Keeping your brand in line and sending out your message is essential for every business owner. Having a visual representation of your message can help in attracting your target audience, and it makes for great and inspiring aesthetics as well. Impactful photographs is another faction within the art of storytelling. With Facebook and Instagram, the power of photos have become even greater to deliver a message, evoke emotions and reflect personalities. That is why a photograph is not just a photograph for award-winning portrait photographer Courtney Paige Ray. There is a story around it. Learn how Courtney beautifully captures emotions and attitudes that send a clear message and connect with people.
I personally invited this guest that we’re having on this episode. Courtney Paige Ray is an award-winning photographer. She photographed us for our profile photo, which we get tremendous amount of comments and compliments on. She put out her first newsletter post of the year and it just caught my eye. I always read her posts because they’re always interesting. She’s got beautiful photographs in them and she’s really talented. I always try to keep up on what she’s doing, but everything gets busy when you get back from the holidays. I might not have read it if it hadn’t such a perfect title and such eye-catching images. It said, This Isn’t (Just) A Photo. There were these gorgeous, with pops of bright yellow, photos of a beautiful looking businesswoman. She looks quirky and interesting and I totally want to interview her. I don’t even know what she does. It says, “These aren’t photos. These aren’t portraits. This is a story of a business. This is a story of a brand. This is how you connect to your audience. I’m here to support you by bringing the art of storytelling to your business.” I didn’t even read the rest of it before I clicked reply and said, “Courtney come on our show.” Then of course I read it.
It was such a great way to capture attention and really tell what she’s all about. She’s an award-winning portrait photographer in Southern California. It’s the way that she tells stories through these photographs that really helps her brand shine. I have been seeing a lot of scary profile photos that don’t belong to great podcast hosts and great podcasts guests of the caliber, which you should. A lot of brands just aren’t putting the visual best foot forward; best face forward, in this case. I invited Courtney on to come talk to us about all of the things that she does when she’s planning for these photoshoots and what she does and how she works that through and how she gets the story and you and attitude across in her photographs. Let’s go to the interview with Courtney.
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The Art of Storytelling For Your Business with Courtney Paige Ray
Courtney, thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you for having me here.
I got that email that you sent out and it was just brilliant. It captured my attention. It did everything it was supposed to do. It had a great headline, it had these images, and it was talking about how your brand profile photos are story. Tell us about that and then we’ll step back and talk all about you.
I really believe that the strongest way to reach your target audience as a brand, as a business, as a creative, whatever you’re doing, is through your story. Your story is how people connect with you and engage with you. They get very interested in what your story is and where your story is going, and then they want to be a part of it. I’m a big believer in telling your story and I always have been. When I sent out that email, it filtered out of a conversation I’ve been having with another creative. We were talking about branding photos and we’re talking about how they’re photos, they’re portraits but they’re not really even about their story. It’s how you connect best with the people that you want to bring into your brand.
You are a portrait artist. I’ve seen your work. My profile photo is your work. I know that’s what your images evoke. They evoke a story. There’s a story there, I may not know what it is but I can see it and I want to know more. You’ve been doing that for a long time and you’re award-winning. Tell me little bit about how you got started photographing portraits.
I’ve always been interested in two things: people’s stories and people’s faces. Faces tell a big story. I actually started out as a journalist. I was a journalist for about ten years, coming right out of college. I spent a lot of time listening to people’s stories and learning how to make them comfortable so that they would feel good about telling me their story and trust me with it. It is building a trust. A story is a personal thing for a lot of people.
I’ve been learning that for the last couple of years. I’m not going to call myself a journalist because I don’t think I quite have the formal experience, but I certainly have gotten a crash course in doing it. When you treat it like a relationship and when you’re building a relationship over the course of the story, both with your audience and with the subject matter, it works better.
