losses and made a success plan with music. But they are still trying to mix in skits and blogs “when they can.” And that’s where they are blowing it. They aren’t capitalizing on one particular thing.
When I meet with people who are starting a blog or who are creating a product and seeking my service I always ask them the same question. “Who is your market? Who are you selling to?” Most of the time, their answer is that of a passion-preneur. Or perhaps what my YouTube friends would say. Something like, “Anyone. I just want to inspire people.”
This isn’t specific enough. People are going to have a hard time figuring out what you are selling them. Worse, you don’t have a plan. You are casting out a bunch of lines hoping that someone bites. Anyone.
If you are going to brand yourself, focus on the one thing you enjoy the most. Find your market. Do it and master it.
Let people see how far you’ve come. Show them that your information works. Give them a blueprint. Give them value. Be a master of your craft.
Back in January, I was asked by the ladies of Alpha Phi to shoot a promo video for their spring philanthropy, “Phifa,” a week-long soccer tournament that raises money for women’s heart health and cardiac care.
I didn’t make them a video.
Here’s what we did instead, and why it worked.
The key here was identifying the real task at hand, the actual problem in it’s simplest form. Most people would ask, “How do we tell people about our soccer tournament” and then make a video showing a bunch of girls playing soccer and explaining where the money would be donated.
Most college promos follow this playbook. That’s fine…but it’s not effective. It’s boring. It’s too broad. You have to ask the right questions.
Who participates in this tournament? Frat guys.
How do we convince a frat guy, (anyone) to participate in an event? Personal benefit (ie: a challenge, brotherhood, winning ).
How do we market to them?
This is where people blow it. They get so caught up in complex marketing schemes they’ve read about but never tested, lame incentives, or being “shocking” that they ignore the idea that all successful companies have been leveraging for years to market their products.
How people think. And how our minds learn to like something.
The question is not “how do I convince someone to do (X)?” It should be “how do I teach someone to like (X)?”
The answer… Repetition.
I didn’t make them a video. I made them a campaign. 4 videos, 15-20 seconds each, showing girls in various competitive scenarios with the same text popping across the screen. “March 30th, You Better Bring Your A-Game….. PHIFA 15.”
Creating Context: 1 video of a girl working out in neon spandex is strange. But 4 videos of girls preparing for a week of competition is “Oh, they are Bringing Their A-Game.” It somehow makes sense.
Repetition: Date, Message, Title. That’s it. 4 separate times. That’s what we want to stick. Keep it simple.
Attention Span: THEYARESHORT. No one is going to watch your 6 minute fundraiser video. Would you?
Shareability: 15 seconds is easy to share. Assuming your content is entertaining, people are going to watch it more than once.
Call to Action: “Bring Your A-Game” not only creates context, it is a call-to-action. This is what most promos lack. A challenge. Guys don’t like being shown up. These girls are ready… are you? Bruh.
If you strip the videos down to its elements we basically have 3 things. Text, visuals, and music. All we actually care about is the text. The visuals and music are simply there to stimulate.
Here are the light setups for the 2 videos that required them
If you are interested in seeing the original video treatments and project checklist, I am happy to send it to you. Just email me at TheAfterHourPhoto@gmail.com with the subject line “Video Treatment” and you can use the templates however you want for your own work.
The Finished Product
So did the campaign work? It sure did. 27 frats paid to participate in the tournament. That’s a huge chunk of money going to a really important cause.
People like things that are familiar. Have you ever caught yourself singing a song on the radio you hated? You might not like the song, but your brain does. Why? Because it recognizes it. It’s that simple. Modern skulls hold stone-age minds. We learn through repeated exposure.
There is something dangerous going on. And it needs to stop.
If VH1 has taught us anything, it’s that behind every rock star, every signing bonus, every booty poppin, champagne sippin, lambo whippin, chain hang to my ding-a-lang rags to riches story, lies an empty, sad human being who can’t stand to be alone with their thoughts come night time. Or so they make it out to be.
Mo Money, Mo Problems.
For the non-celeb like you and I, we go about our lives with good intentions, setting ambitious goals for ourselves and not shying away from a little “hard work.” We are realistic. We are humble. We aren’t in it for the fame. We might dream about it, but we would never actually want that life! After all… “It’s lonely at the top.”
It used to be an easier pill to swallow. The land of the chosen. The deserving. Stardom by destiny. Not us. Not the regular people. But “Oh how times have changed.” The people at the top are starting to look a lot like you and I. Using the same tools as us, wearing the same clothes as us. Creating the same art as us. But finding a lot more “success.”
And so we took what Hollywood taught us about money, success, and inevitable downfall, and applied those beliefs to everyone. Our friends, our fellow artists and people we don’t even know, and we’ve convinced ourselves that surely their happiness and success is not real either. More than that, we shouldn’t be happy for their amazing lives because they are probably sad on the inside. If not now, they will be. “They’ll learn.”
This mindset is disgusting. And dangerous.
You might not even realize you are doing it. Not being able to like a friend’s photo of their baby because you tell yourself that it probably just sh*t it’s pants 3 minutes later. “Their joy isn’t authentic. This isn’t what parenting is really like!”
