The Strategic Photographer: Business Ed for Photogs

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How I choose locations without leaving my couch

I invite you into my pre-session ritual. This might sound lazy. I hope it does. While you are reading this keep in mind that one of the most effective men in modern history, Winston Churchill, used to go to bed at like 3 a.m. and then wake up with some breakfast in bed with a glass of brandy and finally crawl out around 11:00am. It was his boldness and his vision that made him effective and afforded him some laziness. 

Here is my routine. I lie down on the couch sometime after I get input from my client as to the genre and feel they want for their session. It is usually an hour before the session. I rarely allow my client to choose a location because it usually stinks. Lighting is everything so the location needs to work for the specific time of day, etc..

Full disclosure: I have driven thousands of miles looking for locations so I have my entire valley mapped out in my head. I lay down on the couch and I visualize the area within a 10 mile radius and where the sun will be. I scour the area in my mind for locations that I have found over the years. I keep my iPhone close and when ideas come I write a few locations that are somewhat close by each other to minimize drive time. Within a few minutes my session is planned and I can take a nap because a small nap re-energizes me before a session. Naps deserve an entire blog post. Look if NASA can spend millions studying the effectiveness of naps it is certainly worth the time.

Please don't think for a second that I do not add new locations to my list when I see them. I still scout, just much less frequently than I did in the beginning. For some it might be helpful to get a map of your area or GPS locations. Over time however as your skills increase you can just about make any location work. Making the best out of any given location is a skill that comes from getting stuck at weddings and events that look like garbage.

Think of the time, energy and money you spend scouting locations. If you are a portrait photographer and are shooting everyday in high season this is a huge drain. Take time during the off season to drive around and map things out so when you really need the energy you won't have to spend as much time worrying about it.

Burning rubber or burning out?

One of my favorite family stories is when we traveled down to have a barbecue with my parents. My mother knows that I am particular about what I like to eat so she called ahead and asked me how to marinade some chicken breasts. I told her to get a pen out and write this down. Use one cup soy sauce, one cup coca cola (for sweet and tenderness) and one cup oil then let it sit overnight.

When we arrived the next day my mom said, "The chicken has been marinading in the fridge since last night but I didn't have any soy sauce or oil and all I had was diet coke so it has been just sitting in diet coke since overnight. Is that ok?" This chicken was the main course for our entire family, brother and sisters and all their kids. I love my mom! 

Ok, so I had to whip something up on the fly and try to get some flavor into that chicken before everyone came in the next few minutes. Here comes the part where we can learn a lesson. As I was transporting the plate of raw, newly seasoned chicken to the barbyq outside I passed my dad who was relaxing on the couch. He yells out, "You have got to microwave that chicken before you put it on the barbyq!!" "Huh? No, I will be fine." I shot back in a hurry. "No, I am serious you have got to precook it in the microwave before you put it on the barbyq. The chicken will be raw in the middle if you don't" He repeated. 

By now most of us have watched enough cooking shows on the food network to know why the chicken was raw in the middle while the outside was burning. However, my dad insisted a third time as I approached the grill and turned the burner to a lower heat. "Do you cook your chicken on high?" I yelled inside. "I don't know." He replied. I just smiled and visualized my dad grilling likely frozen chicken over a 450 degree grill. 

Lets pretend that your business is a chicken breast for a minute. You are cooking on high heat, burning both ends of the candle, eating drinking and sleeping photography all day long. That heat feels good for a little while right?  Things are cooking along pretty well until the chicken starts to burn and you check the inside temp and it is still cold. This is the realization that you are working very hard but not making very much money or you realize that your energy levels cannot keep up with this pace. You are busy but not productive. You are busy but not fulfilled in other aspects of life.

The remedy is counterintuitive just like cooking chicken. You need to turn down the heat. Slow it down and think about what you are doing. Think about your future. Is this sustainable? If I burn out will I even be worth anything anyway? 

A business requires strategy to thrive long term. Remember that you are the engine that runs the business and the engine needs fuel, often. Your fuel comes in the form of time, family, friends, hobbies, personal photography projects. learning or anything that reenergizes you. 

I just shared with you a huge secret as to why after 15 years I still love taking pictures. I still get excited meeting new people and building relationships. I am cooking on slow but some of the best things in life come slow.



Is your ego killing jobs?

“Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”― Ann Landers

Is your Ego getting in the way of your success?

 How does pride manifest itself in the life of a photographer? My mind is spinning with faces and personalities I have met over the years who are no longer with us. They aren’t dead. They are only dead to photography. I myself have had a few near death experiences with pride.

Case #1 The graduate

    I will only share one of my stories dealing with students who have graduated with a college degree in Photography. I photographed a wedding for a bride whose sister had just weeks earlier walked at her graduation and received a bachelors of art in photography. The sister was a little upset that SHE was not consulted or regarded as the expert in wedding photography and therefore treated me like a maggot. She had however photographed some images of her sister for a bridal session and the images were displayed at the reception. 

    As the hired photographer I took pictures of all the decorations including the bridal images. I later uploaded the images to my smugmug account and sent the link to the bride. Within a day I received an email from the sister telling me that I should immediately take the images I had taken of the bridal photos (mixed with decorations) down from my site. How dare I? What kind of a professional photographer would take pictures of another photographers work and try to sell them to other people? She wrote. At first I thought it was a joke. Could she seriously think anyone would buy an image of her sister that was at an angle, has bushes and napkins next to it and is obviously part of a reception decoration? Wow! The arrogance. I wondered if she knew that her sister was the only person I had sent a link to the gallery and it had a password. No matter.

