THE BLOG

Entrepreneurs: Cristen Geller, the Intimate Photographer

02/20/2015 04:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

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"If you're ready and you know what you're doing, you charge! Not friends, not family... put a price on it. Know your worth." - Cristen Geller

Age: 26

Give us the skinny on your background!
I came to CA within a week of graduating high school to attend Brook's Institute to get my BFA in Commercial Photography. It's a three-year, intensive program. Soo, I did that, but when all was said and done... Am I thankful I was able to go through the program? Yes, but a part of me does wonder what would have happened had I jumped straight into working as a photographer and concentrating on how to open a successful photography business. There were major pluses of going to a trade school where you are hands on learning the ins and outs of one certain thing. This being photography.

If you still had that tuition bill looming over your head, do you think you would have had the courage to launch your own business?
It's a tough question, and touchy situation. I am so grateful I was able to go through and have the college experience. Even more so that it was concentrated on my niche and what I really want to do. However, opening your own business, and finding support to do so... It's nearly to the breaking point of impossible. I've seen people give up on it. I've also known people who've tried, but just weren't physically and financially equipped to dive head first into something that could be a risky move. I've been very blessed; my family has been by my side from day one. We have been in it almost as a team, they always believed in me, and for that I am beyond grateful. It gave me the willpower to keep my goals in-sight and always move forward. Going to an intensive 'trade' school is a bit of an alternative college experience. It was crazy and different, and fun all at the same time, but overall I tried to stay on track with my creative focus and life goals. I was still shooting creatively, doing side projects on random subjects like 'food' or 'water splashing'... and then taking internships when I could.

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What was the very first move you made to start your business?
Well, beyond initially getting my website together, and doing the internship thing, my fiance and I literally had just made a list of things we were going to do everyday to get myself up and going. One of the first things we did was make a shit ton of flyers and business cards, and literally just went all over LA on foot handing them out and posting them wherever we could! We even took the metro redline to Hollywood and just gorilla marketed! That's actually how I booked my first gig with a jewelry manufacturer, taking product shots for them. I just flooded the stores with flyers. I was offering headshots, advertising, product work, whatever you might need!

Then I took to Craigslist and responded to almost every single inquiry I could. At that point, it was just about being super confident and coming across as, "Yes I know what I'm doing. Hire me!"

What would you say your return on that small investment was?
I mean, at first I started acquiring small clients and building little relationships with whatever kind of photo work I could get, while still keeping everything 'in-house' (meaning I shot/styled/edited everything). My first client was just a mom-and-pop jewlery shop, I remember bringing in somewhere around $4-5k in my first year. That relationship lasted for 3 years. But also from my craigslist advertising came one of my biggest and still-standing clients, which is a housewares company. I shoot commercial, box-top photography you see for any basic products when you buy at major box-top stores. i.e. The photo of that gorgeous candelabra, or new lemonade dispenser in the weekly Target ads. That's a fun client for me. They give me products, and my job is to make the products look like something you'd want to buy from the photo on the box. They trust me to do what I want, so I style it up in whatever way I think best suits the item.

I'm surprised by the people that actually search Craigslist! I think a lot of companies just kind of roll the dice and hope they can get in-touch with a quality, affordable, independent contractor. And that goes for both parties. If you're an independent contractor you're taking a chance on putting your name out there too. Can you elaborate on that?
Right, it is rolling the dice. It is gambling. The process is hit-and-miss, but you can recognize the clients that you know have the budget to keep you, and that are worth your time. Those are the clients that you want to work with.

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When I came to you I remember you being extremely reasonable. I was just starting out and you said, "I don't want to nickel and dime you." What advice would you give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out, on that subject?
There are a few things I could mention: First off, you need to be confident in the work you are providing and brand yourself correctly. Keep up-to-date with what's in the market place you are targeting. For example, now-a-days, a lot has changed in photography. We don't use a lot of the traditional lighting we've used for so many years. People are tending to want simple lighting and clean fonts. Knowing the market and staying youthful has been a huge help in the process. Secondly: you need to be choosy, as the merchant. You have to really think about clients that you are ready to take on. Not wanting to nickel and dime is a good way to start out, but being confident in thinking, "This what I will put up with, and I am confident in my work." Having a clear understanding before you go into any business transaction, and knowing what that client is looking for. That's the most important part of it. You have to know what you're getting yourself into. If I'm going to need 150 different backdrops every time I work with this client, then hey this isn't worth it. This is going to cost me money. Interview your new client as much as they're going to interview you!

