29. Artificial Light for Children Photography on Film with Sandra Coan

Shooting artificial light on film is a lost art and many photographers haven’t really learned how to properly use strobes. Sandra Coan runs a successful children photography studio and she talks about her business and how she does it in this episode:

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Braedon:

Share a little bit about your history of photography and how you got into where you are and doing what you're doing?

 

Sandra:

Yeah. So, I always tell people that I kind of became a photographer on accident. When I started my business, I didn't actually think I was starting a business. So at the time I was a teacher, I used to teach kindergarten, I was honestly just kind of struggling to make it on a teacher's salary I was single at the time and Seattle is an expensive place and I was fresh out of graduate school and had all these bills and so I started doing photography on the side kind of to supplement my income and within three years of deciding that was going to do that to supplement my income, it kind of took over and I decided to quit my teaching job and launch SantaCon photography and so that's how I got started.

 

Braedon:

For people that maybe are in a place where they're doing photography on the side and wanting to be in a place where they are able to support themselves as a photographer, how long do you feel like that took you to be able to quit your teaching job and just be a photographer?

 

Sandra:

Yeah that's a great question and honestly it's a question I get all the time, so for me what helped me was I decided that I needed to be able to replace that salary so I was a full-time teacher and when photography really started working for me I went to part-time teaching and then before I could really go full-time photography, I wanted to make sure that I could consistently make my full-time teaching salary through photography and so once I got to that point where it was pretty consistent. I was like okay let's do this and that's when I decided to go for it, and you know, it was a little bit rocky so I think I made so many of the mistakes that so many photographers make when they get started and trying to you know chase what's on trend or do what they think that they should do them but the beginning of my career was a little bit rocky. So I would say it was probably it was probably six or seven years into it before I really kind of found my groove and it became what it is today. I was figuring out what I was doing in those early years but financially I was always able to make that teacher salary and you know teacher salary so it wasn't a super high goal.

 

Braedon:

With just even starting out with photography though and starting to get gigs how did you go from not really having gigs and deciding like I want to start shooting photos to then all of a sudden you know being able to start booking stuff and was it did you start out shooting families is that how you started out?

 

Sandra:

No. I kind of lucked out in some ways so when I decided to do this, this all this all started for me in 1999 and I had this group of friends and my friend Ginger was the first to get married in our group and the first to get pregnant in our group and you know is that it was the s and we were all still kind of reeling from that great Annie Leibovitz shot of Demi Moore right that kind of launched the Eternity photography industry and so I had always done photography on the side it was something that I just love to do. We had a dark room in my house growing up you know so it was something that I always did I just never thought of it as a career and but when Ginger got pregnant I said you know what we should totally do one of those like Demi Moore photos you know and so we did so we took off all her clothes and did the dramatic Demi Moore pose and we got one gorgeous photo and she was the one actually it came to me because you know all my friends I was living in Seattle in the 90’s all my friends worked in like the dot-com world and then I was this teacher who would go out you know with all these people who worked in the dot-com world and they'd all be ordering steaks and wine and I'd be like a glass of water and a side salad please and so they kind of knew where I was financially and so it was my friend Ginger who said you know I love this picture maybe you should offer this to other people and see what happens. So lucky for me at that time maternity photography wasn't what it is now it was kind of the very beginning of that genre and so there wasn't a lot of people doing it I think when I started advertising I was like one of two in of Seattle who were really pushing it and so I took that one picture of Ginger is kind of adorable actually and I turned it into like a little postcard with my contact information on the back and I drove all around Seattle and I put them in every maternity store and baby store and coffee shop I could find and people started calling so it was very boots on the ground kind of old-school marketing but that's how it started. So it started kind of trickling in maternity clients maternity clients maternity clients obviously lead to newborn clients and so I started doing that kind of work I you know I was a teacher I had a history of working with kids and little kids so I'm really good with working with kids and so as my maternity clients turned into newborn clients and those newborns grew up it was just kind of a natural progression that helped build my business to what it is.

 

Braedon:

Oh, that's a great story. Yeah, I think so interesting with people now in just strictly we're in our digital age where you know with marketing and everything and so much is online the actual getting you know I have a background a little bit in commercial photography and like having your portfolio and actually go into New York and shopping it and but like that physical aspect of promoting yourself is sort of sort of lost today but it's powerful.

