The Dead Pixels Society podcast

Building a commercial photography business with Robert Lowdon

September 08, 2022 Gary Pageau/Robert Lowdon Season 3 Episode 85
The Dead Pixels Society podcast
Building a commercial photography business with Robert Lowdon
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Show Notes Transcript

Gary Pageau of the Dead Pixels Society talks with commercial photographer Robert Lowdon. Lowdon talks about starting out as a new commercial photographer, building his portfolio, and adapting the business to changing market conditions.

Robert Lowdon Photography is a creative and original professional photography company based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Our lead professional photographer Robert Lowdon has extensive experience in Commercial, Landscape, Industrial and Editorial Photography.

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Hosted and produced by Gary Pageau
Edited by Olivia Pageau
Announcer: Erin Manning

Erin Manning  0:00  
The Dead Pixels Society podcast is brought to you by Mediaclip, Advertek Printing and Gotphoto. Welcome to the Dead Pixels Society podcast, the photo imaging industry's leading news source. Here's your host, Gary Pageau.

Gary Pageau  0:18  
Hello again and welcome to the dead pixel society podcast. I'm your host, Gary Pageau. And today we're joined by commercial photographer, Robert Lowdon. Roberts coming to us from Toronto, Canada today. How are you today, Robert?

Robert Lowdon  0:31  
I'm great. Thanks for having me.

Gary Pageau  0:34  
So you've been a commercial photographer primarily focusing on the industrial side of business like photographing big machines, big skyscrapers, big things home, how did? How did you decide as a photographer that that's where you wanted to focus your efforts?

Robert Lowdon  0:54  
That's a good question. I think it kind of came a little organically. I always want it to be on the commercial side. When I came into school. I was never one to want to shoot weddings. And that stuff. I know, some people do. There's nothing wrong with that. But for me, I was always like, I want to work with businesses. And then I got into more like the industrial stuff. I think just because I found it really interesting. I'd like it's really cool to be able to do and see these things that I think like a lot of people don't get to do and it's kind of like photography, in a ways become like a passport for that for me. So that's probably Yeah.

Gary Pageau  1:32  
So where did you go to school? Or did you always want to be a photographer?

Robert Lowdon  1:37  
For sure. So I went to Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, it's right in the center of Canada, in the prairies. And yeah, I think since my early teens, I wanted to be a photographer. Definitely had some, it was a long road to get to that point. But I'd say probably Yeah,

Gary Pageau  1:59  
rarely did you when you left school? Did you intern somewhere? Did you have Did you work? You know, most people before they strike on their own, you know, build their portfolio working for another company. And so since you didn't want to shoot human beings? Where did where do you start on that path?

Robert Lowdon  2:18  
Um, I just to be honest, I came out of school, and I just realized that there was no photography jobs. For me, in Winnipeg.

Gary Pageau  2:27  
And about in what time period was this? Oh,

Robert Lowdon  2:31  
2012 2012. I done some paid work before I went to school, nothing I would put on my resume. But yeah, there were no jobs. And like, I guess, to like, the whole digital thing was kind of like, had the impact on the industry and things, there was a lot of photographers that were shutting down, and then there was new ones coming up. And I just, I just looked at the landscape. And I was like, Well, I've just if I want to do this, I have to start my business. And there's just no, there's no other way. So that's what I did.

Gary Pageau  3:04  
Which is, you know, kind of tough, I think, because you don't have much of a portfolio, you don't have much of a I mean, I'm sure you have, you know, a portfolio that you have in school. But I mean, if you're breaking into business, you know, you know, you don't have client work to show. So how did you build that?

Robert Lowdon  3:19  
I think I just really worked on some advertising, Google search, I really recommend it like to anyone starting out is to like you treat it like a job until it is your job. You put any eight hours every day, even if you got another job that you know, allows you to eat and pay your

Gary Pageau  3:39  
god that

Robert Lowdon  3:41  
will that's basically it right? Anyone who started a business kind of knows that. Yeah, and just shooting things that were relevant and just you build a client over time and another one comes, and then more and more opportunities come like it is I guess it would probably be weird for someone to look at my portfolio now and see, like all the things I've shot, but I definitely didn't have access to those at the start. It's just, you're just seeing years, years and years of progress towards that. So.

