According to Seth Godin, marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make but about the stories you tell. One such powerful way of telling that story is through photos and images. Professional photographer Shelly Au talks about imagery and visual work, having a business focused on creating high-quality headshots and visual branding. Shelly helps companies communicate their story to the world in an artistic and creative way. He says it’s more than capturing your subject sitting down, taking the photo, getting up, and then leaving. Visual branding is more of how you get people to portray who they are to help businesses succeed and take the next step.
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Visual Branding: Telling Your Story Through Imagery with Shelly Au
We’re incredibly fortunate, we have Shelly Au. He’s from Shelly Au Photography. We’re going to be talking about imagery and visual work with him and why it’s important. Shelly, tell me a little bit about your business and who you serve.
Bob, thank you for having me here. I appreciate it and the opportunity to chat with you on this. My business is focused on two areas. It’s high-end quality headshots and the second part is visual branding. It’s communicating the story of a business and what they’re doing. It’s how you artistically and creatively help them communicate that to the world and the public.
You and I met. I was at a corporate training event and you were doing all the headshots for all of the participants. For most of us rookies, we’ll do a selfie and go, “There’s my photo,” and I stick it on LinkedIn and you look at it and go, “It looks like a bad mugshot from the police department.” Let’s talk about the importance of that headshot in representing who you are.
There’s a lot that goes into it, believe it or not. The general photographer will bring in your studio and shoot you. Keep in mind when I photographed you and many others, I only had ten minutes. I do my best to try to communicate with you and to hear about what you’re doing. All of that helps me pose you the way I get your eyes to look. The way you sit up or down, leaning towards the camera, turn your face. I’m studying you. I’m studying my subject, their face but I’m also trying to bring out who they are as a person. I would pose them differently. I had Frank Shamrock come in and he was a boxer. He had awesome cheekbones and trying to get him as he speaks with his hands going. I definitely study them and try to help them come out. I feel like that separates me from the others as well along with some of the training. I’ve been very fortunate to train under some people who do head shots well. Peter Hurley in New York charges $2,000 for a headshot. I’m part of his crew and I’m crafting what’s best for that person.
I’m fortunate that I’ve already had my headshot done by Shelly. Part of the reason I had him on the podcast was that I thought it was important to talk about the visual conveyance. I can remember we popped out of a meeting. We went down this long hall and we go to this studio that you set up on site. It’s not as simple as your subject sitting down, you take photos and they get up and leave. There’s a whole process that you go through when you do the photo. Let’s talk a little bit about how you get your subject ready and comfortable.
There are a few things there. One is the lighting setup I chose. I have LED lights that are constantly on. Right there, there’s a sparkle in your eyes. It’s not that triggering flash that goes off and I can do that. I have done it that way. That continuous lighting allows a person to relax first of all. I always kneel and when I’m communicating. I have them sit on the chair first. It’s almost talking and finding out about who they are because sometimes people are very serious. That’s who they are and I try to bring that out but sometimes they’re very funny. We get some candids of them. They don’t even know I’m taking pictures of them but I’m grabbing some shots. It’s connecting and telling their story. A lot of people love to talk about themselves so how do you bring that out in them.
I had a customer, I did his headshot at the workshop and he hated taking photos. He said, “Shelly, thank you so much. That was amazing. I hate taking photos.” I didn’t know that. He said, “Let’s work together again.” Afterwards, we connected and he shared about his business. He flew me out to Ohio. I went all the way there. We had this for a week-long. We shot his whole staff, him speaking, all these different things and team shots. He had an event and he told all of his advisors at this event before the meeting. He said, “Do you see that man back there? He’s a photographer from Colorado. I brought him here because when I did the workshop, he took the time to get to know me. I hate taking photos and I’ve never had a photo like that before. I brought him here because as financial planners, we need to take the time to get to know our customers and invest in our people. That’s what we do.” That was so honoring for me that he flew me all the way there to do all this. Since then I’ve flown to Florida and have done all these things, helping company CEOs tell their story of what they are. I have some images. We had Rebecca Walser in Florida. She’s another financial advisor.
