Feb. 5, 2021

Kelly Aoki: Building comfort with your family and senior clients

Kelly Aoki: Building comfort with your family and senior clients

💯💯💯 “Getting to know the clients is one of the more important things just because they feel like you're invested in them. I think anyone wants to feel special. And that's what I'm here for.” - Kelly Aoki


Photographing individuals who are not accustomed to being in front of the camera is not an easy task, and the relationship between photographer and subject shouldn't be neglected.  In this episode, I sit down and talk with family and senior photographer, Kelly Aoki, about building report with her clients and capturing authentic emotion every time. 

Kelly Aoki:
https://mizuephotography.com/
@mizuephotography

Artrepreneurs:

@artrepreneurspod

Have a question that you want addressed on the show?  Get featured on the podcast by going to speakpipe.com/artrepreneurs and record your question! 

Transcript

MICHAEL DER  0:29  
Alright folks, welcome to entrepreneurs season one, Episode Six. Our featured guest runs her family and senior photography business out of Central California and she will be helping us tackle that all important question. How do we make our clients feel more comfortable from the first phone call to the client's first time in front of the camera or work can be seen at Mizue with photography.com that is MIZUE.  You can also follow her on Instagram at @mizuephotography that will of course be listed in our show notes as well for everybody here. She is currently serving Clovis and Fresno, California. So I would like to welcome the wonderfully talented Kelly. Okie Kelly, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate you being here. Welcome to the show. 

KELLY AOKI
Hey, Michael, it's great to be here. I'm honored to be a guest. 

MICHAEL DER
So Kelly, you and I met a few years back at a sports photography workshop. And it got me thinking about how photographers ended up kind of finding their niche and discovering that. And there's a lot of genres of photography that you could have gone down, it could have been sports, it could have been journalism, it could have been an any number of things. But you really made your mark in family lifestyle and senior photography. So what was it about this work that inspired you more than others. 

KELLY AOKI
Starting out, I really shot a lot of everything. And that's why I went to the sports workshop where I met you. I really found that after shooting a bunch of different subjects in different types of photography, I really like to work with families and seniors, I like being intimate and like one on one almost with the client. So I have shot weddings, and I love to do it. I'm kind of selective about it. Just because I really like to connect more with my clients individually, right? 

MICHAEL DER
And do you feel sometimes overwhelmed with the immensity of a wedding?

KELLY AOKI
I mean, I get I get nervous for it before every single shoot.  My fiance says I get a little grouchy at home.  But weddings a little bit more stressed. I think, once I get in the element of just shooting, I kind of go into this, like auto mode, and I just shoot and I just do my thing, and I just get in the zone. So it's not too bad. I've heard that a lot of photographers can get really, really stressed out and like, you know, it's just a really high stress event, which it is because everything only happens once but I just I think I just enjoy telling the story part of it. 

MICHAEL DER
Right.  Do you feel like there's a lot of stress in kind of family portraits and lifestyle and senior photography? 

KELLY AOKI
Not as much. I do get nervous, like I said, but it's more, I don't know, I just feel it ever before every shoot. And if I don't feel nervous, I think that's a problem. Because I always tend to get the best shoots after I'm a little bit nervous just because I'm kind of gearing down and making sure I get the shots that I like to produce and what my client wants to. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah, I deal with this all the time, I get a lot of pre-shoot anxiety.  And even if it's something that I've done, like 100 times, right, and it's like, Oh, I got this in the bag, I even still, I'll kind of get those jitters. What do you do? Do you do anything proactively to kind of deal with that? 

KELLY AOKI
Before a shoot, I, I'll look on Pinterest, I know that like, sometimes, it's not the best thing to do. And I don't really ask my clients for specific shots just because I know what I like to shoot, but it just helps me kind of settle my mind. And then I'll also do like a lot of more focused breathing just so that I don't get kind of nervous and let that take over. 

MICHAEL DER
And, you know, you said, this is the interesting part to me, because we're talking about like, how do you make your clients feel comfortable, but it's part of it, too, is how do you lead your clients in a direction? Because I don't know. I mean, you can actually answer this question is, on average, what percentage of your first time clients have an idea of what they're looking for? 

KELLY AOKI
It's about 50/50.  Sometimes clients have super specific requests. And then other times, they just trust me and that's what I like the most is when the client comes in knowing that all have you know, the locations and poses and things like that worked out. And usually that's when I can do the best work because they're giving me the creative freedom. And that's usually my ideal client. 

MICHAEL DER
I'm curious about the typical first point of communication with the client. Like you know how much back and forth there is.  Before you pencil them in like so if I reached out to you, and I said, Hi, Kelly, I found you through a friend, I just got engaged, I'd love for you to do photographs for my fiance. And I, what's the first thing that you would bounce back to me? What kind of information are you looking for? 

KELLY AOKI
Usually, I'll read like an inquiry, usually I'll get them on my website. And then I'll respond back really quickly, as fast as I can with an email.  Just kind of saying like, Hey, thank you for reaching out.  I'd be honored to shoot like, you know, your engagement session, when are you free to chat on the phone, just because I think when you know, when you're texting back and forth, you can only get a gist of what, you know, both sides are saying, it's easier on the phone, you can like really hear the tone of their voice. And, you know, like, when they pause, and they hesitate a little, they're not sure. So then you can like, kind of read those signs and make sure that you're making them feel like confident in you as a photographer. And like in the whole process. 

MICHAEL DER
Do you try to set up those phone calls pretty early?