Gary Pageau  4:20  
So a lot of photographers get into the business because they liked the technical side of it. They liked the process of taking a picture. They like maybe working with subjects, you know, they like a type of photography, wedding photography, but they're not so great at the other aspects of building the business. Right. So So So what do you think your strengths are and what did you have to work on to build the business?

Robert Lowdon  4:50  
Yeah, I think I'm like I'd say I'm a pretty technical person myself too. But I didn't let the technical part sticks or photography for For me, I really went into SEO, I really learned how to build websites. I learned marketing. I did like lots of things that were required to build a business. And I think for me, I was really not focused on building a photography business, but building a good running business for me. So I tried to look at other businesses more than I think I chased the model of what a photography business is.

Gary Pageau  5:28  
Okay. So so when do you think your breakthrough came in terms of you started getting the clients you were looking for, right? So it's like, Man, I really want to photograph that caterpillar earthmover monster thing? And you were getting those jobs? I mean, how long did that take? And how long did it take? I'm assuming you had a day job when you started, right? So how, how long did it take you to wean yourself off the day job.

Robert Lowdon  5:52  
I had the day job for about a year, roughly. And then I was making, I was making good enough money that I took the jump. And then the bottom kind of fell out of it. Then it went back up. And then it's, you know, like they say everyone says the path to success, right is like the straight diagonal line. But it's actually more of like, oh, what's the phrase? It's more like, squiggly line?

Unknown Speaker  6:21  
I see. It's a heartbeat.

Robert Lowdon  6:22  
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So I guess to answer your question, though, I mean, in some days, like, I look back at it, and I go, like, wow, like we're traveling across the country. We're shooting for these, like, really giant companies. And like, if you asked me 10 years ago, like this is my dream come true now. But now being in it. I mean, also, too, I am always looking towards that. That next level too, which is kind of strange. I don't feel like I'm done yet, if that makes sense.

Gary Pageau  6:52  
So. So by the next level, you're incorporating video into what you're doing. You're doing anything with drones, or um, what what's your day to day kit that you would bring to let's say, someone's doing you doing a skyscraper in process, photographic

Robert Lowdon  7:12  
shoot, for sure. So if we're looking at like, a lot of our shoots, or our like, it depends what we're doing. Like, we might be shooting the workers, or we might be shooting the building. And those are different different jobs, right? So if we're doing like, like St, we're doing architecture. So if we're doing an interior bringing lighting stands, like batteries, cameras, lenses, all that stuff, right? If we're doing video that can go from something as simple as like a DSLR up to like a RED camera up to like full on like RV lights, and that whole thing. We do use drones to I got my advanced license up here, which would be the same as your I think it's a part 107 in the US. The and then for that primarily fly like DJI Inspire two for that. So yeah. So

Gary Pageau  8:11  
I imagine you've had to because of the types of clientele you work with, have to be really up on your insurance, your certifications. And although there's a lot of logistical paperwork, I'm sure that has to happen. NDAs and all those kinds of things. That's yeah. Do you think that keeps people out of competing in your sector? Or because it sort of raises the barrier to entry, doesn't it?

Robert Lowdon  8:34  
It does, but I think a lot of people just don't think it's that cool. I think they think it's cool to hang out with celebrities and fashion models all day. But like I can tell you like it's not

Gary Pageau  8:49  
they're not that often nice people. But sometimes the guy driving the forklift is one of the nicest people you'd want to meet, right?

Robert Lowdon  8:57  
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it's yeah, you just get to, like, I have this one client, where I like ride trains and photograph the trains and stuff. And like, that's just, to me, that's just amazing. Like, yeah, you know?

