Landscape photographer and pro educator Varina Patel is one of those people we all aspire to be. From the mountains to the deserts, she travels around the globe chasing the light and enlightening photographers near and far. We’ve long been inspired by her incredibly varied and inspiring blog posts, eBooks and workshops, as well as her ability to keep her photo education company running smoothly and in sync with her husband, Jay Patel. We talked with Varina about how to keep your photo business blooming year after year. Here’s what she suggests.
By Varina Patel
Take your business seriously.
Jay and I may be a husband and wife team – but we are running a business together. It’s so easy to lose sight of the goal in the face of the day-to-day requirements of running a business… especially when you have lots of other responsibilities that require your attention. In order to keep things running smoothly, we have monthly meetings where we discuss our plans for the upcoming month. We decide which projects are worth extra time, and which ones need to be scaled back. We look at our sales and financial data and decide where we should focus our efforts. We make sure we are working towards the same goals – and that we are never working at cross-purposes.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans.
Of course, having a solid business plan is important… but plans should be fluid. Don’t be afraid to change your plans as your business opportunities shift. Jay and I are constantly re-establishing priorities as we navigate the ever-changing world of photography. Stock photography was a productive business for us at one time – but as the market became more and more saturated, we found that our efforts weren’t paying off as well as they had been. So, we tested new waters. We taught workshops, wrote eBooks, photographed events, submitted images to magazines… and as our business grew, we found out where we could make the most of our limited time. Right now, our focus is on eBooks and short workshops – and as times change, we will continue to refine our goals and shift our plans to meet the ever-changing needs of our business.
Know your own strengths – and your weaknesses.
I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s important to know what you are good at – but knowing your weaknesses is equally important. Heck – maybe it’s even more important. When you are aware of a weakness, you need to focus your attention on it. Nobody said running a business is easy. If you aren’t good at handling your finances, do some research, take a class, or hire someone to do it for you. If you want to write eBooks but your grammar and spelling is terrible – hire an editor. Need a good website, but you don’t know a thing about design or ecommerce? Call on the SmugMug Support Super Heroes. ;) Ignoring the problem isn’t a solution… and it can cause all kinds of headaches in the future.
Use social media to build a relationship with your clients.
Social networks are incredible marketing tool that offer small businesses like ours an opportunity to be noticed among corporate giants with enormous budgets. We don’t have to spend a dime to connect with millions of people who are interested in what we are offering. Our foray into social media began with our blog. I spent more than a year writing regular blog posts before people really started to pay attention. There were lots of times when I thought maybe my efforts were wasted, but I knew that quitting was the surest way to fail… so I kept plugging along. Over time, more and more people began to comment and subscribe. During that time, I started posting on Facebook too. Pretty soon, I had a pretty solid collection of “fans” who would leave comments and share my photographs. When Google+ came along, I didn’t hesitate. This was a whole new experience. Suddenly, photographers were having in-depth discussions about everything from composition to marketing – and people were adding us to their circles at a fantastic rate. Best of all, we were really getting to know some of these people! They were becoming our friends. They were recommending our work to others, signing up for our workshops and webinars, and buying our eBooks! We met some of them in person, went shooting with them, and got to know them on a personal level. Those experiences took social networking beyond marketing. Now, we are a part of a dynamic community of photographers who exchange ideas and inspiration.
Look for ways to minimize content creation and maximize content consumption.
So yes. Social media is a great tool. But it can be your downfall, too. Don’t let it consume you! The trick is to find ways to minimize the amount of time you spend creating content for social media – while maximizing the consumption of that content. What does that mean?
Well – we only have a limited amount of time to spend writing blog posts, updating our websites, posting on Twitter or Facebook or Google+. And yet – we want to be sure that the content we create is seen by as many people as possible, right? So, if I write one blog post, I want to make sure everyone knows it’s out there. I need to get it to my followers on Facebook, my fans on Google+, my subscribers on Twitter – in short, I need to make sure it’s as visible as possible.
