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SPOA Member Profile: CK Visuals

Despite CK Visuals being a new volume photography business, owner Chris Keane brings decades of photography experience to his craft. The move to volume photography was strategic and well-planned.

Keane got his start as a photojournalist.

“I grew up in the world of newspapers, magazines, wire services, news, and sports,” he said. “I traveled all over the place as a freelancer most of my career. I got to a certain place where

I was pretty good at what I did and had a lot of good clients.

“I saw the end was near and I had to keep going to provide for my family. I couldn't keep traveling 135 days a year.”

He added the ongoing deterioration of the freelance photojournalism business led him to make the decision to take on more conventional portrait work. He started with a few daycare centers, in conjunction with his photojournalism career.

The timing was opportune, as the large news organizations that made up the bulk of Keane’s clientele started cutting their budgets.

“I was mostly a wire photographer and it was great,” he explains. “But I was thinking, ‘How many more times in my career will I be able to replace clients?’”

After dabbling in school photography, Keane decided to commit to the business.

“I said, ‘2016 I knew was gonna be my last year as a full-time photojournalist,’ “ he said. “It was a lot of fun but, when 2017 came around, I set a new goal.”

Keane says his background as a freelance photojournalist prepared him for the volume photography business… but not in the way you might think. For him, cold-calling was not a barrier.

“My willingness to pick up the phone helps,” he explains. “One of my first jobs was answering phone calls in the newsroom. You didn’t know who was calling and your job was to answer the phone and help them out.”

The second trait from his photojournalism background that transferred well to volume photography was flexibility. “As a photojournalist, you don't know what's going to happen or when it's going to happen but you know how to be ready and get the moment that you need to get.”

Willingness to listen and empathy is also key way Keane wins and keeps business, he says.

“How can you solve problems on picture day?” he says. “If a school complains that picture day takes all day, I say, ‘What if I can do it in three hours?’ We developed a plan and a model to get in and out as quickly as possible. If that meant taking six photographers, we took six photographers.

“My willingness to talk to people and have a conversation that I may not know the answer to really helped.”

Keane’s “nose to the grindstone” approach worked.

“By the end of 2017, we had 10 preschools and a youth league. It wasn't a side gig but I still had my (freelance) contracts. I'd run off and do a basketball game or a golf tournament. But I kind of kept that going.”

By the next year, Keane added a full-time employee as the growth continued.

“My goal was to figure out the preschool market,” he explained. “I saw I could make a business that became not only sustainable for my family but I could also be a job creator. That was important to me.”

Work through the process

Before advancing from preschools into larger schools, Keane wanted to work through the entire process: “I knew, once I got into a school, it’s going to be harder to make a mistake and come back from that.”

In January 2020, Keane committed to booking more schools… just in time for the pandemic shutdown. He took the time to focus on the volume business.

“At the time, I had one full-time employee and I’m very fortunate that I kept her employed the entire time,” he explained. “We were trying everything.

“It was finally for the first time in that three-year period that I could focus on the business. It was hard. But I just kept pushing and kept working.”

By June 2020, things began to open up a bit. One of Keane’s preschool clients allowed the studio to photograph families… from a distance with a telephoto lens. By the summer, more schools were booked; Keane credits CK Visuals gaining the business by being accommodating to client needs.

“We said that we don't have to play by a playbook,” he said. “If the clients want to do something, we’ll do it.”

Business built quickly, doubling from 6,700 to 11,000 students in 2021, then doubling again by Fall, 2022, with 24,000 students.

As a newer school portrait company and a SPOA member, Keane sees only advantages to being involved with the industry association. After hearing about SPOA at an industry event, he called and learned more about the association’s activities and direction.

“I’m only going to learn from being a part of this organization,” he said. “It's a good organization making a positive long-term impact. Also, there’s the opportunity to learn from the multigenerational families running a volume photography business.”

Keane hopes to continue the growth of CK Visuals, as the Charlotte, NC, area is growing rapidly, especially with people moving in from out of state.

“We’re adding so many residents from all over the globe and these folks don't have the annual tradition school pictures,” he said. “That’s interesting to see.”

Keane feels strongly the school portrait and volume photography industry is poised for a new era.

“I just want to be a part of the next generation that helps reinvigorate school photography because I think what we do is important. It's valued in the community.”

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