    At the bottom of her email was a link to her webpage which was completely set up but was completely void of images. I wrote an email back, biting my tongue and wished her luck in her career as a photographer. She is now a school teacher. 

Entitlement is a killer! News flash. No one really cares about your pedigree, your past education or even awards. 

Case #2 Waiting on the world to change

    As much as I like that song by John Mayer it is absolute crap. Waiting for the world to change is a recipe for grief. A long time friend and photographer complains every time I see him that work is slow and all these new people are ruining everything, etc… He came to my house one day to pitch an idea. He wanted to put a few thousand dollars into a movie theater campaign ad that would change public opinion to favor “professional” photographers. I thanked him and told him I would think about it. I did. I thought it also was crap. I would just assume try to stop a wave from hitting shore at North Beach. The amount of effort people go through so they don’t have to change is amazing!! People buy new equipment, pay for expensive advertising, and most of all complain. Not being willing to change is completely rooted in pride. It is damnation to a business. All progress stops. 

Case #3 Devoted to the craft

    While it is true Michelangelo was a genius he was also a jerk. He once wrote:

"I am here in great distress and with great physical strain, and have no friends of any kind, nor do I want them; and I do not have enough time to eat as much as I need; my joy and my sorrow/my repose are these discomforts,"

He had a ton of money but never spent it and just obsessed over making more of it.  He fought and scraped and whined and complained to get his way. One look at the statue of David and you think "Maybe he was right." Quality is a great policy. There are those however who are so anal about the details and are so unwilling to budge that they would rather be broke than do a job that is "below" them. If I can’t do it my way I won’t do it at all. Unless you are an absolute genius this is not always a good policy.

In the early years I was turned down on a position to help the biggest photographer in my area to do digital work on his sessions. He declined me for the position.  He wanted someone that knew more than him and frankly I wasn't very good. So I went over to his competition and offered my services. With no hesitation he hired me and taught me what he wanted me to do in one day. We discovered that the other lab (who we were friendly with) had hired a graphic designer who was so anal about each image it took hours for this person to get through a session.  I have some friends who are incredibly talented but no one wants to hire them because they are so difficult to work with. Literally thousands and thousands of dollars are lost to this form of pride. 

The greatest photographer I ever met was a man named Don Blair. He was world renown as a photographer/educator. I was fortunate enough to meet this gracious soul at a Las Vegas conference in 2001. He was dressed head to toe in and eccentric cherry red, shoes and hat included. I went to shake his hand and he grabbed me and smiled and said, “GEE WHIZ, ITS GOOD TO SEE YOU!! GEE WHIZ!!” I learned then why he was so great. He made everyone feel like a million bucks. They were putty in his hands.    

Recommended reading:How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It is a classic for a reason.





Are you climbing the right ladder?

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

 How do you measure your success? Let me tell you that about ten years ago I was following a photographer wondering what it would be like to bask in the light of the fame and fortune he was enjoying. I wanted to meet him face to face so I arranged a lunch meeting with him. As the hour progressed I began to realize that I was climbing the wrong ladder. I knew this was not what I wanted. Although I admired his abilities as a photographer I learned that after ten years as a photographer he was putting in 18 hours a day mostly all six days of the week. Can you imagine?

While some of you might be ok with that amount of work to get to the top, I have never had any desire to live like that. I am way too lazy!! I have learned however to use both my strengths and my limitations very effectively to my advantage, including my laziness. Did you know also that Stan Lee created Spiderman out of laziness? I was watching a documentary that my nerd friend made me watch on how Marvel comics were created. Listening to Stan Lee tell about his creation process was extremely fascinating. 

 In short Stan Lee was trying to figure out how to turn Peter Parker into Spiderman. After playing around with a bunch of ideas like having his parents come from another planet, he literally said that he was too lazy for all that so he just had Peter Parker get bit by a radioactive spider and the rest is history. Laziness is the second mother of invention. Do not underestimate its power!

I am not what you would call a type "A" personality. In order to make a career out of this I have made photography my tool not my master. I have many hobbies and interests. They all take time and some of them take money. My photography career from the beginning until now has been an exciting one that allows me to travel, camp, bike, fish, read, study, explore other business options and investments and keep up relationships with my family and friends. My wife has never worked and I have had a very close and active role in raising my children. 

To be precise, so you understand the power of this tool we call a camera. Looking back over the last 12 months I spent nearly 3 months of it on vacation. My wife and I went to Israel in January, Guatemala on a humanitarian project ( in March, Malaysia and Singapore in August and Italy in October. I also went on trip to South Korea with my sister because I LOVE Korean food. So you don't think we have neglected our children, also had a very productive July and still managed to get in 2 1/2 weeks of camping with my family in Yellowstone and nearby mountains. All the while, this has been my most productive year to date!

Do you want to hitch your wagon to a horse leading to burnout, fatigue and busyness?  For us photography is not the end, it is the means. This doesn't happen by accident. It happens by strategy. It doesn't happen overnight. It starts with unreasonable ideas and goals and an education and  strategy to achieve those goals. This unreasonable idea was first planted in my head by an unknown photographer (can't remember his name) who was single at the time. He was working 6 months on and 6 months off as a photographer. That sounded great to me! Now, that is a ladder I want to climb!

Which ladder are you on? Strategic photographer is very specifically designed to set you one the right course, the course where you get more productive year to year while spending less time doing it. I hope this all sounds unreasonable.