 

Sandra:

Yeah and I tell people all the time because I mentor photographers now I'm like don't just rely on Facebook and Instagram there's so much more that you can be doing and when I got started my original goal I kind of started small like I'm like okay I want everybody who is pregnant or has a newborn in my neighborhood to know me right and then when that happened you know I was like okay and you know a three neighborhood radius I want everybody know me now I want everybody in Seattle to know me you know and it kind of grew and that's advice I give to people I mentor it's like don't underestimate that boots-on-the-ground marketing I go into the coffee shops and see if they'll display your work go into stores where your ideal clients going to be shopping and make a relationship like that stuff still works and it's still important to do.

 

Braedon:

Love it and so you you've been a photographer now for a few years and with that you also have a blog called little bellows and you teach on creative LIVE and so you had obviously you have a teaching background which I didn't know you had the kindergarten teaching but it totally makes sense because you're so good on the education side but can you talk about sort of how it got to a place where now you are really teaching or how you maybe even how you started little bellows or why you started it and what it is?

 

Sandra:

yeah so I started little bellows actually with my sister-in-law who was also a family photographer at the time and little bellows came out of a night sitting on the floor in my kitchen with my niece her baby who was crawling back and forth between us and we were drinking wine as moms do and talking about the industry and we were just frustrated that there was really no place for family photographers to publish their work or to be published or to be recognized. I believe and Kath believes that family photography is really important and you know I always say like this is I would say the most important you know we capture people's families and we create heirlooms and we tell your story and it seems you know maybe I have a little chip on my shoulder about it but it seems like it's a genre in the photography world that is kind of pooh-poohed or not taken seriously and we wanted to change that dialogue and perception and we wanted a place that not only family photographers could show their work and be published really showed family photography as the art that it is and how important it is and so that's kind of the goal behind little bellows and why we started it. We had no idea what was going to happen we had no idea what we were doing at that and that kind of took off and I think it's because of little bellows that I kind of saw like oh maybe what I have to say is important and as an educator and I could help people because I have been doing this a long time and I do have a background I'm teaching I'm actually really passionate about teaching I love it. The other piece of how that kind of evolved into this education space again goes back to this idea of family photography being really important but also this career was life-changing for me you know I could I told you a little bit about my back story when I was teaching like I was struggling and I'm happy to share that with people. I was you know I drove this a horrible car I was living in this kind of crappy apartment I was on food stamps even though I was a teacher with a master's degree I qualified for food stamps which is insane. I was in a really, really hard place and I feel like photography completely changed my life in that way and has allowed me to live the lifestyle that I have now and so I know that that's possible for people and I see so many women in particular who are artists and who are so good at their craft and they just need to be told how to do it so they can change their lives and they can change their family's life so that was always my inspiration behind all of it I know this is a very wordy answer.

 

Braedon:

I love it you've done.

 

Sandra:

It kind of it kind of evolved into that so little bellows started as a place where we were just featuring other photographers it kind of evolved its involved with me so it evolved into where I was talking more about it a teaching platform when I started went back to shooting film it kind of evolved into that and then I've had things kind of go off of that so now I have another business with my friend Elena Blair called lady-boss-workshops and we speak directly to this this mostly female photographers and we teach business foundations and kind of like what you can do there I have an education site just through me Sandra Cone education where again I talk about this stuff where I do a lot of my teaching there so I guess I've got a lot of irons in the fire but all with the same purpose you know to elevate family photography as an art form to teach people how to run successful profitable businesses that they love and that they it will change their life and their families lives and I really believe that so that's kind of the background of how that started and then yeah teaching just kind of evolved organically from that and I think I have a really interesting weird thing that I do because of the way I shoot and how I shoot so that's also curiosity which has led to me speaking and talking about it.

 

Braedon:

What it what is it the way that I know the answer but what what is it that the way these shoots and how you do it that that draws people to that curiosity and what it is that you're doing that's different?

 

Sandra:

So I shoot exclusively in studio but I always.

 

Braedon:

As your weather is exceptional where you live.

 

Sandra:

Yes I'm in Seattle and I need to be inside most of the year so that was kind of a natural progression for that but also I just really love I love clean simple work and so a studio is a great place for me to be able to create that and I shoot exclusively on film and I don't even though I'm a studio photographer I think I have kind of a different approach to posing I don't use props I don't pose babies it's more of a kind of almost like a lifestyle feel in studio so it's like I have my own genre I don't even know what to call it but I love it passionate about it.

 

Braedon:

Lifestyle studio. So for people that are wonder like why would you shoot film with kids because they move around so much they blink so much they make they cry all of a sudden film is not cheap why do you end up shooting film especially with studio lighting which is like more difficult for someone probably who doesn't even understand studio lighting that well.

