A corporate client recently reached out to ask about my availability for a portrait session on a specific date. I was already booked, I told her, but not wanting to simply say no, I suggested an alternative: I would send another photographer in my place. I had in mind an assistant who had worked with me on shoots for this very same client, so he would be familiar with their needs as well as my style and technical approach. Even though I wasn’t sure he was entirely comfortable shooting it, it seemed like a fine fit. The client gave the go-ahead.
The shoot day came and everything seemed to go well. The shots seemed suitable enough, if not exactly what I would have done. I delivered the proofs and waited. A week later my client called and explained that she hated to complain but something was off. The subjects looked stiff and the lighting wasn’t quite right. They might work fine, she conceded, they just weren’t what she’d expected.
To avoid saying no and thus preventing my client from turning to another photographer, I had sent her “a” photographer rather than “the right photographer.” As a result, I disappointed my client and lost money on the job. (I used the opportunity to flex my customer service muscles and told her of course there would be no charge and I would happily reshoot at her convenience.) When it comes to building a team I had made the most fundamental mistake of all: I tried to force it.
It Starts & Ends With One Thing: People
According to world-class wedding photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery Sara France, the key to building a successful photography team begins and ends with the people you choose. This is true of office staff as well as production support, those who handle everything from clerical work to digital imaging, makeup artists to assistants. And selecting the right person is especially important when it comes to photographers, because that person isn’t just supporting you, they’re stepping in to take over your role, even if only momentarily.
“That pressure of wanting to book a job even though you're not available can bite you,” France says. “It's better to give up a job than to keep it and have the wrong person doing it. Early on in my career, I had a wedding coordinator call me with a great wedding that she wanted me to shoot, but I was booked. At the time, I had another photographer who was working with me and I thought maybe it's time to see how she does taking the lead. I thought it would work even though it didn't feel like the perfect fit.”
“That was one of the scariest days of my career,” she continues, “having someone out there shooting for me who I just wasn't totally sure about. Although I made a good decision to also hire another friend of mine who was well-established to be her second shooter, it all completely backfired and I never worked with that wedding coordinator again.”
You Shouldn’t Expect To Be Great At Everything
France had hired someone to shoot one wedding for her and the experience completely turned her off to the idea of building a team of associate photographers. It took her years to come around to it again.
“I was so scared of that situation that I made sure to set the business up the right way the next time,” she explains. “I knew that I couldn't just pick someone because they were a good enough shooter. I needed to have the right person with the right mentality to know that I could really trust them with my relationships. Relationships are everything in this business, and that's one thing that you can't teach. It's either there or it's not, when it comes to their personality. So now when I’m looking to hire photographers, I don't settle. I only bring photographers on the team who are the perfect fit. And it's not just up to me. I don't bring anyone on the team who’s not 100% approved by every one of the existing team members, because they all have to feel that same confidence.”
I hate the word ‘associate.’ It makes my bones quiver. It doesn't allow the clients or the photographers to have the experience that they should because these women are incredibly talented photographers in their own right.
France’s extended team now includes six photographers in three different cities. They’re working collaboratively to build a thriving business, complementing one another with their own individual strengths. It’s one of the main reasons she says building a multi-photographer team makes sense: it’s difficult for one person to be great at everything.
“There's this kind of expectation with photographers,” she says. “You’re just supposed to be able to do it all and be good at every aspect of the business. You need to be good at social media, you should be able to build a website and create marketing materials, so you need to be a designer as well as a photographer. And you know all the photo editing tricks, right? And then you also need to know all about all the tools that are available. And on top of it you should have a business degree. How the heck are you supposed to be great at all of those things? It's a unicorn effect.”
She continues, “Early on I realized that I needed support and I needed people in my business who are going to be good at some of the things that I'm no good at. And I started really focusing on my strengths and trying to lean into outsourcing the other things. So what I've created with the team is the capability for women to be great at what they're great at and to let the team handle the rest. The six of us are focused in different areas based on what we're gifted at, and what we want to do.”
A Team Is More Than A Bunch Of Individuals
France says that even when you’re starting with amazing people who are talented photographers, it’s still essential to train them appropriately. Not so much in a particular shooting style, but rather in how to interact with clients and setting standards for the way an assignment should unfold. At the very least, she suggests, shoot some jobs together to see what you can learn from one another and to ensure your potential associate possesses all the skills that you deem necessary.
“All the photographers that come onto our team are talented in photography,” she says, “and you can't really change someone's style. You can make slight adjustments to editing and help them in those ways, but their style is their style. That's part of the selection process. But when it comes to the wedding day there are things they still may not know—technical aspects we want to make sure that everyone on the team understand. So we make sure that they have all the education they need before going into a wedding day and we make sure new team members shoot with the team quite a bit before they book any 'France Photographers' named weddings. There's a lot of preparation that goes into helping them be successful.”
Speaking of named weddings, France says it’s important that the business name reflects the valuable contributions of all the team members. When a photographer is relegated to second-class status, not only does it have the potential to limit that person’s investment in the business, it can also make a potential client feel like they’ve been forced to settle when they work with someone other than the photographer for whom the business is named.
“I want to get my name out of our name,” France says, “because we are now a team of photographers. And I hate the word ‘associate.’ It makes my bones quiver. It doesn't allow the clients or the photographers to have the experience that they should because these women are incredibly talented photographers in their own right. And they go out and hustle for their leads the same way that I do. That's a big part of the team. I don't think you can continue to grow a team without that piece. They see this as their team and their business and they want to make it successful.”
There’s Something You Have To Give Up
One additional piece of advice France offers for growing together is to establish a boundary that may be a nonstarter for some photographers. It’s crucial, though, in order to ensure all of the associates are working toward the same goals—especially for wedding photographers.
“That person needs to work exclusively for you,” she explains. “That's a hard thing to make that demand to somebody who has their own business. It’s also a hard thing for you because you realize that you have to provide for them. Exclusivity is a two-way street. You really have to be able to provide enough value that it makes sense but you have to do it because in wedding photography there's so much more of a relationship aspect to it. In corporate photography, there are people I trust outside our team that I would send on a job, but I would never do that with a wedding.”
Sara will be leading the next Sony Alpha Studio Live Session “Five Keys To A Successful Photography Business” tonight at 5:30PM PST. Register here.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.