Needle in a Haystack: How Photographers Can Make Their Photos Stand Out from the Crowd!

No need to spray paint your logo on random buildings to get your photography noticed. (Okay, fine... I just didn't really have an image to illustrate this one....)

I emailed many of the members of the Improve Photography community yesterday via the newsletter and asked what photography questions I could help answer for them.  I received dozens and dozens of great responses but Denise Mackie, one of the members of our community, sent in such a good question that I thought it was deserving of an immediate response via an article here on the site.  Here is her question:

What can I do to set myself apart from all the “photographers” out there? Today, you can buy someone’s photos literally in every store, online, Facebook- EVERYWHERE!  People see sooo many great photos that they don’t even pay attention to them anymore.  How do I set my photography apart!?!?”

There are hundreds of thousands of photographers clamoring to get their photos in front of clients and buyers and very few photographers get the client, and very few fine art photos get purchased.  What makes the difference?  In my experience, there are 3 things that truly set photos–and photographers–apart from the crowd.

Three Keys to Taking Photos that Demand Attention

Landscape photography of a sunrise over the mountain#1 Great photos are familiar

Last year, I went to a large art fair with thousands of art buyers flooding the booths of dozens of photographers.  All of the photographers were true professionals with jaw-dropping prints carefully framed and ready for purchase.  As I walked through the art fair, I noticed that some photographers were selling prints fairly quickly, and other photographers sat and watched as buyers went in and out of their booths without purchasing anything.  The scene was so eye-catching that I stopped and watched for a while to see what made the difference.  Both photographers had terrific work, but only one of them was selling photos.

I walked into the booth of the photographer that was selling and I immediately understood what the difference was.  The buyers were excitedly asking the photographer questions like, “OH!  I think I recognize this location!  Was that taken at Lover’s Key beach?”  and “Ohh… I LOVE that pier!  That’s an incredible picture!  I’ve taken sunset pictures there before, but none of them turned out like this one!”

In the other booth, the photos were taken at exotic world locations and they were truly beautiful, but the buyers felt no affinity with the location.  Where the first photographer’s photos were familiar and resonated with the people because the buyers felt like it was personal, the second photographer’s photos were beautiful but impersonal.  The buyers felt like the photos were strangers rather than old friends.

Perhaps the greatest key to making your photography stand out is to take photos that make people feel at home.  They should feel like the photo is familiar and personal to them.  While the example I gave is more keyed to fine art photographers, the same principle applies 100% to portrait photographers.  To learn how to apply this principle to portrait photography, just read this post from last week.

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#2: Great photos are presented perfectly

Show respect for the presentation of your photography, and clients will respect the photography you present.

Not to make this article one continuous anecdote, but one week after attending the art fair mentioned previously, I went to another art show.  This was a more casual atmosphere.  This time, I spotted a photographer with fantastic local photos.  In fact, her work was–in my opinion–a cut above the photographers I had seen the work before.  However, the cost of her photography was priced less than 25% of the price the other photographers were asking, and she framed the photos with cheap frames and stuck some prints loose in a box for buyers to look through.

This photographer sold some prints, but she could have dramatically increased her bottom line by only presenting her very best work, and presenting it PERFECTLY.  She had hundreds of prints and some of them were terrific, and others were only acceptable.  If she would have come to the event with only 20 truly professional shots with flawless framing and matting, she could have made a killing.  Instead, she devalued her own work to that of a flea market.

This does not only apply to prints.  I often look at photographers’ online portfolios that are so sloppily designed that I cannot muster any respect for the photographer’s work.  Not only is this true with prints and online portfolios, but it is also true for posting photos online.  When you post your work on Facebook or other places online where you cannot control the entire design of the page surrounding your work, you could at least put the photo on a nice black background or frame it with black to make it look a bit nicer.

Schwabacher's Landing, as photographed by another photographer

#3: Don’t be “Typical”

I guess I must be in the mood to tell stories today, because I can’t help but tell a short personal story to illustrate this principle.  A few months ago my wife, Emily, and I went to Grand Teton National Park.  Like every other photographer who visits this park, we went to shoot at Schwabacher’s Landing at sunset.  This exact location has been shot by millions of photographers for decades.  When we arrived at the spot, we noticed that there are permanent shooting platforms for 5 photographers to fit side-by-side to set up their tripods to shoot the shot.  I couldn’t believe it!  They might as well have put tripods there so photographers could just hook their camera up and snap the famous photo.

I didn’t want my shot of this beautiful location to by typical, so I started hunting for a new spot.  As it turned out, there was a significantly better location to shoot Schwabacher’s Landing just a few hundred feet downstream.  I moved and created a much more unique shot.

While you may not see this exact type of situation every day, there are many ways you can apply this principal.  When you shoot a portrait, do you simply have the model stand next to a pretty flower bush, use a large aperture, and snap away?  Isn’t that incredibly typical?  Break out of the box and do something fun and creative!

If you need some inspiration to get you started, look on flickr or 500px to see ideas that might help you.

If you enjoy these photography tips, please LIKE Improve Photography on Facebook to become part of the community.  It’s a GREAT way to get your photography questions answered!

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    In Oregon, the most popular (and I assume, best-selling) photos are invariably that of places like Multnomah Falls and Haystack Rock. The best photos of those, in my opinion, are the creative and inspiring perspectives that nobody else is shooting.

  2. says

    Jim ! Thanks you so much for answering my question. Reading it makes total sense and it will be very helpful in the future. I appreciate all the advice here and will continue paying close attention.

  3. says

    Great article, Jim. I thought it was interesting you chose what appears to be a HDR’d image to support “Great photo’s are presented perfectly”. My first thought was that an image like this could be limiting the number of potential clients as HDR seems to provoke love/hate emotions, so I thought maybe the same image could be presented in different ways.

    However, the more I think about that, the more it seemed like a bad idea. What do you think, good or bad idea to present the same image processed in different ways?

  4. says

    There are so many pictures on the web that your pictures really need to stand or they will just be ignored. From experience, I think people are fascinated by sunrise and sunset pictures. Like my friend told me, every sunset is unique.

  5. Ben @ EnglishPhotographer.com says

    Interesting article Jim, I’d not thought of the point about familiarity; it’s very true. Also useful to think about how photography is presented; building a brand isn’t just about taking great photographs anymore – and earning a considerable amount of money is far easier if your presentation from website to print delivery works for you. There’s a lot to be learned from how luxury brands market and package their products.

  6. says

    I totally agree that presentation is a major part of ensuring your work stands out in a crowd. I worked for 30+ years in visual merchandising where it was crucial how items were displayed as to the outcome of a sale. Recently I entered a photographic competition and had both entries professionally framed. Most of the other photos were framed in cheap plastic frames which did nothing to enhance the pictures. I got First Prize and a Highly Commended and was totally chuffed!

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