Alex Vertikoff was initially attracted to photography because it meant he'd be able to flex his creative ideas and challenge himself-he'd have to confront the technical aspects of making a photograph to succeed. A few decades later, success is his with a portfolio of captivating, well-composed architectural images that are so vibrant, their color so accurate, that it's almost like looking through a window when viewing his work. But beyond the attention to the technical and artistic aspects, Vertikoff insists it's as much the way he nurtures relationships and forms a bond of trust with his clients that's allowed his business to flourish.
Rules Made to be Broken
Vertikoff feels that his style directly relates to his fine-art photography education, and he was almost taken by surprise at how well he superimposed his artistic visions with clients' architecture and interior designs. "My career began with the attitude that I was an artist and I'd make my money selling 20x24 fine-art urban-landscape photographs," Vertikoff remembers. "It was my first architectural client who asked me to photograph her building design with the same approach as my landscapes, and that's where I found a market to explore. That was a great time for me; back then we didn't have a list of marketing rules to follow-jobs were more word-of-mouth, and that first job led to several magazine covers in a row, which caught more eyes."
Vertikoff says that it's the careful selection of final images he delivers and the relationships that are built in the process that allow his booking calendar to flourish. His clients become more than just numbers, but trusted friends who know he can help their work shine in his printed photographs. "I break a lot of rules-many of my clients are my friends, and I do mix business with pleasure," Vertikoff says. "A boutique' business model for me has always worked in my favor. What it does is build a solid trust. My clients know I'm going to come up with something interesting to look at. The unforgivable sin in this business is delivering something dull; unless you've got a person who loves their own project so much that you can do no wrong, you absolutely have to make a photograph that draws the viewer in. Studies have shown that with an average of four seconds as the time a gallery browser stops at a photo, you need to always make a great image."
Drafting Your Contract
Vertikoff has seen changes in almost every aspect of the photography business over the years, and in particular he misses the regular interaction with buyers. He fears that aspect may be becoming a thing of the past. "This is a transitional time for me and my client base-I used to fly out to New York at least once a year to hit the magazine art buyers with my portfolio," says Vertikoff. "But now, my perception is that the turnover rate for photo buyers is so great that the upkeep on those relationships is a losing effort. They also seem to look for a change in photo style and presentation more often than not, whether or not there's a need-maybe just to make them look like they're doing something. I can't say I understand the logic sometimes. That said, my goal now is trying to keep in touch with buyers without going so far in self-promotion that I'm obnoxious."
Vertikoff also reaches out to clients by using his free time wisely, searching for more potential clients and maintaining relationships with clients he's worked with in the past. "I've ashamedly become yet another creator of junk mail and spam," Vertikoff says, explaining he'll track down email addresses for art directors or photo buyers that he'd love to work with and send out postcards and emails. "It's not too hard to find an email address on the internet if you have the time. It may not be a very effective marketing attempt from a numbers point of view, with 20 percent to 30 percent [resulting in] bad addresses, but if you can gather up enough and get past their spam filters, the cost effectiveness is really great. In the old days, you'd target 10 buyers with five to 10 follow-ups to get in a door with a portfolio. But this way, I can reach them much more easily, and even spend time marketing myself from a laptop when I'm traveling. I can track the stats to see how much traffic that mailing generated, too."
Once his client is all in, Vertikoff presents his paperwork, which has been generated through fotoBiz software and simplified to his satisfaction. "I like to bundle costs as much as possible, taking the time to explain to my clients what their money is buying them," he says. "I don't line-item so much as explain that those online galleries they love so much take time to generate, and that time is included in the price. It helps negate the need for some of those absurdly long contracts. I've seen eight-page contracts for a half-day job; it's overwhelming for everyone involved. I know the rationale behind such contracts and appreciate the thoroughness, but I find it really sets things off on a bad note. I think everything you need to agree on should fit within a page. And as there are always people who'll work for nothing, you have to have a fair price for your perceived value, keeping things simple enough so that clients can understand it."
The Right Tools for the Job
Vertikoff sagely explains that shooting architecture is not so much what it demands, but what it doesn't demand. Having recently suffered a shelf-clearing burglary, he knew that zoom lenses shouldn't be in his shopping cart when restocking his equipment. "I have two 4x5 setups and a medium-format view camera, which are wonderful to shoot-they let you get into the rhythm of photography, into the zone." he says. "My clients can't just go out and buy a 4x5 transparency that glows in its vibrancy-the deliverable is just that much different than digital, and it really makes you able to give them something unique, something tangibly exceptional. But with cameras like those, you really do want to be careful what you start shooting, if not just for the expense. The reality is that for most of my clients, digital SLRs are fine. I'm comfortable with the quality from my new Nikon D3, using Zeiss and Nikon prime glass. Having first looked into 4x5 digital backs, I found that the cost effectiveness wasn't there; $40K buys you more resolution than you'll need in more than most cases. I've had billboards made off of 35mm slides, and I simply can't justify the additional expense of the digital back."
To help Vertikoff in his quest for perfect color, he places white and gray cards in nearly every frame. "One of the rationales for lighting the crap out of a room with strobes is to even out the color of the light," he says. "But then, you've created your own space as opposed to the space that's there. I like to think that one of the reasons I get hired is to transmit the space that's there, not one that I've created for them. The downside is that you can pick up all sorts of color shifts reflected from white walls, lush green lawns, etc. Your mind erases a lot of that when you're standing there, but in post-process I compensate for a lot of that with the final image workup."
Vertikoff processes his RAW files in Lightroom, Photoshop, or both, then applies a myriad of techniques that he's learned from extensive studies in digital image processing-everything from reading books to the lessons he finds on www.russelbrown.com. The results of his skill base are stunning; certainly his clients think so, too.
See more of Vertikoff's work at www.vertikoff.com
Most Important Tool for Productivity
Livebooks has reinvented the ease with which I update my website. From new work to galleries for my clients, I've been thrilled with it from the start.
Alex Vertikoff's Top Five Busniess Tips
1. Don't overwhelm your clients with long contracts and invoices.
2. Do everything you can to get a walk-thRough at the location prior to shooting. Watch for the little things that are big things later, like lawn sprinkler on-times, flags raised on their poles, etc.
3. Check and double-check your shot list. Pay attention to what clients want featured, and especially ask what they do NOT want featured in the photos.
4. Know what the light will be, and when it will be that way. Then try the opposite-you'll get what the other guy doesn't.
5. The biggest mistake I see is photographers shooting too wide. Documenting a room doesn't mean backing into a corner and defaulting to 12mm. Make your photos accessible; let the viewer put themselves into the spaces.
Alex Vertikoff's Gear Box
Kodak Retina Reflex
Nikon D3 DSLR
Nikon F and FE2 SLRs
Arca Swiss F-Line 6x9 and 4x5 cameras
Linhof Kardan Bi-System (4x5)
Nikkor 18mm, 24mm PC, 85mm PC, 70-200mm
Zeiss 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm
Rodenstock 55mm Apo-Grandagon
Fujinon SWD 75mm
Schneider Super Angulon, 120mm, 150mm
Rodenstock 180mm Apo-Sironar
Schneider 210mm Apo-Symmar
Kodak Commercial Ektar 10"
Hervic 1k broad lights
Colortran 1k broad lights
Mole-Richardson Molefays, Mini-Moles, and Softlights
MacBook Pro G5 17"
Apple 20" Cinema Display
Adobe Photoshop CS3
Dr. Brown's action downloads
PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener
Astoria single-station espresso machine