 

Sandra:

Yeah so I started with film remember my story I started back in the 90’s right that's how I learned that's what I did and then I switched to digital I think 2007 when everybody was switching and I thought ok this is the way the industry is going and I honestly I just spent five years kind of fighting with my digital camera trying to get my images to look the way that they look when I shot film and it burnt me out I feel like the whole process of digital photography that switch that happened in the industry things really changed and I didn't necessarily like the change. I'm a portrait photographer my goal and a session is to have one beautiful photo that you're going to hang on the wall and I found that when I made that switch to digital everybody's expectation is including my own really changed around that where suddenly people wanted hundreds and hundreds of photos and I found all this pressure that as soon as somebody walked through the door I just had to shoot you choo, choo, choo, choo, shoot. I couldn't miss a single expression or a single moment and it was really stressful and it burnt me out and so a combination of that and the fact that I just was never really good at getting my images the way to look the way that I wanted them to look I was like in the end I was like why aren't I just shooting film that's what I want to do anyway so I went back to shooting film I was decided I was like okay this is what I'm going to do this is my commitment and then the studio lighting came really out of necessity because I do shoot inside and I live in Seattle and it's dark and there were days you know when I'm even when I was shooting digitally that I didn't have enough light you know and with the digital camera you can crank it up to like 60-100 ISO or whatever okay you can't do that with film so I knew that if I was going to shoot film and if I was going to shoot film exclusively which is what I wanted to do I was going to have to learn lighting and I didn't want my lighting to look like studio lighting I wanted my lighting to look like beautiful window light and so I taught myself how to do that I probably took me about a year and a half to get fussing with it playing around with it to get the look that I really wanted until I was happy with it and once I had that down then I was able to transition full time back into film and I'm so glad I did I feel like shooting film you know people say all the time like isn't that hard with kids and I honestly feel like it's easier because I'm able to connect with them you know I'm not racing to try to get every single expression or image I'm like I'm in conversation with these little people we're having fun together and then I take the image when it's time you know kids move kids have always moved they're still moving they're so toddlers run around my studio like little tiny crazy people all the time and if you I don't know the film doesn't change that relationship necessarily what they're going to do it just changes the way I'm going to approach it which is a little slower which brings the energy down and anybody who has kids or works with works with kids know that kids really mirror your energy so if you're frantic they're frantic and when you can calm down they calm down right does that make sense?

 

Braedon:

Absolutely. Having four kids myself I know that well.

 

Sandra:

Yeah that's like when you start whispering they can take whisper too and they go.

 

Braedon:

Yeah, this I mean you that that's the longer I was even like if they teach you in psychology or in communications courses like people mirror how you are in a conversation so if Like you're wanting someone to engage and you lean forward and you're engaging then they're going to end up mirroring that body language as well but yeah for sure that makes a difference with kids. When people ask you who don't really know the difference like let's say a client and they say what like why do you shoot film like what is your response to that like in so as a client I'm assuming they wanted to know the aesthetic value like what is it your response. I have my own responses but what's your typical response?

 

Sandra:

I have a client once ask that because I don't necessarily advertise it on my website that I'm a film shooter I feel like it doesn't matter to my clients as long as they're getting a product that they love but what I do say is when they come in I just say hey, just in case you didn't know I do shoot film so it might be a different flow than you're used to or sometimes because the way the camera sound people think my cameras broken that's called

 

Braedon:

What is that?

 

Sandra:

So I do tell people that and then I you know sometimes I do get you know well why do you do this and when I tell people is that I just I feel like I like the process of it better so that instead of doing all the post-production I can shoot the way I want it to look in camera I would say the way the Lord intended just nice and easy and then it frees me up to take on more clients it frees me up to do other things with my time like see my family but or you know just and then people get that they totally get that and like I said my clients as long as they're getting a product that looks like what I'm selling they're happy and it doesn't matter.

 

Braedon:

Amazing. Yeah, I tell people it's come for me it's completely an aesthetic choice and I just I'm so drawn to the look of film and that's really why I shoot it. Could so for any family photographers that are out there listening or anybody that just it also shoots families on a business side so instead of you know I'm a pretty big advocate of not just shooting and burning and handing them everything especially as a film shooter but I would say even as a digital photographer you're pretty much just thrown the baby out with the bathwater and really I think it's devalue in your work but how do you approach sales with your family shoots from like a studio sitting fee to then your prints and what is your end goal and do you end up sort of pre selling and that way to sort of let people know an expectation of how the flow is going to go?

