In Conversation with Christine Blackburne
Today, we take a closer look at finding the right client base with Christine Blackburne. Christine’s an award-winning still-life photographer and videographer based in New York City, and she’s been in the game for over 15 years. She’s created media for Benefit Cosmetics, Shiseido, Tiffany, Essence, Food and Wine, NY Magazine, the list goes on.
There’s conventional wisdom around finding the right audience, the right client base. But what does this mean, day-to-day? How might we improve our understanding? What decisions might one make over the years to hone in on the right client? And what does the right client even mean? Lots of questions we start to unpack today.
Music: Ben Tyree
Transcript, edited for length and clarity
Ioana: I’m excited to lift the veil on your creative process today.
Christine: I’m excited to share.
Ioana: How did you get into still life?
Christine: Interesting question. I love playing with color and light and design.
Once you are going into someone’s home or into an environment to take a picture, you’re finding a picture. You’re working with what’s around you, and you see this beautiful image.
Whereas in still life, you’re creating an image. You’re picking the props, the lighting, you’re angling things just right. And I’ve always enjoyed control in my work. It feels very painterly. I’m creating the whole situation.
Ioana: Beautiful analogy. Like a painting.
Christine: Yeah. You build it instead of finding it.
Ioana: How have you cultivated your creative voice?
Christine: It’s a combination of what draws me in as a photographer and what my clients are looking for. Each part perpetuates the other.
My main concern has always been lighting. I love getting like that hint off the side of a product that makes it look more luxurious. Or snappy light with a great shadow coming down that feels more fun.
From there, you have clients who are interested in the same. They also bring fun, new ideas into the shoot. So, as you collaborate with these people, you start to learn, “Hey, that was super fun. That’s going on my portfolio.”
Or, maybe we did something that didn’t feel like my style, and I wasn’t that excited about it. You slowly weed out that work from your portfolio.
It’s not until you take a step back that you’re like, “Oh, this is my style.”
I never set out being like, “Oh, I love Ansel Adams, so I want to make my work look like his.” I’ve just always enjoyed playing with light and color and design. Once I took that step back I saw, “Oh, this is who I am.”
Ioana: Did that come organically?
Christine: 100%. My work is not play, but it feels like it sometimes. That’s how I have built my brand. Definitely, over the years, you see your style change a bit. It evolves with the market and with your interests at different times of your life.
My work looks cohesive over the years, but it has shifted a little bit. I find it interesting that now, with the rise of social media and consuming images on screen, my style has changed to reflect that.
In magazines, you get more small details in images. Whereas now, my shots are poppier and more arresting to stop that scroll, so you take a look. You might not be resting on that image for as long, but it has more of that wow factor right away.
Ioana: You trim the fat.
Christine: Yes, exactly. I don’t feel like anyone forced me to do that. It naturally evolved, and I enjoy it. You have to trim the fat and think about what gets people to stop, take a look, and invest their time because nobody has time anymore. We’re always doing a million things, multitasking constantly.
Ioana: How do you choose your clients?
Christine: Good question. When you’re starting, you have to say yes to pretty much everything. Anything that’s going to help you grow as a photographer or as an artist. You’re going to take jobs that aren’t necessarily your style, but from every shoot, you should be growing in some way.
It’s not always visually. Sometimes it’s interacting with a larger group of people in a new way, maybe for a more prominent company. Perhaps you’re shooting something basic on white, that you could do in your sleep. But you’re learning new skills that you’re going to take into the next job.
As you evolve, you start to weed out some of those jobs from which you’re not learning anymore.
So, how do I pick my clients now? I’m not casting a wide net anymore. I’m getting very specific. For example, I would like to shoot for a big name whose style feels like mine. Because in this industry, oversaturated with photographers, the only way you can make a name for yourself (and stay sane) is to pick clients who appreciate what you’re doing.
Being a jack of all trades, you’ll get by, and you can pay the bills, but you’re going to plateau at some point because once you get to the bigger clients, you have to show them why they should pick you. Their budget can let them choose anybody they want. So you need a more differentiated voice, indicating why you are perfect for them.
