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Podcast notes:

Have you ever wondered how you can take better photos for your business, and whether you should have a brand photo shoot?

I chat to brand photographer Julie Grant about taking better photos, the importance of brand (no matter how big (or small) your business is), how to juggle motherhood with your career and how she came to pivot her business during the pandemic.

In this episode you’ll find some great practical tips on what kinds of photos you’ll need for your business, but also some great tips to feel more comfortable in front of the camera too.

You can find out more about Julie Grant by clicking here.

Podcast transcript:

VB: Hi Julie, so tell us a bit about yourself and your business.

JG: I’m Julie. I graduated as a freelance photographer in 2015. Since then, I’ve photographed everything from weddings, dogs, families, babies, businesses, you name it. And I was running this great family photography business and then 2020 hit and suddenly I wasn’t allowed to do that anymore. It was like, no, you can’t meet other people, you’ve got to stay at home. And at the time it was really scary because none of us knew what was going to happen. Would I still have a business in twelve months’ time? Where will it be?

It was a really good opportunity to sit and review everything. So, I’d got to a point where I’d been running the business for a few years and I knew I absolutely love what I do. It was like what really works and what’s not working so well? And being at home, a huge thing I realised was that weekends were so precious. My children are seven and nine and on a Saturday morning I’d get up and I’d go off to work, photograph my families or weddings. And I’d get home and my husband and kids had had a brilliant day. They’d been to a theme park or somewhere else and I’d be thinking, “I want to be involved in that.” I felt like I was missing out, and they were at an age where they still like us. When they get to teenagers, you slam the door and you don’t see them, do you? But they were still at an age where they quite enjoy spending time with us. I was like, I feel like I’m missing out a little bit.

So, lockdown gave me the opportunity to really sort of sit and look at the business and think, which bit do I really love? And where would I change if I could? And I loved doing the weddings. The weddings were great because you tell the story, you tell the story of the day. So there are detailed photos, there’s behind the scenes, there are beautiful portraits. But they’re a really long day. So you shoot a wedding and you’re gone for 12 hours. You’re walking in at 11pm absolutely shattered on Saturday night. And on Sunday…

VB: I bet you were absolutely exhausted.

JG: Yeah. And grumpy and it was horrible editing the photographs on Sunday. So, I discovered brand photography, and it’s so similar to a wedding. You’re telling the story of a business and it’s not just a story, it’s meeting the creator. What inspires the business owner? Why did they end up doing what they’re doing and what was the journey to get there? And there are all the details and it’s behind the scenes. This is really like weddings and stuff. I really enjoyed the weddings, but it couldn’t fit in with our family life. With brand photography, I can do that during the week and still be around at the weekend.

I started in the summer last year, and we were allowed to meet again in the autumn. I did a couple of shoots, and it was just like a light bulb moment. Like when you go, “Wow, this really is the thing. This is what I love doing.” It’s just so creative.

VB: And I love the fact that the pandemic was it was an awful time for so many of us, and it was truly horrendous. But, there are some positives that have come out of it, where people have really evaluated their lives and their businesses and everything else really, to come up with something better on the other side.

JG: Yeah. I think lots of people are in the same similar position myself, where it’s like, right, let’s use it as an opportunity.

VB: So how did you get into photography? Have you always been a photographer?

JG: I’ve always enjoyed photography. It was always something I enjoyed doing. I had Jacob nine years ago, nearly ten and I was really excited about the idea of being a stay-at-home mom. Yeah, I did that for about six months before I started to go a little bit crazy in my head. It was going to be me in the garden growing vegetables with a baby, and it was going to be this wonderful life. I didn’t realise how much I was going to miss people. And although I was seeing lots of mums, they were all in the same boat as me, they all had newborns. It was all conversations about the same things, really. And I thought, “I want to speak to different people.” So, I just thought, “I know I’ll go to night school, I’ll join an evening class,” and photography happened to be the subject that was available on the evening my husband could look after the kids. I thought, “Yeah, great, I’ve always been good at photography. I’ll go and do that.”

