Monday, October 17, 2011

The Most Common Photographer Marketing Mistake

I am frequently asked to review photographer’s web sites. I always tell them that they should ask me with caution. I’ll tell you what I think. If you don’t want to hear don’t ask. Pretty simple. It’s a funny thing, but most photographers whose sites I review are actually pretty good. However, there is one big mistake that many make and it’s a simple and obvious one. Luckily its also easy to fix.

Your hero galleries suck.

OK. What is the hero gallery? It is the primary gallery or slideshow that loads on the home page. Common mistakes are too many images, too old images, images that aren’t that great, images that are too large or too small, images of irrelevant people, too many images of obvious models, etc. You’ve all seen them.

It matters. Here’s why. Almost anyone who is interested in your business will start their research on your web site. (read that carefully - I did not say, ‘on your blog’). Why? Because your web site IS your business online. Most consumers will only visit the blog after they’ve thoroughly reviewed the site. I’ve said it before but it’s a good rule of thumb, your web site is your living room and your blog is your family room. Important new visitors all go to the living room first.

When potential clients reach your site you want to greet them with the best possible message. Photographers spend an enormous amount of time figuring out every detail of the way their sites are organized. Colors, branding, text, type style, positioning, content allocation, everything gets viewed and reviewed almost ad infinitum. In many cases though the hero gallery is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. It is the single most important element on your site.

Most consumers will actually sit through the whole slideshow before clicking through to a page. If it is their first visit (the most important one!) they have come to see your images. You want your very best right up front. Your VERY best. You also want to make sure that slideshow speaks for you. Here are some good rules to go by.

  1. You want your slideshow to draw people into your site, not overwhelm them.
  2. Stick to between 10 and 15 images, max.
  3. Make sure the very first image strongly represents the people you most like to shoot.
  4. Images of women should predominantly be beautiful.
  5. Images of men should predominantly be fun. (I’ll get into why in a minute).
  6. It is OK to intermingle genres so long as they’re in the same vane. (IE wedding and portrait). (Oh - I know I know - this is heresy. Consumers are evidently too stupid to figure out that you might shoot more than one kind of photography so you need separate sites and brands for each one ... OR ... these rules were made up by people who sell sites and branding and they just want you to buy more - you choose)....
  7. Images should not live on your home page for more than 6 months. (they should be fresh).
  8. Images should tell a story about your style and your business.

OK - A few examples.

If I were a wedding photographer my image order would be as follows: (Yes. Just one image for each number!)

  1. Bride Beautiful. The bride is your key decision maker and her biggest question is whether you will make her look beautiful. This should be your best picture of a bride, period, and she better be beautiful!
  2. Groom Fun. The bride cares about beautiful. The groom cares about whether you are going to be a pain in the ass. (sorry - business term there). The bride is worried about what her man is going to think too, so this image is communicating with both of them.
  3. Parents, emotion. Once the bride and groom are comfortable you want to talk with the person who is going to pay the bills. Parents want to be sure that you will capture the important moments of the day. A great image in this category is the Father/Daughter dance.
  4. A great group shot. No one likes to take them. Some photographers are lucky enough to have businesses that don’t require them. However, if there is any question, it’s a great idea to have a great group shot in the hero gallery. It shows your versatility as a photographer.
  5. A great shot of the whole wedding.
  6. A great detail shot.
  7. A great venue shot. (of the venue you most love to shoot in).
  8. A great reception shot.
  9. A great leaving shot.
  10. A great, the parents at the end of the evening, shot.

That’s it. 10 Pictures. Once they’ve seen them I want them to jump in to my more specific galleries. Every one of these images should be gallery quality beautiful. Tack sharp where they’re sharp, soft and sweet where bokeh rules. Perfect whites and balance and perfect framing. Nothing is thrown in just so it’s there.

The other galleries should be arranged in the same way. Never more or less than 10 images. Just enough to give people a taste of what you are communicating.

