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Thursday, 13 February 2014

Professional Photographer Column: March 2014

 CARPE DIEM


So guess what?  I’m relaxed, rested and entirely recharged after my only 2 week holiday in 6 years.  For the first time since setting up the business in 2010, I have totally tuned out of it – but only because I now have a trusted studio manager who kept things running whilst I came to a standstill.

By about November last year I was exhausted but I had become a machine – marching relentlessly on in the pursuit of other people’s happiness.  Mine didn’t really matter or at least that was my frame of mind and the business was thriving whilst my health wasn’t.  Everyone was telling me to slow down but I felt that I couldn’t and then I realised I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. 

Within a week we were booked to fly to Cape Town following my final wedding of 2013.  Immediately I was in a better frame of mind and found everything easier to deal with.  I landed with a cold and felt exhausted for the first 3 days (hence a week never being long enough) but then I began to relax.  I wasn’t looking for my phone anymore, I was laughing with the kids, drinking wine and staring at my feet in the golden sand slightly incredulous that I was sat doing NOTHING.

We met up with friends and had late night after amusing late night.  I started to forget my phone when we went out and it didn’t bother me.  On separate occasions I spent an hour in a rough sea – diving through wave after wave – being tumbled and thrown around – finally emerging exhausted with the biggest smile on my salty face.  I felt alive again and I loved it.  

I didn’t touch my camera for days and began to worry I had lost my mojo.  In reality the light was harsh and I knew any images would be about compromise.  So instead I made a plan – to be on the right beach at the right time.  My golden hour app told me this was 7.35 to 8.00 and so we took a picnic and wine and waited.  And suddenly I was up and you couldn’t have wrenched my camera from me if you had tried.  I admit to being relieved that the passion was still there – big time.

I got on the flight back with a heavy heart but I’m a big girl and know that times like this don’t last.  That’s what makes them so special.  So if you are reading this and feeling like you need a break – carpe diem – get one booked because I truly can’t recommend it enough.

On the flight home I dug out my laptop and started my SWPP talks which I had intended to do on holiday.  Within 24 hours of landing I was selling the dream of professional photography and then drinking my profits in the bar!  It was great to see so many old friends and meet plenty of new ones.  I sat and listened to the ever inspiring Kevin Mullins and chastised myself on my recent blogging performance.  I took Becky around the trade show and chatted to my lovely suppliers.  I laughed a lot with our Ed, Scorey, and I listened to many tales of a hard year from fellow photographers.   After a very late night and two seminars I was feeling weary but quite a few friends had texted me to see if I wanted a coffee.  Normally I would have said yes but do you know what I did?  I sneaked back to my room and had a nap and then I went for a swim and sat in the sauna.  I was desperately trying to hold on to my holiday vibe and put my wellbeing first. 

Today is my first proper day back in the office and it’s taken most of the day to catch up on email.  And go for a run.  By the end of last year I wasn’t exercising because I was ‘too busy’ and my back was giving me muscular problems.  I’m really going to try and maintain some work life balance this year but it’s early days. I also began to put together a list of all the changes I need to make to the business.  Last year was about being inside the business and now it’s time to step outside and make plans for evolution.  It’s wonderful to know that the business is established – that my word of mouth referral system continues to bear fruit -unaffected by my 2 week hiatus.

I hope that when I read this column in print I am still feeling the benefits and managing to not let the business overwhelm me again.  If you see me looking tired – please, please stop me and have a gentle word….

Professional Photographer Column: February 2014

COMMERCE OR ART?


A month or so ago I had a call from one of my great industry friends – he was in a bit of a bate because he wasn’t getting wedding bookings and he couldn’t understand why.  He asked me to look at his website whilst we were chatting and I immediately became engrossed in his beautiful work.

Kate…Kate are you listening?”.  I wasn’t.  “Ok I said – what do you want from me?”.  He asked me to tell him what I thought was going wrong.  Interestingly my immediate response was to say “yep, fine, but I need to take off my photography hat and approach this as a bride”.

