Most of my clients know me as a headshot photographer. Others know me for my glamour and boudoir work. Some that have watched my competition work have noticed something else as well – I have what Mike Fulton called “a dark streak” several years ago. It’s true that sometimes darker imagery sneaks into my work – especially competition – but I promise there is a good reason for it.
In my spare time, I co-produce a haunted house. It started small, I just volunteered with a charity haunt. I did promotional photography for them and ran a photo booth on nights they were open during the season. Over the years, I began helping in other aspects of operation – including set design, scare design, marketing, and sales. Yes, I spend a good deal of my time coming up with ways to scare people.
During my time with the Haunt Industry, I’ve realized that it’s got a lot in common with photography and that photography could learn from some of the lessons I’ve learned.
In a haunted house, dark and shadows are extremely important. They are key to setting the mood. The right light shapes those shadows. The two working together are what sets the tone of the image you are trying to create. In both photography and haunting, they give dimension to your scene. Anything or anybody looks great when lit properly
2. Sometimes Your Clients are Going to Pee Themselves
Every competition cycle, I feel like I see at least one baby image beautifully lit and posed and there, in the middle of the image, is a stream from a baby boy in a lovely arc across the image. Every baby photographer out there has stories of “accidents” that happen during a session and the same is true of pet photographers. The point is, you have to be prepared for anything. At our haunt, we have the Five P’s – Pee, Poop, Puke, Pass-out, and Panic. We have plans in place for every one of these things when they inevitably happen so we can maximize the safety of our guests and actors.
Nothing kills a business faster than not taking it seriously. Haunted Houses look easy and fun. We just throw up some walls and scare people, right? Where have you heard that before? Taking pictures is easy. Making a business of it is hard work and the same is true of the Haunt Industry. You have to monitor cash flow. You have to budget for expenses during your off season (and ours is WAY longer than the photo business). You have to be judicious in your advertising dollar. You need to understand Return on Investment for any money you spend and you have to make sure you have all the proper permits in place for your location. If you do it right, it is supposed to look easy from the outside. Those in business will realize that it is not. The others do not matter, they will never be your competition.
With 30+ rooms and 50+ actors, a haunted house is a massive undertaking. One of the things that helps make it easier is to lean on trusted actors to run their areas. Yes, they still need oversight, but they know their rooms very well and they have the experience to modify the show to solve immediate issues with pacing or effectiveness.
Many photographers try to run the entire business by themselves. They are the artist, the accountant, the retoucher, the salesman, the janitor, and more. By outsourcing some of those jobs to outside contractors or employees, you can free up your time to do the things that are your strengths instead of wasting time on your weaknesses.
We used to have one actor who seemed like he was never in his spot. We’d get complaints from other actors that he was bothering them. We would plead with him, threaten to replace him, even bribe him to try and get him to stay put. Many of our volunteers are kids that do not have a lot of prospects in life, so we are reluctant to fire them – we want them to learn skills and work ethics they can take with them into their everyday life. He took a year or so off and when he came back, we put him in a different position. He soared In that job and became one of our best, most reliable people. He later left again and last time I saw him, he was managing a local Sonic store.
For those photographers with employees (or have your own children working as employees), if you have someone who struggles to get their job done – perhaps what they need most is a different set of responsibilities. We do our best when we are passionate about what we are doing. Our employees are no different.
A couple of years ago, we introduced the idea of extending the length of our show by adding “skits” to some of the rooms. When you entered the room, the actor would run through a planned set of actions and dialog – much of it ad-libbed, but within a set of parameters. Soon, all the actors wanted to do it in their rooms, with varying degrees of success. When every room ends up being a long, drawn out act, pretty soon none of them are scary. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no fear in a bang. Only the anticipation of a bang.” By scaling back the skits to only a few and adding back lots of traditional “jump scares” (sudden, startling scares), we brought back the anticipation and it allowed us to focus on the more talented actors.
In photography, it is the same way. In our compositions, we remove distracting elements. We add and remove light that enhances the subject. We focus on the primary subject by eliminating those less important distractions.
Many of our actors are teenagers. They have their own lives and struggles outside the haunted house. They struggle with school, have difficult home lives, boyfriend/girlfriend troubles, and more. Some of them have no other positive influences in their lives. Once, after hugging one of our more difficult people, my wife was asked, “Why did you hug him? I thought he drove you crazy.” My wife replied, “Because that is probably the only hug he’s had all week.”
Tom Landry had a policy with the Dallas Cowboys that I think applies to all of us: Faith, Family, Football. That’s the order your priorities should be. By embracing the idea that everyone around you has their own life and struggles, we can all get more done just by making some accommodations and having some empathy.
Many of our actors use costumes provided by the haunt. When you are trying to costume 50 or more people in an hour, you make do with every dark corner and black curtain you have available. Some of these spaces are tiny, but never quite as tiny as the places I have seen high school seniors and pageant girls change during a photo session. Do not underestimate their ability to change in the backs of cars, behind bushes, or in those micro pop up changing tents.