Right now, we create almost all of our new content on my blog or on Google+. Content from the blog on my website is automatically syndicated to Jay’s website and our other social media platforms. (Ideally, a single source of content would be preferable… but Google+ doesn’t provide means for automatic syndication yet. In order to share with our very large audience on Google+, we need to manually share a link or copy and paste content to our streams.) Automatic syndication lets us send out our content to twitter, facebook, and our RSS subscribers without an additional effort on our part. So we create the content once, and everyone knows it’s there. The process takes discipline and forethought – but you can make social networks work for you.
Know your target audience.
Take some time to decide who your customers are. Are you selling prints to art collectors? Writing eBooks for budding photographers? Teaching beginners to use their cameras? Look at your strengths, determine what you want to be doing – and then decide who you are targeting. Jay and I know that our primary audience is other photographers – people who want to learn how to use their camera. So, we target our posts to appeal to those people. We include brief tips in every blog posts. We speak in a variety of forums – sharing knowledge with large groups of people so they can get to know us and our teaching styles… and share our names with their friends. And we are always looking for ways to reach out to the photographic community – even this article is part of that effort.
Make sure you are valuable to your customers.
Maybe this is obvious, but it’s absolutely critical. If you purchase one of my eBooks, I want you to come back and purchase another, right? And the only way you are going to do that is if you really feel that the eBook was valuable to you. So, we work hard to make sure that we pack those books full of information. We regularly go back and review older books to make them better, and we are constantly looking for more knowledge so we can share it with others. Workshops are no different. We want our students to go home feeling like they are better photographers than they were before they arrived… and more importantly, we want them to be confident in their ability to repeat the techniques we’ve taught. As nice as it is to come away from a workshop with some amazing photographs – what we really want to do is teach people to take amazing photographs when they are on their own and we’re not around to help out. So, figure out what your customers want, and work to make sure that you are providing that. Doing so will translate to more clients, more sales, and more word-of-mouth advertising.
Act like a professional.
I think too many photographers forget how important it is to present themselves as professionals. I’m not talking about business suits and corporate accounts. It’s really not that difficult. Start with a well-designed website that works well. Design a simple logo and print up some business cards. Respond to emails and queries in a professional manner – it’s ok to be casual, but don’t be sloppy or rude! And perhaps most importantly, present only your very best work! Don’t just stick photos up there to fill gallery space. It’s better to have a small collection of really great shots than a huge collection of mediocre ones.
Learn More about Photography from Jay and Varina Patel
If you’re looking for more inspiration, photography tips, education and webinar workshops, visit Jay and Varina’s blog over at Photography by Varina. And use this exclusive discount code to get 10% off any eBook order over $20: SMUGMUG314
If you love photography, going out to shoot something with a your friends is probably way up on your list. We’re hard-pressed to find anyone who organizes these events better than Scott Jarvie, full-time destination wedding photographer and vagabond whose vibrant photos are matched only in brightness by his wit. He’s a friend of ours, too, and he recently helped pilot a full-weekend long exposure photowalk right here in San Francisco. He’s written up his personal insights into why joining photo walks is good for the photo-soul and how you can get the most out of planning one of your own.
By Scott Jarvie
2008 was my first connection with other photographers and photowalks, and it marks a turning point in my photography. The small group of people I met on my very first photowalk are still good friends of mine, and knowing that other photographers were looking at my work actually made me step up my game. No longer was it just friends who thought every picture was a masterpiece… I actually had to start taking legitimately good pictures.
Utah has a consistent photowalking community, which was a great example to me of what a great community should be like. They connect on Twitter, Flickr and Facebook and then they become legitimate friends by meeting each other in person at the photowalk.
To this day, I see this same core group from 2008 meeting at SMUG meetings and still interacting with each other online or in-person: They have created studio co-ops, they’ve worked on paid projects together, they’ve referred businesses to each other, they’ve done photoshoots for each other. 4-5 years later and they still have a vibrant community with over 1000 people on their Facebook group.
I’ve met some of my very best friends because of photowalks. I’ve done weddings for a lot of people I’ve met at photowalks. I’ve seen casual goers to these photowalks become really good professional photographers.
Tips for Attending (or Planning) Your Next Photowalk
- Just go. You rarely – if ever – will regret going.
- Have a good attitude and don’t have crazy expectations so you’re not let down.
- Giving is more rewarding than taking: You’ll get more from photowalks if you help organize or be leader of sorts, teach, or make the newbies feel welcome.
