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I did photos for a high school senior recently who remarked that many of her friends were having their class pictures taken by one of the teachers at school. We chatted about this as I snapped away with my full-frame Nikon D750 and accompanying 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, a setup that delivers good results but often gets quite heavy and cumbersome after a long photo session.
As we walked around and continued to take pictures, she told me how much her friends liked the teacher’s photos. She said how happy they were with the results while assuring me that she was enjoying our photo session in the park.
I casually asked if she knew what kind of camera the teacher was using, and her response surprised me. Although in hindsight, I suppose I should have seen it coming a mile away. “Oh, he’s got one of those new iPhones with portrait mode,” she replied as my shoulder cramped up just a bit under the weight of my camera gear.
This story illustrates a painful truth about those of us in the photography business; we can’t think of ourselves as just photographers anymore.
Longtime photography veterans have known this for years. But for people like me who are relatively new to photography or those just starting to get serious, there are a few things we need to keep in mind if we want to pursue our hobby and eventually use it to put food on our tables or gear on our shelves.
As Liam Neeson might say, you have a very particular set of skills as a photographer. You understand lighting and composition. You know how to choose good locations, you get how colors work, and you might be proficient with off-camera flashes and external light meters. Photoshop is your domain and you know Lightroom like the back of your hand.
You probably have a decent amount of gear in your collection, built up over the years thanks to hard work, saving, and honing your craft. The thing is, your clients don’t care about any of that. They aren’t going to be impressed with your Creative Cloud membership or the fact that you have the newest full-frame camera on pre-order from B&H.
What they want are good photos. You and your skill set and gear (and your high price tag) are competing with mobile phones that in the eyes of your client can make awesome photos. So what option do you think your potential clients are going to go with when it’s time to sign on the dotted line? As technology gets more advanced and the line between professional photographer and rank amateur becomes ever blurrier with the increasing capability of mobile phones, you have to do something to differentiate yourself.
There’s a line in the movie Office Space where the manager of a kitschy all-American restaurant is trying to explain why one of his servers needs to wear what he calls “pieces of flair” on her outfit. In a moment of biting condescension, the manager explains that “People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude.”
It might seem silly, but as time marches on we photographers have to adopt the same type of work ethic if we want to survive, pick up new clients, and keep existing ones coming back time after time. Photography, whether we like it or not, has been commoditized to the point that anyone can do it and get pretty decent results. So we have to ask ourselves, what do we bring to the table that would make clients want to use our services if what they want, like the cheeseburger example, is available pretty much anywhere?
The answer to this lies in the same movie quote. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as photographers first and make our craft one of fun, excitement, engagement, and ultimately create an experience that our clients will remember.
Advertisers have known this for decades. When you see commercials for cars, clothes, or vacation getaways the focus is rarely on the items being sold but the experiences and emotions those brands attempt to create. You can’t rely on years of training or expensive gear to sell yourself as a photographer.
Instead, you have to work hard to create experiences your clients will remember for years to come and also share with others. Whether you photograph weddings, kids, families, high school seniors, or work with clients to take pictures of real estate, products, or promotional materials, you have to make the whole experience something they will appreciate, enjoy, and remember.
This might sound complicated but it’s not all that hard to do, and it often involves many simple things. For example, take time to get to know your clients and call them by their first names. If you’re saying things like, “Hey you over there with the red jacket, I need you to scoot over to your left just a bit” that person isn’t going to care how sharp your photos are or that you shot with a really expensive lens! Instead, he will be wondering why he didn’t just pay the neighbor kid $50 to shoot pictures with the Canon Rebel camera that he got on sale at Target last week.
Talk with your clients, have fun with them, play with the kids, and ask for their input. Even if you don’t use the shots, they will at least feel like their contributions were valued. And whatever happens, don’t bark out orders like you’re at a military academy.
You might be stressed after hours of shooting a wedding, but don’t let your clients see that. Smile, ask people politely to do what you need, but also don’t be afraid to take charge and direct the shoot the way you want it. People appreciate leadership and professionalism, but you can have that without being rude and obnoxious.
Just like in the movie example, people can get photos from anyone nowadays. But they come to you for the fun, excitement, enjoyable attitude, and all the other intangible elements that come together to create a photo session to remember.
When my wife and I moved from one part of the country to another, several years ago, we had to figure out all sorts of ways to integrate into our new city; where to buy a house, where to shop for groceries, what church to attend, and even mundane decisions like where to get our car repaired when it broke down. I looked through the Yellow Pages phone book (remember those?) and saw page after page of advertisements for mechanics who were Fast, Efficient, Cheap, Highly Trained, Professionally Certified, and The Best in Town. We were so overwhelmed with choices that we just asked around. Several of our friends recommended a particular place that we still go for all our auto repairs, eight years later.
