Rites of Passage
Southern California, Orange County area photographer, Bill Hodge, isn’t fighting to secure high school senior contracts like so many other photographers. He is targeting very different opportunities, profitable opportunities that most other professional photographers don’t know about or just ignore. It’s working for Bill because he thinks outside the box.
Bill started his career in newspaper photography but began moving in to professional photography in the mid-1990s. He offered a wide variety of services including publishing calendars for banks and real estate companies. In 2002, he began offering event photography providing photographic services primarily for corporations such as when they would bring in their top sales people from across the country for a formal event that recognized their success. Among other things at these events, Bill did prom type photographs. From the very beginning he recognized the importance of being different from others and the importance of immediate delivery. He delivered his work immediately on site.
It was at this time that Bill began to recognize the importance of rites-of-passage, applying his corporate event philosophy to each of them. Bill explains, “There are many different kinds of rites-of passage. Graduating from high school is only one of them. There are so many others if you just think about it and they all become golden opportunities for professional photography. If your corporation flies you in for special recognition at an event, that is a rite-of-passage and certainly a major professional photographic opportunity. There is good reason to be professionally photographed and not just a collection of shutterbug snapshots. Graduating from elementary school to high school is a rite-of passage. Achieving any special recognition is a rite of passage. Graduating from college, law school, medical school, is a Rite-of-Passage. Becoming an Eagle Scout is a major rite-of-passage.”
Bill had been involved in scouting for years as a scout leader, committee chair, scout master, and commissioner. He came to realize that there was a huge unfulfilled opportunity here. More than 200 new Eagle Scouts would attend a special banquet honoring their accomplishment and there was no professional photographer. He started out photographing each Eagle Scout and printed on site four wallets along with information on how to order more prints. It was a dismal failure, because they simply went out and copied the wallets and fulfilled their own needs. Instead of quitting, he stepped back and through working with the Boy Scout council, he developed a program that would be a win-win for everyone.
The Eagle Scouts would come to the council headquarters at a designated time to be photographed without charge to have a 4 x 6 portrait go on the Eagle Honor Wall. If they wanted any extra prints for themselves, they had to order them right then with no opportunity to purchase later. Prints up to 8 x 10 were delivered immediately. Gradually Bill began to concentrate on differentiating his work, offering retouching services, larger prints, and canvas mounts. He laid out his program to accommodate those who wanted to spend the very least as well as for those who enjoy and cherish portraits and are willing to spend more. “Everyone has different price point sensitivities depending on the value they give to a product. We want to satisfy everyone’s needs.”
Initially, Bill was doing most of his work on location such as at Boy Scout Council headquarters but eventually began experimenting with having subjects, if they were relatively near by, come to his commercial location studio at designated times. He quickly learned that sales increased substantially when they came to the formal studio. “When I work on location, they see a guy with a camera, tripod and some lights. When they walk into my studio, they say, “Holy Cow! Look at all this impressive photography hanging on the wall.” They look at the facility and everything and they get more enthusiastic and they buy more, a lot more.”
Always wanting to be ahead, Bill is constantly looking out for new ways to impress his clients and increase sales. Before opening a studio, he received only a call or two per month looking for a studio portrait. That just wouldn’t support the investment of a studio. As time went on, he started receiving lots of calls about studio sessions and he opened a test studio.
He had just opened his test studio when he first saw a Scene Machine Virtual Backgrounds system at a trade show. Bill flew to Texas to take the three-day VB workshop. He still wasn’t sure he wanted a system until he went back into his studio and looked at his simple fabric and canvas backdrops. It was then that Bill realized that the Scene Machine could be a tool to set him clearly apart from everyone else and increase sales.
Bill has a basic rule about purchasing equipment. It’s called the 10x Rule. He has to see where any piece of equipment would pay for itself at least ten times over, preferably more. Bill saw tons of new photographers entering the event photography arena, and he knew he had to be different to maintain and grow his business. He soon ordered his Virtual Backgrounds system and returned again to Texas to take the training class all over again, this time as a system owner.
Bill has, in fact, been to the VB Learn and Earn center in Texas a total of four times and is planning on returning again soon. In addition to taking the Virtual Backgrounds class twice, he has also attended the Joseph and Louise Simone classic portrait workshop and recently attended the Richard Sturdevant composite art class. “I’ve spent probably more than $5,000 all together to go to the classes at Virtual Backgrounds - and it has been worth every penny of it.”
Bill’s use of Virtual Backgrounds has become a very key component in his success. For his Eagle Scouts when working on location, he uses two backgrounds, both projected, a canvas type background and a US flag background. When the Eagle Scouts come to his studio, he has hundreds of backgrounds to use. When he photographs any group, he has a wide variety of backgrounds, but he’ll only use two slides in large university or Scout events. For some colleges 50% purchase the painted projected backdrop and 50% purchase a graphic backdrop. However, at Scripps College, the background is of a key Scripps College building and 100% purchase the special background. “It is so important to come up with a key background like I do for Scripps College. It makes such a difference in enthusiasm for the portraits and sales.”
With a college minor in marketing, Bill understands sales. He explains, “Life is all about sales. You have to convince people to do various things like even convincing a woman to marry you, a boss to hire you, or to get a customer to buy your product. Only a hermit doesn’t need sales skills. Having a tool like the Scene Machine Virtual Backgrounds system certainly helps the sales process.”
Even during these difficult times, Bill is busy. He photographs the Eagle Scouts from three Boy Scout Councils covering Orange County including Los Angeles, Orange County, the Inland Empire, and Palm Springs. He also photographs a number of different colleges as well as normal high school senior work as well as walk-ins. When working in the studio, he can do between 30 and 50 portrait sessions a day.”
Bill concluded this interview by saying, “Show me a rite-of-passage and I will show you a customer.” Here at Virtual Backgrounds, we totally endorse Bill’s statement and wonder how much opportunity is out there that professional photographers are not taking advantage of. It’s a lot.