Guest Interview : Adam Johnson

I am really pleased to introduce Adam Johnson from ARJ Photography, a very talented wedding and portrait photographer from Manchester.  I first came across Adam when I joined ATP members [link] and I have watched his work/business develop and grow since then.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to interview Adam, was that he was developing a successful photography business, part time to a point where he has decided that it was time to make the stride into full time.

::So Adam, here is your starter for ten: What’s in your camera bag?
This sometimes depends on the assignment, I actually like to shoot as light as possible. But to a wedding I take everything and that is: Canon 5DmkII & 5D bodies, Canon 24-70mm 2.8, 70-200mm 2.8 IS & 50mm 1.4 lenses, two 580EXII speedlights and a set of Pocketwizards for getting that flash off camera. I carry a few light modifiers like gels, an umbrella and softbox as well as two lightweight light stands. I have a Manfrotto tripod which I virtually never use and a Manfrotto monopod which I use occasionally in darker churches, houses and hotel rooms. The newest addition to my kit is a Lowel ID tungsten video light.
My bag itself (in case you’re interested!) is a Billingham 445. It fits pretty much everything in and doesn’t feel as heavy to carry as it should. At weddings it lives in the car boot though – I carry both cameras – usually one with 24-70, one with 70-200 and in a smaller Lowepro bag I carry my 50mm lens, flash and pocketwizards. It’s important to me to be able to react quickly, pick a lens and get the shot without thinking.
::And for your bonus points, how do you edit your images? (Do you have different techniques for a wedding / portrait work)
My philosophy on image editing is absolutely less is more, whatever the subject. I always start with white balance, then tweak exposure, contrast, brightness and a couple of curve tweaks. That’s usually it. I prefer warm looking images so if necessary I add a little bit of warmth to the highlights and shadows. I do 98% of my processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Very few images go into full photoshop – that’s reserved for images that maybe need a little bit more work for one reason or another, or need fine tuning not possible in Lightroom. I use Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5.
I do have slightly different techniques for wedding and portrait work, but fundamentally the same. The majority of my images remain in colour, my preference is for colour photography and this means when I do choose to convert to B&W it’s for a very good reason and the photo stands out more because I don’t overdo it. For weddings, family and baby portraits I *never* use effects of any kind – I want timeless, natural images. For urban or fashion portraits the philosophy is the same but I may from time to time try something different for this type of shoot and push the colours and contrast further than I would for a wedding or family shoot.
::Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the business of photography?
Well I’m about to turn 30, I’ve been married for 4 years and have a 3 year old little boy with another baby on the way. Family is the most important thing in my life, and photography is second. Like most people I guess it starts with an interest, progresses to a passion, into a hobby, a serious hobby, an expensive hobby, an obsession and then there comes a point where you have enough confidence in yourself and your ability that people may want to pay you to take their photos. And when they do, well that’s a great feeling!
I never really planned to be a weddings and portraits photographer, but as soon as I shot my first wedding as a second photographer I knew. Something clicked and I just knew that was the photographer I was. I love the people, I love everything about the wedding photography process.
::How would you describe your style of photography?
Natural, timeless and relaxed. While I take my responsibility as a wedding photographer very seriously I take quite a laid back approach and just like making beautiful, natural photos. I make detailed plans for a wedding so I know exactly how it’s going to run, where there is time for photography and most importantly what the couple want. I work hard to make sure that there are no surprises for anyone on the day. That way everyone can enjoy it. Often things can change on the day, and taking this approach means that’s fine too. I guess overall my style is a bit of journalism, a little reportage, beautiful relaxed portraiture and a little bit of fashion. Wedding photographers nowadays need to have a range of skills and this is what brides expect.
::Who would you say are your main influences?
Probably too many to name I guess. I’m not sure I can single out any one – I take my inspiration from so many sources all the time.
::What photographic training courses have you undertaken in order to get where you are today?Not many. I’ve done one day courses here and there with different photographers and I’m currently part of the year long Evolve programme run by Damien Lovegrove mainly because I need to get better at the business side of photography!
::Did you receive any criticism from full time photographers?
I’ve never received anything but support from other photographers. I’ve built up quite an amazing support network of friends and colleagues (like you!) mainly through social networks and forums. On twitter you see people indirectly making jibes at other photographers but I tend to ignore it – that’s what the ‘unfollow’ button is there for right.
::Whilst you were still part time, how did you manage to hold down a full time job, photography and be a husband and dad?
I do not know! Sometimes it was really, really difficult to cope I’ll be honest with you which is part of the reason I ended up taking the leap into doing it full time. I guess what got me through the tough times was that I always knew I would go full time sooner rather than later so there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. But in the midst of mid-summer wedding season it got hard juggling things – I was waking up at 7am, getting the little one ready for nursery, then off to work on the train to work 9-5, then home for a bit of family time then working until the early hours. I had no leisure time and that’s never easy even when you’re doing something you love. You need to give yourself time to wind down.
But then I guess I’m also a bit of a workaholic perfectionist and probably took on more than I should have at times!
::How do you market yourself and your photography services? What has been your best marketing strategy to date?
I get a lot of work from referrals. In the early days I found Google adwords to be a great source of business but not so much any more. I think the wedding photography industry, online at least, is now centred around blogs. I work with a few blogs, some of who I sponsor and some of who feature my engagement shoots and weddings. I also keep up a consistent presence on facebook and twitter. Facebook is great for connecting with potential customers, Twitter is great for connecting with suppliers and colleagues for referrals. I also work hard on my SEO for my website, trying to work my way up the google rankings for certain keywords and terms.
::Do you only cover Cheshire/Manchester, or do you go further afield?
Well I’m based in Manchester so I do mainly cover weddings in Manchester and Cheshire but if someone wants me as their wedding photographer, I’m there. Doesn’t matter whether it’s Manchester or the Maldives! Portraits I exclusively cover Manchester and Cheshire.
::What training did you undertake before shooting your first wedding?
I’m mainly self taught. I spent years practising and reading books and website. I joined the SWPP and did a couple of member training days which filled in a few gaps in basic technique and started getting me out meeting other photographers, which is important.
::Did you assist, or go solo from the start?I assisted once, realised that I loved it and went solo. I was confident of doing a good job for people, but my initial pricing reflected a lack of experience and my clients always knew that. I learned so much more working solo than I would in the comfort as an assistant. Get out of your comfort zone and you’ll progress so much more quickly. And I don’t just mean camera skills, that’s quite a small element of the process.