- The balancing of taking pictures with meeting people is an art and it takes a a little experience to find it.
- The people you’ll meet are often more beneficial than the pictures you’ll take.
- Edit your pictures fast because the buzz dies down quickly.
- Use a hashtag for your photowalk photos (#jarviewalk, #dv2011) when sharing on sites like Google Plus
- Comment on other people’s pictures, too
- Stick around for the dinner and the mingling.
- Plan to have your picture taken by someone there. It’s inevitable.
- Consistent, regular photowalks are key to creating a successful group.
- Don’t try to do it all yourself, especially if you plan regular photowalks. Get other people to help organize.
- If it’s a local group, try to create yearly traditions. (Christmas walk, Halloween walk, studio day, BBQ with no photography)
- Use social media. Get people that use social media to mention it.
- Have a place online to congregate and share pictures (Facebook group, G+ community, Flickr Group)
Questions to Consider
- Are you attending a Photowalk?
- Are you going to meet people and network?
- Do you already know these people and want to solidify friendships?
- Do you want to meet new people?
- Are you going to learn?
- Will there be a class before or after?
- Will there be photographers there that like to teach?
- Are you going to take pictures?
- Because it’s a good way to motivate yourself to get out there?
- Because the location is a place you’ve wanted to go?
- Because you’ll take any excuse to go take pictures?
- Are you going to meet people and network?
- Are you setting up a Photowalk?
- Because you want to create a community where you are?
- Because you want to network?
- Because a company will sponsor it?
- Because the location wants exposure?
- Because you have no idea why… it just sounds fun?
- Because it will help get your name out there?
- What style of Photowalk is it?
- Short walk (2-3 hrs)
- Short walk plus (walk plus either a lesson or food)
- Day Walk (All day, many locations)
- Multi Day Walk (Cover a big area over a course of a weekend)
- An adventure (A planned trip with friends)
- How can you ensure good attendance?
- What day is it?
- What time of the day is it?
- How far away from people is it?
- How much money will it cost people?
- Are there any giveaways?
- Does it seem organized?
- Is it an interesting location?
- Has the location been overdone?
- Is a photowalk long overdue?
- Is it a regular thing?
- How many other people are saying they’re going?
- Are there any well known photographers going?
- How welcome do beginners feel?
- Is there a chance for people to learn?
- Is there food before or after?
- What’s the weather like?
- How far in advance did you plan it?
- How well did you remind people?
- Where did you advertise it?
The Surge of Multi-Day Photowalks
Probably the most interesting thing I’ve seen in the last couple years is the growth of the multi-day photowalk. I’ve been to several including Utah, Yosemite, Death Valley and San Fransisco. It’s at these photowalks that you seem to get the best of both worlds: to get great pictures and to meet new people.
At multi-day photowalks you can, in general, make much more solid friendship than what you can get in a single 2-3 hr interaction. Plus, with most of those multi-day photowalks you’re hours from home, staying in hotels, eating out as a group and are less distracted with your day to day stuff.
There’s also a lot more time which means you don’t have to rush the taking pictures part or the creating friendships part. You’ll be able to do both, even if there are 30-40 people there.
Come to #JarvieWalk in March 2013
I am doing the second year of the “#JarvieWalk which is a photowalk centered around the Festival of Colors in Utah, March 29-31st, 2013.
Last year, I had super great friends that came and it made the event even more fun. Plus, people came into town early and stayed late and we did other photography trips in addition to what was scheduled. I already have over 30+ people coming from all over the country for this year’s #JarvieWalk, with hardly any advertisement. I call that a big success.
You are all welcome to come, if just to learn what a good multi-day photowalk is like. I’m not too humble to say that I did a dang good job last year and this time will be even better.
I’ve organized the event on Google Plus, so get details and RSVP right here.
