Your Testimonials Page Sucks

I realize I’m not in the best position to be criticizing other people’s websites, but I have noticed a trend among small business owners that needs to be re-thought.

For starters we’re all taught that it’s good to showcase positive feedback from our clients. Not only do these comments make us feel good about the work we have done, but they may be helpful in generating future work. The problem is that this feedback usually resides on a boring page full of text with no credentials to back it up.

If you find yourself with a page like that ask the following two questions: 1.) Do you honestly think anyone other than your mom is going to read all that? …and if you’re a startup then your mom probably wrote half of the testimonials anyway. 2.) Why should anyone believe what others have said about you?

The most important thing here is validating the praise you’re getting. Instead of shouting generic praises at cyberspace give that feedback some context. Who said it? What photos were they talking about? Why is their opinion important? When did this happen? The more answers you provide the more credible you become.

I set out to resolve these problems for my own site, and here’s how I do things now.

Stop fishing for compliments. Sending a follow-up survey can have some advantages, but it creates more needless work. If people really like the work you’ve done then they will go out of their way to let you know.

Include a relevant picture alongside each review. If a client says, “This is the best photo ever,” then show us that photo. By doing this you are giving your audience a scale on which to measure the feedback.

Give us the option to see more. This is your opportunity to showcase your favorites. I’m not talking about a link to your portfolio, but a highlights gallery from the same shoot.

Give it a date. If all of your compliments are 4 years old then why should I believe you’re still doing great work today? Showing up-to-date feedback can be a powerful motivator; not to mention that it keeps you honest.

Tell us exactly who wrote the review. Use their full name and title as it appears on their email signature or business card. (*Wedding photographers, see below). This, more than anything else, gives the feedback some authority. Take the following example:

“You are seriously the only photographer that has ever been able to make our museum look good in photos…”
-Jackie Reimann
Special Events Coordinator at the National Museum of American History

Now imagine if the review was just signed as “Jackie” without her title. Nobody would know who that is, and we’d have no reason to believe her. However, given that she’s the Special Events Coordinator at that museum her comment has a lot more credibility.

The issue of privacy is bound to come up, so let me address that. For most commercial or corporate work there doesn’t need to be any concern about disclosing the name and title of an individual. In most cases this information is readily available on their company website. This is another reason why it’s good to date your reviews in case that person goes to work for another company a few months later.

*Now for wedding photographers you need to be a little more careful. You should not use the full name of the couple. A wedding is a personal event, not a professional or public one …unless you’re Kate Middleton. Rather than using their full names, use only their first names, but you should absolutely include a photo with the review.

Whether you’re a photographer, handyman, or any other small business owner take a look at your own testimonials page and ask yourself how it can be improved. By all means share your discoveries with the rest of us!

Four Steps to a Better Business Card

I just got hired for a shoot solely because of my business card. Here’s the deal…

If you are a photographer and you don’t have a photo on your business card then you’re simply doing it wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional, hobbyist, amateur, or self-proclaimed iPhoneographer. Your job is to shoot and deliver photos, so make sure your business card reflects that. Your card may be the only way someone remembers you, and pictures stick in our memories longer than names and contact info.

Practically speaking, here’s how I recommend you do it and why:

  1. Pick ONE photo that serves as a testament to your style then print it full-bleed on one side of your card. Don’t try to squeeze three images on there; it will only weaken the impact.
  2. Don’t leave the photo by itself. (This is important! I’ll explain why below.) Include some sort of text on there like your website, but keep the text to a minimum so you don’t distract from the image. A photo with negative space is ideal because you can place the text directly on top of the image (it tends to feel too rigid if you have the text next to the image, rather than on top of it).
  3. On the back side is where you put all of your contact information. Keep it simple. Don’t make the two sides of your card fight for attention. This is where smart branding and typography will serve you well.
  4. Lastly, when you give someone your card hand it to them with the photo facing them. Often they will compliment your picture and in turn find one more reason to like you.

By having the main text and the photo on the same side it makes it clear to the viewer that that is the front side. If you put all the text on one side and then the photo by itself on the other side it immediately feels as if the image is on the back (i.e. the less important side). If someone is flipping through a stack of cards I want them to see my photo before they see my email address. It’s faster to process, it conveys a lot more information, and it’s easier to remember.

In my case I had given someone my card about 15 months ago. I emailed him promptly after we met and then followed up a couple weeks later, but I never heard back from him. I figured he knew enough photographers already. Apparently he hung onto my card because I got an email this morning saying he needed a photographer this week. “Are you sure we haven’t worked together before?” he asked, “Because I’ve got your card and I don’t know how else I would’ve gotten it –it had the picture of the benches in the snow… yeah, I liked it.”

