How to Maintain Client Relationships
So the relationships part is just, I'm sure you've been in a class this week where you probably heard it, where relationship are everything and you have to be huggy huggy, and it's important. It's the most important thing. My clients are now kinda my friends, and they're my colleagues. So it's the people I work with now, and I have to maintain, I can't come in and, I can't let them down. It's a lot of work to maintain a relationship, even in your personal life and your professional life, but it's worth putting in that work, because the rewards are just wonderful. So when you have a client who believes in you, especially at the beginning, that person is like, you don't wanna let them know by sending baskets to their front door every day, being all creepy, but they just did you a huge favor. I haven't fully expressed to some of my clients how important they've been to my development yet. I need to do that. 'Cause it is really, those first few that believe in you are everything, 'cause th...
en it starts to spiral, and without that, you start thinking back like, "If I didn't get that job, "I wouldn't have these 50 jobs. "It all just branched out from that one job." So that's really ... People don't buy what you do. They buy why you do it. That's really the crux of, are you enthusiastic about your work? I've told you point blank that I've modified my artistic style to meet the needs of the current marketplace, whether it's being part of a trend that's currently happening or actually going the opposite of that trend. Really, it's extremely important to stay enthusiastic about your personal work, about your professional work. Sometimes it's hard. And I've gone through a phase where I couldn't look at another, I never thought this would happen, too, 'cause I'm like, "I'm making food pictures for a living. "This is amazing." And I started to, I went through like a month where I was just like, "I hate this so much. "I hate it." And so I went through, and the work suffered, not professional, but I was pushing myself to do a personal project and I just fell flat on my face. It just sucked. I just cannot, and so luckily, I wasn't doing a project at that time, so I could kinda just take some time, but it can't be all about photography. You've gotta find something else that you enjoy. And for me, that's like I love music and I love, I sort of self taught myself audio production. So when we do motion, I'm actually handling the foley, the sound design stuff, 'cause I have a background in that, too, and we have like a workstation with the audio and I have a microphone collection and that's my thing, but it's still artistic, but it's different. And so when I break away, I'm recording sounds and having fun with that part of it, and it totally takes my mind off photography. So when I come back, when I'm doing personal work or new projects or work I'm enthusiastic again because that is a huge currency to be able to show that you're excited, 'cause sometimes it's not exciting. "I want you to shoot this thermos, "and I want you to make it look amazing," and you're like, "No!" That's why I don't shoot product at all, however. That's not entirely true. I'm doing a jewelry shoot. Yeah. And some people, I could actually see why product photographers love being a product photographer, 'cause it's so, it looks so simple, and it's so not simple. It's really hard. And I need to know it, 'cause I'm a food shooter, and there's gonna be things in the scene, like from earlier, where there's gonna be a toaster next to, but I'm not a product photographer by trade. I'm a food guy first, and then a product guy second. So it is important to remain truly enthusiastic about your work, and that means just, a guy from COMO came by the studio the other day, and he was a journalist, or a editorial shooter, and I love that environment, like Joe McNally's work and all the exciting places you get to go. And it's almost like I was this, I was like Yoda in my little hut and like Luke came in. All these adventures that you get to go on, and I just hang out in a Holiday Inn in Jersey and shoot. So sometimes it's really exciting. The grass is always greener on the other side. But I'm sure that when you're traveling, and in his position, he's like, "Oh, I wish I could just stay in one spot, "and I wish I had all these cool toys "or everything at arm's length." I don't know. I don't know what he's thinking. But basically, put yourself in other types of, if you're getting burnt out on food, go out and shoot an assignment in restaurants if you never shot that, or heck, try and shoot, sometimes I like shooting portraits even though I'm no good at them, 'cause I'll eventually get good at them if I would work hard enough. But something different. It takes your mind off the daily routine. Yeah, yeah, yeah. (laughs) Clients are first. They're the