Episode #1: Changing Your Attitude About the Business of Photography, with Crystaline Randazzo
Today on the Creative + Moneywise podcast, how Crystaline Randazzo learned to embrace the business side of photography even as she moves every few years due to her husband’s job.
Crystal is an American storyteller, photographer and filmmaker. She studied commercial photography in graduate school and then managed shoots and photo archiving for an entertainment production company that owned the now-defunct Barnum & Bailey Circus. If someone needed a decades-old picture of a certain clown, she tracked it down. Crystal left that job to launch her freelance career for clients including UNICEF, Save the Children and the European Environmental Bureau.
Full disclosure: Crystal is my very good friend! We met several years ago when we both lived in Rwanda. Since then, we’ve worked on projects together and co-edited the website NGO Storytelling for over five years.
LINKS FROM THIS EPISODE
Crystaline Randazzo’s website
Crystaline Randazzo’s Instagram
Cinematic Orchestra Cello Loop by Wanderexplore
Happy Upbeat Cello by Audiokraken
Camp by Sound of Picture
Daydream Heartbeat by Sound of Picture
Balloons Rising by Sound of Picture
Coast Highway by Sound of Picture
On My Way by Kevin MacLeod with a Creative Commons license
Climbing the Mountain by Sound of Picture
Laura Crystal, I am so happy to have you as my first guest on my podcast. You are my amazing friend who I’ve known for many years. And so, let’s just get right into it. My first question for you is, what did you want to be as a kid?
Crystal Oooh, good question. And thank you for having me, Laura. This is super exciting. I love this venture that you’re doing and I think that probably you and I when we were younger, we would have loved to have a resource like this as we were figuring things out.
Laura Oh, yeah! Definitely.
Crystal So, when I was a kid, it’s actually funny, I wanted to be a marine biologist, which I think is really hilarious now because I’m sorta scared of the ocean. Like I never go too deep or anything. I’m like, wow, I was not in touch with myself. But, you know, I had this idea when I was a kid. I mean, I lived in New Mexico in the desert. So, it’s not like I even knew anything about the ocean. I was always very creative and probably should have just known I was going to become an artist. But I don’t know that that was super-welcomed in my family of origin. So, so instead I choose this marine biology.
Laura So how did you go from wanting to be a marine biologist to knowing that you were going to be a photographer?
Crystal That’s a good question. You know, I went to college at McMurry University in Abilene, Tex., and my first semester I took a photography course and I liken it to falling into the deep end and never getting out. I loved it so much I wanted to spend every hour in the darkroom. My professor had studied under Ansel Adams. He was a bit of a traditionalist. Even though digital was sort of coming out at that time, it was like, you learn the darkroom first. And so, I learned the darkroom, and about I think my sophomore or junior year I was able to do more digital work, Photoshop and that kind of thing. And once I got in that sphere, I never really wanted out. I just loved it so much.
Laura Were you that person, like me, who would spend all day and all night in the photo lab developing your negatives and you’d come out and be like, what, it’s 3 am?
Crystal Absolutely! I mean anytime I could spend, it was interesting, by the time I got to my junior year I had my own studio space that was assigned to me and it was directly under the darkroom. So, I just had to go upstairs. And I was also the student aide, so I helped everyone else do their developing as well. I was so happy at that time in my life when I think back. Just being in proximity to creative people and learning the camera as a tool. I could have spent all my time there. And I did spend many, many, many hours in the darkroom and in my studio, just thinking about and creating and that was really fun.
Laura So, I know you went from McMurry for undergrad to Syracuse University for grad school. And you studied a different kind of photography than you’re doing now. So, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Crystal Yes, so when I was wrapping up at McMurry University, I applied to a couple schools for photojournalism. That’s what I thought I was going to study. And when I arrived at Syracuse, which was a great school, my first year was really rough. I really struggled in the photojournalism department. I received a lot of criticism about my natural style, which is a little bit slow. And also, I’m not super-competitive by nature, so I wasn’t like getting out there and getting the stories in the most aggressive manner.
So, pretty quickly I changed my major from photojournalism to commercial photography. And I think I just felt so intimidated and criticized in the photojournalism program that I just was like, I must not belong here. But as I’ve grown older in my work I realize that some of those things that I was told are my greatest weaknesses are actually my greatest strengths in my work. The fact that I sit and build relationships with people and I spend time to get to know them. It changes the quality of my work. And the fact that I’m collaborative by nature means that I have been able to do some really amazing collaborative work in my life with other photographers and other creatives. And I’m really so excited about that. I feel like that’s a great thing. But at the time, I was so young I didn’t know it.
