How Penn and Teller Helped Define the Brand that Became US Event Photos
I am Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt! Brad Pitt! Your order is ready. Brad Pitt!
Every head at the Tampa International Airport’s Starbucks snapped around to see Brad Pitt.
They were sorely disappointed. I was Brad Pitt. Or at least that’s the name I’d given the barista.
“That’s me!” I said in my inside voice (which echoes through the airport). The entire line snickered. A tired looking mother said, “I should have given them Angelina Jolie”.
It takes a lot to get travelers to laugh early on a February Saturday morning. Most spend their time trying to figure out how to hog in front of you. They stare straight ahead, ignoring any interaction as they waddle to their destination. They gripe their flight is ten minutes late. “Travel just isn’t what it used to be,” they complain bitterly to no one in particular. Yeah, it was always on time in the past. Ten whole minutes. Geesh, you better call everyone you know and gripe (loudly) to them “My flight is TEN MINUTES LATE.”
That off beat sense of humor is a big part of how US Event Photos thrives. Twisting artwork for green screen experiential photo marketing events to be just a little bit off beat and funny, diffusing awkward situations by cracking wise, helping participants feel easy in front of the camera because they are snickering at something you just said, even getting you to read a blog post you would otherwise ignore – all those successes are driven by being mildly funny.
And I am (mildly) funny. Even Penn and Teller acknowledge that I am mildly funny. Well, Penn does (the tall one) – Teller doesn’t speak.
It all happened at a red-carpet photo meet and greet a few years back. For Hilton Hotels – that was the client. They brought owners of their hotels to Orlando for a red-carpet experience, including a meet and greet with the two whacky comedians. They also gave the hotel owners all new iPads. Under their seats, Oprah style.
Of course, Oprah gave out cars. But I didn’t remind Hilton of this.
Anyway, at the end of the event, Penn looked at me. Stared. Thinking.
After chewing on his words for a bit (I could see his mouth working to form the syllables, but it took a few seconds for the brain to connect with the jaw muscles) he said, “MICHAEL! YOU ARE FUNNY.”
This became a defining moment in my career as a professional event photographer. I’d been in rare form that day, and my verbal sensor had pooped out. I don’t remember what I said, but I can imagine it. Whatever it was, Penn thought I was funny. Maybe I’d brought up Oprah. It’s possible.
Penn gets paid to be funny. He’s good at it.
He’s had HBO specials. He has a Vegas show. If he thinks I’m funny, well, who am I to argue.
I thought about all those times I returned to my hotel room, wondering if I’d actually said something out loud, or if I’d just thought it. And, if I said it out loud, was it totally inappropriate? Would the client call and say, “Mike, we need to talk?” Had they paid already? Or did they still owe the invoice?
But it was on that day I embraced my humor and began to see it as a critical weapon in my arsenal to differentiate the US Event Photos brand. Moving yourself out of the pack will drive success for your photography business. Being different in some way, defining a niche that is unique to you, standing out from everyone else is a good thing. Think about what is average. Normal. What every other photographer on the planet does to fulfil a shoot. Examine it. Rethink it. Roll out something different.
Here’s an example. Every photographer in the world (it seems) dresses in black. There’s some practical reasons for this, especially if you are a photo-journalist. It helps you blend in a dark room. Black doesn’t show dirt – important, when you’re crawling around the floor in front of a stage. It all matches.
But wearing 50 shades of very dark grey is what every single photographer on the planet does. And they all look barely clean, with little flakes of dandruff visible on a wrinkled polyester shirt (and it takes real effort to wrinkle synthetic fabric). What happens if you, I don’t know, wear purple?
Would security usher you from the premises? Would the earth stop spinning on it’s axis? Or, what if, instead of scruffy jeans and a worn out black polo, you wore a very tailored suit? Something where people looked at you and thought, “Damned, that’s a sharp suit!” Especially if you’re shooting a meet and greet and not crawling around on a nasty floor.
What if you put on a tie? Have you ever seen a photographer in a tie?
Or, instead of saying your normal schtick as you take a photo of two people posing, you say something unexpected? For me, I count. The people posing expect you to count, but not to count arbitrarily: “One! Three! Twelve!”
Even when they’ve seen 400 participants go in front of you and are expecting a random series of numbers to come from your mouth, they still can’t help but smile. Even laugh. Suddenly the stiffly posed grip and grin is a warm photo. In an instant they relaxed. They couldn’t help it. And the camera captures that instant.
I’m just using this as an example of what works for me. For you, it is probably something totally different. But rethinking the expected and offering that twist up to your client will drive business and differentiate you from every other boring photographer in business.
When you are hired for a shoot, you are competing against every photographer that client has ever hired. If you want them to hire you again and not consider hiring anybody else, you better figure out a way of doing the shoot that is unexpectedly wonderful.
I can hear you thinking. “Ha! If you are just a great photographer, with skills better than everyone else, that is what they are paying for.”
Wrong. Our survey says, “BAHHHHHH!” Most clients don’t appreciate or care about the subtle differences that make one photo great and another photo acceptable. They care about other things, skills that have nothing to do with photography. They want to like you. They want to trust you. They want to hang around you and feel good they hired you. They want to show you off, be proud of you, and say “this is our photographer. We are so lucky to have him! (He’s almost never available).”
Think about a great restaurant. If you walk in, and every table is empty, you’re predisposed to think the place sucks. HOWEVER, if every table in the place is packed, your instinct is to believe the opposite. Even if your lasagna has an ice cube in the middle and a piece of a Stouffer’s label stuck to the plate, you’re likely to think you just got unlucky and ordered the wrong thing.
I’m not saying you can suck as a photographer and be successful. You must be a great photographer. In fact, when you’re comfortable you know what you’re doing, when you know you have the skill to get images the way they look in your head, then you can relax and have fun. Be at ease. Crack wise.
Clients? You’ll catch them whispering to someone –
“This is our photographer. We are so lucky to have him. He’s almost always booked.”
Glad I wore my green shamrock suit. I look good.
Photobombing famous movie scenes is one of our niches. Here I join “singing in the rain”. I can’t sing a note. Or here, hanging with the Kennedies in Boston. Boston, not Dallas. That’s important. Location. Location. Location.
A participant (in sun glasses) poses as a secret service agent in this whacky green screen photo booth Photo. Having an off beat sense of humor helps our brand create photo marketing experiences participants want the share.