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3 Things I learned from a Rock Star about The Business of Portrait Photography


Ingrid Michaelson is a singer; I’m not.

She is young, pretty, hip, funny, talented and sings like a extra dirty and extra cold martini on a hot day – smooth  with just the right amount of earth.

No, no, no, I’d like to think so, my mom thinks so and yes I will.

We, Ally, my 17 year old daughter, and I, went to her concert at the Wiltern Theatre on Friday. For a dad, I”m semi-cool like that. 

The band, like most bands, had a lot of stuff: chords, amps, stands,  instruments, guitars lined up according their size, like children waiting for orders on clean up day. It wasn’t U2 at Anaheim Stadium but you would not want to walk that Wiltern Theatre stage in the dark.

The concert started with the band, Ingrid and her 5 bandmates. The music was loud, not Black Sabbath loud, but amped loud with drums and guitars, a little of this, a little more of that. It was fun. The pit was bumping.

Then, the band left; it was just Ingrid and a simple piano, the kind you might have in your home, the one that nobody plays.

Then she hit the first notes of Presley’s Can’t Stop Falling In Love. Everything changed.

Goosebumps had goosebumps. iPhones fired up. This had to get posted. 

She then followed that with “Ghost”. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but you felt alive.

You were connected. You were part of something special, connected with her voice, connected with the person next to you, connected to strangers.

This is what I learned:

Lesson #1 – People will pay for connection; it’s what’s missing in their lives.

Rock stars make money because they connect. It’s not the music; it’s the connection. It’s making people feel alive, that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. The music is just a way to connect.

Yes, your work is important. Getter better is important. Connection is more important. It’s what you will remember; it’s what your clients will remember. It’s why your clients will come back. It’s why you’re here.

Beautiful work is just a path to the real, lasting goal of connection.

Here is the bad news. If you’re starting  or running a portrait photography business, you’re creating and selling connection. It’s not about the camera; it’s not about your work; it’s not about radio poppers and ttl flash (cool as those are); it’s about your ability to connect with people when you have a camera in your hands.

Your clients are not paying for an 11×14, an 8×10 or a 30×40; they are paying for a symbol of their connection.

Lesson #2 – Most businesses want to be rock band; you might want to be a coffee shop crooner.

Ingrid connected with the audience when she became vulnerable. It was just her, that martini voice and a piano. No pretences. Nothing to hide behind. No fluff. No amps. No costumes.

Do you have extra fluff? Are you hiding behind being professional, being a beginner, being a veteran, beautiful light, a beautiful background… If it was just you, a camera, a 50 mm 1.4 lens and a family of four, could you be vulnerable enough to create an atmosphere of intimacy. Would your images make your goosebumps have goosebumps?

Lesson #3 – You can start now.

You don’t need another lens, a better camera or another radio popper. You don’t need to be better. You just need to put yourselves out there.

Rock stars start somewhere, probably playing for mom or dad. Next, they take over the garage, then a coffee shop or a dive bar on a Tuesday night.

Photograph your kids; Kids are good because you don’t have to pay them and they don’t expect a free 8×10. Next, ask the neighbours. Have them over for a barbeque, give them a glass of wine or two and then ask to photograph their family. They won’t say no. If they do, don’t invite them over again.

It won’t be easy. Putting yourself out there is tough. Being vulnerable is hard.

Nobody said being a rock star was easy but the connections are worth it.

Michael Adams has been a portrait photographer for 25 years. With the growing need for DSLR education and photography business education, he started mamarazziworkshops.com and beaphotographer.biz recently.

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