Pro Studio Basics

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Pro Studio Basics

20. The Theatre of Photography: Giving Your Clients Confidence

The following advice is specific to Australia. Most Western countries have similar structures and the broad principles are similar. However, you should consult your own advisers for specific information. 

Are the best photographers the best professional photographers? Photography and ‘professional photography' are two different things and there are many great photographers in the world who earn far less than their photography skills would suggest.

Often the reason is that professional photography is more than just photography. Professional photography requires a second set of skills that lets you package a product and sell it to people. In fact, you can produce a good, but not great, standard of photography and do extremely well if you have good business skills.

Some photographers create successful studios around a clever marketing idea or a great studio location in a busy area, but then there's another type of photographer who just exudes confidence and ability. Clients are mesmerised by his or her ability behind the camera and they absolutely love the photography.


The Theatre of Photography

Many of these photographers understand the theatre of photography. When we interview a client, when we go out on a shoot, or when we deliver our work, we are on show for our clients and in addition to good quality photography, they like to be entertained.

We are performers.

Why do we have to perform? Surely the quality of our photography will speak for itself?

Sad but true, many clients don't really know what good quality photography is! If we tell them the photographs are good, often they will believe us (and this is truer with domestic clients because generally they don't buy photography regularly, but can also be true for commercial and advertising photography, particularly with client-direct work). Many of our cients aren't educated as to what makes a good photograph and as long as the subject is in focus and correctly exposed, what more is there! More sophisticated aspects such as lighting, composition, posing and post-production aren't even considered - unless they are shown.

An advantage and a disadvantage of professional photography is that clients rarely get to compare one photographer against another. You can compare one portfolio against another, or one wedding album against another, but it is rare for a client to see the work of two photographers on the same shoot and compare it side by side. If this were possible, it would be a lot easier for us to rely on our abilities as a photographer to distinguish us from our competition.

However, the reality is that it's difficult for our clients to know if what they are looking at is the best that's possible. Instead, they rely on lots of other signals to give them a feeling of confidence and trust: they listen to what we say and guage our body language, they look at how we dress and what we drive, and importantly, they look at the equipment we use when taking the photographs.

Does this have anything to do with the quality of our work? Not necessarily, but as explained, it is how we are being judged by many of our clients.

Judging The Studio

Let's look at a different profession: law. When you hire a lawyer to represent you in court, if you win he's a hero, if you lose he wasn't very good.
Unfortunately, this isn't a very objective way to judge a barrister as there are many other issues that arise. Perhaps your case wasn't a good bet in the first place? Perhaps the judge got it wrong? Perhaps the other side paid their witnesses... I imagine there are hundreds of reasons that go into winning or losing a court case, but not having experienced a court case before, how would I know?

So how would I hire a solicitor who then hires the barrister?

I would ask friends for referrals. I would look at the laywer's offices and furniture to get an idea what I would be paying. I'd look around their walls for certificates and independent proof of their qualifications. I would pay close attention to the lawyers themselves - how they speak, how they treat me. Unfortunately, the reality is most of my assessments are not based on how well they practice law, but I'm not in a position to judge that.
It's the same for many of our clients when they hire us and as much as we'd like to educate them so they can hire us based on our superior photography, it's unlikely to happen. The successful professional photographers, consciously or unconsciously, understand this. They present themselves and their studio in a way that puts their clients at ease. They create an environment of trust.

How do we do this?

The first opportunity is in the studio. A messy, disorganised studio may be the mark of a creative mind, but it doesn't instil confidence in your clients.
The way you answer the phone, listen and respond to questions, and return messages on time all add up to the way your clients are judging you.
It's important that this part of your ‘act' is refined.

On the Shoot

A photographer I know used to shoot corporate head and shoulder portraits with a 350mm lens and a 6x7 cm camera, even though the resulting photo was only going to be 4x5 cm in the annual report. Why? Because by turning up to the shoot with such a big camera, everyone knew he must be a good photographer. Similarly when he photographed a board of directors, he'd use a view camera, not because he needed the quality, but because he got people's attention.

I had a similar experience when a crazy client of mine insisted I shoot his wedding on 4x5" sheet film. What I wasn't prepared for was the number of people at the wedding who asked for my card because, with a camera like that, I must be a really good photographer.

So, when you turn up for a shoot, does the equipment you use look the part? Even if you only need to shoot with an 8-megapixel DSLR to get the quality required, what message does this send your clients, especially if they or their husband owns a 10-megapixel camera?

It's hard for many clients to convince themselves you're worth the money when they have a better camera than you do. This is not a fair assessment, but it's one that many people make. It's not up to us to argue the point, but to fix it.

The answer may be to upgrade your equipment, but there are other solutions as well: use a lens hood on all your lenses so your equipment looks bigger; add a battery grip so the camera looks more impressive; use a tripod from time to time, along with a cable release, because the process of setting it up adds to the theatre of what we're doing; and use a light meter or an Expodisc to take a light or colour reading. It's really impressive when you do things that our clients never do with their point-and-shoot cameras.

Obviously you must know how your equipment works really well and use it quickly and efficiently. Don't be seen fussing around with your controls or clients may think you don't know what you're doing. And maybe you could download your files to a laptop and show how good the photos look - this may or may not be appropriate depending on how much post-production is required.

There are many ways to introduce a little theatre to your studio - before, during and after the shoot. Keep in mind that your clients may not be able to judge you properly, so give them a few extra clues to help them come to the right conclusion. Remember the theatre.

The information in this article is general in nature and should not replace personal advice given by your own legal and financial advisers.

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