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Inspire Me Friday Interview #21} McClanhan Studio

I get a lot of emails asking business questions and every time one says something along the lines of ‘I’ve only been doing this for a year…” I cringe a little – only a tiny little bit and let me explain why. Sometimes I read it and I think, ‘oh awesome’ and other times when I read it I can feel it is being used as an excuse.  I believe (and I really mean it) that you can do anything, be anything and accomplish anything – in short Barbie was right! But if success were a cupcake, hard work is the cake, determination is the icing and sprinkles are the good luck… Are you catching my little analogy? Sprinkles, like luck, are great and they add a very nice little something but is in no way a necessity for a delicious treat.  Of course you learn as time goes and with each year that passes, I hope you’ll be one year wiser. But I often feel that it’s not just the years in business, it’s your determination and resourcefulness and downright stubbornness to be successful that will count for the most, especially because you have to work hard to make it those first 2 years. It’s in understanding the balance between knowing how to run your business and creating the images that you’ll find the winning combination! I’m getting long winded…

Just a couple weeks ago I was blog hopping… I think I was actually looking at After Dark’s Facebook page and saw a link to a new mentor, I was curious and as the site loaded and I started to scroll I immediately thought ONE thing… ‘Oh! They HAVE to be on Go{4}Pro!’ The imagery is magical, the lighting fantastic and the branding fabulous and the very best part is that this dynamic duo is only in year one! Numero Uno!!!

I have no idea why but I’m feeling Irving Berlin’s, ‘I can do anything you can do’ coming on from ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ I can’t quite explain it but I’m feeling it. Oh I’m singing… loud! It’s just so empowering to see a studio rocking it so well and knowing that they are still working year one, I love it! With that very long intro I’d like to introduce you to Dan & Alex McClanahan of McClanahan Studio. They are a husband and wife superhero styled duo who are giving reason to stop and take notice to the new kids on the block who seriously know how to rock a cape…

And yet can also become a gorgeous ‘I want to sip hot chocolate with them’ couple in the snow too. So let’s get to know the McClanahans in their very first interview!

1. What’s in the Bag?

We are fortunate to now have (2) Canon 5dmkII’s. We were shooting with a 20d and a 40d and now use those as backup bodies. As for lenses, we each have our own 50mm 1/8 and a 70-200 2/8. We share a 24-70mm 2/8, a macro and a fisheye. We use a mish-mash of speedlights and old flashes for light.

2. You’ve been “pro” for one year??? How is that possible?

A lot of things happened in a short period of time. We graduated from Iowa State (Alex in Graphic Design and Dan in Journalism) and got married in 2008, right when the economy hit the poops. Our tentative jobs fell through and we found ourselves homeless (our lease expired) and unemployed. We moved in with our grandparents and got part time jobs, which left us with a lot of free time to start experimenting photographically. Dan started dabbling as a freelancer in 2008 and we started the studio in 2009. We moved into our space and the studio became our sole source of income in 2010. We never would have done it if our post-grad plans hadn’t fallen through.

We were able to hit the ground running because Alex, being a designer, branded us extraordinarily well and enough people knew about us that we could get enough work to pay rent without advertising. Every dime we made we re-invested back into the studio to buy gear, rent a sweet space, etc. Living with the grandparents saved us a bundle on rent, and we don’t have kids yet or any major expenses, so things have snowballed quickly.

Also, we’ve been fantastically blessed with friendship and guidance from others in the industry. Dennis Chamberlin, Dan Brouillette, Lori Nordstrom , Rodney + Jodi Gehman are all fantastic Iowa photographers that have been kindly receptive to our questions and helped us a bunch with the business end of things. We’ve been thrilled with the friendliness of our peers and have grown a lot simply by asking questions.

3.    What do you attribute to your amazing imagery and fast success?

We’re both self-taught photographers that are constantly learning new things with every job we shoot. That’s where the excitement is for us – continual experimentation and growth. I think our style is unique from other portrait photographers because we didn’t look at other portrait photographer’s work when we were getting started. Dan looked at a lot of photojournalism early on (as a journalism major) and loved the unaltered authenticity of it. We’re both inspired by a lot of commercial photography and fashion photography (i.e. we subscribe to Spin and Vogue for inspiration) and how perfectly idealized the boldness and lighting is. Our style attempts to be a fusion of the two–authentic moments unfolding in an idealized scene.

