Q&A: Sally Brownbill – photo consultant extraordinaire

A former commercial photographer, but perhaps better known for connecting creative talent from all corners of the industry, Sally Brownbill provides career leadership and advice and also consults on the design and editing of photography portfolios and websites to photographers throughout Australia.

Her first book 'How to Develop Your Career as Photographer' is a must read for anyone wanting to start the journey into the intriguing world of the photography industry.

She's also just released her second book, 'Leap into your creative life', and sat down for a chat with Capture and Australian Photography Magazines about her career and advice for creatives.

Tell us about you and what the Brownbill Effect is all about?

I started out as a commercial photographer, and I studied photography at RMIT. However, I really learned my craft as an assistant after I studied photography. I learned about life, and I learned about the industry, and I learned about how things happen.

When you're in university, it is amazing and wonderful. And you get certain skills, but nothing like it is when you get out into industry. And so that's why assisting is such an important path, I believe, for young photographers coming through and the guy that I was fortunate enough to work for, was a great mentor for me.

Sally Brownbill
Sally Brownbill. Supplied.

He said to me, "Look, you need to go and travel and off you go, and I'll be here when you get back." So, I thought I'll go for six months. At that point I had worked for him for a couple of years as an assistant.

On weekends, I photographed weddings. And that's where I made my real money. Every wedding I went to I picked up another wedding - it was amazing. But it was also a dirty word back in those days at RMIT. Because we were 'commercial' photographers.

But I loved it. It was shooting people and it was action. And you know, it was fun and I made a lot of money. And so I took off for six months. And then I came home six years later! I got overseas and just went 'Holy. Heck, this is amazing!'

When I came back to Australia, I realised that my photography was not about photographing other people's ideas, and I just thought, shit, all I've wanted to ever be is a photographer, what am I going to do? 

I went back to RMIT and I taught photography students, and I taught photography to advertising students. So this is in the mid to late 90s. And I really enjoyed it.

My job was to go out into the creative industry and get briefs from the industry and bring them back to the students and put them together into teams. And I did that for many years. And throughout that time, I became an agent for photographers as well, because I only worked two full days from 9am to 9pm, two days a week, with three back-to-back three hour classes. 

I found I was tapping into a lot of the industry that I'd been working with through RMIT by getting photographers work, and producing and managing it. This led me into starting with another company who did what I was doing, but they were doing it with art directors, copywriters, graphic designers, and what was coming in was multimedia artists. 

I learned what clients wanted to see in photography, and it changed the way I thought about photography and how photographers should represent themselves. Then, after I had my daughter, I went back into working in design studios, and I started the first part of the Brownbill Effect.

Image: The Brownbill Effect
The cover of Sal's latest book. Image: The Brownbill Effect

I consult with photographers at all stages of their career, or people that are not career photographers. They're just photographers like your audience for instance, that might be a police officer or a lawyer that had this passion for photography. So I consult with them about their work, I help them to make sense of it.

If they're commercial, I will put folios together or websites together. I work with photographers on curating books and exhibitions if need be. I help people to transition from the career they've got into a photography career.

And then that sort of evolved over the last 20 years into doing that not just with photography, but with designers, stylists, etc.

In 2012, I started the creative directory, which is an online creative resource that people pay a yearly subscription to be listed to, and then are all listed on and then I helped to promote them. And alongside that, I started an assistant register for photographers.

I promote them, the assistants and they normally current students, or students that have recently graduated right in with all sorts of different interests. And, and then I kept on going with the creative directory and the assistant register.

I also now have a recruitment arm to the Brownbill Effect, where I've placed people into full time jobs. And then I run a very active freelance business as well right across the gamut of the creative industry. 

You must have seen so much change in the industry and the ways photographers make money?

It's changed drastically. When I did photography back in the 80s, and 90s, we were revered. We had a craft and a skill that other people didn't have. We got to spend days in dark rooms and go out and do photoshoots and have this amazing time, whereas now, everybody's a photographer, right? It's not a revered thing. 

Today, the art side so rarely exists without a commercial side to support it. What I talk about a lot with people in photography is that feeding your soul is through your craft, but actually feeding your family happens through your commercial work. Some photographers are doing these extraordinary jobs, but they're far and few between.

I've heard it said that one of your characteristics is being able to tell people what they don't necessarily want to hear, but need to hear.

It is. I have people in here and I'll say something, and then they'll just put their head in their hands and go 'My god, I knew this, but nobody has ever said it!"

