How to Survive COVID-19 as a Professional Photographer

January 2022

It was a morning just like any other in the at-home 2020 pandemic world. Another client, concerned with yet another wave of discouraging COVID news cancelled our shoot, and with another free day available I sat down at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee. I grunted and cleared the dry crust from my eyes, and slowly, as I lifted up a notepad, a very familiar page came into a view. It was a list. A painstakingly and carefully created list. A list of 21 different photography agencies from across the country that I desperately wanted to work with and cold emailed a year ago.

Back when I sent out those emails in 2019, the few agents who did respond mentioned that I needed to improve and expand on my portfolio to be better considered. I took that advice to heart, and now one year later, I had spent every waking moment strengthening my business and building the strongest portfolio possible. "This time..." I thought to myself, "...It just can't fail. I've poured my soul into this. I've done everything they asked. This time it's going to be different."

And different it was. When I visited the same agencies' websites, nearly half had gone out of business, and to my shock, many of their agents had jumped into entirely different industries. It was not a good look and naturally I was bit worried, but as the guy who already ran the marathon I wasn't going to shy away from the finish line. I shuffled together the remainder of still active agencies and went straight to work. I sent them my very best photos and I gave them a well practiced pitch that would've gotten anyone's attention.

I didn't have to wait long for a reply. In fact, compared to the previous year I got an overwhelming number of positive responses. Most of the agents said they were impressed with my work and that I had a promising future. They also said they would likely represent me under any normal circumstances, but... our circumstances were anything but normal. Due to the pandemic, the agencies weren't taking on any new talent at all and instead were downsizing. A few well-known agents like Freda Scott and Jodie Zeitler even generously took the extra time to have a conversation with me about where the industry was with client behavior and budgets, which by their measure, wasn't looking great at all. 

With a thankful appreciation for the info the agents shared, yet also a solemn outlook for the future, I left those conversations with a new understanding of just how deeply COVID-19 had disrupted every photographer's natural flow and order. A mid-range commercial photographer like myself in Denver, Colorado and even the biggest, most influential agents and their photographers in LA were struggling. 

Untitled photo

If I could use one photo to describe what COVID did to us artists... Actor cred: Adam Chollet

Today, now another year and a half later (starting 2022 and two years into the pandemic) that sensation is still hard to shrug off. Numerous artists are having a hard time finding reliable work and many, including myself, have dealt with lows and depression. It'd be easy to toss in the towel and give up, but with plenty of time to self reflect I've also come to the conclusion that that's just not how I'm wired.

Just as the saying goes "when one door closes another one opens", COVID too, with the right mindset, has been an opportunity.  An opportunity to look inward and rebuild yourself. An opportunity to become a master of your artwork and your business. An opportunity to expand to new avenues. So instead of focusing on just the sour side, I'm going to share what I have done to keep myself and my business afloat (leaky holes and all) during this troubling time. I can't guarantee this advice will make everything sunshine and rainbows, but it will give you more options that can help you walk out of this better than before. I hope this blog helps you, my fellow artist and working photographer, as you keep progressing and growing into the successful person you were always meant to be - even during a global crisis. 

Behind the scenes during a pandemic album announcement shoot for Nuclear Blast Records and doom metal band, Khemmis.

The Game Has Changed: Be Understanding and Expect Cancellations

Before the pandemic came in 2020, I, like many fellow photographers had dozens of shoots lined up on my calendar. Some were big, and some were small, but without exaggerating, I was very much looking forward to living comfortably for the next few months. That quickly changed though once the government shutdown began. Like a flip of a switch we were all wiped out. Our clients began valuing their funds more than ever before, in-person meetings were banned, and as a result all of our collective contracts were cancelled.

These commercial photos were created for Genapsys, a biotechnology company in California. The scientists are using genetic sequencers, which can be used to study viruses. Little did I know that these images would foreshadow the pandemic coming only six months later.

Now two years into the pandemic, the photo industry is still on uneasy ground and clients are still cancelling on an unpredictable basis. In my own personal experience traveling assignments and large portrait sessions have become nearly non-existent and I have seen more and more clients become less likely to follow through with their shoots. This was something I very rarely experienced before COVID-19 but with tighter budgets, social distancing rules, and people's uncertainty of what is coming next, we have to accept it as a new reality and be prepared.

So for the first step in dealing with this new behavior, I recommend to expect cancellations and be understanding of what our clients are going through. Many of our clients are dealing with the same insane pressures as we are, and if they are approaching you for a production they'll need extra concern and flexibility. Be patient and be willing to go the extra mile, and if a cancellation does happen, don't just walk away without at least offering a solution for the future.

See if you can keep the deposit (but don't dispute over it if they say "no") and try to reschedule for a later time. You might also be able to streamline the shoot into something smaller and more manageable like a micro session instead of a large all day endeavor. Also consider offering monthly payment plans if a one-time payment is too difficult for someone at the moment. This is an option that I have been offering more and more and it has eased the pressure for many clients when a large payment would likely scare them away. 