The thing that’s interesting in my personal experience, I had an old photo and updated my photo with yours. I had a raft of compliments. More importantly, the compliments were not like, “You looked better than you do.” They basically said, “That captures who you are.” I thought that was important, which comes back to why we’re here. In the business environment, so much of what we see nowadays is social media driven, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, your website and the visual representation on your website. You were talking about eleven judgments. What are your thoughts behind that?
A lot of people love to talk about themselves, so the goal is how do you bring that out in them.
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You have a fraction, that seven seconds to capture them. In speaking, you have a few seconds to hook your audience. When people see your profile and if you have a sloppy profile they’re going, “This person’s not serious about himself. They’re not serious about their business.” It’s communicating by seeing, “This person’s professional. Look at them, they’re serious, they’re going after it.” I feel like it’s a big problem. How do we get people to portray who they are, help businesses succeed, take the next step? Let’s create imagery that impacts, wows that, “This is what I’m about.” That’s one of the biggest mistakes people have on their websites. They just throw images on there and then there are too many words and it’s overwhelming. The customer doesn’t know how to navigate and they go to else versus, “It’s very clear what they do, what their message is, who they’re helping and what problem they’re trying to solve?”
I would love to think that it’s rational on the visual interpretation of what we put out there. It’s exactly correct that if you’re serious about your business and branding, then clearly quality imagery work matters. If you do it, you own the rights to your photos instead of snagging them somewhere off the Internet and hoping for the best. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the photography world as a business?
I spent seventeen years overseas as a missionary. I did a lot of finances administration. I was a business major out of college. I wanted to give three years back of my life. Three years turned into 22 of that seventeen years overseas. I was helping people do all administrative things; finances, operations, I ran security and we’re talking of twelve countries all together at the head office. At one point we had a group of short-termers come over and they had a camera. They started taking pictures of my kids and I’m like, “That is amazing.” They’re like, “No, it’s in the camera.” I’m like, “No.” As I began to hang out, they let me borrow the camera and it’s like, “This is really fun.”
My wife saw a difference in me when I had a camera in my hands. I started doing media, videos and things like that. I said, “I want to do something for me in some ways. I’ve been helping others a ton and I want to do something I’m passionate about.” Not that I wasn’t passionate about the mission, I was but I wanted something that was alive in me. I decided to pursue it. I raised a ton of money. I told my Asian boss said, “No,” which you don’t do that. He asked me to take the head operations job. I said, “No, I want to start a media company, a portion of our organization.
He gave me his blessings and then we started to create products. I created a tool called Heart Mirror. It’s using 50 images to allow people to connect with each other. There were no words. We’re in an Asian country, a closed country and I created this tool. I brought in nationals to come in and we all created it together. They named it. We had questions, developed it and it became a product. It was so impactful. One of the most impactful stories for me was I got a letter saying, “I was about to commit suicide. I went to a church, this person laid out these cards and we began to talk. I saw an image of hope and that my life doesn’t have to be this way.”
This tool that I had created allowed people to interact and it helped save a life. We would take it to universities, in business meetings and they would introduce these cards and within five minutes people are tearing. They’re sharing this image, “That looks like my grandmother who passed away.” It allowed people to connect. That was the first time I realized, “Imagery can be used to go to a place where words cannot or human interaction cannot.” I began this journey. I love the story behind images. As I got my Master’s degree in New York, I began to see there’s a lot of powerful imagery and how can that be used to help people communicate themselves and how can that be used for other people’s businesses to communicate their message.
I think about it and you’ve been recognized for some of the stuff that you’re doing because you placed on an Adobe competition.
I got my Master’s and this is my second career. The mid-30s, 40s, with my Master’s degree in New York and got nominated for the Student Adobe Design Achievement Awards in a photography category. My Master’s thesis was the documentary of what was happening in China, broken homes, those homes were being torn down. My teacher who was inducted the Photoshop Hall of Fame in 2005, Katrin Eismann, she’s like, “Shelly, you have to do this project. This is so powerful.” I had documented for two and a half years all that was going on. I had this image where it was a full-blown Chinese character on the wall. It was a normal life with a bicycle, there’s humanity in it and the next year later, half of it was torn down. You could see for miles broken rubble. That was cool because I didn’t know I had that image when I put them together. That became the front and the back of my book, the cover of that book. I turned that into a thesis. I was touring that. When I got to Colorado, moved back to the States, I began touring that to conferences and churches of high schools. That whole thesis was powerful.
