The most important thing

Jeffrey and Julia Woods find a marketable niche in photographing relationships

By Jeff Kent
Images By Jeffrey and Julia Woods
First published in January 2005

When Jeffrey and Julia Woods tell you how they approach a wedding or portrait, and when you look at their images, its obvious that for them, celebrating relationships is paramount.

We're all about the relationships, many photographers say. It’s plastered all over their business cards and Web sites. They say it when people call the studio and again when they come in for a sales consultation. But are they really all about the relationships, or is it a gimmick?

Not with Jeffrey and Julia Woods. When this Washington, Ill., couple tells you how they approach a wedding or portrait, and when you look at their images, it’s obvious that for them, celebrating relationships is paramount.

“Family and relationships are most important to us,” Julia says matter-of-factly. “In everything we do, that’s what we focus on.”

When Jeff and Julia started out in professional photography, they had been married for three years and had an 18-month-old child. The budding family—now there are four kids—grew with the business.

“We went through all the growing pains of developing our business with a family,” says Julia. “We didn’t start the business and then learn how to break away to raise a family. We went through that growth process at the same time.”

That family atmosphere extends to their three employees. The Woodses make every effort to keep the group together, setting goals for the entire studio and allowing all to share in the successes.

“We want to keep our employees and treat them right,” says Jeff. “We want them to feel like they’re part of our success. So we have an incentive that if the studio makes its annual goals, we take everyone to a tropical destination. It makes everyone want to come to work and feel like they’re really part of the business. The atmosphere around the office is great.”

When it’s sincere, a focus on relationships is a marketable entity. The Woodses built their business on that foundation, and have honed their shooting style to match.

Jeff learned the trade from a local photographer, who took him under his wing. As Jeff’s skills grew, he brought Julia onboard and taught her many of the basics. The two gradually transitioned into a business of their own, Jeffrey and Julia Woods Portrait Life and Wedding Life, and joined PPA. Jeff was the head photographer at first, and Julia assisted. That was about nine years ago.

As Julia began to shoot more, she and Jeff sat down and discussed the way they wanted to develop their style. Until that point, Julia’s main responsibilities had revolved around setting up shots and posing groups for formal portraits. Jeff encouraged her to step away from the posing, and to bring her fun, interactive personality to her work. When she did, she found so much more in photography than nicely posed shots under good lighting.

“I saw the little kids playing and having fun, the expressions on the bride’s mother’s face,” she says. “I saw real life happening all around me. We realized that’s what we loved the most. We started working to make every wedding about letting people express who they are.”

The result is a style that reflects both Jeff’s and Julia’s strengths. They allow the events to unfold before them, and each concentrates on the elements he or she sees the best.

“Jeff calls it a choreographed dance,” says Julia. “We know each other so well. I know what he’s thinking and he knows what I’m thinking. Jeff sees the art and the fashion; I see the love and romance. When you can bring those things together, it really portrays the whole picture.”

“In today’s business,” adds Jeff, “people want to see real life. We give them that from each of our unique perspectives. We call it ‘prompted reality’—not photojournalism, not traditional, but a mix of both.”

Julia, by nature, enjoys talking with people, really getting to the core of their relationships in “brainstorming sessions.” With what she learns from these discussions, she and Jeff can make sure to capture all the key elements. Both shoot at weddings; in portrait sessions, Jeff does most of the shooting, while Julia keeps the subjects engaged and relaxed.

“I used to hate shooting portraits,” admits Jeff. “I just wanted the clients to relax and be who they are, but so often they would put me in a box by saying, ‘I want XYZ like the studio down the street.’ That really impeded my artistic style. Now, with the real life portraiture we’re doing, I’m really enjoying it, and creating better images. Now clients are asking other photographers to make images that look like ours, and that’s very flattering.”

Getting to that point is largely the result of Jeff and Julia’s marketing efforts. As their styles developed, they adjusted their studio promotions to match. In the last year-and-a-half, they’ve concentrated on marketing their prompted-reality style.

By maintaining consistency in all of their marketing materials—from postcards to print ads to Web site design—the Woodses have effectively associated their studio with the real life style they worked for years to perfect. Says Julia, “I don’t think anyone calls the studio who doesn’t say they love what we do. We are very much marketing a style, and that makes it so much easier to do our work. Clients come in very open minded. They are looking for our artistic direction. Even when I ask them what they want, they say, ‘You’re the artist. Tell us what you see in our family. What is your vision for us and what do you want us to do?’”

How did these two photographers manage to peg themselves in exactly the spot they want to be in? It’s called branding. Like Kodak or Fujifilm or Canon, Jeffrey and Julia Woods Portrait Life and Wedding Life is a brand that implies a certain style and quality.

One critical area for promoting the brand is the studio’s Web sites. To showcase both sides of the business, portraits and weddings, Jeff worked with an Aurora, Colo., company called Blue Domain to design two distinct sites, Portrait Life and Wedding Life. They are connected by links, but they differ slightly in structure and image delivery. The thinking is that wedding clients and portrait clients will each look for studios that specialize in their specific area of interest. That’s the perception they get at each of the studio’s sites.

The Woodses had a grand Web opening to promote the sites and the new look of the business. Using SuccessWare studio management software, they pulled client names from even their oldest records and mailed announcements. The mailer also announced a prize drawing for the first 25 people to log onto the new sites and register.

“That opening sparked a lot of interest into our new style of portrait work,” says Jeff. “We had clients come out of the woodwork from seven or eight years ago.”

As the Woodses’ business has evolved, they’ve also re-examined not only how they market, but to whom. “For the wedding side, we’re considered high end,” says Jeff. “In the past, we tried to market directly to brides and did a lot of bridal shows. We used to walk out with five or six weddings in our pocket. Then that started to change, and we were sometimes leaving shows with only one wedding.”

“We realized that our clientele was changing,” explains Julia. “As we became more high-end, we were courting a different kind of client. Those clients are not as likely to be influenced by a bridal show, or even by what a friend says. They’re more influenced by their wedding coordinator, or their venue. Learning all this was a gradual process of finding out who our clientele was and where they were getting their referrals. So we shifted our marketing efforts to those entities. The vendors are now by far our biggest source of referrals.”

To keep them happy, Jeff occasionally does free shoots for certain venues or provides images gratis for a vendor’s Web site and promotional materials. A 100-percent digital shooter, Jeff often creates small, on-the-fly slideshows of wedding images while he’s still at an event. He burns the slideshows to CDs and gives them to the venues. He and Julia will also put together complimentary albums for their vendors to display in their office or reception area.

On the portrait side, Jeff and Julia hired a marketing associate to promote the studio in the community. They revamped their high school portrait ambassador program, limiting the number of ambassadors but increasing the number of schools, and invested in posting a display at a local mall. All the materials emphasize the real life style and Portrait Life brand. These efforts yielded a 60-percent increase in portrait sessions over 2003.

With all the new initiatives, the Woodses’ biggest challenge at times is to not tinker with the marketing material too much. Jeff gets excited about the design end of things and often wants to retool the Web site or the promotions. He and Julia remind each other that there’s a fine line between keeping things fresh and making so many changes that you only confuse the clientele.

“When you’re trying to create a brand, you have to maintain some consistency so people can identify it,” says Julia. “It takes time for that to evolve. You have to ask yourself about your strong characteristics and your weak characteristics. You have to think, what can I bring to the table that’s unique and marketable?”

For the Woodses, the answer is simple: a pervading emphasis on relationships. The style, the approach, the experience all flow from there. Lucky for them, that sincere celebration of relationships is what their clients want from a photographer. The rest is just putting it all together in a nice package. It really is all about the relationships.

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