Interview with Audrey Woulard, Professional Children’s Photographer
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview the talented and popular Chicago Children’s Photographer, Audrey Woulard. She is known for her natural light portraiture and her ultra sharp, colorful, with shallow depth of field photography. MCP Facebook Fans sent in questions and many attended this open dialog. Even though this was a text based live interview, Audrey’s charisma and passion for photographing children shined through. Both professional and hobbyist photographers will enjoy and learn from reading this transcript from our live chat.
Keep in mind, I asked questions as I received them, so the questions jump from topic to topic, and are less fluid that most interviews.
MCP Actions: What tricks do you have up your sleeve to get real smiles from kids who may not be into being photographed at that moment?
Audrey Woulard: The best trick I have found believe it or not is to try to gain the attention of your subject by limiting the people in the room. That way they can concentrate on just you. From there, I try not to have awkward silences and keep chatting away. Eventually they open up to you.
MCP Actions: How close are you usually to your subject and is cropping usually part of your post processing?
Audrey Woulard: The distance I am in relation to my subject really depends on the lens I am using. I would say on average about a foot. It really depends on what I am going for when I snap the picture. As a rule, I try not to crop a lot after the fact. I take the picture as I intend to sell it.
MCP Actions: How do you get the skin of your subjects so perfectly bright and well lit, without blowing it out?
Audrey Woulard: I use a lot of natural reflectors, and I prefer to expose for my subject and not the scene. You will notice more often than not that the background blows out, and not my subjects.
MCP Actions: What if you are in a location where you can’t find good natural reflectors (like a sidewalk or wall in the right spot to reflect light). Do you ever use reflectors or fill flash?
Audrey Woulard: Although I am not personally against fill flash or reflectors, I do not use them for my work at all. I have always been successful finding light. Even if the light doesn’t match the core body of my work.
MCP Actions: You have said that you can get good images with high ISO’s if you know how to expose properly. So what’s the trick? What exposure tips can you give us?
Audrey Woulard: That is a hard question to answer with text. I will say in these instances, when using a digital camera, that you will need to use your eye, or histogram to expose. The in camera meter in your digital camera is usually off about a stop or two, and that tends to confuse people at time.
MCP Actions: Do you spot meter? Could you explain how to spot metering, and how/when to use it?
Audrey Woulard: I spot meter yes. I move my focal points around when shooting so when I am using spot meter, I am telling my camera exactly where I want to expose which is using the focal point to measure.
MCP Actions: How do you get such strong pop, clarity, contrast without looking too photoshopped? How on earth do you get such vivid colors SOOC?
Audrey Woulard: I shoot Jpeg. because of that, I can change in camera parameters to achieve the look I am going for. With that said, when shooting jpeg, one should be really sure of what their outcome will be. IF you’re not sure, changing the in camera parameters coupled with a poorly exposed image can result in, well crap! Its really best to shoot RAW when you are not 100% sure of your output. When shooting RAW the in camera parameters will not register on your image. So in those instances you can shoot RAW and use a Photoshop action for the colorful images. I know Jodi’s MCP Actions have quite a few that will help one achieve that result!
MCP Actions: Tell us about your post processing. Do you do anything in post processing?
Audrey Woulard: My post processing is really simple, it depends on the image. I will always adjust my levels to taste and then add contrast back…and depend on the image. I will burn some detail. I work on each individual image. I’m old school!
MCP Actions: I am hoping you will write a full article on this next question someone submitted but for now can you touch briefly on FOCUS? How do you get that dead-on sharp focus you are known for?
Audrey Woulard: Because I shoot very wide open, It tends to make the sharper parts of the images appear very sharp. I tend to keep my arms very close to my body coupled with the fact that I like wide open space in front, and behind my subjects so that they can “pop” a bit.
MCP Actions: How wide do you usually shoot? for one person? for two people? for a family? for a large group?
Audrey Woulard: As a quirk of mine, I always shoot at F/1.6. unless there is a lighting instance where I can’t, such as the beach, or a VERY sunny area.
MCP Actions: You shoot 1.6 even for groups?
