behind the scenes

Business decisions

I’ve made more changes to this site in the past month than I think I made in the first couple years of having a Squarespace account. I’ve delved into more features, and signed up for more services than I ever anticipated needing to run a website. And hopefully it’s all better because of it.

Since this is my home on the internet, I’m allowed to change it up as I see fit. It’s great! Everyone should have this kind of space to play.

Here’s kind of a breakdown of the thought process and evolution of the site (as best as I can remember it):

  • I started with the idea of a technology blog: “Black Rectangle” - so named because it seemed like technology was always about looking at various black rectangles.

  • It was also, for a time, a professional site for me to share my expertise in technology support. I fancied myself something of a Leo Laporte (albeit less creepy and passive-aggressive).

  • I tried to turn it into something of a more literary site. I loved science fiction and speculative fiction, so there used to be a fiction section here. For a while I fancied splitting the site into two main directories: non-fiction, aka “black” and fiction, aka “rectangles” (I thought I was so clever). That’s why this blog is still ~/black in the site’s directory structure. NEAT

    • Part of the literary shift led to my fascination with Nanowrimo and the creation of the podcast Nanowripod. It did well and got a good amount of attention. It still pulls in listeners who apparently are perpetually discovering that I’m more interested in creating a podcast than writing anything decent. However, there was a lot of learning on that show and I have no intention of taking it down. I think that creators should keep something of a record available of the internet at times and spaces since we’re otherwise really bad at archiving at the internet (no offense to Archive.org).

  • Then came the dark ages. The site lay dormant, basically. Every so often I would post something, this is where the “dispatches” start to appear for at least a few months. They were infrequent but were mainly a distillation of all of the Youtube videos I’d been watching

  • And then, I decided to make this more of a business. I’ve been working on my photography and just doing that for a few years now and it was time to make that more of what I want to be known for. Which is what lead to the changes that you see today. Less junk cluttering up the sidebar. More of a clear name and purpose… stuff that I think a casual stranger would more easily understand.

I think my online identity is still a bit cluttered. I love aliases, so here’s kind of a breakdown:

This site now resides at mrbenalexander.com - a “vanity” domain I’ve had for a long time. blackrectangle.net will still work- but I can’t say for how long as i’m debating no longer paying for that domain.

You can also get to the store section as verygood.photography. It’s kind of a spin on Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation’s business called “Very Good Building” contractor company.

I also have the handle @30ghosts on twitter, which is my “professional” spot there. It may be a bit too cool for me but I like that it’s short, rolls off the tongue, and doesn’t feel as clunky as every other “soandsophoto”. I’ve tried to keep it consistent with some of my other photo services like Ello.

Why a store?

Because I think people should fill their lives with art they like and I know at least a couple people that have bought my stuff and liked it. The overhead is manageable at this point in my life and it pushes me to have a finished product to share with others.

I also have goals of building my photo business for portraits and other candid/lifestyle shoots and I would like to upgrade my equipment before the end of the decade. (Did you see that little Ko-fi button up near the top of this page? hint hint.)

Also, I know it’s kind of silly to say this from behind a Squarespace page, but it’s easier to have this setup than it is to mess around with a Patreon and a redbubble and have them suck some ridiculous percentage from each transaction. Who owns and manages your “stuff” (all the combined outwork, not just your primary media) can seriously affect your bottom line.

So that’s why this space is the way it is now. For anyone who has followed, subscribed for these years, thank you thank you thank you.

CuddleXpo experience

As promised in my last update, here’s a bit of a breakdown of the experience of doing headshots/portraits at a professional conference.

My primary concern leading up to the event was how much interest there actually was in the service I would be offering. On the one hand, I knew that plenty of people in the cuddling world have small businesses and therefore probably needed professional shots to use in their branding and marketing. So having something easy to offer while they were at an event like this, would make them primed to buy.

On the other hand, this kind of quick service might put people off. Maybe they hadn’t really thought too much in advance and they would want photos but didn’t feel camera-ready… As it turned out, when I was barely halfway set up on the first day people were queuing up for the signup sheet. I wound up getting 12 sessions over the course of the 2 days.

Because this is a “business” post I’ll run the numbers. I think photographers - especially those starting out - are way too afraid of showing our work and I don’t want to be another one of “those people.”

Staging:

  • A two light setup with basic off-white backdrop

  • Lights were constant (florescent), definitely would love to go with flashes next time around

  • My Nikon D3200 with 35mm f/1.8 (which is like a 55mm equivalent, so ideal for portraits)

I was situated in the main hall where there were presentations going on all day, right along side vendors selling various products. I believe I was one of the only service-based vendors. I didn’t have any proper signage, the lights and my little “pricing sheet” did the talking.

I planned for about 15 minutes per shoot and the pricing breakdown was as follows:

  • $15 - 5 RAW photos (1 outfit/look), no edits

  • $25 - 5 edited photos

  • $30 - 10 photos, including 2 outfits/looks

  • $50 - 10 photo edited

In case you can’t tell, those prices are SUPER cheap! And I was told so by my clients that day. I’m sure that it was a good reason I got as many signups as I did, but on the other hand I feel like I could have/should have charged a bit more. It’s so funny how much I’ve found myself falling into the same “traps” (i.e. not valuing my work enough) as I’ve read from other people and I still didn’t learn! So the takeaway here is don’t under-price yourself!

While I probably went too cheap, I believe that I delivered a professional service in a fairly high volume setting. I’ve gotten back good feedback from my clients from that day. But I also know going forward I’m going to do a better job of representing my value on paper.

Learning experiences:

  1. Bring a mirror! Letting someone quickly check themselves was the number one issue that I wound up having to deal with in editing. I could have made my life easier and made my clients feel just that much more comfortable if they had a simple mirror there to do their hair or double check their makeup.

  2. “Measure twice, cut once” - Kind of like with the first point but I realized that most of my sessions were not taking anywhere near 15 minutes. It’s fine to have the energy and get right down to shooting, but that moment to double check things can save you from some dud shots and, again, trying to fix things in post.

  3. Lighting! I’m greatly appreciative of the lighting setup that we had, but I know I can get even better results in the future if I plan that part of it even more. The one thing I will have to seriously consider is the value/capability of constant or strobe setup. I think having a constant lighting setup was less of a distraction. If flashes were going off every few minutes that might be a distraction.

Without further ado, here are some of the shots I was most pleased with:

Things That Worked

  1. Being a calm, welcoming presence. It’s easy to see the list of people and go “okay, I have to get through this, which can really undercut the interaction with the person who is right in front of you. I was able to “turn on the charm” in a natural way, which helps relax others.

  2. Letting them review the photos. Even though this was a fairly quick service, giving the customer a level of control/input that shows them that you know what you’re doing is important. I didn’t have a tether cable so I just poppped the SD card out of the camera and plugged it into my laptop.

Doing the Math

Afterwards, I did the math on things that I directly spent money or time on to make this happen. I cannot emphasize how low my overhead was on this: I had most of the equipment on hand, and I was able to borrow the lights for the event. The fact that I did not have to pay for my placement at the event also helped.

Figuring in time to edit on the day after (which I believe around 5 hours), I was making a reasonable $25/hour.

By the way, I tracked my time editing using the app Toggl. It made tracking very simple and even the free version was enough to keep clear track of time. If I took a break, it automatically would stop the clock after going idle in case I forgot to manually do it.

$25 is nothing to sneeze at, it felt good to get paid and have a deadline to work with. But there is definitely room to grow. I would like to thank all the wonderful people who hired me to take their pictures, as well as Keeley for putting on the CuddleXpo and inviting me.