Overall, the name of the game is to maintain a happy relationship with your clients and if things don't work out, don't just leave them high and dry. Keep in contact with them, ask how they are, stay positive, work with them, hear their problems and show some genuine concern, because they will remember that, tell others, and likely return that positivity in the future. 

Focus on Your Local Market, Improve Your SEO

If a client approaches you today with a shoot planned around travel, then currently, it's wise to look at it with caution. Photographers who work solely through travel have perhaps had it the hardest during the pandemic, and as a testament to this, just this last month I was scheduled to travel to Texas and San Diego for two shoots but both were cancelled due to flight restrictions. So for now, your best defense against this scenario is to instead focus on your local presence. A local assignment won't have the added risks of travel delays and differing state regulations, and even if it does wind up having scheduling issues you'll still be close enough to help with alternatives. 

With that being said, we also have to keep in mind that most clients (even at the local level) are staying at home and working online, so it's now more important than ever to strengthen your local presence through SEO. If you haven't already, start by studying how Google's crawl system works (view the video below), register your website to Google's Search Console, and get your website and all of its pages indexed. 

Getting backlinks that lead back to your website from local news sources, magazines, and blogs are also huge influencers for Google's regional listings. In Google's eyes, the more reliable and trustworthy local backlinks you have, then the more relevant and important you are to that area. Create a body of work that these groups can use and send them the images along with an article pitch to see if they will feature you. I also recommend submitting some photos or guest posting for popular photography blogs as well. 

Getting listed in a few local and industry focused directories can also be a massive help. Creating a Google My Business page, a Yelp page, and listing yourself on other well known sites like Facebook, Mapquest and the Yellow Pages are a great start, and there's also a few free photo industry directories like Just make sure that your info is identical across all of these platforms and you are listing yourself on quality websites and not subpar ones, because Google will notice and penalize you.

And finally, writing your own blogs on your website can also bring you some extra traction. Google loves long form content and answers to popular search queries (a.k.a questions), and the more you write, the more Google will understand what you are about and categorize you more accurately.

Strengthen Your Portfolio

When times are slow we photographers usually occupy ourselves with improving our portfolio, and as long as the pandemic lingers we should continue to take the opportunity to do so. Now is the time to fine tune our imagery and experiment with new ideas and art styles. It's also a perfect opportunity to study our weaknesses and master our shooting, lighting, and editing skills.

Just remember to ask yourself the important questions before creating new content. What am I making this portfolio for? What is my goal? Who is going to see it? What industry am I trying to appeal to? If you need help answering these questions then look at the trends that are currently existing in certain niches and compare your work to other pro photographers. I advise heavily against outright copying them, but there are certain elements you can inherit through observation. If you need help finding professional portfolios to be inspired by then you can find plenty on wonderful machine and

Remastering some of your older photos can also be a great way to repurpose your work while also saving the money and time it would take to produce new ones. Take a look at your library and pick through your strongest images that could use a facelift. You might be surprised to see just how much you can improve a photo that you previously thought was perfect. 

A recently remastered portrait of actor, Jason Fong

In the end, keep shooting and growing your portfolio even when times might be slow. This is the perfect chance to do those things you've never had time for before and you'll re-enter the market with greater reach and versatility. You might even be able to re-approach higher budgeted clients and were previously out of reach. 

Behind the scenes with fellow photographer Tessa Stoddard and Anthony Cannarella and Isabella Vasquez of the Sacramento Ballet.

Improve Your Business Structure

With so much free time to kill, this is also the perfect opportunity to improve the inner workings of your business. Think about what might need some of your attention - Perhaps your paperwork filing or your Lightroom and Bridge catalogues need some organization? Maybe there's a Photoshop editing style you've always wanted to perfect or you need to back up your files on external hard drives? Is your monitor calibrated or do you need to clean your equipment? Or possibly, are you in need of a website overhaul, a new rebranding, or a new business card design

Regardless of what you need to do, the more attention you give these tasks now the better prepared and more fruitful your returns will be when the pandemic ends. Take the opportunity now to make your business more efficient and streamlined so it won't get in the way later. 

Also, just because the social media world might be quiet nowadays, don't let that discourage you from actively promoting your business. If anything, you should be marketing yourself more than ever as if your life depends on it. Rework your brand, come up with new ways to engage your audience, and keep them well in the loop with any new products or services that become available. 

Build Multiple Revenue Streams

If you've read my 10 Steps to a Successful Photography Business blog then you know how much of a stickler I am about diversifying your portfolio. Gone are the days of the "one niche photographer", and for those that do exist, they are an extremely rare breed who shouldn't be viewed as the normal option. Shooting multiple portfolios for multiple niches and extending your services to a wider client base is the new model to follow and it's all the better for it because it can help you endure an economic upset like COVID-19 and give you a larger safety net in case a primary photo niche fails. 

Prior to the pandemic I mostly made my living by shooting corporate portraits and music assignments, but of course with social distancing regulations those assignments were quickly taken off the table. As a backup I then expanded my portfolio into food, beverages, and products, which have been much more stable. Now two years into the pandemic, the majority of my assignments are from these niches alone.

