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The PRO-Files: Can You Relocate And Keep Your Photo Business Thriving?

There are many reasons why a professional photographer might want to relocate his or her business to another city. Sometimes a spouse’s job mandates the change, or perhaps it’s just the next logical step for career advancement. Whatever the reason, moving to a new city is daunting; a lot like starting over again.

Advertising photographer Brian Kuhlmann has conquered this challenge twice in his career. He got his start as an assignment photographer in St. Louis and built a thriving business there before relocating to Chicago, where he was better able to serve a growing list of national clients. More than 20 years into his career he pulled up stakes again and moved to California. Each time he’s managed to navigate the difficulties of maintaining existing relationships while recruiting new clients. He offers his insights to help other photographers know what to expect when relocating.

Prepare The Exit Plan And Start Marketing In The New City

Preparation is key, both when it comes to gracefully leaving one location and landing on your feet in another. Kuhlmann planned not only how he could make his Chicago studio continue to work for him, but also how he could get known quickly on the West Coast. Ultimately it comes down to the same marketing techniques any successful photographer should be using, whether relocating or not. It involves taking meetings, sending promos, making calls. A relocating photographer should begin planting those seeds in the new location prior to the move.

“For a mid-40-something that’s going to be harder than it would for a 30-something or 20-something, but that’s what I did," says Kuhlmann. I remember doing it specifically in Chicago and L.A. I needed to go rub shoulders and just forced myself to do it. Once I got to Chicago I was sure to make meetings. ‘Hey can I buy you coffee?’ You’re just working it the whole time. You’re starting over, basically. But then you find your people and things start settling in.”

Should you consider making a big splash with an extravagant marketing piece, trumpeting your arrival on the scene? Kuhlmann’s never done it, but he knows photographers who have. Whatever works, he says. Do whatever works for you. “Do whatever you have to do to make it," he says. "It’s more of a gut thing. Being a photographer, we all do things differently even though we’re in the same sort of business. I’ve done more of just forging ahead and meeting people. We all do different things. You just have to do what works, what feels right. And if that doesn’t work you have to be limber enough and fast enough to say OK, let’s try something else.”

Fight To Keep Existing Clients

If your photography business is working, it’s likely because you’ve worked hard to build trust and develop relationships with a stable of customers. Clients are precious; it’s not easy saying goodbye to them. So don’t.

“I've taken the approach,” Kuhlmann explains, “where I’ve kept one foot back in the other market. When I did the St. Louis to Chicago move, I maintained a big studio in St. Louis, as well as staff. I had a studio manager and an assistant that resided there and managed it. I opened one in Chicago and went back and forth for four or five years. Then at some point we ended up in Chicago and built a great business there. I did the same thing in L.A. Every other week I was on an airplane going back and forth, depending on where the clients were.”

Because of the relative ease of mobility, a photographer may be tempted to keep his move a secret in hopes of serving existing customers without interruption. The idea is to minimize the risk of losing the client by maintaining high-quality service. Avoiding the subject or, even worse, trying to hide it, is likely to alienate them.

“I don’t think that’s something you’re going to be able to hide this day and age,” Kuhlmann says. “Everybody knows everything about everyone. We’re all on social media and that's what it demands of us—to share our lives with everyone. So you’re not going to be able to go that route. Instead, shore up those relationships and tell them you're splitting time. Give your clients the assurances that you’re going to be there for them, and then be there for them.”

But Don't Expect Them All To Stick Around

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. That’s the premise behind serving your incredibly valuable existing clients first and foremost. So who wants to abandon those relationships when moving to a new city? Bend over backwards to take care of existing clients and you’ve got a shot at keeping them happy… at least for a time. This is invaluable, particularly as you’re getting the business up and running in a new city. Inevitably, the calls from many customers—particularly the smaller gigs that keep the lights on—will cease. It’s the larger-scale accounts that are likely to have less of a problem hiring a photographer far from home.

“When I went from St. Louis to Chicago I lost all of my bread and butter accounts," says Kuhlmann. "When I came to Los Angeles I had several accounts I had built up, different magazines and people who were coming back every month to shoot for a day or so. I was able to maintain those because Chicago was, let’s call it a B market, and those were big agencies. I’ve been in L.A. eight years now and still do a lot of work out of Chicago. They come here in the winter, I go there in the summer. I kept that studio for four years while I was living here, and then at some point my manager there was just tired of seeing me in shorts in January while he was bundled up in a parka. We decided to close the operation down there and be here. I’m working on national brands and they don’t really care where I’m located.”

For a wedding or family photographer, or anyone working entirely on a regional scale, the road can be rougher. “That would be really hard,” Kuhlmann says. “Portrait photographers or family photographers—that’s how I got started in this business—they rely so much on having a relationship with a family. You shoot the wedding, then you shoot the baby pictures, and it feeds itself. It’s all kind of repeat clients. I remember at the studio I worked for, it was very much a relationship thing. You want to build that relationship. You’re shooting the kid’s first birthday portraits and then you’re shooting that kid’s graduation portraits and then you’re shooting that kid’s wedding.”

For most photographers, maintaining studios in multiple cities isn't feasible in the long term. “When I moved here I wasn’t able to take care of Goodman Theater or Chicago Magazine,” Kuhlmann says, “and those clients ended up finding someone else almost immediately. Because every month they were in my studio and now I didn’t have a studio in Chicago, so suddenly I’m going to have to rent one if they want to use me. It just changed the dynamic and things became a little more complicated.”

There's Never A Perfect Time To Go, But Go Anyway

Some professionals come to photography as a second career. And many of those who do follow a similar path: photographing on nights and weekends, building up enough of a client base to eventually quit their day jobs and become full-time photographers. Does that same approach work when it comes to moving to a new city? “I wish,” Kuhlmann says. “The idea of, ‘you end up getting so many clients that you can finally pull stakes and go to that other city…’ I wish it was that formulaic. I never had that. It’s more of just a gut thing: I’ve got to do it, I’ve got to go. And then you just do your best to service the other clients.”

As it is with so many things in life, waiting for the perfect time is a recipe for procrastination. Instead, Kuhlmann says to simply be smart with the prep work and then just go. Commit to the new locale (at least part of the time), get there and start getting things done. “I make the commitment," he says. "I find a place and then I’m here on the ground—it might be once a month or, if I'm lucky enough to land a job, then I'm out there for a couple of weeks. While I'm there I'm making calls and making new contacts. It's always just working it. I have agents and I’m always on the phone trying to kick the bushes and shake the trees to get established.”

That kind of hustle, maybe more than any other single thing, will determine how long it takes to build success in a new locale. Keep moving forward, actively looking to be a partner to new clients. More than half of the battle is showing up. This isn't just being polyannaish. Relocation is full of angst-inducing moments, but you can do it successfully when you keep your eye on the ball. 

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.


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