How to Build Your Brand
The first thing you're going to run into, let's say you enjoy photography and you've decided alright, I either don't like my current job or I know I want to be a photographer, this is it for me, I'm doing it. So you've decided that already. So how do you build your brand? How do you build your identity? And what I recommend, some people go to culinary school. Culinary school, I used to be chef, sorry. Photography school. And I did teach at a local photography school, so I sort of have this perspective. I didn't personally go, I taught myself on my own time the photographic techniques and all that. But to kind of see them progress was really inspiring, but to also see kind of the pitfalls that people would fall into post-graduation. You know, do you even need to go photography school? Some people benefit greatly, some people don't as much. So it really depends where you're at. So let's say you're getting out of culinary school. What do I do, where do I go? And I think there's a need to ...
say alright I've already arrived. And the same thing happens when I was a chef, when I graduated from culinary school. Everyone's like well I'm gonna graduate and I'm gonna become a chef on the first day and it's just gonna happen. And it never happens, nor should it. 'Cause it's just not, you're not ready yet. So but what they'll do is they'll put up, many of my students will put up their website, they'll put up, they'll say I'm ready to go and they're in their early 20s and it's just that's gonna be when people, potential clients look people up. Like Seattle food photography. They type that in and a bunch of stuff comes up. And there'll be, you know, some people who rank really high and there'll be some people who kind of are just getting into it. But there'll be some students too who have an online presence already. And so I'm not sure what to think. Are they really ready to be there? Are they really ready to have a website out there. I waited probably too long. I waited like 20, 23 years to even release what I know knew into the marketplace. So I think that I had a benefit in that I could kind of sort of make my mistakes, learn a style, really sort of forge. There's so many mistakes to be made in photography it's almost ludicrous. To get those out of the way, you know, it takes a while. It takes time. There's no substitute for time and experience. So I tell people who're just starting out, do and I'll get into this more and more. And you'll see me reiterate the similar points. But you know, do what you love to do. Kind of let your career take a natural path. And if that happens to be photography, fine. But if that happens to be something else fine too because the cool thing about photography is you can photograph anything. Everybody needs, you know if you're in animals there's a need for that. If you're into landscapes, there's a need for that. If you're into food, there's a need for that. So it's almost people are almost doing it backwards where they're learning photography first and then they're saying, well what do I shoot? That can work too. I mean ask a lot of photographers out there. They're like I'm just really good at what I do. But I just go ahead. And especially with portraits, you've been a person your whole life so that comes pretty naturally. So that's usually a good transition to make. But with food it's a much more specific set of skills and I hear people moan and groan like I don't want to be in a dark studio toying with a turnip. Or some people love it. I happen to love it. It's just not. It's a different thing. Let's get into building your brand. I love this quote. I think this quote's in the back of your business card? Is that correct? Yeah. Creativity is intelligence having fun. Albert Einstein. And yes I'm not comparing myself to Albert Einstein. But I think there's creativity. You know, photography isn't always just you know, I think of myself as an artist more than a photographer. But also as a cook. Like I like to create images but I love to bring what I've learned from being a chef into my images. So knowing about food is a huge advantage. 'Cause I know if I go in a restaurant and I want to get a good picture of the chef I know what that chef's gonna do before he knows he's gonna do it. Like I know the movements in the kitchen, like how they flow. Just like you know someone shooting sports would probably know how a play's gonna unfold or what's gonna happen. So you can be there to get the shot. So the first thing I want to ask you is this really the profession? I mean you're here so I assuming you want to be a photographer one day or you already are a photographer and you want to continue your education, which is something I always recommend. And it has to be something you really want. This is a slide of my studio space and one of the things I recommend, with food especially, the reason I say take your time is because it's so, I mean the amount of money that goes into a commercial space is completely insane. I mean I can shoot, with portraits you need to have a really good sense of how to get the best out of somebody, which is something I don't really possess. At least from a photographic standpoint. I'm definitely more of a product and food guy. With food you can be as good as you want but if you want clients to come to you you've got to have a good prop room, You've got to have the right lighting. You have to have a variety of types of lighting. I mean just these drawers are just filled with all kinds of fake fruit, fake leaves, fake everything, ice. And you have to have a full working kitchen. These aren't mandatory needs but if you're gonna fully arrive and be a studio that people can come back to over and over again this is getting to be pretty critical. There was a time where every food shooter had this massive studio and then that's how you knew you had arrived. Now it's a little bit different. There's shooters who are editorial who just go and they travel and they do travel photography for magazines. There's all kinds of ways to make a living in food photography. But if you're gonna be a studio