KELLY AOKI  5:59  
Yeah, usually, probably in the in a day or two, depending on their availability and mine. They're really quick. They're just like maybe 10 to 15 minute calls, just trying to get to know them, who's going to be involved in the shoot, if they have any ideas of what they're looking for usually all kind of asked like, Are you looking for something more outdoorsy, rustic, urban, things like that? 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah. Yep. Did the concepts come first for you before the clients? Or was it the other way around? Meaning like, Did you think, Okay, I'm gonna go down this route? Or did it start off by saying a few clients reached out to you did a few shoots. And that's when you realize that you were going to double down on it? 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, yeah, I'm starting out. Like I said, I didn't really know. You know, you always hear you're supposed to pick a niche or niche, however you say it, but I'm in niche down and figure it out. But I kind of for a while I was maybe a year or two, I could just kind of shot everything. And I was like, Well, why can't you just shoot everything. But I found that once I like, once I started working more with families. And seniors, I really liked that best. In the beginning, it wasn't so much like lifestyle, family photography, I was shooting just regular run of the mill like pose just look here, say cheese kind of thing.  And I did not enjoy that. You know, I love the connection of everything. And I think one of the shoots that changed that I have a client that's been with me for about six or seven years since I started. And we were at her house, and it was her babies. She just had a baby and her little two year old at the time. And I was just kind of following a little two year old around and just catching different kind of shots that I wasn't used to getting kind of seeing how they interacted, and I just loved capturing it, because you could see how much love and you know, care the parents had for the kids and vice versa. It was that's what kind of changed it all. For me. 

MICHAEL DER
That's awesome. And being part of that family history has to be very rewarding, I would imagine. 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, yeah, that's one of the best things. I just saw that client again this year. And her two-year-old is now what do they say? Like, he's like six or five and the baby he's walking around, and he has his own. I mean, he's not a baby anymore. And it's just, I am so I feel like so special that they get to you know, I get to be part of these moments for them. It's like incredible. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah, you're like an extended part of the family in a way. 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah, in a way. 

MICHAEL DER
What is the basic difference? You You alluded to this a little bit before about doing kind of the posed, you know, portraits versus the lifestyle stuff, like how did that evolve? And what was that kind of like? And what is the actual difference between the two of them for people that don't know? 

KELLY AOKI
Okay, so after, after that first shoot, that I was explaining to you kind of changed things for me. When we were going over the photos with my client, she said, Oh, they look like they're from a magazine. And um, you know, when you look at like parent magazine, or the home magazines, you see kind of people just lounging around and doing what they would do normally in the day, and a little bit more organic feel. Oh, yeah. And, I mean, I know that it sounds kind of funny to certain clients.  When they want, you know, a family portrait, obviously, they want everyone looking smiling, and we get those in the shoot too. But it's not like my main focus. I think it's just special to capture the little moments because those are the ones that later down the road, you'll miss and if you just have anyone can take a picture of someone smiling and looking at the camera. But if you can capture their personality and the emotions, even if they're not smiling, you know babies crying and the mom soothing the baby, or when dad kind of just gives the baby a little kiss on the head, because they're just trying to make the baby feel comfortable. It's those little moments, I think that that's where you get the most emotion out of. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah, that's those are the beautiful moments, how long do you have free your sessions? I mean, are they one hour, two hours, walk me through that.

KELLY AOKI
I have, I used to have a mini session that was maybe 20 minutes. And I don't really do that anymore, just because towards the end of the 20-minute session, well, now I can do it a little bit faster, much faster. So I could get the same emotions in the 20 minutes. But most of my sessions are at least 45 minutes to an hour. And then I have a different type of session that's a little bit longer up to two hours in, in the two hour sessions, you get a ton of really natural moments, because the client really does get super comfortable. And they're not worried about getting those specific look and cheese and smile at the camera pictures because we've already gotten those. So then we just get the kids playing with the parents and siblings and it's great.

MICHAEL DER  11:11  
Yeah, I think that it would, I'm just guessing here, but it would take a while to break that tension down of the first 20 or 30 minutes of it as a photographer, photographing us to start feeling natural again. 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah, it used to be really hard for me in the beginning, just because I am more introverted. So I, I learned over the years that if I don't take control of the session, then someone else will and it doesn't go, it doesn't go the way I see it in my head. So I guess, you know, over the years, I've learned that when clients have all these ideas, and they want to control the shoot, they still need direction no matter what. Yeah, that's a that's a hard part to work with a client that really wants control, but doesn't really know what they want. 

MICHAEL DER
Mm hmm. Did you go to school for photography? Did you have any mentorship programs or internships? What was your process like there? 

KELLY AOKI
Um, so I was originally majoring in science for like medical or I changed a lot. I kind of grew up like a typical, you know, Japanese American household. My parents said, like, be a doctor or lawyer, teacher, my mom's a teacher. So it was like either a doctor or a teacher.  And so then that's what I strived for. But I ended up picking up a camera as a creative outlet. And I just kind of took off with it.  After my senior pictures in high school, that photographer taught me how to shoot in manual.  And that was about it. So I ended up majoring in Mass Communications and journalism at Fresno State.  And from there, I just took a couple of classes. I took one in photojournalism and I was introduced to the photographer for the campus carry. And he actually went to the same sports shooter workshop or conference that I did, like years before, and then that's how I ended up meeting you. 

MICHAEL DER
Mm hmm. Okay. And I wanted to ask you about, like, the personality traits that you feel like have been successful for you, in your work? How important is it to be approachable, in your line of work? 

KELLY AOKI
I would say it's like the most important thing. I know, some photographers aren't as approachable, and it's super kind of strictly business. And I think that's where my business is a little bit different. I try to whether someone's booking a shoot or not, I give them the same type of attention. And I think that's important because then they feel that energy and they feel special and take taken care of. 

MICHAEL DER
Do you do anything special in terms of the pre-production aspect? Do you provide your clients any type of like written documents or magazines that kind of say, this is what to expect, you know, bring this type of wardrobe or anything like that? 

KELLY AOKI
I am working on that right now. Actually, I'm in the process of rebranding and being able to provide my clients with more support and resources, just so they feel even more prepared. But for now, what I had been doing was I jumped on a call with them, and I would let them kind of tell me what they were thinking. And then I'll suggest some areas since send them some photos of the location and some examples and then kind of walk them through, hey, you don't want to wear anything too busy. Nothing. Right. And it's important that if they're planning on having the photos, you know, in their house.  That it's kind of like an evergreen look, not to seasonal. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah. What personality traits have worked well for you to connect with individuals and families that you're meeting and photographing for the first time, because that's got to be somewhat awkward at times. 

