Exceeding Customers Requirements and Then Some

By Tom Stillman

Exposure Magazine

As we all know the economy has made the photographic business more difficult now than ever. Not only for us as vendors but for our clients also. In some cases our clients are hiring inexperienced people to do their photography or are creating photographs on their own. So in this message I thought I would make some comments on how we might make ourselves better than the novice photographer.

First off, we need to provide a quality of service that demonstrate our exceptional knowledge and experience. We must not only “meet our customer’s requirements” but we need to exceed them. We need to be more than just a vendor but someone who is part of our client’s team to help them get where they need to be. We not only need to give our clients what they want but help them figure out what they need in the first place. We need to give them more then what they expected.

Photographer David Nance in Houston, Texas told me not to expect a client to tell you what they want, you got to know what they want and give them more than what they expected. This is what separates a true professional photographer with the novice who just purchased a digital camera a couple months ago. So we always need to spend more time listening to our clients and thinking what we can do to exceed their requirements.

In order to accomplish this we need to ask our customers more questions to learn what they are trying to accomplish. We need to carefully listen to them and be more than just someone who “takes the pictures”. We need to become a member of their production team and be someone who does everything we can to help them accomplish what is required.

One example of this is I was recently asked to create a group photograph of a group of executives at a pharmaceutical company. Ok, we all do group photographs. But what I did was offered to retouch out the cluttered background and write the name of the organization in the background of the photo with Photoshop. In addition, the name of each person was written in the foreground. I also purchased photo folders so the photographs could be presented in a classy manner. On other occasions I presented the photographs is a gold box, with tissue paper between each photo. Of course these are all simple things but they did not ask me to do these things. I tried to go beyond their requirements and offered them something they did not think of. I tried to offer them services that they themselves did not know they wanted or needed.

Another example is when I was asked to create formal portraits on location for a large corporation. I suggested that in addition to the formal portrait that I follow each executive back to their office and create an additional causal office photograph. By doing this the client had a formal photo and a casual office photograph which would give them more poses and styles to work with. Again, I tried to exceed the customer’s requirements and give them more then what they expected. Also, I asked my client contact to sit for me to test the lighting and she got a free 5x7 in a photo folder. It made her Mom very happy.

In addition to services, it is always a good idea to add little tokens to our work which adds to our professionalism. For example we should always send your customer a thank you note after each assignment expressing how much you enjoyed working for them. The note should be our own creation and show samples of our work. It not only thanks your client but sells your services for future work.

If you provide images to your customers on a disk, it goes without saying that it should be placed in a jewel case designed with your name, logo and web site printed on the cover. If you are really ambitious you will get one of those disk printers that prints your logo on surface of the disk. Never, ever write on the disk itself with a marker pen. It just says “low class photographer” when you do this.

Personality is another important thing. Always express yourself in a positive and progressive manner. Your client does not want to hear you complain but wants you to tell them how you are going to “fix” whatever problems come up. Besides, complaining is a waste of energy, we should use that energy to fix the problem. Ok, not easy to do sometimes but a positive and progressive attitude should be our focus.

The point I am trying to make is that we need to demonstrate that we are better than the novice photographer. That our knowledge, experience and ideas makes us worth more than then novice. We must demonstrate that we are not only someone who “takes a picture” but we are experienced professionals that meets and exceeds t our client’s requirements.


It’s All a Matter in How You Hold Your Mouth

By: Tom Stillman

Exposure Magazine

We all vent about how bad the photography business may be, but sometimes we’re our worst enemy. Maybe we need to examine how we present ourselves. I had a conversation about marketing with my cousin Tony from Mississippi. I mentioned to him that presentation is everything and in a heavy southern drawl he said, “Dat’s right Tommy, It’s all a matter in how you hold your mouth”.

I made a photography presentation to my local business association and a marketing specialist said to me that I used negativity to describe what I do. He asked what photographers are thinking when we call ourselves “shooters”. He inquired, as to why I use such a negative word to promo myself. We don’t “shoot” we create photographs. Even members of the National Rifle Association don’t call themselves “shooters”; they call themselves “marksman”.

Marketing professionals spend hours figuring out the right words to promote a product or service. As photographers we all talk about the “power of photography”. Similarly, marketers are fully aware of the “power of words”. So it is very important that we use words that gives our profession the dignity that it deserves.

Another terrible term we use is when we say that we “take pictures”. Isn’t what we do a little more involved than that? Also, what the heck is a “head shot”. We create professional publicity portraits but we don’t shoot somebody’s head. By the way, when we shoot with “available light” we don’t need flashes so we should charge less, right? However, if we create photographs with the implementation of “ambient light” we are fine art photographers and the fee is much higher. My point is that “available” is a weak word yet “ambient” sounds more enticing and better describes the process.

We have all heard some customers say “I can’t believe what you want to charge me, it is just a picture”. Well if we tell them we will “take their head shots” or “shoot their employees” no wonder they question our charges.

