There couldn’t be a more fitting comparison than Sid Vicious singing the Sinatra classic “My Way” and my career as a professional headshot photographer. Over the last 10+ years, I tweaked my techniques, which inevitably resulted in my style of portraits. In the beginning, my end goal was a self-declared “best headshot photographer in Toronto” moniker, all tongue-in-cheek, but I did want to produce the best work for my clients, which is where we are right now. Well, up till the early summer to be more accurate. Like Sid singing Sinatra’s swan song, this post is my swan song. This summer brought realizations and clarity, and decisions were made.
One of the single most significant contributors to my successes, I think, was the realization that the single most important ingredient to what makes a really good headshot was facial expression. It’s not the lighting, it’s not the camera, it’s not the background, and it’s not the wardrobe. Those all play a part, but having all those other parts there without the right facial expression and the shot fails. So, I started studying facial expression and learning about body language. Since I focused solely on corporate clients, I zeroed in on body language and facial expressions that would send subconscious signals to viewers that embued trust and confidence. I’ve had hundreds of clients come through my studio(s) over the years, and most, not all, left saying similar things like “I never knew there was that much to it,” or “I had no idea,” or “Wow, I learned so much from this!”. So maybe that moniker was warranted after all.
“Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. That’s not weakness, that’s life.”
~ Jean-Luc Picard
Covid kicked my butt just like everyone else’s. Not in a physical way, mind you; I was one of the lucky people who either never caught it or did catch it but had no symptoms. But what it did to the business was brutal. Canada’s health services reacted quickly to stave off rampant spread, so measures were put in place fast. It was only after those measures were put in place that cracks in all the other places were noticed. Small business was one of those cracks. But my industry fell through even more cracks. Mask mandates and social distancing meant that I couldn’t open, even though many small businesses could. A headshot with a mask on isn’t really a headshot you’re gonna want or could use. I managed to stay afloat, and after a few months, there was support to stay up to date with the lease payments. But it was nerve-wracking and a clerical nightmare with all the requirements to maintain the financial support.
The final straw was actually a couple of combined straws that loosely resembled a psychological sledgehammer. You might know it by its other name, burn-out. I know, shouting ‘burn-out’ is all the rage now. But I’m not hopping on the train for funzies. I truly hit………a wall.
The first thing that happened was a couple of challenging clients almost back-to-back. We all get them occasionally; that comes with working with people. But back-to-back challenges like that are exhausting to me. I found myself not handling those situations how I would normally. Stepping back and observing myself in those situations after the fact, it was clear that I messed those up. I didn’t like how I reacted. That was the first signal something was brewing.
The other straw was none other than A.I. Run for your life!! A.I is coming to take over the world!!!
Seriously though. A good chunk of my business is good old Google ADs. Once in a while, I would take a look at the keyword auctions report. That report shows me a list of who else is bidding on the same keywords as I am and where, in the grand scheme of things, everyone is landing with regard to their ADs showing in the search results. I had started to see some new players enter the auctions, so as usual, I took a look at their websites. Shortly after the back-to-back challenging clients fiasco, one of the websites in the report stopped me in my tracks and made me ask myself some tough questions. As you might have guessed, It was an A.I. headshot service.
While I studied facial expression for years, these new A.I. headshot services could simply scan the kind of work I do and replicate it. The bonuses: no one has to go to a studio; they just wanted a couple of pictures of yourself that were already taken! The A.I. changes everything else. The wardrobe, the background, and it even changes your facial expression. The kicker was they charged a pittance of what I needed to charge to stay alive.
I’ve had many people call to inquire about pricing or to ask a question over the years, and many have passed on booking a session, all saying that I was too expensive. But they actually passed on booking a session because they didn’t see the value of my work compared to the price I was charging (totally my fault btw). The attention I paid to the subconscious details. How I communicate and direct people, and how I create a sense of trust in a very short amount of time. Then there’s the retouching that’s done by hand, by me, and not by automated software. They don’t see that and understand until after going through the whole process. Getting that value across on a website is something that’s always been a tough nut to crack.
With these new A.I. headshot services, the upfront cost is so low, and the results are “good enough” for +90% of people looking for a corporate headshot. Because they don’t know what ‘good’ really is.
This realization led me to conclude that no matter how good my work was, it was only going to be valued by a small subset of clientele. I couldn’t see a way of expanding my clientele base without competing on price, all while still producing the quality of work I did. Given the price A.I. is charging, there is zero chance of succeeding in playing the price war game with the AI players in the game.
On the personal side, the only thing that was keeping my family in Toronto was Toronto Headshot. And Toronto Headshot does not show that it has legs to keep going, let alone grow and expand. So, I made the only logical choice to wind down this chapter of my life. We’ve sold the house and are preparing to move to our new home and the start of another chapter.
It’s been a great experience these past ten years. I’ve met so many interesting people and felt fulfilled every time I see elation on a client’s face when they see how they truly look. I will miss it, but at the same time, I am looking forward to what comes next.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to all my past clients. You helped me realize my dream of being a professional photographer and running my own studio. A dream that started many years ago. My only regret is not being able to see you all again for another session.