KELLY AOKI
Well, like you said, I think you need to be approachable. You need to connect with them in a way that they feel like you actually care. And I'll reply back with an email, then we'll schedule a phone call, I'll get to know them. And then I actually let them text me if they need to, with like any outfit ideas, some of them like to bring something that's sentimental, I don't like to shoot too much with props, but they'll text me their ideas, and then I'll send them over, right, a reminder before our shoot, the day of once I arrived, I kind of greet them, what I do is I'll start with a posed cheesy smile, look at the camera, and I'll just say, Hey, I'm going to get my settings, right. So they get kind of used to being in front of the camera. And then from there.
And I always say like, hey, these first few shots, they're going to feel kind of uncomfortable. But I'm going to pose you and as we move on, from here on out, like once you get comfortable, we'll get some really natural-looking shots, and you guys can just hang out and play around kind of thing. 

MICHAEL DER
Mm-hmm. And for for locations, let's just say you don't know the location, you haven't scouted it before somebody says, Hey, we're about 45 minutes away in this direction? How do you handle that, because you don't have the luxury of scouting that necessarily the way that you would normally would?

KELLY AOKI
in the very beginning, I was so nervous, if I had to shoot in a location that I wasn't comfortable with. Because at the time, you know, I was still learning how to use my camera and how to get everything. You know, just like getting used to everything. Yeah, and my very first shoot, they had all these ideas for locations, and I felt nervous the entire time. And I think it's important that you go into a shoe confident, like taking control of it and being the one to you know, be the director, basically. But now like, if I don't know the location, all kind of go maybe five minutes, I had 10 minutes ahead and just kind of look around. But for the most part, I'm comfortable with my camera. I'm comfortable with lighting, so it's not too difficult. 

MICHAEL DER
What do you do for lighting? Are you a natural light shooter? Do you implement strobes Do you kind of mix and match?

KELLY AOKI
For the most part when I'm outside, shooting on location, I'll shoot natural light. I like to backlight a lot. So I'll bring a reflector and just kind of pop some light to fill.  I have shot with strobes in outdoors before but I was a little bit hard to move around and get the shots that I was hoping to get. And it's I think it's a little bit it kind of takes away from the comfort of the shoot just because they see the big lights because I had like some Einstein lights. But I don't really take those out.  And then for indoors, I had shot with natural light like with Windows, but you know that's so limiting. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah, I feel like if you start off with strobes right out the gate you kind of commit yourself to that just kind of takes away some of that connection with the subject. Do you feel that way? 

KELLY AOKI
At first Yes. But then I was on Instagram one day, and I saw I think her name is Sandra Cohn. And she does a lot of artificial lighting, but it looks natural, I saw that she uses a big, white translucent umbrella. And then she uses a white diffuser over it, and she flips the umbrella the other way, and then uses the screen that she puts on the other side, just to make a really big, soft, natural-looking light. And I find that because it's so big, you can have it kind of further away from the client, and just work with your settings. And that is okay, because I don't have to move the light. I just move them sometimes. And I can still get intimate and be just as natural and not worrying too much about the lighting. Right? Exactly. 

MICHAEL DER
I think if you were doing like an off-camera speedlight with just like a bear bulb, like I would much rather go natural light than that. But if you have like the, you know, seven-foot parabolic umbrella that, you know just has a broad reach. That's pretty nice because then you can kind of run and gun and still have that soft light filling in. When did you discover your kind of visual style? What was that discovery process like?   Was there one did you find that in college did was it something that you had to evolve into over time? 

KELLY AOKI
I actually knew how to use Photoshop before I knew how to shoot in manual. 

MICHAEL DER
Oh, is that right? 

KELLY AOKI 20:00
Yeah, cuz you know you have a lot of time during high school and I had Photoshop on my computer.  I always walk like ran around with like a little tiny cannon kind of Powershot. Camera. And I would just learn, like how to clean up at first it was like how to clean up skin so that it doesn't look complete because it was those awkward teenage years.  And then like whitening, teeth, things like that. But I looked at, I just recently actually looked at a lot of the photos that I edited back then, and they look so bad. But like all that filters, the yellow and sepia, right. But when I was shooting clients, I actually shot my sister a lot before I ever took on a paid client. And it was just for fun. But, and those pictures also look very bad.  I think it was just that I wanted my images to all look cohesive and consistent. I didn't like all the crazy angles, I always like to have like my horizon line straight.  I like when my images have like a very soft kind of creamy look to them. Um, and I would say like, they're not too far off from what our eyes see in color. But if anything's too yellow, we all kind of pull that back just so that your focus is on the person in the photo, and not necessarily the background or anything distracting like that. 

MICHAEL DER
How important do you think having a consistent look first, for somebody that's just getting started in this? How important is that consistency in terms of your branding? 

KELLY AOKI
I think it's like one of the most important things.  Just because when a client comes to you, and they see you know, your portfolio, your work, and they hire you, based off your portfolio, they want a similar look. And if you can't provide consistency, then I think you'd probably get some unhappy customers. So I think as far as like a brand goes, you know, you want to be as consistent as possible. So you're providing work that clients expect, and, you know, always kind of keeping to your brand is important. 

MICHAEL DER
Mm hmm. How much is editing a part of that visual style for you? Do you do a lot of post processing? Is it rather minimal? What's that, like for you? 

KELLY AOKI
The shoot is the easy part.  Um, I yeah, I do a lot of post-processing. And I think from the very beginning till now, I have learned, you know, what works and what doesn't work, like, you know, you don't want to soften the skin so much that it loses all the texture. And I think finding a fine balance in between looking, you know, I have some clients that just want to look absolutely perfect. And I don't think that looks super realistic, you know, so I always want to keep, I want to keep as much of the original photo as possible. But also kind of clean up some backgrounds and, you know, pimples, things like that things that aren't permanent. Like, if they have some spots on their face or something like that, that are always there, then if they want me to lighten them up, but I don't think I should take them away because that's you know them. 

