This week’s Questions with a Pro features Mike Roemer.
Mike is a Green Bay, Wisconsin-based commercial and editorial photographer. He has won first place awards in Pictures of the Year International, National Press Photographers Best of Photojournalism and National Headliners, and most recently Best Of ASMP, along with being a three-time winner in the Pro Football Hall of Fame photo contest. He started his career in newspapers and transitioned to freelance photography when he started his own business. Here, Mike describes this transition, how his photography has evolved over the years, and his most successful marketing techniques.
We asked: How has your photography evolved over your lengthy career in the industry? Was this evolution in response to anything specific?
Mike said: I started my photography career as a newspaper photographer at a small newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota. It was a great job to have right out of school and a great place to learn by shooting a handful of assignments each day, but I only had one other photographer to learn from. After 14 months, I moved up the newspaper food chain and landed a job at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I was able to learn a great deal from the photographers there and covered a wide range of assignments. I never thought I would stay there as long as I did; I was there for a little over 8 years. At this point, I was looking for something different in my career ad could see the early signs of the decline in newspaper photography and editorial jobs in general. I still had some connections to the Wisconsin area from growing up there and from my days interning at newspapers and working for wire services during college. My dad also was a newspaper photographer in Green Bay and had a successful team picture business on the side, so I knew I could work for him to fill in slow periods if I moved back to the Green Bay area to freelance.
So, I made the jump and left my steady gig of almost 10 years to jump in to the unknown. I was single, no major life responsibilities and a few bucks in the bank, so the jump was pretty easy.
Those first couple of years back in Green Bay, I shot more youth team photos than I wanted, but I also did a decent amount of editorial work for the Associated Press, the Milwaukee Journal and a wide range of papers around the country that needed someone to shoot something in my neck of the woods.
I also started shooting some stock photos at that point, mostly tourism type things in the Green Bay and Door County areas. I started showing off the limited amount of commercial style photography I had to anyone that would look at it. This was in the late 90s and an editorial style to commercial and corporate work started coming into vogue.
Slowly the editorial work started dying off with the decline in newspapers and magazines, but I started making more and more connections for commercial and corporate work and I shifted in that direction.
I pulled back on the amount of stock photography I did and that has bounced around ever since. Today, I have some of my stock work out there with a few agencies, but I have my best luck on connections I’ve made in the past that come directly to me.
We asked: How do you incorporate personal work into your business? What tips do you have for balancing personal work with client work?
Mike said: In the past year I would say my personal work has been drone photography. I find doing that type of work a great way to be creative and to look at things differently. Becoming skilled with the drone for personal work has made me feel comfortable using it on commercial shoots. My clients have loved the work and we have a few drone shoots already planned for 2020. A few weeks ago, we even did an indoor industrial drone shoot. We got some good shots that wouldn’t have been possible without the drone and the clients loved them.
When my wife and I travel, I also shoot some personal work in the realm of travel photography and that has been great for a creative outlet for me. It also gives me some nice images to use on my social media platform.
In a way, I even consider my sports photography personal work. Sports photography pays terribly, but it gives me a creative outlet, keeps that skill set sharp and helps me justify buying long glass.
We asked: What was the most difficult part about transitioning from working as a newspaper photographer to opening your own business?
Mike said: Those first few years, the most difficult part was not having that camaraderie of a newsroom. Marketing my work was also a major challenge. In the late 90s, marketing work was much different from today; heck, I even tried out a Yellow Pages ad. I think you also get a little addicted to the adrenaline rush of shooting news and sports when you work for a newspaper. Those first few years away from the paper, I still did enough news things like election coverage and sports to fulfill that need for excitement. I still do enough sports to give me that occasional fix, but I no longer need the hit I once did.
When I worked for newspapers I always had enough gear to cover a spot news event from my car. That continued on for along time; I always had a case with a couple bodies and a few lenses in it to cover a plane crash in front of me. Today I’m kind of over that, I don’t feel naked if that gear isn’t with me. I guess I still always have a camera with me today – I have my iPhone. It took a long time for me to stop having anxiety dreams about processing film or not being able to load my cameras as a sport news event unfolded in front of me.
We asked: How have you had to alter your marketing techniques in this digital age? What have you found to be the most effective?
Mike said: In the digital age, my main marketing strategy is having an SEO friendly blog and website. That’s how I get the majority of my new clients. They find me; I don’t find them. I’ve sent out mailers, done e-mail blasts and done my share of cold calling, but having great SEO is what works best for me on bringing in new clients. Working the social media platform also helps. It helps keep my name fresh in the mind of current and former clients when they are looking for a photographer if they follow me on social media. Blogging about shooting Packers games is great for my SEO with the amount of traffic it brings to my site. And Google loves it when a site has good traffic.
We asked: How did you come to photograph such a wide variety of subjects? How does this breadth affect your business?
Mike said: Being in a small market like Green Bay, Wisconsin you have to shoot a variety of things to make a living and I’ve discovered for me to be happy. I also need that variety. If I look at what i’m shooting this week, for example, I shot an NFL game for a news agency, I’m shooting a basketball game for the NBA, a corporate culture job for a large dairy producer, and product shot of a large paper machine and an architecture shoot for a general contractor. This are the types of weeks I like. If all I shot was corporate environmental portraits, I’d get bored, and if all I shot was NFL football, I probably wouldn’t be able to stand because my knees would be wrecked from all that kneeling on the sidelines.
Find more of Mike’s work on his website.