The Road To Getting Published As Semi-Pro Photographers
Lee and DeeDee Niederhouse-Mandrell
It’s been a long road, a few years and a lot of hard work and effort to break into the publishing world. I was originally turned down twice a few years earlier by the very same press that I now have published seven books with, six of which are co-authored with my wife DeeDee. I took that as a motivator rather than rejection because I believe that rejections are nothing more than honest feedback and should not be taken personally. I took a step back and asked myself, “Okay, what do I need to do to make my images better?” I decided to make some serious changes in my photography techniques, skills, website, etc. I honed my Photoshop skills even further, refining my processing. I kept improving the overall quality in every area that I possibly could, even if the improvements were only small ones. My main focus eventually became my processing skills. I felt my composition and camera knowledge were up to par, but my processing was lacking finesse. I really needed to slow down in this area and make the final quality my priority. Once my processing visibly tightened up, doors started slowly opening for me, then for us as a husband and wife photography team.
Even after getting to this point, there was still no magic bullet. We both made the decision to stick with it no matter how hard it got, or what we had to do to get there. We had to work hard and stay committed to our goals, and we did, and we still do. We crafted an introductory letter to publishers, editors and print buyers. This went through many revisions based on the feedback we were getting until we finally felt the letter contained the right amount and right kind of information. We have been told no more than we have ever been given a yes, but we kept at it. This is still true even today. It was very slow going at first, so slow in fact we didn’t think anything was ever going to happen, but eventually we were able to get picked up by a greeting card company, then calendars, then magazines, etc. From there, one door led to another, then another. After a couple of years and a few small successes, I decided to approach IU Press again. This time, they were very welcoming and receptive. Now seven books later, and possibly an eighth, we have built a very strong working relationship and mutual respect on both sides. Having been in the digital game since it’s inception, I personally have a strong design knowledge and skill set and prefer to handle my own design tasks. So when the first book came my way, I knew I would have to take up the role as photographer only and leave the design work to the professionals. It was a difficult step for me, and difficult to let go of, but one I have zero regrets in doing. “The Great Smoky Mountains - A Visual Journey”, (co-authored with my wife) won a 2017 gold medal Independent Publishers award, showing me that the decision to focus only on the quality of the photography, locations and processing was the right decision to make.
There are a different set of pressures and stress when taking on a book or photo project, at least from a photographers point of view, and when shooting for a publisher. It is not an option for us to come away with zero shots, regardless of the location, weather, season, lack of features or even our own personal feelings about a given area. We have a deadline to meet no matter the conditions. Waiting for what is believed to be the ideal lighting conditions is also not generally an option when you are staring at a deadline. Being semi-pros, we both also work at full time jobs, so we have to make the most of our time and make it all work no matter what is in front of us. Each location has its own unique set of features, challenges and even rewards. The shots are there and we as photographers have to find them, even if we have to dig deep for those shots. Some areas are flat and might appear dull and boring at first glance. Some areas may only have one key feature if you’re lucky. Some areas might not be as well kept up and groomed as other areas and look very unappealing. No matter how any given location might first appear, you can always find something to take a photo of if you look for it, or rather I should say when you look for it. When we run into a situation where at first glance we feel like there might not be any decent photos to be taken, we get the camera out and start clicking anyway, even though we know we won’t use some of the shots. It’s just important that we start taking pictures at this point. This puts us in the photographers mindset and creative mode right away. I notice that very quickly things start to look a little different through the viewfinder. It usually doesn’t take too long to get in the groove and come up with something likable. Before we know it, we have more shots than we thought, even if not exactly what we had in mind when we first arrived. I have actually came away from these exact situations with shots that have surprised me and honestly turned out to be some of my best work. I simply wasn’t expecting the results I got. Experience has taught me to never judge a place based on what I think it should look like or my own personal preferences, but rather to get my camera out and start capturing photos. It works every time without fail.
It is vital to remember that publishers, editors, art directors, and print buyers are very, very busy people. Rejection is part of the process here and should never be taken personally. If you are the type of person that gets hung up on rejection or being told no, you aren’t going to get very far in published photography at all. When this happens just say “next” and move on. It’s not personal on their part, it’s only that they don’t see you as a fit for their needs right now and nothing more, so don’t read into it what isn’t there. Another thing to remember here is that we live in a fast paced high turn over world these days. People change jobs with frequency. If you are told no, try them again next quarter. Don’t toss out an outlet just because they said no this time. That person could have been having a not so good kinda day and were simply in an off mood. It happens to us all. It is also worth remembering that it is extremely rare to ever get a reply on the first, second, third and even fourth attempts, and often times even more. Research tells us that it takes as many as eighteen attempts to actually get someone's attention or to get your foot in the door. That’s a lot! You also don’t want to email repeatedly enough that you get permanently spammed by this person. Spread out your efforts. We like to make email blasts every quarter, and we try to personalize every single one and address the recipient by name if at all possible so it doesn’t come off as a generic pitch. You just have to keep trying, even when you aren’t sure of what’s happening on the other end, because one day, the door opens and you finally get a reply. It really is a numbers game and you have to keep at it.
Meeting In Person
In some cases you will be invited to go to see the very people you are contacting. In this scenario, a portfolio to take along is essential as well as any tear sheets you may have. I happen to like the printed portfolio. It slows them down enough to actually have to look through your work and it gives them something tangible as well. Don’t get me wrong, a digital portfolio is great, as the images are all luminous rather than reflective, but most people swipe through a digital version entirely too fast. Getting them to actually slow down and look at your work and ask you some questions goes a long way. This gives you a chance to engage them and turn on the charm that is you. It allows you to talk about your creative process, ideas and what it took to capture the shot. A good size for printed portfolio pieces is 11x14. This format fits very well into most types of publications so it gives a realistic idea of how well your compositions will work in a layout. It’s also a good idea to print a mailer detailing who you are and what you do and send it via good ole fashion postal mail. This is a viable method that still works today and should not be overlooked or underestimated.
We would like to close with a few tips that we feel have worked for us when dealing with publishers or print buyers, or anyone in general for that matter. Be helpful. Go out of your way to show people how you can help them and be of service to them. Be easy to work with. I can’t stress this one enough. People don’t have time for difficult or arrogant photographers, artists or difficult people in general. The easier you are to work with, the further you will go. It’s true. Set your ego aside, there is no place for it here. We all feel we have the best there is to offer, but the reality is, there is always someone better. Having an ego only gets in the way and ultimately loses us that publisher, editor or print buyer we tried so hard to get. Be honest. If you are asked to do something that you don’t feel comfortable doing, let them know. Again, set the ego aside. It’s better to be up front than completely ruin a deadline or an editors expectation because once you have done this, you get black listed, and none of us want that. It’s not worth the money or your reputation to be dishonest or unethical because it will catch up to you in the long run. The last thing to say here is, most people don’t succeed because they give up too soon. Nothing happens overnight, and certainly not in this area of photography. Success usually comes in small increments and it also leaves us clues. Look for the clues. There is no magic bullet. The real secret is it simply takes hard work, patience and time, lots and lots of time, so use the in between time to keep taking and making better images.