When we talked to our friends about which shop to use, can you guess what they said about the one we ended up choosing? I’ll give you a hint, it had almost nothing to do with the quality of their work. Any auto shop can replace an alternator or change brake pads, but the reason so many people recommended that one particular shop had everything to do with the friendliness, attentiveness, and respectfulness of the staff.
The hard truth of the matter for those of us involved in any type of service industry such as photography is that there is no objective plumb line by which our clients can consistently gauge quality. Just like choosing an auto repair shop, your clients or potential clients would probably be happy getting their pictures taken by any number of professional or amateur photographers in your area.
How they perceive the quality of the final result won’t necessarily be judged by the sharpness of the images, the intricacies of the editing, or the price of the gear used to take said photos. Instead, they will think about the whole experience of getting their pictures taken and use that as a measuring stick by which to judge the quality of the images. It seems strange and perhaps frustrating to those of us who have spent years or decades honing our craft.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the way in which people judge quality is highly influenced by their perception of the experience.
The concept of consumer perception and its role in shaping quality has been studied by researchers for decades. In 1992 J. Joseph Cronin, Jr. and Steven A. Taylor published a paper in the Journal of Marketing in which they concluded that among other things;
The implications of this and other similar research for photographers is profound! Basically, if your clients had a good time at your photography session and were pleased with your service, they will view your photos as higher quality.
So what can you, the humble photographer, do about all this? How can you deliver high-quality results to clients who might be perfectly happy with any other photographer or mobile-phone-wielding teenager in the area?
Differentiate yourself not by the quality of your photos but by the experience you offer. In doing so, your clients will perceive their pictures as sharper, more expressive, and just plain better than others. This is true even if your photos aren’t actually as good on a technical level – which is a real kick in the head for photographers who have amassed years of knowledge, experience, and gear.
Think of the many times you have seen photos that friends and family have posted on social media or sent out in Christmas cards to which your reaction was one of shock and horror. The lighting is all wrong! The background is so distracting! Aunt Ginny is out of focus! Nevertheless, the pictures are seen by the clients as high-quality because they enjoyed the experience as a whole and received an outstanding degree of service. Photographers who can do that are the ones getting likes, shares, recommendations, and bookings.
In an interview with NPR, Tony Hseih, the founder of the online shoe retailer Zappos, described his approach to selling shoes which, ironically, had nothing at all to do with shoes. He said that as his company grew, “A big turning point was really deciding we wanted to build our brand to be about the very best customer service and customer experience.”
He really meant it, and if you visit Zappos you won’t see shoes and handbags that are cheaper than other retailers. They don’t even try to compete on price at all but by offering the best service of any clothing retailer in the market today.
Walker Information, a company that studies business marketing and consumer habits, recently released a study that predicted customer experience as being the single most important way for brands to differentiate themselves by the year 2020. And that, I would argue, is the silver lining to the clouds that can easily darken a photographer’s horizon these days.
Photography has been available to everyone ever since Kodak invented the Brownie camera in 1900, but never have cameras been so powerful, ubiquitous, or easy to use as they are now. With such a crowded marketplace in which almost anyone can take high-quality photos, (even if you might not think they can hold a candle to your high-res, ultra-sharp, professional-style shots) you have to do something to stand out from the crowd and give people a reason to hire you.
That differentiating factor is the complete customer service experience. From the moment you make the first contact with potential clients, to the photography session, to the communication afterward, and even the way in which you deliver photos all matter. (You’re not handing clients a CD-ROM with watermarked JPG files, are you?)
The trump card you have up your sleeve is that you can do the best of both worlds. You have all the skills that make you a highly capable photographer and you likely have a growing collection of cameras, lenses, and software to help you achieve outstanding results. In addition to that, you can also provide a fantastic all-encompassing photography experience that your clients will remember for years while also recommending you to their friends and family.
I actually see the onset of mobile phones and computational photography as an opportunity, not a threat, and a way for me to show others how my work really does stand out.
I started this article by mentioning a photo session for a high school senior. After I delivered her final edited pictures, what really stuck in my mind was how she and her parents talked about the experience as a whole. Her parents told me how much fun she had and expressed appreciation that I was able to bring their normally camera-shy daughter out of her shell a bit to get some gorgeous images of their daughter that they don’t normally see.
I say this to illustrate a point about the core lesson of this whole article. You are in the photography business, but in today’s world, you can no longer afford to be just a photographer. You have to be so much more.
You have to create memorable experiences for your clients, allow them to elevate the quality of your work because of those experiences, and be attentive to their needs throughout the photography process. Even though this might take a bit of work, the results will pay off in the long run and people will see with their own eyes, and hear from their friends, about why your work is a cut above the rest.