When I look back now, I think I absolutely could have become a photojournalist. But I was so insecure as a young, young sensitive creative person, that my first assumption was that I just wasn’t good at it. It’s funny, I do primarily sort of documentary-style, but I feel like the lighting education I received, you know, even the retouching, the Photoshop, the digital asset management, that all has really served me in my career.
Laura Well, yeah, because one of your first jobs in the photo world was doing all of that for a really big company. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Crystal Yes, my first job outside of grad school was, I was hired first as a photo coordinator for Feld Entertainment, and they primarily worked with Barnum & Bailey Circus and Disney on Ice shows and Disney Live shows. And pretty quickly, I would say within a couple months, I was actually promoted to be the photo manager. And that was quite an experience for a young commercial photographer.
I was able not only to work with a big team of professional photographers who were shooting our shows for us but also work with the whole back-end team who were making product for these shows, which gave me this education in retouching, in collaboration, in working with art directors. It was really amazing. And at the time, we were having this big shift from film to digital. And the circus had an over 100-year old archive that they were trying to digitize.
And you know, when you’re digging through a hundred-year-old archive for a single photo, that’s a lot of hours. I learned quickly, we want the most keywords, we want it structured by year, we want all these things. You learn that the hard way and then you never forget it.
Laura What would you have to look for? Like an elephant from 1923?
Crystal Yeah! Or like a lot of times they’re like, we need an image of this clown or this ringmaster. And so you go digging around. And sometimes they would send you the image but no other information. And you would know, ok, that ringmaster was with the show for these years, so it’s probably going to be in this file. And then you’d go and find it and sometimes you’d have to scan it if you couldn’t find a digital version and then keyword it, that kind of thing.
Laura That sounds like a lot of work. But as you said, it really served you well later when you started freelancing. So, what kind of business lessons did you learn from working at Feld and then also from going to Syracuse?
Crystal Ohhhhh. It’s funny, you know, I wouldn’t actually say I learned my greatest business lessons from those experiences. Even though I got my Master’s degree in commercial photography, I was only given one business course in my year-and-a-half of study. And I don’t think I did any business in my undergrad. So, I have all this education in photography but not in business.
Laura See, that’s a problem.
Crystal It is a problem! If you’re out there and you are getting a photography degree, please get a business major or minor. You really need it. Just so you know.
I would actually say, Laura, that my greatest business lessons came for me in undergrad. I worked for an art gallery as a gallery manager and that was the first job where I actually input receipts and I worked with artists to sign contracts. And so I actually learned a lot about the business. It was like the first time I used an accounting software, that kind of thing. So that’s really where I started sort of getting the basis of formulation for business practices.
Feld was a big corporation and so the only thing I had to do for Feld business-wise was keep track of my own receipts and submit them.
Laura OK. So eventually you quit Feld and you start your own business. What did you know about money and photography?
Crystal I knew very little. I have learned by trial and error for 12-plus years. I really didn’t know much about running my own business. I had sort of helped other people with their business at a very minimal degree.
I mostly knew that I wanted to be a photographer and that was what I was going to do. But I don’t think I had any real plans around how that was actually going to work. I had no idea. Nobody said, you need to think about the business side. They were like, just take great photos. And so I sort of had this idea, which was very inaccurate, that if I took great photos, that people would pay me.
Laura So what are like two things you wish you’d known about the photo business when you started out?
Crystal Mmmmm….ok, two things.
Good business practices are just as important as good creative practices. I know really incredible photographers who’ve never been able to make money with photography. And I know really average photographers who’ve made good money with photography.
You need to focus as much on the business – at least in the establishing phase – as you do on the creative work. And I think the tendency for creatives is to be, like… Well, there’s sort of a couple philosophies. Like, oh, that’s selling out. Or, I’m not good at it. That’s another story we tell ourselves. Like, well, I’m not good at math. But the thing is, if you want to make a living from this industry, you need to have a good financial foundation or else it’s going to be really hard and you’re going to end up hating photography anyways because it’s going to make you so miserable.