::What lens do you use the most when you are at a wedding?
The 70-200mm is my go to lens. If I have the choice I use this. But at a wedding I’ll probably shoot 60% with the 24-70, 30% with the 70-200 and 10% with the 50mm.
::Do you prefer natural light to flash when shooting a wedding?
If there is enough natural light and it’s of good enough quality then I’ll use this every time. This allows me to work quickly and with energy and natural light is easier to work with and is nearly always more flattering. But I’d never class myself as a ‘natural light photographer’. I love flash, used properly. And for me that’s either bouncing it or getting it off camera. I use a lot of bounced flash indoors, but even then I’ll push up the ISO, slow down the shutter speed and open up the lens to get as close to the ambient exposure as possible, then the flash just lifts it all a bit. I use off camera flash for the fashion portraits. I just want nice light, and if it’s not already there I need to know how to add it!
::What do you do when preparing and planning a wedding?
Well this is a vital part of the process for me. I discuss the wedding day in detail with the clients so I know exactly what is happening and when, and we discuss where photography is going to fit into their day. The amount of time for photography is always up to them, not me.
Depending on the venue, I’ll go and visit, have a look around, start the ideas flowing in my head and just get an idea of the light – where it is and how much of it etc. I don’t want there to be any unknowns for me once the day arrives. And my clients are more relaxed knowing that I can just get on with what we’ve discussed.

::Have you ever had any problems occur during a wedding – equipment/guests/bride and groom/interfering family etc?
Never ever had a problem on a personal level with any clients or guests. I once got a bit cross with a videographer, and a couple of times with venue staff but nothing major!
I did once have a camera break during the father of the bride’s speech which reinforced why I have backups for everything and why I always carry two cameras on my person. If I’d had to go and fetch my backup out of my bag or car at that point I’d have missed a vital part of someone’s wedding and that wouldn’t be acceptable on any level.

::What are you wedding packages, and which one is your most popular?
I offer an album package, a digital only package and an all-inclusive package. From those I can build a bespoke package for my clients containing whatever they want. I’d say probably 80% of my clients have an album.
::Do you have a favourite wedding venue and why?
Not really – there have been a few wedding venues I’ve loved working at but for me I’m there to take pictures of the couple and their day – the venue is only ever a backdrop but clearly some venues are run better than others, some make you feel more welcome. I loved working at the Hilton hotel in Manchester, Belle Epoque Brasserie in Knutsford Cheshire I really like, Oddfellows in Chester, Arley Hall in Cheshire…

::How important do you think the pre wedding shoot is for couples?
Vital. Unquestionable. All my couples now get this because it is just so valuable. They get to get the nervousness of having their photo taken out of the way before the big day, they get to know me a bit better as a photographer. I also get to know them, how they react to each other, the camera and me. Then they see the photos, love them and have more confidence in me on the wedding day. Getting those photos also means they can have a guest book, signature frame or engagement album made. Honestly, I can’t rave enough about the importance of this shoot in the wedding photographer process!
::I personally don’t want to be a member of any photographic associations for a variety of reasons, but I note that you are a member of the SWPP.  Do you think that this has had, or has, any bearing on whether a client will sign on the dotted line, or would you say being a member is more personal as it gives you access to courses, and qualifications?
Clients never ask about this. Memberships are meaningless as far as brides are concerned. I like the community it gives you access to and the SWPP member training days are great value.
::What five pieces of advice would you give a couple before choosing their wedding photographer?

