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The PRO-Files: The Experience Is Everything

It’s well documented that millennials—that amorphous group of 20- and 30-somethings that all businesses are trying to woo—tend to be more interested in spending their money on having experiences rather than acquiring things. This may include everything from fine dining and artisanal coffee to world travel and urban adventure, all in lieu of the cars, televisions and other things that previous generations coveted. These consumers, in particular, are willing to pay a premium for a premium experience, and they should be on the mind of every working photographer, because that millennial sentiment is spreading to consumers of all types. Americans in general are increasingly interested not just in the end result, but also in the experience along the way. Good or bad, the experience of the customer journey shapes their opinion of the destination.

The Experience Is Everything

Portrait photographer and Sony Artisan of Imagery Miguel Quiles considers his customers’ experience from the time they discover his online presence to the day he delivers their finished image files. Like dining in a restaurant, the service and atmosphere are every bit as important as the quality of the food.

“The experience is everything,” Quiles says. “I think that's probably the thing that's the most lost within the photographic community. They don't value it as much. And the reality is that's probably the most important thing. I talk about an example in some of my lectures and my workshops. I had a situation a few years ago where I went to a restaurant that had been recommended to me. I got there and there was no one at the counter and it was pretty much dead. Finally a person just casually walked up, didn't make eye contact with me, grabbed a menu and said, ‘How many people?’ Walking to the table I was already turned off because they didn't greet me, didn’t say anything about the wait. The food took 40 minutes to hit my table, so was sitting there just feeling upset. I look back now and I would say the food actually was really good, but because all of those other things had happened, the experience was terrible and at the time that really impacted my impression of the meal as a whole. The poor experience made me feel like the food was bad as well.”

“This also happens with photography,” he says. “Maybe the photos are great but if the experience is poor, that perception translates to the images. With a bad experience, the client looks at the images as being failures as well.”

Cultivating A Positive Experience

Experience is more important than ever—especially for photographers. Fifty years ago a wedding photographer may have charged a couple hundred dollars to shoot a single roll of film, dictated by his expertise with minimal input from the customer. That worked back when customers sought only a result (the photos), but it doesn’t work today. Now not only is that wedding photographer likely to bring a team and spend the day with the bridal party, it’s expected that the couple will have forged some level of bond before the big day arrives. These clients are paying well for high-quality photography to be sure, but they’re also in search of an amazing experience on their special day. The smartest wedding photographers have figured out the importance of catering to this desire.

And it’s not just wedding photographers who should be taking care to provide an ideal experience. Any photographer who interacts with a human client during the shoot—whether in front of the camera or behind—is in one way or another selling an experience. Quiles says the experience he creates starts with the videos he shows on YouTube and the posts he makes on social media. Advertising photographers often provide an in-studio experience that reinforces the exclusivity and high-end nature that accompanies large-scale productions. Corporate photographers work to make it easy for busy customers to get great work without slowing the gears of business. Different niches require different experiences, but in all cases it’s the ability to provide the desired experience that sets a photographer apart in a crowded marketplace.

“It's a psychological thing,” Quiles says. “That was something I learned from sales a long time ago. There was this little thing I was told and it just really hit me and I've lived by this mantra: Selling is a transfer of emotion.”

“I'm an introvert by nature,” he continues. “So in the beginning when I started to kind of go out into the working world, I didn't see much success because I'm a very mellow, quiet person. I have to approach people with energy: ‘How's it going? Hope you guys have an awesome day! What brings you in today?' I realized that as I exerted myself a little bit more I had better results. I think photography is no different. If you approach your interactions with people in a very subdued manner, doubt can creep into their minds.”

When The Client Is The Subject

When the client is also the subject, the need for an ideal experience is at its peak. This is especially true for wedding photographers, family portrait photographers, boudoir photographers and personal brand photographers—those who provide a product for a more personal use. Even corporate and advertising photographers, however, are expected to cater to a client’s needs far beyond the camera frame, especially if they hope to justify a high rate.

Experience may also be part of the reason why photography is booming in the 21st century – people want to do more things and share them online. That means they need to have them photographed. They are willing to pay up not just for the experience, but also for the feeling the photographs recreate. Whether that’s a wedding day, a family photo or a boudoir shoot, photographers are selling a feeling more often than they may realize. That feeling is shaped by the experience.

In some cases, providing an ideal experience may be as simple as catering to creature comforts and ensuring the time with the photographer is as pleasant as possible. The offering of a drink, for instance, or a comfortable place to prepare for the shoot. In other cases it’s the understanding that a subject is nervous about appearing in pictures, or stressed about the process. Photographers should expect this and act accordingly. It’s up to us to address these issues in order to improve the customer experience.

“They rely on you,” Quiles says, “and I think that's where it's up to the photographer to play the part. When a client comes to you and they say, ‘Wow, I saw your stuff online and your work is amazing,’ or something like that, you have to own that reality. You are the expert in their eyes. And so when they ask you, ‘What should I wear? How should I pose?’ It's up to you to speak with authority: ‘I think you should bring this along and I think this will photograph great. I think we should pose like this.’ All of that helps to make them feel comfortable.”

“I think the most important thing is just calling the shots and being really confident about every step in the creation process. From the moment they show up where you're going to shoot, doing things like greeting them warmly, asking if they need any help with bringing stuff inside, engaging in small talk as they're getting ready, and really just making them comfortable with the process will make all the difference. It’s possible they've never been photographed before and are super-nervous about it. It’s up to you to make sure that when it's all said and done, they felt good about the process. Part of that is just saying the right things during the shoot. You don’t have to ask, ‘Are you nervous?’ You can assume certain things and respond appropriately. Tell them that they’re in good hands and explain what you’re going to do. Then make sure that your teammates—makeup artist, hairstylist, and anyone else—are on the same page and reinforcing what you're doing.”

“What's funny,” Quiles adds, “I've noticed that when people get their images, they'll love them 10-20% more just based off of the little random things that you do in the beginning that have nothing to do with the actual photo shoot. It adds a value that comes when they see their images and they say, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ An image that is pretty good gets elevated into that really good or excellent or amazing territory in the client’s eyes–all because they had a really good experience with you.”

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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