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August 13th, 2009

AFTER STAFF Expert of the Day – Rachel LaCour Niesen, photojournalist turned wedding photographer

Posted by Rachel LaCour Niesen

Rachel agreed to speak on behalf of LaCour Photo, which she founded with husband Andrew and fellow ex-staffer Mark Adams. LaCour’s fast rise is a testament to the success photojournalists can have in the wedding market. Of course, being whip smart and always eager to help doesn’t hurt either. When Rachel was helping brainstorm this series, I threw out some broad topics and was amazed to get all this back.

Ask her about technique, workflow, marketing, or anything else that’s on your mind — I’m sure you’ll be equally impressed. Leave a question in the comments section, along with your website if you have one, and she’ll respond asap, also in the comments, so others can benefit from the good advice.

Rachel LaCour Niesen

www.lacourphoto.com

As a photojournalist, I have pursued projects focusing on rural communities in Latin America and the Southeastern United States. My work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. I earned a degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, where I was named one of the Scripps-Howard Foundation’s Top Ten Young Journalists.

When I stumbled upon wedding photography, I quickly traded my front row seat to world history for a front row seat to family history. Along with Andrew Niesen and Mark Adams, I started a wedding photography company, LaCour, which was named among the “Top Ten Wedding Photographers in the World” by American Photo magazine. I’m also a co-founder of ShootQ, innovative web-based studio management software designed to free photographers from the tedious tasks of managing their business.

Click here for a list of all other “After Staff” posts.


20 Comments

  1. August 13th, 2009 at 9:56 am

    Candice Cunningham

    Rachel you rock, cant wait till you bring back the LaCour mini mags :-) love ya Candice Cunningham

  2. August 13th, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Twitted by jennysunphoto

    [...] This post was Twitted by jennysunphoto [...]

  3. August 13th, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Thanks, Candice! Stay tuned…the LaCour team is planning a branding update that will include a revamped LaCour magazine & website :)

  4. August 13th, 2009 at 10:04 am

    J Sandifer

    LaCour is terrific! I have followed the rise of the brand and the introduction of ShootQ, being thoroughly impressed every step of the way! Congrats to you, Andrew and Mark…many continued successes!

  5. August 13th, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Chase

    Gorgeous site and beautiful images, very stunning and inspiring to say the least.

    I am new to the wedding photog biz and I love it. I am looking to bring in more business and get to the point of leaving the 9 to 5 and go full time.

    With that being said, the obvious question is, as a seasoned professional, what is your take on going about that?

    Also, do you believe in diversity or one focus? Meaning I love to shoot people in general but also love weddings, etc.

    Thank you for time and this contribution to the community, tremendously appreciated.

  6. August 13th, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Jeremiah Colling

    Hi everyone,

    I was wondering if you could provide some tips on how best to maximize bookings for wedding prospects who send inquiries in via your website or other contact form.

    For example, is it best to try and call/meet with them before giving any specifics on rates/packages? If you respond to their initial inquiry and then they don’t follow up does that always mean they aren’t interested?

    Seems like some brides are all about price and they treat wedding photogs the same — (ie, they all provide the same service, so why not go with whoever is cheaper?)

    Thanks!
    Jeremiah Colling

    http://www.collingphotogallery.com

  7. August 13th, 2009 at 10:21 am

    caroline

    My questions would also have to be about bringing in business. I’m just not getting inquiries, and feel like I’m out of ideas on how to help people find me. How do you get your name out there?

    http://www.mooreclick.com

  8. August 13th, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Joel Llacar

    Hi Rachele.

    I just wanted to ask about your thoughts about “Fusion”. What is your take on this new “service”, I should say. Do you think it has a place in our industry?

    Thank you in advance.

  9. August 13th, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Tommy

    Hi Rachel,

    I just read your insight in last month’s Rangefinder. Your advice and outlook on the whole photography industry was very helpful.

    I guess my question is basically inline with most people here.

    What is the most effective marketing strategy to bring in more inquiries? Is general advertising still effective at all or worth pursuing?

    thanks again for your time.

