Commercial mountain photographer Alexandre Buisse is a natural adventurer. When it comes to rock climbing or going for his major dream client with a cold call, Alex is a brave soul with immense talent to match. His client roster includes Patagonia, Red Bull, Sports Illustrated, Outer Edge Magazine, and many more.
We talked with Alex about his experience cold emailing and calling, what he’s learned about negotiating licensing rights, and his key marketing strategies. He also lays out the three things a budding adventure photographer should do when looking to get work — including the importance of a work/fun balance.
PhotoShelter: Who was your first major client, and how did you go about getting that particular job?
Alexandre Buisse: My first real client was the British outdoor brand Montane. They found my website through a google search, then contacted me to see if I might be interested in shooting assignment work for them. It took over half a year, many emails, phone calls and a face to face meeting at a big tradeshow to find the right project, but things worked out well, and they are now one of my favourite clients and partners, and one of those I enjoyed working with the most!
PS: When first starting out, how did you find new clients? Did you ever do any cold outreach (emails, calls) to photo editors?
AB: I did a ton of cold emailing, though initially not so much cold calling, as I feel that emails are a lot less obtrusive and disruptive of the schedules of very busy people. Unfortunately, they are also very easy to ignore! When I started out, I really didn’t have any sales skills or experience, and this is probably what was toughest for me to learn. What helped the most was going to the two big European Outdoor tradeshows, ISPO and Friedrichshafen, and doing dozens of “cold face to face” every day, and seeing right away what worked and what didn’t. I ended up the days absolutely exhausted, but with a good deal more experience and very valuable contacts.
Whenever cold calling or emailing, I present myself very briefly in a sentence or two, giving the basic crucial information: I am a freelance photographer, based in Chamonix in the French Alps and I specialize in mountain adventure sports, especially alpine climbing. I then launch directly into the reason for my contacting them, ideally a specific project or idea that I would like to be involved in. Only once that has been established can I say a little bit more about myself, maybe give a link to my website and talk about my client list.
PS: How do you tailor your portfolio before showing it to a prospective client?
AB: I always try to select images that will fit with the identity and branding of the client, while retaining enough originality to showcase my style and vision. For instance, I’ll select some of my most extreme BASE jumping and paragliding images when talking to Red Bull, freeride and ski mountaineering images when talking to a ski brand, lifestyle and landscapes for more public oriented clothing brands, etc. At the same time, I do not try to hide my other images and will gladly show it to a prospective client once I am done with the main portfolio, as it builds credibility that I can shoot a variety of projects and adapt myself to the particular needs of the client, while still retaining my personal voice.
PS: Do you pitch editorial and commercial clients differently?
AB: For advertising work, I went with a printed and bound book. Since it is obviously a lot less modular than an ipad that can be changed on the fly, I decided to make a selection that would showcase variety in my very specific niche, with the common thread being the emotions felt by the athletes (despite a few landscapes). The book closes with the portraits, some of which are quite raw. I have had a good response to it, and am planning to update it once a year.
For in-house communication departments of outdoor brands, as well as for editorial, I mostly go with the ipad and the Portfolio app, as it makes it so easy to fine tune the image selection before every meeting, depending on the client. I show them a main portfolio of a dozen images particularly relevant to their field, then offer to see more, either sport-specific galleries (skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, paragliding, etc, similar to the organisation on my website) or to see specific shoots from the past few months, to give them an idea of what they would be getting were they to hire me.
PS: To get work, do photo editors typically recommend you to others, or do you actively market your work to different publications?
AB: I don’t tend to do much editorial work, as the European outdoor magazines rates are simply too low to survive on, so this is not an area I focus on quite as much as the outdoor brands marketing departments, and increasingly the advertising agencies. The former especially tends to be a rather small and close-knit community, so I find that good referrals will go a very long way. That being said, I can’t rely on editors spontaneously telling their colleagues about me, so I always stay active, meet new clients and mention I had a great experience working with others recently.
PS: What percentage of your assignments come from new vs. old clients?
AB: I don’t have an exact figure; it used to be quite a large percentage of new clients, but I am starting to see a lot of repeat business from happy photo editors, and I suspect I passed the bar of more old than new sometime in the last year. Things might change again if I manage to diversify a bit more and reach out to a potential market less naturally likely to hire adventure specialists.
