Freed Photography has blazed a trail in the school photography niche, lending a boutique look and feel to something that has traditionally been given the mass production treatment. Behind that success is a lifetime of hard work, a focus on craft, a commitment to building long-term relationships in the community – and some key moments of fate.
Smile For the Camera
When you ask co-founder Neal about his initial foray into photography, he tells you that it was about being in the right place at the right time. A student in NYC, Neal was looking for some part-time work to help make ends meet – and was promptly introduced to a friend of a friend who was hiring.
The job? A photography assistant for a boutique wedding studio.
“I didn’t know anything about photography going in,” says Neal, who immediately fell in love with the work. “But these guys just did it right. And that turned out to be the best training that I could have had. Photography is a craft, and the old apprentice system is a really good way to learn it.”
Neal spent every weekend working with experienced photographers and learning the tricks of the trade, quickly becoming one of the studio’s most sought-after photographers.
Boutique, But Booming
But life happened, and photography took a backseat. It wasn’t until 25 years later that Neal would rekindle his career behind the camera.
“My wife Carla and I had just sold a business, and we were sitting around wondering what to do,” Neal says. Neal loved photography, and Carla had a fine arts background, and leveraging those passions into a business made sense.
“We thought we’d have this little boutique wedding studio out of our basement, just the two of us,” says Neal. But as demand grew, so did the studio, until Neal and Carla had several photographers working with them.
“We were really able to help them understand the niche and master the techniques needed for weddings,” he says. The team quickly grew to twelve, including professional photographer Bryan, who saw the value of the business and came on as a partner.
Riding the School Bus
The company was growing from strength to strength – and catching the eye of new audiences.
“We had a client call about doing their school photos because they were unhappy with their current photographer,” says Bryan. “Neal always leads with yes, so off we went.”
But bringing quality photography to schools involved reshaping schools’ expectations about what picture day should be. That first school requested that the company bring in blue backgrounds and continue in the rapid-fire photography tradition of their previous photographer – the one they hadn’t liked.
“But we looked at each other and said, this doesn’t make any sense,” says Bryan. “We never bring a background to a wedding. We’re environmentalists. We do natural portraiture. So, we marched the kids outside and took a mini portrait session for each one.”
The result was great – but the team faced several challenges. School photography was technologically challenging, requiring specialized software and systems to efficiently sort and collate individual student photos. It also coincided with peak wedding season. And there was already a major player in the industry.
“But Neal saw the opportunity to do something big and different in the school photography niche,” says Bryan. “So, we went for it.”
Photographers, Not Camera Operators
The timing was right. Technological shifts, market shifts, and the growth of social media have all been factors pointing schools towards an offering like Freed’s. Unsurprisingly, demand keeps growing.
“I think we’ve really changed how school photography is done by ensuring that everyone receives a beautiful portrait,” says Bryan. “Ours are not really school portraits. They’re portraits that happen to be done at school.”
Freed has made a name for itself not just for shooting quality outdoor school portraits but also for making the entire experience seamless – from booking a shoot to ordering the photos.
“We’re unique because we take beautiful photos, but also because we take a variety of them, giving our clients a choice,” says Carla. “We have two clients: the parent and the school administrator. We do a lot behind the scenes to make sure that administrators are getting what they need to ensure that the day runs smoothly and that they’re getting the pictures that they need for the yearbook or the administration.”
Ensuring customers are ecstatic with their results is a core part of the Freed approach.
“Some of the other companies don’t even list their phone numbers on their order forms,” explains Neal. “There’s no way of getting in touch with them. Combine that with the fact that their business model involves asking people to buy the photos without seeing them first, and you have the potential for a lot of unhappy customers.”
Freed takes the industry norm and upends them. They’re always available to their customers and provide a variety of digital proofs online for parents to choose from. Parents can buy as many or as few as they’d like.
“We think that if you do a great job and give parents choices, everyone wins,” says Bryan. “Parents love it because they’re getting the quality of a professional photoshoot without the cost. It’s convenient and affordable. We come to the school, and it costs you nothing unless you like the photos.”
And Freed ensures that they do.
“When you take care of your customers, the rest takes care of itself,” notes Carla. “It’s very important to us that every single customer is satisfied with their experience. We think holistically and work on the assumption that our relationships with our clients are long-term. When you view everything through that kind of telephoto lens, you think and act differently.”
Blazing a Quality Trail
The Freed approach has inspired change across the school photography industry. More and more companies focus on picture quality and customer service over the old-fashioned “point and click” business model.
“The industry is really changing,” says Bryan. “Schools are looking to raise their brand awareness, and imagery is really important. We remind principals all the time that whatever photo they send home is representative of their school and the student experience, so it’s important to think about what message you’re sharing with your community.”
Freed is proud to have accelerated that shift in the market – and about rising to meet the occasion.
“People come up to us and say that our photos are great. At that moment, you realize that you’ve created an iconic milestone in that family’s story,” says Bryan. “Great photos are something lasting and meaningful that you can cherish. I’m always thinking about that when I’m photographing someone. My goal is to move beyond the barrier of the camera, relate to the person in front of me, and get them to look their best in an authentic way.”
Every Photo a Keepsake
Part of the Freed ethos is that every person can photograph well. Neal recounts a time when Bryan was photographing an autistic boy who needed significant accommodations at school.
It took patience and persistence, but the magic happened after some 70 odd photos, and Bryan managed to take a handful of perfect shots. The boy, who was non-verbal, typed a thank you message on his iPad thanking Bryan for his kindness and consideration.
A few months later, Bryan was photographing a wedding and was talking to one of the wedding assistants. Their conversation led to school photography, and the woman mentioned a son – who, the world being as small as it is, turned out to be the boy that Bryan had so painstakingly photographed.
“She was sobbing. She said it was the best picture he’s ever taken. That’s how we want every parent to feel,” he says. “Everyone deserves that, and our goal is that our approach becomes the norm, not the exception.”
“We really feel like we’re making a difference,” adds Carla. “We’re doing something meaningful and beautiful, and we want to be able to take that nationwide to become the leading school photography brand in the US.”
“We want to do it all better,” affirms Neal. “We love what we do, and we’re committed to becoming the leading name in school photography.”
And with a growing roster of repeat clients across an ever-widening catchment area, Freed is well on its way.
To learn more about Freed’s unique approach to school pictures or book a session, get in touch!