You’ve got moved from that. You don’t just do headshots, you’re starting to work with automobile dealerships as well and also small businesses. Let’s talk about your efforts in those areas.
There are a lot of powerful imagery that can be used to help people communicate themselves.
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The other part of my business as visual branding. It’s how do we communicate a message through storytelling? I consider myself a visual storyteller. I help companies not only do headshots but look at their websites, making sure the message that they’re communicating flows. I’ve been working with Courtesy Acura here in town. I’m doing a lot of promos for them visually, put things on their websites but bringing the humanity side of the cars. I’m starting to create fun creative things. That is called a composite where we add different elements, yet it’s still the car but his son was flying over to the car, his daughter’s holding on and they’re all in the car. It’s creating a snow scene when it wasn’t snowing. Adding that and telling the story of that.
I’m going over to LA with Frank Shamrock. He’s having me come out there. His daughter is ten years old. She has two agents. I’m going to do actor headshots and she’s very athletic. She has an eight pack he says, I’m going to do a whole Nike sports scene. We’re going after artistic creativity that when someone sees it they go, “Tell me more.” That’s what I’m branching out. I’m doing both headshots. In some ways, they actually tie together because I’m telling the story even in the headshot. I’m telling the story of a person but I feel like this whole visual branding creative side is exciting for me. We’re going after one image and it’s a big production but telling that story.
When you’re out there talking to the business owners and they’re considering whether they take and engage, what are you hearing back from some of the business owners that you’ve worked with about the results that come from the work that you’re doing for them?
They love it. A girl in Florida, she’s on CNBC, she’s on the news and all that stuff. They love the hits that they’re getting and the images that are coming out of that. I’m still working on my Ohio clients because a lot of times they lose people as well. Their financial service is usually having me remove things but they love that. They want that updated immediately. This Courtesy Acura, he puts it on Instagram, “What do you guys think?” A lot of people interact. Even that in itself, “What do you think?” People are interacting and coming across that. I’ve been hearing a lot of feedback from this whole new visual branding side.
I’ve been studying and I’m learning from a person called Josh Rossi. He creates amazing imagery even for Adobe and all these things. It’s learning under the best and I feel like that’s a business model I’m learning. When I find something, I want to find the best person in that industry and learn from them. That’s where I feel helped me in business. Don’t try and do the free YouTube thing. You can but learn from the best, if you’re going to learn and study under the best. Even my photo retouching, I found a person who retouches well. I buy into their program and I learn from them so my imagery stands out. The way I retouched the skin. I don’t want them to look plastic. I want the wrinkles to show but I want their face to glow. That’s part of my headshots, why it’s so well received is because the way I edit too. It’s not just how a shoot you and get your expressions but it’s how I bring out your color. Making sure everything is who you are but not fake. There’s a fine line.
This is the part of the episode where I ask you a series of questions. What’s the most recent book or an influential book that has altered your perception of what you do or how you run your business?
Seth Godin, he has been impacting me a lot. I’ve made a mind shift. I’m spending about 25% of my time in the development of my business. You get to a certain point where you feel like you’re there but then you forget about the learning piece, realizing that there’s always room for development, always room for learning. This whole part of what Seth and the marketing side of what he’s sharing and producing, his newest book is called This Is Marketing. Right after it was released, I listened to the Audible books. We got the printed copy too. For him, it’s cultivating your clan, your people and going all out to treat them well to develop them and not worry about satisfying everybody. That’s one of the biggest mistakes as business owners. We try to make everybody happy and, in the end, it’s mediocre work. You go after a certain style like my headshots. I do the Peter Hurley style. That is my style. I’ll cut off the head a little bit. People are like, “Why are you cutting off my head?” I want to be closer to you as a viewer. I don’t need to see everything else. I want to see who you are, look into your eyes.
You get into a niche. If you’re passionate about your niche and what you believe, then you communicate it. Verbally is the medium that we’re working on in the podcast. The video does somewhat of a job but it doesn’t do the job when you get up to close the camera for a headshot. It’s a different thing. Before I get too far down the road, if folks want to reach out to you and find you on social media, how do they find you?
