Thinking Outside the Box
Allen Johnson of Costa Mesa, California did not begin his career life with any intentions of being a professional photographer. He grew up in Germany and came home to America when he was 18. He soon joined the US Navy which took him all over the world and like most travelers, he wanted a record of the places and things he saw. Allen later met his wife, Kelly, and the two started a family that grew to include three boys and a daughter. As he captured their growing family’s memories, Allen discovered his enjoyment of photography. While in the Navy, he studied computer engineering. This training led to a position with a corporation as computer engineer, but his love for photography continued to grow and even be nurtured as he began helping friends with wedding photography and personal portraiture. As the compliments increased, he decided to get serious about photography, learn the craft and shortly thereafter open a small photography business in addition to his regular day job. He attended various conventions and enrolled in workshops; however, he is mostly self taught.
His first studio was his 15 x 20 foot living room in his home. To accommodate his photography, he had to remove most things out of the room, set up the studio, and then after the client left, he returned the room to being a living room.
Given the competitive pool of the Los Angeles and Orange County area, Allen acknowledged that in order to succeed he was going to have to be really different from other photographers. Several years ago, Allen attended WPPI in Las Vegas and first saw Off The Wall studio sets and the Scene Machine Virtual Backgrounds system. Both were too expensive for him at the time, but he felt that Virtual Backgrounds was a cost effective way to go because after the initial investment, he could have infinite background variety for essentially zero dollars and not have the problem of where to store the sets. A year later when he was ready to purchase, Off The Wall was out of business and he felt that Virtual Backgrounds was the better investment. At the next WPPI he met VB sales consultant Christian Feigl and Kentucky photographer Cindy Cofer and decided to get lease financing and ordered a Virtual Backgrounds system with a 10 foot x 9 foot portable screen. This size would best work with Allen’s many location shoots.
Allen decided to attend the VB workshop in Texas about six months after he bought the system. By then, he had many questions that were answered at the three-day workshop and also came away with new ideas for how to use his new Scene Machine to promote his business and increase sales.
Variety has always been an important factor for Allen. He has always looked for ways to inject variety to make his work different and to attract more clients and produce increased sales. Allen has found that if there is more variety to choose from, the clients usually buy more. His primary reason for getting the Scene Machine was to generate endless creativity. He mentioned that he had a Kiddie Kandids studio close to him but clients choose him for the creative edge and variety over the standard children’s photography being offered.
Allen related to us a very interesting story about his experience at a church sponsored “Daddy/Daughter Dance” which is like a mini-prom for young girls. Allen stated, “The girls come all dressed up with their dads. There were 500 dads. The Church brought in three different photographers to photograph all the dads with their daughters. Two photographers offered a plain dark muslin and I was there with the Scene Machine with a special background related to the event. I was privileged to receive 80% of the foot traffic. Sadly, the other photographers were not busy at all. The girls were really excited about our magic system and lined up to be photographed with our backgrounds. The other photographers came over to see me during intermission to see what I was doing. He said he had seen the Scene Machine before but never got around to buying one because he didn’t think it was all that important. I think he changed his mind.”
About a year ago, Allen heard about Diane Wilson, the Canadian enchanted photographer. He gave her a call and was absolutely amazed how much Diane taught him about what she does and how she does it even though he was never in one of her workshops. “Diane spent hours with me. I even sent her pictures for evaluation. Even though I now do enchanted photography, I still intend to attend her workshop in Texas at VB. I can’t believe how much some people are willing to help me.”
Allen’s best model for enchanted photography has been his daughter who in his words is “an awesome model” and is always willing to dress up. “I showed my enchanted images of my daughter to my bible study group and they just ate it up. They hadn’t seen anything like that before and they wanted their kids to be photographed in the costumes with the enchanted backgrounds.”
Allen states, “Many people think that enchanted photography is only for little kids but I decided to experiment by offering it to even young adults. My oldest client so far is 21. Even the older kids really love it - it sort of gives them a chance to experience childhood one more time and they purchase pictures! Then, because I have developed a relationship with them, they come back for other sittings, such as for their senior photographs. People will come in for multiple sessions if you give them good reason to come back again and again.”
The use of Virtual Backgrounds isn’t the only way Allen is different from most other photographers. For his wedding photography, he is very much against going totally photo journalistic and giving the bride a disk of thousands of images, nearly all of which are very similar to what most any amateur could do. Instead, he promotes himself as a more traditional wedding photographer, making sure all the timeless and most important photographs are taken properly, but then mixing in the candids as well. “By telling the bride that I provide both traditional images and the photo journalism, I make myself different from all the snap shooters and that brings me clients.”
“Today, there is a fad called trash the dress at the end of the wedding. I offer them an alternative. I offer them the opportunity to come in after the wedding for an elegant bridal portrait. They are taken back to their wedding day and the magic of that day. I am able to recreate the elegance of the day of the wedding and it is a whole lot better than trashing their dress. They love it and I sell images the amateur cannot.”
Allen has also started another venture associated with weddings. He sets up a portable studio at the reception and by special arrangement with the bride and pre-payment, he photographs all the guests and prints the images on site. He is looking forward to refining this opportunity and making it more profitable with extra sales.
“I’ve had other professional photographers ask me about my use of the Scene Machine and how I like it. I tell them that they have to leave their old habits. I explain that it doesn’t take long to learn to use it but once they do it, it will opens so many opportunities. I made my investment in Virtual Backgrounds and got it back rather quickly from extra sales. I am still a part-time professional, but it is my prayer to eventually go full-time.”
Allen has his family involved in his business. His wife, Kelly, does all the album design, helps set up the props and works with the kids, especially the girls. His oldest son is also interested in going into the business.
At VB, we always enjoy interviewing a photographer like Allen who is combining our system with his talent and entrepreneurship to build a successful business. That is what VB is all about: building equipment that helps professional photographers like Allen grow right out of the box.
Click here to go to Allen Johnson’s Web site: www.photobyallen.com.