Annemie Tonken interview with Focal

Q&A: Reaching your ideal clients with Annemie Tonken (This Can't Be That Hard)

June 14, 2021

Annemie Tonken is the kind of business-savvy photographer you want as your best friend. The veteran photographer and owner of Megapixie Photography; co-creator of The Family Narrative, an annual conference and retreat for family photographers; and host of This Can't Be That Hard, a business podcast for photographers, Tonken has made a career out of wowing clients and helping photographers build more confidence in their businesses.

LISTEN: Focal CEO and co-founder Lachlan Shum on This Can't Be That Hard

The straight-shooting, no-B.S. North Carolinan is a wellspring of real, practical advice for all things photography — from pricing to making the full-time jump and building trust in clients. We spoke with Tonken about getting her start as a photographer, why marketing to ideal clients is like birdhouse-building, and how to convey your value in an industry where pricing varies wildly.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

How did your photography journey begin?

AT: I got into photography as a lot of people do: as a hobby. I had no intention of being a professional photographer; I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but honestly, I really wasn't serious about it until my older son was born — he’s now fifteen. At the time, [I] purchased a DSLR just to take pictures of him, and very quickly — as you do — fell in love with not only my subject, but the medium. And so I was doing that, but it was still very much a hobby. In fact, I was in school at the time for a second career, so I was doing a career pivot at that time.

My original undergraduate degree was in cultural anthropology and developmental psychology. I had moved to New York to take a job with a consulting firm, and then September 11th happened. So my consulting gig kind of went out the window. 

This is a long version of the story. I was thinking about going to medical school and wanted to go into women’s health, and I found out about midwifery — so I pivoted and I went to nursing school. I had just finished nursing school when my older son was born, and I was just taking photos for fun. But I was pretty obsessed with it and was trying to do all the learning I could — which was hard. This was in 2006. There really wasn’t very much [online]. I was checking books out of the library.

Credit: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

We moved from New York down to North Carolina, and I started a graduate program in midwifery. But I was halfway through that and just finding, “oh, I don't think this is actually what I want to be when I grow up.” I was 30 at that point, I had just had my second child, and I had this sort of crisis of [choosing a] career path. Now that I'm in my mid-forties, I can laugh at the fact that I thought, “but I'm 30, how could I possibly change career paths again?” 

I took a break from my master's program and tried to devote some time to [thinking], “okay, what do I really want to do?” And it was suggested to me, “you know, you’re great at taking pictures.” At this point, I'd been doing it avidly for four-ish years, and people were starting to ask me to take pictures of their kids and all that sort of thing. It had never even crossed my mind that that was a potential career path. And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “oh yeah, that sounds amazing!” 

So I took six months off my program, took a couple of business classes and a more official photography class through a local university. [I] started my business in 2010 and quit my nursing job a year and a half later, and here we are.

Were you charging before 2010, or was it just sort of a friends thing, saying, “hey, I know you take great photos of your kids, would you mind doing it for me too”?

AT: I don’t think I took more than one or two [of] what I would now call sessions for free before I decided to go into business. I mean, I would be hanging out with friends and taking pictures of their kids and sending them to them, but it wasn't like… I was also taking pictures of my kids, and they weren’t getting dressed for that; it wasn’t a session.

"Now that I'm in my mid-forties, I can laugh at the fact that I thought, 'but I'm 30, how could I possibly change career paths again?'" - Annemie Tonken

[But] around the time that I started toying with [becoming a photographer], I did do a couple of more [intentional shoots]. I would call a friend and be like, “hey, I want to come over and do pictures of your kid for my portfolio,” but that didn’t last for very long. I took the whole [mentality of] if I'm going to go into business, I need to charge people, and I need to get myself registered to pay taxes and all that stuff right from the get-go. I didn't want that line to be blurry.

How did you get your first paid shoot?

AT: [Laughs] Very much word of mouth. At the time, since I was still working as a nurse, I had lots of friends in the medical field through my job that were very supportive of this potential career path change. And so a lot of my early clients came from them. 

I feel like the first person that I photographed who wasn't a direct friend, or a friend of a friend, was the sister of a nurse I worked with; she hired me to shoot her wedding. I think I charged her around $850, and I just remember thinking, like, “wow, so much money for such a short period of time!” [Laughs] And of course, the funny thing about that is that it probably took me 20 times longer, because I was obsessing over each photograph when I was editing.

What was the biggest learning curve in those early years of making a go at it professionally?