I will always find something positive with people so that they feel inspired, but I'm not gonna let anyone go out if they're not quite right.

I had one guy ring me and say, "Look, I'm really into jewellery photography - that's what I love." And he turned up with a whole folio of portraits. I said, "Where's your jewellery?" And he goes, "Oh, that's what I want to be doing." And I said, "Well, even with portraits, put a necklace on them or stick some earrings on, you know?"

Sometimes I think it's like when you look in your wardrobe, and you can never find what you want to wear, and it takes a new pair of eyes to go "there it is!"

That's kind of what I'm like for a lot of creatives. It's clear to me that they've just so overwhelmed with everything else that they can't see.

Why do you think so many photographers struggle with the business side of being a photographer?

We've got a lot of really talented photographers out there not working, because they're not very good at business. At the same time, there's also plenty of ordinary photographers working, because they really good at business.

Understanding the business of photography is huge. It's something that we have fought against in universities since the beginning of time, because everybody wants to go there and be creative. I taught business for years, but trying to make it quite a creative thing. Because without the knowledge of business, you have nothing.

At the same time, what do you think is the biggest thing that holds people back from making a career out of photography? 

I think the biggest problem people have is overthinking it, or trying to make everything perfect before they go to market.

Sure, you have to have everything looking pretty good, and you have to have a good website, a good understanding of how you're going to quote for work and so on. But it is a journey.

It's about getting putting yourself out there and then reassessing it, and changing it, and then reassessing it again and changing and taking on advice.

People also try to show too much work and prove themselves too much, especially experienced photographers. When you get to a certain stage with your photography, and you've done a certain amount, you don't have to prove yourself anymore. You just need to show beautiful work.

At that point, everybody that you how your work to already has a photographer they work with anyway right? So what is it that's going to make them want to use another photographer? This changes how people need to market themselves.

What are some of the common mistakes that emerging photographers make?

It's interesting that everyone is constantly on their phones, but many people find it difficult to respond in a timely manner when a job, or an assisting gig is up for offer. If an opportunity knocks, you need to answer that door!

Also be prepared to work hard to get to know the ropes of the industry. Some people give in too easily. 

To get ahead in photography, do you have to be quite extroverted? 

I think it definitely helps , but there are plenty of introverted photographers that make a good living.

I don't think it matters what you shoot, even if you are introverted, but you must remember that you will always have to deal with the client, or the children or the bride . You must be comfortable with communication.
Even shooting pets , you need to be able to talk to the owners of the pets and of course wrangle the pets too.
You still have to arrange locations. Even with still life, you've got clients hanging over your shoulder, making sure the images are looking good. And so it's not so much about what you shoot, it's about who we're communicating with.

I knew a very, very introverted photographer who was hugely talented a long time ago. He took up acting and he went on the stage and did plays to get confidence. He ended up in America and went on to become a hugely talented, famous, really well known photographer.

So you have to really want to be a photographer, introverted or not, and you have to put yourself out there. You have to do whatever it takes. To put on a face for the industry that you are comfortable with. If you are not comfortable with communicating with people on any level, it's not the right job for you. 

Tell us a bit about your Directories that feature on your website thebrownbilleffect.com

I have a comprehensive Creative Directory of freelance and full time photographers whose career I have helped move into the photography industry. Interestingly, we also have a fantastic Assistant Register where each assistant has a breakdown of their various nuanced skills such as which brand of lighting are they familiar working with, or how well trained (star rating out of 5) they are with say Lightroom, Capture One, Final Cut Pro etc.

Being listed is a good way to expose yourself to potential clients, and the directory works as a part of your marketing strategy. The Assistant register exposes you to photographers and producers looking for help. Both will help increase your SEO page ranking on google as well – a win win!

Your career is built around networking. What are some of your strategies for it when the way people network is so different today with things like social media?

It depends what areas you're going to be into, but let's say you're into food photography. First, you'll probably start building a network with not other photographers, right? But other food photographers are great to be friends with, but they're also your competition.

Better is to connect with your local butcher, restaurants, anything and everything to do with food. It might be an ice cream manufacturer, or a pasta shop.

So, build a network within people that are going to be interested in food photography, and at the same time, build a network with architectural photographers, and portrait photographers as well.

Because if somebody comes to them and says, "Hey, could you do a food shoot?" and they say "No I can't, but Mike can because he's a foody." Being part of a community can help you get work.

At the same time, platforms like LinkedIn are really important, and Instagram is really important. With this it's not just about posting and chest-beating. It's about posting and commenting and liking. It's like, "Hey, I really love what you're doing". 