So I did.  I tore my eyes away from the work and looked at his brand (which has been in evolution for the last 12 months).  I told him it lacked impact, was easy to forget and very masculine.  “But it’s clean and modern and mimimalist” he argued. 

I then sat and watched the homepage slideshow with different eyes and found myself noting the lack of colour and emotion.  And also the lack of consistency – not in style, no, not at all.  But in the sense that each image was stand alone, a one off, unrepeatable.  I could imagine that a bride might struggle to visualise how her pictures would look – she wouldn’t be able to get a sense of how her bridal prep might be photographed and certainly not what the couple shots might deliver.  It struck me that he had become not just a designer brand but actually couture.  

If you look up the word ‘couture’ on Wiki the kind of language used to describe it includes words like exclusive and one off.  ‘Considering the amount of time, money, and skill that is allotted to each completed piece, haute couture garments are also described as having no price tag - in other words, budget is not relevant. Each couture piece is not made to sell. Rather, they were designed and constructed for the runway, much like an art exhibition’.

I have no doubt that there are couples out there who are the perfect fit for his work but they don’t come looking for you.  By changing his brand and his style he had immediately cut off his previous referral system and was basically starting out fresh.  He needed to begin the whole networking and marketing journey again – but this time aiming at a very different audience.

The conversation didn’t end on a high.  But he must have agreed with some of what I said because 24 hours later he asked me to have another look at his website - he had updated his slideshow to reflect more colour and the emotions that all brides associate weddings with. 

I had a look at my own website shortly afterwards and was immediately ashamed of how old much of the work is. Updating the imagery is on my list of things to do, it’s just a horribly long list – that’s the problem.  I was also struck by the thought that I probably have rather a lot of photographers looking at it (and judging me) because that’s what photographers do…

And I became very aware that I didn’t like that thought.  Why?  Because my website does not represent me as an ‘artist’.  It is a commercial selling machine and absolutely not a vanity site.  I have been very careful to get the balance right between the type of images I love to shoot – given the right clients, location, styling etc and the ones I will be commissioned to shoot.  Not all of my clients tick the ‘ideal’ box but they are all prepared to pay me well to give them what THEY want.

As a lifestyle photographer it’s my job to find out what people want to get from a shoot and deliver it.  In the last 2 weeks I have had quite a few juicy print orders from weddings and 90% of the images in question are group shots.  The ones I least like to take… My other dislike is the cheesy family shot with everyone snuggled up smiling at the camera.  It tends to leave me cold and delight the hell out of the individuals in question.  These four images are a good way to illustrate how I always get the safe shots before attempting to pull some beautiful shots out of the bag that make me happy and feel like a creative soul.  I know which ones I prefer but I’m not sure that the family will feel the same.  That is why you will probably find them all on my portrait gallery (when I finally get round to updating it).

At the end of the day all I’m saying is that most of the time I am shooting to commission and answering a brief. So put the kettle on and pull up your website – your shop window – and take a look inside from your client’s perspective.  Unless you can afford to sit and wait for the perfect customers to come and find you.

Professional Photographer Column: January 2014

TO ENTER OR NOT TO ENTER?


I’m hopefully going to be drinking vino in Cape Town when you read this but right now I am still nursing my post PPOTY awards hangover.  It may feel a bit like old news by January but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed meeting many of the successful entrants at the awards ceremony.  The standard of work was fantastic and certainly varied in content and style but it’s fair to say I loved some of the images more than others.  I arrived home a little tender to find heated debates surrounding the Guild of Photographers monthly competition results.  Having been involved with quite a bit of competition judging over the past few months I’ve realised that the results tend to cause considerable discussion among entrants.  With the judges and judging process getting quite a lot of flack – generally concerning a lack of consistency in the results and clarity in the process .

So I wasn’t surprised to read Sean O’Hagan’s recent comment in The Guardian “Last year, I was critical of the Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize. This year I helped judge it – and now realise how tough it is to pick a winner…There were opinions. There were agendas. There were disagreements. It was tough. It was exasperating. It was emotionally and physically draining but, despite many moments of disappointment as favourite images were rejected, it was utterly rewarding. And, of course, I anticipate much scorn/derision/dismissal by the online photographic community and the general public alike. It goes with the turf and I am thickening my skin as we speak”.