Justification by way of disqualification. Worse, thinking that success has nothing to do with hard work. Or exists.
Look for horror stories about wealth and self destruction and you’ll find them. Same goes for those with happier endings. For some, it is lonely at the top. For some, it’s not. But it’s neveralways lonely.
Don’t trick yourself into thinking mediocrity is okay because “the top” or happiness in 2015 is fake. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t have to be.
Growing up, I was in and out of the hospital with irregular heart-beat. Doctors said they were murmurs, but I always feared that the next time would prove them wrong. For years I believed I was on the verge of a heart attack. The verdict, as it turns out, was Panic Attacks. I was 21. And embarrassed.
The result of growing up keenly aware of your body’s internal state is that you have a very good idea of what your “normal” is. Equilibrium. I knew exactly how hard my heart should beat in bed, at school, and after basketball practice. I knew how hot my forehead got for a flu and the difference between “pass-out tingly” and “slept on it wrong tingly.” When I was at equilibrium, I was safe. With even the slightest change in pulse, or breathing patterns, I knew I was in trouble. The attacks went something like this. Shortness of breath. Pinching in my chest. Heart pounding from outside my chest. Lightheadedness. Numb limbs, and if you spoke you sounded like Will Ferrell in Old School after he got shot in the neck with a tranquilizer.
Back then, I would have thought I was dying. Now…well I still think I’m dying, but I know it will pass. And now it does.
I tell myself 5 words. Words that have helped me overcome panic attacks. Words I have also adopted to navigate life in the face of change and uncertainty.
“This is your new normal.”
You see, the harder we try to hold on to normal, the more debilitating it becomes when nature requires us to adapt.
I used to fight my body’s natural response to an attack so much that I feared it. My belief that I could stop it is what made it worse. I had to learn how to adjust. I had to learn to tell myself, it’s okay, I’ve been here before. This is natural. This feeling right now, is your new normal.
I haven’t been to the E.R in almost 2 years.
Being thrown outside of your “normal” is an uncomfortable thing. Maybe your work schedule changed and it has affected your daily routine. Perhaps you are nervous about a new job you feel completely under-qualified to do. Maybe you are ill and your goals are put on hold. It could be anticipation. Pre-meditated success. Excitement. Anything unexpected that throws us off equilibrium. It consumes us.
The error lies in the belief that we can control the world around us. We know, this is not true. Instead of finding the unfairness or telling ourselves that our fortunes / misfortunes are somehow unique and picked out especially for us, we must understand that sometimes, it just is what it is. This is our new normal. Forget about why, or what if. And carry on.
This isn’t saying we roll over and wave the white flag. This is simply a way to avoid letting change and unexpected events we have no control over, paralyze us. Getting past the first stage is the hardest part.
This is your new normal. Welcome change and stay productive. Soon, it will be just that. Normal.
A decade earlier, a century earlier, a millennium earlier, someone just like you stood right where you are and felt a very similar thing, struggling with the very same thoughts. They had no idea that you would exist, but you know that they did. And a century from now, someone will be in your exact same position once more. Embrace this power, this sense of being a part of a larger whole. It is an exhilarating thought. Let it envelope you. We’re all just humans doing the best we can. We’re all just trying to survive, and in the process, inch the world forward a little bit.
1 am. The server at Amante Pizza clears our table. Across from me sit two old friends, veterans in the music scene, of their neighborhoods at least. “Remember that one hook I had… the one where I said….” Something about riding a bicycle through town. In my fixie, riding down Broadway damn near sixty. Owuor laughs, his lips still raw from his show earlier that night. His sips are long. Recovery.
An over-dressed salad and 1.5 slices of cheese pizza remain on the table. Anna to my right, and Anyango asleep on the bench next to her. Both performers in the show that night. I remember sitting next to Anna at Starbucks 2 years ago and about a conversation we had. About our goals as we often did. She wanted to dance. To travel. And to do all of this with her family on stage with her. And now, in the corner booth on Capitol Hill, streetlight flickering with every pedestrian between the street and our window in perfect unison with our lagging blinks, this lifestyle was her new normal. Her success.
Enough time for a bite. Enough time to run into an old friend and relive the past. Not quite enough time to convince someone that you are still the same old dude from the neighborhood but just enough time to fall asleep. To recall how far you’ve come, and how far you still have to go.
Someone once asked me what I thought about “success” and how to deal with not ever feeling like we are making any ground. My secret is that I don’t define success with my art. My art is just my tool. It’s the experiences and the people that I have met through what I do where I get the most fulfillment in life. I’m lucky. I get to pick the brains and learn from people who have “made it.” They are the cool ones. I just push buttons. I’ve never linked the two.
The most valuable thing I have learned is that success is real. It really exists if you choose to play the part and make the moves. It’s not just something we see on Tumblr. That, and the fact that you cannot do it alone. Trying to do it by yourself will only take you so far. Do it for the sake of something bigger than yourself and to be happy for others along the way. Give. That’s when you will begin to see success.
3 minutes. My Conversation with Owuor Arunga on success, fame, and his creative mindset.