New Yorkbased photographer Steve Vaccariello has more than 20 years of success under his belt, and he did it all with no formal photography training. The recipe for a rewarding career such as his is undoubtedly based on the appeal of his pure and beautiful portrait and commercial work, but the backbone of his business relies on his ability to deliver a service to his clients in a way they can appreciate-with a lighthearted, jovial atmosphere on-set, great communication, confidence, and ever-important consistency in delivery. These facets of his business bring a confidence level to the table that his clients can bank on, and as a result they're Vaccariello's highest priority when producing a shoot.
It's How You Do It
Vaccariello's photography hits a home run every time, but if there's one thing he's learned in the process of self-teaching the business, it's that customer service and attitude can make all of the difference to keep clients coming back. "Once I've worked with a client, I think my Midwestern roots come into play," Vaccariello says. "We're open and friendly on the job, and it's infectious. We keep a jovial atmosphere on-set, and we never like to get too serious with ourselves-it's a great mood to project and makes for a great working environment. I hear plenty of stories from my assistants and from models about yelling and screaming from other photographers-forget that approach if you want to succeed in this business. My clients always feel at home immediately, and I will always make sure my models feel like they're the center of the universe, that they're the perfect casting-I'm constantly providing them positive feedback through the shoot."
In addition to assuring a comfortable working environment, Vaccariello and his crew strive to keep his shoots and deliverables consistent. Nothing is planned or executed without referencing how his client loved things the last time they worked with him, allowing a predictability in how the job will run its course. "We prefer to be very consistent," Vaccariello states. "Twenty-three years into this, it's my studio's pride on the line in the predictably perfect products we deliver. Our clients know they're going to get what they want-it's been a long time since I've heard that a client wasn't happy with the deliverables. We strive to keep that reputation, and focus to make sure every part of the experience with us is something the client is familiar with. I know I would hate to go to a restaurant where the food was good one time and bad the next-your photography business should offer the same consistent quality. From the time we get our first call to the minute we deliver the CDs, the client experience has to be a positive one. And remember, to pull that off you have to keep up with trends in lighting and style as best you can, too, enabling your ability to deliver just about anything your clients could ask for."
The Company You Keep
Vaccariello doesn't take sole credit for his business success, sharing the spotlight with his business partner and crew. Their accomplishments together are irrefutable, and the value Vaccariello places on surrounding himself with like minds is high. "My business partner and studio manager, Todd Szopo, is integral to any success," he insists. "We met when we were in our early twenties and moved to New York City together to see if we could make this dream happen. We were and still are best friends, and we both click in regards to business sense and goals. He's my right hand; he's the office manager and booking agent, the production specialist, everything. This lets me focus on my photography, and believe me, when you're supported like that, your photography shows it."
With a partner such as Szopo, Vaccariello knows his brand is being projected well even when he's not in the room. The positive attitude and resulting trust also extends to others on his crew, each chosen carefully for their compatibility in attitude and client interaction. "Zachary Bako is my first assistant; we had him here as an intern and he never left," he says. "Zach is amazing, and his enthusiasm and knowledge base is just what the team needs. He's the one who keeps me up to speed on the latest gear, and he builds my sets-Zach will scavenge from the streets, the hardware store, etc., to constantly get something cool and unique. All of the members of your studio crew are important, but if you can fine-tune the personnel to where it works so well it's seamless, your clients will sense the lack of tension and see the degree of smooth operation. That means you can't forget who you're surrounding yourself with-your team needs to be part of your branding, too."
Art of the Production
Vaccariello's NYC studio caters to clients such as Finlandia Vodka, Alan Cumming's fragrance lines, Time Warner, Sprint, several cosmetics and jewelry companies, Nikon, Kodak, the Washington Ballet, and Capezio, for whom he creates both advertising and catalogs. Vaccariello also produces and shoots promotional materials and calendars for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Cavaliers dance squads; his entire book represents a full-spectrum crossover of fashion, portraiture, and editorial. "New York tends to be such a specialized market, but my diverse client base's common thread is people-I've always been about people-so there's a lot of work for me," Vaccariello muses. "People let their guard down and aren't afraid of me or my camera. They relax. It's a wonderful job of no two days being alike, but the learning curve of how to produce such a variety of shoots is intense."
Larger productions, Vaccariello relates, can involve months of legwork. Choosing gear and prepping for customs when traveling overseas all becomes very intricate in the planning stages. "You can't call B&H from the beach in the Dominican Republic," Vaccariello laughs. "You need two of everything, and a contingency plan for every part of the shoot. One of my assistants, Christopher Fragapane, once brought turkey-basting bags. I was completely baffled when I saw them-I couldn't imagine what he was thinking. But when it rained during the beach shoot, he ran out and put the bags on the power packs, saving the day. It all comes down to prep and foresight. The what ifs' need to be covered extensively. Can the hotel give us transportation? Can we get everyone fed at the restaurant if we run late on the beach? It's mind-boggling and takes a lot out of you. Then you get to your overseas location and it's 95 degrees in the shade, and you have 10 subjects to shoot in one day in 10 different locations, racing with gear from one place to another. All the while you have to think, "Did I remember to back up that CF card? We even split up the film [Ed. note: Vaccariello shoots on film as the job demands, which is quite often.] during transport so that all of one subject's film is never in one place at the same time, even on the trip back. Nothing can cost us the loss of the images-not a dead battery, not theft, not an accident. You can't hiccup-you have to do it all right the first time, or someone's quarter-million-dollar job is lost."
Vaccariello's team starts production with a concept meeting, ensuring that they're all on the same page and familiar with their goals. From there, they map out the "hows" and assemble the team for the job-from assistants to makeup. When they know the budget, it dictates how they approach the quote. "There are a lot of clients these days that want a lot, but don't want to pay a lot," he says. "Digital photography is making amateur photographers out of everyone, and it's competing with the professional pricing model. On low-budget jobs, we're trying to find artists and assistants who like to do it for the art, and who can use the work to add to their books. So if we accept a job for lower-than-usual fees, we've decided that it's a certainty that we can sculpt the final images into something we can use in a portfolio."
Keeping overhead manageable is another budget consideration. "I have a small studio, but mostly I rent," he says. "This works well, as looking at the same four walls can be stifling to creativity-jumping from one rental studio to another forces you to see artistically and differently, bringing out my need to be an artist. In the end, your vision as a photographer is what it's all about."
See more of Steve Vaccariello's work at www.vaccariello.com
MOST IMPORTANT PRODUCT FOR PRODUCTIVITY
"Adobe Photoshop is, to this day, ever-important to our workflow. Images that come straight from a digital camera are not ready for delivery, ever. Photoshop is integral to every image we produce, whether it's a web-only file or something for a billboard. I can't imagine a workday without its contributions as a digital darkroom."