As humans, there’s something hardwired in our brain to look for the story. You see it everywhere. It makes sense when you start looking for it. It’s why we’re so curious about television shows and what’s going to happen with relationships on TV. It’s why radio is so important. It’s why books are so important. We all want to know what the story is. We get the story from everywhere, from all angles. We are hardwired to be curious about other people’s stories and to tell our own story.
You do that visually though, that’s harder.
There’s a big overlap between journalism. I was a journalist for about ten years and then I became a photographer about five or six years ago. I found a really big overlap between the two which was surprising but a pleasant surprise. It’s still the same kind of trust that I need to build with people who step in front of my camera. They’re still scared. They’re vulnerable. They’re not sure what to do in front of the camera. It’s the same as they weren’t quite sure what to do when I had my pen and paper out.
You don’t really work with professional models. You work a lot with business owners, brands and things like that. You don’t work as often with professional models. We don’t know what to do in front of the camera.
I like to say that I’m a photojournalist for creative entrepreneurs. I work with a lot of creatives, a lot of business people. I bring the art of storytelling into business, which is something that folds together nicely.
I’m sure our podcast listeners are going, “What does a photojournalist for creative entrepreneurs and what do photos have to do with my podcast?” This is one of the things that too often we have on our websites and everywhere on our social profile. We have profile photos now. Everywhere we go, they’re an identity of who we are, sometimes what we stand for, sometimes our political or cultural statements because we change our filter. Today, it’s becoming such an important part of who we are especially in business.
It’s such a representation of who you are, what you stand for, the message that you’re sending out and who you’re trying to connect with.
It’s that attraction part that has really worked so well. We had another podcast interview with a PR person Dave Farrow, who I absolutely adore. We’re good friends. We invited him on the show to talk podcast launching. As he’s on our Skype, he says, “That picture is so great.” It’s a picture of us in black and white with a little bit of a purple touch up on the tie and my lipstick. He is like, “This is amazing. That is such a good picture.” I said, “We’re having her on the show.” I’d never expected it. I like the photo. Lots of people commented on it over the years. We’ve used it now for almost two years. When people see it, it’s a good personality representation of who I am and who Tom is and who we are together. We even actually break up our profile photo. We cut the photo in half and there’s me and then there’s him. We each use them separately too not just together. It still works. It’s turned out to attract the right type of people, the right type of speaking clients, the right type of speaking engagements, people who invite me to them, the right type of clients who realize we have a specific design style. That’s really where you tapped into. You just tapped into something that we needed something that had a little design edge to it and yet was still very us. You managed to capture that beautifully.
Thank you. I’m so glad to hear that. I love hearing stories like that from people that I’ve photographed.
That’s what also caught my eye when you sent this email because you had a series of photos. In a series of photos, you have such a better opportunity to tell a bigger story and different aspects of personality or brand personality.
I’ve been calling it a photo essay because that’s what it really turns into. It becomes an essay on your business and it becomes a study on your business and who you are and what is the personality, and the story behind that. It becomes a study and an essay and something to look at from that perspective.
Here on podcast, we’re very vocal, some videocasters out there and occasionally, I do them as well. For the most part, we’re so vocal and we start to think of that as our identity. We forget that people are very visual. At some point, they’re going to look at your profile photo. They’re going to look in your website and they’re going to look through all of that. If it doesn’t match what they hear on the air, that’s a message miss for you. That’s an opportunity you missed to reinforce your brand, to reinforce who you are. I hate to see that happen because I’m all about design and visuals too.
It’s so important to keep your brand in line and to keep yourself on message. People think about message as something that we do vocally or something that we talk about or through our copy, which is true. It’s so important also to represent that message visually which can be something that we get stuck on a little bit when we’re translating those words into an image.
How do you think about that when you’re looking through the camera and taking these photos? How are you synthesizing all these things about someone you just met or maybe know a little bit? How do you do that?