Audrey Woulard: With groups, I like to keep them on the same plane. For me it works with my style. For others… staying on the same plane might be boring. In those instances you definitely need to stop down. When closing up your aperture (or using a higher aperture) you can still achieve nice shallow DOF. I do shoot groups with a 1.6 aperture.
MCP Actions: How can I reduce the noise in my photos when taking pictures in low light?
Audrey Woulard: That’s a two fold question I believe.
a.) Certain cameras just do not have the capability to handle high ISOs unfortunately, and regardless of how you expose, you will still get noise
b.) With a camera that can handle high ISOs, you must expose properly. With proper exposure, the noise is GREATLY reduced!
MCP Actions: Can you tell us about your workshops? How do they work? What information do you teach? Can you give a workshop spot away on the MCP Blog sometime?
Audrey Woulard: With workshops I cover natural light on Day One, then I upload the pictures that I have captured that day, and post process them. We work indoors, and outdoors. Weather permitting. On Day Two I discuss business, marketing, etc. There isn’t a requirement on how long, or if one should be in business, I like working with newer photographers. But, you don’t have to “unfix” things! I will definitely give away a spot on MCP!
MCP Actions: Well we will have to chat and get that arranged. I am sure many here would LOVE to attend your workshop. And even more so win one.
MCP Actions: What are your most common camera settings for newborns and infant photography?
Audrey Woulard: I don’t have a common camera setting because the light really determines the settings I use. With moving children, I like to use an ISO400 then I only have to “mentally” worry about my shutter. Plus I still have complete control over my camera because I am shooting manual.
MCP Actions: Do you ever offer digital options, like CD/DVD to your portrait clients? How much do you charge for these options if so?
Audrey Woulard: No. I don’t offer digital options really. I have made some exceptions for really good clients that have spent quite a lot. I do have a digital package for a newborn and baby for $2,500 I think? But that is the only thing I offer digitally to the masses. I prefer to be a full service studio.
MCP Actions: What type of in camera settings are you using? We know you said you shoot jpg, but what actual tweaks do you do in camera?
Audrey Woulard: I shoot Nikon, so I use the “vivid” setting. There isn’t a setting like that in Canon, but you are able to tweak some settings that will give you a bit of that look. I’m not sure what they are!
MCP Actions: How many years were you in business before you found “your” style and knew your focus was going to be working with children?
Audrey Woulard: In the beginning, I was an all Black and White shooter. The kids wore white pillow case dresses, or the boys had white shirts and khakis. After about 2 years, I realized I was bored, and didn’t like the look. I simply wanted to do something different than what the masses were doing. That was when I found my style about 2 years into it. I always knew from the beginning that I would work with children.
MCP Actions: What are your sales averages per portrait session and how do you guide your clients to consistently purchase at that level?
Audrey Woulard: My average sale is over $2,000. I don’t offer a lot of products, and I try my best to present images that clients simply can’t do without and they MUST purchase them. I only sell ala carte images and not packages, so that helps as well. Its hard to really crack into that part of it during a quick chat, but keep in mind that my clientele is high end so they are expecting to spend my average or more.
MCP Actions: What do you sell the most of? Have your sales changed the past few years because of the economy?
Audrey Woulard: I sell a lot of albums, and of course pictures. That is all I offer, so that makes it easy! My sales haven’t changed due to the economy. What did change about a year ago was the number of cold calls. Meaning clients who weren’t referred, but that picked back up last year. I have a very loyal client base so that helped keep things afloat in ’09.
MCP Actions: How many sessions do you do per week or month?
Audrey Woulard: I scaled back last year to 4 a week. Now that my kids are in school full time, I have found myself booking on Thursdays and Fridays which were my off days. On average I am at about 4-5 a week.
MCP Actions: What were your greatest mistakes as a photographer? Greatest successes as a photographer?
Audrey Woulard: Good question!
