I am excited to bring you a close up look at professional photographer, Laura Novak. She has built a successful photography business the past 10 years and has expanded to owning 2 portrait studios with 8 photographers. Laura is inspiring and full of helpful ideas and tips for new and experienced photographers. Please read and enjoy the interview.
Ask your questions in the comment section on my blog.
Laura will occasionally reappear and answer questions from readers. So if you have something you want to know about business, photography, or about her work and experiences, just ask…
Tell us a little about you, your family, etc…
I live in Wilmington, Delaware with my husband John and our two rescue pups Art and Gertie. We love to travel, and spend time with our families and friends. I love yoga, exercising with friends, antique shopping and cooking.
What type of photography do you do most? And what do you enjoy most and why?
I started out mainly photographing weddings, assisting a wedding photographer in college when I was living in the Boston area. After college I moved from Boston to Delaware and started my own photography business as a wedding photographer and loved all the wonderful people I met on that journey. After a few years, my wedding clients started having children and asked me to photograph their kids and this is when I absolutely fell in love with children’s portraiture. Since then, I have been photographing fewer weddings and more children – and now I book a few select weddings a year and mainly fill my calendar with families.
What is the most challenging part about being a photographer for you?
For me the most challenging part is constantly coming up with creative new ideas, products and locations that get my customers excited year after year. I’m constantly location scouting whenever I am out to find places that I think the families I photograph would like. The people who hire me have very high expectations so I am always thinking about ways that I can surpass their expectations. Just yesterday I had three pre-consultations where each client said “I’m not sure how you are going to outdo the Holiday card you made for us last year.” Talk about a challenge! I like it though, because it keeps me from getting bored creatively.
Describe your photographic style? How did you develop your style?
My style is very much inspired by the family I am photographing at that time – so I would say that my style is connected. It’s really important to me to be present during the photo sessions, to bring my heart and soul to the session and connect with my subject and tell the story of their relationships. I love to make images that tell the story of who a person is, my favorite images are often of customers I have known for a long time because I develop a relationship with the child and then communicate who they are through the photograph. I love it when a client says “wow, that is SO my child.” To me, the creative process of achieving a great image is a collaborative effort between myself and the subject.
I will say that I developed my style not by looking at other photographers’ blogs or worrying about what other people are doing. I developed my style by developing a strong relationship with my customers and talking to them over time about what best represents them photographically. My clients inspire me more than anyone else to create images that are unique and meaningful.
How many sessions do you do per month? Do you feel you want more work or are you busier than you can handle.
I photograph about 100 sessions a year, about half of which occur in the fall. That is perfect for me! I love that number – there are some people that are photographed every year and others that I will see about every other year and it’s always fantastic to catch up with a family. The children get so big so quickly, it’s thrilling when I have the opportunity to be part of a family’s legacy. The winter is a nice time to relax and enjoy a slower schedule. My associate brand, called little nest, has two retail locations, eight employees, and will photograph over 600 family portraits this year so that also keeps me very busy – providing leadership, creative direction, technical support and anything else they need help with. I love the balance between running a business with little nest portraits, as well as having a creative outlet with my own portrait sessions under laura novak photography.
Describe a typical day in the life of Laura Novak?
I usually go to yoga first thing in the morning, and then come home, hang out with my dogs and husband and answer emails while watching the news. I’ll go into the Wilmington studio around 9ish and typically have a photo session, I will select images from the previous session and transfer the editing over to our production manager. I may do some admin work, take a look at our finances (I have daily metrics I look at every day), or work on our marketing. Then I will most likely have lunch with a friend or colleague and head over to our PA little nest location in the afternoon (about a half hour away). I’ll typically answer questions and mentor the photographers over there for a while, do some errands, have any meetings or finish the day with a photo session. I love it every day.
What was your scariest moment as a photographer?
When I was photographing weddings, I once got stuck in the freight elevator bringing my gear in right as the reception was starting. That was not a fun moment! I could care less about getting stuck, but I was so scared of missing moments I was hired to photograph. The fire department came, we were freed, and the bride never found out! Oh my… I’m sure everyone who has photographed weddings has stories like that one.
What is your best photography tip?
It’s really important to me to be present during the photo sessions, to bring my heart and soul to the session and connect with my subject. Children know when you are just humoring them, or if you really care. They are very intuitive. Each time I go out, even when I’m really busy, I try to make sure that I am thinking differently about a photo that can challenge me and bring satisfaction to my creative soul. I often advise my associate photographers to shoot 90% consistent and to meet the customers expectations, and then take 10% of the photos that you are not sure if they will come out, that are risky shots to take (from an artistic perspective) and that challenge you creatively.
What is your best post processing tip?
Hire people to help! When you first start out, it’s understandable to want to do everything yourself – and I think it is an important part of the process so you can learn how to train others. Be prepared for the late hours and challenges this can bring to a personal life. But as soon as you are able to, be sure to outsource and hire help as this is the key to growing a successful company. Ask yourself, what are the jobs that can be outsourced and are those jobs really worth my time? As the business owner you should be doing the high-paying hourly jobs like photography, marketing, strategy, and sales. I think it’s helpful to have a good understanding of what is worth your time, and what is not.