We do prep work before the photo shoot because it’s so important to know a lot more about your subject before you put them in front of your camera. We sit down and have coffee and talk for a while about what their brand is, who is their ideal client, what is their messaging, what message are they sending right now, and what copy they use. For example, we talk about keywords, we talk about brand colors. We talk about the whole shebang. Then we put together a mood board to make sure that whatever we photograph in the shoot is really on point and really nails the aesthetic of your brand. If I’m coming in and you’ve done brand work beforehand, I want to stay consistent with that brand that you’ve built. If I’m starting at the beginning with you when you’re about to launch your business, we’ll sit down and talk about the vision that you have for your business and how your photos can help you get there. It’s a lot of prep work. It helps me familiarize myself with for example, what makes you laugh? What makes you happy? What makes you come alive a little bit? I think that’s so important. I want you alive in front of the camera.
I don’t know if I should tell the story of how you got me laughing in that because it’s actually Tom saying something off-color. It was a little while ago but I’m very sure that’s exactly what made me laugh at that moment, which is classic us. That’s why people listen to the podcast because we’re like that on the air too with each other. You captured that. You’re talking about the difference between branding and working within an established brand or an emerging brand or setting back and starting a brand from the beginning and finding its personality and your personality through that. We did a little bit of both when we started. I’m sure you formalized the process more because it sounds like it. We were saying, “This is the style we’re going for the website and this is the look that we’re going and these are the color directions we’re taking.” We fit. We chose both what we were going to wear and how you lit it and all those things based on that. When you presented it, black and white wasn’t necessarily in the consideration. It wasn’t out of it either. When you took that photograph and put it into black and white, what happened was that we realized we had a whole stylistic opportunity that we didn’t know we had that really sparked the website in a way that was missing. It had gone flat with the logo and other things. We were like, “It’s just feels it’s corporate and that’s not us.” Once we put that photo in it and that little splash of color, and purple wasn’t in our palette, but it became part of our palette and it just worked great.
What’s so funny, especially working with two people in front of the camera, I find it easier to have two people in front of my camera instead of one. If it’s two people, then you two make each other laugh. I don’t have to make anybody laugh. You two make each other laugh. It was so easy with you and Tom to get you laughing and playing off each other and coming alive like that.
I see a lot of people who are guests on podcasts because we have our production services. We’re always running blog posts with profile pictures or someone wants to make the header graphic with an image of their guest on there. Some of these photos are terrible. I don’t know how you put yourself out there to be a guest on a show and have what looks like my daughter snapped it. It’s shocking to me that they don’t put thought into how important that is because it’s an important part of the promotion process. It makes the show you’re on look less professional. We don’t want that. What are some recommendations you can give on a budget? Maybe they can’t hire a full photographer but what could they do to make sure that they have a better profile photo? I highly suggest you hire a professional.
A lot of people, especially starting out, have that same concern. That’s one of the things about starting a business is that you do have to put money in places. A lot of the times, you’re just not sure if you’re putting it in the right place and that is so scary as a new business. What I would do is I would still go to a professional photographer but I would just start with a very basic photo session with just maybe a one-hour portrait session. You should be able to find somebody who’s within your budget who’s able to do that. Time and time again, professional photos, even if it’s a really basic session, are going to play so much better to your audience than if your friend takes her nice camera and puts you in decent light. I think audiences really have a sense. They can sniff it out a little bit. They can really tell when you’ve put your full effort behind something. Your ideal clients, anyone you are trying to get on board with, they really want to work with people who are really going to put their full effort into it, who are really of professional operation. If your profile photo isn’t saying, “I’m a professional. I put all of my effort into this. I put my energy into this. I put my money into this,” if it doesn’t say that then they’re going to go, “You’re not really all-in and I want to be with people who are all-in because those are the experts.”
My very first article that I ever wrote for Inc. was why Million-Dollar Companies Don’t Buy $5 Logos. I think the same should be said here for why, “Your sister shouldn’t take your photograph unless she’s a professional.” It’s so true. It is a credibility level. It’s a level of authority that you want to command. It’s maybe even a high-dollar amount that you’re expecting or clients that you’re expecting. It needs to be well-matched with that professionalism.