Photogenic Fabrics

I needed a backdrop for my Christmassy photo booth, so I headed to Photo Backdrop Supply Co. to see what  could find. There were two red ones that caught my eye. The first had a nice, elegant pattern to it, and the second was a solid, classy red. I ended up getting both of them and decided to compare them side by side to see which one was more photogenic. The difference was night and day…

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Restless and Creative

Every so often I get restless, and I know I need to make something. Of course this feeling only comes at the most inconvenient times, like today when I’ve got 3,000 photos to sort, a video series to edit, three estimates to send, and an album to design.  …0h, and I’m getting married in 17 days. So yeah, it’s not like I didn’t have anything else to be doing. Nevertheless, I needed to clear my head and art has a way of doing that for me. I suppose it’s my brain’s way of keeping me from being a workaholic.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. I don’t love it, but it served its purpose; so I’m happy. It’s a mixed media piece. The drawing was done in my sketchbook and then I added some color and toning in Lightroom.

Enough about me. What helps you clear your head and unwind? When was the last time you were compelled to create? Where has your latest source of inspiration come from?

When Stage Lighting Gives You Lemons

StageLightExample-6447The way a stage looks in person and the way it looks in a photograph can be two very different things. My job in this case was to make the photos look as good (or better) as it looked to the audience. The client specifically wanted to make sure the background was colorful, not washed out. Unfortunately, however, the stage lighting was awful, so this was quite a challenge.

I ended up having to use two off-camera speedlights on either side of the stage to brighten up the speaker. Both flashes had a snoot on them to help aim the light and keep it from hitting the audience. I also had to make sure they wouldn’t spill light onto the background and wash out the green colored lights.

StageLightExample-6449This second images shows how it looked before I added my lights. Notice how much less detail you can see in his suit coat as well as the brightness of his skin.

It would have been much easier to shoot with the available light and then pass the blame, but a photographer’s job is to produce good photos with no excuses attached.

Does Specialization Lead to Burnout?

If there is one photographer I respect the most it’s gotta be Jeremy Cowart. The dude is crazy talented, always pursuing big ideas, and he puts his family first. When he talks I listen. However, yesterday he made a point that I would generally agree with but my experience tells a different story. Here’s what he said:

Photographers, remember: you need to make a decision. Shooting weddings, families, pets, bands, sports = jack of all trades, master of none.

I consider myself to be a jack of all trades. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve mastered anything, but I’m confident that I can shoot most things better than the average photographer –Hint: the trick is not to be better, but to try harder.

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the notion of finding my niche, but the more I press down into a certain field the more complacent I become. I recently shot photos with a dude who’s been shooting weddings for “unfortunately 17 years” in his words. He certainly made a decision about the work he does, but he also got comfortable and apathetic in the process.

I have a hunch that specialization leads to burnout or boredom.

Personally, I need variety in my work. I value creativity too much to be comfortable with a repetitive diet. Even people like Jeremy Cowart who are exceptionally specialized often pursue creative, personal projects that are extremely different from their normal gig.

The deeper you dig in a single direction, the more you need external stimuli. Creativity thrives on variety.

Then I see someone like Joe McNally, who is one of the best photographers in the world, describe himself as a generalist, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of the reason why his photos are so remarkable. Personally I know that I’ve learned things from shooting fashion that have caused me to shoot weddings differently, and I’ve learned things from street photography that has improved my headshots.

So what do you think? Do you consider yourself a specialist or a generalist? Does an artist ever feel like he’s mastered something, or is that word merely attributed to someone else who does something better than we do? Does Talent + Complacency = Mastery?

A Note About Your Time and Prices

It’s straight up 11:00 o’clock and I just walked in the door from a shoot. Four and a half hours earlier I was sitting here half awake double checking directions and making sure everything was packed and ready to go. I finished getting ready, grabbed my gear, and then hopped on the metro. In the last four and a half hours I spent maybe 20 minutes taking pictures, maybe.

If you must know, I was shooting four corporate headshots, but that’s irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that you have to account for a lot more than the time spent shooting photos. Time is time. Whether you’re taking pictures, writing a contract, or doing the dishes, everything takes time. More often than not your time as a photographer is eaten up by what happens before and after you hold the camera in your hands.

