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Survival Tips From Hanson Fong

Survival Tips From Hanson Fong

Nowhere is the pressure of competition greater than in the world of wedding photography. So, I turned to one of the world’s best known and most successful wedding photographers, my friend Hanson Fong, for answers to the question “How can wedding photographers survive in this economy and in this market?” Are his answers limited to weddings? No, Hanson  runs a successful studio and shoots families and portraits, too; his tips are universal. Attached is a video of the interview.

But, first, a few thoughts.

I don’t do weddings — I’ve done a couple and understand the hard work and technical challenges that wedding photographers face. But, because I don’t market in that area, I’ve never really focused on how competitive it is.

There are a lot of people doing weddings. Photographers, both new and old, work that market. Why? Well, as Hanson once told me — because there are a lot of weddings. People continue to get married. And, they want pictures of the event.

So, that’s the upside. There are a lot of potential clients out there.

The downside? There are a lot of potential photographers out there.

And, how they choose to compete sets the tone of the marketplace.

Last weekend I got an up front, in your face example of how tough that marketplace is. I did some lighting for a friend, Todd Ramos,  who was producing a fashion show at Houston’s Bridal Extravaganza. (More on that later — when I write a piece on “guerilla lighting”). Todd was late. So there I was, all alone, a stranger in a strange land, overwhelmed by all things wedding. As I wandered around, aimlessly, I had but one thought — when the time comes, I’m going to pay my daughter to run off to get married. I don’t think I can go through something like this for real.

With nothing better to do, I wandered up and down the aisles of exhibitors. There were  cakes and caterers, resorts and rooms, tux’s and tours, limo’s and lima beans — it was all there.

And, so were the photographers. Lots of them. I didn’t count but I’d bet that close to 25% of the exhibitors were photographers — and I’d bet there were at least 75 of them there. Always the academic, I tried to analyze their marketing strategies.

First and foremost, I learned that these shows are important. Some of the photographers got 20% or more of their annual business from this one show. So it was incumbent upon all competing there to market like it mattered — because it did.

A fly on the wall, with big eyes and elephant ears, I watched and listened.

What stood out most? How little differentiation there was in the presentations.

I’d say 80% of the booths looked the same. A variety of prints on the walls, a brochure/handout and a price sheet.

Among the sameness a couple of things grabbed my attention — one very good, and one very bad.

The best marketers? The photographers who made their sales pitches very personal. Who found ways to interact with their potential clients in a relaxed, yet professional way.

One of my friends, had a small booth. But, she has a very big personality. With her bright smile and energy, she was up front. Stop to look at her photo’s and she very comfortably and casually started a conversation. She was very effective.

My favorite booth at the show? A large multi-walled, very cool looking structure, black plexi-glass with the name of the studio in big while letters — and NO PICTURES ON THE WALLS. Inside the booth there were 6 “stations” — a wedding album at each and each manned by a photographer in a tuxedo. Each gave the prospective client a personal “tour” of the studio’s work.

What did these two approaches have in common? They were selling the relationship, selling the experience. They were showing their potential clients who they were. People want to be around people they like. People they trust. People who make them comfortable. It’s all about the relationship. That’s what sells. And, pictures on the wall and brochures don’t sell it.

Hanson talks about that in the interview.

But, before going there, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another form of marketing that was prevalent at the show — price competition. Perhaps the best example was a large sign in one of the booths offering “Two Photographers Unlimited Time” at a very low rate. Others were not so blatant. I heard many a conversation where photographers started to back away from the prices in their brochures when confronted with brochures with lower prices from competitors.

How do you compete when someone says, “The guy down there will do my wedding for $500.00. Can you beat that?”

Fortunately, I had asked Hanson that very question. Here’s his interview. I’ll be back to write a few closing thoughts at the end of the post.

Hanson — The Subtle Salesman

So what do we take away from this? I think some very substantial, though understated sales techniques.

Let’s start with Hanson’s  premise that “everyone wants to look good”. Although that’s a no brainer, Hanson uses it, expressly, throughout his sales presentation.

The unstated theme is “This may cost you a little more, but I will make you look good.” The theme is used in several areas as a way of countering the pressure to enter price competition.

First, Hanson introduces the concept of “enhancement” — enhancement, a very positive way of talking about post production or “re-touching”.

Experience has taught me to never tell someone that I will retouch his or her image. Even when I do post production work, I don’t boast about removing blemishes or wrinkles. The most I will say is that “No digital image comes out of the camera right. Of course, I will have to do some post production work on it. If you want it to look good.”

We can differentiate our work from that of others by selling our post-production abilities AND by charging for them. I particularly like Hanson’s approach. He holds up two copies of the same image — usually a face — one that has been “enhanced” and one that hasn’t, and asks — “Which would you rather have.” And, then he explains how much more he charges for the enhanced version. (Almost all faces need something — even those of high end models with carefully applied make-up. This is a strong technique.)

One thing stands out: if you are not charging for your post-production work, you are shortchanging yourself. Post production skills differentiate us from those who, though they may have the same camera, don’t have the same skill set. We deserve to be paid more than they do. And, we will be, if we sell our skills not just our images. As Hanson says, people have to understand that they are “paying for our talent”.

And, by selling the added value of post production we sell away from the “I’ll give you 1,000 images on a CD photographers”; as Hanson points out, there may be one or two great images amongst the 1,000, but most of them will need enhancement.

Second, Hanson deals with the “price shopper” with firm resolve and a sense of humor. He will not drop his prices. He has several gentle ways to overcome the “will you do it for less?” inquiry.

In the wedding context, Hanson obliquely introduces the “fear factor”. “You only have once to get this right. Do you really want to take a chance on someone without the experience and equipment to capture it as it happens?” I like his line “Do you want it done right or do you just want to get by?” And, then, the humorous punch line “You know, if you really want to save money, you might want to do it yourself.”

Finally, Hanson sells the relationship, the experience. Hanson is charming and fun — the kind of person you like to just hang with. And, he makes sure people see that part of him — both during a sales pitch and while shooting. No hiding behind the camera from Hanson. His personality fills the room. And, it is his personality that sells.


I’ve been pleased with the commentary generated by this “Survival Stories” section of my site. Please, keep it going by posting your thoughts, reactions and ideas.

(Copyright: PrairieFire Productions/Stephen J. Herzberg — 2010)

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6 Responsesto “Survival Tips From Hanson Fong”

  1. Lovely interview. Thank you, this is definitely a value-add posting.

  2. Dick Balcom says:

    I am amazed at the lack of comments on this. It makes me wonder if any real discussion is possible beyond the general whining about competition and technology advances making it easier for people to take pictures.

    Hanson’s interview makes some simple and straight forward points. Isn’t anyone willing to expand on them, if for no other reason than to get others thinking.

  3. Priceless interview…It’s so inspirational when the best of the best are willing to share knowledge and talents!
    Thanks and keep ’em coming!

  4. Kathy Hierholzer says:

    Hanson Fong is one of the most successful wedding photographers in the business. As usual he has words of wisdom on how to sell your wedding photography. I agree that we must do more one on one with our customers and educate them. I enjoyed this video.

  5. Bruce Lorenz says:

    good stuff, thanks

  6. carl says:

    Excellent interview.

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