Laura Yeah, I completely agree. I know when I started out, I knew nothing and I also thought people would just come. And I also thought I was only going to be a photojournalist. And really quickly, I learned that uh, you don’t make money as a freelance photojournalist and if I wasn’t willing to shoot weddings, portraits, family events, then I was just going to be, like, really poor. And so I changed my tune pretty quickly.
Crystal I think that was a good call on your part. And I definitely agree with you that we come into this industry with this idea that I’m going to be a photographer. But the world has changed, I think significantly, since you and I were in school. And it’s almost a much broader spectrum of work now – photography, filmmaking. It’s like, I’m like dabbling in writing, animation – it’s sort of like this big pot of work now. It’s not just photography and if you think you’re only going to be a photographer, it’s going to be much harder. I’m not saying it can’t be done. People do it. But I think it’s just a different world.
Laura Yeah and I think what I see is a lot of photographers have realized that and so they know they need to also be amazing at writing captions and stories or they need to at least have some video skills. I think there are still a lot of people making a living mostly from photography but with a side of something else. Ok, so that’s one thing you wished you’d known. What’s the second thing you wished you’d known?
Crystal I think the second thing I wish I would have known is that when somebody offers you a bad deal, walk away.
Laura Oooh, that is good! And it’s hard, though, because sometimes you really need the money. Can you give a specific example?
Crystal When I was working in Rwanda, actually, I was offered a job by a very well-known organization, a non-profit organization. And I felt that it was a big opportunity for me. But they were on a tight timeline and they wanted me to start immediately and we hadn’t signed a contract. I was so enthusiastic, I started the work. And then they started changing our agreement and I had already put in so many hours of work. We sort of got to a standstill where they were like, oh, we’re not going to sign the contract. And so I had to walk away from the deal. I had already put in quite a few hours and so I wasn’t paid for that work.
And I think, knowing what I know now, I will not move forward, I will not do more than an email if I don’t have a contract. That’s what it comes down to for me. But I had to learn that the hard way. That’s part of my problem is I’m so enthusiastic about the work.
Laura Not a bad thing, normally!
Crystal Right, it’s not really a bad thing but it can get in your way as a business person if you’re just willing to sort of throw out the business processes so that you can get to work.
Laura What would you say is your biggest money mistake as a photographer?
Crystal I would say when I first started, my biggest mistake is that I was so intimidated by the financials, I just avoided them. I did the bare minimum. You know, whatever I needed for taxes. But I wasn’t really carefully tracking my expenses or thinking strategically about what I should charge. I had no fundamental understanding of my business or how it worked. And I was so terrified that I was going to do it wrong, I just sort of avoided it.
So, I just set rates according to like what my friend told me they had set their rate at. Not based on my actual expenses or how much money I needed to make. I was just sort of willy-nilly pulling numbers from thin air and then being like, none of that really matters. It’s only the work that matters. And I think that was a big mistake as a photographer who was just starting out. And so you put all of your energy into the creative stuff and none into the financial stuff, it’s not gonna work out for you.
Laura So, how did you finally change your attitude toward money? Because now I know that you are like really on top of things, you know exactly what to charge people and you…. I would say you’re good with money.
Crystal Oooh, thank you! I like that. I like that idea that I’m good with money.
Well, I would say, really, the way I learned was through meeting other creative professionals like you. I mean, you were one of the first photographers that I met who did not seem to be afraid about the money. You were just very no nonsense about it. I remember like when we met in Rwanda I was like, wow, she’s just like, this costs this, this is how we put the numbers together and that’s what I’m going to charge. And there was like a certain confidence to that that I didn’t really have when I was first coming up in this industry.
And then I feel like I just kinda got more curious. OK, so if you’re doing it this way, how are other people doing it? And I had a lot of other creative friends, you know, graphic designers, other people. We would just kind of have some of these conversations like, well how are you doing that? Oh, OK. And then I would take these bits and pieces and apply them. But it was a process. It took me a while. It’s not like I was confident overnight. But I slowly started putting all the pieces of information together and then I could make better choices.
Laura What is one of the better choices you started making, like, pretty quickly?
Crystal I started charging more money.
Laura Yay, charge more! Everyone should charge more money.
Crystal It is likely, unless you are, you know just super confident, that if you are a creative professional you are undercharging.
