Inside the Photography Business: Melissa Fiene
Posted by Pilar Mitchell at 11:41 am
PhotoMerchant: Tell me about yourself and your photography business.
Melissa Fiene: I’ve always been a creative person. I started photography from an early age, and I’m entirely self-taught. A lot of people are surprised by that, but I believe you can educate yourself; everything you need is available online. If you do a course in photography, you’re only ever going to be as good as the person who’s teaching you. They’re teaching you a particular style and technique, whereas teaching yourself builds more confidence and you’re developing your own style.
I started out shooting underwater. It’s a really challenging environment to work in because the subjects are always moving and the lighting is difficult to work with, but learning in that environment made me a much better photographer today.
To get into wedding photography, I started contracting to a wedding photography agency, working as an assistant. I had posted an ad online seeking assistant work and they found me. It didn’t take long before I was the main photographer on shoots.
I still do a lot of odd jobs for the agency in Sydney including a lot of pre-weddings for Asian clients during the week.
I’m based in Balmain and have had my business, Melissa Fiene Photography, for six months. I’ve shot 15-20 weddings and pre-weddings and things have been going well. I think if you’re passionate about something, it happens naturally. My goal is to be fully booked out by the time I’m 30 – I’m 27 now – and I think that’s a realistic goal.
PM: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about running a business?
MF: It’s been a steep learning curve. Half of the work is producing great images, but the other half is customer service. If you do a good job for someone, they’ll pass on the word to their friends and families. It’s really important to do my job well because most of my work has been referrals.
In my spare time I spend a lot of time on search engine optimisation. I found that’s been really beneficial. You can’t expect people to just stumble across your website. Even if you have a great website, no one is going to find you online unless you do a lot of optimising. I recently started optimising and I’ve already seen a massive improvement in traffic.
PM: Why do you think your customers like working with you?
MF: I take the time to get to know them. For example, I provide a consultation with no obligation so we can get to know each other face-to-face. That establishes how I’m going to work with them on their day, because everyone is different. Some people need encouragement or a lot of guidance on the shoot to help them feel less nervous.
A good idea is to persuade them to get an engagement session so they can get comfortable in front of the camera before I shoot their wedding.
Being a people person is really important, and so is learning how to interact with people on different levels. For example if a client has a strong personality or strong opinions, you need to talk on their level, otherwise you won’t get heard.
PM: Is there anything you’ve changed about your business since you started?
MF: My focus has changed. I started out shooting underwater, then moved to landscape, and then I branched into wedding photography after doing the assisting work.
Early on I envisaged having my own gallery, including landscapes and underwater photography because I love the ocean. Obviously you can’t step straight into that because you don’t make much money at first. Wedding photography is more lucrative, but I don’t just do wedding photography for the money. I’m passionate about it.
PM: How do you manage your workflows and calculate the costs of running your business?
MF: I wouldn’t do more than three full day weddings in a week because I want to stay fresh and focused for every client. My processing is in Lightroom and Aperture. I have templates I use so that I can have a fast turnaround time – up to two weeks.
To work out pricing, I did a lot of comparative market research. I think it’s important not to undersell yourself because people will wonder why you’re so cheap and may think the service you provide isn’t any good.
I don’t have many overheads at the moment because I work from home. The agency has a studio I can use if needed.
PM: What do you do to stay competitive with other photographers in your market?
MF: Always staying up to date with new equipment and techniques is important to being competitive. If you think you’ve got a great style and you don’t see the need to change anything, then your business will suffer.
You also need to be critical of your own photography – know your strong points but also know where there’s room for improvement. Rather than trying to compete with a million other photographers, I think you should set yourself a personal high standard.
I find it’s useful to look at other photographer’s work that I admire for inspiration. Then I research what it takes to get to their level and understand what’s involved in producing the quality of work they deliver.
I feel like my age and the fact that I’m new to the industry give me a unique edge because I have a modern eye and a lot of fresh energy.
PM: If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
MF: Believe in yourself and your abilities because if you don’t, it will slow you down from achieving your goal.
PM: Do you have any tips for new photographers?
MF: Always set goals for yourself and don’t expect people to stumble across your business. You’ve got to put the hours into optimising your site. Eventually you’ll reap the rewards.
Also self-directed learning will get you a long way. I’ve learned a lot about photography and business doing my own research. If I want this business to be successful, I’ve got to get it right, putting in the hours and doing great work for clients.
PM: What do you think is going to happen in photography in five year’s time?
MF: I’ve noticed they’re releasing new cameras with higher ISO capabilities. It’s a great feature and allows you to photograph in any light; it makes a lot more sense than cameras that feature high megapixels. With high ISO you will never miss an opportunity.
PM: What do you do in your spare time?
MF: In my spare time apart from photography, I like to travel.
Before starting my business, I was doing dive trips and photographing them. I went to Tonga and photographed humpback whales and the Coral Sea. One of the pictures I took in the Coral Sea of a jellyfish got published in National Geographic. I also love diving and I’d love to get back in the water.
|Melissa Fiene runs Melissa Fiene Photography, a Sydney-based wedding photography business.|