AT: Well, I feel like I did some things well and some things not well. I definitely, very quickly, got on board with, like, “I have to run my numbers, and I have to learn how to charge people for this in a way that could get me out of my nursing career.”

Credit: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

I mean, cultural anthropology and then nursing, none of that gives you any business background whatsoever. And I grew up in a medical family, so [I had] nothing. But that course that I took when I was on sabbatical [from] my master’s program, I did this whole thing where I was running numbers and trying to project expenses, and that’s hard when you haven’t been in business. You’re kind of making things up: “I think this might cost this amount,” or “I'll probably have to replace this lens every, you know, five years.” Stuff like that. 

So it was very rough, but I went into it with this idea that if I'm going to quit my job, and my income is important to my family, I need to err on the side of [being] too expensive. So what's funny is that when I first started charging people $850 for weddings, and my family sessions at that time were $150 all-inclusive, I would make [my clients] CDs — and when I ran those numbers, my prices went wayyyy up from there. 

I still had my job, though. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was while you still have a day job, you need to set your prices where that could be your whole income. Even if you have fewer clients, you need to test the market and find that client base that can support you, because when you do quit your job, you're going to need to fill your roster with those clients. 

"One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was while you still have a day job, you need to set your prices where that could be your whole income." - Annemie Tonken

The funny thing is at that time in 2010-2011, I was actually charging more than I do now — and I can say very [definitively] that the work has gotten a lot better. But at that time, I just looked at it as an experiment, because I was able to fail. I had another income to support me; I wasn't relying on [my photography income, so] I could sort of test it. And I was able to get clients.

You know, a lot of people, their limiting beliefs about the market and what it will support, what someone will pay them for their work, is really what is stopping them from earning more money or making a viable go at a career. They're not willing to put a price tag on their business that [will truly enable them to] stay in business, and so they kind of, essentially, force themselves to fail. 

My whole goal at this point as an educator is really to give people the tools and the know-how so that they can confidently say, “this is what I charge, and if I can't go out there and find an audience willing to pay that amount of money, then this isn't a business, it's a hobby.” And that's okay. But I just see too many people who literally operate at a deficit — like, they are operating at a loss where they are basically paying people, paying their clients for the privilege of being able to take photos of them, and it’s just a recipe for burnout. 

Speaking of clients and finding the right clients, you have a wonderful story about birdhouse building and how that relates to photography. Would you mind sharing that story?

AT: Not at all! It’s one of my favorites. My dad's a big gardener, and he likes to play around in the woodshed as well. And so when I was a kid, he would make birdhouses, and they were specifically bluebird houses. And if you’ve ever heard about bluebird houses or tried to make one, if you go online, there’s very specific measurements and rules and all this stuff about a bluebird house. 

Credit: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

You can build any old birdhouse, and sparrows and robins and whatever will nest in there, but bluebirds are super picky about exactly how big the opening in the bluebird house needs to be, and the [depth] between the opening and [the floor] — they like to build their nest in a nested area. It needs to be a certain height on the pole, the pole needs to face a certain way, [et cetera].

There’s all this stuff. So if you want bluebirds in the birdhouse that you’re building, you have to build it according to these specs. And as I have gotten into business, and over the years, that lesson has occurred to me when I'm thinking about marketing with what a lot of people will call your ideal clients or your target audience. I think of those as my bluebird clients, and I call them [that]. And my bluebird clients meet certain criteria — but everybody has their own bluebird client. And if you get really clear on who that ideal client or that bluebird is for you, then what you need to do is figure out exactly how you build a business that speaks directly to them [and] prevents all the other birds from clogging up your space. 

The podcast episode that I did on that goes into all these other things, like how you can build protection on your bluebird house to prevent snakes or raccoons from getting in there. [Because there are] those clients that, they may be perfectly good clients for someone, but they end up draining your energy or causing you problems that actually prevent you from serving your bluebird clients. I talk about those as your snake clients.

I think it’s really important, especially in the beginning of your career, to bear in mind that you can't serve everyone well, and so by getting clear on what you do best and [who] the right person to take you up on that offer [is] — and there are all kinds of ways and exercises [to find those] — but I think it comes down to values, where you need to find someone who values similar things in photography as you do, whether that's making prints or having a very high touch experience, or they just want what they want, and it’s like, “here’s all your digital files, and then I'm out.” All of those are fine. You just have to find the right person, market to them, and be willing to say no to the snakes and raccoons.

