Why Photography Studios Should Specialize
If you are a professional photographer trying to make a go of it as a full time or even a part time career, the lesson for this post boils down to this: Find what you do best, focus on it, and eliminate the rest. You will be happier, your clients will be happier, and you will be more successful. It’s as simple as that. You really don’t even need to read on….
Seems simple right? If it was so simple I wouldn’t feel compelled to continue writing, but the truth is it’s not always that simple even though it’s really critical. Odds are you have already stumbled on jobs that were on the fringe of your expertise at best and experienced some pain. I know you have. We sure did which unfortunately is the best way to truly learn this lesson. It’s good though – it’s part of growing and learning and you may not know what you are good at and what you like if you aren’t taking risks and trying new things right? Right. Meanwhile here’s a few of the lessons we learned to qualify me to write this in the first place….
Learn From Our 3 Mistakes Trying Be “Everything” Photographers
1. We Do Not Photograph Large Events (featuring the missing brother)
So yeah…. a few years ago Ally (my wife – she’s the photographer half of our team) photographed a wedding which the client booked with us at the last minute. We met with the bride ahead of time to go over things including her list of who we needed to photograph, who was in the wedding party and so on. Ally did what she thought was a pretty good job, but the bride never mentioned that she had a brother. The brother was not in the wedding party, Ally had no idea who the brother was, and therefore there were no pictures of the brother. The client was NOT happy. Ugh. Did we learn from the events we did? Yep – and for various reasons with few exceptions we learned we don’t want to do events.
2. We’ll Pass on Passports
Our studio is not set up for passport photos – we don’t print here, there’s nothing creative about them and you don’t need to go to a real studio to get them done quickly, cheaply and effectively. We started charging $25 for passport photos which we figured would be a quick and easy $25 for those who want them from us. That’s an expensive passport photo, but we have to send them to a lab and we aren’t going to do anything for only 10 dollars. We’ve learned that we really shouldn’t be doing anything for $25 either – especially when the passport gets rejected and you have to reshoot because the Canada passport office thinks the lighting isn’t right (they accepted the wife’s photo but not the husband – shot the same day with the same lighting), or the studio name needs to be printed (not stamped) on the back etc. Ugh again. The theory of passport-as-loss-leader hoping they’ll come back for real portraits is not worth experimenting with for us. Now we just say we don’t do them.
3. Dance Studio Defeat (but this one has a better ending)
We are not equipped for sports leagues and ironically we learned this lesson photographing a dance studio – I say ironically because we are indeed photographing a couple dance studios these days. I’ll explain. The first dance studio Ally photographed (before I joined her in the business) was a big studio. They scheduled pictures the day of the dress rehearsal on location in the hall/lobby outside of the school auditorium – lots of dancers in a short period of time in an open space. Lots of parents crowding around and very chaotic. It was a very challenging and trying day and we learned first hand that for a scenario like that you have to have a big staff and a tight assembly line type of process to get it done. Not the type of job we are interested in nor are we equipped for. We now photograph one big studio and a couple small ones. The big one is across the hall from our studio in our mall so the logistics are much more favorable, and the others on location are small enough that we can handle them. We aren’t set up for high volume business as a general rule and we are fine with that.
So I would be remiss if I didn’t cover 4 lessons to learn (in order) to help you “transition” from generalist to specialist.
When a job goes bad:
1. Don’t run. When the client calls to point out the problems answer the phone, even if you have caller ID and you get that sinking feeling that you’re about to face the music. Avoiding the problem makes it worse. Every time.
2. Be honest. Take accountability for your mistakes. Think about what it’s like to be on the other end as a customer and how maddening it is when a company doesn’t accept blame for their mistake – makes you twice as mad right? The first step to recovering from a problem like this is to apologize and be genuine in your efforts to try to make it right. You may even be able to turn an angry client into a fan if you stand up and help them after you’ve made a mistake.
3. Learn from it. Duh right? But really – make notes and outline the whole scenario so you can refer to them later. You likely won’t remember everything that happened and why next time. Identify where things went wrong and what it would take to prevent them. Is it something you know you can fix? Does your skill set give you a chance to address it? If this is a segment of the business you are committed to and what you really need is just more experience then make sure you go through your whole process step by step and get some advice from online forums, professional photography organizations, other local photographers or other small business owners. Don’t make the same mistake twice.
4. Use your gut next time. This is important. This will ultimately guide you in your decision on where to focus your efforts for growing your studio. If a gig goes badly and the next time you get a call for one your gut tells you to pass, then PASS. Whether you need the business or not, PASS. Accept what you do well and what you don’t. Be the best at what you do well and people will talk about how great you are. Be less than average or flat out bad and way more people talk about how awful you are. The worst part is if you are a really good portrait photographer 90% of the time but a bad event photographer only 10% of the time your rep will still be ruined on something you don’t even do much of.
Listen, I get it. As a struggling photographer building your studio it’s very exciting when someone wants to hire you, and you certainly don’t want to turn away business. But if what looks like a short term gain results in long term damage it’s no good. At Frameable Faces we learned early on that we are at our best when we are creating a highly customized and personal experience for our clients with portrait sessions. That’s what we do best – portraits. Not events. Not high volume work.
We see photographers ALL the time who are starting out and they are trying to market themselves as a jack of ALL trades.
Jack-of-all-trades and master of none… Heck, no one is even going to believe you if you try to tell them you do everything well. Find your niche and own it. There is a great event photographer in town who we like a lot and when our clients ask us if we can photograph their wedding with 600 guests we say NO, but go see this other photographer we recommend. This builds even more trust with our clients because he always does a great job. More on the topic of networking with other photographers in an upcoming post… so stay tuned for that, and in the meantime – be a specialist! Don’t be a generalist!
Doug Cohen is a co-owner of Frameable Faces Photography with his wife Ally in the Orchard Mall in West Bloomfield, MI. Ally is the photographer and Doug handles the sales and marketing You can also find Doug personally on twitter in addition to the studio at dougcohen10. He writes for their blog and sings in a rock band called the Detroit Stimulus Package.