Looking back over your business, what’s a failure or perhaps at the time, it seemed like a failure that’s helped you with your business?
You want the wrinkles to show but you want their face to glow.
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There are a lot of mistakes that have come across that I’ve learned from. As a new business owner, you get so focused on trying to survive, trying to pay the bills. You forget about giving. You forget about helping others along the way. You’re at the need to be helped but at the same time, giving back and pouring yourself out. In the earlier portion of starting my business, I was so focused on myself. I didn’t think of others and then realizing, “I need to change that.” Even the way I talked to my assistants, I didn’t want to give them all my information but then it is like, “She’s a college student. She’s learning.” I poured myself out to her and I’m like, “This is how you do it.” Thinking of her, I’m able to connect to people and she’s not, she’s an introvert. I’m an introvert too but the way I connect is something. I have her watched that and try her best. That’s my thing. It’s not being afraid to share information, your wealth and give back to others. I think that’s so important.
If you could put an ad on page one of the local business paper sharing your belief of message about what you’re doing, what would it say and why?
It goes back to that 7-11 principle. You have a short time to make the first impact. For me, it’s that creative imagery that impacts. It’s that artistic creativity that wows people. That’s what I’m about. It’s not just your average photographer. It’s that relationship; connecting with them and bringing that out. Imagery that impacts. I think that’s my quote or that 7-11 principle. Those messages, those are the things that I feel.
It all drives into what you were talking about as visual storytelling, whether it’s a short story or it’s a longer story.
Visual storytelling is also one of my tags. I got that from Adobe when I won that award or when I went through that process. They had branded me as a visual storyteller. I’ve been using that in my tag ever since through photography, not even through video. It’s telling the story in a scene. That’s what I’m about. I love that.
Maya Angelou says, “They won’t remember what you said. They remember how they made you feel.” You think about the visual impact and how it makes people feel.
It’s connecting with them and it shows through the images I create. It’s that lens of if getting them to that place and connecting with them.
What’s the best allocation of time or initiative that’s helped you the most?
Development. With my personality, I pour myself in all the busyness of stuff. When I can sit down for ten minutes, calm myself down and go for a walk, that is the best thing I can do. I have a business coach and it’s always the hardest thing to do because we get so caught up in the business of life and trying to make things work that we forget to pause, rest and figure out if you’re headed in the right direction. I need to do that more. I try to do it as much as I can but that is one thing that I always strive to do. I often fail, especially with two kids, wife and a dog. It’s crazy. Having to stop, pause, reflect and get some me time. That is probably the best use of time.
What is an unusual habit or what others might consider unusual that helped you or your company most?
It's the creative imagery that impacts. It’s that artistic creativity that wows people.
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When I’m going through my imagery, oftentimes I have to let it rest for a day. I’ll go back and re-edit, giving it time. A lot of times it makes it better. You go back and you’re not rushed and you have a different perspective on it. That’s one of the small things I do for my imagery standpoint. Another thing, I was talking about the business, I have a business coach. Another one of my great things is being able to talk things through, you don’t feel alone. Hire the best. Find somebody who’s done it and mentor you.
Over the past few years, what belief or protocol have you established that’s most impacted you or your company?
Believe it or not, I learned that protocol from my dad. My dad passed away in Hawaii. I’m born and raised in Hawaii. He was a farmer turned into a financial person and then into a realtor. His ability to connect with people and invest time with people was amazing. He would continuously give. I was home over the holidays and people would come up to us and say, “Your dad did this for me. He did that. He actually helped sell my house at no commission. Your dad helped me clean the yard.” I was like, “Wow.” He was a very great man and at the time, he was one of the four original realtors in our town that the town had. In some ways, he was the father of our town. He sold half the people’s homes in our town. It’s probably 200,000 people. My mother needed her screen fixed in the back. Someone came over, “I’m not going to charge you. Your husband helped me if everything.” Even to the financial person, he said, “I’m doing this all for you guys because your dad was a good man.” I’m taking my whole studio set up over there. I’m going to do a headshot for them as a gift to say thank you, not charging them. He instilled that within me, to give back, to help people and then you have that bond and that relationship. That goes far.