best. I think going above and beyond is what really I wanna point out here is that it's not enough, there's so many shooters out there, and some, there's a lot of work, especially for if a big brand wants their Instagram feed, someone to take it over for a week or whatever, that's not gonna be the same shooter that they're gonna want to do their billboard campaign if they need a medium format, if it's a whole hoopla thing. It's a different type of project. And I think some people are thinking there's younger shooters who are taking work or it's a complete mishmash and it's a crazy time to be in the business, and it kinda is, but there's so much work out there to be had if you really look for it, so many different avenues. There's never been more people with a camera, but there's also been more people who don't know how to use a camera. They're interested in it, and it's great. It's actually great for the business, because it's just, people will respect, they'll just respect the business in general. The more people we have on board, the better, I think, because there's not only the need for social media work. There's not only the need for advertising work. There's all kinds of stuff in the middle. And in fact, I think there's more work now. There happen to be more shooters now than ever, but it's also actually never been, it's actually more expensive to be running a studio right now than it's ever been, 'cause cameras are more expensive than they've ever been. You don't need to develop film anymore, but you need to know Photoshop front and back. I know some people will hand it off to others. I can't do that. I have to be part of that process, 'cause it's like not developing your own image. I know in some projects I have to because either the agency is handling it or it's just too crazy and I need somebody who's just a pro, pro, pro who knows if it's too complex. And if it's product, especially. I can do food and splashes. I know that in Photoshop really well. You have to know when to let go. But as far as going above and beyond, when you contact somebody and you wanna show your appreciation, it's important to stay in contact and not take them for granted to show that you're really invested in their relationship and not just looking for more work. "What do you have coming up?" It's important to just maybe hang out once in a while or grab a beer, and not even talk shop, just to kinda hang out. So it is truly an actual relationship that you need to nurture over time. If you're not clear about the project as a whole or clear about where things are headed or if you're not clear about the details, that can derail a relationship in a hurry, a working relationship, and as far as ... That's why it's really hard for a client to jump ship from their photographer. It's 'cause you start to know how they tick, how dependable they are, and you get really comfortable with them, especially if they can do a variety of types of shooting and a variety of styles. One of my major clients, we were on the phone with an agency that was working with them, and they were like, "Can you actually really do," they were convinced I had no idea how to do kind of daylight, lifestyle looking food. They just were convinced I couldn't do it. And so I really had to convince them that that was what I started shooting, how I started shooting, and it was totally doable. But it's a huge, that's why you have to put yourself in their shoes. What are they looking at here? You probably are thinking, "How could they possibly ignore all this amazing?" It's easy. (laughs) It's just they ignore it. And also following up. If you really enjoyed working with someone, just let them know. Send them your work. This is when you should be sending people your work, is when you've really already worked with them. And if you wanna rep, send them your, those people, reps, look at pretty much most of the stuff they get. They're interested in that, 'cause they're looking for more talent, or at least to know what's out there. So yeah. It's a long journey. But it is, yeah. You'll know. When you're ready and if you're ready, maybe you're not. There was a point where I was saying, I was touring around the country getting some great landscape shots, and they were really good landscape shots, and I'm like, "Oh, I should do this." So then I toured some galleries and met with some friends of mine who owned galleries, and they were like, "Don't do it." Nobody has walls to fill as much as they used to. It's a hard business. And you can do it, but it's really difficult to own. To go into the fine art world, it's really tough. You should do that for your own pleasure. Some people are very successful at it. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
I was wondering if you did have a bad relationship with a client and if there was anything you did to remedy that or how you would go about it.