 

Sandra:

Yeah, I feel like I started educating my clients before they ever even contact me that's a huge part of this and I have kind of an interesting sales technique especially because I am a film shooter so I have a sitting fee and then I have different product that people add on to that so I push albums I think it's important to have something I like albums and I have some what I call signature printers your wall prints and then digital packages. Everybody once the digital and so I've incorporated those digital files into my album packages so different albums come with different amounts of digital files but what's interesting and this might be interesting for you or for your people is that I don't necessarily do an in-person sales meeting so how it works for me is people come in, we do our session at the end of the session while they're there in my studio we sit down and I say okay this is your session fee these are the album's I offer these are the wall prints I offer what should we what should we add on to your session fee what do you think you're going to want to do with your images and so my people then order their albums at their session or and order their wall prints at their session and I know this is weird people always like how do you do that they haven't even seen the images and I always remind people I haven't even seen the images at that point because I'm shooting film but it works for me and it works for my clients for a couple reasons I have a really strong brand so people are pretty confident in my work and what it's going to look like and I'm I know the needs of my clients so I always tell people when it comes to selling or that sort of thing you really have to get in and know who your client is and that my client is a busy working mom these are my Amazon moms and my Microsoft moms that Seattle clientele they don't have time to keep coming back in for multiple sales sessions and all of that so for them the convenience of ordering everything right there is a big selling point so that's how I do it but I do agree that you should be offering something to your client beyond just the shoot as far as like shoot burn and that sort of thing goes.

 

Braedon:

No, totally I mean going back to the ships from film to digital back then and I think on a commercial level or even if it was like a family session what you would do is you would end up having your shoot you would send your film to your lab and then you'd get stuff back and then from there people would buy images or prints you stuff printed because everything had a cost associated with it but now it's just digital's becomes such a come I don't know commodity if that's the word but it's just become this thing that's expected but yeah I don't I don't feel like it has created more value for the photographer right it has creative more work for the photographer.

 

Sandra:

Yeah absolutely and I saw that shift you know back when everything moved from film to digital that like I was saying in the beginning like the expectation from clients changed and so for me it was a learning process because I went along with it I'm like well I guess this is what you're supposed to do now so I'm going to do that and so then to come back and like pull that ship around and be like no actually this is what we're going to do this is the purpose of our session this is what we're, we're getting I really try to educate my clients around the idea of a portrait of one or two photos that you're going to hang on your wall that are going to be there forever you know that are going to become family heirlooms that's really the purpose of our sessions it's not I'm not a storyteller you know photographer necessarily and you know a lot of lifestyle photographers are like well it's all about the whole day and the sessions and that for that those people I'm like well then you should be selling albums that tell that story or like a wedding photographer as a portrait photographer you know an album my albums only have 10 pages so a nice small album or a beautiful portrait for your wall that's our end goal but it I had to really work to educate my clients back to that idea after being in the mindset of no you just get everything if I did that I made all that I did all the things I made all the mistakes that everybody makes I did also so it's definitely important to make sure you know what you want and who your client is and be able to communicate that.

 

Braedon:

When you're mentoring somebody and they're maybe just on the more starting outside of shooting families or I mean whether or not you want to say what your price disparity is between like sitting versus prints but what do you typically recommend somebody to start you know it's like you either have like $2500 sitting fee and then prints are still really high or maybe prints are then cheaper because you already got most your fee and you're sitting fee or you have a cheaper sitting fee and then your prints are really expensive or your albums how do you how you usually suggest people go about that?

 

Sandra:

I think that that boils down to knowing your business model so being really clear on what you need to make and what your expenses are and the kind of workflow you want to do you know all of that plays in right so it's never a one-size-fits-all its who's your client what do you do like what is your where's your model how many clients do you want to take a week or a month and then running the numbers from there what are your costs you know that sort of thing so for me I have a pretty low sitting fee my sitting fees 350 walking through the door and then I said everybody adds something from there but I have a space a studio space and I shoot film so I don't have a lot of post-production so my model is high-volume I work with six to ten clients a week which is a lot but I can do that because of my workflow so I really when I'm mentoring people I really try to coach them on figuring out what their system is what their workflow is and what they need to make to be profitable.

 

Braedon:

What, how many roles do you typically shoot per session?

 

Sandra:

I shoot medium format and typically between three to four roles is pretty standard.

 

 

Braedon:

Yeah that's great I mean and then it's just sort of just for you its shoot and send off and then you get stuff back and it looks like magic.

