From Inspiration to Innovation with Andy Strong
We all want to grow. To grow our business and our photography to that ever-elusive next level. The truth is, you can’t just sit around and wait for the next big growth spurt to come knocking down your door. If you’ve got a new idea that you need to get out into the world, you’re going to have to stretch those creative muscles and get comfortable being uncomfortable. One of our studio objectives is to dive deeper with our clients and focus on long-term relationships. One way that we have challenged ourselves to stretch creatively in this way is by expanding our pre-production process.
From a business standpoint, I want you to be able to create long-lasting relationships that include regular clients and repeated referrals. From a personal standpoint, I want you to feel fulfilled as an artist. That being said, here’s a five-step breakdown of our pre-production process. My hope is that our insights will inspire you to create new ways of connecting with your clients.
STEP 1: Investigation
We love to get as much information from our clients as possible before, during and after our sessions. In the beginning, our main tool for this was Google Forms, but we made the switch to 17hats last year to keep our questionnaires and workflows tidy and have never looked back. Every incoming client receives at least one questionnaire on their way through our workflow. Beyond the basic logistical inquiries, we have added questions that focus on storytelling and vibe, as well as provide insight for offering any appropriate package add-ons.
We’ve built up our asks through trial and error, and with one common theme in mind. We are always searching for clues to our clients’ visual vocabulary. In other words, what is their definition of cool? How do we create images that reflect this essence?
We ask two simple and complimentary questions as the opening act for all of our creative work. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how simply and directly the most basic-seeming inquiries can help point out idiosyncrasies and keep me on my toes. I have a feeling it’s because we are most similar in that we are all a little bit different.
Let’s compare some actual recent answers to guide the examples.
QUESTION 1: What are three words you’d like to use to describe your content?
- Swag, Approachable, Impressive
- Psychedelic, Fusion, Radiant
- Diva, Dramatic, Confident
- Fun, Confident, Leading Man
Can you imagine how different each of these sessions might be? As the director of the shoot, how might you speak with each person as they step up in front of the lens? What angle might you take? What lighting might you use? What lens choice is most appropriate based only on this question?
Why ask this question? We want to get a feel for what a client wants to see in their end product, how they want to feel when they look at it, and what style of language they are bringing to the table. We are already beginning to lead them in co-curating the experience, letting them know that their opinion and spirit will help shape the shoot.
QUESTION 2: Who are three artists or public figures whose careers you admire?
- Tom Brady, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Bond
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vulfpeck, Tame Impala
- Barbara Streisand, Carole King, Stevie Nicks
- Lin Manuel Miranda, Rob Evan, Sutton Foste
Again, clock the differences between the energy and artistic direction of each shoot. Take a moment to pick one of the selections, and see if you could visualize a pose or setting for it. Two questions, and it is pretty obvious which session involves an athlete, a band, a singer, and an actor.
Why ask this question? The career aspect of this question has been a key differentiator for us. It becomes less about who is “it” at the moment and more about long-term admiration and development. These celebrities and icons also become the cornerstone of inspiration boards that set the tone for both mood and technical aspects.
Bonus Tip: Treat each inquiry as target market research. What kind of people are reaching out to you? What do they like? Do you see any patterns? Any repeated requests for “edgy” or “dramatic” images? Does this reflect the work you are currently sharing? Try utilizing this information when creating your next marketing campaign.
STEP 2: Aggregation
Once we have our desired information, we begin to gather visual references for conversation and creative stimulation. The main tool we use for putting our images together is Pinterest. We begin to search through images of the public figures mentioned, looking for an essence of at least one of the adjective prompts we’ve been given. We’ll pick 10-15 images from each public figure. If we want more, Pinterest can autosuggest more visually similar photos to pick and choose from. This saves time and often helps find additional personas that match up with our goals. Ten to fifteen minutes will create a pretty healthy board, but more often than not, these continue to get added on during decompression time throughout the day.
STEP 3: Distillation
After throwing our inspirational paint at the wall, the next step is seeing what sticks. The main tool we use in this step is our own taste. Here are a couple of ways you can begin to make your own distillation from your images.
3a. First, shuffle photos around on your board and look for patterns in feel. What commonalities can you see? Take note of why you enjoy a particular image, and create a section with that key differentiator as the note. We have recently started creating four to six sections on our boards—one each for wardrobe, lighting, location, hair, makeup, and vibes.
3b. Now that you’ve determined what you like about a photo, let’s start to really boil the pot and concentrate this down to a handful of ideas. To use an example above: Could you take the hair inspiration from a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio, add in the wardrobe from a Tom Brady shoot, and mix it with the iconic poses of James Bond? Could we add a touch of approachable swagger in there for good measure? Now that you are combining resources, you are thinking in the right direction to create something more than a carbon copy of someone else’s work. You are working toward innovating your own results.
STEP 4: Fortification
Once we have a solid idea, our next step is to find any holes in our plan and come up with creative solutions. Our main tool here is old-fashioned pen and paper and 10-30 minutes of our time.
4a. The first layer we want to fortify is our creative idea. One positive and constructive way to do this is to pretend that you have already done the shoot. See what details you can visualize about your time on set or on location. Answer the question “What could I have done better?” Time yourself for 5-15 minutes writing down your answers. The point here is not to beat yourself up, but rather to prepare you for inevitable opportunities to tighten up your process. What are some of the things you “could have done better” that you can implement in your upcoming shoot?
4b. The second layer we want to fortify is our project objective. Ask yourself, “Why must I create this piece of art?” Time yourself for five to fifteen minutes writing down your answers. Try filling in the phrase, “I must create this work of art because I need to ___________.” What objectives emerge?
4c. The third layer we are fortifying is our creative self. When we innovate, we are putting ourselves out there to be vulnerable, and will no doubt come across some haters. When we have a solid baseline of knowing what aspects of craft and business we are working on, it becomes easier to take criticism for what it is: someone else’s subjective experience. Remember to be kind to yourself when you make the inevitable mistakes. Human error is human!
STEP 5: Implementation
Now it’s time to put your preparation into action. The main tool here is your own willpower to stick to the objective. Of course, at some points, it will be necessary to improvise and make gut decisions. Don’t be afraid of Plan Z. It might lead to the most interesting results. Remember, as an innovator, you are writing your own road map, so it’s ok to be confused at times. Take stock of your objective. Revisit and refine as needed. And keep going.
When we first started stacking on heavier loads of pre-production, it seemed counterintuitive to spend so much time obsessing over details that could easily be overlooked. A headshot session is inherently simple, and it seemed like we were making it overly complex because of some gut feeling. But we kept going. As time progressed, we have turned these fawn-legged experiments into concrete session add-ons that have more than doubled our average session spend and opened up pathways to artistic, soulful and fulfilling collaboration. Work that seemed extra or out of the ordinary in the beginning is now bringing in business that expects the hands-on attention and is eager to pay for it.
Real growth is as time-consuming as it is exhausting. It takes energy that might otherwise be devoted to items that are arguably more fun, or at the very least easier to deal with. Remember why people are coming to you. We don’t typically ask for photos of ourselves unless it is a monumental and pivotal occasion in our life. You might be surprised at what some extra time and energy getting to know your clients can give back to you.