A lot of photographers, and this happens in other fields as well, will cast a super-wide net: we try marketing in a way that speaks to everybody, because we figure, “well, I don't want to say no to anybody; I don't want to turn away potential business.” But there's a paradox that, in speaking to everybody, you end up truly speaking to nobody: the message is too general. Could you talk about the reverse of that, what happens when you get specific and talk to your bluebirds?

AT: One thing that I love — maybe this has changed a little bit since Apple did their whole privacy thing — but I go on Facebook, whether I want to or not, and I am super impressed by the ads that are served up to me. Eighty-five percent of the time, they have got me dialled in [laughs]. And yes, that's a little creepy, I totally get it, but that level of specificity [amazes me]. You know, I have started to take note of that now that I am on the other side of it: I'm in business and I sell things to people. 

Those ads are not, like, you know, “I like music, do you like music?” Yeah, everybody likes music. Go away. [Compare that to] somebody who has something really specific in common with you, or someone who has [the exact] missing piece to your puzzle. When that person finds you, or when you find that person, problem solved. And so the older I get, and the more experience I have as a consumer, I really am very particular about a lot of things: my aesthetics are particular, I like a certain quality of things, all of that. And there are lots of marketers out there who are not for me, and their product is not for me. But the ones that are for me, I'm very quick to make buying decisions, and I’m happy to purchase those products. 

Credit: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

So I just try, when I'm having doubts about being specific or putting my foot down and saying, “nope, this is how I do it,” I remind myself that this person who says no to me just isn't the right [fit]. And if I if I mess with what I'm offering to accommodate them, that prevents me from going and finding the person that is the right fit — that ultimately is going to be a happier customer, and I'm going to enjoy the process more and potentially make more money. 

So you do have to have that faith and belief in yourself that the person is out there, and you have to be willing to get some rejections. But it's all a learning curve. And if you're just getting no after no — and I mean a lot — then you can start to question, “maybe my offer is a little too much.” But you can't get one or two people telling you “no,” and then change everything up. You’ll never land.

Two things a lot of photographers struggle with: pricing and conveying value. Photography is an industry where you could go on the Facebook Marketplace and find somebody advertising family photos for $50, or you could hire a professional for $500 or $1000. Very different photoshoots, but it muddies the water for consumers who might not be able to tell the difference. You've spoken elsewhere about how we can separate good and bad pretty easily, but it's harder to separate good from great. Could you talk about this?

AT: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of people get defensive, because there is a lot of muddy water out there when it comes to photography pricing. Prices are all over the place, and that's for many reasons: there are people out there who aren't in business, and they're like, “oh, but I could make an extra fifty bucks, so I’ll just charge $50”; or they are in business and they're not profitable; or they're in business and they’re profitable, but they're doing huge numbers, so they've got a very large pool of people paying a small amount of money. And when you’ve run your numbers, and you've decided the business model that you want to work with [is one] where you're serving fewer people, the math dictates that you have to charge more.

Now, hopefully you're delivering value with that in the experience and [everything], but what I see is a lot of people getting defensive when someone says, “that's crazy that you're charging $1,000 [when] my friend down the street charges $100.” And they say, “look at my gear, it's so much more expensive. I pay insurance, I have to pay subscriptions, I have to do this, that and the other.” And nobody cares about your expenses or your stuff. I mean, you are right that you do have to charge [more to be profitable], but that’s not a way to sell anybody; they’re just gonna be like, “okay, don’t complain to me, I have a job too.” 

"Nobody cares about your expenses or your stuff. I mean, you are right that you do have to charge [more to be profitable], but that's not a way to sell anybody." - Annemie Tonken

Instead, you really have to put the work in to establish the value that you're providing that is different from either the person who's not in business and therefore is just providing, like, a couple of snapshots [and] sending them over Dropbox, versus what you're doing to help somebody prepare for a session and get the most out of the [it]. You also have to demonstrate how what you do is different from the person who is running the high-volume business. 

Now, some people are going to be perfectly happy with the friend down the street who's sending them a couple of photos in Dropbox, and plenty of people are going to be happy with the high-volume [photographers] at the mall who are just, you know, their kid walks in, has a picture taken, and walks out. 

But for the people who aren't happy with that, you have to raise the flag and say, “look, I provide this other thing,” and hopefully make that so enticing and so different from anything else that they're seeing that they stop in their tracks and say, “yes! I am excited to hire that person.” Maybe not irrespective of cost, but certainly, that plays a much smaller part in the decision-making process, because they desire what you're offering. So I think focusing on the value of what you're selling is the key, versus getting defensive about, “this is why I have to charge what I charge.”