The uniqueness of our style and social media has enabled our work to spread rapidly. Without facebook, we wouldn’t have a business (and I mean that quite literally – we booked our first several weddings from people that saw our work on facebook and it remains our #1 vehicle for exposure). Also, creating a strong brand has allowed us to appear like we’ve been doing this for years. Being professional in your business dealings and acting like you know what you’re doing (even when you don’t) gets you a long way.

4.   What’s your favorite Friday night date spot?

We like to go camping, even if it’s 15 minutes away. Unplugging completely to get away from everything is the best refresher. We try and take one week per year and just drive to Colorado or Wyoming and adventure. More commonly we’ll rent a movie and get ice cream 🙂 Making husband/wife time is an easy thing to sideline when starting a business, but we’ve made sure to prioritize it. At the end of the day you have to remember that photography is a job, and is way less important than family (and marriage).

5. What’s been your best marketing idea?

Probably deciding to actively pursue our facebook page and blog. This year we’re making sure to design a quality blog post for EVERY single shoot we do (which is a challenge, we’re currently backlogged), but when you take the time and effort to blog a client – they’re thrilled and they show all their friends. Our business has been completely word-of-mouth and we’ve been flown to both coasts for weddings because of the effort and quality we put into our online presence. We’ve never done mailers, never done a bridal show, but it doesn’t matter. Many of our local competitors spend a fortune sending mailers to seniors and advertising by traditional means, so we did the opposite. The clients we want tend to be more tech-savvy anyhow, so it works out.

We also made the decision to pursue quality over quantity with our business. Entering the market as a premium boutique allowed us to bypass being in head-to-head competition with the horde of cheap photographers in our area. Our clients hire us because they really want what we do, not because they’re bargain shopping, and that allows us to stay creative.

7. Tell us about working as a husband wife team.

Oh, it’s only the BEST THING EVER! Right after we got married the only jobs we could get were opposite times of day and it was really draining not seeing each other much. Now we’re literally together all the time. It would probably drive most couples mad, but it works for us. We’re best friends and everything is more exciting when we’re experiencing it together. One person’s accomplishment can be felt by the other and it’s exciting to watch your spouse grow in a professional situation. It was challenging at first to learn our balance. Like any workplace, our studio is fast paced and it’s easy to get short with one another when we’re on deadlines. Learning to not take tense situations in the workplace personally (i.e. “my accountant is mad at me for buying too much gear” is different than “my wife is mad at me”). Also, it’s pretty sweet to say “I’m sleeping with my boss.”

8.   Who takes on what roles?

Alex handles our design, viewing appointments, client relations, accounting, packaging, photographing and editing weddings. Dan handles social media, technical things (like networking, software, figuring out how stuff works), photographs weddings and shoots/edits all of our seniors and commercial projects. We both help each other out quite a bit, but that’s how the roles seem to have developed.

9. What would be your ideal session?

It sounds cliche, but we love all 3 types of sessions that we offer (seniors, weddings, commercial) for different reasons. For us it’s more about the people we’re photographing than anything else. If they’re rad and having genuine fun, we’ll produce unique images unlike anything else we’ve created, and that’s the bomb! Our end vision is to shoot more editorial and commercial work (like portraits for record labels and crazy stuff that takes a lot more pre-planning) and to shoot more exotic weddings. We’re already shooting a handful of destination weddings, and they’re fun for us because creating images in foreign environments gives us a different level of creative freedom and inspiration.

10.   Where might we find you if you’re not working?

This time of year that doesn’t happen much… probably in bed eating Chinese take–out and watching The Office 😉

Our families (both of which live in Iowa) and our Christian faith are the forefront of our priorities, so you’d probably find us playing playing cards at grandma’s house or at our church (where Dan drums). Or perhaps dressing up in costumes and rampaging Wal–Mart in the middle of the night.