1. Look around and make a shortlist of photographers whose work you like, regardless of how much they cost or what packages they offer

2. Arrange to meet your favourites – the MOST important thing is choosing someone you like and who you think likes you and you feel like you can trust
3. Make sure you see full wedding coverage from start to finish, not just a ‘best of’ gallery
4. Ask about boring stuff too like backup equipment, insurance, make sure the person you’re seeing will be your photographer on the day
5. Only when you’ve gone through this process will you truly know how much of a priority photography is to you and how much of your wedding budget you should spend on it – but remember this, the only thing left the day after your wedding are the memories and your photographs. It’s an investment, and you don’t want to regret not giving it enough of a priority.

::Who do you use for the following / Do you have a favourite and why?

Jorgensen for matted albums, Folio for fine art albums and Queensberry on request. I think my favourite are Folio albums but Jorgensen are truly beautiful creations.
ProAm, Sim2000 and Loxley
Kaleidoscope – I would recommend them to anyone, second to none on service, quality and value.

::Can you tell us a little bit about the portrait arm of your business?
My portrait business is based solely on maternity, baby and young families. I’m working on a specific sub-brand for baby photography because I want to offer something slightly different, but all my portrait work is done outside the studio – so at home or outdoors. I find this fits with my natural, relaxed approach and doesn’t work at odds with my wedding photography.
::How do you price your portrait sessions? 
I’ve previously priced these between £75 and £125 for shoot only. However I’m working on a new pricing model which includes either products or credits as standard. People are telling me this is what they want.
::What portrait packages do you offer?
It’s all a work in progress at the moment!

::From a business perspective which would you say is more profitable – weddings or portraits?
I’d say portraits for sure on a shoot by shoot basis, but it makes for unpredictable cashflow. You can plan your business around and rely on weddings.

::What camera / lense / lighting do you use when shooting portraits?
Same as weddings – natural light if it’s there and it’s nice, otherwise I add light as I see fit – a bit of bounced flash, off camera flash, or video lighting.

::How would you plan a portrait session?
I’d usually meet the family beforehand to discuss their wants for the shoot, what they’re hoping to get out of it, what they’re likely to want to purchase afterwards and they can show me where they might want to put frames etc. This means I can shoot with this in mind, rather than aimlessly shooting for 2 hours. But with small children especially the most you can usually do is let them decide what they want to go – they usually direct my shoots! I always brief the parents on how they should act on the shoot (i.e. don’t put any pressure on the kids and never tell them to smile!!) and give advice on clothing etc. We decide on the location(s) together.

::You have now gone full time as a photographer. Can you tell us when did you know that it was time for you to give notice to your employer?
When I asked to go part time and they said no! I was working flat out, all day and all night, most weekends, and it was starting to impact on family life. I knew then it was time to go for it. I’m very instinctive and I trust my gut. And my wife told me to resign! Like deciding when to have children, I’m not sure there’s ever a truly *right* time to leave a cosy well paid job for the unpredictable world of self employment, but it essentially comes down to do you do it or don’t you? You’re more likely to regret not trying it in my view.

::How does it feel being self-employed, and not on somebody else’s payroll?
Unexplainably amazing. The feeling of control is amazing, but the mild terror at knowing you’re now 100% responsible for finding the money for the bills keeps you very very focussed!!

::There are so many wedding/portrait photographers around, now, and it seems that (in my opinion) people are considering this business as an easy money maker, especially as DSLRs are becoming more affordable and commonplace.  What would you say makes you different to other photographers?
You’re right, that is the way the industry has become and you can find a wedding photographer for anything between £0 and £10,000! It’s a cluttered marketplace and that’s not a good thing for brides. People are setting up with one camera, one lens, and 1000 business cards from cheap printers.
I don’t worry overly about what makes me different to other photographers. I just try and do my thing, based on my philosophy of high-quality complete wedding day coverage and using only the highest quality album suppliers, framers and printers while making sure that I feel my work is always improving. I price myself so that I know it’s going to support me and my family, while giving great value to brides and grooms. Photography is part of my life, not just a job. I try to give great service too.

::Do you think Social Networking has helped your business in any way?
Yes, definitely. It’s hard to quantify really but photographers who I initially met on Twitter refer enquiries to me when they’re booked, on Facebook old friends have watched my business grow and either booked me for their weddings or referred me to their friends because they see my work and how passionate about it on a near daily basis. Social Networking is the present, and it’s only going to become more influential and important in the future, alongside blogs in my opinion.

::I like your updated site/blog, which company did you use to put it together?
Thanks!! The website is built on the flash-based SHOWIT platform. I designed and built it myself. My blog is wordpress using the ProPhotoBlog template which is fully customisable and used by the vast majority of professional photographers across the world.

Links to Adam’s sites!