Some of my biggest mistakes were copying other photographers. I did that a LOT in the beginning. I used to think I was Alycia Alvarez, or Lori Nordstrom. Doing that made it hard to find myself, and in turn had me questioning things that I liked. I was unable to find me because I was too busy chasing another photographers every move. Once I got into businesses, I made a mistake of trying to offer every product out there, cards, purses, jewelry, boxes. As photographers we are such visual creatures that we tend to LOVE looking at all the stuff that is available. When I had all that stuff listed on my website it was so cluttered, that it made it hard for new clients to focus on what was important. My images.
A success was putting in money for my own good website. At the time that was a template but it was still much nicer than what I had. A professional designed logo, all of those minor things really add to the perception of your business and you don’t want to go cheap on those. Deciding to specialize was a HUGE success and I didn’t know that it would be at the time. By specializing, I instantly become the expert to the client. Investing in good lenses was another success. Using cheap lenses was a failure. And quite honestly “and no, I wasn’t paid to say this, she doesn’t know it either” a great success is having forums such as MCP live. It’s really good to bounce ideas off of other photographers as long as you know not to compare yourself to others and instead use it as a springboard to find yourself.
MCP Actions: Speaking of lenses, what lens is your go to lens. What other favorites do you have? And what camera bodies do you use?
Audrey Woulard: My favorite lens is an 85mm 1.4. That is probably my go to lens. Keep in mind, that I usually have enough room to use this focal length properly. Outside of that, I love my 50mm 1.4, 28mm 1.4. I have D700, D300, D200, and D2Xs. All Nikon.
MCP Actions: Have you every shot Canon?
Audrey Woulard: I only shoot Canon at workshops! I use the participants cameras when I need to troubleshoot something.
MCP Actions: Which Canon lens is your favorite? Why do you favor Nikon?
Audrey Woulard: I like that 50mm 1.2 on the 5D and up! Its sweet! Nikon feels better in my hands really and I think (don’t shoot me Canon shooters!) the lenses are sharper. (ducks from the stones!!!)
MCP Actions: Love that lens too! And the 85 1.2. I shoot Canon – but… No worries.
Audrey Woulard: :::whew:::
MCP Actions: How much wardrobe coaching do you do? The kids in your work are always dressed adorably. How do you make that happen?
Audrey Woulard: I don’t wardrobe coach a lot believe it or not. You can really tell when you look at pictures where the photographers wardrobe coached because the kids are OVER-STYLED and the clothes all look the same. I prefer to tell them to keep it casual. If the parents keep it casual, and have a lot of them on hand I can go in and piece things together. By doing that I can keep the clothing special to the client, and my pictures don’t all look the same. Plus the kids look comfy. So it is a win-win. Im not a fan of the over-styled kids pictures. I find clients purchase more when the images contain clothes they own. I have had parents say “I would have never thought to put that together!” Then they love the image even more!
MCP Actions: So many photographers cannot make it a full time business. They often feel competition is too great or their area too poor, etc. You are earning a nice 6-figure income. Any advice for those of us just starting out who want to make this our job and not just as a side gig?
Audrey Woulard: Its important to be a realist when it comes to business. I think the term “high-end” has really overused a lot due to the internet. If one lives in an area of just 200 people, their high end isn’t going to be my definition of high end. But that doesn’t make that photographer who lives in a small town any less high end than me. With that said, it’s also important to know that NO ONE starts out being booked with clients to capacity. It took me about 3 years to really declare myself “full time” The internet has really drawn so many Photographers closer, which is great, but we must never lose sight of reality! If you start slowly. Build your perception properly. By the time your name has made its rounds, you will have the proper pricing put in place, your images will display your vision, and you can move forward to making photography your job. Get your name out there as much as you can. If you need to do something for free, do so, but do it in the name of a program such as a silent auction.etc. Never cheapen your work, but if you must give something away make it for a reason.
MCP Actions: What sets you apart from your competition? Do you worry about competition?
Audrey Woulard: No. I don’t worry about competition. Easier said than done right? What sets me apart is me. No one can be me. It isn’t about a prop, an action, a style of clothing, a studio, etc that sets me apart. It’s the way that I relate to my subjects and clients coupled with the fact that I can deliver the prints they love. That is what sets me apart. My personality can’t be duplicated.