MICHAEL DER
Right, exactly. How many images do you send your clients? Normally, if you're if you're doing a senior photo shoot, how many images are you sending them. 

KELLY AOKI
So right now I have different sessions. And I include a certain amount of pictures of images in that package. And then if they'd like additional, they can purchase additional.  So my smallest package is like 10 images. And then usually people will purchase 10 to 20 more, but I am thinking I'm going to go in a more all inclusive ish type route, just because, um, so my process right now is I'll shoot the client, and then I'll go in, I'll call down the photos, and then I'll meet with them and before COVID it was in person and it'd be like an hour and we go through their you know, sift through all their images, they pick their favorite ones. And while I do like that interaction, I think that it can be kind of inconvenient for my clients and myself just because you know, you have to set even more time out of your day. And I think by providing a service that will include, you know, all the good images, you know, not no duplicates, blinking eyes, things that don't look as great, but just like the full kind of gallery, maybe like 30-40 images, okay. I also don't want to have my clients have to choose between special moments anymore either. I think that kind of did an injustice. So I just want to be able to provide my clients with like the absolute best work and provide a service that makes everything convenient and easy for them as much as possible. 

MICHAEL DER
Do you consider yourself a pretty heavy shooter? Do you like, you know, if you're delivering, let's say, 40 images to a client? Does it take you 500 shots to get there? Does it take you 1000? Does it take you 100? How would you categorize yourself? 

KELLY AOKI
It doesn't take too many shots to provide a client with a full gallery anymore. In the beginning, you know, when you're starting out? It did, I would be, you know, praying that I got 10 images. And now it's like, oh, I have 100-200 that are really good.  And I think that just comes with time. But at first I had a well not at first, like maybe a couple years ago, I had a one dx mark two, and it's canon. I think you shoot Nikon, right? 

MICHAEL DER
I do. Yeah. But I'm not like brand new. You know, it's not like, Hey, you know, I need to always shoot this. I'm still pretty fluid in that. 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah, I was shooting like high speed like, and a lot of images. And it was kind of overkill.  Since then, I, I have Sony cameras now I transition to mirrorless. But I don't do high speed unless it's like, the kid is just running around super fast and a very like active child. But for the most part, you know, regular shutter speed is fine. 

MICHAEL DER
Right.  Yeah, I kind of bounced back and forth between that notion of kind of showing clients the full take. And especially when I do it with like, collaborative shoots, and, and models, they always want to see everything that you shot, and it's like, well, it's just gonna slow down the process. You know, if I do it, you're gonna get the pictures done in like a day turnaround. If you look through them, it's gonna take like three weeks, and I'm like, Hey, have you selected which ones you want me to retouch? And they're like, I'm still working on it. I'm still calling down from, you know, how do you do this? So that becomes tricky. But that is also an interesting service to provide so that your clients feel like, oh, I've seen the full take. But yeah, how you negotiate that is is tricky, because I can see both ends of the spectrum there. 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, yeah, no, I don't show them like the full everything I kind of cool, cool down in, it is still a little bit overkill. It's kind of overwhelming to a client, when you send them a gallery of like 100 for them to choose from. So I try to narrow it down as much as possible, to the absolute best shots. And if a child has like a ton of expressions, I'll keep different expressions in because you don't know, well, I don't know what you know, their true smile, or their true personality, like the little quirky things, you know, what a mom wants to remember. So, right, I just try to keep as much as possible in there without overwhelming the client. But I think this new way that I'll be doing, what kind of alleviate some of that overwhelm. And throughout a session, I'll kind of show a client. And I think that's very important, too. If you show a client a good image pretty quickly in the session, then they feel like, okay, I look good. That's cute. Like, I have competence in this photographer, right? But then sometimes, if I'm in the flow, and the clients are doing all the right things, I don't want to break up the flow of the session and say, hey, look at this. I just want them to keep being in the moment. And then later, I'll show them a couple of images just so they get, you know, they're excited. And they're confident that I got what they needed. 

MICHAEL DER
So you just kind of have to, like listen to them without them having to say anything, you're just kind of reading the room? 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, yes, I think that's listening is very important. You kind of reading the room and reading the client, their energy. It's one of the most important things because, say a child comes to the shoot, and you can tell that they're nervous, and kind of scared and they don't want to be near you. I don't go up to them right away. I'll talk to the sibling. If there's a sibling that's more open, or I'll talk to the parents and kind of let the children see like, hey, she's talking to my mom and dad. She's not scary. But I'm also like, almost their height too. So that's a good strategy, though. 

MICHAEL DER
Um, are there any other techniques that you have, but maybe it's posing? Maybe it's just reading the room and breaking the ice that you use that you know, you can rely on this works every time. 

KELLY AOKI
Usually, if say, I have a little boy and he doesn't want to be in the photos at all. I'll take pictures without him in them for a little bit. I'll go and I'll take their parents and I'll say hey, look at mom and dad. They're having a good time. Don't you want to go Play or, you know, cuddle with them. And so I'll let them see what I'm doing first, because I think a lot of kids get a little bit nervous. They're either curious and open, or they're nervous, because my camera I'll use like a 70-200. So it's a bigger lens, and especially with COVID. And wearing masks, it's hard for them to see that I'm like, friendly and smile, because normally I'll just smile, and I'll talk to the kids and they can read my facial expressions. But now since they can't as much, um, I'll kind of try to use my body language a little bit more. And I look goofy. And I feel goofy when I like strike weird poses, or, you know, make a child laugh, but it works. So no judgment. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah. COVID. Let's just talk about COVID for a little bit, because that is a pretty big speed bump in what you do. And what a lot of photographers do, you can't really emote quite the same way with your clients as you normally would. You mentioned that you're using longer glass. What other precautions are there? Have you seen any changes in terms of how the clients approach you how you approach the clients?