So, I’m looking at the work my ideal clients are currently doing. I’m shooting for Benefit Cosmetics later this week, and my style is punchy colors and design, with a tongue in cheek aspect. So they reached out to me because they are very tongue in cheek as well.
You want to find a mutually good fit.
Ioana: You mirror each other.
Christine: Exactly. You can each be on the edge of things and help each other in what you’re creating.
Ioana: How do you communicate that you get them? Like, “I get your pain, and I’m here to relieve it.”
Christine: Exactly, well said. Remember, people are coming to you to collaborate and to make their jobs easier. They want to have full confidence that you are going to deliver something beyond what they could ever have imagined was possible.
Clients want you to deliver what they mocked up and to push it to the next level. It’s a real collaboration. It’s not just turning a drawing into a photograph. They’re hiring you because they want your particular style to come to life within their concept.
Ioana: I think a lot of leading creatively has to do with relieving pain—transforming it into something productive, positive, and warm.
Christine: It’s like birthing pain. They’re excited about this image coming to life, they’ve done this work to put this concept together. They’ve reworked it a million times to get it just right. And now, they’re coming to you with their baby, and they want to have full confidence that you’re going to bring it to life. And that it’s going to be the least painful experience possible.
We all know we’re going to have to work hard to make this amazing. And people also want to know that you’re going to add an extra something.
A big thing I come back to when I’m talking to new clients and pitching for jobs is to make sure they know I understand what they’re looking for. And that they aren’t worried I won’t be able to deliver.
That’s the worst thing you can do with a client. Being wishy-washy, or nervous, or trying to change the concept. I bring to my clients the confidence that I get their idea, I think it’s fantastic, and we’re going to make it excellent in real life. Also, I’m able to riff on the concept and push it further, making that real collaboration a thing.
Ioana: It leaves room on set for exploration.
Christine: Exactly. I always guide my shoots like, “Okay, here’s the brief; here’s what we’re going to do.” We talk about it first to see maybe this specific idea the client has is photographically hard to achieve. Perhaps we’re going to tweak it this way. So we come together with a solid plan. And we accomplish it on set.
Then, we start to play with it to see if we can push it to where it’s even bigger and beautiful. But you always want to accomplish that original idea and get it in the can before you make any real changes.
Ioana: Smart. How did you learn that?
Christine: One of my oldest clients is Harper Collins. I’ve worked with them for many years, and they come to me with these hyper conceptual projects. I do a lot of young adult stuff, so it tends to be melodramatic and angsty, and it’s all about symbolism.
They have to sell in a specific concept to everyone in their division, especially in marketing before they come to me. So, they are like, “You have to create this. Everyone said yes to this.” So we get that done. And it’s always a fascinating concept.
From there, we leave time to play. Four out of five times, we end up with the more playful shot. It’s something that you don’t know is possible until you get on set and do it.
Ioana: You get a feel for it. An idea can take on a different life once you manifest it physically.
Christine: Yeah. I work closely with my prop stylist, so we always get extra fun things. Not totally off the brief, but something that would bounce light in a fun way, for example.
Ioana: Where do you see your studio going? What’s your dream?
Christine: Many dreams. I’m working on bigger and more fun jobs that have a lot of creative flexibility. I still have a couple of lovely clients that are my bread and butter, but the shoots aren’t the most challenging.
As I’m evolving, and as I’ve been doing for years, I remove some of those low-paying and less exciting shoots. And I focus that client roster.
Ioana: Do you see yourself as a sole entrepreneur for the long haul?
Christine: Completely business-wise, the next move is a studio manager.
For people starting—don’t look for an agent until you’re so busy that you don’t have enough time to market yourself. There’s no reason to pay somebody a quarter of what you make to do a job you could be doing while you’re just sitting on the couch. Agents aren’t going to make jobs roll in.
The same with a studio manager. Recently, I’ve gotten so busy that I would like to have a person handle file maintenance, deliveries, catering, all that kind of stuff.
Ioana: Too busy to order lunch.
Christine: Yeah. There are days when I’m too busy to eat lunch. Those are not as much fun.
Ioana: What’s surprised you over the years?
Christine: I went to school at Rochester Institute of Technology. Great school, super technical photo program. I came to New York right when digital started to become big. Photographers I was assisting didn’t know anything about digital, and I had just finished school with three years of experience with it. So a lot of these photographers needed my help.