that people can rely on to create imagery, you have to have props. You gotta have a full freezer there for all kinds of stuff. In fact, I don't even have enough freezers to do an ice cream shoot. I have to bring 'em in. And so it becomes, this I acquired over time. Food photographers always get a prop disease. They start buying props and they're like it's a reason to spend money all the time. And so you're just like oh, I need to have this $500 wood bowl or something. And it starts to add up and get crazy and wow, really quickly. And this is, my studio's a work in progress. It always is. It's always in flux, it's always building. But I feel like a studio's really important to have. I know it's become less of a necessity over time, But I think nothing replaces the ability for people to just walk into the room and be able to produce anything. And it's hard to do that when you're renting a studio. You can't just rent a studio and be like I have everything at arm's length and all my stuff's here. With a lot of things, even with product shoots or catalog shoots you can rent studios. Just bring the stuff in and go at it. But with food, sort of a specific thing. And so this isn't only towards the food photographer. This is more product commercial, But that's gonna be my slant on it. So it's gonna go that direction pretty much the whole class. So get ready for it. So once you've committed to the dream you've gotta figure out where in the market you fit in. And I think this is really important because there's local and national and regional and international needs for photographers. I've been called. I do very few international assignments, but I get called on a regular basis from Dubai. You know, I think Jordan at one point I was asked to potentially come out and I think my bids were too high. But I am getting that audience and the national audience. I actually went backwards. I started getting national clients first and now I'm only just starting to target and work with local clients. It was more of a bizarre backwards process for me. I don't know how that unfolded and I'm really happy it went that way, but it also forced me. I didn't have the time to market to a lot of local businesses as I was hoping I would be able to do 'cause it just got so busy with the national stuff. But you need to look, if you're gonna be a food photographer let's say, and if you want to fit in and you can't just shoot the same way that everybody else shoots. There's no, even if it's your style, I mean if you want to be successful you've got to provide something that nobody else. It's like any other business. You have to have a style that fits within the mix of what's currently being offered. In Seattle there's five or six, let's say there's five or six shooters who are doing all light colors. Let's say all the propping's the same. I'm not saying this is the case, but let's say it's all the same and you want to stand out and be different. You've got to go the opposite direction even if it doesn't necessarily fit with your vision. It's a hard thing to sort of struggle with and I actually was lucky enough to where I felt like I could separate myself from my artistic needs a little bit. That means I have to do a lot of personal work to stay satisfied. But I really enjoyed, I enjoy the business side as much. And so you have to find a way to fit in. If you happen to fit in the mix perfectly, then it's great, you don't have to change your style. And I'm not asking any of you to do it, but if there's a mix of people and you're oversaturating that market from a business standpoint it's gonna be a challenge, it's gonna be an uphill battle the whole time. So I decide to go. At first I'm like a chef. So of course I'm gonna like restaurant food and plates and window light and all that. And I said just I'm gonna do the exact opposite. And I'm just gonna force myself to do it. I'm gonna do splashes, beverages, more product, dark moody stuff, no natural light. I'm just gonna eliminate. I haven't shot natural light in forever. And just the gear's gonna be different. If someone's shootin' a type of gear I'm gonna shoot the opposite type of gear. I'm just gonna go the opposite of everybody I possibly can. People do it in music all the time. A lot of bands, like I think U2 or somethin' said, you know, during the grunge era we were like no, we're doin' pop, we're doin' disco or something. And it didn't work that well (laughs). That's kind of (laughs). So it's not just about art and what you want. It's also about fitting into the mix that's currently being offered in your area. So like I said, it is important. I keep up on people, what they're shooting. I enjoy seeing all their work, especially when it's opposite from myself. I love, I like natural light, I just don't shoot it. And so I love editorial stuff. I've shot maybe two magazine shoots in my entire career. I don't do it much. And it's not something that I really enjoy as much. I'm weird 'cause I love shooting packaging. And packaging drives most people crazy 'cause you're taking like a tabletop full of a peach and a few berries and you're trying to make it look amazing. So you spend all day like tweaking and that would drive some people nuts but I love the puzzle of when everything snaps together and you know it. And you got it. And you take that shot and it's on. We do majority, like 70% packaging and then 30%. So it's something you have to love or it'll drive you crazy. But again, enjoying, your ability to be successful can. You'll have to modify your artistic vision a little bit to make it fit. Which means that if you're gonna be artistically satisfied, which I think all of us want, it means doing some personal work to keep yourself going and to discover techniques that you can bring into your professional realm. So it doesn't have to be the same thing. I do a lot of landscape stuff. I don't show it very often. I have a site, but nobody. You know, I just do it for fun. So keeping tabs on the competition's really important. Another reason I say to wait to go into the business is that your portfolio, the pictures I took even a year