The other tip is to invest is technology that will make your life easier – MCP’s actions are a great example of this. There is no reason to struggle through Photoshop or Lightroom, there are so many actions and classes to help you.
Here are some of my photos in the MCP Magic Blog It Boards.
What is your best business tip for photographers just starting a business?
Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but it’s rewarding and yields great satisfaction. There are many joyful moments, as well as stressful times, and the path can be smoothed out for yourself greatly by taking some preliminary planning steps. Before getting to far, I think it’s important to work for a variety of photographers and draw up a strong amount of working knowledge of photography as well as experience in a professional environment. It takes both professional skills, such as handling difficult situations or customer, as well as technical photography skills, to be a successful photographer. Taking a short cut in this area will create a immense amount of stress that can be avoided simply through having experience.
I really believe that the business planning step that many people skip is the most important one. After speaking and teaching to hundreds of photographers, I find that when starting a business many people want to jump right to the implementation phase of the business and then run into problems. They want to buy gear, start running ads, or twittering without any idea of who their customer is and how they want to reach them. These activities, while useful, should be the result of having a business plan but they are not a business plan in itself. Starting a business without a business plan is like going for a drive to a location you want to go without a road map (or navigation system). You may, or may not get there, but it’s a lot easier and less expensive when you have the direct route.
If used correctly, your business plan will become your guiding light as you begin your journey. Instead of stressing about questions that come up when implementing a business strategy like “what should my logo look like? Where should I advertise? What should my pricing be?,” your business plan holds the answers that are specific to your personal vision, goals, target market, and financial strategy. Most people I have talked to in my workshops (women especially) fall into the photography by accident and don’t really have a plan for what they are going to charge, how they are going to get customers, how much money it is going to take to start and when they can start taking a salary. Then they are not taken very seriously by their spouses or family and become upset or frustrated which creates conflict. It’s always best to establish expectations in advance – for yourself and everyone else in your life!
What is your best pricing tip for photographers?
Pricing is a business activity that is difficult to change once you become known within a certain range. I think a common pitfall is look around your market, and say to yourself “well treasured memories charges $1500 for a wedding, and I have less experience than them but our work looks similar so I should probably charge $1200.” When choosing that price, you are not only deciding what to charge in that moment but you are teaching your customers how to value your work – which is a longer term implication. With proper experience, training and planning, your pricing should be based on industry benchmarks of profitability and supported by strategic marketing activities that attract and retain your target customer.
What is your best business tip for established photographers?
I think one place that often trips people up is with marketing. It might be natural, when starting a business, for new photographers look and say to themselves “ok, so what works in my area marketing-wise?” Then they duplicate the look and approach of other area photographers’ marketing activities. But this is the exact opposite of what a marketing strategy proposes, as the most promising way to be successful when using a marketing plan is to differentiate yourself from your competitors while focusing on a market of people who are not currently being serviced. When people say “how do I raise my prices,?” that is how! A good plan will force you to think through those challenges before a lot of money and time is spent making marketing mistakes.
Also – Dream big. And don’t allow your current market to limit your thinking of what is possible. There will be many people who will tell you why an idea won’t work, or why your dream can’t come true. Make sure you aren’t one of them.
You have been in business for almost ten years now… What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned along the way?
When I started my business, I was very fortunate to have experienced a huge surge in interest right away. At the time I started I was offering a style and approach that was very different than what others were offering. As I experienced rapidly growing success, I was having a hard time keeping my head above water and getting everything done mistake-free. At the time there were very few offerings that expedited workflow and I underestimated the amount of assistance I would need to complete the weddings I had booked. There were many days I felt like I was letting down myself and my customers by delivering items later than I had promised, or making mistakes on print orders. After a year or so of this I had a conversation with myself (as I sometimes tend to do) about the kind of life I wanted, and what I was willing to sacrifice for my business and what I was not willing to.
I realized that I had to let go of a common business owner problem called “no one can do it as well as I can.” At this time I revamped my business plan to include pricing that would allow me to outsource and hire help, as well as began to read up on leadership so I could be the best manager I could be to my new employees. The first person I hired during this period has grown to a essential role in the success of Laura Novak Photography and since then I understood the invaluable lesson of hiring help and outsourcing tasks. I rarely work after dinnertime and weekends are very limited so I can spend time with my family.
Tell us about your businesses outside of your studio photography business? Strategy Avenue… Workshops… What was the motivation behind these?
Most photographers I have talked to women especially) fall into the photography by accident and don’t really have a plan for what they are going to charge, how they are going to get customers, how much money it is going to take to start and when they can start taking a salary. I firmly believe that if someone is talented they * need * to be charging for their time and running a strong business. Otherwise, then they are not taken very seriously by their spouses or family and become upset or frustrated which creates conflict. It’s always best to establish expectations in advance – for yourself and everyone else in your life! A business plan helps to make that happen.
I just announced a new workshop with Kimberly Wylie to take place in Dallas next February – I really love watching a photographers ‘a ha!’ moment when they realize how they can change their workflow, marketing, branding, sales or artistry to be a better photographer. Both Kim and I have many years of experience in the industry growing a photography business so we find we have lots of wisdom to share… Hopefully we can help others avoid making some of the same mistakes we did!
How can MCP readers find you? Website, blog, facebook, etc.