PS: What do you do to maintain relationships with old clients to encourage repeat business?
AB: A key element in my marketing strategy is the newsletter I send out every six weeks. It’s a lot of work since I always try to write interesting and relevant content to summarize what I have been up to since the last issue, but it’s always worth it to keep myself at the forefront of people minds. I’ve had numerous clients tell me that they really enjoyed reading it, so it’s definitely something I will keep doing.
I also try to have frequent face to face meetings, something made challenging by living in a remote corner of the French Alps. I always attend the two big yearly industry tradeshows in Germany and use every opportunity to meet up with potential or old clients whenever traveling somewhere.
Finally, whenever I have personal projects coming up, I email clients who might be interested in the results, sometimes to ask if they want to support the project, or simply to let them know about it and that they should expect to see some (hopefully cool) images soon.
PS: What’s your secret to “sealing the deal” with a client?
AB: Hah, don’t I wish I had one! I think it all comes down to building trust with the client, and really understanding what they are looking for, especially the kind of budget they have and their expectations for the final result. I frequently have to educate potential clients about the way image licensing works, and how they won’t own the images nor have every right to them forever, but I’ve learned I have to be very delicate about having this conversation. I remember at the very beginning of my career saying something along the lines of “well, the license you probably want is editorial print and web for one year, industry exclusive, and will cost you 1,500€. Full buyout like what you want is a lot more expensive, and will start at 35,000€ per image”. My naïve thought was that they would realize that they can totally live with the reduced usage, but of course they only saw the big number and didn’t even bother returning my phone calls anymore. Lesson learned, the way you formulate things really matters.
PS: You’ve won a multitude of awards — how has this helped you get the clients you want?
AB: To be honest, they played a fairly small role, mostly at the beginning of my career, though I still enter the important ones in my specialty (Red Bull Illume, The Open, Memorial Maria Luisa, IMS). Winning awards and photo competitions are similar to having published several books: it makes me look like a serious, committed professional, not just somebody playing with a camera for a couple of years. This is why I keep updating the list on my website, but I have never mentioned receiving any specific award in a client meeting, nor do I think they would care much unless it was an extremely prestigious one like the Red Bull Illume, which is our World Press Photo.
PS: What advice would you give to budding adventure photographers looking to get work from clients?
AB: Where should they start? First, start with the basics: have a strong, tightly edited portfolio before you start reaching out. Have a good website to refer people to.
Second, behave really professionally in all you do. Actually do everything you told a client (or just a model) you would do. If you told them you’d email later in the day with a proposal, emailing the next morning is not ok. Deliver files just the way the client needs, as soon as humanly possible (even if you know they’ll take over three months to pay you). The adventure industry especially sees a constant stream of people coming in, shooting for a few months, then realizing how much work outside of making pictures being a pro involves, then drop out and go do something else. You need to make your clients really believe that you are not of them, that you are in it for the long run. And unfortunately, that also implies doing your accounting and taxes on time.
Third, remember to have fun and find a work/fun balance that works for you. It’s far too easy to start getting really depressed about the current state of the industry, the ever declining budgets, the magazines closing shops or paying next to nothing, and most of all, the phone not rining for extended periods of time. In those moments, I just try to remember that I have the best job in the world and get to do what I really love and to share it with others. That’s priceless.
PS: Who’s on your “dream list” of clients you want to work with?
AB: In the outdoor world, I still haven’t managed to work for The North Face, which is creating some of the best adventure content out there right now. I would also love to work with Red Bull on photographing the biannual X-Alps paragliding race. That being said, I think the most interesting (and ambitious) projects might come from outside the outdoor world, from more “mainstream” clients who are realising that the values communicated by authentic adventure imagery can work great for promoting their own brands.
Apple and Facebook, for instance, have recently used climbing images. So while I do not aspire to ever shoot anything else than mountain adventures, I am certainly trying to branch out into advertising work, and agencies like Publicis, Havas and WPP are now at the top of my client dream list.
Image credits: Photographs by Alexandre Buisse, courtesy of PhotoShelter