Yeah. The only shoots that have ever gone awry have always been restaurants. So I kinda made it, there's always ... I know that world and I know how they operate, and they have to operate on such low margins. And good chefs do well, and it's such a fascinating career to be in, but oftentimes, when it comes to photography, it's not as, they don't have tens of thousands to spend on photography. So I kinda got out of that world quickly, 'cause it just wasn't my thing. And so I understood that. I wasn't trying to push it and say, "No matter what happens." It's not the way I shoot. I wanna shoot difficult projects for people who know the business and who know how things are, you have to really, when a restaurant comes calling, they're looking for some shots and sometimes they don't know what goes into it. There's a huge bridge in communication there. And it tends to be that when you're first starting out it's a good time to, it's a beautiful environment with beautiful food, and if you're just doing it for trade, there's not a lot on the line. My budgets have always, my estimates have been higher, probably out of their ... And it was that way pretty quickly, 'cause I had trained for so hard for so long that when I was ready I was already halfway to being where I wanted to be before I even got started. And that's not true for every, some people get into food photography and have never been in a kitchen. And I don't know how they do it. And it actually makes me respect them more, because I'm like, "Oh my god. "You've never made torchon de whatever." I enjoy understanding, 'cause it actually makes it more satisfying, but I've only had one shoot, I've never had a shoot go bad and I've only had one shoot that was strained, and that was just because of my decision not to bring a digital tech on set. But the images were there. It was more of a visual thing that my tech wasn't there, and it was on location in New York and it was kinda, it didn't make sense and I could handle it. But the thing is, if anything happens, you're not able to recover 'cause you're solo. So that's something I have never done since. But that's the only time anything ever went wrong, 'cause I always over prepare, over, you know, especially now as things get more and more complex and the shoots get more complex. And you don't want too many shoots to go bad. You just don't. And that's why patience is so critical and a variety of skill sets is so critical, because if the food stylist, if I didn't know anything about food and the food stylist's car breaks down on the way to the shoot, I can do the food styling. If we have product on set, which they've hopefully brought the day before or bring in that morning or whatever, but if something is on set, I can at least put a band aid on for a while. Or if they just get slammed or something happens, I have that skill set. I can jump between the two. 'Cause being behind the camera isn't, I told you, I was standing there like an idiot for that shoot just kinda like, so I found other things to do, and it worked. Pulling the trigger. It's more about communicating with the team and problem solving as things come up, not about taking pictures at that point. It's more of being like the leader of an orchestra as opposed to playing the violin.
So as you're maintaining these different relationships, maybe 15 clients at a time, do you ever come to a situation where you have to prioritize, well, maybe one of your main clients over a smaller client, and how do you schedule that kind of thing?
They do it for me. They'll yell, "I am more important than that!" or, "I can't believe you're working for them." I've gotten that a little bit. No. I don't take on, projects rarely overlap. There's a local burger chain I'm working with, and they haven't even scheduled, but there's an opening at, I know they're flexible. I don't wanna get so busy where I'm starting to, that's why I haven't, I've taken my foot off the pedal on marketing a little bit, but that won't last, 'cause it goes in circles. You can't take your eye off the ball too long. But you also don't wanna be, I see a lot of people who are ra-ra on Instagram or on social media saying, "I'm gonna go get them." You can be too eager and appear too energetic and too, and to you that sounds great, like I'm doing something, but sometimes you're confusing motion with progress, and sometimes people are put off by that a little bit, and they're like, "Oh my god, they're coming." But I respect it, but you don't wanna be too, sometimes playing kinda hard to get and busy makes you look in demand even if you're not, but when you're in demand, sometimes it's like when it rains, it pours, and I'm sure in a year or two that I'll have a bad year, like it'll just not come together. That's just how it goes. It goes way up and way down, and there's no ... But my great years have been life changing. And my bad years, I actually don't get down. I'm like, "Hey, "somebody is offering me some marketing time," and I just go out and redo the website and I market, and I'm actually thankful for those times 'cause I can actually maintain relationships and I don't have to, 'cause it's healthy. You don't want it to be busy all the time 'cause then you'll just get, you almost work yourself to oblivion and people almost forget about you 'cause you'll be working all the time. So yeah. You may need to go to conferences. I'm going to PhotoPlus Expo at the end of the month. I always go to that. It's cool just to see people in the business. It's good to be social, it's good to get out there, which is even more important when you're cramped up in a studio. But you have to like the business part of it, 'cause it's mostly that. It's so little photography it's crazy. That's why you have to keep up on the personal work to let people know where you're going as an artist and to keep stuff fresh. 'Cause I don't post a lot of the commercial work I do. I post some of it, but not all of it. Some of it's not, some of it's fantastic, but it doesn't fit in my, it's too bright or too, I don't know. Yeah, so hopefully that answered your question.
