How To Get Started as a Beverage PhotographerJan 29, 2022
Where to start? That's always the hardest part.
Being a self-employed beverage photographer is a pretty sweet gig, and I can tell you that from personal experience. I went from making about $40k a year working full-time at a church, to making six-figures while traveling, going to cool events and taking photos of liquid in cups. Kinda wild! But it was by no means a clear-cut path.
How I got started in beverage photography
For me personally, social media certainly played a big roll in getting my career off the ground. I had been working as a pastor at a Christian church for a few years and was pretty thoroughly burned out, anxiety-ridden and ready to do something different with my life. Having always had a knack for photography and some very mediocre design skills, I hoped to do something "creative" but didn't really know what that was yet. Thanks to my amazing wife who had a stable marketing job and who is the most supportive human in the world, she provided enough security for us to where we could afford for me to at least try some things and see what stuck. So truly, I wouldn't be here and you wouldn't be reading this if it wasn't for her.
When I finally quit the church job I had already started my High-Proof Preacher account on Instagram, but it was nothing more than a fun hobby with a few hundred followers at the time. I had a few low-paying graphic design gigs, thinking that would be my eventual career direction, but not much else in the pipeline.
As I continued sharing cocktails on Instagram and focussing on learning and growing in my photography skills, I started getting noticed by local bars and distilleries. Nothing crazy at first, just local brands who liked what I was doing and wanted me to create content for them. It was literally just a couple hundred dollar projects here and there, but I was able to turn several of those clients into repeat clients, and a few of those repeat clients into monthly retainer deals, giving me some dependable income.
From there, things snowballed over the next 4ish years as I started getting recognition from bigger clients and would get booked for more profitable projects. I would attend industry events like Tales of the Cocktail several years in a row and I did freelance work for well-known industry publications like VinePair and Chilled Magazine that helped give me some reputable clout outside of just social media. But as my social media following grew, I started getting regular inquiries from brands about doing sponsored posts. Even today, with nearly every social media partnership with a reputable brand, I treat it as a lead to convert a sponsored post client into a commercial photography client, and I've been pretty successful at this. Many other clients are referrals from agency partners or personal friends in the industry. I certainly have a long list of people in the cocktail and liquor world who have helped connect me to the right people and brands (Elliott Clark, Tara Fougner, and Emily Arden Wells to name only a few); many of which have supported me behind the scenes in ways I may never fully know.
Basically, my career growth is credited to a cocktail (pun intended) of hard work and consistency, both in improving my photography skills and engaging with people on and offline, and getting to know key players within the beverage industry. None of it was quick or easy, but all of it has, and continues, to pay off in the long run.
However, a question I ask myself often is "what would I do if I lost it all?" Like if I had to start again from zero in today's day and age, what would that look like? Well I have some ideas– and hey, if you happen to be starting from nothing, or just looking for a career pivot, this may be helpful to you...
If I lost it all today and had to start again from NOTHING, here's what I would do...
1) Use my phone to record behind-the-scenes of all my shoots and regularly share them on TikTok
Photographers and creative freelancers can still be successful without social media... but building your own audience and learning how to connect with people online is in invaluable skill in today's digital world, and it's something that will only benefit your career.
At the time of writing, TikTok is the latest and greatest social platform. Instagram is still incredibly important and deserves time and attention as well (it's still my personal favorite platform) but TikTok is absolutely bursting with potential. If you put some time in to being consistent with uploading short and valuable content on TikTok, it's actually fairly easy to grow organically. This will change eventually, so take advantage of it now before TikTok becomes too "pay-to-play" like many platforms before it.
"How-to" and "behind the scenes" content performs really well on TikTok. I'd grab a cheap smartphone tripod like this one. Then whenever I'm working on a shoot, I'd film myself working (maybe set it to "time lapse") then edit it together with a few of the final images to show people the process and the final result. Easy!
2) Study the marketing material of target clients
Growing a following on TikTok or Instagram is helpful (especially in the long run), but that doesn't always immediately convert into paying clients. And let's be honest we all have bills to pay, and we can't pay the rent with followers, likes and comments.
So to start finding some *hopefully* paying clients, I'd start studying my ideal target clients in my niche. So for me that's liquor brands– but maybe you want to cast a wider net– look at tea or kombucha brands, wellness products like protein shakes, or wineries, beer companies, whatever! Pull up their websites and their social media feeds. Get a good sense of their style and branding– are they "light and bright" with lots of bold colors, or do they have a more rustic vibe with lots of wood textures and moody shadows? Do any of these target clients have imagery or social media content that you can help with or improve on?