KELLY AOKI
At first, it was a little bit awkward, just because, you know, wearing a mask can be a little bit uncomfortable. And when I'm like trying to talk to a client, I have to talk louder. But since I am using a long glass, I'm well over six feet away.  Acts when I'll just kind of take off my mask, and I'll be like, Look, I'm we're having fun here. And I'll kind of give them a smile. And then they'll be like, okay, she's cool.  Yeah, I think distance glass sanitizing equipment, masks, those are probably all the precautions. And then I also asked my clients beforehand, if they're feeling any symptoms, and I kind of have a lot of flexibility right now if they need to reschedule, I have no problem with that. I don't want to take any risks. And if I'm not feeling well, I've rescheduled maybe a couple shoots this year, just because I don't even want to any risk at all. And you know, risk the safety and health of my clients. 

MICHAEL DER
Before COVID hit, What would your normal kit be like when you go to somebody's house when you take them out to the beach or wherever?  What is your normal setup look like? 

KELLY AOKI
I'll bring, I bring two camera bodies, I have an A9 and is a seven mark, I care. Anyways, I'll take two bodies. And I'll take my 70 to 250 millimeter. And then I also have like an 85. Done, I don't use my 85 as much, but I'll kind of bring all my lenses in my bag or my trunk of the car with me, just so that I have them on hand if I need them. I'll take my reflector.

MICHAEL DER
And you mentioned with your reflector, that you use that pretty often on your shoots. Do you have somebody like an assistant they're holding that? Or is that something that you do? Do you put it up on a stand? 

KELLY AOKI
I bring my fiance as much as I can. Nice, yeah, he's my photo assistant or unpaid intern.
Yeah, but he'll come and help me. I don't use the reflector too often only when I really need some fill light or something like that. But I'll have him carry my bags. And I just recently bought a wagon. So that should help. 

MICHAEL DER
What's the difference for you between prepping for a senior photoshoot, and a family photoshoot? Is there any difference? Is there any crossover there?

KELLY AOKI 34:30
There's not too much difference. I would say, you know, obviously, when you're doing a senior, it's just going to be one subject. So I asked them a little bit more about themselves, if they like any hobby, like if they have any hobbies, play any sports, instruments, things like that, that might be important to them. And then I'll have them bring, most of them will bring like their Letterman's jacket, if they have one or change of clothes, a couple of change of outfits, things like that. And then for families, I kind of get a gist of who will be there and how many people the kids ages. what they like to do as a family a little bit just to get to know them. Really, it's
getting to know the clients is one of the more important things as well just because if they feel like you're invested in them, I think you know anyone wants to feel special. And that's what I'm here for. 

MICHAEL DER
What kind of locations are senior photography? I'm sure you run the full gamut there. I'm sure some of it is on the actual school premises, as well as you know, off-site, but What's that like? 

KELLY AOKI
Actually, Well, if you're talking high school seniors I've only shot on campus.  Maybe a couple of times, most of the time right now, they've been asking for more outdoorsy shoots, some like to want to travel and they'll want to go to the beach or something like that. Or I'll just ask what type of look they're looking for. Because some of them like the rustic look, in the Central Valley, especially, we have some rustic type of, you know, fields and things like that, or they'll like greenery and rivers, things like that. And then, or like in more urban Look, if they want to go downtown, then we can do that as well. It's really kind of up to the client, as far as what type of look they'll have whatever works most with their personality, like if they really like outdoors, then outdoors it is, or if they really like fashion or something like that, then like, going to downtown and having more kind of modern looking backgrounds is good. 

MICHAEL DER
How in-depth do you get into your own scouting? Like, do you just kind of every once in a while drive around looking and saying, okay, that's a spot to keep in the back of my head. That's a nice location there. What's that like for you? 

KELLY AOKI
I did a lot of scouting in the beginning. I used to think that backgrounds and location were like the most important thing. But since then, I've learned that, to me, at least, a nice background is nice, but it's about the person in the photo. So as long as they're comfortable, then that's good. So I have a few like, go to locations that are easy. If they're like from that side of town, or, you know, I can make pretty much any location work at this point. And I'm happy to say that because before I was always so nervous.

MICHAEL DER
Who do you think if you had to choose? Who was the hardest person the hardest type of person to photograph? You got a choice.  You got a shy baby. You have an awkward dad, or you have any person, man or woman that hates their smile? Who's the hardest person to photograph? 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, that's a hard one. 

MICHAEL DER
It could be something I didn't say as well. It could be another trait. But think about that. 

KELLY AOKI
Well, my first thought before he gave me the options was two-year-olds, two year olds are hard. 

MICHAEL DER
two year olds are hard. Why is that? 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah. At that point, they're kind of they're more open to strangers, I feel like and as long as the parents are good with me, then the kids tend to be two year olds are kind of in their own worlds. And they can be a little bit more stubborn. And I'm not a mom yet. But I've heard of the terrible twos. And I've seen them.  Yeah, two-year-olds are funny, they can either be completely wanting to be in the shoot, or they'll be crying, what I do is I'll just have the mom kind of comfort them a little bit. And if they want to be held, I'll let them be held. I don't do. I don't make them like put the baby there and say, Hey, like smile, I just kind of go with the flow. From your options, I would say, probably someone that hates their smile is harder than a dad, dads are hard to. But if you kind of let them do their own thing and go with the flow, they're easy to people that hate their smile and feel self-conscious. I think you have to work a little bit. You have to work a little bit harder in the beginning. But once they get comfortable with you, and I kind of have a conversation going with them. I'll say something like, you know, oh, look over there and pretend No, yeah, I actually say like, oh, pretend there's something funny over there and laugh at it. And then you get this super awkward picture. And then I kind of laugh with them. And then they actually laugh. And then that's when you get the real laughs I usually tell the story. And I'm sure my sister is told they're like, heard me do this on shoots, because sometimes she'll be my assistant. And I'll say, Oh, I used to take pictures of my sister. And I would tell her Hey, look over there. And give me a fake laugh. And she would do this big wide open like, haha, look a terrible and then usually people will laugh. And I'm, yeah, no, she was a great subject. But her fake laugh wasn't good. It is now though.

