The Business of Photography: part one, finding your niche and making it work.

“Oh my God that’s sooooooo cool!  You are, like, sooooooo lucky!”

That’s my seatmate’s reaction every, single, time when I answer the question of “what do you do?” to the person crammed into the middle seat of the Southwest flight to Wherever City.

“Oh, I’d just loooooooove to see your work!” Inevitably the second breathless comment.

Well, seeing my work is easy, thanks to wifi and this new fangled thing called “the Internet”.  So, I whip out my laptop, or my iPad, or my smartphone and prepare the ground work.

“What kind of events do you shoot?  Weddings?” They ask as I’m logging into the slowest wifi since dial up.

“Well, no.  I don’t shoot any weddings.”

“Oh.”  Pause.  Like I just said I hated butterflies.

“I shoot either large events for large companies, or small events for large companies.  Or small events for small companies that want something bold.”  (See last blog post)

“Oh.  No weddings?”

“Nope.  No weddings.”

“How do you …um, well, you know…how do you, uh…”

“Make a living and live in a palace in Tampa?”

“Yeah, I mean, do you do this…well, full time?”

“It’s October 3 and we’ve completed more than 50 events so far this year; two more are this weekend.”


And that’s the million dollar question.  How?

First, it’s time to show my seat mate what I actually shoot.  I try to prepare them.  No sunsets, landscapes or perfectly shaped people.  No fashion, no make up person hovering, no director, no sun glinting just so off a perfect building.  I give a brief lesson on both convention photography and green screen photography.

“Now if you want to see my work….”

“OH, YES!”  Hands clapping together.

With that, I show them a few of my favorite shots.  Photos I love, for one reason or another.  And the reaction is one of two:



“Oh.”  And there’s that pregnant silence again.  Then, out come the ear phones.

To be a successful photographer is to find your niche.  My niche has always been (well, almost always been) convention and conference photography, and of course, green screen photo executions at major events.  I also have a passion for the news, and every once in a while get to stretch my journalistic legs with a bit of news photography.  Remember, my first professional assignment was September 13, 2001, Ground Zero — and that experience isn’t one that leaves you any time soon.

When I wake up in the morning, even if it’s 3 am for a 6 am shoot, the first thing I do is check the search engine rankings for our various web sites.  Every. Single. Day. You see, the higher the rank on the key words that I’ve determined are important — the better future business.  The second thing I do is look at Politico on my iPad.  Then at CNN.  Next, The New York Times.  Last, I update our US Event Photos Facebook page.  That brings me to my second cup of hotel coffee, and it’s time to start my day.

It’s been a while since I wrote a series on this blog, but now it’s time.  So prepare yourself for my take on the business of photography.  What it’s like to be a professional event photographer, my opinion on what you have to do to be successful, and my not so humble take on everything from marketing to search engine optimization.

I’ve thought a lot about how we fill the schedule, year in, year out.  Here are my best answers.

PART 1:  Extraordinary Measures and Making it Work.

Recently, Matthew and I were ensconced in our Tampa palace watching The Voice.  The Voice brings back memories of a competing show, American Idol, and another time in my life when I was snuggled on the couch watching the talent competition and the sleet was falling outside our House of Zen 1.0 in Rehoboth Beach, DE.

“I’m soooo glad I don’t fly out until tomorrow evening,” I said to Matthew as Simon harangued a wobbly singer.  “Look at it sleet!  It is supposed to clear early tomorrow morning.”

As soon as those words left my mouth, the flip phone rang.  The client for my shoot later that week greeted me.  The upcoming event was a meet and greet with Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk.

“See you tomorrow!” The client said cheerfully.

I flipped closed the flip phone.  I turned up the volume on American Idol.  

“I want you to want me…I need you to need me…”

Then I thought about what he said, “See you tomorrow!”

That shoot wasn’t until Thursday.  It was Tuesday.  I flew out Wednesday evening for Las Vegas.

“See you tomorrow.”

I better check, I thought.  I pulled the contract.  Yup, Thursday, February 8.

I looked on the calendar.

February 8 was Wednesday.

I looked at the initial email from the client, the very first one.  The request for price.

“We are looking for a photographer for a meet and greet February 8 at Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas from 10 am – 11 am…”

Somehow, when I did the quote, I put “Thursday, February 8” on the contract.  I then put it on my calendar for that Thursday, which, of course, was February 9.  The day after the event.

I immediately jumped off the couch, did some searching, and booked the next flight I could possibly make — which left early the next morning.  At the time, I lived 2.5 hours from BWI.