When we are open, I spend most of my time moving around, making sure that the actors have what they need and visiting with guests in line. Their questions are always the same. “Is it scary?” “Are there clowns?” “I heard chainsaws. Are there chainsaws?” Seriously. I smile and remind them they are at a haunted house. A good haunted house knows what people fear and does their best to have something for everyone. Part of the appeal of a haunted house for these people is the adrenaline rush they get from facing their fears.
We have our own fears in photography. Whether it is a fear of people, babies, momzillas, bridezillas, equipment failure, or print competition, they are there. We face those fears by educating ourselves and planning for the worst. While we are still afraid, we can go in knowing how to handle it. We have to remember, too, most of the time our clients are not professional models. They have not spent hours in front of a camera. For many, especially in boudoir, it is their first time doing anything like this. We have to understand their fears and use our calming presence to soothe them.
And when it comes to print competition – what are you afraid of? But that’s a topic for another time.
I discovered an interesting trend after a couple of years talking to guests in line. Almost every one of them had already visited or planned to visit at least one other haunted house that season. One season, I tracked it and the number was staggering. Over 90% of the people I asked fell into that category. Using this, I was able to approach other haunted houses in the area and do coupon exchanges – we would put out their coupons and they would put out ours.
This works the same way in our industry, especially if you work in a niche market. If you are a baby or boudoir photographer – team up with a wedding photographer. Senior photographers work well with family photographers. Do not limit your imagination to just other photographers. If you are a wedding or a boudoir photographer, team up with bridal boutiques. Pet photographers should approach local vets about networking. There are a lot more natural matches.
If you have a local affiliate guild, join it. Several years ago, I had a break in at my studio. They stole two camera body, lenses, a camera bag, and more. Within two days, I had loaner equipment from friends from Fort Worth PPA so that I could photograph a major job that weekend.
And if you have something to say – Teach. Write. Share. By helping each other, we improve the industry as a whole. This goes for the new photographers entering the scene as well. Do not just sit back and make fun of them for what they are charging or the work they are producing. Bring them under a wing. Improve the next generation of photographers, also. A rising tide lifts all boats.
We have turned some of the craziest things into haunt props. Broken tools make great atmosphere in a torture chamber. A leaf blower can give an unexpected surprise in a dark hallway. We have used collected branches to make a spooky forest and turned flower pots into spotlights.
I was recently on a cruise for my wife’s business. It made a vacation opportunity for me, so I brought only my Panasonic LUMIX FZ-1000 and nothing else. During the cruise, a friend of hers and her husband renewed their vows. Talking after, she told me of a photo she wanted to do at the rail with the sun setting behind them. It was an image that the cruise photographer did not know how to do. I have a pop up flash on my camera – no OCF, no diffusers, no light meter. So naturally I said, “Yes. I can do that.” Metering for the sky and putting a yellow plastic cup over the pop up flash, I was able to make a usable image for them that they absolutely treasure.
Unexpected is key at a haunted house, but just jumping out and saying, “Boo” is often not enough. We had a clown working one night that had some theater contact lenses. These lenses looked fairly normal in normal light, but under black light – they glowed. She met some guests in the haunt under normal light and greeted them with a light and cheery voice, skipping along in front of them asking, “Don’t you just love clowns?” When they responded positively, she would turn around (now standing in the black light), change her voice to a low growl, and say, “Well, then you’re going to LOVE me.” I believe the reaction of one set of guests was, “Oh, hell no” but I might be changing the language some.
Baby and pet photographers already know they have to mix it up a little when making sounds to get their subject’s attention, but you need to also think on your feet for your other clients, too. I have a collection of bad jokes to lighten up sullen teenagers. I have a list of emotions to throw at my actors for their headshots. By being unpredictable, you can open them up and get them to let their guard down.
The same thing goes for your photography. Are you photographing in the same places as everyone else? Mix it up. Scout new places. Does your work look like everyone else? Develop your own style with personal projects.
Think about applying the same concept to your marketing, too. Do not offer the same things everyone else is offering. Feature a unique product. Do a Halloween special. Be unique and stand out from the crowd.
For a few years of the haunt, we started using some of the “social coupon” websites that are out there. I will not mention their names but you know the ones. They offer insane deals of 50% or more off if you buy through their site that rhymes with “coupon.” Unless you’ve done one of these deals, you may not realize that the website takes at least a 50% cut of what they collect. We ran these specials and we were very, very busy while they ran, but we were not making any money. After forcing the owner to look at the numbers, it became obvious that on our regular $20 ticket, we were only bringing in $5 per person. After expenses, we were practically paying the guests to go through our haunted house.
The same may be true of your business. In the extreme example, the photographer that is charging $50 for 200 images on a thumb drive may be doing four, five, six or more sessions a week but if they looked at their true cost of business, they would realize they were not making money. I, personally, had a similar revelation several years ago about my wedding business. When I truly sat down and figured out my cost of goods and the total time I was spending on a wedding, I was making less than $10 an hour. I raised my prices across the board and I am making more money and taking fewer clients than I was before. I left the wedding niche to focus on my studio work using the same principals and was able to increase my profit there as well.
Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, is famous for saying this and it applies to any live performance. The same still applies to the photography industry. When I talk to photographers about stepping up their game through pricing, business practices, marketing, competition, or any number of topics – the most common answer is “I am not ready.”
Well, guess what?
It’s 11:29. Go out there and Be Epic.