Wow. I can't believe that ten years ago today, this company officially started.
I'm currently sitting here at our downtown studio getting ready to go to an awesome celebratory dinner with my team at FLAME, a great hibachi grill in midtown. But as I was getting ready, I decided it would make sense to capture this moment by writing a blog post so I could look back and see where I've been, what I've done, and where I hope to go.
10 years ago, I remember picking up my camera and getting ready to do my first real headshot session. Instead of just doing some photos for friends of mine like I usually did, I was going to meet an actual client!
My hands were shaking, making it difficult to hold my camera without dropping it...
But wait a minute, how did I get here? Let's go back a bit further in time.
What first got me interested in shooting headshots? Well, it's actually a funny story that started back when I was just nine years old.
When I was nine, my dad got my sister and me a Nintendo 64. I remember it like it was yesterday... the infamous GoldenEye 007 James Bond first-person shooter game.
I was obsessed.
Every single day I'd come home from school and play that game for hours, both single-player mission mode and multiplayer games with my friends and sister.
After a few months of playing, I decided I wanted to watch the movie GoldenEye - I had never seen it before.
Well, I loved the movie just as much as the game and it quickly turned into a 2 week marathon of watching every single James Bond movie ever made.
After watching all the James Bond movies I possibly could, listening to all the music, and playing the game as much as I could, I remember one day asking if I could borrow my dad's video camera so I could record myself and my friend doing James Bond missions.
Over the summer of 1998, we ran throughout our South Jersey neighborhood with toy guns (probably scaring the neighbors). We set up booby traps in the woods with trip wires that would cause small branches to fall down on us if we didn't step over them properly, and we'd sneak around our house to do these fake missions, all while setting my dad's video camera to film us on a tripod.
After recording, I'd take the footage and connect it to my VCR, where I used some wires to connect the video game to the sound input of the VCR so that as we would shoot the guns in the video, I would push the "shoot" button on the Nintendo 64 controller and the gunshot sound would be recorded.
Those were crazy lo-fi times.
Well, about a year later in 1999 or 2000, my parents bought me a computer program to allow me to edit videos (very basic-level editing), but I had a ton of fun doing special effects and trying to figure out ways to composite explosions over our videos, and edit music into the scenes we created.
Fast forward another few years to 2003, and my family and I moved to Colorado for my dad's job. My parents bought me an iMac for Christmas with Final Cut Express, my first professional video editing software. I was a high school freshman, 14 years old.
Fast forward two more years and I joined Warren Tech High School where I took their video production class during my junior year so I could learn how to do professional video work. I learned tons of things from my teacher Mr. White, and my video production quality was getting way better. I remember submitting to a video competition called Skills USA, and I won third place in my class, which enabled me to go on to compete in the state Skills USA contest. I took that contest much more seriously and won first place!
I then attended the national Skills USA contest in Kansas City, MS but unfortunately placed ninth. It was a huge learning experience and taught me that if I took video production seriously, I might be able to one day build a business out of it!
That summer, a good friend of mine asked how much I would charge to shoot his sister's wedding. I was so floored that they asked me, so I told him $400. His sister was astonished at the low rate and immediately jumped on it, and over that summer between junior and senior years of high school, I was referred to lots of people and starting shooting events almost every weekend for between $500 and $800. I remember being asked at one point if I knew how to shoot photography... My only experience was with video, but I said, "Sure!" Immediately I went out, spent $1,000 on a camera, and watched tutorials online of how to shoot properly. It paid off because I started getting even more referrals for photography and, all told, I think I made about $3-4k that summer!
I continued shooting events throughout my senior year of high school, and then I applied to NYU for filmmaking.
I couldn't believe it, but they accepted me!
Fast forward to 2007, and my parents drove me to New York, set me up in a dorm, and suddenly I was in the middle of the world's greatest city, and I had a very limited sense of culture and had to figure out how to get along with tons of different people. Fortunately, some of my business experience from shooting weddings and events helped me there.
For my first few years, I focused solely on filmmaking, but as I made more friends (especially actors), I started to get asked to shoot headshots. All they knew was that I owned a good quality dSLR camera and they wanted me to do some nice photos for them. I didn't even know what a headshot was when I first started!
After doing a few shoots towards the end of 2008 for some friends of mine, I decided that I actually enjoyed shooting headshots. Someone told me that most photographers charged upwards of $600 to $800 for headshots, and my immediate thought was: "I could charge half of that and be happy, and save clients lots of money!"
I immediately decided I wanted to build up a small portfolio. I didn't have a website for headshots yet, but I did have a website for my wedding videography and photography, so I put some of the photos I did for my friends on there, and I posted my first ad on Craigslist:
Free Headshots - I am looking to build my portfolio and will give you free actor headshots!
I only got three responses, and one was from Jay Amari.
Which brings me back to where we left off from earlier:
My hands were shaking, making it difficult to hold my camera without dropping it as I walked through Washington Square Park, getting ready to meet him.
I was nervous because the only portrait lens I had was a $60 used 50mm f/1.8 manual focus lens. What if I couldn't keep him sharp in focus? What if he was mean? What if he hated the way the pictures looked?
Well, I couldn't have asked for a more friendly and awesome first client. Jay was great to work with and taught me some useful tricks he had learned over time for how to look good on-camera. It was he who inspired me to want to focus so strongly on expression, and why I later gave City Headshots the tagline: It's All About Expression.
Well, fast forward about a year and I had created my website and started furiously writing blog articles every day and posting backlinks to the site to get it to show up on the first page of Google. And what do you know? By the beginning of 2011, right as I was getting close to graduating, the website started showing up on the first page of Google!
Immediately, I went from shooting about 5 people per month to shooting about 10 people per week!
It was a HUGE difference.
I started gaining tons of experience and taking my photography to a whole new level, and my clients started referring their friends.
Shortly after graduating, I moved to a small apartment on the Upper West Side. After moving there, I really started learning about marketing and figuring out how to bring in more clients, even though I was literally shooting people against a sheet hanging from a wall (and using work lights to light them)! I started getting reviews for my business on Yelp and Google, and from 2011 to 2012, I went from working with 10 clients per week to about 20 clients per week!
I then moved down to the financial district and got a small apartment on Wall Street. I upgraded my equipment and began working with interns to help me with editing photos and doing video editing work.
Over the next few years, I moved a few times, and in 2013 I opened up an official studio separate from where I lived. At that point, Samantha Rayward (our current lead photographer) started working with me and assisting me on shoots.
Another year later I hired my first full-time person, a makeup artist, and then we moved to a larger studio. We started hiring more people, and eventually split our large studio into two smaller studios. In 2018 I personally stopped shooting as much so I could focus on growing the business and building systems to enable us to serve our clients even better than before.
And now here we are, ten years later, 2019. We have two studios, over 250 reviews online, we're still showing up on the first page of Google, we have a small team (2 photographers, 2 makeup artists, and a virtual assistant), and we are getting ready to hire another photographer in the coming months.
All I can say is that I am extremely grateful for the way things have gone so far and I can't begin to describe how excited I am to see where the next ten years takes us.
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Hey I'm Martin, and my goal is to help you reach yours. I love writing content about career advancement, marketing strategies, productivity, and much more.