As you said, it was almost meant to be because I really enjoyed it. I was good at it. The tutor started taking me to his weddings to second shoot for him, so he thought I was good and it was him that encouraged me to go to Leicester College and qualify as a freelance photographer. This thing started out as a hobby and then just sort of took on a life of its own. And I was waking up the night and getting up at 4 am. Going out to take photos of the sunrise and things, it just was not me. But there was this thing happening where I just felt, yeah, you’ve got to follow this.

VB: You have to find your purpose. And I think when someone does that, then it can be really hard work, but it doesn’t feel like hard work anymore. That’s it. It doesn’t even feel like work, really, does it? Yeah. So it’s amazing that you found that. So, tell us about the first time you picked up a camera then.

I do remember that my dad always had really good cameras and he was a little bit of an all-the-gear, no idea. So we got the photos back and they don’t ever expose because, of course, it was in the days when it was filmed, so we didn’t have the luxury of just being able to go, that’s a good one. I’ll keep that one. So, I think photography was always around when I was a kid and then it was around my 16th birthday, he bought me a camera and that was brilliant. It felt like a decent size in your hands and, yeah, that was the first decent camera that I had.

VB: I think so many people miss being creative when they have children. If you’re kind of just sitting there not creating something, it makes you go a bit crazy, especially if you’re a creative person. I think that’s probably why you ended up finding photography. I started my blog because I needed to produce something and I needed to do something. It was all really rewarding bring up my child. But what I wasn’t doing was coming up with something at the end of the day and saying, “That’s what I’ve created.” I wasn’t doing that. And it was like there was a big gap and a big hole inside of me. So I guess that’s probably a little bit of what was going on with you as well at the time.

JG: Yeah. And all the time your purpose is looking after you but you feel really guilty because you’re like, well, I want to do something for me. But then you think, well, I should be putting everyone else first. And then there’s this huge conflict going on, and I think creativity is a good way to escape.

VB: Exactly. And it’s very important. It’s so important. It’s like the old famous lifeboat analogy. You’re in the plane and you get the oxygen mask, but you have to look after yourself before you can look after anyone else. If you haven’t got your own oxygen, how are you going to survive to help them? You’re not going to be able to help them. So it’s really hard. You do feel really guilty, but it’s really important. I think that you remember that your own well-being is really important.

Moving into ‘brand’ – I think brand is a really interesting area when it comes to businesses because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about brand. I think so many people think that your brand is a logo. When people take you on as a brand photographer, what’s your experience of what people think about brand?

JG: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think creative women, especially women, have a lot more insight into branding than maybe men do. So, if I have a corporate client, then it is very much right. I just want the photos, get on with it. I don’t need to know why photography is a really, really creative process, then the majority of my clients do end up being women as a result of that. Because it’s about the story of your business. It’s about your message. It’s about your dream clients. Who do you want to attract? Who do you want to appeal to? People buy from people. And it’s a really important element of that.

So your brand really is you. It’s not your logo and it’s not your colour palette. And they’re a very important part of that. But brand is more than that. It’s about the ‘why’. Who are you trying to attract? Who’s your dream client?

Because, for example, if it’s a jewellery business, you’re probably going to have a client that you imagine wearing your items, the pieces that you make. Well, then let’s have that person in the photograph. So when your clients are on Instagram and she’s scrolling, Then they’ll go, “Oh, gosh, yeah, I can relate to that. I can imagine myself wearing that.”

A whole lot of work goes into the branding, and it’s like a bit of a rabbit hole, isn’t it, when you start to get into it? And it’s things like the voice as well, not just your photography, but also the tone of voice that you use – the language you use when you’re writing your post to a company.