Laura Yeah, I agree. I remember when I was starting out. OK, I was not always totally confident about what to do with money in my business. But I remember charging maybe like $75 for a family session for a Christmas card photo. And I remember like sweating bullets to tell them how much it was going to cost, thinking, Oh my god, Oh my god, it’s so much money, it’s so much money. It’s like, no it wasn’t! I probably barely made minimum wage off that job.
Crystal Yes! We psyche ourselves out, you know. And we’re like, eeeeeugh, I could never ask for that.
Laura Mmhmmm. Mmhmmm. And I think we think like oh, god, money it’s like the first thing everyone’s going to think about when they want to hire me. But that is not true. true.
Crystal Yeah, I think it’s factored in but it’s factored in along a lot of other components and we think it’s the only component, right?
Laura Exactly. Exactly. Earlier this year, you and I were in a situation like that. It wasn’t for a photography gig but it was for something else and we sent in a bid and then they said they wanted to talk to us. And remember we were both like, do they want to talk about the money? And they totally did not want to talk about the money. They didn’t care. They were like, yeah, that part’s fine.
Crystal Money didn’t come up at all. And that should tell anybody out there who’s a creative professional, if you’re sweating over the money, it might just be you.
Laura Very true. So, when was a time you felt really accomplished about how you were dealing with money as a photographer?
Crystal There was like a four, five, maybe six year period when I was in Rwanda and when I was in Nepal, where I really felt like the whole business had really come together. I had the website. I could pay for everything, I could cover my expenses. I wasn’t constantly fretting about the balance that was in my banking account.
And for me, it’s almost like having that smoothness in the day-to-day was a really big win for me. Because for many years, I would be so afraid of, you know, oh my gosh, I have to check my bank account balance. Is there going to be enough? So to get to this place where you don’t have to check it. You should be checking it, folks! But you know, if you… Where you’re not thinking it’s always going to be in the red or you’re not going to be able to afford the thing you need to get to make your business functional, I think that is a huge win in terms of becoming established in your photography business.
Laura I agree. And you know, this year has been especially difficult for people who are probably looking at their balances and maybe not seeing it as high as they need it or want it to be. So I’m just wondering, how has Covid changed your business this year?
Crystal Oh, there have been many changes. But not all bad. I have to say that Covid has provided the opportunity to do virtual storytelling training. So I’m very passionate about storytelling. I can’t remember what year… It might have been right around the time I met you where I started a year of story where I sort of dove in to read all the research papers and online articles I could find just about storytelling.
Laura So that would have been like 2013?
Crystal Around there, yeah. I still actually have a spreadsheet because I’ve added to it for 6-plus years.
So what I’ve been doing in Covid is I’ve been doing virtual trainings. At the beginning it was more toward nonprofits but now it’s becoming more towards individuals. And like showing them how story works, giving them the components to start to tell their own stories and then supporting them as they choose a story and craft it and prepare to put it out in the world in different ways. Or maybe sometimes even just for themselves. Sometimes a story is ready to go out into the world and can help you if you have a service or product. And sometimes a story is just for yourself so you can change the way that you think about things.
I’ve found the work to be so fulfilling, so interesting. It’s such a great way to connect one-on-one with people. And it’s still very creative even though I’m not shooting.
Laura I think probably a lot of us haven’t been shooting as much. But I’m so excited about this new direction you’re taking in our business. So do you see yourself doing more and more of this and how does being a photographer help you with this?
Crystal Well, it’s interesting. You know, I think we’re all in the time of reevaluation and I have a hard time imagining myself ever fully giving up photography and filmmaking because it’s just such an extension of who I am as a person.
But I also think that there’s this level of what I would call mastery of a skill that you attain at a certain level, right? At 12-plus years of shooting, I have come across a lot of different circumstances and I have shot in a lot of different environments from like corporate board rooms to like mud huts in the middle of nowhere. And it’s not that I can’t keep doing that. I think I can. I think it’s just more interesting to start applying those skills that I’ve learned in a different way, if that makes sense.
So, what I see is that I will still be creating stories and possibly doing photography and filmmaking for these clients who I’m training virtually. Like maybe I’ll be the person who actually ends up videoing that story or putting together a multimedia piece for these stories in a very creative way. But right now, I also have this passion that every person deserves ownership over their story. And if I can teach a whole lot of people to tell better stories and we put great stories out into the world, I not only help people understand themselves, but I also give them a lot of autonomy in their storytelling.
