As a commercial photographer, I have a ton of competition from other photographers. There are many other people who take fashion photos. There are even more people claiming to do fashion photography. All in all, I seem to be against the world when it comes to work. If you’ve ever wondered how to beat your competition, here’s an approach that always works. Always, without exaggeration.
It’s very common to hear the people I coach complain about lewd competition and just about everyone is always stealing work from them. It seems to be a common problem in the industry. There is always more and more competition, someone who does it better than you. There’s always someone who takes a better picture, poses the subject better, lights better, someone does everything better. They are the reason you don’t get the job you deserve as a photographer. It’s all their fault. I can easily understand this point of view. It’s also very interesting. If you perceive everyone as a threat to your work, you will indeed see them as an excuse not to shoot and create more. This threat is competition. If you feel like you’re up against people doing the same thing as you, I strongly suggest you analyze your work. Because the truth is, the truth is quite different. What if there was no competition at all? What if you were your biggest enemy? Let’s see what the competition is and what it is not.
Papa John’s against the dominoes
The classic definition would look like independent businesses selling the same product in order to achieve a business goal. In the case of restaurants, it could be Domino’s and Papa John’s. They both sell pizza, and they make good one too. Without going into Pizzathematics, people usually make a choice based on price, taste, and a few other factors. But the average consumer who wants pizza would probably order from either without considering individual characteristics.
Although I don’t like fast food chains, I have a Big Mac once in a while. It’s never about the burger or the “authentic McDonald’s experience”, but rather “the body needs food, the body gets food”. When I want a quick calorie fix, I gladly take whatever I can. The same goes for coffee. I drink a Nespresso in the studio, simply because it’s the only coffee available. If I had a Nescafé machine, I would drink Nescafé. For me, they serve the same purpose: caffeine.
Canon versus Nikon
Having defined the competition, let’s see how it translates in the world of art, namely photography. Camera manufacturers try to stand out from each other by introducing cool features and updates that set them apart. The sad truth is that there hasn’t been a bad camera since the Canon 5D Mark II. Any DSLR or mirrorless you buy will do the job just fine. At this point, I personally cannot tell which camera the image was taken on just by looking at the image. In a recent article on iPhones versus traditional cameras, this was also highlighted. The thing is, the competition isn’t between the cameras themselves, it’s between the camera brands selling the idea that their camera is better for photographers. There’s simply no other reason you’d buy a Leica if it were all about technology. If you are someone who simply needs an image capture device, you will be buying a camera, not a Canon or a Nikon due to 50+ years of heritage or other marketing gimmicks. If you want to buy a camera that was used on the moon, you will buy a Hasselblad because it is a unique and authentic product.
Now, having established what is and what isn’t competition, let’s apply it to photography and see where photographers compete and where they don’t.
Competition between photographers
There are basically two levels at which photographers are hired: the need for images and the need for authentic work.
Someone who needs photos doesn’t really care who makes them. Usually the decision is based on price, available dates and other factors. It’s almost never the style, the human qualities, the perspective or anything about the individual. This is the purpose that this individual fulfills: to obtain photos. The most effective way to get a client like this is to overstate what the other person is charging. Although this seems to be ruining the industry, it is not. There will always be someone who will be happy to do it for less. The other problem is that after a month or two of charging much lower than they should be, they will realize that to live a normal life they need to increase the rate. A new person will come to replace them. The “cheap” customer won’t really notice a difference. They will keep finding someone who can do it for less and less. In short, these are the customers we do not want. These customers are the “problematic” customers who often lead to disputes and unnecessary stress without money.
The customers we want are the high-end customers: the people who hire you for your style, for your point of view on the subject and for your point of view. There are a lot of these customers, and their budget is much higher. Because these clients are hiring you and not a “person who takes pretty pictures”, there can be no competition. It is simply impossible for someone else to do what you are doing. You are an authentic human being who is completely different from others. You are your own thing, and you do your own thing. No matter how hard someone tries to be like you, they ultimately can’t be you. What makes your work special are your experiences, your influences, your traumas and your pleasures. Someone who has lived a privileged life is unlikely to understand someone who had to flee a war-torn country in search of safety. The work of these two individuals will be completely different. This is exactly why you cannot compete with other photographers. You’re just not even in a race against them. If you’re a turtle, it’s a cat. Two different animals, two different beings, two different species. You have to learn to speak the language of photography, to speak it with your own dialect and to use your own phrases.
I see competition as a petty excuse to stop progressing and creating more. There is nothing wrong with that. As humans, we are naturally lazy. Instead of looking for a petty excuse not to be creative, find an excuse to go out and do something! It takes effort and time, but the result is something unique. Something that has your soul and your spirit. Something that is a reflection of you. No one can ever create a “better” reflection of you than yourself. So stop complaining, and forget that there is competition in photography! This will be the only way to beat your non-existent competition.