 

Sandra:

Yeah it is magic.

 

Braedon:

Really fun. Well let's talk I want to ask maybe two more questions regarding like the business side and then I want to get into more of like what you are now currently doing with your education and creative LIVE and where people can find you but if you were to think of your sort of business trajectory and how it's gone what do you feel like are one or a couple of things that you've done that have really impacted your business in a good way?

 

Sandra:

I think the best thing that I did for my business was when I decided to stop looking at other photographers and comparing myself and stop trying to figure out what's on trend, stop trying to figure out, like do I think my clients want and just put on blinders and look at what I do, what is my vision, how do I shoot and then focusing on that I guess that I've made all the mistakes and I think the number one mistake that I see photographers make is trying to be like everybody else you know, we get so caught up in what's being published on blogs, what's on trend, what do my clients want, and we try to do that and what happens is when you try to do that you just become one of many and there's nothing special about your work, but when you can focus on your voice what it is that you do that's how you build a brand that's really unique and stands out and that took me a really long time to learn and it got it was for me it was at the point where I was so burnt out I was ready just to quit because I was chasing everything and trying to do what everybody wanted and I was when I was able to just like stop and look at what I do and just kind of focus, like laser focus on that that's when my business started to really grow because my voice is unique everybody's voice is unique, there are no two people on the planet who see things the same way, so yeah that's the best thing I did for my photography business and I think it's easy to look, I think the success thing is you know you kind of hit the nail on the head, it's easy to look at people who are successful and want that because we all want that and then think or tell yourself well if I do what they're doing I'll be successful too, which by the way is how I ended up shooting weddings for like four years which is a whole other story and a disaster, because every other photographer I saw who was making money was a wedding photographer and so I thought if I was going to make money had to be a wedding photographer too I'm not a wedding photographer, you know, not what I do yeah we all do that I think that that's human nature but you know if you can remind yourself just to keep pulling it back, that's where that that's the secret.

 

Braedon:

Yeah, I like the adolescence, growing up analogy.

 

Sandra:

Yeah, right.

 

Braedon:

So, with the other stuff that you're doing now is like you have multiple classes on creative LIVE where people can basically just type in your name on creative LIVE and find some your courses but maybe talk about what are those different courses and what would people find if they went there and then you're also doing your own education stuff off of the creative LIVE platform.

 

Sandra:

The creative life classes I have I have a couple of classes on film photography beginning film photography and then a class on how to use studio lighting as a film photographer and then I also have a class on branding where I talk a lot about what we were just talking about this idea of knowing what it is that you do knowing what your voice is and then how that how you use that in building your brand I believe that you can't have a strong business without having a strong brand they go hand in hand and so learning how to build that brand and what it is that you want it to be is really important so I have a class on that on creative Life too which is really fun and I have some more what's that one called I think it's called how to build your brand or how to build and market your brand or something I have to like on the catalog and see but yeah if you go into creative LIVE and search under my name I'm like all my classes come up and we have some things planned for the future that I'm excited about and then I have that teaching the business side with my friend Elena at lady-boss-workshops and then I'm Sandra Cohn education that's the place where I'm really talking to portrait photographers whether you shoot film or digital it's all the same process so I talk a lot about business foundations there but I also talk about shooting and little things that I have learned as a portrait photographer and a family photographer over 18 my years and teaching that I'm getting ready to actually launch a new class on posing which is really excited about I think posing sometimes is treated like it's a dirty word like nobody wants to pose but the reality is you can lead your clients into poses and help them relax and get those really natural candid photos so that's what I'm working on right now.

 

Braedon:

That's amazing and if someone is going to be or wanting to be interested in that course it is there, can they go to sander Cohen education and do you have something to sign up for?

 

Sandra:

I do I actually have an awesome freebie right now so if you go to Sander Cohen on education I have a link right on my front page I have a couple but I have one that is a free family posing guide, it's actually my system to how I run my newborn sessions, my newborn family sessions and it's a 32 page posing guide, it's really good, and it's free so people can get it there and then that will get them on my list so when I launched the big class they'll be the first to know.

 

Braedon:

That is incredible yeah well if you are a family photographer just if you want to get better at posing that sounds like a really incredible guide.

 

Sandra:

Yeah it's a good one.

 

Braedon:

Oh, so thank you so much for taking the time to share your vast knowledge and yeah, but I think that what you had to share and especially I could on your creative live courses it's really helping the industry and for anyone who's trying to get into this Sandra is an amazing resource and look up her stuff but thank you so much for coming on and sharing with us.