MCP Actions: How do you balance your friendship with other photographers? Local? and across the globe? Has it ever hurt you or does it help you – being friends with photographers?
Audrey Woulard: That’s a tough subject for me. I have a few very, very close photographer friends. Those that have personally met me know I would give them the world and then some that have never met me, but have just heard of me, tend to think I am mean. Which is sad sometimes. BUT I can’t do anything about that. I have a few local photographer friends, but not many and that isn’t by my doing.
MCP Actions: What lenses and camera would you recommend for someone who is just starting out and does not have the funds for professional lenses & bodies? Which do you feel is more important, good lens or camera?
Audrey Woulard: A decent prime lens is a must in my opinion. One can never, ever go wrong with a 50mm 1.8 lens on any camera body. For Nikon, if one can swing a D90, that will last you for a bit until you find your getting more clients which is bringing you into situations where you need to upgrade. With Canon, a 50D is great, is there a 60D now? I’m not a fan of the Rebel. At every workshop I have Rebel shooters struggle, struggle, and struggle.
MCP Actions: How do you deal with harsh sun on those bright , sunny days? What time of day do you usually shoot?
Audrey Woulard: Harsh sun. This will be hard to explain in text but bear with me! I have the subject’s back to the sun and I am facing the sun. I have to make sure that there is NOTHING behind me, anything behind me will cause the face to be underexposed. And yes, even a parent behind you can aid in that underexposure. If you can remember those rules you can tackle harsh sun. For me, I don’t mind it because I make sure my position is good. Also a camera that has the capability to dial up to a 1/8000 shutter helps GREATLY. In regards to the times of day I like to shoot, I book 10:30-2pm because I prefer to shoot when my kids are in school. I don’t have a favorite time of day in relation to the light. I just have a favorite time of day to shoot so that my kids don’t ask “Where is mom!??!?”
MCP Actions: How long does it take for you to narrow down a session and then edit the images?
Audrey Woulard: If I am not on the internet I can edit in an hour. If I am on the net it takes me about a day. For example, the session I have open in Photoshop now, has taken me 4 days. I don’t spend a lot of time mulling over an image. I pick my favorites and move on.
MCP Actions: How do you keep your files organized and backed up on your computer?
Audrey Woulard: I have a ton of external drives! I back up on the external, then DVD, than I upload to Mozy.com. I keep two drives attached to my computer of sessions that I have worked on over the past 6 months. The rest are archived away.
MCP Actions: Tell us about your rubber chicken?
Audrey Woulard: LOL!!!! I know who asked that… Ok, at a workshop they asked how I keep the attention of kids. I said my usual “oh… well I just talk!” Well one participant pulled out this chicken. I looked at her like.. “Um.. that thing isn’t going to work!” She looked at me like “Umm… yes it will” So the kids come for the workshop and I kid you not, this chicken was the hit of the workshop. After the workshop the parents were emailing asking where they could find this darn chicken. She was so kind to send me my OWN chicken. I brought this chicken home and my kids lost their minds even the dog wanted the darn chicken. It was just a plain ol’ rubber chicken, but it has kids hooked. I’m now a believer!
MCP Actions: How much sharpening do you do? What do you do to the eyes in post processing – or is that sharpness and vividness all in camera?
Audrey Woulard: I just do a regular unsharp mask. No selective sharpening, eyes are the result of good light!
MCP Actions: How many images do you show the client? And how many do you take in a typical photo shoot?
Audrey Woulard: I guarantee 40 images, but I have shown up to 120 before. I use small cards. My 2gig card holds just 187 and if that card fills then I am done with the session. Big cards aid in overshooting!
MCP Actions: What tips do you have for finding the best lighting? Do you have any recommended readings or just to get out there and practice?
