10 Years at WPPI, 20 Years in Business, 40 Years Old

by Jerry Ghionis

Jerry Ghionis

June 03, 2013

This is definitely a year of milestones for me: I’m turning 40; it’s my 20th year as a professional wedding photographer; and it was my 10th year attending the WPPI convention this past March—what better time than now to reflect on my life, career and how I got to where I am today? I certainly do not feel old, and my wife Melissa will tell you that I’m still a kid at heart; I don’t expect that will change anytime soon. But I do believe I have changed and reinvented myself and my business in many ways over the years, and wanted to share here how exactly I’ve done that, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
 
Branding and Reinvention

We’ve all heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, I actually prefer saying, “If it works, make it better.” There is always a better way—usually a more efficient, less expensive and more effective way.  And the more experience you have as a professional photographer, the more changes you will see: in the industry itself, in wedding styles, and even in the types of couples that book you. So it is vitally important for photographers to be as passionate about their business as they are about their photography. In the 20 years I have been a professional photographer, I have managed three completely distinct studios and their brands.

When it comes to business, I have always been after something a little bit different—always chasing that unique selling proposition. I first began my career by working with another studio for three-and-a-half-years. It was there that I learned how to manage a business, but I was fearless with the decisions I’d make for the company because it wasn’t my own. I was responsible and treated the business as if I owned it, but deep down I knew that I could always walk away anytime. That actually allowed me to not be saddled by a fear of failing by which many new photographers are often plagued.  

Eventually, I spread my wings and decided to start my own business; I was completely exhilarated at the thought of driving in any direction I decided, win or lose. My first studio had very humble beginnings. We lost my childhood family home in the recession, and I had no real capital, so I created a small studio at the back of my brother’s fast-food chicken shop, which was no larger than an average-sized bedroom.  

The wedding market at that time was thriving: all you really needed to be successful was to have a decent body of work and a good personality, and the referrals would come easily.  My business name back then was FotoForte and I did quite well under that brand; my clientele was primarily European middle-class couples. While I realized that marketing and finding work came very easily to me, balancing work and life did not. I became absolutely obsessed with the thrill of the chase—I was hungry for work and with the desire to make the FotoForte brand successful.  

As a result, I photographed 25 weddings my first year in business, 50 weddings during my second year, 100 weddings my third year and 100 weddings again the year after.  I did all of this with no employees and photographed all of these weddings on film. I certainly was successful financially and made a lot of money, but I had no time to enjoy it. It was soon thereafter that I realized I desperately needed help and couldn’t keep doing it all myself.   

A Gold Class Experience

It was also around this time that I attended a Gold Class movie in Australia for the first time. Gold Class cinemas originated in Australia and provide movie-goers with a unique luxury experience. These theaters feature comfortable reclining seats, and waiters who provide you with gourmet food and alcoholic beverages during the movie. The tickets are more expensive, but Gold Class movies are frequently sold out as patrons are willing to pay a bit more to be pampered.

I was so inspired by my experience there that I began planning a complete reinvention of my business, realizing that I, too, could provide this type of experience for my clients. I began envisioning what my new studio would look like, the first step being  to find a more suitable location (I still was operating out of a bedroom-sized studio in back of my brother’s chicken shop).  

I approached my landlord at the time and it took me a full year to convince him to build a second level above my existing studio. It then took another full year to actually build it. The centerpiece to my new studio was my very own Gold Class cinema, complete with red carpeting, a large screen, surround sound, comfortable seating and the experience to match it all.  

A key element to this reinvention was to also change my studio’s name. Although I liked the FotoForte brand when I first created it, I began to feel after a while that there was no prestige to it, and I couldn’t picture it up in lights, so to speak. I needed a new name to go with my new vision for the studio—XSiGHT.  

My reinvention definitely worked. At its peak, my studio would see up to six couples at once in that luxurious Gold Class theater I replicated. There was a constant buzz and energy surrounding the studio and everyone working there. At one point, I had 15 employees and we photographed 300 weddings a year. I had photographers working for me, but I was still personally photographing about 80 to 90 weddings. Interestingly, when I rebranded myself, my clientele stayed the same—primarily European middle-class couples. But because I was projecting a different feel and a more luxurious brand, I also began re-educating my clients to spend more, and as a result, my sales averages skyrocketed. So while I still had the same market, I was getting very different results.

The Ten-Year Itch

After ten years of successfully running the XSiGHT brand, I began to feel the need to reinvent myself yet again. A big catalyst to this decision was when I realized one day that I had simply forgotten what I was working for. I was so obsessed with the thrill of running a successful business that I never got to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I finally decided to sell the business and instead created a boutique studio in a more prestigious neighborhood catering to a more sophisticated clientele.  