I was just curious, well, from your perspective, 'cause you were talking about waiting to post stuff or waiting to put yourself out there until you're ready. So for Instagram and Facebook and stuff, that stuff is important now even if you're not ready to have a website, but would you say that it is good or okay to post stuff just to have content flowing even if you're not ready to commit to something, or could that actually damage your reputation, or what do you think?
Nah, it's not like people are out to, they're not out to get you. And the thing is, are we talking about big clients or are we talking about small clients?
For me, I'm just starting. I'm just wondering like, you have some pictures, post them, or wait until you're ready to commit to the portfolio.
No, post, yeah. That's not like, I'm thinking like when you're ready to call yourself a pro. There's no one size fits all answer. There's not. If you decide to go pro, it's just important to have a cohesive, when you post your website, what you're telling somebody is, "This is the best work I can do right now." And if you're sort of in transition and you're posting, they're still gonna assume that's the best work you can do right now. And a good artist is going to know that you have to have a style that's consistent. It sounds kind of boring and repetitive, but you look at Monet's paintings, they're all kinda, you know what I mean? There's some changes, there's periods, but he was still blotting. There was still a style the whole time. And when you think of him, you think of that forever. That's it. And Picasso, you think of, it's the same. You're thinking art. And so there's sort of a selflessness to commit to if you come across, as you experiment and do all these random images that are all over the map, you'll start to pick and pick and pick and pick and pick and you'll come together with this one solid idea of how your images are supposed to look. And then you market the daylights out of it. And then you go from there. And then, when everyone is tired of it, you reinvent yourself from things you've picked up along the way and you re-release that. You don't do it all the time. I've rediscovered a technique that I wanna apply to my images, but I haven't released any of those yet because I don't have enough of them. And so I don't want it to be dibble dabbly. And that's just how I do it. I think there's room for a different type of photographer that actually specializes in social influence and social media. I think that should be a profession, because it's a little different than what we do. And it also involves how many followers you have and how much weight and gravitas you have in the social media arenas, whereas I don't have, you look at a lot of big shooters' Instagram feeds, there's maybe like 200 people. Not all the time, but you'll see some. I'm like, "Oh my god, there's nobody following," because they're busy and it's just not they're thing so it's a whole different, and in that arena, it's all about what you posted last or, it's a speed thing. There's a different pace to it. So I try to keep up on it, but I've narrowed it down to really just Instagram, which is my main outlet for that, because it shows BTS stuff. And then the blog goes in depth in a very advertising-friendly kind of way. It shows project after project. The website is just for looking at my work. And so yeah, there's a time and place. I love Instagram, and it's starting to evolve so many more, like I do a lot of cinemagraph work for clients now. Okay, so here's a typical client. They'll come to me and say, "We need this," So-And-So for a small sized client, or a big one, they'll say, "I need these images for my website managers, "five awesome images that are all," but then I'll add on, they'll be like, they might even find out on set that I do splash work. They may not even know. And so we do an add on sort of, like we'll do a splash one at the end. We'll just throw stuff in the studio and make something cool. And they're like, "Well, and can you also do "10 shots for Instagram?" But the thing about Instagram is, okay, so here's, this is a tangent, but here's your phone. So somebody will pay a million dollars or whatever for a Superbowl ad. But because it's on a television, for some reason, it holds this weight that it should be expensive and that the rights should be expensive. But when you're sitting on your couch, holding your phone in front of your face and flipping through Instagram and you compare the screen sizes, the Instagram photo is just as important as, it holds a lot of weight. And it's a similar size to your viewing distance as a TV. The value of a good Instagram post, a good one for a big company with a lot of followers, has enormous value, and I don't think that value is being realized by photographers at the moment. Hopefully that changes. But to me, when I do shoots, it's always an add on. "Can you just do this?" and I price it to where I think, and you're welcome to ask questions about pricing, too, and about estimating. I know it's a little outside the realm of this. If you have a quick question about that, that's a rabbit hole, 'cause it is different for everybody, and there's no single. That's why no one would give you an answer about money, it's 'cause I can't even give an answer. I'm not guessing. I know what I'm charging. But it's different for every single person. There's no price list you can go by, 'cause it'll be different next year.
