Inside the Photography Business: Nathaniel Taylor
PhotoMerchant: Tell me about yourself and your photography business.
Nathaniel Taylor: My father, Michael Taylor, is a photographer and I grew up learning from him and shooting at Taylor Fine Portraiture, a traditional family portrait studio in Los Angeles. At 22 I took over the studio. I was also interested in doing commercial and editorial work, so I started splitting my time between the family portrait studio and my commercial cliental. I used both businesses to supplement each other. I’d often do family portraits for commercial clients and commercial work for some family businesses.
Now I’m 85% commercial and editorial. I still do some family portraits for high end clients and I do about four or five weddings a year; like every photographer, you take what you can get these days.
I have employees off and on throughout the season. I have a list of make-up artists, hairstylists and assistants I work with, depending on the shoot and budget.
I do strictly location work these days and don’t keep a studio. If there’s studio work to be done, typically it’s in budget to rent studio space around town. It came to the point where I had been doing so much work out of town or was always on location that I was only spending three days in the studio. With technology, running the business can all be done remotely.
PM: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about running a business?
NT: Relationships. Keeping clients happy is important, but making friends with clients is really the thing. I’ve tried most of the traditional forms of marketing; go and sell certificates to people at art shows, do post card mailers, make cold calls, throw events, make donations to schools; I’ve tried everything. I think it all helps, but the one thing that trumps any other marketing plan is building good relationships. Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool, and that comes from good relationships with happy clients.
The first few years of my career I worked for free, doing whatever commercial work people let me shoot. I didn’t know where to start because my knowledge was in family portraits, so I shot for free, did the best work I could and built relationships and those have really paid off.
PM: How did you make the transition from doing free work to charging?
NT: Very slowly. I already had an income from the studio, which helped. You need to carefully vet the people you do free work for because some people will take advantage. You also have to remember that everyone you meet on these free shoots may be a potential client. I’ve gotten countless jobs from makeup artists, actors, producers, magazine editors that I met over coffee at a free shoot. It’s like dating: you have to be out there.
You do need to be careful though. You can’t do free work seven days a week when there’s rent to pay. You’ve got to use your time wisely and look at it as portfolio building. No matter how busy I am, I earmark four days a month to just shoot what I want to shoot. I’ll even cancel paid work, because having a strong portfolio and getting people involved with my new work is my best marketing tool.
PM: Why do you think your customers like working with you?
NT: I consistently deliver, so when clients hire me they know what to expect. I also listen to them and what their needs are.
PM: Is there anything you’ve changed about your business since you started?
NT: It’s changed so much in just the past couple of years. My business four years back was strictly a traditional family portrait studio. People made appointments, came in for sittings, for sales, and to pick up prints. Now I just do location and in-the-home work. I bring the files to clients and we review the prints in their home, kind of like if you hired an interior designer. That helps with sales because I can go into their home and measure a wall and they can picture how the photo will look in home.
For the commercial work, I’ve gotten involved with a lot of local magazines as well as national ones. Local isn’t as glamorous, but it helps you get in front of local business owners regularly. Half of the businesses I shoot for local magazines end up booking commercial work with me, which is where a majority of my income comes from. Occasionally that transitions into family portraits as well, which is the cherry on top.
PM: How do you manage your workflows and calculate the costs of running your business?
NT: I’ll be honest, I’m a workaholic so I might not be the best example of a balanced work and personal life. A few years back I sat down with Monica Sigmon, a great instructor on photography business practices, and we calculated exactly what my costs were each month to run the business and exactly what I wanted to take home. It seems simple, but many photographers don’t consider what they have to pay themselves, they only consider what it takes to keep the doors open at the studio. We looked at how many shoots I do a month, how much time spent on retouching, invoicing, and scheduling. We then combined cost of business and time spent and that gave me my standard day rate which I now offer to clients. I’ve used that as my pay scale since.
Most of the contact with clients is just with me, which gives them a real sense that I’m taking care of them. I consider this personal attention part of cost of doing business and I charge accordingly.
I know there are businesses that do 10 shoots a day in a studio quickly for low cost, and that works for them, but that’s not how I run my business. Every shoot is booked far in advance, quote written, and concepts and clothing discussed. The planning adds value and makes the images far more unique than what you may get from a high work load studio. Like every other business, if you want something completely custom, you pay for it. I’m known as the guy around town who’s expensive and I like that!
PM: What do you do to stay competitive with other photographers in your market?
NT: I’m friends with a lot of photographers and I never feel like we’re snagging jobs from each other. People will always have a need for photography.
PM: If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
NT: Get out there, invite people to lunch and go to networking meetings. I started working as a professional when I was 18 or 19 and it was hard for me to talk about business to a 40-year-old business owner. At 26 I’m still a lot younger than most of my clients, but I’ve learned that if you’re out there, people will be willing to talk to you and hire you.
We’re in an industry where typically you get hired once every year to three years. It’s not like a retail store where they’re going to come in and buy shoes every month. How do you manage a client base and keep money coming in when they book jobs so rarely? It really comes down to being in front of people regularly. Like I said, there is always work to be done, you just need to find the people who need it.
PM: Do you have any tips for new photographers?
NT: Photograph a lot. Most people who get into photography do it because they love it. I tell my friends starting out to stop being concerned with getting clients the first day. If you practice and try new things, you’ll become more proficient in your craft. Also when people see new work that you’re excited about, it gets them excited too. People like to see passion
I know people get down when they don’t make money right away. They go out and spend a fortune on all their gear, they’re excited about it and they want to start booking clients, but that really comes with time. Be consistent, passionate, and patient. People will catch on to that.
PM: What do you think is going to happen in photography in five year’s time?
NT: Today’s technology has made it so you can pick up a decent camera cheaply and get a decent shot. I think vision and skill is really what is going to keep us professionals working. Any average Joe can go buy food and a decent set of knives, but it doesn’t make him a chef. Photography is the same way.
Clients will always need someone who knows what they’re doing. Being a good photographer isn’t just about getting that cool picture. Most of my job is about setting up the shoot, managing people, and thinking about what the client needs. No matter how good technology gets, it’s always about vision and experience.
PM: What do you do in your spare time?
NT: I try to travel once a year, but even when I’m travelling, I feel like I’m working because I’m looking for new ideas. Last year I toured Italy and the whole time I looked at fashion magazines. It’s a little ridiculous!
Getting out of your comfort zone and seeing the world is really important. People lose perspective when they sit in their studio seven days a week and don’t see anything new. How are you supposed to photograph life if you’ve never lived life?
|Nathaniel Taylor runs Nathaniel Taylor Photography, a Los Angeles-based commercial, editorial and portrait photography business.|