How I Found My "Niche"

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I wasn't ever one of those artists that had an exact career trajectory. I knew what I liked and I knew what I didn't like, but I never said to myself, "I know I want to be a ____." I didn't even know for sure if I wanted to be a photographer at all. I kind of just thought being a photographer sounded cool.

When I was in school, I was really into studio fashion work and portraiture. My senior thesis project was based around a fictional world of characters from songs by the Beatles, such as Eleanor Rigby, Lady Madonna, and the Taxman. I did everything from the makeup to the lighting.

And I loved it.

"Taxman" 2008

"Taxman" 2008

When I started shooting weddings in 2012, I thought this love of fantasy would turn into me attracting couples that only did theme weddings, which is so niche I didn't even know where to start marketing to those cool people.

So instead, I started to encourage my friends to play dress up. And by "encourage" I really mean "force." I knew I needed a portfolio to reflect the type of photos I wanted to eventually be paid to take.

The first mock engagement session I ever did was a play off the movie Moonrise Kingdom. The movie had just come out at that point, so the idea was still new and exciting (but now, I think I've seen a million Moonrise Kingdom engagement sessions).

I swear this was original in 2012

I swear this was original in 2012

Now I know that these types of "mock sessions" are really just called "styled shoots" in the industry.

Once I started getting busier, my clients began looking to me for suggestions on what to do for their engagement session. Honestly, I just wanted them to have fun. And I wanted to have fun, too. I knew my job would get really tedious really quickly if every shoot had the same prom poses with the same location.

And then it clicked.

Everyone is unique in their own way, right? Maybe my clients  don't like playing dress up, but there is certainly at least SOMETHING they like to do. Maybe they don't normally go to parks and hold hands and do corny things while skipping through the grass into the sunset. I honestly don't know if I'd want to meet the person that does this in their spare time.

So I started to telling my clients, when it comes to planning your engagement session:

I was open to any and all suggestions. No idea was too weird.

Then, it happened. One of my couples loved the idea of doing something that was totally "them." They didn't want to gaze into each other's eyes on the beach at sunset. They didn't want sunset at all, they wanted to get tattoos together at night.

They still gazed into each other's eyes, though. It was an engagement session, after all.

They still gazed into each other's eyes, though. It was an engagement session, after all.

That shoot was challenging and fun, from figuring out the lighting to getting to know my clients, (who are now dear friends of mine and just had their first baby!).

I was hooked. And thus began my career-long obsession with doing anything my couple felt would be "fun." 

I photographed couples going on perfect dates. I started working with props.

I went on a road trip all the way up the coast to Big Sur.

And on our way home we stopped at In n' Out.

Some couples really went all in.

...while others chose to stay at home and make s'mores.

And these two just wanted to embrace in the snack aisle.

That's the most romantic place I know, too.

That's the most romantic place I know, too.

It's really rare that engagement sessions get published anywhere. Weddings are where it's at. No one wants to see 20 photos of people who they don't know making out, they just want to know about the things. So trust me, I'm literally only doing these because I think they are fun for everyone and they help me really get to know the people I work with. 

So, there you have it. My niche. I have no idea how it will look 5 years from now, but I know I'm going to meet a ton of people with incredible imaginations and I'll have a lot of fun along the way.

And I can still play dress up whenever I want to.

And I can still play dress up whenever I want to.

the best business (and life) advice i ever got... from michael phelps

Olympian Michael Phelps to date has 28 medals, 23 of which are gold medals. He is not a business owner. But I recently heard a story about why Phelps is so consistently successful, and it has become the single most helpful piece of advice that I bring with me (along with my camera bag) to every gig.

Everyone has heard of "The Secret," right? If you can believe in it, you can do it? Well, whoever wrote that crap should've talked to Michael Phelps. This is the real "secret":

The key to success isn't visualizing what should go right. The key to success is visualizing what could go wrong, and having a plan of action.

Michael Phelps trains every day. He's an Olympian, duh. But you see, all Olympians practice. Nothing about practicing makes Michael Phelps special or different from any other athlete. The difference is Michael Phelps takes his practice to the next level. He uses visualization techniques before, during, and after practice. He visualizes the perfect race. He visualizes how it feels if everything goes right.

And then he starts to visualize things going wrong.