We threw the equipment and luggage in the car, and started the trek for an airport hotel so I could make the 6 am flight the next morning.

The ice continued to fall.

The 2.5 hour drive turned into a 6 hour drive.

The flip phone buzzed again.  It was the client asking what time I’d be there in the morning.

My flight landed at 8 am.   The shoot was at 10 am.  I typically like 2 hours for setup.  That wasn’t possible.

I confessed everything to the client.

“Get here.” He said through clenched teeth.

The flip phone went dead.

The ice continued, and we reached our hotel at 2 am.  I laid on the hotel bed, staring at the pop corn ceiling, before rising at 4 am to make the flight.

Everything looked on time!  We left the gate right at 6 am….

….and sat in de-icing for better than one hour.

We landed at 9 am, one hour late, in Las Vegas.  And one hour before my shoot at Red Rock.  Red Rock is a half hour from the Las Vegas Airport.  Luggage typically takes 20 minutes.  I was running out of math.

The printers! Miracles, they were first off the luggage belt.  That’s never happened before or since, I scooped them up, and ran for the cabs.

I jumped into the cab.  “$100 if you get me to Red Rock in 15 minutes.”

I look over.  The cab was traveling at 100 mph.

I reached Red Rock at 9:30, just 30 minutes after the wheels of the jet touched down in Las Vegas.  To this day, I don’t think I could do that again.

I set up in record time.  In walked Ferrigno, promptly at 10.

“Thank you for doing this Mr. Ferrigno.  I’m Mike Gatty, your photographer….”

The shoot continued without a hitch.  It ended.  I excused myself and went to the mens room.

I threw up.

Here’s the point.  Sometimes you screw up.  Sometimes, you book something wrong.  Despite everything you do to set yourself up for success, it’s just dorked up.

If you are serious about your business, you make the shoot.  I don’t care if you have to hitch hike to the airport, if you have food poisoning and slept next to the toilet, no matter what, no matter the expense, you make it.

Further, if you do screw it up, tell the client.  Confess.

And last, if the client is looking at you like you just punched a baby because he is so mad, you DO NOT CHARGE FOR THE EVENT.

That was the case here.  Not only did I eat all the expense associated with changing around a last minute flight — my US Air ticket, one way, was almost $1000 — I couldn’t charge the client for the service.

Worse, I still never heard from that client again.

But you can only do what’s right.  If you look back and know you did everything you could possibly do, no matter the expense, to make it right — then you can sleep at night.

And, you will be successful.  Not on that particular line item for the year, but overall, you will.  Because, in the words  of Tim Gunn, “You made it work.”

Part two is up next: Turning Chairs

Here’s my seat mate from the last flight, San Francisco to Tampa.  She could only fit in the seat by turning sideways, so we never talked.  Bless her heart.

What makes great greenscreen?  This is a shot from the National Book Festival with AARP on Labor Day. The participant is a librarian.  We did hundreds of participants that day, but a great greenscreen looks like you spent hours — not seconds– on a photo.  And, of course, boas are required.  Sigh.

Here’s one from Matthew.  Again, it COULD BE a published magazine cover.  He didn’t get the boa memo.
Washington DC Corporate Event Photographers
Corporate Event Photographers

Here’s Matthew, my sister in law Margarete, and myself at the Tampa Palace playing with the new selfie stick compliments of Zoolander 2 premier.  

Miami Florida Major Event Photography
Major Event Photography

While I may not be a strict journalist, you can’t take the reporter out once it’s in.  Unless you work for Fox News.  Here’s a shot from when I covered the Indy 500 for Mario Andretti, Honda, and The Fastest Seat In Sports.

Green Screen Photos
Special Purpose Photography

And here is one of my first major news photos.  That’s the former President of Poland with then Senator Clinton.  I was the official photographer for his state visit.  This ran in Poland on the cover of Fakt News, a Warsaw daily, the next morning.

Washington DC Convention Photography Events
Convention Photography Events

Mom taught me the business of convention and conference photography.  It fits with our love of news — just the news as it relates to our corporate client.  This is one of our oldest clients, Maryland Realtors.  They’ve stuck with us since 2002.

Green Screen Photo Executions in Florida
Green Screen Photo Executions

Last, creative artwork for greenscreen photo executions makes all the difference.  When I’m home, I’m designing artwork for future shoots.  I love coming up with off the hook stuff, and often say, “I know it’s right when I can’t stop laughing.”

And that’s our niche.