In Pursuit of Excellence

by Peter Kotsinadelis

Grant Oakes

February 01, 2011 — If you ask Grant Oakes to describe what sets him apart from the crowd, he will tell you it is a “relentless pursuit of excellence.” He religiously studies light, lines and composition. As he explains, “If I really like an image, I’ll look at it and think about what I could have done to make it better using a different angle, perspective or maybe taking the shot a split second sooner or later.” This self-challenging approach to improvement and a well developed eye has enabled him to continuously refine his craft. Today his studio, Images By Grant Oakes, handles photography ranging from high-end weddings to portraits and commercial photography.

An award-winning photographer, he has long believed that there is more to building a successful photography business than just producing great images. “If you want a good wheel, you need a lot of spokes.” The spokes refer to different avenues of marketing. And having more than one type of marketing is something that he considers essential in running a profitable business. Print, Internet, networking and referrals are vital to get the exposure you need. “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you,” he says.

As Grant goes on to point out, “Diversification is also important as opposed to relying on one type of photography.” Although weddings account for more than half of his volume these days, the balance is comprised of a variety of portrait and commercial clients. The creative aspect of his wedding work is what has attracted him to other types of photography. “I love what I do,” Grant remarks, “and my goal is to have that feeling show in every one of my images, regardless of the assignment.”

Grant got his introduction to photography when he purchased a 35mm SLR in 1975. Educated as a mechanical designer, he used his abilities to quickly learn the technical aspects of photography. He soon found himself photographing landscapes, from sunsets on Lake Michigan to the snowcapped mountains of Colorado. Shortly thereafter, he photographed a friend’s wedding. “I asked if I could photograph their wedding as a wedding gift,” he says. His images turned out so well that two months later another friend asked if he would consider photographing his wedding too. It was not long before word spread that Grant was a talented wedding photographer. “I actually considered quitting about 15 years ago, but my wife, Linda, convinced me to stick with it since everyone was so pleased with the images,” he remembers.

He then focused his attention on attending various seminars and photography conferences, developing his creative side and imaging skills. “Being taught by the best the industry has to offer, photographers like David Beckstead, Jerry Ghionis and Joe Buissink, provided lots of inspiration and a level to aspire to,” he says.

Experience has taught him that the best images often come spontaneously. Although he may go to a wedding with a few preconceived ideas as to how he wants to create certain images, he may see an opportunity as the event unfolds. “Once you get started photographing, you begin to see images emerge right before you. I’ve learned that many of my best images happen when I discover something that I hadn’t anticipated, an architectural feature, a ray of light or something that lends itself to a compositional element. I then quickly adapt to the moment, and then trip 
the shutter.”

In 1996, Linda started assisting him with his weddings. Eventually she progressed to the point of photographing them on her own, but found her true calling was children’s portraits. “She truly has an artistic eye. “Children’s portraits are really where her heart is,” Grant says. They designed and built a custom home that included a large 18 x 26-foot camera room, complete with two 6-foot windows on the north wall for available light shooting. “We built the house/studio primarily for Linda’s portrait work. The windows provide phenomenal lighting for portraits.” He and Linda are planning an outdoor area for portraits complete with pond and 6-foot waterfall. Although recent health issues have prevented her from participating in the business, Linda does what she can and remains a great source of encouragement and inspiration to Grant.

“As a photographer you often see how powerful photography can be,” Grant says. “I’ve literally had mothers hug photographs when the images touch them.” Some of his wedding clients have pointed out that many of his images seem to, “show the true emotions of the event.” His style of creative wedding photojournalism has garnered business from corporate customers that seek something different from the norm, and accounts for a substantial portion of the studio’s revenue.
For example, he was hired by Navistar International a few years ago to photograph one of their regional dealer events in Aurora, CO. “They wanted a digital photographer so they could have the images ready to use at their business meeting the next day.” The company was so pleased with the images they flew him to Tucson, AZ, the following year and he has been asked to come back for 
future events.

As an early convert to digital capture, Grant made the transition in early 2001 when he purchased the Canon D30. “The flexibility along with time and cost savings were too good to ignore.” With results rivaling the images he was getting from his medium format equipment, he decided to go completely digital. As an early advocate of digital photography, Grant began speaking about the benefits of digital photography and was sponsored by companies that included Kodak, Renaissance Albums, Millers Lab and Unique Photo. His series of seminars were aptly named the “Digital Pow-Wow,” a two-day program designed to help other photographers make the transition from film to digital. For several years Grant toured the country explaining how a photographer could easily switch to all digital capture with details that included post-processing workflow and essential Photoshop techniques.

After several years of unprecedented growth in digital photography, Grant is still conducting seminars, but more specifically his Art and Inspiration series (www.artandinspiration.com). These seminars are really workshops designed for photographers looking to shoot destination weddings. Those who take the workshop work side-by-side with Grant at a real destination wedding, where they learn the ins and outs of shooting on location and are able to create compelling images. In addition, they also learn how to market their services in these challenging economic times.

Last but not least is the newest “spoke” in his wheel, www.tafota.com, a Web site template and hosting company specifically designed for photographers. Grant’s firm belief that “first impressions are critical,” is something that prompted him to start the new venture. As Grant explains, “The service provides photographers with an easy to manage, yet great looking Web site with the added benefit of technical support that’s only a phone call away.”

“Marketing is the key to success and the best tool a photographer has to stay ahead of the competition.” Grant considers marketing along with creativity and experience to be the tools needed to be successful in these competitive times. As he pointed out during our conversation, “It’s the personality and experience behind the camera that gets and keeps the client.” When you consider that Images By Grant Oakes continues to be successful nearly three decades later, his advice is something others should seriously consider.


Peter Kotsinadelis is a writer/photographer living in Pleasanton, CA. He may be reached at peterk727@gmail.com

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