Growing up in Buffalo, New York, after high school, Kevin M. Connors headed for sunny Arizona State University as a Geology major. He did his graduate work in Education, and tried teaching for a few years. “I needed my job to be based upon what I did, not how long I warm a seat,” he explains. Leaving the classroom behind, he got into college textbook publishing, followed by developing college-level software for fifteen years. Then, everything changed.
Always owning a camera, Connors had a darkroom in high school. After a career centered in academia and moving everywhere from Arizona to Chicago to Pacific Grove, California, he turned 40 and became a professional photographer, setting up a studio, Coast Highway Photography, in Solana Beach, just north of San Diego.
In February of 2003 Connors bought a Canon EOS D60 and an Epson 7600, and was convinced he’d make a living as a professional photographer. After a year of driving his Winnebego to art shows in the Southwest, “I realized that’s not a sustainable business model,” he says, laughing.
At Photo L.A. in January of 2004, Connors asked a photographer who had worked with Ansel Adams a question. “I said to him, ‘You don’t happen to know how many images Ansel made in his lifetime, do you?'” recounts Connors. He was told just around 40,000 images, which had been tallied for the University of Arizona archives.
Connors next question was, “How many of those ever made any money?” The answer was, “Around fifty, but real money on about twelve.”
Rocked by this revelation of the stats racked up by arguably the greatest darkroom photographer ever, Connors gave pause. That is, until a large format photographer friend named Matt he attended the show with turned to him and said, “Well, you know, Kevin… your stuff is shit. Have you thought about portraits and weddings?”
This tough love approach is still described by Connors as “the seed.” A month later he called Matt up, and the pair went to Samy’s Camera in Hollywood. He bought Profoto gear and began to transition from Mamiya medium format film to a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. “That kind of changed everything,” Connors says. “That’s the path of how I got into portraiture.”
When Connors got into portraiture, he certainly got into it. His next steps are engrained in his mind. “I left corporate America on May 23, 2004 at 5:01 p.m. and put my finances together so I could focus on photography,” he says. “I joined the local, state, and national groups, PPA, WPPI, and then the state and local groups here and just started to devour as much education as I could.”
He took several week-long photography courses from various individuals, and rated their technical abilities versus their artistic abilities versus their business teachings. “I was bound and determined to be able to make a living in this business,” he says.
Making a living he is. Connors is fascinated by the depth of photography he encounters as he services his clients. “I used to be a golfer,” he says. “I’m not much of a golfer anymore but it didn’t matter how good you got; there was always something else to learn. That’s what I love about photography, too. There’s always something more to learn: another technique, another way to look at things, another way to light things, another way to work with people. That’s what I love about it. There’s never a dull moment when it comes to that.”
When it comes to his gear, Connors is almost as passionate as he is about the art of photography. A Canon shooter, his main camera now is an EOS 1D Mark IV, with an EOS-Ds Mark II, an EOS-1D Mark III, and an older EOS 1D Mark II for backups. “I’m using the AcuteB 600, the battery pack Profoto system,” he says. He typically uses a light stand or a monopod for his lights.
One glance at his images shows accurate control of his rich tonal range is essential to a Connors portrait. He relies on Sekonic meters to get his exposures correct in-camera. These days he primarily uses the L-758DR. “I own an L-358 I love, too,” he says. “That was my meter for a long time. Hell, I just sold an old L-508. I’ve used Sekonic meters for years. I’m an old-school metering guy.”
Connors confesses he doesn’t understand pros who don’t use a meter. “I can’t do what I do without a light meter,” he says. “I learned back in 2006 how to really use these things when we’ve got a mix of ambient and flash, and that’s what most of my work is all about. I’ve learned to understand what those percentage readouts mean—what they’ll mean in terms of look, so that, for me, is everything. I work on percentages all the time from my meters. The 758 is… there’s just nothing like that. That’s the spaceship.” He credits Don MacGregor in Vancouver with teaching him about how to incorporate percentages in his light metering practice.
Almost developing a philosophy about how he uses metering, Connors had the following to say. “I use it everywhere. I use it on weddings. I’m sure it drives my assistants a little nuts because it does slow me down a little bit, but in portraiture slowing down a little bit isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. You don’t need to carpet bomb. There are going to be times during the session where I’m not going to be popping and we’ll just go with ambient, whether it’s reflected, transmitted, or just as is, whatever it might be, and then we can shoot a little faster, of course, because there is stuff you will miss if you are waiting for a flash to refresh all the time. It has its place.”