At the end of the day photography is both art and science and anyone invited to judge the work of others will bring to the table their own photographic experience, expertise and preferences. Yes I am referring to the issue of taste and subjective response.  The obvious and necessary solution to this is the panel or committee approach   My experience is that fellow judges are quite passionate in their stance – whether in support or not of an image and the obvious potential outcome of this, sadly, is compromise. 

If you are considering entering a competition it may help to review your imagery by considering these 3 issues separately: technical competence, creative approach and impact.

By far the easiest of these as far as reaching a judging consensus is technical competence. At this point it is worth mentioning that when you are judging across a number of categories you have to be mindful of how challenging some shooting scenarios are – with technical issues on location far outweighing the control of studio set ups. 

I’m not going to discuss the most common technical flaws that I see in detail because it’s fairly obvious that the issues are found in areas such as exposure, focus, contrast, cropping, distortion or over processing etc.

The second issue – that of composition – shouldn’t really catch out as many people as it does either.  It’s about demonstrating an understanding and sympathy for compositional techniques that are proven to appeal to our aesthetic senses.  This goes much further than the rule of thirds so if you don’t feel confident about using colour, texture, balance, harmony etc in your work go and read one of the hundreds of books or articles published on this fascinating subject.

Where it arguably gets more interesting is when you judge the impact of an image.  You have to understand that inevitably we see the same images repeated again and again.  They may actually be exceptional in terms of the technical competence and composition but we will have seen it many times before.  The most obvious examples being well known landmarks or newborns in a studio.  In these cases the image has to be exceptional to get our attention.

Photographer (and competition judge) Lucian Perkins in a talk to the International Photographic Society in Washington DC advised that a winning photograph, “must have something that drives me further than the norm. Subtlety with complexity, and that you are compelled to study more, which grabs you.”  A competition winning image should demand your admiration and this feeling should be maintained every time you look at the image fresh.

I have found that an image that connects with me on some level emotionally will fare better than a technically perfect shot that lacks impact. Over the past half century the most accepted means of defining art in photography relates to images that evoke emotion – from a very positive, happy response to much darker negative reactions.  It is definitely worth pointing out that I also find myself (and others) scoring images with powerful lighting highly  - whether this light is naturally beautiful or created by artificial sources.

When Sean O’Hagan talked of judges needing to have thick skin the same could be said for the entrants. Don’t be disheartened if your work does not deliver the scores or prizes that you were hoping for.  I don’t really enter competitions myself because it’s a rare day that I shoot under the conditions that create images with impact, strong composition and no technical flaws.  One could argue the real judges are your clients and I know that I make them happy.  Of course what I should do is set aside some time for a 2014 personal project with the aim of creating award winning imagery…

Professional Photographer Column: 2013 Special Issue

WHAT ARE YOU WORTH?


For the first time since launching my business I actually have an answer to this question.  Shocking isn’t it.  But I am not alone – for some strange reason portrait and wedding photographers have generally shied away from actually charging appropriately for their time.

Pricing is the question I get asked about the most when I am training.   People want to know how to price themselves.  This should be a relatively straightforward question – but no – it is not.  Back in January I decided to research the UK lifestyle portrait market in order to review my pricing.  I was fairly shocked to see that 90% of my ‘competitors’ were charging between £75 and £195 for a shoot.  Sometimes this included product  - anything from one print to a disc of high res images but most of the time the idea was to upsell following the shoot. 

This is exactly the model that I was using give or take and I had issues with it.  I am not a salesperson (and I hate being sold to) so it’s really not the ideal method for me.  I also couldn’t predict an average sale with some clients spending an additional £400 and some more like £2,000.  The final invoices were not a reflection of the quality or standard of the images either – they were about the money that my clients were prepared to invest in photography.  A figure they would have had in mind when they booked me.

Regardless of the client I put the same time into my portrait shoots and sometimes an extra mile of effort if it’s a particularly tricky session.  I take the same care and attention over the post production and I use specific products because they reflect my brand values.  So why was I feeling a bit frustrated with the total sale following some shoots?  Because my pricing was not positioning me strongly enough in the market – I was basically working with some clients who could only just afford me. 

