Setting Yourself Apart: The Making of a Fantasy Photo and Film Shoot

The world of teen portrait photography is a highly competitive one. Long gone are the days of stale, corny senior portrait photography where the subjects look like they’re staring into oblivion. Today’s teen and senior portraiture is cutting edge and borrow heavily from the fashion and commercial photography world.

With the advent of more powerful cameras that make it easier for the average Jane or Joe to hang a photography studio shingle, staying competitive in this economy has grown even more difficult. Adding to that competition is a new breed of photographers comprised of stay-at-home-moms (or dads) whose spouses’ salaries cover living expenses and it’s not their intention for the photog business to be a primary bread-winner. Therefore there’s no need to charge fees more commiserate with the work they may produce. The barriers to entry are low, and the expectations from potential clients are even lower. For those of you who need to make a living at it, you need to take it up a notch. (Or more like three notches).

It takes more than just good photography. Most clients nowadays can’t tell “good” photography from “good enough.” You need to WOW them. You need to create someething so different, so compelling, it’s practically impossible for the “Debbie Digitals” of the world to imitate you. I want to share with you a recent project we did for our photography company Teen Identity that will be the harbinger of the kind of work we will continue to create that will help to set us apart.

There are three key elements to our strategy:

  1. A Program
  2. High Concept Shoots
  3. Video (of course)

The Media & Model Program

"Voices of the Victims" raising awareness of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Teen Identity is more like a cause than a company. Our over-arching objective is to raise the self-esteem and confidence of teen girls all across America. We do that through photography, video, and empowering girls to “take back the media.” Our Media & Model Program is a paid 6-12 month program designed to give teen girls a voice, and to allow them to participate in fun photo shoots. The photo shoots give the photographer (my wife Tasra, pronounced TOZ-ra) the ability to expand her creative horizons. She dreams up shoots and works with the girls to make them happen. Past concepts have included grunge, 40’s and 50’s fashion, and a “Voices of the Victims” photo essay and PSA to raise awareness of the sex trafficking of under-aged girls in Atlanta. Doing cause-driven projects like that have been a significant aspect of the program. One of the graduating seniors from last year said that she never knew she could make such a difference in the world.

The other aspect of the M&M program is video production. We produce a series of original YouTube videos starring the girls and cover such topics as “How NOT to ask yo’ gurl to da prom,” being yourself, why I hate doctors, and insecurity. The videos are fun to make, give the girls loads of confidence and are inspiring to other girls their age.

Our Most Epic Shoot to Date

Lately it’s been even more important to create work that is far and above what any other studio in our area is doing. When other studios are offering full CDs of images plus an hour photo shoot for all less than $200, regardless of how technically proficient our photography may be, we need to step it up to create work that is “other worldly.” To that end, a couple of weekends ago we had our most epic concept photo and video shoot to date. The spark for the idea came from the girls themselves. To do a fashion shoot with a lot of “flowy” outfits. That evolved into what became a fantasy-themed photo shoot and corresponding original short film. All told we had 10 “models,” 2 makeup artists, 3 hair dressers, 3 fashion stylists, props and a 2-man video crew to create the short film and a behind the scenes documentary. I wrote a back-story for the short film and got my mentee Phil Stevens to shoot the BTS footage.

Girls get into their tribal make up as Phil films BTS for the making of doc.

Imagine what an experience this was for these girls (whose ages range from about 12 to 17). To be treated like celebrities, get all dolled up like models, then star in a cool movie. A key part of our goal with this shoot was also to create images that showed the girls as powerful, as opposed to over-sexualized and/or in sexually dominated positions (which is what they frequently see in the media). Parents even got involved helping with all the behind the scenes preparations. So in addition to creating an amazing experience for the girls, we created one for the parents as well. One which allowed them to bond further with their daughters. One parent came away saying it was the most fun she had in her entire life.

As much fun as it was for the girls to be made up for the photo shoot, I think the most fun they all had was filming the movie. Entitled Tribe Quest, the film is a visual journey inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The premise is this: Three warring tribes journey back to the birth place of their common ancestors in hopes or re-uniting the races and bring peace back to the land. The three “tribes” were given names and historical backgrounds, and each girl was charged with coming up with her own unique name and history. The following teaser sets the stage.