MICHAEL DER  39:15  
What's your remedy for somebody that just doesn't want to be on camera? Is there anything that you can do to salvage that? 

KELLY AOKI
Usually that would be dads, in my experience, at least. And I think when you make it short and sweet, and then that helps a lot of time. I'll have clients say like, Oh, I think I need to go with a shorter session because my husband really doesn't want to be in pictures. And he doesn't want to do this at all. And it's like pulling teeth. And I'll just say, you know, I and I really feel this way. Once the dads are at the session, and they realized that I'm not going to be like, hey, do this awkward pose. And instead it's like playing with their kids and swinging them around and you know, actually just spending time with the family.  Then it's not so bad. But at first, I can always see a little bit of hesitation with some dads and they'll kind of look like they don't want to be there. But then once they, you know, tell me like about, oh, hey, what do you do? What sports do you like? Oh, my fiance, he coaches basketball, then, you know, just finding some common ground. And if we don't have anything in common, then they'll play with their kids. And they're fine. 

MICHAEL DER
Yeah, I guess that's where the lifestyle comes into play really well, because it's like, you know, after the awkward kind of look at the camera photoshoot they're naturally thinking themselves. Are we done? And it's like, oh, no, we have 45 minutes left, sorry. But just do something with the kids. And you'll, you'll enjoy it better. 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah, usually. Once they're playing with the kids, that's the best anyways, because then they're actually smiling. And I recently had a client say like, Oh, we were most worried about, you know, the dad. And he looked the best. So, yeah, I think I think guys tend to have a little bit more hesitation, being in front of the camera, in general. But then once they get comfortable, like they're the best, like, they'll come up with their own poses, and sometimes they're wacky, but it's fine.  But like, I'll just, I'll just laugh, it'll be like, Oh, are you GQ now. It's the ones that are a little bit more self-conscious to begin with, that are a little harder to work with. But, you know, once I show them a picture that they look good in, and I know they look good in it, then they're fine, right? 

MICHAEL DER
What came naturally to you that was really successful for your, for your business, and the way that you work with clients, and then what took a longer time to develop. So anything stand out?

KELLY AOKI
What came easiest to me is composition of photos. And using my camera, those things came pretty easily with time. And just kind of naturally like I don't, you know, you learn about the rule of thirds and things like that. And that's naturally how I like the photo anyway, it looks better to me shooting those ways. So all those things, the technical things came a little bit easier, I struggled a little bit with artificial light. But when I realized that it's very similar to natural light, if you set it up, right, and kind of the directions, that was fine. The one thing that I still kind of struggle with is you know, that self-confidence, charging your worth knowing your worth directing the shoot, like being the leader of the shoot, I guess, that was more difficult for me just because I am a little bit more quiet outside of the shoots and things like that. I don't really like to be super bossy, anything like that. So being the one in charge of this room. 

MICHAEL DER  42:57 
Is there anything that you did proactively to kind of nurture that sense of hesitation that for for introverts?  I think one of the benefits of being an introvert is oftentimes that introverts think a lot. And so there comes this strategy of like, Okay, how do I overcome this awkward phase of not feeling confident onset or directing a client? What stands out to you like, what made you get better at that? 

KELLY AOKI
I listened to a lot of podcasts, and I've purchased so many courses, you know, like, I think I have a problem. But I think what helped the most though, is just, you know, that fake it till you make it like, even if I'm not comfortable. And for a while, in the beginning, it wasn't comfortable for me to be like, Hey, we're gonna do this.  But once I realized that those were the shoots when I took control, I got the best images out of and I know that that's the end goal for all the clients anyways is, you know, the images, good images of them, and directing. I just kind of fake it till you make it just like, okay, that's awesome. Let's do this. And kind of running into some shoots where you know, you have that uncle or that dad that does photography and is a photographer as well, and tries to talk about like, oh, let's shoot over here because of this.
Those were the clients that I had, like, the most hesitation kind of on my end with because it was almost like a power play. Yeah, I'm in those situations where people want to be in charge. I let them think they're in charge. And I kind of go like, okay, yeah, let's go shoot, they're really quick. And I'll shoot a couple images. Okay, that's good. Let's go over here now. And I kind of do like a shift. Those were the most difficult for me. But now it's kind of you know, it's easier now that I've been doing it longer. But I think it's just important to be confident from the get go. Like when you meet the client and say, Hey, this is work, what would go what we're going to do, yeah, that's the most important because if you set that standard They trust you from the beginning. And if you look a little bit nervous or hesitant or scared, then they try to come up with ideas. And those ideas aren't necessarily ones that you may like, or they could be. But you know, I think it's best that you guys, we work together in creating those moments. And I'm the one that's kind of controlling the pace of the issue. 

MICHAEL DER  
Exactly. Are you a person that sets goals for yourself? Do you have like, you know, did you start off with 2021 resolutions for your career or anything like that? 

KELLY AOKI
Yes, I like goals. Sometimes I can get too caught up in the future. And I have to pull back and say, like, Okay, look at how far I've come so far. And with setting goals, it's also important to reflect and see how far you've come. Because I think for me, at least, I'll be pushing towards the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. And it's, you know, it's a lot of internal stress a little bit, but when you go back and reflect it, how far you've come, then it shows you like, okay, yeah, I did this much. So I can accomplish those goals. And it's, it's, I think owning a business in general, or, you know, being in charge of your income kind of thing is, it's a mind game. Yeah. Being Yeah.

