The fastest growing industry in the nation has photographers seeing green.
Most people in the business don’t call it weed, pot or even marijuana anymore. It’s now known primarily as cannabis, a word without decades of legal and cultural baggage. This evolution is more than semantic, though, as legalization in some states has led to a rapid commercial expansion into edibles, CBD oil and other products. As a result, thousands of farmers, publishers, manufacturers and retail shops need imagery.
And this imagery isn’t limited to product photography of the newest flowers and strains, says Daniel Berman, a Seattle photographer who also works as creative director of Leaf Nation, a chain of monthly cannabis magazines.
“The demand for cannabis photography is real and immediate,” Berman told PDN in an email interview. “New dispensaries need high-quality location and product photos for print, digital and social media marketing. Cannabis producers and processors need photos of their products, employees, facilities and events. Magazines like mine (and there are dozens of them just on the West Coast) need photographers experienced in photojournalism and documentary photography, still life/food/product photography, as well as portrait photography.”
While juggling freelance editorial and commercial clients, Berman oversees much of the design and photography for Leaf Nation’s publications in the Pacific Northwest and Maryland, with new titles for other states expected in 2020. Berman says his publications pay photographers day rates similar to other niche circulation titles. But as cannabis grows from a niche to a mainstream industry, will cannabis companies begin to provide budgets that will allow creatives to thrive? And how can photographers even enter this newly legal field? As the industry grows, Berman sees growing pains as inevitable.
“The industry is still coming to terms with needing to pay for professional work—budgets are not there for the most part. The cannabis industry seems reluctant to pay standard commercial photography day rates or usage fees. Many cannabis [growers] and pot shops prefer to handle their photography in-house. As a result, quality is all over the map.”
“It’s a start-up space, so be ready for start-up budgets, timelines, and start-up clients— who may have limited experience articulating their creative vision, needs, and feedback,” writes Jess Columbo, who runs Tiller, a marketing agency in Portland, Oregon, that manages creative and digital communications for cannabis companies. “Small brands need great lifestyle and product photography—often on shoestring budgets. Bigger brands need imagery that invokes their mission and values, as well as their aspirational or target market.”
Columbo’s agency assigns primarily a mix of product and lifestyle photography that typically uses contextual environmental backdrops, models, props and styling to allow the consumer to “see themselves” in the scene. These images can play a variety of roles for her clientele across their offline and online channels. “The client starts to build a library of visual assets they can leverage in multiple ways,” she says.
“Small brands need great lifestyle and product photography—often on shoestring budgets. Bigger brands need imagery that invokes their mission and values, as well as their aspirational or target market.”
— Jess Columbo, Tiller
Berman says many cannabis businesses “could use better photos that actually help sell their product.” The need opens opportunities for aspiring cannabis photographers. Experienced photographers often find success by reaching out to local businesses via social media, Berman explains. Berman and Columbo emphasize the importance of social media—especially Instagram—for cannabis photographers looking to showcase their work, and to network and make connections that result in paying gigs.
As in any industry, it’s crucial to connect with clients where they feel most comfortable, and making contact on social media is one effective approach.
Columbo’s advice for photographers is to offer more value than “just photography.” “Explain how your work is strategic and builds their brand and/or their bottom line,” she says. “You’ll play educator and brand strategist, as much as you’ll play photographer.”
Cannabis photographer Kristen Angelo agrees that to be seen by clients as an effective partner, photographers need to be proactive and earn clients’ trust by knowing the peculiarities and challenges of this newly legal industry. Problems photographers solve can range from the creative, such as tricky lighting scenarios, to the legal, such as meeting clients’ need for confidentiality.
“For people working in the cannabis industry, trust is paramount,” she tells PDN via email. “You need to be committed to representing the brands you work with in good faith. Maintaining confidentiality is critical. Cultivators, processors, and distributors will not hire you or invite you back if you do not respect their boundaries and [intellectual property].”
An influx of corporate investors, who have at times taken advantage of small farmers and small businesspeople, has created a climate of suspicion in the industry that leads some clients to hire from within their own networks, Columbo writes. “Creatives should understand that there are craft makers and there are corporate interests in this industry, and those two ‘animals’ are very different clients to partner with.”
Angelo has seen the industry evolve substantially since she was featured in PDN in 2017. Amidst the rapid growth, many businesses tend to hire people with longstanding connections to cannabis, she says. Her site, apotfarmersdaughter.com, explains that she literally grew up in the business (her father was a grower), and she emphasizes that personal history in her business model.
“My unique past with cannabis sets me apart and has served me well in growing my brand and connecting with others in the industry,” she writes. “In 2014, when I began narrowing in on cannabis photography as my niche, I realized very early on that I was much more interested in creating a visual narrative around the cultivators and other people involved with the plant than I was photographing the actual plant. My work focuses primarily on brand storytelling, and because I have a personal story linked to cannabis, [clients] correspond very naturally. Every client I’ve had has at one point asked about my personal circumstance. It’s a bit of a bonding experience.”
One result of industry art buyers relying heavily on who they already know, Columbo writes, is a lack of diversity in the overall visual narrative about cannabis, from the perspectives of culture, race, age, physical mobility, and so on. Columbo cites specific opportunities for female creatives such as Tokeativity, Ellementa and Women Grow as ways for female photographers to get plugged in, build relationships and learn about the business. Being able to know the product, know the history, and empathize with a client’s specific needs can help photographers earn trust and stand out from the competition.
A substantial sub-set of Angelo’s client base are ancillary companies providing business support to the people actually growing the plants—services from agricultural technology systems, to insurance, to accounting, to legal counsel. Most of these companies have annual reports, websites and social media feeds with their own content needs. Angelo also relies on legacy media outlets and book publishers as important revenue streams for her business.
“Most of the time, publications have a set budget for assignments and licensing,” she writes, “though I have been successful in negotiating more favorable rates.”
So what does the future hold for cannabis photography? Berman recommends that professionals focus on high-quality imagery and newly emerging markets (such as states legalizing marijuana), because competition has saturated more established parts of the industry.
“In some ways, I feel the ship has sailed in the well-known, established pot-friendly areas, such as Seattle, Denver, Portland, etc. These areas have felt the impact of a glut of cheap, online-focused imagery,” Berman says. “Several online dispensary finder services will offer to come out and shoot 100 products for just a couple hundred dollars—what independent photographer can afford to compete at those prices?”
Still, as cannabis companies and consumers become more visually sophisticated, Berman sees opportunity for photographers who can pitch their services as part of a professional marketing plan.
“The most successful cannabis businesses that I have [encountered] are able to get their products seen widely, and that means print advertising, social media campaigns, and successful business-to-business networking. All these platforms need high-quality imagery!”
Any growing industry seeking legitimacy will contain niches for professionals looking to build their business, and weed—or cannabis, rather—is no exception.
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