VB: Yeah. I call it the ‘invisible work’ because it’s the work that underpins everything else you do in your business. But it almost feels like a waste of time when you’re doing it. It feels like, “Oh, this is so much work and I’m not actually seeing anything from it.” But when you’ve done all that brand work, everything else benefits in your marketing, and it’s just so important. But sometimes it’s hard to sell those benefits to people.

JG: Yeah. It’s something that makes the decision process for other things so much easier. So for example, for me, I know for my family’s photography, I know what my dream client’s house looks like. So when I’m choosing my range of frames, it’s so easy because I know exactly what’s going to fit into their home. Whereas, if you’ve not got a dream client and a brand that you’re working with, you end up just running around like a headless chicken when it comes to making decisions. Yeah. So I think it’s a really good time saver as well. It’s so much fun. Isn’t it fun doing all of the work?

It’s so fun seeing them come to life, really, because I think the brands are always there. I always say to people, when I work with them. Your brand is there. I’m not inventing anything for you. It’s just that I’m helping you dig it out I suppose, and bring it to life and help you find it.

VB: I know that creatives are listening to this podcast, creative businesses that are selling themselves online – how important is photography in that?

JG: I’d say it’s absolutely essential. We’re in a world that’s very visual and it’s information overload. It’s quite overwhelming for people. So, you’ll find that people will sit on Instagram and they’ll just scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll. Now, if you’ve got a set of on-brand images that are really clearly for your company or for your business, when people are scrolling, they might not necessarily stop on your image, but they’ll be reminded that you exist. So, it’s just reminding people that you’re there, so that when they come to need your service or your product, then they remember to use you.

The big thing as well is that you’re trying to build a following. You want to build a following of clients. So not only do people buy from people, they also want to see the product looking at its very best. They want to see how it was made, they want to know the story behind it, what inspired it, what materials were used, and what equipment. Social media is so hungry for content. It really is. It can be quite overwhelming, You can’t be thinking, gosh, I need to put ten photos out there this week. I’ve not got time to take ten photographs.

Whereas if you put a bank of images all with different messages, it just makes it so much easier. It really does. And it adds to that consistency, which ultimately is what helps our customers to trust us.

VB: There are lots of different types of photography, obviously. What kinds of photographs do small business owners need?

I would say the key thing is we’re all a bit afraid of getting in front of the camera. It’s all about the fear of rejection, it’s all about, “People don’t like me.” I had a mentor myself and she gave me a real wake-up call actually. She said, “What if people don’t like you? There’s going to be people who don’t like you, just accept it.” You’re going to be more liked by some people, but there are going to be some people who really don’t like you. There are going to be other people who really love you, and they are the ones that are your clients and they are the ones that are going to buy from you.

So embrace whatever your thing is, your weirdness, your quirkiness, embrace it and put your message out there and get your faith out there and do the lives and do the interviews and the people that really resonate with you will then end up being your dream clients.

And it’s putting your personality out there as well. So for me, a huge inspiration is nature, for being outdoors, and it’s just being me, really, coming across in the social media posts that I put out there. But as a result, the businesses I attract tend to be inspired by nature. Now, I’m not saying they’re all outdoor businesses, but at the heart of it, they’ve got this thing where nature comes in for them. It’s interesting and it just means you attract like-minded people. And it’s lovely working with people that you get on well with, isn’t it? Makes it a lot easier.

Definitely get your face on some of your photos. It doesn’t necessarily have to be like a business portrait, you know, the traditional headshot. It could be a behind the scenes showing you doing what you do. It’s lovely to see what you do at the end of the week, maybe having a coffee or wine or whatever it is that you do to relax. You know, seeing the business owner that’s not at work, the person behind the business.

So, yeah, being in the photograph is really important. And great product photos are important too. For example – for the necklace I’m wearing at the moment, I bought from an Instagram post. I loved it and it kept I saved it and I came back to it and ended up buying it.

