Russ and Nancy Hanson have had a life-long career in a wide range of activities in professional photography. However, the Perfect Storm has had devastating effects on their business, as it has affected most everyone in professional photography. They recently, however, have discovered the opportunities that are available in providing churches with high quality professional Church Directory services which they have now developed into a thriving business venture. The Scene Machine virtual background system plays a critical role in making their new venture work.
Russ earned a degree in photography from Southern Illinois University in the early 70s. He initially worked for the South Dakota tourism department for several years before moving to Paducah Kentucky for 4 years to work with a very large general services studio there doing everything from school photography to weddings to HS seniors and commercial work. He then returned to tourism photography, this time for North Dakota, where he met his wife Nancy, a newspaper reporter and editor, writer and publisher. In 1984, they moved to the Fargo/Moorhead area and opened their own studio that specialized in commercial photography. In 2003, as the Perfect Storm began to destroy commercial photography, they expanded into portraits and weddings working from their main street storefront location and later from their home. Then the Storm began to seriously affect their portraits and weddings. There are 85 people advertising themselves as photographers in a community of only 200,000 plus many others who work without advertising at all. The Hansons feel fortunate that two photography friends suggested that they try church directory photography.
Just as their studio business was faltering, Russ saw the Scene Machine in 2006 at the Northern Lights trade show and was immediately infatuated with the potential. Without knowing what he was going to do with it, Russ purchased a VB system without really informing his wife until the shipment arrived. Nancy says, “I was so mad at Russ. He bought this expensive Scene Machine just when the business was really shaky and we were cleaning out excess studio equipment to generate money. I suggested that he get permission to return it. Then he kind of just let it sit there, unused for months. I finally pushed him to either attend the VB three-day Workshop in Texas or sell it! The workshop gave us both not only all the information we needed about operating the Scene Machine but it also helped us generate new ways to restructure our business. We also attended two Chris Wunder workshops on church directory photography. The Scene Machine and the Chris Wunder workshops changed our lives.”
Initially the Hanson’s just used their new Scene Machine to enhance their portrait work, which it did, but then in 2008 they decided to get serious about church directory work. They started with 3 little country churches and 1 larger church. Russ reports, “It blew my mind how easy it was to get our first directory contracts. It seems that pastors and/or the decision making committees are so upset with their previous experiences with the national church directory companies that they are really enthusiastic when they can work with a local personalized studio that offers a new look. We show them what we can do in terms of our portrait quality, our willingness to take time with each family to get the best possible results, and our assurance that we will not ever use high pressure sales techniques that infuriates everyone. They just seem so excited when they learn that there is an alternative way to do the directory. They are also highly intrigued with the results we get with the Scene Machine and how much variety we are able to put on each page of the directory. They are tired of the traditional directory that is so plain and simple. We use a wide variety of complementary backgrounds made with the Scene Machine, we change poses, and we use both vertical and horizontal photographs. We tell them that Nancy and I will do the portraits and sales ourselves and complete the sales as soon as the session is done. We deliver our directories within 3 months. Some national companies can take as long as 12 months. Providing the best possible service is really important to us.”
In 2009 the Hansons did three very large churches. In 2010 they are doing 6 churches, 3 of which are very large. In 2010, the Hansons will have photographed over 2,000 family groups with a buy rate of between 62% and 75%. They find that what is so important in doing church directory work is that once they secure the contract, which they have found to be unbelievably easy, the church pushes the members to be photographed. Families are scheduled every 15 minutes. In regular studio work, the studio has to get every individual session, one by one. In church directory work, the church brings in hundreds of families on a pretty precise time schedule. A major reason studios are hurting today is because people don’t get around to scheduling. With church directory work, the photographer only has to schedule the event. The church does the rest and pushes the members to show up. Once they are photographed, the vast majority of them purchase.
Russ and Nancy love not having the expense and overhead of a main street studio and not having people coming to their in home studio. There in home studio is still operational but is not used very often. They take everything to the church. They still do a few weddings and portraits.
Russ comments, “We used the Scene Machine exclusively with our very first church. We would not even go into a church without a Scene Machine background system. We have a friend who does church directory work using six different shooting stations, each with a background and lights. He uses a 30 x 30 foot area and really kills himself with work that we don’t have to do because of the Scene Machine. We work in one small area and change our backgrounds in seconds. We use a few props and that’s it. With the Scene Machine we use many different backgrounds to complement our families and we will shoot both horizontal and vertical. Church directories that have all either horizontal or vertical images and all with one background are just plain boring.”
Russ continues, “The public loves the Scene Machine. It has a lot of “wow factor”. It is new to them - it is something they haven’t seen before. They wonder how we get that background to appear on the image when all they see initially is the black background. We give some of our church members a choice of backgrounds…they actually help us pick it. Other times we do all the choosing of backgrounds ourselves.”
The Hansons have experimented with selling all the images on a disk. For those who want it, we sell the disk with a copyright release for $135.00. There is essentially no cost of goods so it represents one of our highest profit items.
Gradually, the Hansons are learning the tricks of the trade. For example, they will include photos that the members bring in but they charge $20 and they do not get a directory. Some have tried to bring in photos from previous directories but the Hansons refuse to use them because of copyright laws. Their biggest problem is getting the church members to follow their directions on what to wear and what not to wear. The Hansons are continually working on various ways to push members to dress appropriately because when they dress badly, they don’t buy much if anything.
The Hansons are thrilled with where their church directory business is going. They are now even turning down some churches because they just don’t have the time. They photograph an average of 22 families a day and although they feel they work hard, they do not have the negative psychological affects of not knowing when the next sitting is coming in and having to work really hard to sell large prints. Church directory work is for them a steady income doing what they know best and love - photography and they enjoy their contact with so many different people.
The Hansons clearly show how virtual backgrounds can be easily used entirely on location and how it helps to secure contracts and get good solid sales averages. They say they would not want to work without their Scene Machine. It would just be much too much work and they wouldn’t have anything special that the other directory companies do not have.