    Tommy

    http://www.jatstudios.com

  10. August 13th, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Hey Chase,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    It sounds like you’re at an great transition point. Considering to leave your 9-5 and build your own business is simultaneously one of the most challenging and most exhilarating decisions you’ll ever make!

    Here’s a bit of advice, based on my experience jumping out of the safety net of a “real” job and into the fun free fall of business ownership. Trust me, it may feel like a free fall at first, but it’s totally worth the lessons you’ll learn from spreading your photographic & business wings!

    First, we all want our businesses to take off, and most of the time as quickly as possible. But do we understand what it takes to scale up? How will we handle the increased demands that come with managing more shooting, more clients, more orders and more production?

    One mistake the LaCour team made was not implementing good systems BEFORE we started to take off. That led to a lot of stress that could have been avoided.

    You really need solid systems in place to scale your business. Good systems give you a foundation for growth and success. As your businesses grows, it’s easy to spend a lot of time doing “busywork.” Tedious tasks like scheduling, production, accounting and communication can leave you little time for important priorities like sales and marketing. 

    Foundational systems can include relationships & technology.

    • Develop a strong personal network with colleagues before taking the plunge into business ownership. Your network really is your networth – when you need advice and guidance, you can turn to trusted colleagues. It’s like built-in business consultation :) Also, your colleagues can become your best referrers. If they are booked for a shoot, they might pass it along to you. In the wedding industry, planners are a huge referral source. We focused on a few planners that share a similar vision as LaCour. When they send us a client, we are nearly guaranteed that it will be a fantastic job! Another important relational system is money management – work with a CPA and establish a good relationship with a local bank and/or the SBA. Remember that it’s important to delegate some financial management to specialists. Do this EARLY rather than later. You’ll be better organized and in a better position to scale your business responsibly.

    • Consider outsourcing tedious tasks so you are freed up from back office work and have more time for marketing your business. Get a workflow system in place for everything from backing up your digital assets to designing albums to delivering proofs to clients. Consider the little tasks, too. Who is handling shipping, answering the phone, replying to new client inquiries? Can you hire an intern or an employee to handle those tasks? Or, look into studio management systems. Full disclosure: the LaCour team developed ShootQ because we made the mistake of NOT getting a management system early in our business development. Necessity is the mother of invention :-) There are a few systems available; try them out and find the best fit for your business. When you are free from tedious tasks, you can focus on what you love – being creative, building your business, investing in your relationships and giving back to your community. Those are the activities that will really benefit your business and feed your soul.

    Specialist vs Generalist:

    Your question about diversity vs focus is important. I also enjoy photographing people, whether at a wedding or a news event. The important thing, in my opinion, is the perception decision makers have about you. Your audience will make decisions to hire you based on how they view your business focus. I think it’s wise to segment your markets and your branding efforts. Create one website for your wedding work and another for commercial, for example. That way, brides will view you as a specialist. Most people feel more comfortable investing in someone they view as a professional specialist. If I need the best pediatric surgeon, for example, I’m probably not going to go to a general practicioner. Framing yourself as a generalist can be dangerous because it sends a muddled marketing message. Your audience (clients) need to remember your brand, your work, what you’re “known” for quickly. You must stay top-of-mind. Another note: John D. Rockefeller said, “Everything that is watched improves.” For me, that means that I need to focus intently on one thing at a time. For the LaCour team, that meant building our wedding brand & business first. Then, we branched out into a new market: software. And that’s another new adventure :)

  11. August 13th, 2009 at 11:15 am

    Chase

    Rachel,

    Wow! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, thats about 6 more paragraphs than I expected. You are a gifted writer as well.

    You spoke on several things I was suspicious of due to my background in graphic design and advertising and confirmed what I thought. My heart and head thank you.

    I hope these answer help others reading this blog.

    Thanks to Gene Higa for the tweet and link, this is a tremendous resource and I am grateful.