Have you had those clients where you just decided it was a toxic relationship and you needed to walk away from it?
Absolutely, a big one; a big, reputable one. There was this one lady who was just nitpicking the hell out of everything. I was constantly waiting on the paycheck, there were so many reshoots it wasn't worth my while and communication was a colossal failure. I was confident that I wasn't being the difficult one for a huge part of my working for her. I had to end that relationship by saying, "You know what? I can no longer afford to be in business with you, nor you can you afford to be in business with me."

More specifically, what advice would you give photographers starting from scratch?
If you're trying to build your portfolio be very wary of shooting for free! Yes, do the internships and work on your trade. Network, and find what you love doing the most, and things you might not prefer. It's all a growing process. I remember finally thinking, "OK, I can shoot this, and I'm confident I can give my client a professional experience." I felt like clients took me more seriously when I was not shooting for free anymore. If you're ready and you know what you're doing, you charge! Not friends, not family... put a price on it. Know your worth.

How do you build your SEO and online presence? Where have you seen success?
Goupon and Living Social have helped tremendously with that. These marketing websites that are there for us, you know, take advantage of them. These companies can name blast you to a level you could never do for yourself, just starting out. I was taught in college to market my photography as if it was an ad. Your photos are your ads, so be sure to position them on your site as such. I offer a great package on Groupon and when people reach out I can offer alternate services as well. So, keep that in mind if you would like to market your services on Groupon... Always have more services to add onto the package if the client is interested.

Tell me about interning. Is it beneficial for photographers just starting out? What do they need to know?
Yes, make sure that you are able to put your name on your own work! Maybe not right off the bat, but ensure that at some point you will be allowed to shoot and claim your own work at the place of your internship. This way you can at least walk away from the internship with a foundational portfolio in addition to experience.

What does your day-to-day schedule look like? Do you agree that the early bird gets the worm?
I'm up at 6:00 am every day, at my desk, editing. I definitely agree that you need to be up before the rest of the world if you want to launch your own business and strive towards success.

Do you cold call?
Not anymore. I have finally just reached the point, where my phone is ringing randomly, and daily for shoot inquiries. Having stuck it out with marketing sites like Groupon and LS, I finally have developed a bit of presence to gather enough interest to keep me busy (at the moment and fingers crossed!) Once you get to a certain level of presence on those sites they start featuring you more and more. Last week I went to Mexico and when I came back I had 47 voicemails; all inquiries from Groupon & Living Social.

Also, I would say that having more than one skill set or service to offer is necessary for anyone looking to launch a business. If you are looking to make a profit you really need to cover things from top to bottom. If you're a photographer and you're looking to hire a make-up artist, there goes $70 off of your profit. That adds up when you're shooting 4-6 people a day. I went to school for hair and makeup as well. When you're dealing with a magazine or major editorial, they usually provide hair and makeup. When you're doing personal shoots, it really goes to your benefit to have that skill set as well. Always keep the editing in-house as well. Train an intern to scroll through the thousands of photos and select the best shots for your review.

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What's your niche market? Should everyone have a niche market?
Intimate photos. I love it. I get to work with women and make them feel good about their bodies. If you can find a niche market that you are comfortable with then I would say, "yesssss, go for it!"

Can you offer any helpful tips on studio selections for photographers?
Absolutely, Live/work if you can. I think most in this industry would agree and operate similarly, too. I'm paying for my electricity for my studio and my house. It makes sense in this industry; you can do it. It's common that artistic living spaces and lofts now come permitted to use as a business.

Anything else you would like to add?
I'd like to touch on the '9-5 job' subject. It's tough coming out of college, or a trade/art school to know where to turn. I was taught that you were only successful if you were shooting for Vogue, or a big studio or magazine. That's not true, it's just so hard to find and get selected for jobs like that (fresh out of school). I really feel for kids coming out of college who're told to go get a job working for 'The Man,' at a big corporation, it's tough in this industry. You want to follow your dreams, and goals, but you also want to be able to support yourself in the mean time.

It seems like these big brands and companies are trying to spend less and less on photographers and creative stuff. Do you agree?
Yes! They're hiring interns for nothing or very little. They just aren't given the budget; not like they used to be. Magazines often use student contributions and submissions in their editorial spreads. Which is great to get published, but remembering that you didn't get payed for your work is hard to think about. There is a competition called the Lucie Awards. I won a few times in the fashion category and then I realized that everyone wins these things because it's based on submission. Again, which is great, we all should submit things and get notoriety and strive for creativity. Just remember that it's about applying those skills and experiences to your clients and using them to brand yourself. That's something that I still work at every day.

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