For portrait shooters I’d actually think the same way. A great hero/anchor image of the person who is the archetype for the clients I most like to shoot. A great shot of my client laughing and a great shot of an important moment. Then I would think about studio, indoors and outdoors. Show the range of light and your command of different textures. Make sure every single image absolutely rocks. Change them out at least every six months.

I think the most common mistake is simply too many pictures. Many times we’re the worst curators of our own work. You want your images to speak to the viewer about your skill, capabilities, style and vision. That will communicate more clearly with them than perhaps any other element on the site.

“Advanced Reading...”

If it were me and I was in this business, I would have printed and mounted copies of each of the first five images with me when I meet with my clients. I would actually hand them the images and tell them the story of the people in the images. These would be signed prints, not an i-device. That’s because the kind of client I would want to attract would be a client who values the art of photography. I would want to make sure they understood that I was an artist who make perfect brushstrokes of their special moments. The stories of the people in the images will remind them of the galleries they’ve already visited and provides an important touchpoint in which I make clear my ability to connect with my clients not just through my lens, but in a personal way as well. (Again, because these are the kinds of clients I would want to serve)...

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Embracing Change. Still waters are dead waters...

Still Water is Dead Water ...

We all fear change. Even those who embrace change do so with a kind of devil-may-care perspective that suggests they conquer natural fear rather than find themselves impervious to it. Change takes us from what is known to what it unknown. It is natural to want to resist it.

The challenge this creates is that change is a hallmark of life. In a very real sense, if we stop changing we die. In fact, the healthiest people, and the healthiest organizations actually seek out ways to change. They understand that all things are in a continuous evolutionary process and that the best way to succeed over the long haul is by not simply embracing change, but by planning for and strategically executing change as a fundamental element of the lives we lead.

So what? I think it is interesting that most businesses that fail fail because they fail to change. The marketplace moves on. Whether we like it or not, consumer preferences change. The most successful businesses anticipate change and work to stay ahead. Some stunningly successful businesses do a phenomenal job of simply following. The businesses that die are the ones that believe that just because this year was successful next year will be too. They are the businesses that think that this year’s accolades automatically translate to next year’s success. And - they are the ones who criticize the changing marketplace (usually because they understand that the change they see means they’re already behind, the world has moved on without them.)

Here’s the challenge of this post for anyone who wants to take it up... What will be different about your business next year than this year? What new product will you launch? What new market will you enter? What new technique will you try? If you listen well to your customers they will take you there. They’ll tell you what they want. Be smart about it. Putting things in a well defined, “idea” bucket and letting them succeed or fail based on customer demand is a good idea. Putting all of your eggs behind the new initiative is a bad idea.

But here’s the other idea. Change isn’t always adding something. Change is sometimes taking something away. A restaurant I know well has this challenge. They’ve been really hurt by the economy. They’re hanging in there, but barely. I talked to the owner a while ago and asked him why he continues to offer so broad a menu. I know it’s costly and there is a lot of waste. His answer was that he doesn’t want to remove things from the menu for fear that an old customer will come and want that particular dish. No business can actually do all things all the time. All businesses have to hone and focus their efforts on the things they do best that intersect best with what their customers want. Sometimes the hardest part of change then is not doing a new thing, but stopping an old thing.

I’ve been white water rafting a few times. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan. The rivers scare me. I have tremendous respect for the power of water. When you ride the raft down the river there is a process of frenzied activity - when you’re in the rapids - followed by periods of rest. At times you “eddy out.” Purposefully pull the raft into the still shallows so the guides can survey and plan for a rapid ahead. I have to admit that in those times I wish that we could just stay in the peaceful eddy. We can’t though. If we did we would never get to where we want to go. And so, when the moment comes that we must turn the nose of the boat back into the white water I pull with all of my might. We have a plan. There will be unknowns but working together we can deal with them. When we get through we will feel the rush of satisfaction.