I always like to tell new businesses, “Build your business as though you are a $1 million business so that when you are a $1 million business, you’re ready to handle it.” I think that comes through in every aspect. Look like $1 million business, represent yourself with great photos and great branding and a great message.
One of the things that I always say is that I don’t think great design has to cost more. Great photography doesn’t have to cost a ton more. It requires more work on your part to plan, to communicate well so you don’t waste a lot of time and effort taking photos that don’t work and making mistakes. If you do those things better, it’s a greater investment. I consider the fact that these photographs are already almost two years old; it’s old. We probably should think about redoing them but they’re still such an important part of my brand. They’ve become a little bit timeless. It is working for us. Why fix something that’s not broken right now? It really is attracting the right people.
You have a great email marketing program that you use yourself. You put out newsletters, you do a lot of blogs, you have a wonderful Instagram. How do you find time among your business to do that? That’s what a lot of our podcast listeners, those that are building a podcast are struggling with. It’s like, “It’s marketing and it’s not my core business. I’m a photographer. I’m a storyteller. I’m doing all these things but I’m doing all these other things.” When you drop off, you tend to have lower revenue so it’s a must do.
It’s so easy to feel like you’re drowning in all of the must-dos, “I must do Instagram, I must do Facebook, I must blog, I must email.” It takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of time. I’m still doing all of those things myself and I have a set schedule every week. This gets to be pretty key because people tend to think, “I’m drowning. I have to make so much content. How do I have time to do that?” The thing is you don’t have to make a ton of content. You need one piece of content a week and then what you do is you repurpose it every day of the week. For example my email blast, my blog goes up on Monday. The topic that I’m talking about for the week, that goes up on Monday. On Tuesday is the email blast of a copy and paste of my blog that goes in an email. It’s a Solo Mailer that goes out on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I post about the topic on social media. On Thursday, I do a Facebook Live and an Instagram Live at the same time talking about that topic again. I’ve only created one piece of content for the entire week but I have repurposed it every single day so that I take five minutes to throw it up on Facebook and Instagram. I take five minutes to throw it into a Solo Mailer, and then put a call to action at the bottom of it. I try to talk with my audience in email a lot so I always have at the bottom like, “I want to hear what you think. Just hit reply below and let’s talk about this topic.”
Which is exactly what I did and I invited you on the show. I literally hit my inbox and I went, “Reply.” That works. Did you see higher engagement from that than other newsletters from that particular one?
I did. I saw a higher engagement and I also saw a different engagement. It was a different part of my audience that started to come alive for me and started to send me feedback and started engaging with me. I have a part of my audience that I always hear from and I’m always happy to chat with and talk to. I love that I have friends and audience members who will support me like that. What’s really interesting with this last email where we talked about how they’re more than just photos, they’re your story, it’s really interesting to see a whole new part of my audience engage with me over that. I realized at that moment that what was different about that email for me when I was creating it was I was able to sink into it so easily. It came from such a place that was very, “This is my truth.”
It’s personal. It was authentically you. It came across. It definitely did in both the copy that you wrote there and the photos that you’ve shared. It is the same thing we do here. We repurpose all of the things. You do your podcast, some people do it Live on Facebook, and then we take it from there. You are doing a lot of repurposing. What I find really underused, and you probably do have a system for this because I know you’re really organized, is that we get, “This is old. I talked about it two months ago. I talked about it six months ago.” To us it feels old but we forget that we have attracted a new audience over time. I call them compilation posts or compilation Instagram, where you’re basically taking photos that might have or images that might have a resonance around a particular subject. We do this all the time in our 3D Print show because it’s easy like, “It’s February. Let’s pull everything we have that has hearts in it.” Those will give you an easy topic. Sometimes it’s much more serious than that. Something happens in the world and you can just pull from your archive all of these little bits and pieces and put them together in a summary post. It helps to re-share and remind people that all this content that you’ve built up and all these assets are there.