MICHAEL DER  46:22  
I want to kind of stick on your business a little bit, like when you first started your business, what were some of the first things that you felt like you had to address? Like, can you remember what that checklist looked like? 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, I just wanted to get make sure that I delivered at least, you know, the images promised.  I didn't want clients to be unhappy with me. And I think, you know, I've had a couple of times that we're learning experiences, where sometimes you end up working with someone that no matter what, they won't be happy. And that's just personality, you know, I think it's, that's why it's important to have an ideal client and kind of feel out whether you're a right fit from the get go. Because, you know, as an artist, and as a photographer, you're connected to your work. And it when someone kind of points something out, it's almost like a personal attack, and it can feel that way. But clients never mean to come off that way. It's not an attack on you, unless you know it is. But you have to kind of take a breath and take a second before you respond back, because you don't want to ever respond in anger or negative feelings. But I think I went a little bit off track from your question. 

MICHAEL DER  
Okay. The basic idea was, you know, what were some of the things that you needed to start your business, like, what was the checklist, you know?

KELLY AOKI
in the beginning, I was lucky that my dad had a camera, so I just borrowed his for a while until I've made enough money to purchase my own and for about, up until now, actually, I've used all of my photography, income, for photography. So I've just reinvested in my own equipment and my business. So I guess there's always a bunch of, you know, gear that I want. But in the beginning, it was mainly getting those images that a client would like, and you know, exceeding their expectation type of thing. And then just kind of figuring out what works and doesn't work. It was I wouldn't say that I had a super extensive checklist or anything like that, I think a website was important. portfolio is very important presence on social media, I need to get better at because most of my clients come from word of mouth. But in 2021, I hope that all implement some more social media strategies, things like that. 

MICHAEL DER  
Well, that leads me to my next point about you know, marketing. And I'm curious about, you know, what form of marketing has really been the most reliable point for you? Is it? Is it been email marketing? Is it been print? You mentioned social media and word of mouth like testimonials, like what has really been the driving force behind you having repeat clients and new clients coming to you? 

KELLY AOKI
It's been solely word of mouth, like 99%, I would say, the other clients that find me is have been on social media like Instagram, or Google search. They'll find me. But more often than not, it's a referral from someone else. 

MICHAEL DER  
Gotcha. And I'm going off on a slight tangent here, but I'm curious how you approach your personal branding because I've noticed that one of the things that b2c photographers do so much better than brand photographers like myself B to B's, is make potential clients feel like they know you personally. And so I've noticed that there are a few more lifestyle pictures of Kelly ioki on her Instagram page than just client pictures, has that been important for you as it been intentional for you to start connecting with people a little bit more that way? 

KELLY AOKI 50:00
I've been intentionally doing that. Because I don't like to be in front of the camera. So I feel like if I don't like to be in front of the camera, and I'm not posting pictures of myself, then why should anyone else be in front of the camera a true, but yeah, but also so that they get an get to know kind of me before the shoot, before they even reach out if they see my, you know, Instagram or anything like that they can kind of get a sense of my personality. My sister recently told me that I write Instagram novels.  So she's like, tired of reading my captions or whatever. But, um, so I've been kind of playing around with the length of those, but I kind of look at it as like a mini-blog just because I haven't been blogging, or anything like that, just so that they get a sense of me in return. Like before I get a sense of them, I guess. 

MICHAEL DER  
Yeah, it's nice to have a face of the business connecting the creative to the client. So I think it's a great, I think it's a great strategy. And it comes off very organic for you. I just think that a lot of photographers like myself are kind of blind to that concept. And we should be doing it a lot better than we actually are. 

KELLY AOKI
I am not perfect on Instagram, I post and I think, you know, the consistency is very important. So I'm going to work on that a little bit more. But yeah, I think it's important that clients can see the face of the brand, because as a, you know, business owner, where I'm the only one, I'm a like solopreneur it's important that they get to know me, especially, I think it's important that they know me, because I tend to attract clients that are similar, like similar energies and vibes, unless they're like a referral. But usually the referral comes is similar to the client that I already had in general. So I think it's important to kind of post like, what you're hoping to attract? Exactly. I guess if that makes no, totally. 

MICHAEL DER  
I wanted to go back to we mentioned portfolio a little bit, what do you recommend for photographers starting out looking to build a family lifestyle portfolio or a senior photography portfolio

KELLY AOKI
if you're starting out, it's important to show what you want to shoot. So in the beginning, I kind of posted a lot of pictures where people were smiling and looking at the camera. And then I had clients that wanted pictures smiling looking at the camera. And then I started realizing that I liked shooting the more lifestyle feel more interaction and emotion. So I started posting those things. And then clients started expecting those things. So I think it's very important to just show what you want to shoot. And having a diverse portfolio was important to me, like diverse as in like, you know, anyone different races, different sexual orientations, different, everything just to be inclusive. And also like, that's who I like to work with anyways. And if you always show the same type of person or client, then that's the type of client you're going to get. But for me, it was important to show the community that I live in, as it is like, you know, super diverse, right? 

MICHAEL DER  
How do you feel about about free work? Like how do you feel about photographer starting out saying I want to build this portfolio, but I'm just gonna have to do a handful of projects for free to do that. How do you feel about that? 

KELLY AOKI
I know, there are different viewpoints on this, but I never, when I started out, I never posted Hey, model call or like, looking to shoot for free. Because if you post like, Hey, who wants a free shoot, everyone wants a free shoot. But I think it's very hard to transition clients from being free to being paying. And so like, if I wanted a certain look in my portfolio, I would just reach out to that person and be like, hey, do you mind if I, you know, gift you a shoot. But I think if you were to post like, hey, free shoot on Instagram or anything like that, you're going to attract a certain type of person who just wants three things. And then it's kind of hard to step away from that. 

MICHAEL DER  54:43
Exactly. So I've got just a few last questions here before we wrap this up. Question one is, what's the best thing about family photography? And what's the worst thing? 

KELLY AOKI
The best thing I would say is just I am grateful that I get to be part of families and their memories, and I get to see the love and connection. And that's really special. And I feel like it's a very intimate thing. And I guess the worst thing I don't know If I have a worse thing I really like, I really like to work with the families. 