Also, what materials do you use? Take photographs of what goes into the product, what equipment do you use, and what inspires you? It might be architecture or it might be patterns or textures. So, if you see something that would be your inspiration, share it. Your customers want to hear that story. They want to know the story behind how things came to be made.

VB: Yeah, great tips, because people do buy into you because of your inspirations, even if they don’t always know it. I think it’s kind of like subliminal, isn’t it? But obviously this thing about faces on socials, so many people will be against it. I’ll be like, oh, I can have photos, but I’m not going to show my face because X-Y-Z. I think like you say, it’s just about fear.

So what kind of tips could you give to people who are a little bit scared of going in front of the camera?

JG; I’m a big believer in feeling the fear and going for it. That’s a huge thing. But be yourself. Dress like you, and have the hair and makeup that you would have. Don’t try and be someone that you’re not, because that will come across. If you’ve got a dress that makes you feel amazing, wear it. Because if you feel amazing, you look amazing. You don’t need to have lots of headshots. It’s nice to see your face and see the person, but it can be a photo of your environment. It could be you in your studio at work. You don’t have to be smiling at the camera.

And then, if you want a photograph where it’s more of a sort of a headshot business portrait, remember your posture. So straight back, sitting tall, hands are really important – soft hands. When we’re nervous, we pinch our fists, and that always comes across in photographs. So if you put them in your pocket, that makes you relaxed a bit.

I get asked all the time about how to make people look slimmer, something that always comes up. So turning your shoulders slightly towards having one nearer the camera and one further away, it naturally makes you narrower and also putting your hands near your waist, it creates a triangle, so that makes your waist look smaller. The rule in photography that comes up time and again is – bend it.

VB: I was just about to say that – elbows!

JG: Yeah, elbows. Triangles are great. So if you want to make yourself look slimmer as well, having a space between your arm and your body creates space, and then that actually makes you look slimmer as well.

VB: Would you say it’s worth people going to practice this just on their own? If they were going to have a shoot first, they could just get to know what poses they like, that kind of thing?

JG: Absolutely. Stand in front of a mirror and try different things. So, if you stand straight on in front of a mirror, you look quite broad. And then if you just twist slightly, you can see your silhouette narrows naturally. Leaning forward slightly, then whatever is nearest to the camera biggest. So, if you move your shoulders slightly towards the camera, it makes your face and your chest area look larger and your hips way slimmer. This infrastructure mirror, you can see how it works. Your weight on your back foot.

VB: That’s what celebrities all know, don’t they? They know all this. We think they all look amazing. And actually, they just know all these tricks that they need to tell us about. So I think part of it as well is getting someone like you, a professional, to come in and take photos, because I think that people are really resistant sometimes to invest in their business in terms of photography because it’s an extra expense. But what they don’t realise is the amount of time that can save you. And also the standard of photo you get will mean you attract more clients. So, I think it’s really important that people consider going to look for a professional photographer for these kind of headshots as well.

However, saying that, you can’t do so many photos you need for social media. You can’t always have all your photos done professionally, can you? Because you can’t have a professional photographer following you.

If people have to do it themselves, would you recommend that they get fancy cameras, or do you think that phones are enough? What would you recommend?

JG: I think a phone is absolutely fine these days. The cameras on phones are just absolutely brilliant, aren’t they? There’s quite often a macro setting, so using the macro setting gets a nice blurry background. It’s really good and makes photographs focus on the subject in the photograph. Don’t be afraid to add wooden blocks or flowers, foliage textures. Things like fabrics like linen have fabulous textures to them, and that contrasts against the smoothness of the item. So don’t be afraid to add in those kinds of textures.

VB: I find ceramics really good for jewellery photos, like a lustre, too. It reflects the light really well, and wearing white tops can have the same effect on people too. I found out through trial and error.