Gary Pageau  9:12  
Yeah, cuz I mean, that's really the kind of stuff is sort of the, you know, that used to be like the hallmark of I'm thinking like 1930s and 1940s, photography, like when the, the industrial. When in America, you had the industrial not revolution, but sort of the second wave of the Industrial Revolution during when the automotive era was just starting, and you had all those cool, you know, people taking pictures of plants and things being made and all that kind of stuff. And now that we've gotten into the digital age, it's like, you know, your average person isn't turning a wrench somewhere they're tapping on a keyboard net isn't quite as visually interesting.

Robert Lowdon  9:52  
It's not, you know, there's something to be said about people that make things to write their kind of things. I don't know, I just I get a kick out of it, I get a kick out of, you know, people who make things for a living and things that are being built. And, you know, like, a lot of this stuff is just very complex processes and takes 1000s of people just to produce. And it's, it's not as focused on I guess it's the next new social media thing anymore. But I think it's to me, it's to me, it's interesting. It's like, Yeah,

Gary Pageau  10:24  
well, and that's one of those things where I mean, obviously, if you have an interest in it, then your work is going to be better. Right? Yeah. If you got the call from, you know, Kim Kardashian, his agent said, you know, she's opening up the new cabaret, and we'd like you to shoot the party, you probably go. I'm probably the only photographer in Toronto. I say that, but you'd be the one.

Robert Lowdon  10:51  
I might be. Because there are jobs we do not do because they are not a good fit, you know? Yeah. And I think to like, people who are hiring a photographer, like you want a photographer that's really interested in what it is you're doing, right? Like, you want that person, like, people ask me why I don't shoot weddings, and it's like, to be honest, like, for me, weddings aren't that big of a deal. Like my wedding was fantastic. But I'm not. I'm not that passionate about people's weddings. So like, get the person who is right, if you want, attract your factory, like I'm there, but

Gary Pageau  11:30  
so how do you convey to you know, corporate media buyer, right? Or the client, this passion? How do you convey to him? That's like, I am jacked to go see your, your train? depot? I'm just thrilled by that. I mean, what is how do you you know, in terms of, you know, because you've got to, you got to do sell yourself, right?

Robert Lowdon  11:59  
Well, for me, like a lot of it, it just comes in, like, honestly just comes in through the website, right? I just have the work there. We really worked on our marketing strategy to show like what we're about and what we convey. And I think I just really try to be authentic with our clients. Like, if I'm excited, it's because I'm excited. I'm not very over the top, and I kind of just tried to speak, speak from my heart on things and be truthful, I guess, I think that's what comes to cross site. I've been told that, like, the reason we've hired on some of these projects is because we sound like the ones that are the most interested in it. So.

Gary Pageau  12:37  
So So So you mentioned the word we a couple of times, how big is your team? I mean, how what is it you and an assistant? Or is that the royal we is it just you most of the time, or

Robert Lowdon  12:47  
it was just me? Now it's my wife, too. So we run the company, and then how it works is if we need to contract people, that's how we go. So we have like, the two of us, which are the owners partners, now that run it, and then depending on how we need to scale we have a some contractors or whichever that we need to do get things done. So

Gary Pageau  13:12  
it sounds to me like you know, as you said earlier, you have a technical aptitude. And clearly your your your belt that way you you you took your photographic skills, you said I need some internet skills, I need some digital marketing skills and all these things. How have you incorporated Lean principles into some of the your activities?

Robert Lowdon  13:36  
For sure. I think it's probably one of the most important things I have anyone said and

Gary Pageau  13:42  
what is Lean principles? For those who don't know, what is your definition? And how have you incorporated them?

Robert Lowdon  13:49  
So my definition, which is probably not the right definition? Someone can correct me I'm sure they will. There's always someone right. So my definition is you're basically sticking to a strict budget, not overspending, not wasting money on capital and things that you don't need. For my type of work, to have a studio is ridiculous, because I would never be in the studio. So there's I think, for me, that's it. So there's things like we just mentioned like with contractors, instead of having full time staff or a full time staff person might not be required,

Gary Pageau  14:28  
right things like that. Now, do you rent some of your equipment or all of it? When does it make sense for you to buy a piece of equipment versus renting because I know a lot of pros rent for jobs, for sure.

