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From the beginning, PhotoDay’s mission has always been to use innovative tech to modernize and simplify volume photographers’ workflows. Our team celebrates each and every time our platform and features save your valuable time. Hearing first-hand accounts of how these tools and systems impact a business is like that first sip of coffee in the morning—it keeps us going every day. 

Established in 2001, Freed Photography is a prominent photography studio based in Washington, DC, and run by Neal Freed, his wife Carla, and their partner Bryan Blanken. Together they take pride in bringing a fresh perspective to school photography while capturing tens and tens of thousands of subjects each year. When Freed Photography discovered the magic of the PhotoDay Capture App, it was transformative for their workflow—both during and after picture day. 

We interviewed Neal and Bryan to learn why they started their volume photography business, what led them to PhotoDay, and how Capture has made “a huge, monumental change” in the way they run their business.

Lisa:
Thank you for joining me today! We’re going to talk about the experience you’ve had so far with PhotoDay and our Capture app. First, why don’t you tell us about yourself—your studio, what you do, and what you specialize in.

Bryan:
We have a business in the DC area that we started by doing weddings and corporate portraits for a long time starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then in 2009, one of our clients asked us to do school pictures, and we said, “No, because we don’t do school pictures.” When she asked again, Neal, of course, who always leads with “Yes,” said, “Yes, we’ll do it.” 

So we marched down there with our blue backgrounds for traditional yearbook photos. We had zero systems in place—we had two reams of copy paper and two Sharpies because you always need backups. And that was our system: a kid would come up, write their name, hold it up, take a picture, and then we’d do the [professional] pictures. Ten minutes into this very sophisticated process, we looked at each other and said, “What are we doing here? This isn’t what we do. We take beautiful pictures—portrait sessions, environmental portraits.” So we took the kids outside. But then we had all of these pictures without preorders and had to figure out how to get them online.

That was the first school we did. We realized that if we were really going to be in the school business, we needed to figure out how to do the school business. [So over the next 10 years, we did.] We flipped our business totally to now being 90% schools.

But we do things a little differently. We take traditional yearbook pictures, as well as beautiful, environmental portraits outside. We like to say that we don’t do school portraits. We do portraits that happen to be done at school.

Neal:
I’ll add briefly that we have hundreds of schools now and 95% of our sales are online. They’re all multiple pictures—we’ll take anywhere from 6 to 20 pictures of a student. It’s not the traditional, “One picture: put your feet on the mat, smile, click, next.” We do it in a much nicer way, and we think that our sales indicate that we have the right approach in our market.

Bryan:
It’s a simple formula: if you have more to sell then you’ll sell more.

Neal:
And better pictures are going to get better sales. We want to think that we could do it a little better and charge a little more and come out ahead versus being in what I call “the race to the bottom” of “do it quicker, do less, give them less, and charge less.” We’d rather do the opposite. Do a little more, give them a little more, and charge a little more. We think that everyone ends up happier that way.

Lisa:
Back in 2018 at Imaging USA in Nashville, we made our announcement into the industry as PhotoDay. We invited 50 industry leaders to show what we were building. It wasn’t until later when I saw some pictures floating around, that I realized you, Neal, were actually at our launch event back then. So at the time, our Capture app didn’t exist yet, but we were showing how we planned to use and introduce facial clustering into the industry. What were your initial thoughts on that?

Neal:
I mean, I thought it would be great. I thought it would work. There’s no question that facial recognition was going to get there. I’m just amazed at how well yours works. It’s mind-boggling to me. We all knew it was coming, but anybody who thinks that it’s still coming is wrong. It’s here.

Lisa:
I did pull some quick stats. So far, your studio has uploaded over 140,000 photos to 68 unique jobs or schools into PhotoDay. I’m curious—what were your initial thoughts about the process when you were first trying it out?

Bryan:
Before PhotoDay, we were doing QR captures on tablets. We started out on paper, then we graduated to the tablets on our own system that we created. So we were a little bit familiar with using that type of system, but when we first [tried Capture], I found that the speed at which you could capture and go through and get kids identified was really amazing. 

It took so much pressure off our photographers to identify each student because with Capture you don’t have to take the reference photo, then immediately take the kid’s [professional] picture—you can just take the pictures [at any point in the picture day]. Whereas with our old system, you had to take the QR photo, then you immediately had to take the student’s portrait.  

With Capture, it’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. We figured out a system that really works for us. In fact, our production manager came in to tell me today that the school we just did matched up 100%. I don’t think we ever had that with our QR code system.

Neal:
Bryan really handles what’s happening at the picture day at the school, while my experience is more in the back end office side of things. And Bryan’s head was exploding at PhotoDay. One photographer can go through the whole class and photograph everybody so quickly, and all they have to worry about is taking pictures—which is the part they like. We’ll do the hard part of “What’s your name? How do you spell it? Which Smith are you?”

On the back end, QR codes are great, but they’re not 100%. And we even had a very sophisticated system…It was a live database that if somebody came up and they weren’t in the system, we could add them on the tablet. So we were probably as advanced as anybody using QR codes, but when the system had to read the QR codes, sometimes you had glare blocking the code or somebody’s finger was over it or it was out of focus or the QR code was perfect, and the system just didn’t read it. So we never ever got anywhere close to [matching] 100%. 