MICHAEL DER 55:00  
Well, then that's a pretty good sign, isn't it? 

KELLY AOKI
Yeah. Yeah.

MICHAEL DER  
The next question is, what is excellent customer service look like to you? 

KELLY AOKI
Under promising and over-delivering?  I think, yeah, even if you're busy, I think if you say like, Hey, I'm gonna send you the images in a week. And the week comes, and then you say, Oh, actually a couple more days, a few more days, then, you know, their expectation is a week. And then when you kind of change it, then it's like a little bit of a letdown. And I think it's always important to leave a good feeling like, you know, I think the thing is, people don't remember what you say, but they'll remember how you make them feel.  So I always try to make sure that my clients feel like special and taken care of. And so far, that's worked. Well, for me, I have a lot of returning clients, and I'm really, really grateful for them. 

MICHAEL DER 56:15 
I echo that sentiment a lot, you know, the under-promising over-delivering is a great way to keep getting good recommendations and repeat work.  The next question is kind of a two-part question. So I'll ask the first part. First, what's the best lesson or piece of advice that you've ever gotten your career?

KELLY AOKI
I think it's very important to not take constructive criticism. Personally. Like I said, Before, I think it's really easy to get connected, you have a connection with your work. And when someone gives you a little bit of feedback or something like that, that you might not necessarily prefer, it's important to know that, you know, it came from a place where they weren't trying to hurt your feelings, or make you feel like a less of a photographer or anything like that. It's just to make you get better. So I think it's listening to those things, and taking a moment to reflect. And if it is a high stress, kind of situation, you don't want to react right away. And just like kind of pausing, and letting things sink in for a bit.

MICHAEL DER 57:20  
And then the second part of the question is, what's the one piece of advice that you wish you got, but never did, and instead, you have to learn it on your own.

KELLY AOKI  
Charging, what you're worth, I think, is very important. That's probably the number one thing because once people get used to paying X amount, they'll always expect X amount. And then if you increase significantly, I mean, you're going to lose some clients either way. But I think it's important to charge what you're worth, so that you feel confident in your work and yourself. And if you're not charging, what you know, your worth, and you're going into every shoot saying like, Oh, well, I'm only making this much, that's not the clients fault. That would be, you know, my fault. So bringing a positive energy is important. So if you're charging what you're worth, then you're coming into a shoot, you know, open and happy and grateful to be there. And that's really important. And I think that can show through your work as well. 

MICHAEL DER 
On that note, that's going to bring our conversation to an end. Kelly, I just want to say thank you so much for taking the time to jump on the program to shine a little light on what you do and to inspire other creatives out there. Are there any last words before we head out? 

KELLY AOKI
No, I don't think so. Thank you so much for having me. I feel super honored to be a guest on your podcast and I hope that you and your wife stay healthy and with everything going on.

MICHAEL DER 
Same to you. And I know you have a wedding coming up. I know it was compromised for in 2020 and hopefully, in 2021 everything goes swimmingly there. 

KELLY AOKI
We'll see I hope so too. I think you can just go with the flow.

MICHAEL DER  
So remind everybody, your Instagram is Mizue photography, right? And that's M-I-Z-U-E photography? 

KELLY AOKI
Yes. And my website is the same, MIZUE photography.com and Facebook is the same. My personal Instagram is Kelly MIZUE. 

MICHAEL DER 
One last little question how many people naturally think just because of your handle and your website think that your last name is Mizue? 

KELLY AOKI
Oh, like 90% of them.  I know that's my middle name. Actually.  I kind of went with visa photography. Like it wasn't even a question. I think in the beginning, I was just trying to figure out what to name my business and I was like, Oh, I use my middle name. So I don't have to change my name if I get married or whatever. But 

MICHAEL DER 
Oh, good point. 

Yeah. Yeah, but it's kind of hard for people to pronounce but it's okay. Because I think you know, It's important to be yourself and show your name so.

MICHAEL DER 
100% Well, folks, thank thank you for tuning into the show. Thank you again to Kelly for kicking off the first creative interview of entrepreneurs season one, so be sure to give her a follow on Instagram. Once again, that's Mizzou photography. That's m IZ, give her a shout out, let her know that you appreciated her words today. And lastly, folks, if you've enjoyed the content as a whole, if you're enjoying what we're doing here at entrepreneurs, I'd be honored if you could review the podcast on your preferred listening platform, whether it's Apple, Google or Spotify. Let the world know you found your new favorite podcast. that's gonna do it for me, folks. Thank you, Kelly. Thank you to all you listeners tuning in. I'm Michael Der and I'll catch you guys next week.


KELLY AOKI

Photographer / Seniors & Family

Hi there,

For as long as I can remember I have either been in front of a camera or behind one. Growing up, I can vividly remember dreading to take annual (and sometimes semi-annual) photos with my sister and brother - it was just so stressful and uncomfortable. I had to wear dresses I didn't like and curl my hair (I can still taste the hairspray). Then we all had to smile and say cheese. All for a picture. Usually I got candy after. But that's beside the point.

Even as a child, I can recall my mom stressing to get us all ready and make sure we behaved. It doesn't have to be like this. Photo sessions can actually be a really fun time to enjoy with your family, and that is my mission.

Regardless of how painstaking the process was, I am now lucky enough to have pictures of my life starting at day one all the way up until I started documenting it myself. In high school I would have a little Canon point-and-shoot in my hand ready to snap a photo at any given moment. Shortly after I had my senior portraits taken in 2012, the photographer, who is now a good friend, taught me how to shoot in manual on a DSLR. Since then, my passion and knowledge for photography has only grown, and thus Mizue Photography was born.

Over the years I've realized that comfort is key. I aim to help you feel comfortable behind the camera. Our photoshoot will be a fun and memorable experience that we plan together and, because of that, you will takeaway tangible memories, complete with the real smiles and interactions that took place.

I am honored to serve families of all backgrounds, cultures, lifestyles, and races. I would love to connect, so if you have any questions or just want to chat, please feel free to send me a note.