That’s happening now with video. My work has gotten a whole lot more video focused in the last two years. I’m often looking for assistants who have more video knowledge and can give me an extra hand.
Christine: I was lucky to get a lot of assisting jobs right out of school. Then, I got to a point where assisting work slowed down, and I started shooting for smaller magazines and jewelry designers. I was at a crossroads. I could either send my resume to new photographers and keep on assisting or buckle down and pursue photography to get my business up off the ground.
So that’s what I did. I saved enough money to be okay for about three months. I was still assisting, I never cut that off. But I wasn’t looking for new assisting work, and I was looking very hard for shooting work. That’s when I was taking anything that came my way.
That’s how all of this stuff evolves. When I talk to assistants looking to make that jump into photography, they’re looking for an aha moment. And that’s not how this works. Everything is an evolution. You can’t just say, “Oh, I’m going to stop assisting right now.”
No, just shift your focus. That’s what needs to happen.
From there, I started shooting for a bunch of magazines, which turned into shooting ad jobs, and that’s where I am now. That was another evolution of learning. With the magazines, it’s a little less stressful. There are usually fewer approvals. There is room for playfulness and mistakes. With ad jobs, you have to be a lot more on your game. The stakes are a lot higher.
Ioana: How do you deal with pressure?
Christine: Being my biggest cheerleader. Everyone has that bit of imposter syndrome of like, “I can’t believe someone’s paying me to do this. Crazy.”
Ioana: It must be a mistake.
Christine: Yeah, exactly. I shot for Mars the other day, and I got paid to push candy around all day. It was amazing. So when you lack confidence, you have to be your biggest cheerleader and be like, “No, they hired me because my work is great. I’ve worked hard to get here. And if people are hiring me based on my work, I can’t fake that. That’s real.”
And before any shoot, especially if it’s slightly new territory, I plan the crap out of it. I will often go into my studio and test things. I work closely with my producer and stylist to have all of the Ts crossed and Is dotted before we show up on set.
Ioana: Here’s the thing. You run a business. You’re a visionary who takes a concept and blows it out. You manage the day-to-day and oversee the preproduction, production, and postproduction. And maintain client happiness. How do you regenerate?
Christine: I might not be the best person to ask about that! I’m just kidding.
I’m very good at working in seasons. I will go, go, go super hard, and I thrive on that energy. But then I need a week of downtime to sit on the couch and watch a bunch of Netflix. I’ve never had a nine to five, and I don’t think I’d do very well with it.
This industry is cyclical, so you will have times a year where it’s crazy busy, and you will have downtime. I ride that wave.
A big part of regenerating is also saying no to smaller jobs before you get burnt out. It’s easy to worry about your next paycheck and say yes to everything.
Ioana: It’s the feast or famine cycle.
Christine: Yes. The way I approach it is I live well within my means.
I don’t have a huge studio. It’s great for most projects, but if it’s a big shoot, I rent out another studio. That makes me less crazy and I save money. If you are not maxing yourself out on your overhead all the time, you can say no to specific jobs, too.
As you’re doing more significant jobs, you also can bill for file management. So even though I’m not doing the retouching, I’m the go-between. When the retoucher sends me things, I go through them and find all the details to touch up. The client doesn’t need to worry about, “Oh, are we seeing a little piece of wire that needs retouching?” Because I take care of that. That way, we all end up with complete images we’re super excited about.
Like you were saying too, I’m trying to make their lives easier. Whatever I can do to help the process along, that’s as easy for them as possible, is part of the job in addition to making beautiful images.
Ioana: Not everybody works that way, so that’s part of your secret sauce. What has been challenging along the way?
Christine: Time management is a big thing that I had not thought about as much at the beginning of my career.
There’s always the idea of time management as not wasting time. But I’m thinking about time management in terms of where I’m focusing time. In the last couple of years, I’ve worked harder at this and seen a lot of results from it.
Ioana: What adjustments did you make?
Christine: Not chasing down jobs that will never happen, or that will take so much time away from your day to chase down. You’re better off spending time going for a client excited about using you, or who has their shit together enough to hire you.