I just read something about this. They call it zombie content where you think it’s dead but it comes back to life and it’s still relevant. That’s also called evergreen content, something you make that is just always relevant to your audience and you can share time and time again. People will keep wanting to read it because it’s not timely. It’s something that is there for the long haul.
Which we highly encourage here because the podcast, people listen to them and you don’t know when they’re going to pick it up. If there’s a subject that interests them, it resonates with them, “I was just thinking about what to do about my profile that photo that is a decade old now. What am I going to do?” This podcast comes along and it informs them. We are always trying to think about that and try not to put anything that’s too time-sensitive in it. We leave that for our in and out advertisements. That way, you keep it clean and easy for people to continue to learn and use it as experiential. I want to touch on one more thing and that is how you have been able to stay creative in your business? Whether you’re a creative or not but you’re trying to be you, you’re trying to do what you love, how do you do that and make sure you’re servicing your clients? Was it easy for you to get to that or difficult?
I love this question because I talk about it a lot with other creatives, which for the record I believe everybody is creative. When I say other creatives, I mean pretty much anybody. We are all here to create something and that everybody has a creative purpose. Keeping your creative fire going can be really hard sometimes. I’ve always been really lucky that I just feel that creativity is always flowing through me. I welcome it and I’m like, “What are you going to have me think about today? What are we doing today? What are we learning?” I think the two biggest things that I do to keep the creativity flowing is I’m very curious. I was a journalism major in college but I always tell people I majored in asking questions because that’s what I did my whole life, I always ask so many questions. I’m so curious. I’m always learning and pushing myself and talking to people I don’t know about things I don’t know about and trying to find the growth in those opportunities. It always stretches me a little bit.
That’s so important, being curious and asking questions. I like to do a lot of research. That’s something that interests me and so I do that. It’s in that stretch that you are talking about. When you are stretching yourself that’s where creativity and innovation and all of that happens. It’s where we end up finding the hack to the system. We get more efficient and productive because we’re like, “I don’t want to do that anymore. I just want to do more of this that I love.” You find a way to make that happen.
It makes you resourceful. It makes you creative. It makes you excited. That’s one of the big things that I do. I’m always trying to learn. The other thing that I do specially when I feel like I’m in a rut and I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again is I don’t look at any other photographers. I look at other artists. Maybe I go to a museum and find other painters or sculptors or architects to inspire me and influence me. I’m always looking for new mediums to try. For example, I love photography. I’m good at photography. I’ve taken a lot of other art classes. I’ve taken drawing classes and painting classes. I’m terrible at drawing. I’m so bad at it. It’s awful. It’s embarrassing but it really gets my brain flowing in a different direction so the creativity starts to flow. Even if I’m not good at this other medium that I’m trying, it’s helping me stretch my brain. The two biggest things I recommend are get curious and get a new medium. Try something different. Go out and do something completely different.
That’s what I love about this podcast and I love about my job. I’m so grateful you get to come on the show because this is my way of going out there and experiencing something new through you. I didn’t have to invest a whole ton of the time in learning something but I learned something in this short amount of time. I get to also satisfy that curiosity and reenergize me. This is what I see so clearly in your photographs and I see so clearly in how you talk about your business and how you write that you have such passion for everything that you do. In that passion, it just translates to attracting the right people, attracting the right messages and building that brand for you. You’re doing that and you’re modeling the people you want to attract to take photographs of.
Thank you so much. That makes my heart so happy to hear you say that. I get so excited about everything, especially when I’m taking photos. The excitement just flows out of me. I’m always the most excited person in the room. I am glad that is coming across as passion and excitement. I am so excited to do what I love. In some days I’m like, “I can’t believe I get to live this life. This is so cool. I get to do whatever I want. I love it.”