3) Plan and execute several portfolio shoots that are tailored to appeal to those target clients
Once I had a few target clients in mind and had a good understanding of their style and "vibe," I'd plan out several shoots to perform on my own that could potentially appeal to those clients. Keep in mind that I would not be using any products from these brands in my shoots (though you certainly could decide to do that if you want). Instead, I like using unbranded bottles or products which allow me to showcase my skill, while giving potential clients a "blank canvas" to imagine their own product in its place.
What I'm after here is building a portfolio that will (hopefully) appeal to multiple different brands. Let's say I want to pitch Jack Daniel's for a project and I shot a bunch of photos using a Jack Daniel's whiskey bottle. Well, Jack Daniel's is HUGE and has a bunch of different agencies working for them already, so that's not a win for me. Well now I have all these images in my portfolio featuring the Jack Daniel's bottle. They are by no means useless, but if I start going down my list and pitching to other whiskey brands, they may have a harder time picturing their bottle in my photos vs. their largest competitor.
All that to say, use your target clients' marketing material to help inform the photographic style of your portfolio shoots– without using the specific products.
4) Reach out and start as many conversations with target clients as possible
Getting in touch with the right people at a brand can be hard. The bigger the brand the harder it is because they generally have a whole gauntlet of gatekeepers that you may not be able to get past.
Since we're hypothetically starting from nothing here, I'd probably start sending DM's to brands on social media. Maybe it's just a friendly hello and a link to my work. Or maybe I'd post some of my portfolio shots, while tagging one of the brands I want to work with. Sometimes a brand's social media manager is low in the company hierarchy, but that doesn't mean they don't know the right people. But again, this can take time and will require you to repeatedly engage with the same brand online... and to be honest, this may or may not lead to a working relationship, so it's important to try some other approaches.
For starting out, I'd target small to mid-sized brands. Maybe their social content isn't the best, or has room to be improved– in other words, these companies have something that YOU can fix or help them improve on. Check out their website and see if they have a "Meet our Team" page or similar. Do some investigating to find the owner, or better yet, the marketing director or digital brand manager. If it's not on the company website, start searching on LinkedIn. If you can find their name, often times company emails are just [first name] @ [company website]. So start sending emails! Send them a link to your portfolio, and invite to chat with you.
The absolute worst thing that can happen? They say, "No, don't ever email me again." Yeah that would be a bummer, but most people are a lot more polite than that. You really have nothing to lose by reaching out.
But also remember, even if it's a "no thank you," no connection or conversation is ever wasted. Sometimes a potential client will say no... and you have to move on, but then they could call you again in a year and are ready to hire you for a shoot. Since I've been in this biz for a few years now, this actually happens to me a lot. Contacts that I have not spoken with in a year or sometimes even longer, will call or email out of the blue and say they are finally ready to work with me. So it does happen!
5) Turn one-off projects into monthly retainers
No one said beverage photography was a get-rich-quick-scheme. It definitely takes some time to build up a client base and establish good rapport with these clients (in addition to actually being good at photography, and all the learning and equipment that goes with that). But once you have had a few paying projects and at least some sort of working relationship with a few clients, you can start suggesting monthly retainer deals to these preferred clients.
Retainers are what really helped me not only get started, but keep going as a photographer. Having some sort of baseline, budget-able income as a freelancer is invaluable in those early months and years.
Basically, if there was a client that I worked really well with (and I could tell they really enjoyed working with me), I would get in touch with my contact and ask if they were interested in discussing a monthly retainer. Most retainers were structured around having a monthly photoshoot with that client, where they would get a set amount of new photos each month for social media use and specific marketing material. And I would get compensated the same amount each month.
A monthly retainer clearly benefits me by providing regular income, and causes less stress / saves me time because I'm working with an established client that I already know and trust. It also benefits the client similarly in that they don't need to vet a new freelancer, they can just work with someone they already have a good working relationship with, and they get fresh, new imagery each and every month at a predictable rate.
As always, there are plenty more details we could get into around how to pitch potential clients and how to structure proposal and retainers. BUT that will be for another day and another post. I at least hope some of these thoughts were helpful to you! If you have any questions or thoughts on the above, please let me know.
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