Audrey Woulard: Catchlights are always the tell tale sign that you have good lighting. If you have a 4yr old and up take them along with you as you look for light. Then look into their eyes to judge. That gives you time to gain the child’s trust as well. If you are photographing a baby.. you will have to use mom. You can always SEE the light on the face before you shoot. You can see blown images on the faces or clothes before you snap the shutter. Look for those basic signs, and that will get you in the right direction. I’m more of a get out and practice type of girl, but I know that book by Bryan Peterson.. Finding Exposure or something like that is good?
MCP Actions: How do you get those incredible whites backgrounds when photographing inside?
Audrey Woulard: Most of those are in my studio. I have white walls, and a FAB white floor. The both just bounce light right off of each other so when I expose for the subject, the floor, and wall blow out.
MCP Actions: How did you break into commercial photography? Can you tell us more about your commercial work? What is it like? Do you enjoy commercial photography or portrait photography more?
Audrey Woulard: Real commercial work seems glamorous but it is far from it. You loose a LOT of control. I got into because ad executives heard of me and they just contacted me directly. I tend to focus on commercial work which are ad campaigns, and not editorial work which are magazines..etc. With commercial work, they give you a production book on what they are looking for and want to achieve. You are usually going for just 4-5 perfect images. However, it takes literally a WEEK to get those. They have people who are set up to make sure everything is perfect. I even had a digital tech person who changes my ISO and other camera settings for me directly from his computer. I love portrait work more, but I like the money in commercial ad campaigns.
MCP Actions: What is your favorite commercial job? Which are you most proud of?
Audrey Woulard: I only do a few, it is not worth it for me to do smaller commercial assignments. So I tend to do maybe 1-2 a year. My favorite will always be Pottery Barn. We all just got along so well, and they just let me do my thing. I am most proud of my recent IAM’s campaign. It was VERY corporate, but when they all sent me messages saying working with me was the first time they had fun, well that meant a lot. If you all could imaging how corporate it was. I was on conference calls with Proctor and Gamble in a room full of 4-5 different ad agencies and I had to tell them how I was going to make the campaign a success. Can you say pressure?
MCP Actions: If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Audrey Woulard: I would photograph Gwen Stefani and her and her family. Why? They are right up my alley!
MCP Actions: After all the photography you do, how often do you shoot your own family? Do you ever hire someone to do family portraits of your family?
Audrey Woulard: I actually just photographed my boys a few weeks ago! I was telling my husband how funny that one of my favorite images from 2010 happened to be of my own boys. I did hire out a few years ago, but I decided to do it myself this past December.
MCP Actions: Who is part of your team? Do you have a staff? What parts of your photography and business do yourself vs outsource?
Audrey Woulard: I hire college interns when things are very busy. I am a firm believer that one must be able to physically do all aspects of your job unless you are able to hire a HUGE staff. I have 2 assistants that come in towards the end of summer. They handle more admin types of things. Calls, emails, client galleries, shipping and packing. My clients tend to talk to me, I don’t like to appear “untouchable”. That I believe is a huge part of my brand.
MCP Actions: What photographers do you admire most and why?
- Trish Reda www.trishreda.com Trish is such a fabolous BW photographer who is the poster child of believing in herself and her work.
- Tara Whitney www.tarawhitney.com We are so similiar it’s crazy. She photographed my family a few years ago. My youngest tends to hate everyone, but she cracked his silence code very early!!
- Carrie Sandoval www.capturedbycarrie.com We were friends before this whole photography thing, and she was a key person in helping me identify my brand. Because she knew me as a person, she was able to help bring it to the forefront. She has designed all my logos.
- Lori Nordstrom is another person who I admire and is a key person in helping me find my voice www.lorinordstrom.com
MCP Actions: Thank you so much Audrey! I know everyone loved learning from you today. I appreciate you not only taking the time to share with us, but also the fact that you were so open and helpful to everyone. Any parting words?
Audrey Woulard: Thanks so much for having me, and if I can say anything to anyone it will always be… “Believe in yourself!!!”
MCP Actions: Again – THANK YOU from all of us. I hope you will find the time to guest blog and share more with my audience. They love your work and your spirit!
Audrey Woulard: I will post something on your blog for sure along with a workshop spot! Thank you so much Jodi!!!