What’s an advice that you would offer to a new business owner that wants to follow a similar path in the imagery world?
Find someone and their style that you love and go after learning from them. It’s not as a photographer but it’s in business, in communicating. I’m a big believer in spending the money, hiring the best and learning from the best. You can find everything on YouTube and something is great if you want to fix your car but I don’t want to be a mechanic. If I want to learn from the best, whether editing imagery, it’s a style of headshot I want to do. Whatever you want to do, find the person and learn from the best.
Pick the proper mentor. What are the most common misconceptions of what people think about when you go to do imagery work for them? Let’s talk about that.
In my industry, there are a lot of amateurs and hobbyists wanting to make this as a profession, “I’ve got a DLSR camera and I want to do weddings.” I don’t compete with the hobbyist. A lot of misconception is, “Your prices are so high.” It’s like, “Yes, they are high for a reason.” One, I have my Master’s degree in Digital Photography. Two, it’s the quality of work I produce. I’m not going to compete with your college student or your hobbyist doing a headshot. Go ahead but I take pride in my work. Everything I do, I try to take pride in the quality of my work and making my customers happy. The goal is to help them communicate. My price tag is a lot higher than others because of the quality. That’s why I’m going after.
From my perspective, it’s evident as a beneficiary of your work.
Looking back over the past few years, what would or should you have said no to or why?
Be a believer in spending the money, hiring the best, and learning from the best.
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By nature, personality, I’m a people person. I’m a people pleaser. I talked about helping your customers and everything but sometimes I’m so busy doing things for others that I’m not taking care of myself. Saying no to other things means yes to other things. Taking care of myself, having boundaries of my work, my family, I feel like those I say yes too often. Learning to say no is important to all the other things that can grab your time.
In the day-to-day operations of your company, people have a ritual or self-talk that they go through. What’s your ritual or self-talk that keeps you focused?
It’s going back to those few ten, fifteen minutes of starting your day. I’m a Christian, I’m a believer. I try to take some time to read some scripture, thinking about messages from other people, thoughts, going through that and calming myself down. I can get so worked up about work and things that need to be done. I forget about myself and taking care of myself. That and along with having a puppy, having to walk the puppy every morning, that gives me time to both walk and think as well. Get a dog.
A quote that you find meaningful or one that you use frequently?
It’s that 7-11 quote from Michael Solomon, “You have seven seconds to make an impact on a person. By then they’ll have eleven judgments of you.” I feel like that’s one of my things. It’s making that first impression, that’s key.
You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If I was to talk to colleagues and ask them what you’re best at, what would they say and how do you utilize that strength in your business?
I’m fun to work with. I hear that often, especially people when I’m doing those workshops. I have fifteen to twenty people come in, I have ten minutes with you. Being able to connect with me, that’s big. I’m fun, I’m lighthearted but also the quality of my work. As I share it with others, I feel they love that. I get a lot of positive responses from the headshots and the creative visual branding thing. That’s been a lot of fun.
I believe that the imagery in conveying who you are, what you’re about in social media and in your business is extremely important. Sometimes it gets pushed to the side or with the advent of cell phones and selfies, I could shoot a photo. People can tell and it says a lot about who you are and what your business is about if you spend the time, effort and energy to portray who you are properly through imagery. Hence why we’re here, that’s why we’re doing this in the podcast. It’s a benefit to the listeners if they haven’t reviewed what they’re doing in the imagery to take a hard look at it. If you want a good critique, show it to somebody that loves you and goes, “That’s not you.” Get that image that portrays who you are. Shelly, thank you so much for taking time out of your day.
Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
It’s a pleasure.
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About Shelly Au
My passion is to tell your STORY whether it’s a headshot, product, concept, or your mission & vision for your business. Believe it or not, it will come out of your eyes!
While in New York, I received the Paula Rhodes Honors Award when I was working on my Masters at the School of Visual Arts under the chair of Photoshop Hall of Fame Katrin Eismann. In that same year I, out of thousands of entries all over the world, was one of three finalists for the 2013 Adobe Design Achievement Award in the photography category.
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