It is worth mentioning that I have had a crazy year; business is up in all areas which is fantastic but I cannot cope with the workload and am working ridiculous hours.  Clearly the only option is to put my prices up.  Whilst this sounds great the reality is that I am only just beginning to charge what I am worth.

This pricing revolution began with my weddings.  I took my Studio Manager Becky out for a well deserved lunch and then we sat with laptops and calculators for hours on end - working out exactly what it costs me to book, shoot and deliver a wedding.   The biggest change is that I am now able to say to potential clients that I am being totally transparent with my pricing and that the most important thing they are investing in is actually my time.  Which we all know is the truth because it takes a lot of effort and skill to make beautiful pictures.   Across all genres I now provide an hourly rate for shooting and an associated hourly rate for post production.  On the same ‘a la carte’ pricelist are costs for albums, prints, frames, assistants etc.  All of these get bundled into cost effective packages based on my experience of what the average client wants. 

What this means is that if you want a boudoir shoot with me ‘a la carte’ you pay for 4 hours shooting and 4 hours editing.  And then you can buy a single 10” x 8” print for all I care because you have paid me for my time.   Most clients will book a package of course but the choice is theirs.

I feel huge relief.  Being so honest with pricing is hugely liberating.  And revealing - I have already not heard back from a number of enquiries and I am FINE with that.  Others have written straight back to me and said that I am out of their budget and I am also fine with that.  I give up too many Saturdays and midweek evenings to not be paid properly for what I do.  I’m also not fazed in the slightest about what other photographers are charging because I don’t need very many clients to keep me in business – I just need the right ones.

2013 has been one hell of a year and my learning curve remains steep.  Next year must be about maintaining profitability whilst regaining some work/life balance.  All I want for Christmas?  A rest and a D4.  I doubt I’ll get either!

Professional Photographer Column: December 2013

EXIT STRATEGY ANYONE?


I sat down this evening to think about writing my column because the note in my diary with ‘deadline’ was nearly upon me.  Being the last one of the calendar year it got me thinking about the year ahead.  To be honest I rarely have time to think about the week ahead so it seemed almost indulgent to look into my future.  What did I see?  An equally tired Kate this time next year.

And the year after that and the year after that.  I am quite certain that I am not alone in not knowing what my future holds.  But this is business and not personal so that’s actually pretty appalling.  However I did once write a business plan and I’ve just unearthed it.  Under ‘Future’ it said ‘VAT registered’ (tick) and ‘fully booked with time for family particularly during school holidays’.  I clearly didn’t know then that fully booked in photography terms leaves no quality time for anything – my family, my health, my friends, my home etc.

What was missing in my ‘business plan’ was a section on the future – an outline of how long I will be doing this for and what I am planning ahead for.  Without this paragraph it looks like I am intending to shoot weddings until I die or until one of my children is stupid enough to want to take over the business (they are 8 and 6 so hardly relevant at the moment…).  What was missing was an exit strategy.

At least I can admit this lack of Business 101 in this forum – safe in the knowledge that most of us are fundamentally ‘creatives’ who have no desire to appear on The Apprentice.   My plan was clearly to work as hard as possible to build a successful business and earn enough money to support my family.    Thankfully I have achieved this but at some cost.

So – on the eve of another year I must aim to get my life back and maintain (if not increase) my income.  The latter is absolutely achievable and my new pricing structure is proving to be brilliant – I’m being paid well for my time, my clients are absolutely clear on what they will get for their investment and it’s now quite difficult for people to negotiate with me without feeling bad about it.   All good?   Yes – although I still seem to be working a long 7day week in 6 days.  I have managed to claw back Sundays but as a result I rarely get quality time on Friday nights or Saturdays and I work late most evenings.

At this point it is important to acknowledge that I have a choice. 

