Episode 22: Building a Fan Following with Kirstie Jones
Kirstie Jones, of Kirstie Marie Photography, started out taking photos of her horses as a hobby. A lifelong horse lover, she competed at breed shows growing up and on TCU’s equestrian team. After college, she started her photography business as a side gig and quickly gained a loyal client base. This year, Dallas-based Kirstie quit her finance job and went full-time as an equine photographer—an exciting development for those of us who love her work! You’ve seen her photos grace magazine covers, editorial spreads and ad after ad in equine publications.
We’ve wanted to have Kirstie on the show since before we began production, but somehow it turns out that recording three days before she’s scheduled to have a baby is, of course, the perfect time. Remuda, we think you’ll love hearing what Kirstie has to say. She’s got razor-sharp business sense and one of the most distinctive styles in equine photography today. Kirstie, welcome to the show!
Tell us about your background, education and influences in photography?
Kirstie has been riding horses her whole life. She started with dressage, hunter-jumper, moved on to 4-H, APHA and Pinto... she rode on TCU's equestrian team. In college she first picked up a camera, but she majored in finance in the business school. Landed her dream job after college. While planning her wedding her senior year of college, she fell in love with a particular type of film (wedding) photography style. She embraced the pastel colors, shallow depths of field, romantic lighting and posing, etc seen in wedding photography, and developed her own distinctive style. She translated that style to portraits and weddings into equine photography with her friends and their horses.
You have such a distinctive photography style—the feel of the photos, the light, the processing… it’s so consistent, and instantly recognizable. How do you keep that consistency?
A lot of practice. She looks for the same time of day and the same type of light. Which is a challenge when you don't have control over the location where the horse lives. She is always hunting the light vs. the background. Holding as many things constant as possible to keep everything cohesive.
You used to shoot exclusively film, but now you shoot both film and digital, right? Why the change, and what other gear changes have you made?
Kirstie shot exclusively film at first because she couldn't get the style she wanted from digital cameras. She used a Contax 645 and an 80mm lens. It wasn't until she got a greater understanding of Lightroom and explored presets that helped her learn how to manipulate images to look like her film images. Once she was satisfied with her editing process, she switched to digital. She loves film, but it's very expensive, and horses move a lot. Digital cuts overhead, and allows her to work with even uncooperative horses. Learning Lightroom completely changed her business.
Digital equipment - she shooes with a Nikon D750, and the only lens she uses is an 85mm. On the film side she shoots with a Hasselblad H1 wth a 110mm lens. She sticks with one camera, one lens.
Do you have any Lightroom presets you recommend?
She doesn't use any presets, but she bought the Mastin Labs presets to learn how to get the most out of LR. She now has her own style--she hand-edits each session individually, without presets. She uses black-and-white presets from Replichrome.
How have you grown your business from a hobby, to side hustle, to full-time photographer? When did you feel like you were ready to make the switch?
The hobby was easy - she was in college, on the equestrian team, and all her friends had horses. She had a great network of "models" to practice with. Social media helped her become more well-known. She kept everything as a hobby and free, until she decided to be a legitimate business. Social media helped there as well. She had a strategic marketing class her senior year of college, so she evolved from everything being free/hobby, to being totally a business.
She never intended for the business to be full-time--she loved her full time finance job--but she had a passion for marketing and wanted a really strong base. So straight out of college with a business degree, she chose to sink her money in advertising and marketing.
There came a tipping point where she had to choose which job she could devote herself to--she couldn't do both. When her photography business was sustainable financially, even as a side job, she worked the numbers and realized if she cut some of her expenses, her revenue would be able to support her despite not having her full time job. At that point, she decided to go full-time as a photographer earlier in 2017.
You really approach this as a business!
Kirstie is the daughter of two entrepreneurs. She had great examples growing up. She compares her upbringing to Shark Tank - a show she loves for its elevator pitches and business ideas.
Talk to us about your marketing. Where do you advertise?
Kirstie basically wanted to be wherever her potential customer was. At any given time, she has 30-40 marketing initiatives going on. Some require monitoring, some she set and left alone. As time went on, she honed in on getting in front of her ideal clients as often as she can. These efforts include: snail mail, email newsletters, going to horse shows, posters in tack shops and boarding facilities, social media advertising, snapchat filters at the APHA and AQHA World Shows. Has never done Google Adwords. Promotional products - t-shirts, sweatshirts, lip balms, etc. The strongest marketing you'll have is word-of-mouth so the more you can stay at the forefront of your customer's mind, the better. She has also advertised in equine publications.
What made you decide to put together your wooden boxes and prints.. How important is marketing to your business model?
Kirstie has ben the consumer of photography many times so she can go through the photography client experience. That way she can know what questions they have and she can answer them. As a bride, she received a box of wooden proofs and it was a favorite part of the photography client experience. She wanted to give that to her clients.
How do you develop that client loyalty?
Even with the welcome packets that she sends, Kirstie's clients are talking about it on social media. She wants to communicate that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But many clients love it so much they want to do it more than once! Many of her clients turn into friends. The hardest part is getting into a brand-new barn, but when one person has that experience, everyone else in the barn wants to follow suit.
What is the most rewarding part of your photography business?
Becoming friends with clients, falling in love with their horses, going to the major horse shows and seeing her clients compete. Maintaining those friendships is the most rewarding part of the business. She loves being a small part of their story as a cheerleader.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered as you grew your business?
The biggest challenge is going to be motherhood because of how it's going to change her business.
You offer SO MUCH education to your followers. From your email list, to your blog posts, to your mentoring program. Why do you share so much information?
Everybody started somewhere, and she feels lucky to have had the mentors she's had along her journey. She always wants to give back as much as she can to help others. She has a blog for education - she started it to address a lot of frequently asked questions. She also offers in person and Skype mentoring sessions. She also has a newsletter.
What question are you asked most often?
A lot of people want to know about her gear, and editing. Also how to remove green cast in images.
Can you share some advice for listeners who want to make photography work as a career?
Build a strong foundation, and reinvest as much as you can while you can. Make those investments when your business is a side hustle (if that's your business model) so when you go full time (if you desire), you will have a really strong business to start from.
Sign up for our newsletter – Kirstie shared a cheat sheet for preparing your clients before their session!
Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Sales and pricing is hard for everyone This is not an entrepreneur's struggle, or a photographer's, or a freelancer's. At every level, it is hard. Her recommendation is sell what you love. If you are extremely passionate about what you're doing and what you're providing, it's going to be so easy to sell whatever it is that you're trying to get across. For a photographer, that could be selling the experience, or only certain products. Just make sure you are wholehearted about it. Price it profitably, but if you love it so much you can speak about it in an energetic way,