    Chase

  12. August 13th, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Jeremiah,

    My experience with marketing & sales tells me that there are 3 key ways to maximize bookings:

    1. Get qualified leads. This starts before the sales process, and has more to do with your marketing message and your key vendor relationships. We have a clear marketing message with a limited scope: LaCour values history and the legacy left by individuals and families. LaCour believes that storytelling is best accomplished by using a “hands-off” documentary approach that depicts reality. LaCour believes that sensitivity and discretion are key to storytelling. We also have very clear boundaries. (What we Do Not Do, which is just as important as What We Do) LaCour does not manufacture products in-house, spend time or effort excelling to create non-storytellling images, emphasize volume, emphasize studio lighting, offer a multitude of product options. If you check out our website, you’ll quickly notice that there aren’t any posed photos in our portfolio. We know brides will inevitably need a few family photos, but it’s not why they hire us. So, we don’t show them on our primary site. Those images would simply dilute our marketing message and steer brides away from our core competency: documentary storytelling.

    2. Disassociate yourself, the creative professional, from actual numbers. The more right-brain and conversational you can be with your potential clients, the less opportunity they’ll have to start price shopping & comparing you to others. Make your self incomparable by focusing on sharing your passion and vision. Get to know clients first and encourage them to share their excitement about their wedding. Then, you can share pricing with them. We only present our prices after having at least one phone conversation or in-studio meeting with a prospective client. If they are in-studio, we don’t give them a price list to take home. We simply say that we will follow up with a Custom Collection for their wedding. Then, we send them about 3 Custom Collections via ShootQ, the system we use for our bookings & communications. Immediately, we removed ourselves from the hard-sales process involving numbers and left brain decisions.

    3. Be prompt & proactive. This sounds simple, but many of us forget how important it is to follow up with inquiries quickly and proactively. People are busy, but they still want to feel valued and appreciated. The quicker you can respond to them and show genuine interest, the more connected they’ll feel to you personally. I think Dale Carnegie once compared a sales prospect to a hot cup of coffee. It cools off quickly, so pick it up and drink it up before it has a chance to get cold. That’s even more true in a competitive market. Your prospect may have already contacted a few other photographers. Make yourself stand out by being sincerely responsive. And find a way to connect with them that has nothing to do with photography. It could be books, art, music, whatever interests may unite you.

  13. August 13th, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Caroline,

    I think the best way to bring in more business is to hit the pavement, get out into your community and meet as many wedding professionals as possible. Go to industry events, join organizations, take folks out to lunch. And then, when you land a great job with one of your new contacts, follow up, follow up, follow up! You have something so unique to offer them: a beautiful, visual way to showcase their work! We have a few venues that consistently refer us great weddings because we have been extremely proactive about giving them images for their marketing pieces. We selected our top venues and vendors and make them sample albums, complimentary framed prints, etc. The old adage, “the more you give, the more you get,” is very true! And don’t automatically expect something in return. Your generosity will mean more if there are no strings attached :)

  14. August 13th, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Frederick Van Johnson

    You guys never cease to amaze with your photographic, entrepreneurial, and marketing prowess. Keep on keepin’ on!

    Frederick Van

  15. August 13th, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Hey guys and gals asking about marketing strategies to increase inquiries!

    At the risk of embarrassing some dear friends, I wanted to share this with you:

    http://www.chrishumphreys.typepad.com/

    Chris & Katie are talented photographers whose sincerity and authenticity impress everyone they meet! Rather than invest in traditional print advertising, they have wisely invested in relationships. You’ll see from their latest blog post that they featured a friend and caterer named Kristin. By showcasing her creativity and business endeavors, Chris and Katie probably generated some new business for themselves. But I’m betting that’s not why they participated! They know that investing often means pouring positive energy into others with no expectation of immediate return. I think this is one of the best ways to do business!