Robert Lowdon  14:39  
So most of my camera equipment and drone equipment will be owned. The decision to purchase is generally for two main factors one is when cost of renting exceeds cost of ownership. And then the second is availability. Sometimes renting sucks like you really does right? Like some shops don't have availability the hours aren't conducive to, to renting for a commercial job, right? Because if you have to rent two days out more things like,

Gary Pageau  15:14  
well, help are typically how far out do you plan you don't get? I mean, do you get literally call saying, I need you at the train depot tomorrow at eight? Or do you have some time to plan?

Robert Lowdon  15:25  
I do now, there was definitely a time where it was like that, like two days notice now we're now we're about at least a month, a couple months, sometimes even three months. That's, that's just been getting busy or too, right? Yeah, yeah. It gets easier when you get a little bigger.

Gary Pageau  15:46  
So getting back to the Lean principles, what were some what were some of the the do you have any tools or processes that you've adopted? from other industries or others other like workshops or something you attended? Is there like a spreadsheet you use or anything like that?

Robert Lowdon  16:05  
No, there's not it's it's kind of just stuck in my head. My wife's more of the the organized written down, I'm more of the ideas scatterbrained all over.

Gary Pageau  16:15  
Sounds like you complement each other well, then.

Robert Lowdon  16:17  
Yeah. But I mean, to be honest, though, too, like, there are some processes to like, we try to do things ourselves before we look at contracting them out. I, I have learned this lesson so many times as a business owner, and I keep learning this lesson that I need to be able to know how to do things, almost everything before I hire someone to do it. And that's because that's not trying to overstep my bounds on things or trying to know everything. That's because if you I don't know, is I, I can't hold someone accountable to what's acceptable, right, I'm paying for a service. Right? So we've had issues before where we've hired companies that haven't come up to the plate of what we think is acceptable. But if we don't know that, if you get in trouble pretty CRACKit Yeah.

Gary Pageau  17:10  
So so well, that's a very interesting point, because that is something that a lot of people are doing now with, you know, gig economy and or these other things is there's they're using services or contractors to fill in gaps, right, where they, you know, maybe have someone blogging for them, or they may have some doing their social media, they may be having somebody doing their, you know, some other facet of their work. But what you're saying is that it's even if you do that, you should have a base understanding of what's supposed to be happening there.

Robert Lowdon  17:41  
Yeah, 100%. And, to be honest, like, it's very dangerous to trust someone to do all your marketing, and all your social media and your blogging with no idea of if they're even doing it properly, because that's your number one way to get business, right. It's the most important thing, it's honestly probably the last thing you should ever give anyone to do.

Gary Pageau  18:03  
Which is kind of interesting, because I mean, there's, you know, my world is filled with people who are that's their that's their gig, they're doing it for other people, right?

Robert Lowdon  18:11  
Yeah. And I think that's good. And I should clarify, like, that is good to contract out. But you should know, what you're contracting out to. Because even like a contractor, right? Like, it's hard for you to just say to them, oh, I want you to write some tweets, or they're like about what it's like for us, right? Like, someone comes to me and says, I want some photos for my business of what

Gary Pageau  18:42  
it could be for, you know, a new product rollout or it could be for something you know, or historical. You have no idea that's

Robert Lowdon  18:48  
Yeah, yeah, it's, I don't know, in some ways, they'll maybe it's not their fault, because like, so much of this stuff is just so surface level now too, right? Like you're like,

Gary Pageau  18:58  
so how much your time is travel versus because I can take you out of the studio? So I'm sure you work out of a home or garage office or something similar? Yeah. So how much of your time is travel? And how do you control your costs in today's sort of crazy world of travel?

Robert Lowdon  19:16  
We were just we were we were just gone for a whole month. We were gone right across Canada for an entire month. And we got home last week. So it was the first time I slept in my bed and over 30 Something days. And travel is insane right now. It is so expensive.