11. Tell us about your usual workflow?

We shoot, then apply basic editing in Lightroom, then proof with exports from Lightroom and finish by fine-tuning our favorites + any purchased images in Photoshop before printing. We design all albums and specialty products by hand (not using pre-purchased templates ensures that our products are one-of-a-kind, and clients dig that). We also do our packaging in-house. We personally handle everything from the first phone call through handing the client their finished product (excluding printing, which is done by a lab). Lots of photographers are saying “outsource everything you possibly can” but we really enjoy having creative control over the entire process. We get so many compliments from clients that love knowing that every interaction they have with our studio is with the two of us, never a third party. It’s very personal and allows us to develop real relationships with our clients.

12. Will you tell us about how you develop your concept (personal) shoots?

Honestly most of them just come about as happy accidents. Most of the work in our personal gallery was done early on, some of the first images we ever shot when we were very first falling in love with photography (back when we had free time!). Other shoots come just from goofing around with our friends. That’s how we learned the trade – just messing around. We occasionally have themed parties and invite past clients and we’ll shoot images at those (that’s where the Harry Potter images on our web site came from, we’ll be doing that again this year).

We have yet to actually produce and follow through with much of a concept shoot, but we have a notebook filled with ideas and hopefully will execute some of them this winter when we get a break from seniors and weddings. It’s crucial to make time just to shoot for the love of it, otherwise your creativity will run dry.

Also – our personal work has helped us score some sweet gigs! Shoot stuff that you want to shoot, show it, and eventually others will hire you to shoot similar work. You’re never going to get cool jobs unless you show cool work in your portfolio. Personal work is a great place to start.

13.   Has there been a book/workshop that you feel was instrumental in your success or growth as a photographer?

We’ve actually never been to a workshop or national convention. Our first baby step was joining PPI (Professional Photographers of Iowa) this year and attending their yearly conference in February. There we literally had our minds blown at a presentation by Julia Woods. She talked about branding and marketing and business and her story was very similar to ours. It was very inspiring and gave us the courage to go all out this year.

Prior to that we’d made trips to the library and poured over photo books by the masters (Annie Leibovitz, Cartier Bresson, etc) to get inspiration. Dan reads a lot of blogs and learned how to do everything we do through experimentation and googling things.

14. What have each of you always found to be easy?

I don’t know if anything has been a walk in the park, but our love of fun and our personalities seem to have gotten us a long way. We’re quick to earn our client’s trust and to get them to really open up. If a client can see that you’re passionate and genuinely interested in creating something wonderful for them, they become much more cooperative. Face every challenge with an optimistic attitude and everything will turn out alright in the end.

15.   When’s the last time he brought you flowers?

Dan knows I don’t like flowers because they just die. Ice cream is my flowers, and he got me my favorite yesterday: Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked! He’s also amazing at doing little things everyday that make me beam like a school girl. I definitely feel like we’re honeymooners even though we’ve been married over 2 years. Dan learned quick that “happy wife means happy life!”

16. What would you label as your professional weakness?

Our biggest weakness has been lack of business sense, but we’ve been working hard to change that. You can observe that a lot of boring photographers have tons of business and a lot of artistically excellent photographers struggle to make ends meet. It’s a right brain/left brain thing, and we’ve been forced to embrace the left brain (which is often very uncomfortable) in order to succeed.

Also, very early on it was a challenge to learn to say “no” to people. Everybody wants a deal and you need to stick to your guns. We have so much family and so many friends in our area that our business would go under if we gave them all special deals. It’s OK if your friends can’t afford you, it’s business. We love our friends because they’re our friends, not because we want them to be our clients.

17.   What question do you look forward to being asked?

It’s fun when people ask us about non-photo stuff! If you were to walk into our studio you’d see some goofy personal photos with great stories behind them. We get asked about those a lot. Here are a few McClanahan fun facts:

–  Alex made her own wedding dress

–  Dan once hung out with Vanilla Ice for a day and got his autograph on a copy of TMNT II: Secret of the Ooze

–  Alex once busted her face grinding a 40 foot rail on a snowboard right before meeting Dan for the first time. He still liked her even though she looked like Two-Face.

–  Dan got a D in his first photography class

18. What has been the highlight of your already amazing career?

We feel very fortunate to be able to do something we truly love, and even more fortunate to be able to do it together. This is our make-or-break year and we’ve handled it well so far. The best feeling is when our images cause intense emotional reaction in our clients. We’ve had several brides and mothers that cried upon viewing their images and are so grateful for our services. Of course we’re equally grateful they took a chance working with us as a new studio, so it creates this awesome feeling that we’re doing something meaningful and positively impacting lives.