ago, I'm going ah good. They're, things progress. Especially when I started, when the ball started rolling and I started to get. You start to get really good at what you do in a hurry. Like you start to learn things that you knew you didn't need to know. Like really complex layer adjustments and how to work with art boards and all the stuff you never really thought about going into it. And so it's like trial by fire. And so you think you're ready and you are ready, but you learn a lot when things really start to get heated up. So as far as your portfolio's concerned it just takes time to really get on a roll and really get a look. And when I was, even five years ago I was like what's a style? Nobody has a. What's a style? It's just, but over time I started like okay, alright. So like when I get a wine bottle in front of me I tend to do this. Or when I, you know, I love this type of lighting, I don't like that modifier. I like this here. But it's only something that can be formed in the crucible of experience where you're doing it and doing it. And that's why I say at home just constantly be shooting stuff for fun and seeing what works, what doesn't. 'Cause that's how you really. You can watch people shoot all the time and it helps. It's a really good way to get into people's heads. But you want to just do it. ' Cause there's no other way to experience it. And you know, you also start to learn how light room or the camera behaves. All the little things, all the little nuances that in theory you think you know, but then you start to work it and you're like. Oh, it really behaves like that. You know, like the clarity slider in the light room is way more strong and behaves differently. There's all those little things. There's a lot. But as far as your portfolio goes you need to wait to put out, put yourself out to the world and when you do it has to be a cohesive work. So like when you look at it as a whole and you've, I would recommend printing it out but you don't have to. But when you have it laid out in front of you. Does it make sense? Like 'cause even some of my stuff. I have, you know, 'cause I shoot really, my style it's either shoot crazy bright or crazy dark. But you try and mix those in the same portfolio and you're getting. This is my sort of the banner on my website. So you've got, you click on food and you go through a portfolio and all of a sudden you're seeing a bunch of dark and moody images. And all of a sudden you see like a bright white image. Like, whoa. You're not kinda ready for it. So I've had to, every time I look at it I have to say what middle tone image can I use to sort of create like an S-curve almost where you're not as abruptly changing. It's almost like you have to really get into it. You have to really start to look at your portfolio as a whole and say. And this changes every year too. I'm doing this every year. And so you're looking through it and sayin' does this make sense as a cohesive whole and does it have a style? And is there a need for it? So you're starting to look at all these things and the thing is I thought this was. Like I had started to light a certain way and like oh, this is just amazing. It's really different. And I looked around and I found somebody on the east coast who was shooting the exact same way I was to a T. We were like, in fact we were both former chefs. And we were just identical. It was like I found a second me and it was kind of annoying. So I started to change and use more earth tones a little bit less just to kind of modify it. It was because of that and because we met up in New York at an agency meeting and we started to talk and there's not tons of ads jobs out there so it's really, the competition's really fierce. And so I decided to kind of like shift my. You know, I decided to make an artistic decision and shift. It wasn't like I can't compromise what is dear to me and my amazing lighting style that nobody could ever recreate. I decided to kind of like, alright I'm gonna go a little bit this way. It's just kind of navigating those waters. I don't want to scare you off because there is plenty of work. But it's just different. And I think I came up in a time where I never shot a film camera and I was kind of used to, especially being in the kitchen, I was used to working crazy hours and working on week. Like it wasn't as much of a shock to me, the new way of doing things. And but what I am noticing with clients, that you're gonna have to be aware of. There's groups of clients who are, especially the bigger clients I have, they're very traditional in the way they approach business. Not much has changed. And it benefits them greatly because they understand the value of photography, they understand how it's gonna go, and they benefit from it. And there's a lot of up and coming medium size food businesses especially who are producing amazing stuff. But they're not as informed, so it's almost, At first I saw it as oh God, now I've got to explain to 'em why photography is critical. It's the most important thing. Maybe their logo, but it's critical. So I have to educate them, but it's an opportunity to educate 'em on, and to sort of build a relationship, because some of these medium sized food businesses are gonna be the next Starbucks or the next big brand that you could deal with. And they're tons of fun generally to work with and they love coming to a studio and seeing all of the fun stuff. It's really a pleasure working with both types of clients. I don't work with rest. I came from a restaurant, but I rarely work with restaurants because there just isn't the same budget. They trade a lot and but the thing is the visual's gonna be pretty amazing because you're gonna be shooting plates of food done by someone who knows what they're doing. So it can be a fun environment. It's just not something I shoot very much. So kind of the way, but you can see here, I mean there's a cohesiveness to what's going on. There isn't like food beverages, splashes, product, unicycles. (audience laughs) You know with like a big bright. It kinda makes sense. And it's always something that I'm working on.