Gary Pageau  19:36  
So I mean, do you I mean, do you travel? I mean, obviously you seem to like trains you travel by train, or do you fly everywhere? And how is it like if you're if you're bringing equipment you own? There's a lot of logistic challenges there. So just you and your wife?

Robert Lowdon  19:49  
Yeah, it's very difficult to do even like when I'm flying on my own in Canada, it's very hard to find good rentals across the country. Toronto, a major city, you can get everything here like you could get a New York or anywhere else, right? problems become when you get to smaller cities across Canada. Some of the major centers you think you'd be able to rent that you can't get special, certain specialty equipment, the basics are always there. So I generally if I'm flying, I'm flying with equipment in cases.

Gary Pageau  20:26  
Oh my gosh, I've mentioned a couple stories there.

Robert Lowdon  20:29  
You know, like it's always worked out. I don't know how every time I put the drone under the plane because it has to go under there. It terrifies me, right, because this thing's worth 12 grand and it's going to get chucked around by some guy.

Gary Pageau  20:45  
Got the gorillas down below, you know, luggage in there. So, so so are you. I mean, obviously, you're packing your equipment yourself. So you must be very conscientious

Robert Lowdon  20:59  
of that. Yeah, yeah, like most stuff you're you're carrying on, you're trying to carry on longer trips, we'll drive to like, I'll drive. That can be anything within four hours, I'll probably just drive because it's just easier. Yeah, like when you add your even before this, right, like when you had your time at the airport, and then you're waiting on bags and all this stuff? Like yes,

Gary Pageau  21:22  
that's easily four hours. I mean, three or four hours there, if you figure you know, an hour 45 minutes, get the airport and now we're waiting until you get some D then you're bored and then you fly for an hour. You know, it's the same. I do the same thing to within four hours, I'll drive but yeah, what are some of the best places you have? Visited as you know, a sort of this traveling photographers? That means you got you got quite a bit of business, I'm sure in the Toronto area because like you said, it's a major industrial area within in Canada and Ontario, but I've never been anyplace like because I love Canada like you know, I I would, you know, just the whole western states is just wild for you know, a great appeal for me. So, where are some of the places you've been?

Robert Lowdon  22:08  
Oh, in Canada, some of the greatest places the greatest place. I've probably been everywhere. I went to the Arctic once I went

Gary Pageau  22:19  
up to you was gonna ask you did you go to none of it? Did

Robert Lowdon  22:20  
you go that far up? Yeah, actually, I went to none of it. Yeah, a place called RV yet. It's like 40 people. It's right on Hudson's Bay, if you know where that is. Yeah, it's it's I went in summer for to shoot a building. And it's it's so weird. There's no trees at all. Like it's above the tree line. Right. And you can see from the, from the plane, it almost looks like Swiss cheese. There's just millions of lakes. It's more water than ground, right. It's all rocks. And like some like, like, it's like a grass or Mosqueda type that and that's it. And it just colors. Just amazing. I was just in Victoria. Vancouver Island there. Went through Bamp went through all of BC. Yeah. And then the East Coast to like Halifax, Pei, places like that. Newfoundland. I actually haven't been to Newfoundland.

Gary Pageau  23:24  
We've been in the photo industry who had the who is? Who had the who basically the only camera store in Newfoundland, right. tudents camera for those who remember? Yeah, I was wondering, go there. That's a very interesting part of that planet.

Robert Lowdon  23:38  
You should it's supposed to be very beautiful. There was a few jobs we were supposed to go to. And then COVID kind of kicked in and yeah, ruin those ones. But that might happen. Future every time I get something it always just seems to fall through with Newfoundland. I don't know, maybe they're so

Gary Pageau  23:55  
good. Well, it's almost Europe, it's at Far East. So tell me a little bit about COVID. Because I don't want to turn this into a you know, COVID retrospective, but it seems like it's impacted a lot of the people I talked to for the podcast, you are kind of in an unusual situation, I think because you didn't rely on weddings or social gatherings for your business. So I'm sure there was an impact. Did it change your plans much? Was it more of a hiccup than a full stop? Or what was it?

