Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pro Photography-A Vendor's Perspective; Interview With Karen McHugh

Photo©Karen McHugh
Karen McHugh shot this "Renaissance" self-portrait when she was teaching herself the 4x5 camera. Karen explains "I would shoot early in the morning before going to work at Samy’s. I shot this off of Laurel Canyon, with a bulb release. A comical sight, no doubt, for the cars driving through!"

Teamwork is more than just a concept when it comes to producing stock photography. The top producing, and most successful photographers, whether it is assignment or stock photography, have put together a strong team. When you think of a photographer’s team you generally think of assistants, reps, studio managers, digital experts, make up artists, producers and so forth. But there are other important “team” members that one often doesn’t think about, but that can also play an important role in your success.  One such member of my team is Karen McHugh. Karen is actually employed by Samy’s Camera in L.A., while I am located in Northern California, but I count on her for most of my equipment needs.  My experience has shown me that having someone you can turn to, and count on, when it comes to camera equipment, is truly an asset. Karen, for example, saves me time and stress in purchasing, and can prove invaluable when I have an emergency need. With that in mind I felt it would prove valuable, and interesting, to interview Karen and get a view of our industry from her vendor’s perspective.

Karen, I have had a number of situations come up in my career where a good relationship with a vendor has really paid off. I am thinking of such things as emergency loaners or parts replacement, knowledgeable answers to urgent questions, and trust that I am getting good value for my money. I first started working with you after some very high recommendations from some of my fellow Blend photographers, and I certainly haven’t been disappointed. As I reflected on the importance of our relationship it occurred to me that it could be both interesting and informative to see a little of our industry from your perspective.

When did you first become interested in photography?

I have always been a visual person.  My father and my step-father were both interested in photography.  I remember being fascinated by my father showing my sister how to develop prints in the bathroom.  My step father was interested in macro photography. 

Can you give us a brief synopsis of what led you to your current position?

I have worked for Samy’s Camera for nearly twenty years. I started as a film clerk, in what I thought was a temporary job.  As the years went by I took on more and more leadership roles at Samy’s.  I developed strong relationships with clients and took great pride in doing a good job for them.  They began to ask me to get things from other departments and I soon had a following of loyal customers. 

I didn’t like the quality of digital when it first came out, and did not learn all necessary tools for creating digital imagery. When my major clients started using digital backs, and were no longer using film, is when I knew that it was time to join the digital crusade.  I transferred into the Corporate Sales division of Samy’s, but also maintained my relationship with my loyal client base. I created a job within Samy’s; what I like to call a glorified personal shopper.  I am the producer on the inside, making sure that you are getting all the equipment that you need, at the right price, without having to call five or more different departments. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

My favorite part of my job is my relationship with my clients. A great deal of them are more than clients, they are my friends.

What is the biggest challenge for you?

I would say that one of the biggest challenges for me is being able to be competitive with pricing. Some Internet companies sell things at cost or below.  A lot of photographers think that there is great profit in camera equipment, but there is not.  People want me to give them a “good deal” when we are already down to our cost. 

Getting consistently good value for my money is more important to me than making sure I get the very lowest price. I’d much rather be spending my energy on my craft rather than researching products and prices. When I have asked you for recommendations you have always come up with good advice for me. How do you stay on top of what’s new and good, and what would be a good value for a given photographer?

I try to stay current on equipment by going to trade shows, and reading the photo magazines.  I use the internet and my customers as my guide.  My customers are out in the field and using the equipment everyday and therefore know what they need far better than I do.  Through my clients I have access to a lot of first hand, real world experience. Many of my customers are leading the way in the change of technology and how equipment is being used.

The pace of innovation and change in the photography world just seems astounding to me. You have to deal with new cameras, media, computers, video…how do you keep up with it all? 

I try to keep up by listening to my customer’s needs and complaints, I try to keep abreast with all the new equipment.  Quite often equipment is made and not necessarily designed to be used how photographers use it out in the field. For example, Samy’s has a customer who takes Profoto heads under water to shoot sharks and athletes. Another example: with Polaroid and film no longer a viable resource, photographers want a high-end 4x6 printer to substitute for test Polaroids. These printers are made for home or office use, and not to print 100 prints a day.

The Internet seems to be making everything into commodities. Are you finding that price is the biggest factor in working with photographers, or are there other aspects to your job that seem to take precedence, or at least play a large role, in completing a sale? 

Price is often the bottom line.  I sometimes work with large companies who purchase equipment with a bidding process. If you are off by a nickel, it will go to the lowest bidder.  I try to combine both low prices and great service.

