Although he modestly claims to be “just starting out” in the photo business, Alex Cena, a retired Wall Street Research Analyst, sure is busy. As a full-time freelance sports and action photographer, his customers are organizations, schools, and athletes as well as newspapers and magazines.
Alex’s steady stream of print orders caught my attention, so I thought I’d ask if he would be willing to answer my nosey questions about his business. I wanted to figure out how he is able to sell so many prints!
He’s a busy guy, but he was able to carve out some time and pound out some answers for us.
Alex is also making full use of the PhotoShelter website customization templates, using them to power a large portion of his customer-facing website.
In today’s sluggish economy, Alex seems to have found a nice comfortable niche.
Grover: When it comes to business tactics and strategies, what have been some of the lessons you’ve learned in the past. What’s been a success? What’s been a learning experience?
Alex Cena: I retired from my position as a Wall Street Research Analyst in late 2000 at the age of 37 years old so I needed something else to do. My business experience really helped in starting a new venture. From the start, I was able to get the foundations of a business, including creating a legal entity, obtaining the necessary insurance, etc. Where I was very much lacking and had to learn on the fly was to create a workflow. I learned quickly that a labor intensive workflow can really eat into my profits due to the time involved.
Grover: Who are your customers, and how do you get your images to them? What works, and what doesn’t?
Alex: My customers consist of schools, booster clubs, newspapers and magazines.
Schools: I send my primary contact usually the Director of Communications or the Sports Information Director a link to an Invite Only Gallery so they can download a limited number of images at a specified size. This works great when the school needs a handful of images immediately after an event. The schools also enjoy this method because they can create custom lightboxes of their favorite photos, which they can share amongst staff that have to make decisions on the images. I also limit the pixel dimensions because most schools computers will crash when trying to download a file created by a 21MP Canon 1Ds. For ad or fundraising campaigns, the schools will usually send me a light box of images they want forwarded to their advertising agencies. If it is just a few photos, I usually use PS to create a one-time use only download link. If there is a bunch, I create a password protected gallery where the firm can download the images one at a time or all at the same time.
Booster Clubs: For booster clubs, I create galleries where the parents can take a look at the images from photo day where I have taken team and individual portraits of the players. The team captain’s moms then take everyone selections and forward them to me so I can fulfill their order. For sports events, I create galleries where the teams can purchase, photos, image downloads and special products on-line. I have three different pricing profiles for events. The pricing profile I use depends on how much the booster club has paid me up front to be at the game(s) on their behalf.
Newspapers and Magazines: I use a number of methods to get my images to magazines depending on how many they need and how fast. For many local newspapers, I simply create one time download links and send it to the photo editor via e-mail. It’s the simplest method for them. One click and the image is on their desktop with the caption information embedded in the metadata. Some magazines such as Inside Lacrosse want 15-20 images sent to them via FTP.
Here I use PS’ FTP capabilities to send images to the magazines direct from my archives. When an art director from a magazine asks me for a certain type of photo, I usually create an invite only gallery where they can choose from a selection of images then download the one they want. For example, I recently had an art director call for images of a field hockey player in action on field turf and another for a referee in action. I created two different galleries for her. I just tried the invoice capability inherent in PS and it seems to work pretty well. I just need to find out if PS takes a share of that or not. If they do, then I need to weigh the convenience of the client automatically getting an invoice versus me sending one to the client.
Grover: Can you explain the depth of your individual interaction you typically have with your customers? Does more individual attention result in higher revenues? How much is done online, and how much is done in person or on the phone?
Alex: My high school clients are small private schools. I find it easier to institutionalize myself there than a very large schools. That has advantages and disadvantages also. The main advantage is that I typically only have one or two people that serve as my main point of contact. It is usually the Director of Communications/Business Development and the Athletic Director. I always try to keep expectations low so I can under promise and over deliver. Most of my contact is via e-mail as well as some over the phone but I try to stop by and say hello as often as I can so I am not just an e-mail address and I can connect the face with a name.
Grover: What “products” do you sell/deliver to your clients? (Example: Prints, Royalty Free downloads?)
Alex: For magazines, they always want the highest resolution image available. For parents, it’s mostly prints but a growing number are requesting files to use for slideshows, screen savers and to do their own prints. At first, I offered to do the slideshow myself for a fee. Many opt for that but there still are those that want the image download. I grudgingly honor those requests, but I do try to drag my feet.
Grover: How would you describe your overall diversification? (Example: Are you selling mostly prints, some stock, some editorial, some assignment work?)
Alex: I am not diversified. My market consists of schools, parents and magazines. My goal for the next few years is to obtain assignments, stock as well as do more events and environmental portraits.
Grover: How do you promote yourself? In what ways do you market yourself?
Alex: Most of my new leads come from my sports blog and by word of mouth.
Grover: What is your workflow like? Can you talk about the steps you take, and the products you use, to get from the camera to the customer? Have you discovered any time-saving methods?
Alex: My workflow consists almost exclusively working with Photo Mechanic and PhotoShelter though when absolutely necessary I turn to PhotoShop. When I shot the 2008 Women’s Lacrosse Championship for NCAA Photos, I was able to sort through 3,000 images, select 30 images, caption and upload to the client’s server in a little over an hour all with PhotoMechanic.
Grover: How did you learn your craft? College? Learn by doing?
Alex: I learned by doing mostly though I made it ¾ of the way through a correspondence course at the New York Institute of Photography. I wanted to finish but I just got too busy.
Grover: Where do you go and/or what do you do to learn about new things, and keep up on the latest happenings in the industry?
Alex: Mostly through trade publications such as PDN.
Grover: Where have you found creative inspiration?
Alex: On a go forward basis, I want to do more in environmental portraiture in addition to sports. For ideas in composition and posing, I am spending a lot of time going through Vanity Fair and books on Renaissance Art for inspiration as well as works of other photographers such as Yousef Karsh.
Grover: In general, what would you say are the most important things for your customers? (Example: Ease of use? Quick turnaround times? Variety of products and services?)
Alex: Customer service.&nbs p;
Grover: Do you have any interesting success stories to share as a result of using the PhotoShelter Personal Archive?
Alex: Before PS Archive, my customers were mostly parents, schools and booster clubs as well as weeklies. Some of my first magazine clients such as Inside Lacrosse and Athletic Management Magazine found me via my galleries on PhotoShelter Archive.
Grover: What features of the PhotoShelter Personal Archive do you use most often, and why?
Alex: The features I use the most is to create Gallery Collections and One time Download Links as well as the FTP capability. The Gallery Collection is especially popular with schools and booster clubs I work for often because they can find all their events with a single link.
I use one time links all the time to send clients hi-res images. It’s wonderful because I can do this from any computer around the world. It happens quite often when someone needs an image right away for this or that and inevitably I am away, but I know I can still deliver. For example, I was at the Jersey Shore over the summer when one of my schools called in a panic. They were launching an ad campaign but the 3 images they wanted to use was on a DVD in a filing cabinet that was moved while the communications director’s office was going through renovation. Their graphic designer needed the full resolution files in two days. I simply said no problem and sent them download links to the three images that afternoon once I was done at the beach. Without anywhere-anytime access to my archive, I may have had to drive 3 hours back and fort to my home office to please a customer.
Grover: Is there anything else you’d like to say or share? Feel free to say whatever you want — I’m listening.
Alex: Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my experiences. I am very new to the industry and still very much learning and positioning myself in this very competitive business.