This philosophy of diversification should also go beyond portfolios and towards revenue generating platforms as well. Becoming a freelance editor or photo restorer, selling stock photography, selling photo prints, making books, offering online workshops, creating a Patreon account, and taking up a teaching position or making a YouTube account are also viable options. If you shoot something that's feasible as a physical product like landscapes, fine art, family portraits or weddings you can also create new merchandise, like postcards, calendars, albums, magnets, phone cases, etc. and introduce them to your clients. Not every platform alone is going to give you your needed monthly income, but when you combine them all together they will spread into a larger and larger net that will collectively catch what you need.

Selling your images on stock photography websites is a great way to earn some extra cash from content that might otherwise go unused.

There is also one final step you can take and this might not be the most desirable one, but if it really comes down to your survival there's absolutely no shame in taking another job until this pandemic is over. 

Minimize Spending

Even though we hear the words "post pandemic" a lot nowadays, don't let that headlines fool you. Right now, for millions of households, artists and businesses, the financial effects of COVID-19 are still very far from over. As of 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau, Facebook and Yelp have reported that over 30% of all small businesses in the U.S. have closed, a record number of people are in debt, and in 2021 alone the inflation rate rose over 7%. 

With an economic upset like this, naturally, this means we as business owners have to cut our spending wherever it is possible otherwise we too might go under. As a photographer one of the biggest ways you can save right now is to hold off on buying new gear and waiting until a later time - Because trust me, no working photographer (regardless of what equipment brands want to tell you) is currently thinking about buying the newest camera gear. Instead, if you have a decent enough kit and computer to do your job then focus around that and perfect your technique. Also don't sell any of it off! The last thing you want to do is to sell your gear, spend that money, and then lock yourself behind a massive paywall and product shortages to get back into your profession. If you absolutely have to buy gear then looking at some alternatives might be a good way to go. Although we all like to fantasize about Broncolor and Profoto, it might help to buy something more affordable like Godox or Elinchrom and returning to those higher-end brands at a later time.

Buying new photography gear is a very large investment that can be risky during the pandemic. If you can, consider sticking with the gear you have for now and reinvesting at a later time. 

This same advice also extends to business loans and we should wait on taking any until the pandemic is over. Currently, with so much financial instability within our industry we can't always guarantee our bills will be paid on time, and having debtors and the stress that comes with that is not necessary. Again, just like equipment, major business investments should not be on the menu at this very moment. Keep the assets you have and do what you can. If you already have a pre-pandemic loan, however, keep in contact with your creditors and let them know about your situation. Having constant contact with them, asking about options, and offering even small payments will gain you much more sympathy than if you avoid them. 

Lessening expenses on props for personal shoots can also save you quite a bit. Design your shoots around what you have and not what you need to buy and dig through your belongings or call a friend to see if you can borrow something instead of paying for a new product. You can also visit a thrift store and get items for a fraction of the cost. Keeping shoot sessions closer to home or in your studio can also drastically cut down your travel expenses.

Since many of us work from home, being more frugal in our everyday lives can also bring a lot of relief. Some of the best methods that have worked for people is to downgrade their phone plans or join a more affordable carrier, suspend their cable and streaming subscriptions, and eat out less frequently. For me personally, making coffee and learning how to cook some more meals at home has also saved me quite a bit.

Conclusion: Focus on Your Mental Health

We've all personally experienced this and we've all seen it in the news. Perhaps even more contagious than the COVID virus itself has been the boredom, poor mental health and depression that we have all been grappling with since the pandemic began. I too have had some extremely low days, but with the right self-coaching and enough busy work, I have also experienced some of my very best. 

If you're feeling down about what has happened to your business, just remember that first and foremost, this situation isn't your fault. COVID-19 is a global crisis of unprecedented levels and no matter what you feel like you might be doing right or wrong there are just too many elements working beyond our control. All artists are hurting right now even if some aren't showing it and you're certainly not alone. In order to weather this storm we have to support each other, embrace our confidence, stay busy, set goals, be patient and accept the situation for what it is. 

Behind the scenes with DJ My Cousin Vinny.

Instead of aiming for those big milestone moments that we used to push for in the past, it's best now to focus on the smaller victories and appreciate the other things we can accomplish in the meantime. Every step we take, even if it's the tiniest one, is still an improvement - a step forward - and you should feel proud about that. 

It's also no crime to slow down and take better care of yourself when you need it. In fact, when you do this you're guaranteed to come back to with a clearer mindset and be more productive. Put work aside every once in a awhile and go outside to get some fresh air. Go hiking. Spend quality time with friends. Go hang out at a coffeeshop and enjoy the chatter. Read a book or play a video game. Listen to good music, exercise, or watch that favorite video that will make you laugh. You get the idea. Just don't sit around and do nothing in silence or do the opposite and work so hard that you burn out. We all need balance and there is plenty of time before the economy returns for us to achieve our goals. 

Enjoying nature with Sacramento ballet dancer Christopher Brian Nachtrab and fellow photographer Tessa Stoddard.

Remember that this situation isn't forever and life will eventually be back to normal. Everything that we do now, whether it's work related or personal, will pay off when this pandemic is finally over. So keep your head up and don't give up! You're going to make it and this isn't going to stop you.

Until the next time, 

- J

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