It turns out my greatest friend and my greatest enemy is ambition.   I subscribe to Glass magazine (which positions itself as a ‘a simple, honest, thought-provoking journal of curated modern culture’) and a recent issue explored the fascinating but ambiguous topic of ‘ambition’.   I was forcibly struck by the words of Michael Burt, a coach, when asked if it’s possible to have both a professional and personal life stated “I think it’s very difficult for the super-ambitious person.  I think you could have it all, in essence, but many successful people would tell you they have sacrificed a great many things.  There has to have been an enormous amount of collateral damage to be ultra-successful…ambitious people are never satisfied with who they are…they live in a gap, because there is a downside to ambition.  One of them is being overworked, overstressed…so many times the most ambitious people are the most frustrated people, because they live in the gap of where they are versus where they think they should be.  There will always be a gap no matter how successful you are”.

This article has helped me understand that I am partly to blame for the position I find myself in and accept that it will always be thus.

So – back to the question about the future.  Having accepted that I will strive for success in whatever I do and that there will inevitably be fall out it seems more important than ever that I have an exit strategy.  The reality is that I don’t see myself shooting weddings 10 years from now.   Hell no. 

It turns out that I’ve had an idea and it won’t go away.  It’s big and challenging and not for the faint-hearted.  I’m garnering opinions to see if it has legs.  Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t – what matters is that I’m thinking ahead.  So Merry Christmas PP lovelies.  Wrap up warm, enjoy the festivities and have a fabulously Happy New Year!

Professional Photographer Magazine: November 2013

LEARNING IS BEAUTIFUL


For the past week newly gained knowledge has been slowly percolating through my grey matter. This is because I am fresh off a 2 day training course with Sal and Taylor Cincotta.  I am a strong believer that we should all keep training in life because a positive effect of education is confidence. 

I’m hungry for knowledge in all areas relating to my photography business and it is this attitude that keeps me moving forwards.  I was very interested to hear Sal’s opinion that photography businesses rarely flatline but are generally expanding or declining.  Hmmm – think about it.

I love to watch and hear how other businesses have achieved and maintained success.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I change the way I do things – but it makes me consider whether I should!  Interestingly the first day with Sal was largely about shooting and I approached this with an open mind. 

When I train I don’t tell people to shoot like me but I explain why I have chosen to shoot manually and in spot metering mode.  Sal shoots and poses differently to me and that’s fine – we are both at peace with our style.  Probably the main gem I took away from day 1 was the reminder to take my reflector out with me on location.  And I have – on 2 weddings, 3 training 1 to 1s and a portrait shoot in just one week.  Thanks to Sal I love my reflector again and I hardly needed to touch the image (above) of my son in post as a result.

We also had some fun painting with light at about 10pm followed by large glasses of wine in the bar and muchos photography chat.  Day 2 was spent in lock down talking business and this was the part I had really signed up for.  Sal has a business background and understands the psychology of sales.  I took a lot of notes and I made decisions in that small room.  The truth of course is that we all need to take time out of our businesses and be asked leading questions. 

I have known for some time that my bottleneck is post production.  But it’s a dilemma for me because I don’t really consider you to be my competitor – rather anyone with a compact camera or iphone etc.  I believe that I need to make my images look different from something that Joe Bloggs can achieve – and I do this with glass, aperture, light, composition and post production.  I’m not talking retouching – rather toning – giving my images a softer palette than true life.

But this takes time...  However I am moving in the right direction because I am now using Pro Image Editors to do the middle stage edit of all my weddings (hallelujah – amazing) and I am working with a Lightroom lady to create ‘signature’ presets that are perfect for me.   I basically need to get the balance right between having a consistent/recognisable style and a life.  I’m not kidding.

The sharing attitude of people like Sal Cincotta, Adam Alex and Martin Middlebrook is good for the industry because I’m all about paying it forward. Every time I learn something new I pass it straight on to the people I train and mentor.  Generosity of knowledge is a good thing and I just love watching the light bulb moments when I’m training and the exhausted faces at the end of sessions.  Because you should feel saturated and have a headache but you should also feel energised and reinvigorated.  Right now I feel slightly frustrated because I really do want to make some changes to my pricing and communications but my to do list is shocking.  I’m actually really looking forward to the winter months because I should get the time and headspace that I need.