One thing you’ve said before [that was really insightful] is part of the role of being a photographer is being a guide, in some senses: building trust in your clients that you can guide them to what they're after. Could you dig into that a little bit?

AT: I think photography, for those of us who are doing [wedding, family, or boudoir shoots] — anything in that kind of level of vulnerability — but also brand photography, where someone is hiring you to make them look a certain way so that they can sell their services ... all of those people feel vulnerable when they get in front of the camera, to some degree or another. Some people are more confident [and] seem to have more fun with it, but there are plenty of people out there for whom, not only is it vulnerable to fork over a bunch of money, but it’s just straight up vulnerable to get in front of the camera. 

Credit: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

I think that we have a responsibility — or really, an opportunity — to show someone that they can get the result they want. The reason they reach out to you in the first place is a vision they have that their website is going to look amazing, or their partner is going to be blown away by these sexy photos of them, or their grandkids are going to look at these timeless images that they took [back when their parents were kids], and they are going to be so grateful that they took that time. 

They have that vision in mind, and when you can execute that [and] make it painless, and even fun, and give them that opportunity to relax and feel like they’re taken care of, you’ve got a customer for life. And the way you do that is that you own your role as the professional and say, “I've got this, this is how we’re doing this.” 

If you're a documentary photographer, perhaps you're not giving direction, but I think that a lot of photographers these days are very afraid to direct their subjects — and I’m not a pushy, “pose here, turn your chin this way” [photographer], but I'm absolutely going to steer people into the right light and help them feel in that moment like, “oh, she’s looking through the camera, she can see how this looks. I might feel weird, [but I trust her].” Everybody does that slightly differently, but having that confidence inspires confidence in the person that you’re guiding. 

Photography — and running a small business, for that matter — can be a very all-consuming job. There's the adage that entrepreneurs are people who would rather work 100 hours a week for themselves than 40 hours a week for somebody else. How has your approach to your business changed: how have you optimized your time or found ways of getting back your time? 

AT: [Working] smarter and more efficiently has been something that I really started focusing on after I got divorced in 2017 and needed to. Prior to that, I had a little more wiggle room in terms of money that I needed to make, and the amount of [time I could spend on work]. You know, in a two-parent household, you can put somebody else on bedtime duty and go hole yourself up behind the computer. But I’m grateful, in many ways, for that lesson, and have really enjoyed the learning process of getting smarter about my time.

Photo: Annemie Tonken (megapixie.com)

Ultimately, what I have found is that, whereas when I first started [and had] sort of a very loose process that I followed, I think I thought that that gave me more creative freedom, and what I have found is that by automating the things that I can automate — by creating a very [defined] structure and path for my clients, I have freed myself up to be more creative. I feel like my images are more creative; I feel like if there are questions or problems, I am much more present to handle them, because I’m not dealing with all the other stuff that I used to be doing. I feel like the level of service that I've been able to give has increased … and then certainly, my own personal satisfaction and work-life balance has been improved. 

What has being a podcaster and educator brought to your career as a photographer?

AT: Well, I really like teaching. I'm an Enneagram 3, if that means anything to you. I’m a salesperson in that if I enjoy [something], I just want to tell everybody about it — whether or not I’m actually selling something. So as I started to achieve that level of understanding [about my business] … like, I felt like I pushed the rock up the hill in my business for seven solid years. It just felt hard all the time. Getting new clients felt hard, and making enough money felt hard, and managing my time felt hard.

Then I put better systems in place and figured some things out for myself, and I had a little bit of a platform [to share what I’d learned]. In 2016, I co-founded an annual conference for family photographers, and the three of us who founded it weren't teaching; we were hiring other teachers, but because I had that community ... once I had these systems, I [felt] like, “I have something to share here.” [I delivered a keynote], and that went really well.

I decided to really dive into figuring out how to educate other photographers. I was putting together an online course, and and then I launched the podcast, and it has been amazing. I feel like I have gotten to meet so many people. 

Photography, like a lot of businesses, can be super isolating — even if you have your photography friends. What I have gained from the past year in terms of seeing how many photographers whose work is beautiful, who seem on the outside to be incredibly successful, and are in some capacity or another, but how many of them struggle with certain elements of it, and many of them struggle with the business side of it. So to have found my spot in that community as someone who can help other photographers run businesses that serve them better, I feel like it has upped my satisfaction level to eleven.

Listen to Focal on This Can't Be That Hard

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