The same is true in business...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The One Secret to Professional Photography Success

I was in a discussion with some folks the other day about why some photographers succeed and so many others fail. These people mentioned a series of things. Business acumen, economics, etc. I was mostly listening. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart since Pictage’s mission is to help professional photographers succeed in as many ways as we can. When I got home I did an admittedly unscientific survey of photographers who’ve emailed me or messaged me through the forums. I looked at sites of photographers I know are doing well. I looked at sites of photographers who are hurting.

These results aren’t universal. There are exceptions to every rule. If you’ve contacted me for help and you think I’m writing this just about you, I’m not. If it hurts do something about it. If it doesn’t this either isn’t a problem for you or you will also fail. That’s ok. 72% of the photographers who start this year will be out of business within two years.

Here’s what I found... earth shattering I know...

Successful photographers take great pictures.

It’s funny, right? And it should be obvious. It’s not though. Sadly. So much time and energy is spent on so many other things. But the most powerful determiner of success is the quality of the images you shoot. Period. Full stop.

Think about it. Do you worry that other photographers might be better? Do you worry about Uncle Bob or Cousin Kerry? Do you know that every time you go out to shoot, no matter what you are going to face, that you’re going to get great images for your clients? If you worry about any of these things then stop worrying about branding, marketing, etc. and go out and learn how to make great images. It is the most important thing you can do as a photographer.

I thought this was awfully simplistic. But when I went back and went through the sites again there was a common theme in what I saw, (at least in what I could see online). Very few of the images really “popped.” They were all good. I just can’t say that I think they were great. I get that this is pretty subjective, but I think it’s important to understand that the client is being subjective too. The client’s measure of great is a wholly subjective measure. Do I feel like I look great?

What defines a great image? Great emotion. Great light. Great settings. An understanding of the power of depth of field. A fearlessness about light and dark. An understanding of the power of natural light. An understanding of the purposes and proper use of augmented light. An understanding of the proper use of the various lens focal lengths and their impact on a subject. It is important to understand that an automatic camera doesn’t actually know any of these things. It is programmed for safe and average. It is not programmed for spectacular.

A modern automatic camera can take solid pictures without much knowledge. That scares a lot of photographers and, quite frankly, it shouldn’t. Clients don’t hire professionals for solid. They hire professionals for excellent. They know their foibles. They’ve seen decent pictures of themselves. What they want from you is nothing short of greatness. That’s why they’re hiring you. Can you deliver? If you do they will hire you again (in a heartbeat) and they will tell all of their friends about you. (probably “steal” a few pictures and put them on FaceBook too!). Conversely, if they feel the job you do is just good enough they’ll likely more or less bury the images away and move on. You’ll never hear from them again.

Great photographers know how to work within a setting to capture what is happening in a way that will translate powerfully to a captured image. If they are shooting a live event like a wedding, bar mitzvah or even a kids T-ball game they understand light and angle and they know the capabilities (and drawbacks) of their equipment. In a portrait situation a great photographer can make a mundane setting extraordinary. They have taught themselves to see light differently. When their clients see their images they will say, “I never would have seen this this way” and they will mean it.

Great photographers also understand that post production is like the seasoning at the end of the cooking process. It’s that last touch of salt, sweetness or acidity that gets the balance just right before the dish is served. It is not the core ingredient. While it is true that the modern professional cameras, capturing images in RAW format provide extremely forgiving latitude, nothing can make up for a bad shooting angle, missed focus or the wrong equipment. As a rule, if you spend more time editing than you do shooting then you may want to brush up your camera skills. (because all of that editing time costs you a lot of money -whether in out of pocket cash or in time).

The business of professional photography is first and foremost the business of taking great pictures. Everything else is secondary. Lots of other things may have an impact on how successful you become, but nothing has anything like the impact of a great image. If that’s not in your repertoire, it’s time to get to work.

Here’s the thing. Being a great photographer is not the only measure of success. Once you’ve nailed great image capture down marketing, connecting with your clients, staying ahead of product trends, etc., are all important. I’ll talk through a few of those in the coming weeks. It’s just that it all starts here and when you think about it that makes sense.