  16. August 13th, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Hey Joel,

    I was waiting for someone to bring this up. Glad you did! “Fusion” is an interesting service, for sure. But it’s not as new as the wedding industry thinks it is :)

    In 1997, a photojournalist named Dirck Halstead wrote “The Platypus Papers,” in which he described a new breed of journalist: one with the skill to operate a video camera and simultaneously cover a story with a still camera. He compared this strange new hybrid — part still photographer, part camerman, part soundman, part producer — to the Platypus, a mammal with webbed feet, a beaver-like tail, and a duck-like bill. The platypus is one of the longest surviving, adaptable creatures!

    I do think that in order to survive quick changes in technology and increasingly saturated markets, visual professionals must be adaptable. Adopting new technologies and translating them into exciting services for our clients is a great survival strategy. But it also involves intense preparation and training. I’m not the technical guru on the LaCour team, but I do know how much post is involved in video production. It can be time consuming, so pricing the service should account for lengthy post production.

    Adding “Fusion” to your offerings actually relates directly to an important business concept: Core Competencies.

    Core Competencies are:

    Things you are good at, Things you know how to do better than anyone else, based on your experience, knowledge and resources. Core competencies ARE NOT simply a list of your products and services.

    A core competency is something that your business does well and that meets the following conditions:

    It is VALUABLE: benefits your customer
    It is RARE: something you possess that your competitors do not
    It is COSTLY TO IMITATE: difficult for competitors to emulate

    If you can produce amazing Fusion pieces for your clients, it could be considered a Core Competency and would inevitably distinguish you from your competitors. But it’s still critical to consider SCOPE. Don’t try to do too much – stick to being a specialist, whether it’s as a still photographer or a Platypus or “Fusion” photographer. Be known for something, or you won’t be remembered at all.

    Here are a few links that may be helpful:

    http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0811/platypus-2009.html

    http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0206/komenich.htm

  17. August 13th, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    The Wedding Times » AFTER STAFF Expert of the Day - Rachel LaCour Niesen, photojournalist turned wedding photographer

    [...] Rachel agreed to speak on behalf of LaCour Photo , which she founded with husband Andrew and fellow ex-staffer Mark Adams. LaCour’s fast rise is a testament to the success photojournalists can have in the wedding market. Of course, being whip smart and always eager to help doesn’t hurt either. When Rachel was helping brainstorm this series, I threw out some broad topics and was amazed to get all this back. Ask her about technique, workflow, marketing, or anything else that’s on your mind — I’ Source: http://blog.livebooks.com/2009/08/after-staff-expert-of-the-day-rachel-lacour-niesen-photojournalist… [...]

  18. August 13th, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Allen

    Love your work, Rachel. They are awesome, to say the least.

    Similarly like Chase, I’m getting bored with my 9-5 job and found doing weddings and portraits fun. The past couple of years, I’ve been tagging along with a pro just to pass my time while learning. I’m enjoying it while having the opportunity to mingle with everyone in the weddings while honoured to document these events. This pro that I’m tagging with has been encouraging me to venture out on my own in the last few months and perhaps one day a collaboration may be possible.

    It’s the fear of losing the safety net but at the same time the opportunity to learn by having to manage a biz of my own is certainly a worthy cause. However, the fear of stepping out of the comfort zone exists. I do hope my 2-yr transition will work out.

    http://www.whoalse.com

  19. August 14th, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Rachel LaCour Niesen

    Hey Allen,

    You’ve probably heard the business adage, “Success is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I think you have to recognize when opportunities are worth pursuing, but also have a plan in place for pursuit. Creating a 2-year transition strategy is very smart. That strategy should involve saving a cash reserve as well as accumulating a strong network of contacts in your region that will send you consistent work. Start taking folks out to lunch now, with the knowledge that you’ll be forging ongoing working relationships. Shadowing/assisting/second shooting for a colleague is a good way to ease yourself into the eventual role of business owner and primary photographer. Definitely consider collaboration; we’ve benefited from having a team of 3 photographers that keep one another motivated and focused.

  20. August 14th, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Jeremiah Colling

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks so much for all the great advice. I appreciate the lengthy response and the effort you put into helping myself and other photographers out there. Keep up the great work!

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