A number of years ago, I was one of two partners in a small, regional ad agency. We served a number of local hospitals, some ethnic food distributors, and the formed phone company - Pacific Bell. Our annual billing was just over $1 million. That's not a lot of money for an ad agency, but we were small and had low overhead.
My partner was the 'outside sales rep' -- he got the doors open so I could make presentations. We had some contract graphics designers and a copy writer. I also did copy writing, produced videos and TV commercials, and handled the commercial photography.
We won a few national awards, but, in the late 1990s, many local hospitals were being acquired by hospital management companies and many small hospital groups were being bought by larger groups. Each time this happened, the larger company would have their own ad agencies. Sometimes we were able to compete with the bigger ad agencies, and sometimes we weren't even given the opportunity.
Eventually, we decided to close the agency. Actually, I stayed on for a while, because I had a studio attached to the offices, but that, eventually, became much more than I needed. My expenses were over $4,000 a month. Even now, that's a lot of money, but prior to the year 2000, I rally had to attract a lot of clients to justify it.
I just didn't enjoy the constant beating of the bushes to get and keep advertising clients and when I got new clients, it was a full-timer job to service them. And, honestly, I just wasn't all that happy doing 'commercial' photography.
Once I decided to close the doors, I didn't have daily access to a well equipped studio, so I began to think of other ways to make money as a photographer.
Weddings and other events became the answer, but you don't just decide to be a wedding photographer, on Wednesday, and have a job on Saturday. People book their photographer 6-18 months before the ceremony. Fortunately, I had always shot a few wedding every year, so I had some work on the books, but I needed to generate some cash almost immediately.
I remembered going to an amusement park and while standing in line, a photographer came down the line, snapping pictures and handing out a small card. Now, this was pre-digital, and there was a kiosk where you could go to see the pictures. They would give you a small print, make a pin-on button, and a few other trinkets. Then I remembered seeing an old photo of my parents. It was a black and white, taken in a nightclub at the end of World War II. It was probably a 5x7 or 8x10, in a folder with the name of the club on it.
How many times have you gone to dinner and a pretty girl, with a basket of roses approached you?
I picked two local restaurants and approached the owners. They were both family owner places - not large chains. I talked to them, offered 10% of anything I made, and one agreed immediately.
I didn't go to the expense of having custom folders made, but I printed some flyers. On the flyers, I show three sizes: 4x6, 5x7, and 8x10 - I used an actual photo and just overlaid the smaller sizes on top of the 8x10. I though that was better than just drawing an outline. On the flyer, I had y web address. I didn't yet have an ecommerce site, so customers had to call or email. That was almost eight years ago, Today, it would be a lit easier. Everyone has internet access and ecommerce sites are inexpensive or free, and almost automatic.
OK, so here's what I did. After getting an agreement with the owner, I showed up at the two busiest nights - in this case, Wednesday and Saturday. After a few nights, he agreed to put a flyer and a small poster board display of images from the previous evenings. People would stop and look at them and even ask what nights the photographer was available!!!
I'd dress nicely - usually a blazer and open-neck dress shirt. Check the style of the customers and dress in a similar fashion. The best time to approach a table seemed to be right after the dinner order was taken. Once the food arrives, people don't want to be bothered -- and they my has spinach in their teeth :-).
I didn't normally ask if they wanted a photo. I'd just motion for them to squeeze together. Nearly always, they'd do it. At times, I could sense that they didn't want a record of the occasion. That might have been when they were having dinner with someone they weren't supposed to be having dinner with!!
I'd hand them a flyer -- with a business card stapled to it - and tell them that their samples would be online with about 4 hours. Surprisingly, I would get orders that night.
I won't tell you that I ever got a lot of repeat business from those couples - none ever called me to shoot their wedding - but I did get some birthday parties and a few family portraits. As my website improved, my volume of 'add-on' inquiries did increase. Also, I think that most of the restaurant's clientele were married couples and families. Had I picked a more 'romantic' location, I might have gotten other types of work.
After about 3-4 weeks, I went back to the other restaurant - the one that turned me down - and made a second presentation, based on my experience at the first place, and they agreed, so I added Friday evening and Sunday brunch.
I only did this for about five months. In that time, I was finding corporate events, more weddings, and even some commercial work from previous clients, so I decided to give myself some nights off.
Was it enough to pay all the bills? No, not at that time. Probably not now, either. But, today, it is much easier. You have many more ecommerce options. You could even use your laptop to set up a slide show, if there is space near the register. One of my former interns does this. The restaurant is so supportive that they even allow the customers to add the print sales to their dinner checks. She feels that this is the perfect way to do it. People are happy, feeling good, and have their credit cards in their hands :-) This venue has a trio that plays music throughout the evening, and they make several announcements about the photographer and the slide show.
She says that she does make enough, each week, that she can cover the cars payment. Money from the other weeks goes into her equipment fund. So far, she managed to buy new laptop and a spare camera body.
If you are just starting out, or looking for a way to keep your day job, while getting some experience this is an inexpensive way to get started.
I'd love to hear of your experiences.
OK, what do you need to get started? First, any consumer level digital SLR. I prefer Nikon, so a Nikon D80, would be a great choice. A kit lens will work - the one that probably came with your camera. Most of the lenses that come with today's DSLRs are zooms with Nikon 18-55mm or 70mm focal range. I used a Nikon 24-120mm. You'll need a decent on-camera flash. For Nikon, consider the SB-800 Speedlight-- or SB-600 (Not the SB-400). You don't need a flash bracket, but you will want a Gary Fong Lightsphere or Gary Fong Whaletail. If you are just starting out, I'd go with a Cloud Lightsphere. If you have lots of experience with flash - and bouncing the flash (or want to use multiple, off-camera flashes) - consider the more versatile Whaletail.
Scroll down this blog for a couple of videos on how to use the Lightsphere or Whaletail.