All photos by Jarvie Digital
Do you know Lee Morris, pro photographer, video producer and wicked-good educator? You should. He’s an incredible, seasoned commercial, advertising, fashion and wedding photographer, plus he’s co-founder of the refreshingly useful website Fstoppers.com. He’s also a friend of ours who took a moment to reflect on the wedding business, why it’s so hard, how it’s changing and how pros like you can make the most of it by staying true to your heart.
by Lee Morris
Weddings, From Film to Digital
It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few years ago wedding photographers burned every image into a single piece of film. If they didn’t expose or focus the image correctly, the frame was ruined. If the film was processed incorrectly, scratched, or lost, the picture was gone forever. A single piece of film with a quality image on it was a very valuable thing and wedding photographers charged accordingly. It was common for wedding photographers to charge a single flat rate to show up to the wedding but then an additional fee for the number of images taken and processed. At the time it was very common for couples to pay their wedding photographers a few hundred dollars to take the pictures, but they would then spend thousands paying for prints and albums to be made after the event. Just a few years ago, a digital copy of a photograph, one that you could view on a computer was worthless to couples getting married. They wanted classic prints that they could hold in their hands, hang on the wall, and share with their friends, and they were willing to pay a premium for them. Times have changed.
As digital started to take over, wedding photographers were very slow to give away or even sell the files to their clients and rightfully so; for their entire careers, they made most of their money selling prints, not actually shooting. Many photographers that were unwilling to adapt their businesses actually went under because they thought they couldn’t compete with the new “cheap” digital market. What many of these photographers failed to realize was that the money was still there, in fact, as wedding photography progressed, couples were actually willing to spend more; many of them simply weren’t interested in paying for expensive prints in a digital world.
The Role of Sentimentality in Business
When it comes to managing a business as intimate as wedding photography it’s easy to let your emotions take over. I try my best to approach my photography business as I would any other business. I need to manage my time, keep my current clients happy, consistently book new clients, and make money. So many photographers fail to meet at least one of these goals. Maybe you are really good at making your current clients happy but you work too much and you don’t enjoy your job or have time to enjoy your life. Maybe you book a ton of work but you don’t charge enough and you are constantly struggling financially. During the digital revolution many photographers that didn’t change their pricing structure were incapable of making their current clients happy. Maybe their pictures were great but as digital started to take over, couples felt like they were getting nickeled and dimed after the event. If you can’t make your current clients happy, you are going to struggle to find new clients.
When I started my business years ago I learned very early on that I hated making prints and albums. I could shoot a wedding in a few hours and make a few thousand dollars but it would take me a full day to retouch a few pictures, print them myself or take the files to a lab, package them up, take them to the post office and I would only make a few dollars profit. In many cases my clients would have to wait weeks to actually get their prints because I was out of the state shooting another job. I decided that I was going to start giving away the digital files with each of my weddings. Maybe I would lose a few dollars on the back end but I was also gaining a ton of free time and my clients were happier because they could print their pictures, how they wanted, when they wanted.
As a single guy in my twenties, money was important to me but free time was far more valuable. Once I had booked my 20 or 30 weddings for the year I knew I had plenty of income to support myself and I now had the security to start working on other things. With the extra time I had gained, I created the photography website Fstoppers.com. If I had focused on custom prints and albums like other photographers do I have no doubt I would have made a bit more money but Fstoppers has been far more rewarding. Creating videos for our website like Bon Jovi’s photographer behind the scenes, or Peter Hurley’s: The Art Behind The Headshot, or our newest video: How To Become A Wedding Photographer, has been the most exciting experiences of my life.
My point is that you may love your photography career (I sure do) but if you can give yourself some extra time, who knows what you will be able to create.
SmugMug = Time = Money
When I found SmugMug I realized that it filled 3 major needs in my business:
1. High resolution backups are included with the subscription.
2. It allowed me to promote my photography by giving guests and family members a place to go to see my work.
3. Bay Photo integration means I give my clients high quality prints without actually having to do any work.
By simplifying my business I was meeting all 4 goals above; I had more free time, my clients were happier, I was marketing to new potential clients, and I was making money from print sales each month.
It’s easy to think that we know what’s best for our clients. We may know that if they don’t book an album now, they will probably never get one made. But the sad truth is that many of our clients would rather put their pictures on Facebook than deal with an album. It’s important to remember that we are hired by these couples to do a service for them; if they don’t want prints, we should figure out what they do want and charge them accordingly for that. If you’ve ever bought a car before you know how obnoxious it can be when the salesman tries to sell you on something you don’t want. There are so many other ways to make money with wedding photography that may not involve incredibly expensive prints. I make far more money than I ever did selling prints selling engagment and bridal sessions, setting up a photobooth at receptions, selling video slideshows of the event, and offering a video service. Many photographers also don’t know that SmugMug makes it incredibly easy to sell digital copies of files. If you don’t want to give away your files like I do, you are able to set the size and price for each individual picture.
