Life is defined by transitions. How you shift from one stage to the next determines so much about your success and happiness.
Candice C. Cusic understands this well. A former photojournalist for the Chicago Tribune, Cusic has embraced change in her career, engineering one transition after another to ultimately captain a thriving wedding photography business from her dream studio in Chicago.
Cusic joined the Tribune when print news was still a bustling business, but that changed dramatically during the 2000s, and as layoffs began to gut the newsroom Cusic could see that her future with the paper was far from certain. Looking around at other photojournalists facing similar situations, she noticed an opportunity in the world of wedding photography.
She began spending her lunch hours looking over wedding photography websites and eventually landed a gig photographing for a wedding planning organization on the weekends. She slowly accumulated the necessary gear, built a portfolio, and prepared herself to run her own business.
“During that tumultuous time when I still needed a paycheck but didn’t yet know how to make the leap, I relied on PPA,” says Cusic. “I found articles by anyone who’d left their job and started a photography business. Those resources offered a lot of guidance.”
When Cusic launched her own show in 2009, she did it with two years of wedding experience, a solid portfolio, and the essential framework for running a business. What she did from there has made all the difference between treading water in a crowded pool and rising as one of the most recognized studios in her area.
Cusic was determined not to fall into the trap that snags so many small business owners: thinking they can do it all. “Letting go of doing everything and working with others allowed me to build the business in a direction I hadn’t previously anticipated,” she says. “I’ve seen so many photographers not grow because they are afraid of losing control. Sure, you can do everything yourself, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to do it well. Once I started working with others and trusting them, my business really took off.”
Right out of the gates, Cusic brought in interns to help. In the early days before she had a studio space, she worked with them at her dining room table. In exchange for on-the-job training, they helped with social media, scaling the business, and setting up the building blocks for expansion.
Beyond the interns, Cusic hired experts in various fields to advance her business. Calling on her newsroom experience, which was inherently team-based and collaborative, she contracted photo editors and retouchers, admins, marketing experts, and other pros with specialized skills. She eventually grew her team to a total of seven people working in complementary fields.
“I love having a team,” she says. “I love the collaborative process. That truly helps me think outside the box and see things I wouldn’t normally have seen. And it makes my work better. For example, why wouldn’t I want someone who is more trained and experienced in Photoshop working on my photos? Then I can focus more on getting behind the camera and doing what I do best.”
Coming from photojournalism, Cusic didn’t know what to sell, what to prioritize on her product list, or how to position those products in a way that appealed to clients. She dove into sales workshops to learn about pricing, sales techniques, and product positioning.
A key move was adopting in-person sales. Once Cusic transitioned from remote to in-person sales, she started to see a big change in revenue. After about a decade of shooting weddings exclusively, Cusic expanded into portraits, ultimately moving into a pet portrait specialty. Within six months of launching a portrait line, she opened her first storefront studio in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. With effective sales techniques and a team-based approach, she outgrew the first studio space within two years and moved to a larger loft space. A year later, she expanded again to the penthouse of the same building, where she built her dream studio. Each studio move and resulting increase in rent was a gamble. “But there was also the knowledge that if you give your business room to grow, it will grow,” says Cusic.
While Cusic was going through her studio expansions, the coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changed the photography landscape. Rather than contract her business, she doubled down on her investment. Specifically, she hired a marketing team to run Google and Facebook ads in an effort to keep the leads flowing into the pipeline. She continued to bring in a minimum of four interns per semester to help with workflow. She hired two former interns as part-time employees. Everyone in the studio worked together to build strategic industry alliances, maintain relationships, and reach out to potential clients and partners. As a result of these efforts, Cusic’s revenue doubled during the pandemic and she’s moving through 2022 more secure and creatively free than ever before.
Based on her experience moving from photojournalist to studio owner, Cusic shares advice that helped her dramatically grow her business.
Access education. PPA has a robust set of resources covering topics as diverse as marketing, business psychology, and pricing. Cusic found PPA’s video course “The Cost of Doing Business” and related materials particularly helpful.
Share your pricing. Sharing pricing information provides more opportunities for all photographers to charge what they’re worth and lifts the entire industry as a result. “We all see what happens when photographers undervalue themselves and don’t charge according to their skill,” says Cusic.
Don’t get stuck. Avoid getting hung up on small details that stall much larger processes. For example, don’t wait to start your business because you’re trying to perfect your logo. “The most powerful way to achieve is to just get started,” says Cusic.
Put your best foot forward. Go through your website and portfolios with a fine-toothed comb and select the best of the best images to display. If you have 75 photos on your website, potential clients are overwhelmed. People don’t spend that kind of time on a site. Cut the clutter and share only your best.
Develop a vision. Image selection is much easier when you have a vision. Without a clear understanding of where you want to go, you just photograph everything and don’t know how to cull your images. Gain an understanding of your clients, what they want, and what you’re expected to deliver.
Trust your instincts. People hired you because they trust you. Agonizing over image choices just drags down your workflow and may ultimately lead to an inferior product. Go with your first instinct and have the confidence to put it forward. “You’re not getting paid for that extra image-selection time,” says Cusic.
Protect yourself. Establish a strong contract that covers you if you miss something. PPA has contract templates and legal resources to help you establish these documents (ppa.com/contracts). This protection offers you the freedom to be more creative because you’re not worried about the legal ramifications that come from a slip-up.
Let business lead the creative. Set up what you need to do on the business side so you can allow yourself to be creative. If you’re constantly worried about the business, you won’t have the mental energy to be creative.
Dream it, then do it. “Everything I’ve done in my career is something I thought about every step of the way until it became reality,” says Cusic. “The process is about thinking about the next step, planning each stage, and having faith in your abilities. Also understand that you will make mistakes, and allow yourself the freedom to make those mistakes because that is how you will grow.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.