Welcome to our 7th series of posts where we share the results from our conversations held directly with community leaders about top of mind photo-industry issues. Community Table was formed from the collective efforts of Matt Nycz and Kate Chase of Brite Productions and Heather Elder and Lauranne Lospalluto of Heather Elder Represents with the idea that there is nothing more powerful in our industry than education.
This particular roundtable was a series of exciting firsts for The Community Table. It was the first time we invited photographers and it was the first time we included a partner. So, it is with excitement that The Community Table, along with our partner, The Workbook, welcomed 11 photographers from our community to the table.
Suzanne Semnacher, the Worbook’s Director of Marketing, has interacted with countless photographers over the years and because of that has had such varied conversations with them all that she was the perfect person to write our introduction.
“As I listened to the discussion and the individual experiences of the participants I was reminded of what it really takes to be an entrepreneur in a demanding business that has seen such change over the last 20 years. This group of photographers has not only survived but continues to thrive doing something they clearly love, while at the same time, many were buying homes, having babies, sending children to college and living full and busy lives.
Having worked with literally thousands of photographers throughout my 34 years in this business, I have seen a lot of evidence that this is not as easy as it looks. It takes a fine balance of creative thinking, the soft skills required to manage people, and the business acumen to make a profit while doing it. I want to thank each of the photographers who participated in the Roundtable for sharing their unique experiences and perspectives.
There was a fair amount of discussion about the challenges of staying relevant in a career, which to outsiders might look easy. But the level of experience it takes to stay focused on the idea or a concept while managing a crew of assistants, digital tech, hair, makeup artist and stylist, location, props, wardrobe, and all the pre and post and yet make it all look authentic and effortless is no easy task.
It is our hope that the Photographer’s Roundtable will provide insight on what it takes to excel in the business as well as reinforce the power and the value of great photography.”
As a reminder, each Conversation Starter was directed to one person with a general discussion ensuing. Rather than sharing the entire conversation, we included the original question and then the quotes and notes that were most relevant. Please note, often times the person leading the conversation spoke most often.
Please note, there will be 5 posts shared over the next few weeks. Tune in every Tuesday and Thursday for the latest installments.
And with that, we welcome you back to the table.
How did you define success for your business for 2014? What will you change about that in 2015?
Lisa Adams: Success for me, no matter what year it is, has always been about client growth. We create marketing plans that we then implement throughout the year that focus on who our target audience is. Every year we have a very short list of relevant clients and we target those clients really aggressively with specialized marketing.
It’s great to look back and say we started with a hot list of 25 and we were able to pull in 3 of those clients and we able to establish a relationship and have ongoing work with them. That kind of client growth drives all the other growth we want to have in our business. That’s the icing on the cake so to speak.
I define success as reaching out to new clients, working with new people, and keeping that going on in the next year. It is especially important now because the volume of work has declined so it’s important to be successful and have client growth wherever you can.
The only change I would make in 2015 is to narrow that list down even more, but I am not sure that is necessary given how defined we are already.
Chris Crisman: Sometimes the efforts we make for growth aren’t always able to start and stop at the end of the year. How many jobs did we bid, how many treatments did I do? How many pictures did I make?
The best thing to do is to have your own set of standards for success and then to be open to change and pay attention to how everyone else is adapting and changing. If I can keep open to those ideas and evolve my own business, then there are successes beyond numbers and wins – moral, personal successes that we have to remember help feeds everything else too.
Kate Chase/Agent: Have you shifted your measure of success as you have moved more into the business side of things? Are they refined and more clear?
Chris Crisman: No, It is not clear; it really is not cut and dry. We just have to be out there as much as possible for ourselves. I’m just trying to compete with myself. So many of these outside factors, I can’t handle them all.
Stewart Cohen: If you have work you’re proud of at the end of a year then that is fantastic. If you have pocket full of cash, even better. Then the next year you will want better work and more money.
Paul Aresu: The quality of the clients is a measure of success for me. When we started we did small and smaller jobs. As we’ve grown, we want the bigger clients with the bigger campaigns. I measure those kinds of jobs to the success I’m having per year.
The way we go about getting those jobs and the marketing has a lot to do with that part of the success. That’s a really good business model for a photographer to have in this day and age.
Lisa Adams: That hot list we have includes clients I personally want to work for that do really nice work. At the end of the year, it’s very gratifying if we reel one or two of them in. We did it. We made it happen.
Paul Aresu: It’s less financial. It’s more about the work.
Lisa Adams: Absolutely. I really want to work on this.
Stewart Cohen: Over time, you target people, you even can become friends with them. But, they might not have a job in your wheelhouse for 4 years.
Lisa Adams: You’re right. It doesn’t end on a year-end basis. That client or agency, they might be on the hot list for 5 years. One day the phone rings. Here we go. It can take a long time to pay off.