Your time is a commodity, and you can’t be handholding, going back and forth a million times with different people before they’re ready to commit to anything. I feel like I’ve sunk a lot of time scrabbling after people unwilling to commit to a real job rather than reaching out to people who don’t know about me.
When you’re a younger photographer, you have time for that. It’s a very different shift as you’re becoming more established to realize that you don’t need every single job. It’s not mean to say no or to avoid spending time towards jobs with a low likelihood of working out.
I am also making time for marketing. I had always put it on the back burner, I never carved out time for it. Now I say no to jobs so I have time to do some real marketing. So I can get to that next step to get those more exciting, higher-paying jobs.
If you’re always saying yes to mediocre jobs, you don’t have enough time to put yourself in front of the more exciting clients. Granted, you’re going to lose a little bit of money while you’re trying to get these bigger jobs, but it pays off tenfold in the end.
Ioana: How do you market yourself?
Christine: I have an agent, which is super helpful. She and I work closely to look for new people. But having an agent isn’t a silver bullet. You need to work hand in hand with an agent because they need to know what you want.
You don’t want to cast a wide net for anyone who wants a photograph. You want a laser-focused idea of who you’re going for. So I work hard with her on that.
I do emailers which work so-so. I do print promotions, which help out too. And I try to have as much face time with people as I can.
Not only are you able to sell yourself better in person, but you’re also going to hear about exciting things going on in the market and hear what somebody’s looking for.
Ioana: Right, it’s about listening.
Christine: Exactly. It makes a huge difference. And granted, getting your foot in the door can be a little complicated, and there’s spending a decent amount of time going for that. But the reward is great for making time for people. They’re going to remember you. You’re going to be learning things. It’s just a much better way of working with people.
Ioana: How have you learned to earn their trust to take a meeting with you?
Christine: Oh, that’s a good question. A lot of times, it’s recommendations. Someone vouching for me and being like, “Hey, my friend Christine, we’ve done jobs together. I think she’d be great for this project.” That’s the biggest thing to get the face to face meeting.
An agent is also helpful because another photographer on their roster might have shot for the same client in a different capacity. The client was happy with this other photographer. They assume the agent doesn’t have one great one and one crappy one. So that’s helpful, too.
Going to portfolio reviews, having multiple points of contact, making sure your website is updated, that you’ve got tear sheets in there all helps.
Also, don’t drop the ball on a job because your name gets out there as doing a lousy job a whole lot faster than doing a good job.
So if you’re the person who did not deliver files on time, that’s bad. You don’t want people to remember you for that reason.
Ioana: Has that ever happened to you?
Christine: No. I will move mountains. I’ve canceled vacations because I was not sure all was going to work out the right way, and I wanted to be there. If I say I’m going to deliver something, I’m 110% going to provide that thing.
Ioana: Your name is on the line.
Christine: Yeah. And going back to that pain you mentioned, knowing that I had made somebody’s job harder—that sucks. That’s not cool. My job is not only to create beautiful images but to make this come to life. And coming to life a week late doesn’t matter.
Ioana: Totally. There’s a lot of talk about pristine image-making and the technique of it, the personality behind the images. I don’t think we say enough about making people’s lives easier.
Christine: It’s a partnership on set, and if it’s weak, you’re not going to end up with beautiful images.
Ioana: How do you get better in your craft?
Christine: Shoot more. Do tests. That’s the best thing to do. Challenge yourself. If I like a particular image, I’ll challenge myself to pull the concept out of that shoot, make it my own, and do that kind of shoot.
You’re only going to get hired for what’s in your book. Even though you know you can do something, people can’t always extrapolate. You have to show them. Not everyone is a photographer, and not everyone’s a painter or whatever your craft is.
To learn new things, explore, and show people what I’m excited and able to do, I do it on my own first. I would do this with any shoot. I’d never show up on a shoot and be like, “All right, we’re figuring this out today.”
You want to play and explore with special lighting or a concept. Learn all the abilities it has before you would ever be asked to do it.
That’s a way I learn. And from the more techie side, talking with other photographers, techs, learning about current tools, too. That’s also really important.
Ioana: Thank you for coming on. It was a pleasure.
Christine: Thank you so much for having me. This was amazing.