I want to make it clear that I love high quality prints and that many wedding photographers make a lot of money selling prints, even today. I love seeing my work printed huge, professionally framed, and hanging on a wall. My point is simply that times are changing and the current generation of brides probably do not want the same things that their mothers wanted. To stay ahead of the pack you need to deliver exactly what your clients are looking for, not what you think they will appreciate one day.
If I could sum up this article into a single point it would be this: Listen to your clients, and give them what they want. A happy bride will tell her friends how wonderful you are you will never have to worry about a shortage of work. In some cases, especially this one, it can make your life a whole lot simpler and you might even make more money.
All photos by RL Morris Weddings
Get a Boost in the Business of Love
In the spirit of wedding season and WPPI, we’re going to pick one extremely lucky winner who will sharpen their wedding photography skills and fistbump the biggest stars of the wedding biz in Las Vegas.
Here’s what we’re giving away:
- 1 copy of Lee Morris’ How to Become a Commercial Wedding Photographer DVD ($299.99 value)
- 1 all-access pass to WPPI 2013 in Las Vegas, NV ($399 value)
Here’s how to enter:
- LIKE SmugMug’s Facebook page
- LIKE Fstoppers’ Facebook page
- POST A COMMENT BELOW answering the question:
What (to you) is the hardest part of being a wedding photographer?
Get your entries in and we’ll randomly pick one winner on February 13, 2013. So keep your eyes peeled and don’t forget to check back for when we announce it here.
Edited to add: The giveaway is over but you can still learn! We highly recommend that you check out Lee’s video, available now on the Fstopper’s site. It’s a comprehensive, 14-hour, 2-years-in-the-making tutorial covering everything you’ll ever need to do know to become a successful wedding photographer. Check out the trailer to get more details about what you’ll learn and why wedding photography will change your life.
UPDATE: We’ve spun the wheel of destiny and it picked… Dennis Schroader! Congrats Dennis and we’ll be in touch with you to deliver your prizes. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts with all of us in the wedding industry!
Today’s guest blogger is Andy Marcus of incredible, lick-the-screen-delicious Fred Marcus Photography in New York. He’s been a Smugger since 2009 and we had the privilege of gabbing with him on the way to WPPI. Here’s what he says about SmugMug and how his Pro account has given their world-class business an edge in the digital age.
Photos by Fred Marcus Photography
Pro Features for Pro Photographers
We use SmugMug at Fred Marcus Photography because it’s one of the easiest and most effective tools to market our business. We’ve been around for 70 years and have made a name for ourselves, but I find that our venues are constantly being bombarded by dozens of other photographers vying for recommendations and attention, too. How do we stand out and make our studio the one that the venues remember?
After each event we create a SmugMug gallery for the venue so they can share and use them for their own marketing purposes. SmugMug has made watermarking our images so easy: I can upload high resolution files and be confident that no matter where they end up, our studio name will be on them. I would normally never share files that could be printed to our clients, but with watermarking it’s a win-win situation for both the vendor and our studio. They get great photos and we get the advertising.
Just the other day a popular wedding blogger got a link to our SmugMug site and shared more than a dozen of our images with her 2,000 followers. Within minutes of her publishing that story our website received dozens of hits from people curious about our work.
It has gotten to the point now where our vendors can’t wait to log onto our SmugMug site and see images of their events. The cake designers want their cake photos, the lighting and staging companies want the images we shoot of the décor and ambience. The florists want shots of the floral décor and bouquets and the party planners, coordinators and caterers want shots of everything.
Luckily for me and my staff all the functionality SmugMug builds into their “Share” button makes their wait very short. I can send our vendors an email containing links with just a few clicks of a mouse. SmugMug also generates easy embed codes for all our images, so I can show them off on a blog or a forum with no hassle. Not to mention the ease at which I can connect to a number of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
I always like to be one step ahead of my competitors, and SmugMug helps me stay there.
- Andy Marcus