If you can’t see this video in your RSS reader or email, click here.

Setting Your Studio Part

I hope this has given you a little glimpse at what’s possible to stay two steps ahead of the “Debbie Digitals” of the world. I hazard to guess that many of you reading this post, if photography and/or video is your main gig, have the ability to do similar projects to set YOUR studio apart. The question is: are you willing to do it? Will you go the extra mile to make your work and your studio that diamond in the rough? If you are, and if you cater to senior and teens, I invite you to check our our Teen Identity Network. A national network or photographers and filmmakers looking to making a difference in the lives of teen girls, while at the same time grow their studio and their craft. Members of the network who do similar projects with their clients can get exposure for their work on the Teen Identity online magazine.

More to Come

In a following post I’ll have more details on the behind the scenes making of the photo shoot and well as the film itself. Stay tuned.

12 thoughts on “Setting Yourself Apart: The Making of a Fantasy Photo and Film Shoot

  1. I am hoping it’s not the manner in which it was intended, but I have to say I am more than slightly offended by your blog today! I can’t speak for all of the photographer/cinematographer moms out there, but I am working harder and longer hours now than when I was working (over) full time as a structural engineer. Though most of our expenses are covered by my husband’s salary, I would never put the weight and responsibility of covering those expenses on his shoulders alone. Starting any business takes time and effort. I plan to raise my prices after gaining more training and experience to justify the value my clients are investing in, which can be said of any industry or gender. A male photographer just starting out, who isn’t a stay at home dad, might do it the same way. The truth is, as you’ve written many a dinner table, technology makes what we do more accessible to ANYONE, and I for one am getting tired of the constant negativity associated with pursuing one’s passion as a profession and investing quality time with your kids!

    1. I’d like to offer an apology if you were offended. If you’ve followed my blog regularly, I hope you know that I have nothing but the utmost respect for people just starting out in the industry. I am one of the biggest proponents of spending quality time with family and investing in the family. I’ve written numerous posts on the topic. I’m also a huge defender of newbies in the business who shake things up. Dig through the annals of my blog and you’ll find post after post supporting exactly what you’re talking about. You will also find no bigger supporter of pursuing ones dreams than I.

      My comment was aimed at people who have taken up photography as a hobby and do not charge rates commiserate with the work involved because they don’t have to. The people who’ve been a photographer for 2+ years and are charing $150 for an hour photo shoot and giving away a CD full of images. It may be because they don’t know any better. It may be because they don’t want to because they like having the clients. It may be because they just want to serve people and are blessed to not have to charge that much for their services. Whatever the reason, it makes it more of a necessity for those businesses that rely on that income to stand out. That’s all I was referring to. Obviously, someone such as yourself who is working hard to build your business and charge accordingly is not who I am talking about.

      Thanks for sharing your feelings.

  2. Thanks for your insight. My local market is filled with the “Ooh Photography Is Fun I Just Like Doing This For Fun & Next To Free Of Charge” people (not just stay at home moms). Unfortunately many potential clients now believe that every photographer needs to build their portfolios by giving away sessions and are seeking out free or next to free sessions.

    1. I know it’s tough Audra. It really is. Hang in there and keep on striving to create something so different and amazing, people can empirically see and value the difference your work brings to the table.

  3. Thanks for your insight. My local market is filled with the “Ooh Photography Is Fun I Just Like Doing This For Fun & Next To Free Of Charge” people (not just stay at home moms, who like me started a business based on a passion i.e. children or pet photography–in my case graphic design that grew into photography as well). Unfortunately many potential clients now believe that every photographer needs to build their portfolios by giving away sessions and are seeking out free or next to free sessions.

  4. I love this… I want to start a cause for women, in general, I can get hair stylists, make up artists, at our local cosmotologist schools, to participate for nothing if we have a cause behind it. Planning to open my business up in the near future. Help please!

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