New Zealand photographer Simon Woolf is well-known by many photographers around the world. An active professional himself, he is a stalwart supporter of our industry and was instrumental in hosting Wellington's FotoFest extravaganza seven years ago. The lesson I learnt from Simon is to be involved, whether it is with your family, your profession or your local community. Involvement pays big dividends.
Simon's studio was begun in 1934 by Spencer Digby, a high profile photographer in New Zealand, and Simon's father Ron took over the business in 1959. Ron Woolf was one of the country's premier photographers in a number of fields, who passed away in a helicopter accident in 1987 while out on an assignment photographing development sites.
It's rare for a photography business to prosper for such a long stretch and Simon and his family certainly intend to keep it going - even with some major changes. He recently closed his wet darkroom and is now well entrenched in a digital workflow and sees the use of specific software and the internet as being a great opportunity too.
Photography By Woolf is located in the central business district of Wellington, New Zealand's second largest city. His mother Inge still works in the business handling the accounting, compliance and wages, his sister Deborah is a lawyer who works in the business fulltime and handles marketing, human resources, PR and naturally all the legal areas of the business including copyright and intellectual property (which must be pretty handy). In all they have a team of seven studio helpers, but it is Simon who predominantly takes the photographs.
Outside his family and business, photography is still his passion, but not exclusively. Simon is a soccer fanatic and first grade referee and he believes this fitness prepares him physically and mentally for his wedding and portrait work.
"A lot of the photography we do is very literal. I'm employed to record history and so it's not always appropriate to be shooting things in an artistic way. We have to keep what we shoot in perspective for the next generation." This isn't to say Simon doesn't enjoy shooting creative work, rather he'll be sure he gets the historical record first before he tries anything else.
Many wedding and portrait photographers wonder how they can expand their client base and the answer is always ‘marketing'. For Simon, the most effective marketing seems to stem from his simple philosophy of being involved in his local community.
Simon is one of the most giving photographers I have met. He always has a smile, a compliment and asks after your family. He has the happy knack of being able to relate to people of all backgrounds, from Prime Ministers to young sport stars. And he enjoys meeting people.
"Our family is totally consumed by our community. I'm on a couple of public trusts, my mum has received awards from the Queen for her work in areas of health and community, and my sister is actively involved (in fact so much so I wonder how she does it).
"Funnily enough, I'm on the Carols By Candlelight Trust, even though I'm Jewish! However, it's a pure event - attracting 27 thousand people last year - and so I thought why not?" And that's potentially 27 thousand people who may hear of Simon's name, not that this is the reason he does community work. The point to note is that he is genuine in what he does and why he does it. However, there's not a doubt that being involved with his community gets his name around and that's a great form of marketing.
"I think it's vitally important to be involved in your community, but you need to back this up with the usual types of advertising. Magazines are essential for our wedding photography business and we also have contra arrangements for newspaper and radio advertising." Since Simon is not just a wedding and portrait photographer, but shoots all types of work, he has turned small commercial jobs into a much better result by swapping it for advertising.
"We love Wellington, so it's not hard to be involved. We're always photographing community events, whether they're radio stunts, sports events or street parades.
"When it comes to building your profile, it doesn't hurt to be seen as the expert in your field. I judge a lot of photography competitions outside of the profession, we do workshops for people and write articles for magazines and newspapers with good circulations. I get out and meet people, whether it's Rotary, Lions or the local chamber of commerce."
Simon's Photography By Woolf logo appears on all his stationery, advertising, emails and the web. He supplies newspapers with images in return for a byline and works closely with a number of wedding venues, providing them with photography for their own advertising and in return receiving a steady flow of referrals. "We even provide the wedding venues with point-of-sale material, such as albums, framed prints or posters, and our logo is always clearly visible.
"I think return clients and referrals are the most important part of our business and the best way to get returns and referrals is to give each client an awesome experience." This is done in various ways, a good example being a multi-media presentation at the wedding breakfast. It has a big impact on both Simon's clients and their guests.
Of course, returns and referrals don't just happen. Simon has an extensive data base which is used to follow up clients with gentle reminders and prompts. "I think it's good to use new technology simply and wisely."
Being a professional is more than just taking good photographs. It's very much about building and maintaining relationships. "We send out cards to our clients on all sorts of occasions, whether births, marriages or a special event. And if I win an award or have an exhibition, media releases are sent out to local publications. These often work best when they come from a third party.
"We are also keen to help sponsor charities, perhaps by doing some promotional photography. This can work really well with big events because our logo is there right alongside some very large companies."
This is what marketing is all about - lots of small things that build up into a strong image. Many new photographers are looking for a quick campaign that generates instant success and riches, but Simon would tell them it rarely happens that way. The majority of successful studios are built up over time with a consistent marketing approach.
"We have an interesting climate for weddings", Simon acknowledged. "Last year there were only three wedding days that were reasonable for photography. For the rest of the time we dealt with gales, floods and storms! However, that's our job and we have to cope with all contingencies.
"I think wedding photographers are a relaxant, in the nicest possible way. We're there to ensure the day runs smoothly and this includes people management. I can remember at one wedding a mother and step-mother were screeching at each other, so I took it as my job to take them aside and gently point them in the right direction.
"On another occasion, the bride's mother had a brain haemorage in the church just before the ceremony. Everyone pitched in so the bride and groom didn't know until after the ceremony and later I took a small multimedia presentation up to the hospital to show the mother. I think there are times when it is important to go the extra mile."
Simon says many couples are interested in DVDs and multi-media productions, but he hestitates to release his digital files. "Once you start releasing your source material, the images can be used in any way, shape or form and if it's not done properly, it can adversely affect your reputation. Our negative files go back to 1934 and often clients will come back many years later because photographs or albums have been lost or destroyed. We've replaced quite a lot of work through insurance claims, but we couldn't do this unless we maintained our negatives and files.
"I also find we're doing quite well from people who have had another photographer shoot their wedding, but only received a DVD. We do very nicely putting the album together for them - I really can't see why you'd want to hand over the original images."