I’ve watched you since you started. When I first met you a few years ago, you were finishing up your photography training and learning and all of those things that you were doing. You were still taking classes. I have seen you blossom in such an amazing way through this. It shows that you really kept pivoting and pivoting and pivoting and you did to get to this place that your business is happy and passionate and your clients are. I want to commend you on that. It’s such a hard thing to do to really change your life like that.
It’s funny you mentioned the pivoting because I was thinking about that. One thing that you need to let yourself and your brand do is evolve to the point where it’s supposed to be, to the point where you have that explosion moment in your business. I try not to get too stuck on one way if something wasn’t working. I want to be a photographer ultimately. I kept chasing a path that felt right and felt exciting and felt refreshed and it felt like it flowed for me. I finally got here after a whole bunch of pivots. It was a lot of pivots.
I liked that idea though that you just said the evolution of a brand or the evolution of your brand. I like that idea because pivoting sounds like, “Something went wrong.” Evolution sounds like it was meant to go that way.
It is a meant to be thing and you have to allow yourself to get quiet inside and get in tune with, “What am I supposed to be doing? What am I meant to be doing?” Allow yourself to follow that path even if it means pivoting. Pivoting isn’t a failure. A lot of people associate change or pivots with failure. Failure is really just not getting back up to keep on going. As long as you’re beating down that path, if you’ve got your goal in mind, you’re going to get there. It’s just going to take a few twists and turns to happen.
I can’t thank you enough for coming on the show and sharing all of your insights and all of your excitement, which I just love to talk to you about that.
I’m just so grateful that you brought me on here to talk about something that I love so much. I love that we’re all at this point where we get to be creative and we get to be free with it. Anything I can do to encourage people to follow that creativity and that dream, I just love it. Thank you so much for having me on and asking me these wonderful questions. It’s such a wonderful chat.
Thank you, Courtney.
The Art of Storytelling For Your Business – Final Thoughts
She excites me. I get more excited about being more creative in my business. I want to jazz up my website, refresh my photographs. I keep thinking about what she said about the investment part of it. That was not the biggest investment we made at the time that we had these photographs taken. It was a little stretch. We had a lot of things going on when you’re building a new website. You have a little investment in that. You have to take some photographs and you’ve got copywriters and you’re doing all of these things. The same thing when you’re starting a podcast. It seems like a lot of investment but the value that we’ve gotten from these photographs have really more than paid for themselves. They have lasted. They tell a great story. They connect with people. They sell for us in a way and they sell us and who we are and how authentic we are, and what we’re going to be like when you get on the show and talk to us. That is something that you should definitely invest in. You really want to come across as authentically you as possible or you wouldn’t be doing this.
It’s hard to be a podcast host. It’s hard to go out there and do videos every week. All of those things are not easy. To not take care of some basics that are really everywhere today, it’s so prevalent. I don’t know how many times I’ve reused and resized and reformatted and made it a circle, made it a square, cut us apart, put us together, use it in so many formats. That’s also really important. Check Courtney Paige Ray’s website and how you can reach out to her. I invite you to connect with her and follow her on Instagram. She just puts out these gorgeous photos all the time and great blog posts with great tips about how to how to do better at imagery all over, whether it’s Instagram or other areas on social media.
You can go to our Facebook page @FeedYourBrand and touch base with us and let us know what you are doing. Share your profile with us and get more creative. Get more into your brand. Feed your brand with you. Thanks again for listening. This has been Tracy on Feed Your Brand.
- Courtney Paige Ray
- Million-Dollar Companies Don’t Buy $5 Logos Courtney’s Facebook
- Courtney’s Instagram
- This Isn’t (Just) A Photo
- Courtyney’s blogs
- 3D Print show
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About Courtney Paige Ray
Courtney Paige Ray is an award-winning portrait photographer in Southern California. She brings the art of storytelling to creative entrepreneurs and their brands through photography.