Jerry has been getting calls from smaller startups and smaller restaurants. He wants to get started in the business. Do I go ahead and take those clients for smaller prices or do I hang tough and wait for bigger clients?
I actually put them in, I isolate those. I isolate the different types of clients. If I get a restaurant calling me, I'm actually going to ... I'm just gonna say, in my head, it's gonna be a trade before I even talk. I'm not gonna try and negotiate or get money. Whereas somebody who's just starting out will probably actually, 'cause you need resources to start your business. I'm not even gonna go there. Whereas big clients, I already have a really good, pricing is fairly similar among the big dogs. There's just this culture that's been bred over time and they understand the value. There's a good relationship there. They know. The middle ones are the ones that are difficult. They're all over the map. I've estimated, that's one where it drives me crazy 'cause I just don't know. And so the big guys, or the medium sized clients who, I just estimated one for the other day. It was a burger chain, and I estimated really high, 'cause I usually do that, 'cause if they wanna work with me, there's a discussion to be had. They don't have to say, "Oh, no." Sometimes they just do and you never hear from them again, but sometimes they'll come back and say, if they really wanna work with you, they'll always negotiate. There's always room for negotiation. So it's just a matter of, you'll get used to what the large companies are willing to pay you at your level currently pretty quick, and you just go with it. And the small restaurants and editorial jobs are predetermined generally speaking anyways. It's the middle. And there's a lot of those companies who are up and coming. They're giving the big food companies a run for their money. They're all over the map. And some have paid really well, and some have very limited budgets, and I just work with them, I put every job in a vacuum. There's no other way to do it. There's no single, so I isolate. There's middle of the road, like with middle budgets, big dogs, yeah.
Cool. Can you give us your number one secret Steve tip on how you found you've done one thing that has won clients?
If you wanna win a client, you need to show that you're more than just a photographer. You need to show that you can do, the food styling for me is huge, 'cause I can do it, but not for every project. If there's bacon involved, I can't. But having that little trick up your sleeve helps, because there's other photographers who just don't even know how to. So it helps, 'cause I can cut costs down. Let's say, during the negotiation process, I have so many options to not undermine my original asking price. I can say, "Oh, "for this project, I can do the styling," and I'll charge a small styling fee, but it's not gonna be a food stylist's fee at all. So I actually get more, I'm negotiating down by like five grand, but I'm gaining one or two in the process. You know what I mean? So having the ability, it's sort of specific to food, so I have all kinds of ways. Or I can, say it's a trade for a small company or I'll do a couple of Instagram shots or give you variants. There's always negotiating tactics that can allow you to maintain the integrity of your initial asking price of what you feel your image is worth to that client for the usage they're looking for, which for me is typically pretty broad usage. But I charge for it. So that way, I can always back down, say, "I can give you a year for this," or it gives me room. But rarely do I have to change prices 'cause I can always add on or give them what they perceive as of value or I'll waive, my estimates are creative fee, production cost, styling costs, and travel if need be. It's like four line. It's nothing complicated. It's not like, some jobs require these massive things. I don't run into those very often. And that way they don't ask, it's a very well thought out process, but I only give them the four numbers. That way, they can just say, "Does this make sense?" or, "What can we do?" and it makes the negotiations simpler. But just having the ability to not have to compromise on your initial price if you can avoid it, which doesn't always happen, especially with new clients 'cause you're feeling them out. I'm putting what I know it's worth. It may not be their budget. So they might come back to me and say, "Okay, can we?" But at least there'll be a conversation. That's crucial, 'cause you haven't lost them. You're talking about it. And then when you get on a roll, you can be like, they know what the price is gonna be for you and they're already there and it gets so much easier with clients that you're familiar with, 'cause they know.