Our success rate with Capture and PhotoDay is probably at 99.9%, with the biggest problem being making sure that we get a reference photo of everybody. But if we get the reference photo, it just works. I mean, it’s breathtaking and fast. It’s fast at the picture day, and it’s fast back in the office. And when you’re done and you’ve got 500 kids matched, you might have one or two that aren’t identified. The amount of time saved in the whole process is almost incalculable. With hundreds of schools, it’s an absolute game-changer for us.

Bryan:
What I’ve also figured out is that since there’s less work for each photographer, my staffing is going to change. Since it’s so much faster, I’m going to save on labor by probably having one less photographer per job.

Lisa:
To backtrack just a little bit, I really want to know—why did you finally decide to give it a try? What made you decide to dive in and test out Capture?

Neal:
You know, that’s a great question. I don’t even remember where it came from, but I was talking to somebody, and they mentioned you. I remembered what you were working on and [the announcement in Nashville]…And I said, you know, maybe it’s time to touch base again. And I am beyond thrilled that I did.

Lisa:
So you’re around 140,000 images in, but you only started using it a few months ago in the spring season, right?

Neal:
Yes, in the fall it’s gonna be a lot of pictures.

Lisa:
Based on your experience so far, do you feel comfortable enough going into a busy fall season with two or three times the amount of images?

Bryan:
I’m feeling pretty good. Like I said, I do the front end [the actual capture of the Capture). I feel really confident that this is going to give us a huge advantage—to be able to spend more time actually photographing. We’ll be able to do a better job, we’ll have more variety—which means we’re going to sell more—and then you get accuracy. 

Lisa:
You mentioned how it’s helped speed up the events and how the staff is happier because they don’t have that stress on them about the QR codes. Are there any other details you want to share about how Capture and PhotoDay have helped your studio this spring?

Bryan:
A couple of things that are really interesting. Now kids can come at different times during the day. We can get their [reference photo], we can look through the Capture app and confirm who wasn’t there, and if we missed somebody, we can check with the school. When you have someone that isn’t on your student data list, adding a student is really easy to do [on site on the app]. 

What’s also been really, really fantastic is that we’ve been pre-loading for our spring shoots. So when the students come in, we’ll just call the names, and whoever’s left, either I needed a reference photo or already have it. Then they get their pictures taken. It’s super fast and super accurate. Having those reference photos already pre-loaded…my head was definitely exploding. I felt like I was cheating.

We always say that, ultimately, if you don’t have the kid’s name, then don’t bother taking the picture. Because you can have the most beautiful pictures and the perfect lighting and everything is great, but if we don’t know who that kid is, it doesn’t matter. So it all starts with making sure you know who the student is. Without that you have nothing.

Lisa:
Speaking of that, I heard you came up with a pretty creative workflow to make sure that you do have every kid checked in on picture day. Can you share that process? 

Bryan:
We do! It’s a bit of a secret, but we’re going to share it. The magic of knowing if everyone has a reference photo is really the trick. We bought these poker chips, and when we have the student’s reference photo, we give the chip to the student who then gives the chip to the photographer when it’s their turn to be photographed. It’s pretty simple, but it gives everyone a way to make sure that we’ve got them captured in our system; and it lets the photographer know, they’re good to go.

Neal:
So it’s no chippy, no clicky. The photographers are the ultimate kind of safety net because they know that if a kid comes up without a chip, they have to go back and get their reference photo taken. If they have the chip, then we know we have the reference photo. And that’s how we address knowing that we have a reference photo for everybody.

Lisa:
That’s an amazing idea. On picture days, are you working mainly offline or are you using Wi-Fi/cellular connection at the schools?

Bryan:
We’re doing both. Most of our schools have Wi-Fi, but sometimes when we’re shooting outside, we’re too far away from the school and don’t have a connection. When that’s the case, we try to make sure whoever was taking the reference photos lets their app sync as soon as they get back home to make sure that all those things are getting uploaded [to the studio panel].

Neal:
We’re always tweaking our business, and most tweaks are little tweaks. Rarely do we get to do a tweak that’s a game-changer. We thought that our QR workflow was pretty slick, but the total student identification aspect of Capture versus the way we were doing it…The impact on the photographers, the photo data, the speed, the accuracy—this is a huge, huge game-changer for us. It’s almost as big as going from Sharpies on copy paper to QRs. With how much more accurate, quicker, and easier it is for the photographers and for our back office people—It’s a huge, monumental change, and we don’t get to come across changes that big that often. We are huge PhotoDay fans.

Lisa:
Our team loves to hear this. I mean, that’s why we do what we do, why we work so hard, challenge the technology, and try to build new processes. We’re always asking, “How can we really build something truly unique and use different technology to accomplish something better?”

Bryan:
We also like being innovative, and we like doing something that’s going to change the way things are being done in a positive way. We’re always in favor of that and work really hard at that. That’s kind of what brought us into what we do. Neal tells the story a million times of how [people would say], “You can’t take pictures outside, that will never work. You can’t put pictures on the internet, that will never work.” But fortunately, Neal doesn’t listen, and here we are. We came up with a method of doing what we do in a very efficient way that produces creative and beautiful imagery with the throughput velocity—featuring Capture. It’s gotten us to where we are today.

A huge thank you to Neal and Bryan for sitting down with us and sharing their experience! We love hearing how impactful PhotoDay’s features can be. You can connect with Freed Photography on Facebook and LinkedIn

To learn more about Capture, FaceFind, and the rest of PhotoDay’s features, browse our website and sign up to get started for free! 

Want to read more first-hand accounts of how Capture can change your volume school photography workflow? Check out our interview with PhotoDay Trailblazer Zeke Moreno of Chalkboard Photography.

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