What I would recommend to people is that be open to the skills that you have that you haven’t thought about applying them that way. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I mean, I wouldn’t have… Even last year I wouldn’t have thought this was what I was going to be doing.
Laura It’s good to be adaptable.
Crystal Adapt away! Story of our careers.
Laura Speaking of adapting, I know you’re in this kind of unique situation where every few years you move because of your husband’s career. And I know this impacts your business and the way you think about your business, so can you talk about this a little more?
Crystal Yes, so my husband’s career: he moves every two to three years with his job at the Department of State and that also means we move countries every two to three years. And when I first started this lifestyle, what I was doing is I would go to a country, I would build up a client base, I would work, and then I would leave. And then in the next country I’d build up a client base and I’d work and then I’d leave.
So, I wasn’t really getting repeat clients. So, for me, one of the big priorities in my business is that I make it location-independent. So, I always have the photographer/filmmaker portion, which obviously I need to go and shoot and that kind of thing. But I also have storytelling as a component. I also have editing or podcast editing as a component. Or consulting as a component. And that allows me to have more flexibility. In the middle of moving from one country to another, I can still be doing some work where it doesn’t require me to go out and shoot and edit.
Laura I wonder how you feel when you’re moving from one country to another and having to start all over again. That sounds kind of difficult.
Crystal It is difficult. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. So, I feel like it’s a mix of things. But I guess mentally, it can be tiring to always have to restart. You know, I always say it’s sort of like a hamster on a wheel, right? When you first get to a country you’re running really, really hard. You’re trying to make all the connections you can make as quickly as you can make them so you can start work. And then, you know, when you leave, it’s sort of like, OK, I’m gone.
Laura How has your career been impacted by having a partner, both financially and emotionally?
Crystal Having a partner… I would actually say the impact of having the partner – for me – has been pretty positive. You know, my husband has this very stable job with the State Department. It covers health insurance. It covers our rent, our electricity, these kinds of things. And in some ways, since we are moving all the time and I’m constantly reinventing, that kind of gives me this buffer to restart up my business every time we move. So, in that sense, having a partner has been really positive for me in my business.
However, having that partner with that job has also created this space where I do have to reinvent every two to three years, or at least re-establish. I do sometimes wonder what it would look like if I had just lived in a place for, say, five years. You know, would I still have to be hustling as hard for clients as I do now. Or would I just sort of have an established base.
Moving every three years, it’s pushed me in my career in ways that I probably… I don’t know if I would have pushed myself, right? I learned filmmaking. I learned how to edit podcasts, I did all these other things because, you know, I was trying to learn to be very flexible in a new environment and I don’t know if that would have happened. So that’s positive. I guess I always want to look at the positive, though, that’s sort of my nature.
Laura If you weren’t married or if you were living in one spot for more than three years, do you think you would still be freelancing?
Crystal Ahhhh, I think so. And the reason why I say that is because it’s not that I couldn’t go and work for someone else and I could, you know, maybe even make more money in that sphere. It’s just like I really love being my own boss. I love the flexibility of the freelance lifestyle. I love having creative control over my projects. I think if some full-time job was going to land in my lap it would have to be a pretty special full-time job to get me to consider leaving the freelance life, because I really love it.
Laura Could you support yourself if you didn’t have your partner there?
Crystal It depends. So, because of our lifestyle, because we’re moving, at the beginning and the end of every tour, that’s when my funds are much more tight. Usually in the middle I make decent money. So, I think I could support myself. Now could I support myself at the lifestyle at which I currently live? Probably not.
Laura Well, Crystal, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m so glad you were my first podcast guest as I said at the top, you’re a great friend and I think we had a pretty cool conversation. I learned something new about you – marine biologist! I didn’t know that.
Crystal Yes! Who knew? Nobody knew that because it absolutely doesn’t fit. But thank you, Laura. This is so cool.
Laura Thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to the show today. For more Creative + Moneywise, visit the website at creativeandmoneywise.com. There you can read blog posts about the business of photography, listen to all podcast episodes and sign up for a free 15-minute business coaching consultation with me.
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This episode was produced and edited by me with music from Sound of Picture, Kevin MacLeod, Wanderexplore and Audiokraken.
Thanks again for listening. I’m Laura Elizabeth Pohl and I’ll see you next time.