JG: Yes, absolutely. And if you’ve got your brand, if you know what your branding is, then a hint that colour or the theme is a really good way to keep consistency. Another really helpful thing is to shoot near a window in your home. Shooting this close to a window means you get this lovely bright light. And the window acts as a natural filter for the light as well, so it makes it softer.

White is a useful colour to have when taking photos. So have that opposite the window, especially if you’ve got jewellery that’s shining and you want to show shine. And that’s a good way of bouncing light back onto your product.

VB: But if it’s a very bright day, you wouldn’t want to be by the window, though, would you?

JG: No, you wouldn’t want to be near the window in bright sunshine. So overcast days are your best friend. If it’s cloudy outside and you get a lovely soft light, you’ve got a natural softbox. The thing to watch out for is reflections, like when you take photos of rings and then you realise, “Oh gosh, there’s me, there’s my big reflection in there.” So if you’ve got a timer on your phone or your camera, use it. Or another thing I find myself doing a lot is lying down if you’re taking a photo of a product that’s shiny – so you don’t see yourself in the reflection.

VB: Or you can get one of those clickers, can’t you?

JG: Yes, that or a pair of headphones will work. So you can set it up and then use the clicker or headphones button to take the photograph. That’s a great piece of equipment to use to take photos remotely.

Another useful piece of equipment is a ring light which is quite cheap, You can buy them really easily on a well-known website that sells it. The ring light just gives a flattering light. I also think windows are great for when you’re taking photos of yourself as well because if you’re facing a window you get a much better shot than if you’re not facing a window – as long as it’s not too sunny.

And consistency is so important, as we said before. So if you’re photographing your products and if they’ve got the same sort of background each time – a similar theme running through them, then your buyers are going to know it’s your item that’s popping up on their feed and it’s just reminding them that you’re there and it’s consistency all the way.

VB: I’m a big fan of getting photos, particularly photos done by a professional, because I just think you’re never going to get that professional finish from your own photos unless you’re a photographer. And even then you might not get as good results because it’s hard to take photos of yourself – as you don’t see yourself the way somebody else sees you.

JG: Absolutely. Although you probably will take some of your own photos, I think it’s not the same as getting somebody else to do it for you.

You never have the time to work on your own business. Quite often when you’re a business owner, do you end up being in the business and not working on the business? I think probably a lot of business owners are trying to use their time really effectively, and having a big bank of images ready to use really helps with that.

I think sometimes – just get the professional to do it for you and it’s really good fun as well. Victoria, you’ve had photos, haven’t you? It is really good fun, isn’t it?

VB: It really is fun and it’s just nice being with somebody else bouncing ideas around. And also to just know you’ve kind of portioned off those few hours in a day for photos and that’s it. Then your photos are done as far as you’re concerned. You don’t need to spend any more time sorting them out, you just have to wait for them to come in from your photographer. They just give you so much material that’s ready to go for your social media and other content.

And I think that when you’re on Instagram, for example, one of the hardest things is finding the photos first and then you’ve got to write the captions afterwards too. So, if you’ve got a photo there already, it’s so much easier. So, when you talk to clients and people book you, do you recommend that they do some prep work about what kind of photos they want and that kind of thing? Some planning?

JG: Yes. So, when I work with a business owner, there’s a lot of planning that goes into it. It’s really good fun, it’s a really creative process. We have an initial chat just to see whether we want to work together because people need to look relaxed in front of the camera, and I want them to feel they can work with me and be comfortable. I then send a workbook out and the workbook has all the nitty gritty of that business. We go through the story of that business. Where did it come from? What made the business owner decide to start that business? How did they end up where they are? What inspires them? What themes are there in their business? When I say ‘themes’, I mean things like nature or maybe the urban landscape – anything that’s inspired the business. We talk about who is your dream client? Who do you want to attract? We want these photographs to appeal to them.

We plan the photo shoot down to the last detail, so that when we’re together taking photos we’re as productive as we can be. We just get on with it and when we get there we know exactly what we do and we both have a plan.