Over the next few days I shall have Creative Live on in the background because I’ve signed up for Susan Stripling’s course.  I love her work and I’m interested to hear her talk about it – there will be nuggets and I have no idea if it will be a gold rush or not.  Even if I only learn one thing – it is one thing more than I know today and it will keep my business growing and my brain active.  Natalie Portman once said “I don’t love studying.  I hate studying.  I like learning.  Learning is beautiful”.

 

Professional Photographer Column: October 2013

NOT ALL WEDDINGS ARE CREATED EQUAL


At some point during every wedding training session I ask my delegates what kind of weddings they would like to shoot and almost without exception the same type of wedding is described: featuring a relaxed, boho couple with a festival vibe and stylish, bespoke details.

And I couldn’t agree more – what’s not to love about this from a photographer’s perspective?  The sad truth I have learnt is that generally the reason these weddings are so DIY and home grown is a lack of the massive budgets required to host celebrations at the likes of Blenheim Palace or Aynhoe Park.   Whilst the photography usually matters greatly to the couple with the creative wedding they often don’t have a large amount of money to invest in imagery.

This weekend I shot my favourite wedding to date – it perfectly fits the description above and it was a pleasure from start to finish.  It genuinely did not feel like work and left me on a high which is not how I normally feel when I pack up my gear and head home to back up.

When I was trying to get established in the wedding market I organised styled shoots as a way to network and build a word of mouth referral system.  My most ambitious and favourite styled shoot was based on the theme of Lady Chatterley.  Finding the right people for the role of Constance Chatterley and Mellor’s the gamekeeper wasn’t easy, but when I saw photographs of Ash and Charlie I knew we had found them – the fact that they were a real life couple was also essential.

A few months after the shoot (which was published widely in magazines and blogs) I got a Facebook message from Charlie with the news that they were engaged and that she was interested in me capturing their wedding.   However it soon became clear that I was way out of budget and Charlie began to look locally for photographers.  About 2 months later she was back in touch saying she had done a lot of research, talked to many photographers but her and Ash both desperately wanted me to shoot their wedding.  And was I prepared to negotiate?

I asked for more information on the day and she began to tell the story of two families building a shed from the ground up to host the reception, of table tops being cut by Charlie (she’s a tree surgeon) and table legs and fire pits being cast by her metalworker brother.  Of a dress being designed by her mother and a bell tent for a bridal suite.  I didn’t need any more persuading to offer them an affordable package and the option to pay in instalments.

Back at the time of the Lady Chatterley shoot I had said to Charlie I would love to do a boudoir shoot for her and a couple of weeks before the wedding we finally pulled a plan together.  I did this for nothing because I was confident I would get amazing portfolio imagery that would help me move towards commercial lingerie work.

The day itself was incredible.  I have photographed a few weddings at the bride’s home and the workload leading up to the day is always intense and exhausting but as a result all involved live the day to the full.  The speeches were very emotional because they were full of heartfelt thanks for the incredible team effort.

Ash and Charlie wanted beautiful imagery from me.  They knew they had to give me some time and they listened to me on the day when I told them we would need to split the couple session before and after dinner to ensure the best possible chance of getting pretty backlit imagery.   They hardly needed any directing – I made small suggestions to prompt interaction and expression but then could sit back and shoot.  This is NOT normally the case and I was a bit excitable during the shoot because I knew we were getting some beautiful shots.

At about 10 they demanded I put the camera down and had a drink (they had booked me a B&B because the wedding was in Cheshire and I live in Bucks).  I put one camera away and kept one to hand which was a good move as the last song by the band was Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars and it was photographic gold and a part of a wedding story I rarely witness.

I posted a handful of the images yesterday and a blog got in touch with me immediately wanting to feature the wedding.  I already knew it was blog fodder – weddings like this are.  So what’s the moral of this story?  Blenheim Palace weddings feed my family but Ash and Charlie weddings feed my creative soul.   Once or twice a year I will forget about price tag and give the gift of photography to a deserving couple – because I get just as much back in other ways. 


 

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