I used to keep these crazy immaculate records. I deciphered, it takes two years marketing to somebody to ever get any kind of phone call or contact from them. An average of two-years of constant marketing.
Kate Chase/Agent: What’s top of mind when you wake up in the morning? A great picture or what’s my marketing?
Lisa Adams: Different things. You’ve got your to do list. You’re constantly working on marketing. That never goes away. I have a lot of help with that. Some weeks if it’s slow, I’m going to be in the studio creating.
Top of mind, I’m excited about going to work in the morning. I still go to the studio five days a week whether I need to or not.
Thomas Chadwick: A day that is a shoot day is very different than a day at my desk. If I’m shooting that day, I don’t tend to think about it as if I am trying to get a great picture. That’s the goal, of course, but I am focused on the details in the recipe of the shoot that are going to make it great. Generally speaking the components are talent, location, wardrobe, and lighting. I’m working to direct the crew as to how all those elements need to combine, so I can be myself, shoot, relax and let things unfold naturally. I’m methodical in getting the components right, and patient to wait for it all to come together. Whether that means waiting for great sunlight or chatting to a model to make them feel at ease, I’ll focus on those details so it all flows and feels natural.
At the office, there is a running to-do list, most of which is about marketing, these days. It seems like once you check one thing off the list, like a web site update; there is another task to add, like a blog entry. And there is running a business, as well. That is as big of a task as marketing or shooting. This goes back to what I said about the job of being a photographer being very ADD. You’re pulled in a lot of directions, you wear a lot of hats, and it seems like you have to be good at all of it.
Kevin Arnold: It gets back to the hot shots. If you’re not getting up and being driven by images, and you’re just thinking about business, your work is quickly becoming irrelevant. Those young people might not know the business side, but they’re getting up every day driven by the imagery.
Paul Aresu: Also, styles change. Young people have a style all to their own which translates into their photo style. We may think we’re kicking ass with our photography, but it could be irrelevant. The way we look at the world may not be how they are looking at it. I have kids who hate my photography. They think their iPhone photos are better than my photography.
Stewart Cohen: Looking back, certain years get defined by personal projects. That’s all you remember from the year 5 years later. That’s the work that propelled you.
Lisa Adams: That’s what gets me out of bed every day. The work we’re trying to pursue is the work we want to do for ourselves.
Thinking ahead ten years, what one thing do you think will be the most important thing you will have done for your business to stay relevant?
Chris Crisman: First, I have to make sure to always remember how I got started. What happened to get the balling rolling for me? What inspired me? I am currently going through some life changes and am growing my family. So, I need to find a balance and keep perspective at home too and remember what got me started, what inspired me to do what I do.
The last time I thought, “I want to make pretty pictures” was in college. I think that is because of my mentorship and the ideals of business that were pounded into my head.
With that in mind, in order for me to stay relevant, I remember that it’s about cultivating taste, creating a balance in your life, and remembering how you got to where you are.
How do you keep it in balance? Do you think 10 years ahead?
Chris Crisman: I think 10 years ahead every day. I’m waking up thinking of work, going to bed thinking of work, and I dream of work. There is no shut-off button. Even though I have a three-week old, I am trying to disengage but the way I am wired, there is constant fear of not being there in 10 years.
Paul Aresu: I agree. It was almost like a fear of failure that has driven me all these years. I wouldn’t allow myself to fail. I definitely don’t feel burned out. I’ve have been so focused on the business I haven’t thought about burning out. I do however try hard to be better at the balance thing – having a family and being present is important. That balance is important. Thinking 10 years ahead, one of my things is to stay healthy. I eat better, take care of my body, I run, make sure I’m around for the next 10 years. I’m trying to do all the good things.
On top of that to stay relevant, you have to look at pictures and be part of a community. Photography is a license to get into everywhere in life. That’s what photography is and what you have to use it for. You translate it to taking pictures.
Hunter Freeman: That’s the foundation of everyone’s business here. A wild guess of how you stay relevant – keeping your finger on the pulse of contemporary society. Being aware. And, also, take better pictures. There is this Woody Allen movie where he asks the alien how he can do better? The alien says, “Well, make funnier movies.” Well, yeah, make better photos. It is that simple. It drives everybody, doesn’t it? It does me. I don’t often succeed. But I try.
Chris Crisman: My mantra is just to be my best. Starting out, the new hot photographer starts with nothing. But you have to keep shooting. I’m trying to replace the portfolio as much as possible every year. It is about personal competition for me. It’s healthy for me.
Vincent Dixon: If you want to be around in 10 years, you have to continue having fun. That’s the most important part. One of the advantages when you begin photography is that you’re excited about everything. If you’re not excited, somebody else deserves the job. If you’re not waking up every morning interested in making exciting images, that is a problem. You simply have to have fun. If you’re not having fun, it’s difficult to be creative.