We discuss outfits and accessories and all that sort of thing beforehand too. Another thing to think about is that we want the photograph to be evergreen as well. I want my clients to be able to use the photos throughout the year. So we plan things like outfit changes. And also how can we make the photograph look as though it’s a different place and maybe adding accessories, putting a jacket or a cardigan on and just sort of changing the look of the photograph.

So there’s loads and loads of work going into creating a good plan for the day, so that as soon as we get together, we can get as many images as we can squeeze into the time we have. I love the idea of a workbook because so many people are so nervous about the whole process and not knowing what to do. Then we know what to do, how to prepare and how it’s going to work. And I think having that workbook for them helps them really feel like they’ve been looked after and they’ve been shown the way and it’s all kind of under control.

VB: This is a really great idea.

Obviously, you’re a mum as well as a photographer. We’ve talked about that. How do you juggle all of that?

I think people would be interested to know because it’s so hard to sometimes separate your home life from your work life.

JG: Oh, my goodness, it’s so hard. It’s a struggle. And there’s all this mum guilt that gets wrapped in there as well, isn’t there? It’s almost feeling selfish, for wanting to be successful. The biggest thing is time. There are not enough hours in the day. So I found that outsourcing has been a huge thing for me. I haven’t got a cleaner yet, but it’s massively on my wishlist. Cleaner is going to happen at some point. So I think that’s a big thing for people thinking about things that you’re doing at the minute where someone else could. It’s not adding any benefits to your life where it’s wasted time. So with the business as well, can you outsource any activities or use tools to make things easier?

For my first website – I built it entirely myself and I spent days and days pouring over it and hating it and struggling to come up with the right words. And I’m in the process of building a new website and I’ve employed a copywriter for it. It’s exactly what was in my head, written beautifully and it’s persuasive. Obviously writing is her area of genius.

Then the other thing for me that’s been a huge game changer is spending time with my family. The thing is I want to be a present mom. I want my kids to grow up and remember me being around, not always at work. I bought this book and it was called ‘Miracle Morning’. When I bought it, it sat on the bookcase for months and months because I knew it was going to say get up early and I like to sleep. I like going to bed. I like staying in bed. And I thought, I’m not going to like this book because it was time to get up early and we won’t get on.

Anyway, I read ‘Miracle Morning’ at the start of this year and it’s been a big game-changer for me. And it is about getting up early. It’s about getting up early and using that time for you. So it’s an hour where it’s an hour for me. It’s not an hour of me looking after the children. It’s not an hour of me doing the washing, it’s for me.

That hour is so I get up and I do yoga, or a workout. I journal. So that’s been a huge thing, writing down what I’m grateful for. Also planning the day as well. What do I want with you from the day? What do I want to do? And visualising things going really well. If you’ve got something you’ve been nervous about, then think about the outcomes that you want to get from it, and then also do a bit of personal development. Even if it’s just ten pages of a book every day. Over a year, that’s like hours and hours and hours of learning. But when you break it down to ten minutes a day, it’s easy to do.

And I found that made such a huge difference to me. It’s created a really good mood for the day. The children get up and it’s not fraught because we’re not late. Before it’d be stressful on a school day, everyone would be shouting at each other and it would be horrendous and they’d go out to school and I’d be stressed for the day. Whereas, because I’m up earlier and I’m ready and I’ve got a plan, it’s made such a big difference and I’m calmer and I’m finding I’m getting better output as a result. And so I’m happier as well.

And as you said before, if we look after ourselves first, we’re a better person for the rest of the family, aren’t we? It took about a fortnight to get into the routine. The children soon learned. And I said, right, you stay in bed even though you can hear me downstairs. Just stay in your rooms and try and go back to sleep or read or whatever it is, but that’s Mommy’s time.

VB: They’ve been really good great tips there Julie. Thank you so much. Sharing them with us will be really helpful to everyone.