In my past employment, I often needed to hire photographers. I would get calls from photographers asking if I had any work for them. There was one photographer named Harry Wilks and he would call saying “Good day Mr. Stillman, I am calling to see if you have anything you would like me to photograph for you”. I got calls from many photographers but I would always hire Harry first because of the dignified way he would present himself.

So I suggest we take the time to think about what we say when we promote ourselves. Remember the words of Cousin Tony, “It’s all a matter in how you hold your mouth”.



Sins of the Photographer

I have a great idea for a new photo product. It is called photo reality, that is photographs that are free of all digital manipulation showing people and scenery exactly the way it looks in reality, free from digital manipulation. Recently, while I was swapping heads in a group photo I created, I had a strong sense of conscious that I was altering reality to the point of being a fake, a phony, and a fraud. The client said he wanted the best expression of each person in the group on final photo. Since my clients have become aware of how Photoshop can change people and things, they ask me to change things to the point of absurdity.

I am not talking about standard photo retouching to fix blemishes or remove telephone wires. I am talking about using digital manipulation to an extreme.

In an online video “Wet Dreams and False Images” produced by Jesse Epstein, it is explained that many retouches of photos in people magazine are beginning to feel guilty about their retouching work because it gives the public a false sense of reality. The video covers that in France the public health authorizes are asking for laws that will require magazines to disclose all retouching done in magazines. They feel that people are bombarded with beautiful images of phony people to the point of being unhealthy for that average person’s self esteem. In my opinion, we are no longer talking about removing a blemish or toning down wrinkles, retouching has come to the point that retouchers are creating a culture of phony beauty that simply does not exist. Instead of a photograph being worth a 1000 words it will be worth a truck load of donkey dust.

I photographed a wedding for some friends and the father of the bride was walking down the aisle with tears in his eyes. Boy was I proud of that shot. Then the mother of the bride asked me to Photoshop out his head and replace it with the head of him smiling from the reception. I was told he did not like to be portrayed in a negative manner because he was an important lawyer. So I went ahead and made the change and ruined the photo. I felt so dirty; I had to take a bath in Dextol after making the switch.

In another example, I photographed a business women for her web site. She asked me to narrow her face, lengthen her hair and enhance her eyes. Her objective to make herself look younger and full of energy. She was very happy with the results. The only problem was some of her customers commented to me that I made her look like somebody else who fell out of glamour magazine. So what the photo really communicated was that she had a problem accepting how she really look and created an image that made her look phony and not all that trusting.

We even have portrait retouching software that will automatically change a person’s face into facial perfection by a click of the mouse. I tried a trial version and was amazed how the people I photographed were changed to a manikin that did really look like them in an instant. I understand the software is very popular and has won several software awards.

Another issue with retouching is that many of our clients are so use to seeing photos of people retouched to perfection in stock photography, that when a regular photo of regular people is created they think it is a bad photo because people don’t look perfect. I recently photographed a group of executive and the client kept making me exchange heads from different photos and retouch their faces to the point of the absurd. The real weird thing was the faces were going to appear very small in the final photo. The client kept enlarging the faces on the computer to find fault with them.

I think retouching has come to a point that we as photographers need to realize that what we create has an effect on how the public perceives things. So I think we need to measure what we are doing with retouching so we stay within the guidelines of reality. I now understand that there is digital software that can create fake people that look so real you cannot tell they were faxed....really?



“It’s Just a Photo….Not Anymore”

By Tom Stillman


I read that 60% of the photography used on the internet is being used illegally. In other words people have stolen photographs from other websites thinking they were part of the public domain and that they can be used for free. Sometimes it is as simple as someone taking a photograph of a rock start and putting on their personal website or Facebook for their friends to see. In other cases photographs are stolen off the internet and used for commercial purposes by companies who can otherwise afford to pay for them.

For the most part when photographers photographs are stolen, all the photographer can do is send out a “take down” order. Even if the photographer has registered the copyright, the cost of taking someone to court on the federal level is too high considering you never know how the courts will rule. So what is a photographer to do?

Recently I got a letter saying one of the photographs on a website for an organization I belong was owned by Getty Images and they wanted to be paid $1000. They said if we thought we are being billed in error to notify them. Otherwise, we must pay the $1000. I was also told that a local baseball club placed and image of a Derek Jeter on their website and they too got a bill from Getty for $1200. So how does Getty know their images are being used without payment?

There is new image recognition software that scans the internet and finds images that are being used but were never paid for. This software works similarly to image recognition software. So millions of images are stored in a database and this new software can find out where they are being used. If the software finds an image that it cannot verify was paid for, the website owner gets an invoice. Also, rest assured, Getty has the financial capabilities to sue someone who steals their images in federal court so payment must be made.

So the days of stealing images off the internet is quickly coming to an end. Of course not all images are connected to an image recognition software database. But, enough of images are stored so that stealing an image becomes very risky for the thief.

The image used by my professional organization was not stolen and this issue was settled with Getty. However, it is important to note that Getty and other stock agencies bill first and ask questions later. So the days of stealing images leaving the poor photographer with little recourse is coming to an end.