If you are clever, you are looking at people that you admire, or companies that you want to work for, or galleries that you want to exhibit in, or publishers that you want to have a book done by, and you're commenting, and you're being a part of it, and you're turning up to exhibitions, and you're purchasing books and giving a review. And, you know, it's a full time job!

For many people this doesn't come naturally, and I'll say to them, get your kids onto it. Give them 50 bucks and get let them teach you and show you what social media is all about.

You're famous for your portfolio reviews. What do you think makes for a great portfolio?

I think that showing your personality in your portfolio is really important. Not trying to impress anybody else, but how you feel and how you see. I think that's important because we're always looking for a point of difference and the point of difference in a portfolio is you and your vision.

So going back to the jewellery photographer say, what would you say to them?

Jewellery photography, like architectural photography, or food photography, are all quite specific. I believe you need an entire portfolio of those genres. 

At the same time though, I don't believe you could be sustained in Australia by just doing one thing. So, you may have a portfolio that is purely jewellery, but then you might have another portfolio that is people and jewellery, jewellery on paper, and maybe a bit of landscape, etc.

In that instance, that person I spoke to had no jewellery, so I said, "Go out and shoot some jewellery and target jewellery people by sending them that jewellery folio." It is okay to have more than one folio, but I don't want people to have one folio and keep changing it all the time. Because that's when it ends up being a dog's breakfast!

As another example, a lot of commercial photographers that do fashion or portraiture will also shoot weddings.

Now, I think it's important to have a bit of a mixture in that kind of a portfolio because wedding photographers that are going to go to a non-traditional wedding photographer are going there because they want somebody that shoots fashion.

I come in and go "Let's really think about who your audience is."

Can you tell me about a really memorable portfolio?

There was a guy that came out from New York, and he was a fashion photographer. And his portfolio blew my head off. It was beautifully laid out. It was like a coffee table book, with scenery he had shot all over the world, and the most beautiful models.

He was really ballsy with how he'd laid it out too, like he'd have the head of a model on one page and the dress would go over three pages. It had ebbs and flows, and it had this beautiful color palette, and it was just perfect. 

But what was really interesting was I thought, "Why is he here?"

He needed me because he didn't have a network. And he was wanting to live in Melbourne. This was before COVID. He said to me, "Look at my work. And I was just like, "wow", you know what, I don't often do that.

And he said, "Tell me why I'm not getting any work." And he kept talking, and he kept talking, and talking, and talking. And in the end, I said to him, "I'll tell you why you're not getting work - because you really arrogant." He was just really rude.

Do you know what he did? He stood up, and I thought he was gonna punch me. And he walked around the room and in my head I'm going: "This is it, This is where my mouth finally gets me in trouble."

And then he sat down, and said "Nobody's ever spoken to me like that."

That experience really sticks in my mind because most people are lovely. And he ended up being quite a nice bloke - but I never saw him again!

A couple of years ago, you published your first book about developing your career as a photographer. And now you've got a new book, focused on creativity. Who is it aimed at? And what what's it about?

Leap into your creative life is for people about following their dreams, and why it's important to follow your dreams. It's about finding your purpose. When you're happy and fulfilled in your work, it spills over into every aspect of your life.

Image: The Brownbill Effect
Image: The Brownbill Effect

My dad, who's now 94, nearly 95, he went back to university at 50 and graduated at 60 and went into a whole new career.

So many people study law or an accountancy and they get to a certain age and they go, "You know what, I always wanted to be a creative. And maybe now I've got enough money to do it, or my partner earns enough that I don't have to earn as much, and I can do this."

For me, for instance, on Thursday mornings I do pottery. I'm part of a group and I'm learning. You know, I'm never going to be a world famous potter.

Of course everyone I know gets the pots and bloody bowls that I'm making!

But it's two hours on a Thursday morning, where I'm covered in clay, my phone doesn't ring. I'm listening to music, and I'm having this creative outlet.

The book is about finding your outlet and how you can pursue it.

Image: The Brownbill Effect
Image: The Brownbill Effect
What do you think you need to have to make it as a creative in 2024?

I think you need to have tenacity. I think you need to have a thick skin. You also need to to listen and show your personality.

And you need to ask for help when needed. Work with your networks and the work you already have.

Look at your family, look at your friends, past clients, whoever, and use them to help you. That's what will help you succeed.

You can find out more about Sal's book Leap into Your Creative Life, here