Robert Lowdon  24:24  
It was? It was like a really weird experience for us. So I'm not sure if you know, but Toronto was considered the most lockdown city in the world. At one point we had quite a few lock downs here and shut down. So basically, when we went into shutdowns, like that was closed for business. We couldn't do anything really. And even the things that we could do clients weren't really considering that it could be done. So we were, we were off. But the weird thing about it was every time we would open it would just get insane. So we even actually, like last year and about breaking a sales record for our business, it was busier than it had ever been in the past six months of the year, which was really strange for us. So it was actually ended up being busier with COVID, which was, I don't know, if it was, it had to do with the steps that we took during COVID. Because we're still a growing business, right. And I can go into further, I don't want to go on too long about that. But I can go into further to some, like the things you did when COVID started to kind of maybe ramp our business up. But for us it was it. I don't know, it was good and bad. It's not a good situation. But it was also good for the business and bad for the business. But at the end, we came out better than we started. So

Gary Pageau  25:44  
how do you keep the creative, the creative juices going? Like you said, You've been at this for a while you you know built a business, you brought on a you know another person? And you know, you still gotta get out of bed and want to do it. So how do you keep those juices flowing?

Robert Lowdon  26:00  
Ah, that's a good question. I sometimes feel like I don't have a choice. I don't know, I just have this like this drive to like, do something that is at times probably a little bit unhealthy. To just keep going and get excited about things. And I don't like I don't know what it is like, I think years ago, I could have told you it's like, well, I just have this down or I do this thing. Right. But I think there's just something in me. That's maybe. Yeah, there's something in me. That's a little weird. Maybe? That's a good answer. But

Gary Pageau  26:41  
so do you. I mean, do you see yourself continuing on this path to keep this business going? Or do you think you're going to bring on more people and you'll become more of an oversight role? Because I mean, it sounds to me like you're kind of in sort of controlled growth mode. You mean, you have as much business as you can take on? And at some point, you have to think, well, goodness, you know, there's only so much bandwidth I personally have, I'll bring my wife on board. But you know, what can you do? Do you think you're going to bat does that appeal to you at this stage? Because you're kind of getting thinking about the future?

Robert Lowdon  27:15  
Yeah, I think for for us, it's in me, it's it's a bit more of a hybrid scenario where and by saying that I say like, I still always want to be the guy taking the pictures, right is your name is on the door? It is and it's what I enjoy. And I don't want to give away the thing I like the most to someone else, because I think then the passion would go away from it. But we are still in a growth stage, I would say. But my our future is more in my future. What I'm looking for is more expanding internationally into other countries, sir. More larger projects I see is our future. Then more projects itself, if that makes sense.

Gary Pageau  27:57  
Yeah. That makes sense. So if the if new skyscraper opens up in Dubai, you know, you want to be there.

Robert Lowdon  28:06  
Yeah, for sure. And I guess just to qualify that, too, like we do work with like a lot of large companies that have imprints sure around the world. Right. So it's yeah, it's like yeah, like now they think about Yeah, exactly. Like that news. Nice. That's exactly it. I'm sorry. 

Gary Pageau  28:23  
sure my three Dubai, listeners have connections for you. So if they wanted to connect with you, where would they do it? How can people find more information about Robert Lowdon?

Robert Lowdon  28:36  
For sure. The easiest way is just my website. So it's just my name. It's Robert Loudon It's our OB er t LOWD. O Or you can just Google my name and I show up

Gary Pageau  28:48  
because your SEO the hell out of your business? For sure. Well, thank you Robert, for your time and for your expertise and sharing your business I find it just fascinating just the type of work you do and and encourage people to go to the website and check out the portfolio there. It is. It is not. If you think this advertiser graphy is drying unemotional, you will have your opinion changed after reviewing the portfolio.

Robert Lowdon  29:19  
So awesome. Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.

Erin Manning  29:24  
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