Becoming facile with a light meter came to Connors by reading the manual. He felt the art really open to him after he learned about percentages. “A light meter isn’t a very complex device, necessarily, but I wasn’t using it anywhere near it’s fullest extent—primarily the ability to measure or meter both ambient and flash at the same time and be able to make some decisions about what you’re looking for, and how you want it to look, and what those percentages will give you,” Connors explains.
There are psychological issues to using a meter which have a direct effect on client relations, Connors feels. “I see people who will chimp the back of the camera to see what they’re getting,” he explains. “That’s just bad technique as far as I’m concerned. Besides in front of your client the last thing I want to say is ‘Oh, what are we doing here?’ I want to be able to measure, make a couple of decisions, and then maybe we change the output a little, but then we just go. The most important part of the photography is not the technical—that should be so far in the back it shouldn’t even be a part of it. The most important part is the connection with the clients. The psychology of the session is what it’s all about, and you just can’t afford to break that rhythm.”
His rhythm is, in part, helped by his use of a meter. “It gives me a chance to interact with the client in a more personal way, because I have to walk over to them and pop it out. Sometimes that’s a great chance to have a little fun with them, get a couple of yuks,” says Connors. “I got a couple of things I like to do, and they work. It also breaks up this carpet bomb-shooting that I certainly started out with. You just don’t need to do that.”
In a business where time is money, there are additional benefits to using a meter. “We can minimize postproduction,” Connors says. “That’s the other huge advantage when it comes to light meters. My postproduction is very fast and very easy. Getting it right in-camera is what it’s all about.”
Connors typically invites his clients to his studio for what he calls their design meeting, which happens several days before their shoot. He feels this is the most important part of the entire process. “It’s a chance to establish a little rapport with the client so we’re not just showing up out on the beach and first time we’ve ever met,” he says. “They come to the studio and we invite them in, pour them a drink if they’d like, whatever they wish. I’ve got a martini bar in here, too, that’s a very important part of the equipment.”
The design meeting is very hands-on. He shows them 40- to 60-inch prints mounted on the walls. “We do all our printing here in-house with the Epson 9900, so we print everything on fine art papers,” he explains. “That’s part of our brand. The brand is that anything we make for you is going to last for hundreds and hundreds of years; it won’t even be fading for two hundred years, or so. It’s a chance for them to get their fingers on these papers, to actually see what these images are like, to really truly build that differentiation from the rest of the pack.” In addition, all other aspects of the portrait session are planned during the design meeting, from wardrobe to location.
Within a week of the actual portrait session, Connors has clients back to his studio for a “premiere.” He displays a selection of images which could be “the wall portrait” on a 61-inch HD monitor. He also uses ProSelect from Time Exposure to present possible album designs during this meeting. Connors does not present his clients with images online. The premiere is their sole opportunity to purchase prints. The average sales cycle for this studio from phone call and consultation to delivery of prints is four weeks, at longest.
Calling himself a “Lightroom freak,” Connors uses the Adobe product to optimize contrast and color. The result is 100 optimized images to be shown to each client. Connors reports a 25% and 30% increase in revenue the past two years.
“Building the brand around quality images printed here in the studio on fine art papers that will last forever, that’s the brand,” Connors explains. “Our brand is family heirlooms; that’s the business we’re in. That’s how we’ve positioned the business now for a number of years and it works.”
Charging a premium for a premium service and product, Connors has his business model planned, honed, and practiced. “It’s something I believe in, too,” he says. “My clients, as long as they put this behind glass, literally they’re gonna have this print for hundreds of years in their family. So you amortize that over the life of that print and it’s not so bad.”
Geology still creeps into some of Connors’ portraiture, such as when he photographs clients on beaches with gorgeous cliffs behind them to provide stunning natural backdrops. His vibrant portraits and rich landscapes have earned him awards such as Photographer of the Year from the Professional Photographers of America, San Diego Portrait Photographer of the Year, and California Landscape Photographer of the Year. His art and business model have proven the old cliche that following your dream can be exceedingly rewarding at any stage in life.