You don’t have to work with everybody. You don’t need to capture the whole market out there. I started in France. I’ve seen photographers like John Paul Goode. He’s working more now because he never changed. It’s good to be aware of what’s going on around you. It’s kind of good to ignore it too. You may have a couple of years where you’re irrelevant to the market. But if you’re chasing the market…
Stewart Cohen: There are going to be years when you fall out of favor. Like movie stars, there are years they’re on every magazine cover, then you don’t see their name for years. You can be hot, hot, hot, then you’re not, not, not. It’s natural. The first time, it’s a year later, you realize, I didn’t have that great a year. But you still have fun. That’s just the ebb and flow of any career and any artist.
Hunter Freeman: Keeping your finger on the pulse of contemporary society helps to keep it fun. It’s absorbing all that stuff. Even John Paul Goode is watching what’s going on today and seeing how that focuses in the world.
Vincent Dixon: It’s a very strange business. You have the impression that everyone wants to work with you all the time. Then no one wants to work with you. You have to prepare for that or you’re going to be very panicked. Today is a very difficult period. We had the introduction of digital. Then we had replacing paper media with digital, which has completely changed all the rules. Then the economic downturn. We’re still trying to figure out how to negotiate this.
I would say that marketing is much more complex. You used to be able to do just cards and be noticed from contests. Now you have to do multiple things. But you can’t spend all your time on marketing.
Stewart Cohen: Look at all the new jobs that have been created to help with these challenges; consultants, mailing lists etc.
Matt Nycz/Agent: There are no rules now, look at all the different preferences on how to review the work. Just PDFs, just the website, they just want to meet the photographers. There’s no right answer, but so many ways of doing it now. With any given person, it can be any given method that works. You have to keep trying and asking preferences along the way too.
Kevin Arnold: Do you feel like it has come back to just making good images? It is no longer enough that you have the money to send postcards when somebody else doesn’t. Now you have to get them to your site. So, are your images good enough for that?
Vincent Dixon: It’s like you’re throwing a stone into a pond. I used to see the ripples. Now, you may create an image and are really convinced it’s going to engage someone and nothing happens. Say you do the best photo. How do you get that in front of everybody out there? It used to be relatively easy. Now you just have to hope.
Heather Elder/Agent: It’s not just one great image. It’s A LOT of great images over a LONG period of time. The people we’re all marketing to are so used to seeing tons of content in many different ways. They’re not going to hire you just because you sent them a postcard or put something online. You’ve got to get that image into the pipeline of a thousand different things and then you have to have 20 images behind it to keep going.
And, if you are not showing your work someplace, they’re not even noticing that you’re not there. The person you are sitting next to is there, so they notice that person and don’t even consider you. You are in a totally challenging spot.
Stewart Cohen: And, that includes people you have worked with and fans too. Whoever crossed their desk at the right time wins.
Vincent Dixon: It’s like email. If you don’t reply immediately, you get 40 more. It’s irrelevant. You send out something you think is fantastic. If it drops the week everybody’s on vacation, it doesn’t get noticed.
Maybe 4 years from now – as the agencies become more confident again things will change. I don’t see a lot in terms of selling radical new ideas. As that happens they’ll start saying oh, I need a great photographer for this. We’ve gotten the jobs where we say, anybody could have done it. It’s a really difficult marketing situation out there.
Lisa Adams: If you want to be heard or seen, you have to put it out there in every way possible.
Paul Aresu: Some people don’t like emails so if you’re trying to connect you need a multi-faceted marketing campaign that is seen in a lot of ways, avenues, and venues.
Kate Chase/Agent: Hearing all of you bring up these issues, it reminds me as to why we started Community Table. We didn’t want to just have another party. We wanted to start a conversation about how to navigate all of this, how to market better. All of us, together.
Paul Aresu: Face-to-face contact is the best way to make connections. As soon as you get in front of an art buyer, it works better than any printed piece you ever sent. I take art buyers out to lunch and believe it or not, I get jobs from that.
Matt Nycz/Agent: The client has to trust you. And if they spend time with you they can put a face with your images. They know who you are and have a better idea of how you will handle a project. It isn’t a hard sell in those situations.
Paul Aresu: Meeting in person could be a softer sell. I never really talk about the photography. You know it’s underlying but it is more about getting to know each other.
Matt Nycz/Agent: An art buyer recently told me that it’s not mandatory to meet the photographer but it’s good to know they’re pleasant to be around. If I am going to spend two weeks with someone I want to make sure we like each other. Personality matters.
Thanks for reading. We hope this has been of value. Tune in on Tuesday, April 28th for our 3rd installment where we’ll discuss what the most challenging aspect of being a photographer they were unprepared for as well what one surprising piece of doing business they would love buyers to know more about.
And to see previous Community Tables posts from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, Chicago and Minneapolis, go here: