The Business of Commercial Photography: The Survival Guide

Lesson 29/30 - Opportunities for Growth

 

The Business of Commercial Photography: The Survival Guide

 

Lesson Info

Opportunities for Growth

This has been something that has been kind of new to my repertoire and mindset in the last few years is this idea of always looking for ways to grow. I think I've been aware of the need to grow as a business over the years but lately it's something I've started thinking more about in terms of my interpersonal life and trying to push myself just as a human. And there's overflow that comes into business when you do things like that. So a lot of this is kind of predicated on this idea that you're either growing or you're dying. A lot of time we like to just be comfortable. It's human nature. We like to just, we have something and we just wanna protect it and you know, it's hard to grow and certainly we don't wanna be going out of business, so dying so to speak. But that sweet spots feels like, at times, I just wanna stay right here. But what I've learned over and over again in my career is that there is no middle ground. Even if you feel for a period of time that you're comfortable, you'r...

e really dying in those cases. If you're not looking for active ways to grow. And I think a lot of that too has come from, as I have talked a lot with you about the importance of creating work for yourself, the importance of personal work and understanding who you are, I think for me, a natural kind of progression through that idea was then you start to learn more about yourself and you wanna be a better person. You wanna try harder. And you start to identify areas where you are not comfortable or areas where you know there's room for growth and so you try to work on those ideally. There is obviously, like I mentioned, great benefit just in general as a human being for doing that. But there's even more benefit on discovering that comes in your business as an artist when you can do those types of things as well. I'll give you an example of you're either growing or you're dying. There was an agency that I worked with years ago and I had some friends at the agency and there was a very small, just a couple people working there. And over a period of time there was this one client that they had and the client was bringing in a lot of work and I was getting a lot of work too. We were working together on a couple campaigns for this client. And over the years the agency grew tremendously. There was 40, 50, or more people working at this agency and life was great for about three years. And then all of a sudden I got a call one day and it was from a friend there and they're like, we lost the client. And I was like, oh my gosh, that's huge. And I was like, what's going on? And he's like, well that was the only client and we lost it and we just had to fire almost everybody. And so basically in that, if you track, it you plot out the growth of the agency, it certainly looks like they're growing, but it doesn't really matter what's happening at any particular moment in time. It's where did they end up. And they ended up right back where they started or maybe even worse off. So you can't count on just because you have this one client now, that you're always gonna have that client. You have to constantly be looking for the second and third client. It's easy to, we say this in investing or anything in life, don't put all your eggs in one basket. And that's just kind of common knowledge, but it's really hard to do that sometimes. You have to make your own opportunities. You have to constantly be pushing yourself. I mentioned earlier, there was a story when I started my iPhone portrait series and I was really uncomfortable with approaching strangers on the street, but this project kind of required me to do that. And so I had to force myself to do it and it wasn't easy at first. I was probably super awkward and I had to learn along the way. But then eventually I got to a point where I realized, oh my gosh, how did I start being so comfortable with this? And then how am I actually approaching people, even when I'm not doing this. It just kind of became part of my everyday life. I always get a little self-conscious and sounds silly, but something I learned last year, I was speaking at a conference and one of the other speakers was a Navy Seal and something that we started talking about was just like physical endurance and training. And he kind of turned me on to this idea of cold water plunges or showers or things like that. And so I decided I'm gonna start taking cold showers. And I think there's lots of benefits for various reasons, but one of the things that I really enjoyed about it, one of the reasons that I continue to keep doing it is because every morning you're confronted with something that you do not want to do. You know it's going to be uncomfortable and you know that there's not a whole lot of, at least immediate benefit from doing this. And could very easily just flip the switch and take a warm shower. Nobody's gonna know about it, right? There's no shame in that. But the act of forcing yourself to become uncomfortable and to go through something like that, it's amazing how that kind of transforms your mindset and your ability to walk into being uncomfortable in other parts of your life. And whether that's relationships or the way that you work or maybe it opens you up to new ideas that you're too afraid to approach in terms of your creative life. And so again, those are just a couple of examples of why you wanna be constantly looking for these growth opportunities. I remember when I blanked out the other minute, one thing I was gonna mention was that when you lose that one client, clients will oftentimes, you're always gonna lose a client. It doesn't mean that you did bad work. It doesn't mean that the agency did bad work. And I think we even touched the other day on this, but agencies want to or clients wanna switch things up because they don't wanna become stale. They don't want that singular voice representing them. They want a different perspective and it doesn't mean the perspective that they had was bad or wrong or anything, but it's just assumed that when I used to, when I first started I thought, I did a great job, they're gonna hire me again but it just doesn't always work like that. Oftentimes as we've talked about, sometimes people will hire a photographer once a year in a company or even an art buyer or something. So again, the chances of you fitting that one need are sometimes slim. And it's not a reflection of your work or anything like that. I remember a friend of mine was being interviewed a few years ago for some photography publication. And the photo editor who was doing the interview was introducing the photographer and they said, this is one of my top five favorite photographers of all time, hands down, no question about it and I'm really excited to be interviewing them. And then the photographer just jokingly, it wasn't malicious or anything and they said, yeah and oddly enough you never hired me in the 10 years that you worked at such and such publication. But that's, the reality is though he really was his top five favorite photographer. He wasn't just saying that or putting that on, that's true. But he just never had an opportunity to hire someone who did that type of work. Maren mentioned how literal people are when they want something and we've talked about that in other ways too. Like if they want someone that shoots someone on a black background versus a blue background. That's something that people wanna know. They take calculated risks and make decisions about. And so, again, you can't discount those types of things. I didn't wanna get sidetracked, but you have to constantly be working towards growing and what's next and not just assuming just because something good's going on, then it's gonna continue going on. Usually risk is involved when it comes to growth and so because something scares you or feels risky, that's not a reason not to do it. And so that comes in, not even just monetary investments or growth opportunities but in all growth opportunities, there's gonna be some sort of risk to your mental state or you're scared of it or it's like, this is gonna cost money but you have to be able to push through that. It's really important to get outside perspective. You guys are taking this course which is awesome. You're looking for new perspective and by all means, I hope that you continue doing that. This is my perspective and Maren and Nichelle's perspective but that doesn't mean this is the only way to do it. So you need to continue looking for ideas and find out what works best for you. I will say though, along those lines, make sure that you take advice with a grain of salt. Everybody has advice or an opinion on something. It doesn't mean that it's always the best way. I think going back again to my story about when I sent out my first postcard and then I read an article where someone said, don't ever send postcards, it's terrible or whatever. Well, that's their one experience. They were frustrated for a very specific reason but it doesn't mean that postcards in general are bad. I had a meeting with another art buyer a few years ago and during the meeting he kind of went on this speech about Twitter and he loved Twitter and it was really, really important to him. And you know, he got a job because he messaged someone on Twitter and he said, I don't even meet with people if they don't message me on Twitter and I was like, I think I emailed you but you know somehow here we are. But you know, if someone was new and just starting out and they're like kind of big eyes and looking up at the industry and someone told them that, they say oh my gosh, like I need to, I need to stop emailing so much and focus more on Twitter. Like you have to take all this with a grain of salt and realize everyone's opinion is formed by some particular reason and it may mean that maybe Twitter's worth looking into but that one person's opinion doesn't mean that you should put all of your eggs in that basket and give up on email kind of thing. Also you know, reading books. I don't make a lot of time for reading personally but there have been a few books recently that are small, even sometimes just like quick little daily read motivational pieces, I think can be really helpful. Especially if you are in a situation where you just don't have a lot of time to read big books but usually when I'm reading, also for me, it's more entertainment or something like that. I find, at least these days, I'm not reading huge books on business and stuff like that because it's already such a part of my life and mindset. But little quick reads that I have really enjoyed recently is Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. Manage Your Day-to-Day by 99U. That one's really awesome. You get to, just quick little short perspectives from a bunch of different authors in that book and the list goes on and on. There's plenty of people that are creating great educational content but you should be always considering something like that to just keep your mind fresh and keep outside perspective coming in. So I never set out to like, I never put on the calendar: hey, it's time to make growth, you know, make a opportunity to grow or anything like that but as we started putting our workshop together and thinking about it, I started recognizing all the times in my career that I have made a conscious decision to try to grow in a certain area and I'm sure everyone else can do the same thing. And I think it's important to track those things so that you can again, celebrate and realize, wow, like I have accomplished something but also it's important to to recognize that because then it enables you to be more intentional moving forward about taking greater risk when the time is right. So for me example, switching from weddings to commercial, that was a huge risk. 90% of our income was shooting weddings and as I told you like thankfully, we had a little bit of savings. Not only from those last three jobs that I got but from saving throughout the other years of shooting but still just cutting off a certain stream of income is scary and it means you have a certain period of time to get something else working. But I knew for me, that's the only way to do it. If I just kind of keep stringing along, I may never fully commit, you know, because I'm comfortable and so I knew, I've got to just cut this thing off and go for it. Specializing, you know that's something that they hammer home in business school is focusing on the one thing that you're best at and allowing or hiring other people to do the other things you're not as good at. You know, and that's a way that you can, we've talked about that and specializing in terms of what you shoot. That's the best way to live and hopefully that's come through clear with what Maren has said and what we've been talking about. Figuring out the shoot minimum is hug. It may not seem like a risk necessarily but there is risk. It is a growth opportunity for sure because it gives you information, which is powerful to move forward with but figuring out your shoot minimum might be risky because it might confront you with the information that maybe those $200 clients that you're working for, they may have to not be clients for you anymore. You have to may have to find someone else. And so that's definitely an opportunity for growth. My mindset before we figured this out was I would get a call and they would say hey, are you available next Friday? And I'd say yeah, I'm available. And they say we have the shoot for $350, are you interested? And I would think well, $350 is better than $ so yes, let's do it. But then when you find out that your shoot minimum is let's say $1,000, all of a sudden the reality is you're not actually making $350 when you do those shoots, you're actually losing $650 when you take that shoot because it's below your shoot minimum. So unless you plan on shooting a whole bunch of extra work or making it up somewhere else, it's gonna catch up with you eventually. So you've got to start moving into bigger clients if that's your situation. Getting a rep. Maybe the first time around we didn't have a full understanding of what the benefit or value is of a rep. It was a good situation, I learned a lot but when we signed on with Maren, we had much more information about what that meant. But still getting a rep it means you're giving away, not giving away but you're not taking as much money away from a shoot as you would otherwise. Now again, a great rep might actually negotiate better rates than you'd be able to do on your own, so there's that value. I can't even begin to imagine doing what I do without Maren because even in this conversation, it's still probably not even half of the stuff that she does and the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. It's so much work but it doesn't mean that just having a rep is the magic bullet obviously. It costs money and it might take a while to get going so you've got to weight the risk for that. When I bought my first Hasselblad, I remember I was sitting in a chair in the living room just looking at PDN and looking at this ad and the Nichelle came in and she's like, what's that? I was like only my dream camera, you know, and she's like why don't you get it? And I was like because it's like $25,000, that's why. And she's like well, I mean, do you need it? And I said you know, well, I don't know. I mean, I want it and she's like what do you want it for? And we started having a conversation. I was like well, I want to get into advertising and I think that I need a camera that's gonna have a better resolution than what I have. I said, also more specifically I feel stressed out when I'm shooting. I'm a portrait photographer and the 35 millimeter cameras I'm looking through aren't how I see things. So there's a disconnect between how I see it in my head and what I'm seeing here and I'm constantly thinking about a crop that doesn't exist. And she's like that doesn't sound like a good way to create and I was like well, yeah but what else you gonna do? And she's like, so we went on and on. There was other reasons why I wanted this but I was like it's just it's too expensive and she's like well, let's look into it. And so we looked into it and we did the math and it turns out we could take out a loan and get the camera, we wouldn't have to pay upfront. And actually harder to do now but at the time when we first bought it, when rates were different, we were actually able to pay our camera off because it was a line item expense. We can still charge for our camera. We've talked about that, the importance of charging for your gear because you're putting a lot of money out on it. But we you actually used to be able to charge more than we do now so within less than two years, we more than paid off the camera. And so it wasn't as big of a risk as I actually thought it was. You know, it just takes you doing the math and figuring out like if this is a tool that you need, if you're a photographer. I mean, obviously it's not a license to buy whatever you want but if you're a photographer, like you need to have the right tools to create and it definitely was one of the best decisions we've ever made. Hiring a consultant, we've talked about that. Hiring a retoucher, we hired a marketing director at one point. You know, this whole course, it's a lot about business and marketing and at one point I thought if marketing is so important why don't I hire someone who can specialize in that? Why don't I hire someone who can allow me to create more and they're better forging these relationships and stuff? And so that was something that we did it at a point and then our business has changed since then. We also had another employee but our business has changed and we've streamlined things and we've had to adapt. We've talked a lot about the importance of adapting your business and so just because something makes sense at one point doesn't mean it's always going to make sense. We built a studio, which was certainly a risk but it's again, been a great decision. All these things, they can be emotional but you have to think think through them. Like you you can't just be emotional. It has to be something that you have reasons for that you can justify. Certainly moving into directing has been opportunities. So anyway I could go on and on and on. All these things, personal projects, even fine art, like there's cost associated with some of them. Some cost more than others but you have to be looking for, maybe not looking for like let's see. What's something I can take a risk on but if you don't find yourself taking steps like this, if you can't chart out ways that your business is growing or moving forward, you're probably not in the best position. You're probably sitting somewhere that's a little too comfortable. Did you have a question? I was just wondering basically, how you separate the reps job from the marketing director and like where those would be different? Sure. Well, you know, I remember this was maybe right before we signed on with Maren and she was like wow, I've never seen this before. Like why would you hire marketing director? But from my perspective we again, we wanted to... Well, part of it was we'd had kids so I had less time than I used to. And we wanted to try to get more into larger advertising clients and I think in hindsight, maybe I wasn't putting enough time into my personal work, my personal shooting. That may have been something that I was neglecting a little bit but I was looking for ways to get my work out there to more people, to forge more relationships because we've talked about how you've got a hit, you've got to kind of make all these connections like sometimes 20 times. And so I was looking for ways to make more connections with more people and so a marketing director ideally would go out and be doing meetings, forging you know relationships with people, showing the work, finding new ways in outreach to get the work in front of people. I mean, the list goes on and on and some of it we didn't really have answers. We were like how can we do this? How can we do things in a different way? And sometimes you know, people are like, oh are you John's rep? You know, it was like you have to kind of, there's like a little bit of an educational process. So anyway... we had that employee for a little over a year and then we had another employee that did something a little different and you know, I don't regret that decision. I don't know that it was like everything that we had hoped or maybe thought but it wasn't a mistake either. Nichelle and I were thinking about the other day even and we're like we forget, we had kids. Like we had no time, you know, and so in that sense it really was maybe more of a necessity than we even realized but that was kind of the thinking behind that. When did you make the step to jump to workshops and what encouraged that? That's a great question. Why did I start teaching workshops? I think the first time I taught a workshop was just really, if I'm being honest, because I thought I could make some money doing workshops. It was when people started teaching photography workshops and then it got to the point where I realized it was starting to take up more and more time and I had a friend who was a photographer doing workshops and he gave me some good advice. He said, be careful because one will lead to another one will lead to another one and pretty soon you're just doing workshops. And I definitely saw that starting to happen but then after doing workshops for a couple years that were lighting and then some business and stuff, I think I mentioned already, we started getting some feedback from people and realizing just what a need and desire there was for business just in general. Like it just wasn't something people were talking about or even thinking about. I mean, there certainly are some people and I'm not aware of everything that's going out there so it's not a knock on anybody but some of the stuff I have seen, I feel like is not maybe the most sound advice or have they actually been on a commercial set or done some of this stuff? The other part of it was as Nichelle, and a big part of it was Nichelle. She has an incredible heart and she cares about people and community and relationships and she's gonna help someone every single time. Where I might be a little more like let's look at, you know, from a different perspective kind of thing. But she got really excited about trying to help people and then I started getting excited about it too. And as we started thinking about that, you know, I realized throughout my career there's been times where people have come alongside me and taught me something that literally I think, you know already said this, literally was the difference between me going out of business or me succeeding. And I felt like how can you take that from someone else and not be willing to to give that back? And so that was where this kind of started to grow from and then through this, it's been an incredible experience of learning myself, you know. Whenever you teach something, you're learning just as much as the people that you think you're teaching. And so maybe a couple years ago, after one of our survival guide workshops, you know, I do a portfolio review with everyone. And one thing that I draw home is I want to see, and that's why I was laughing earlier today. Maren, I was like she's so kind, like she's very, I'm a little more like upfront and like to the point but a lot of times one of the things that I see is yeah, everyone's work is is beautiful for the most part. That's almost a given these days. When I started doing portfolio reviews, there was a few people that had great work, and then a lot of people that needed to practice. Now, everybody has beautiful work it seems like but what I still don't see is them in the imagery. I see them creating beautiful images for someone else but what I want to see is people creating beautiful images for themselves. And so I'm constantly saying like, who are you? Where are you present in this work? And what can you do to put yourself into this work? And so the end of this particular workshop, I was home and exhausted as I usually am at the end, and I was just kind of sitting there and thinking about the weekend and conversations that we had and people that we met. And I just kind of heard my own voice for a minute and I asked myself, where are you present in your work? And I didn't have an answer for that. I wasn't present in my work. I was creating commercial work for other people. But for the first time in my career, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I did have an idea of who I was and what I wanted to do but I wasn't allowing myself to do that work. And so that's when fine art began for me is I realized I have always loved faces. I loved characters and expression and emotion in faces and there has been a time when I started out where I told myself and other people told me you can't just shoot faces. Like you can't just do that one thing, you know. And I said okay, I get that. I'll try to please everybody. And again, you know, I made a career. It's not like, I'm not saying you can't make money but there was things that I was neglecting that I wanted to do when I started to bury those things and then I quickly realized like there's specific people I want to photograph and there's, you know, characters are important. And I'd said well you can't photograph that person because you've already photographed them, you know. You can't just have the same person in all your images and stuff. And then I had been, you know, I'd been doing therapy and kind of learning on my own personally and that brought up some ideas and I was thinking a lot about identity, which is something that I had been wrestling with. And so at that point when I'm asking myself, what is it that I want to do, I knew, but I just wasn't doing it. So that's when I put it all together and I started, I did a series called Members Only, which I actually pitched to a client and did it for a client. But it was an idea that I had and then that turned into Con Man, which is a series that I've shared. It's one person but it's him representing seven different people so it's kind of exploring this idea of how we judge and view others. It's the same person but depending on which look or picture you're looking at, you have a very different perception of this person. Is this a safe person or is this someone you don't trust or whatever and so I was very curious about that. And then because of those projects and this process that's what led me to Uniform, which is now what I would consider to be like my most proud body of work that I've created in something that is still growing and hopefully will continue to grow over the next years or however long and lead to the next project. So for me teaching was the gift of being able to learn to create for myself as well and this work now that I can say I'm really proud of, I have no question wouldn't have existed if I wasn't in the position to be teaching. So that's kind of the long answer to that question but that's how that's how I got here I guess. I don't feel like we've talked about retouching much and hiring or outsourcing that particular skill and I find it's hard for me to give up my images to someone else's skills or vision and also, I find that when I show clients unretouched photos they just they can't wrap their heads around like. you know, no matter how much I try to prepare them or how skilled they are, they'll still come back, well the white balance is all off or the crop is all wrong an it's like no, I just want you to find the best ones for me to work on next. So both of those issues have kept me from outsourcing that particular skill. Well, I think that, I'll tell you kind of how I made the decision and maybe hopefully be able to answer that a little better. I got to the point where I was doing my own retouching, if you want to call it that. I was doing some stuff in Photoshop. (audience laughing) And I knew that I wanted to get into advertising work and I saw a difference between people that were doing large ad campaigns that I wanted to be doing and then my work, there was a clear gap between the level of retouching I guess. And so I knew at that point, I could learn to retouch myself, which is it's a trained, it's a skill that people have. You don't just watch a YouTube video and get real good at it. I mean really great retouchers, they're actually artists. They can paint and draw and all this kind of stuff, that's not me. So I knew I could pour a whole bunch of time into that but again, that's not specializing. Now I'm splitting myself in two different ways and so the cost is not only the the amount of time, that I have less time to do photography but I have less time to generate business and revenue and things like that. Or I knew I could find someone who's really good at retouching and they could probably even do it much faster than I could and do a better job at the same time. So I found someone that I could partner with in that way and working with a retoucher, no matter how good they are, retouchers can do anything, you know. You could get a great retoucher and they could achieve any look but one of the first mistakes that I made was, I just thought give it to the retoucher and just give me something cool, right? But you still have to know what you want it to look like and it took me a long time to figure that out. And so even when you do know that, when you first start talking with or working with their new retoucher, it could take like six months for you guys to kind of develop a look together. You might keep getting them back and you know, even with someone that I work with really closely, you know, I usually always say after the first round, more contrast, like just always put more contrast than you think because I'm gonna want that. Or whatever that is to you, whatever is most important but it takes a while. It's a really important relationship and it's not something that just happens overnight. So if you've ever attempted to work with a retoucher and it didn't go well the first time around, I'm not surprised. It's a thing, it's something you have to invest in. I'll give you the same advice I gave you about working with a designer or anyone else. At least before you start that process, see something in their portfolio that you connect with. See something that you know okay, they're capable of to some extent what I'm looking for. In terms of working with clients, there was a period of time when I first started also that I had to be very careful because I had to give clients very small proofs and be like do not print these please, you know, because I would give them the proofs and sometimes they'd go print them and stuff. I'm like it's just raw, it's not finished, please. And so that takes time and you might have to protect yourself in that way now and I've talked a lot about not making assumptions. I probably need to be more careful about this but I don't really even say anything anymore. It's just understood because of my work and what people know about me and what I create, that there's going to be a post process to this. And I honestly how many even heard a peep about it in probably five or six years in showing raw images but it was an issue at some point. So part of it is just what clients come to expect from you. If you're not showing a bunch of retouched work or a specific look then why would they expect that you're going to go through retouching? So especially when you make that transition, you're really going to have to educate clients and then obviously back it up in your portfolio so eventually that's why they came to you in the first place, they expect that look.

Class Description

Whether just starting out in the commercial photography industry, or ready for a new chapter in your career, John Keatley shows you how to survive in a competitive field. Known for being innovative, creative and thinking outside the box when it comes to his photography, John applies those same skills into running his business. In this in-depth course, John shares some of the key elements that allow you to be an artist and a business owner. You’ll learn:

  • How to find your style and attract the clients you want
  • How to create a bid
  • The importance of drafting a treatment
  • Estimates and billing for your work
  • Planning and scheduling your production
  • Tips on memorable branding
  • The difference between an Art Director/Agent/Art Buyer
  • Techniques for editing your portfolio

If you’re at the start of your career or ready to expand your client list, this course will be the game changer you need to create a solid foundation for a thriving business.

Reviews

Bonnie Aunchman
 

John & Creative Live - Thank you - Best. Class. Ever.! This is a GREAT class! If you are a photographer, this is definitely a MUST GET class, but even if you work with photographers as part of a creative team - you have to take this class. (I'm a Photo Stylist) John covers it ALL in this class - it really, truly is a Survival (Success) Guide. John is so detailed, honest, and generous in his knowledge/experience/wisdom in the commercial photography industry in helping you understand the business and really succeed (& stand out). When I see that John is teaching a class on Creative Live - I'm in! (I have his other valuable courses as well)

a Creativelive Student
 

I was lucky to be part of the studio audience for this course. John is an awesome teacher and did an outstanding job of making sense of a very difficult side of photography for a creative to understand. He shared his 18+ years of experience, including the good and bad he has gone through. The "special guests" alone are worth the cost of this class. John has an amazing team working beside him behind the scenes. Their perspective on his business was priceless!

Amy Vaughn
 

Thanks to John for being so open his experience in the commercial photography industry and giving us so many real world examples. I especially appreciated the contributions by the non-photographers in the second day of the course - Nichelle and Maren. Nichelle gave a good perspective on the finance and business communications side. Maren is John's agent and offered her insight on how agencies worked. I've heard photographers discuss working with agents before, but it was helpful to hear an agent answer questions directly about her experience.