When reinventing myself this time, I decided to open a studio under my own name for the first time. My wife and I have also decided to simplify the way the studio is run and together we make a great team. We are the only photographers for the studio and we do not have any full-time employees, but we have learned to outsource much of our work. We each have our distinct roles in the studio, and together we are like a well-built machine. I take on a more creative, entrepreneurial role in the business, and Melissa is the managerial and administrative engine that makes it all happen. My new brand is still focused on luxury, but also with providing a more elegant and classy experience for my clients. Interestingly, my clientele still has not changed too much. Although I now attract some high-end clients, the majority are still middle-class professionals, mainly from the corporate world, who appreciate photography and are willing to pay for it. Who knew that all you had to do to make more money is charge more? It sounds a bit simplistic, but I’ve discovered over the years that if people really want you, and you are a certain price, then they have no choice.

Lessons Learned

Being able to document the decisions I’ve made and the path I’ve taken over the past 20 years has made me realize just how many lessons I’ve learned along the way. My experience has taught me that change and reinvention in business is necessary for growth. I definitely took some steps backward before moving forward, but it was always worth it. No matter how good you think you are or how good other people think you are, you have to continually reinvent yourself. If for no other reason, you must do it for yourself.  You cannot let your business become stale.

My best advice to newer photographers in the industry would be to think of yourself as a businessperson first who happens to be a photographer. You should be asking yourself, “Am I working in my business or on my business?” Always make time to work on your business—marketing, working with other vendors in the industry and asking for referrals.  

Also, to be successful, surround yourself with great people. Your studio is nothing more than four walls if you don’t have good staff.  Stop being a control freak and get some help. At a minimum, a small well-run studio should have a designated shooter, salesperson, production person, bookkeeper and office manager. If you can’t afford to have all of that staff, you can at the very least outsource certain aspects of your business such as editing, Photoshop, bookkeeping and even have an answering service to answer the phone when there is no one in the office. A business owner should not be doing it all his or herself if the goal is to be successful. We all certainly start that way, but you must make changes if you want to grow.

When it comes to marketing your new business, work on the kind that costs you nothing by first asking your clients and vendors for referrals and maximizing relationships with people who can help you. Also, try a same-day slide show at the reception. It’s the best direct marketing you will ever do and you can also charge good money for it. If you are going to invest in advertising, don’t think about the advertising dollars you are parting with, and think instead about the return. Whenever an advertising opportunity presents itself, ask yourself, “Is there a better way I can spend this money?” And finally, don’t forget to consider yourself a brand. Build it and they will come.

Growing Creatively

I’ve also come a long way creatively in the last 20 years. When I started, I really just wanted to photograph pretty girls. But I was also realistic and wanted to make money from what I was shooting. I soon realized that wedding photography was an obvious path to take. 

I carried bags for another photographer for nearly two years before I shot my first coverage, and I loved every second of it. I do believe that this on-the-job experience of simply observing and watching and learning (before ever picking up the camera at a wedding) was instrumental in my growth. I strongly feel that one thing missing in new photographers is that they start their businesses before they’ve trained or practiced and before they are capable of taking consistently good images.

This year, I attended the WPPI convention for the tenth year in a row. Looking back, I realize that I have been using the WPPI print and album competition to reinvent myself creatively every year. I first entered the competition in 2003, and I was excited and so proud to win first place in the album competition with a perfect score of 100. I also won the third place award and the Grand award that year. 

Those awards gave me the confidence to believe that my work could compete on an international stage. At every wedding I photographed after that first WPPI convention, I told myself that this was going to be the album of the year.  It made me think differently on the day and it made me photograph differently. It also made me think outside of the box and not do predictable poses; it got me out of my comfort zone; it made me not be lazy.  

When the time came to design my albums, I did so in a way that was different from the albums I submitted the year before. I tried to find a new element, a unique twist that had never been done before. As an example, one year I created a slim line album, in other years I produced a calendar style album, a vintage album, a square black-and-white album, an all-sepia album, an album inspired by a fashion magazine, an album influenced by Polaroids and collages, etc. I challenged myself to create albums that were not “typical” for me, and ones that the judges wouldn’t immediately recognize as one of mine. Although a signature style is synonymous with consistency, it’s still always good to try and surprise your audience. And this is a great way to challenge yourself to step outside of your own comfort zone. I’m proud to say that in the ten years that I have been attending WPPI and entering the album competition, I have brought home nine First Place Album of the Year awards and six Grand awards.

I’ve learned so much over the years about what you need to do to keep your creativity fresh. After 20 years of photographing people, I still find myself excited about the process and bursting with new ideas. You cannot let yourself become bored—keep feeding your mind and rediscovering the passion you once had for photography. I would much rather take a risk and fail than be safe and boring. Rather than concentrating on being the best, I concentrate on being better than last week and being different. I believe this is one of the keys to being successful and consistently creating beautiful images.  By doing that, you become the best that you can be —you realize your own potential.

Next month (in part two), Jerry Ghionis continues his journey of self-reflection as he examines how outside influences helped spur him creatively, how his own wedding two years ago to his wife Melissa helped infuse new life into his album creations, and how none of it means anything if you don’t take the time to slow down and enjoy it. 

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