We’d like to introduce you all to Karen Lippowiths, a photographer from Michigan that has been growing her business (successfully) over the past 8 years. Karen will be hanging out inside the forum giving advice and answer questions – jump inside here and start talking with Karen.
When did you decide to become a photographer? What does being a photographer mean for you?
I grew up in metro Detroit but lived abroad and in New York for several years. I was working in New York City as Director of International Legal Studies at NYU when, shortly after 9/11 and the untimely passing of my younger sister, I ended a long-term relationship and moved home. I was $35,000 in debt with no job prospects. I had nothing to lose and no commitments so it was the perfect time to ask myself, “What do I REALLY want to do with my life?”
I studied at the University of Michigan and Sorbonne in Paris but never pursued the arts (everyone knows you can’t make money in the arts, right)? I had a strong business background, however, and felt it was time to meld the two.
The reason I decided to pursue photography was perhaps the reason many of us make that choice – I took an image that moved me. It was visceral. I felt that “spark” knew that it was what I was meant to do.
Looking back on the last eight years, it’s clear that my perception of what a photographer was and what it means to me now has changed. Through a stronger understanding of running the business side, I’ve come to enjoy the creative even more. Unlike many of my peers, I suspect that I take a somewhat different approach as I see this as a “business first” venture. I always say that this is a sales job and that I would be happy selling any widget if it made me money. I just chose very pretty widgets.
Beyond the business, I’m incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with people in a very joyful way. While it’s work, photography is “happy work.” As I always say, there may be more money in other industries, but I’m lucky. I never have to sue anyone, tell anyone they have cancer, or foreclose on anyone’s home.
I look back on my body of work to-date and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I feel that I’ve worked hard to create a quality product and experience that has brought many families memories they’re treasure for a lifetime.
Describe a typical day.
As I’m sure everyone tells you, no day is typical. I shoot two sessions a week on average (fewer in the earlier part of the year, more in the fourth quarter). I’m quite structured in how I manage my week, shooting only Mondays and Fridays so that I can take off Tuesdays (my husband goes out of town and my five-year-old son is in daycare all day leaving my the indulgent pleasure of having the house to myself!) and I conduct other business appointments on Wednesdays and Thursdays. After many years of working on Saturdays, I decided last year not to work at all during the weekends, save travel sessions and other special events. This has been a life-saver. It’s so important to create and stick to boundaries!
On a shoot day, I arrive in the studio around 8:00 a.m. and spend time prepping or catching up on other work. Depending on the type of shoot, I’ll spend anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours with the client. Many of our shoots are “stylized” and involve wardrobe and other props, so we spend time designing and preparing for clients. Once the shoot ends, I sit down immediately and cull and “soft proof” (adjust for exposure, saturation, and sharpness) the session. I’ve gotten good at disciplining myself and I do this right away rather than waiting until a few days down the line. I’ve found that just like a client’s enthusiasm is highest right after the shoot, so is mine! Once I create the client gallery in ProSelect, I pull out a couple of images to hard proof for personal use on the blog.
When a client comes in for a design consultation, we spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the type of shoot and the collection they’re looking to design.
Once the design consultation ends, I aim to get back to the images as quickly as possible again so that the details of the collection are fresh (of course, I make extensive notes as well!).
The remainder of time is spent marketing, communicating, working with our financial information, and performing everything else that comes with running a business.
What are your favorite subjects to photograph? And how would you describe your style?
I only work with children. Not babies. Not seniors. And for the most part not families (we always get one or two of mom and dad in the end). Just children. I named my business Urban Kids so that I would specifically attract exactly what I want to shoot: kids in urban natural light settings.
Now that I have the studio, I’ve diversified a bit in my style, but I still predominantly shoot clean, crisp, colorful “commercial / editorial” style images of real kids. I would describe myself as an outgoing “colorful” yet structured person and I think my work reflects who I am. As much as I admire “special moments” and “pixie dust” photography done well, that’s not me. I’m color, sharpness, and bold lines.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I draw inspiration mainly from fashion magazines and catalogs. I emulate commercial photography and I work to create an experience that makes every client feel like “the star.” We often style shoots with wardrobe, props, and hair / make-up when necessary.
What’s your favorite image?
Oh, that’s a tough one. This shot is of my little guy in our back yard when he was 18 months. I took it for our annual holiday card. (See photo #1)
Tell us your most memorable photoshoot.
The most memorable recent shoot took place in Maryland last fall. I’ve worked with a wonderful client for the past three years who lives on a beautiful (expansive) horse boarding farm. She invited me back last year but plans became increasingly complex as the date drew near. At the last minute she had to leave for a funeral (in metro Detroit of all places!) just as I arrived in Maryland. We had what turned out to be a 40-minute window of sun left in the day to work with four children and the family altogether. To add to that, I was coming from a location 3 hours away and hit heavy traffic on the way to her. I was stressed to the max! I remember literally turning on my camera and setting the ISO as I screeched to a halt in the dirt driveway. We trudged through the field, into water, on the horse, and in various other settings in that 40 minutes. I walked away a complete mess! However, it was a great time and we laughed and played all the way through it. The images from this shoot are some of my absolute favorites and I was incredibly proud to be able to “pull it off” in such a short given time. Sometimes I crave predictability and “safety” of my studio, but then there are times like these when it’s pure adrenaline and FUN! (See photo #2)
If you could buy anything for your studio, what would it be and why?
I’m a very “lean and mean” photographer. I’m very often “out-geared” by everyone else. I buy what makes me money. Right now I feel like I have everything I need to run the business. There’s always some other prop, lens, or software I suppose, but I try to keep it KISS (in other words, I try to keep my money in the bank). Of course, I wouldn’t DIE if someone handed me a good wide-angle lens to complement my set.
What are the biggest personal or professional challenges you face? Anything you’d do differently?
Staying “up” in this business – in ANY small business – is tough! I’ve gotten better over the years but I still have my days. I would say (and my husband would agree) that I’m not the most patient person. I know what I want and I want it now. I’m constantly working on learning to take things in stride and find contentment in each day.
If I had known then what I know now . . . famous last words. I decided to raise my rates and move my business to the level it’s at now after working with Lori Nordstrom and Ann Monteith at the 3-day SMS program. It was terrifying but the absolute best move I ever made. I only wish I had done it sooner.
I have a clear vision for my business and know what I’d like to see in the next two, five, and ten years. I spend a considerable amount of time planning and envisioning the shape of the business. I think far too few photographers dare to dream.
I am currently in the process of considering a venture that would combine retail with photography. I think this is a natural fit given the style of work I like to do as well as from a marketing perspective. We’re in the early “feasibility phase” of deciding if this is the right move.
We just hired a studio manager, which will allow us to grow and develop in ways we couldn’t to this point. The goal is to ramp up business in anticipation of this new venture.
Advice for other photographers?
Don’t hang your dreams on the bottom rung. Don’t put yourself (and the rest of us) on sale. We all fear failure and rejection, so don’t think you’re alone in that. However, if you make decisions out of fear, you’ll never achieve your dreams. There are a million tactical things to learn about running a successful photography business, but it all begins with a successful mindset on day one. ::