So next time you are asked to price an assignment consider all that goes into it. Time spent packing your gear, picking up rental equipment, traveling, setting up for the shoot, editing (of course), managing the files, creating and sending invoices, depositing checks at the bank, blogging about the shoot and uploading pictures to Facebook, etc… Don’t forget to include the time you spent estimating the price and corresponding with the client in the first place.

Everything that requires your time means you can’t spend that time doing something else. Is it worth the trade?

Camera Bags for Event Photographers

When I show up to shoot an event with my 34 pound backpack plus light stands and belt pack I wonder whatever happened to the days when taking pictures meant heading  out with nothing but my camera. Now it takes me 10-12 minutes just to get setup for most shoots. The problem is that the more I learn about photography the more gear I want to get, which means there is more stuff I’ve got to schlep around with me. Eventually I outgrew my Jansport backpack that I had been using for just about everything since third grade. I remedied this by getting the ThinkTank Airport Antidote backpack which I’ve blogged about before.

While the backpack is perfect for carrying everything from my studio to another location and back, it’s completely impractical to use during a shoot. Personally I group photo bags into one of two categories: transporting or shooting. The backpack clearly falls under the first category where durability, space, and weight are primary concerns. For shooting however, I need a bag that is accessible, comfortable, and snug. You’ll notice “stylish” isn’t exactly on that list… Personally, I prefer the ThinkTank Pro Speed Belt.

The belt itself is just that. A belt. But when you trick it out with some modular pouches it becomes a fanny pack on steroids that will have all the ladies wanting you.

The beauty of it is that all of the weight you are used to carrying around your neck and shoulders is now spread around your hips. Everything is close to your body, so you can run at full speed without worrying about your stuff banging around. Everything is easily accessible –no more digging around in the abyss of your messenger bag for that memory card– and often times that can mean the difference between getting the shot or missing the moment. I’ve been using my belt for over two and a half years now, and I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better solution for event photographers. If you find yourself looking for a better way to consolidate and access your gear while shooting, I suggest you give the belt a try.

ProSpeedBelt-8771-Edit.jpgHere’s a look at my setup. Clicking on the image will take you to Flickr where you can see the notes explaining what’s in each pouch.

P.S. The belt is also great for hiking. I usually strip it down until it’s just the belt and camera holster. It protects the camera and makes it easily accessible. I recently climbed Old Rag with it and I had zero complaints.

*I’m not affiliated with ThinkTank Photo in any way. They simply make good products that make my job easier, so I’m happy to talk about them.

Lessons Learned: Making Your Work Accessible

I’ve barely gotten any real work done today. I’ve spent most of my time sorting through hard drives and trying to locate photos. It’s annoying, but it’s been a good reminder of how important it is to make your work accessible not only to myself, but my clients (lesson 3 below). Here are a few things that make this easier…

Lesson One: Don’t delete your photos.  Today I’ve had three completely different clients say, “Hey, can you re-send the photos from ____?” They all have different reasons for needing them again, but the point remains the same. If I didn’t keep my photos long term then I’d have three disgruntled clients to deal with. It seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised how tempting it is to delete photos when you find that your hard drives are full. Which leads us to the next point…

Lesson Two: Establish an archiving solution. The important thing is that you have a system. Buying another external hard drive to “free up space” is not a system; it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. What you need is a plan. You need to know where to export your photos when you’re done with them, and you need to know how to find them years from now. I’ve blogged about my system before, but there are many different ways to do it. Find a solution that works best for you.

Lesson Three: Create online client galleries. This is where I’ve slacked off, and I’m paying the price for it today. Basically, you want a place where you can upload your finished, high resolution jpegs for the client to access on their own. I use Zenfolio, and I couldn’t be happier with it! I create a new group for each client, and then I add a new album for each shoot. This is ideal for corporate work where you’ll do multiple shoots for the same client, or destination weddings where you will have multiple days of shooting for a single wedding. The real advantage comes from the various options available such as privacy, expiration, and access control. This means my clients can locate their photos and download the high resolution images without having to wait for me.

Moral of the story, there is nothing sexy about file management. Do yourself a favor by making it as efficient and accessible as possible.

Lessons Learned Shooting with Canon

AnnapolisCanon-0226.jpgMy friend and fellow photographer Emily Chastain approached me with a great idea. She suggested that we plan a shoot where we swap cameras; I would use her Canon and she would use my Nikon. Now, I’m not sure if she was just tired of my Canon bashing or if she had something else in mind, nevertheless I jumped at the opportunity to give her a chance to experience the greatness of Nikon. We scheduled the shoot in Annapolis, giving her home field advantage…

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