One of these visualizations included a common issue that swimmers face: goggles filling with water. I swam competitively in high school and I know first-hand that if you are blind, it's nearly impossible to win a race. You can't see the line at the bottom of the pool to stay on course. You can't see the lane dividers. You can't see, period. 

So, Phelps would practice in the dark. He memorized approximately how many strokes it took to get from one end of the pool to the other. And he'd visualize these blind stokes every day before and after practices.

In 2008 during the Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps's goggles filled with water when he dove into the pool during the 200m Butterfly. So he counted his strokes, and he finished the race blind. And he won gold.

OK, so now you're saying,

but I need you to just sit right back down and be patient because I'm about to drop some serious knowledge on you. 

Picture this:

I attended a rehearsal for a wedding I recently photographed, and during the entire run-through of the ceremony I noticed a family-member recording video on her iPhone. This normally wouldn't be an issue, but this guest in particular was way up in the bride and groom's personal space. I'm talking closely hovering around the couple and circling them like a hawk through the entire rehearsal. Had it been the actual wedding day, she would've been blocking the bride and groom in every. single. one. of my photos.

Not really the most romantic memories to have. I was hired to do a job, and something (in this case, someone) was literally standing in my way of success.

This could not happen on the next day during the wedding. But what was the most professional way to handle this? It's time to use the Phelps method. Or, as I like to refer to it:

W.W.M.P.D.? what would michael phelps do?

*This is a photo of me doing my job, no matter what the day throws at me. Photo by  Victoria Gold Photography

*This is a photo of me doing my job, no matter what the day throws at me. Photo by Victoria Gold Photography

So what WOULD Michael Phelps do to prepare for this? Would he risk insulting her by pulling her aside and kindly asking her to sit down? Is she the type of person to not listen, even if she was asked politely? 

It's not my job to tell someone they can't take their own photos during a loved one's wedding day (I can talk more about my opinions on "unplugged" weddings another day). But for all I knew at the time, if I didn't do something, it had great potential to interfere with my job and jeopardize the success of the wedding photos. 

So I decided I would sleep on it and before I went to sleep, I visualized it happening during the ceremony. And I came up with a game plan.

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step one:  be aware of the potential issue and do what you can to prevent it from happening before anything actually happens.

Phelps practiced in the dark, so you should too (metaphorically). In  my situation, in an effort to stay professional and not insult any guests, I pulled the officiant aside on the day of the wedding before the ceremony and asked her to make a tiny announcement to guests as they take their seats : stay seated during the ceremony and to keep clear of the center aisle if they wanted to take a photo. I knew if I at LEAST had the aisle clear of guests, I'd get all the necessary photos for the bride and groom. And if they stayed seated, I'd have even more angles and opportunities for other photos, too.

Step Two: Figure out your damage control.

Say you do everything to prevent the dreaded thing from happening, and it still happens. What are you going to do?

Look, you can only control so much. You cannot control what other people do. But if you want to be a professional, you need to know how you are going to handle a tough situation when it's thrown at you. 

I thought, if worse comes to worse I could always maneuver or politely tap a shoulder to remind them there is a professional there that is paid to get "the shot." The worst case scenario would be physically pushing someone out of the way (which I have done and am not afraid to do. I'm watching you, Uncle Bob).

Fortunately, my prevention tactic worked. The officiant politely reminded everyone to stay clear of the aisle for the photographers, and everyone stayed seated. I even think the announcement reminded guests that they were there to witness and be included in photos! 

Step Three: be a total badass on the reg and don't be sorry about it.

You can apply this worst-case-scenario technique to anything: A big presentation. Asking your boss for a raise. Traveling somewhere new. Your wedding day. Visualize the possibilities of what could go wrong, think of ways to prevent it, and then think of your back up plan. E-mail your presentation file to yourself, just in case you forget the USB. Figure out where you'd need to go if you lost your passport abroad. Get a tent in case the weather predicts rain during your outdoor wedding day.

It's also an important practice to help face our fears. What is the worst-case scenario? Lose your job? Will you die?  (If you are likely to die, maybe it's not worth it to begin with).

What are some solutions or ways to avoid those possibilities? What's the back-up plan? 

And most importantly, even if things don't go according to any plan...

 

Until next week,

Casey