As I mentioned earlier, vendors such as you have helped me out of tight spots more than once. I remember once having liquid spilled on a monitor in the middle of a digital shoot. The only way we could continue was to have an immediate replacement, which my vendor rushed right over. Several times I have had you get items to me overnight for a last minute shoot or trip.  Do you have any stories of unusual requests that you have had to fulfill? 

One of my favorite parts of my job is being the hero and saving the day. I hate to say no, and to tell someone that something cannot be done.  I take it on as a personal challenge on how we can fix the problem. 

I had a customer who needed an iMac computer for a job out in the dessert. They wanted the computer configured a particular way and loaded with Photoshop, and they needed it within a very short time frame. Samy’s did not have the computer, so I drove down to the local Apple store, purchased the computer, and was on my way back to the store.  The ironic or funny part was that I was in such a great rush to get it all done that I forgot where I parked my car!  The producer kept calling me about when it was going to be ready. I finally had to have the security man drive me around the parking structure so I could find my car. However, I was able to deliver and get the job done in time.  I have a fair amount of customers who actually live in my area and pick up equipment from my house. I have even left computer ram on my windshield for someone to pick up while I was at the gym.  There have been countless last minute trips to Federal Express.

I assume the recession has been as hard on you retailers as it has been on us photographers. What kinds of things have you, and Samy’s, been doing to deal with that situation?

Samy’s Camera had to cut back on employees and our hours of operation. We have five retail locations all in the Southern California area.  We did not have to close any of our stores, but we had to reduce the amount of inventory we were carrying. 
We also had to explore social networking, reaching out to customers in different ways.  We co-sponsored a great workshop on hybrid photography.  We have expanded our educational classes and other services such as bookmaking. We even had a traveling photo booth this year. 

Do you have any thoughts on when it might be more prudent to rent and when to buy?

If you are going to make your money back within a short time frame then I recommend purchasing.  If the equipment cannot be used for multiple jobs, or will not hold its value, then I recommend renting the equipment.  Additionally, if you are not sure the equipment will do the job properly, I recommend renting it. Samy’s offers customers the option to try out the equipment for one day, and if the customer decides to purchase it, then we will deduct the price of the one-day rental from the purchase price.

How about when to lease and when to buy? 

If the customer can make more than the amount he is spending on the lease, and then either buy out the equipment or trade it in for newer equipment, I recommend leasing.  I also recommend leasing for high dollar equipment that gets out dated quickly. Most leases start at ten thousand dollars and above. Digital backs are definitely a good item to lease. 

Is there ever a situation when you would recommend used equipment?

Samy’s sells a lot of used equipment as well as a lot of refurbished equipment. Refurbished equipment is a great way to save money.  The customer can buy an extended warranty that even covers accidents.  I have owned many refurbished cameras over the years.

Are you utilizing social media in your work?

Facebook, Plaxo, and LinkedIn are the only social networking that I use.  I have signed up for Planet Illogica but have not been very active on it.  Facebook is both personal and professional and sometimes those lines get a little blurry.  Samy’s has a blog, and fan page and more, but I am not the one representing the face of Samy’s. I was doing product of the day on Facebook and although it did create interest, it did not seem to generate any sales. 

To what extent do you use the Internet in your work, and how?

I use the Internet daily and all day!  I cannot live without it.  I use it to check out the competitors, for product information and to stay in touch with my clients.
How can photographers make your job a little easier?

It is important for photographers to have a perspective of the retail environment, which includes price, and supply and demand.  Tell me exactly what you are trying to accomplish, share any research that you have already done. If the photographer can provide part numbers for merchandise or links to products that they might want, it can be a great help. Also, time lines, if the photographer has a deadline, and there is a need to obtain information, pricing, or equipment by a particular date. The more information you can tell me the better.  It helps me plan out my day. If something does not appear to be urgent, then I might let some else take precedence over it. I might add that I am a big fan of email; that is a great way communicate your needs with me.

Can you share some of your photographic journey with us, what you like to shoot and other details about your personal photography?

Although I started taking pictures when I was young, I fell in love with photography when I was in high school.  I studied photography at San Francisco State.  When I moved to Los Angeles I took courses at Art Center, but I would claim to be primarily self taught.
I married a lighting gaffer and so I am completely spoiled when it comes to having a great assistant and someone to help with lighting. I shoot portraits mostly, but I do love to travel and photograph the world as I see it.

Are there any photographers that particularly inspire you?

I love vintage photography and love Julia Margaret Cameron. I am big fan of Avedon and Penn. I know so many amazing photographers today.  One of my favorites of modern day is Frank Ockenfels III.  I work with the American Society of Cinematographers and am constantly amazed at their work, not only in cinema but still photography as well.

Are there any final words you care to leave us with?

Thank you for your patronage. I appreciate all the recommendations and referrals that I have received over the years.  Keep on shooting.

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