We’ve recently started getting a lot of attention from other photographers, which is both weird and cool. Dan will be a Mentor at After Dark in Portland and we’ve been giving guest lectures at Iowa State University to aspiring entrepreneurs. Teaching is very rewarding because it also impacts lives, and we hope to do more of it in the future.

19.  Can you tell us about how you’re lighting your sports senior images?

We currently use Canon 580’s + Radiopoppers to light our outdoors senior shots. We shoot them in the evenings and Radiopoppers allow you to high-speed sync, so you can drastically underexpose the background and create some pretty sweet skies for heroic-looking shots. Usually I’ll use 2 lights, a main and a kicker.

If we’re shooting a big commercial job we’ll lug out the studio strobes (Alien Bees) like for the attached basketball photos (both shot for universities) because we’ll have plenty of time to set up and it’s all about getting one perfect shot. If you want to learn about light, check out, but be prepared to get addicted and waste a lot of time there 🙂

Also, a word of encouragement to anybody reading that’s thinking “OMG, how will I ever afford all that gear?!”: Some of the work on our website was shot with a Rebel XT, second-hand Vivitar flashes and cheap triggers from eBay. Not exactly ideal equipment, but you can do a LOT with a little if you’re resourceful. Resourcefulness and creativity will always get you farther than having the latest gear.

20. There is a lot you learn in the first year, what’s been your most important lesson thus far?

Learn business. No matter where you’re at as an image maker, brand yourself and create a solid identity. Get involved in your local community. Come up with a 20 second elevator speech to tell people why they should care about what you’re doing. Figure out your cost of doing business and price according to your situation, not according to your competition. It gets so much easier to improve as a photographer when you have the business end of things taken care of.

Also, don’t get caught up with small failures. We have them all the time and so will you. Keep your mind on the big picture and make sure the work you’re doing on a daily basis will get you to where you want to be in 5 or 10 years. Otherwise you’ll burn out.

Most importantly, live life according to your priorities. Don’t forsake your family for photography. Invest time in things that matter. It’s easy to get consumed, so be on the offensive. That’s a long-winded bunch of advice, but you asked for it 😉

What did I tell you? Incredible right? Aren’t you just so excited you met them? I am!

If you need more of the McClanahan’s you can find them at:

McClanahan Studio Website

McClanahan Studio Blog

McClanahan’s on Facebook

McClanahan’s on Twitter

… And Dan is going to be one of the many incredible mentors at After Dark in Portland!

Last note… I know a bunch of you are waiting to hear about the Go{4}Pro ‘Building The Biz Workshop’ from last weekend! It was AMAZING and I’m so excited to share all about it with pictures on Monday. We had the most incredible weekend with fantastic photographers.  It was just a fantastic weekend right up until we walked back in the house after our drive home from Seattle to find water pouring out of the ceiling which was coming from the kids bathroom that just happens to share a wall with my office and more importantly, my prop closet. Luckily we were able to get people in immediately to start repairing the damage and by yesterday morning we are almost back to normal. But as you can imagine, everything has been delayed a bit which is such a bummer cause I can’t wait to tell you about the workshop!



  1. Kalli says:

    They have a special “down to earth” feel about them. Their advice is new and relate-able. I also am so impressed at the quality and diversity of their work. As a new photographer I thought, “Figure out the camera first, light later.” But they just jumped into everything head first. And because of that their work doesn’t look like everyone else’s. Especially those that are new to the business.

  2. Emily says:

    What an inspiring interview!! Thanks, Leah, for posting this…and a huge thanks to McClanhan Studio for sharing:).

  3. Jamie says:

    What an AWESOME interview! Their images are amazing! This was very encouraging to read.

  4. Joanne says:

    What a great interview! Soaked up all of it. You are right, I hadn’t heard of them before today but I’m really happy I know of them now!! I just might have to fly in for After Dark so that I can meet YOU and them also!

  5. Mike says:

    A W E S O M E !!!!!!

  6. Maggie says:

    Neat interview! Glad things are getting back to normal at your place.

  7. McClanahan's says:

    Thanks guys! Glad it could serve as some encouragement to you. Props to Leah for starting this great blog, and best to all of you in your photography!

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