Breaking the Code

by Dave good

Kevin M. Connors

July 01, 2011 — Breaking the code: it sounds like something you’d hear in a spy movie. But what three-time PPA Photographer of the Year Kevin M. Connors is referring to is the most important part of the portrait-making process: getting his subjects to relax and be themselves during a shoot. “It usually only takes a few minutes,” he says. “We’re just having fun, being natural and being ourselves.” That, the San Diego portrait photographer says, is what breaking the code is all about.

The relationship between photographer and subject trumps the technical aspects every time, says Connors, owner of Coast Highway Photography in Solana Beach, CA. “I think that’s where we excel. I think I have a strong ability to get people to relax very quickly and to enjoy themselves.”

But Connors says he’s just being himself. “I don’t have the brain power to be two different people in different situations.” But is the ability to produce consistent imaging results with a range of personalities a skill set that can be taught? “I think it’s something you have, or you don’t. It’s a big delineating factor between photographers when it comes to portraiture. I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but that’s something that I bring to this game pretty well.”

Breaking the code begins well before the actual shoot. “Every client comes to our studio for a consultation. That’s where we meet and establish rapport, when we find out what’s important to them. We provide them with a portrait guide. We talk about clothing suggestions.” You won’t see, for example, the ubiquitous white-shirts-and-khakis look in a Kevin Connors family portrait. “That look on a San Diego beach makes for a great portrait of white shirts.”

And, he keeps it simple on the set that, more often than not, turns out to be the beach. San Diego is bordered to the west by miles of picture postcard coastal vistas, and Connors uses them so frequently that he has developed his own system that allows him to focus his energies on what is important—his subjects. “The technical end should be made, I think, as simple as possible. I don’t think too much. I’m not a fashion photographer. I’m a portrait photographer.”

If there is one tool in Connors’ camera bag that gets more use than any other, it’s his light meter. Connors uses a Sekonic L-758 DR, “Which is the greatest light meter ever made. Don MacGregor was the first teacher to point out the percentage meter on the readout to me. I’d never looked at that before. Depending on the situation I’m looking for a 20% or 30% contribution, a 50% contribution. Or for shooting into the sun, I want 90%.” He doesn’t use speed lights. Instead, he brings a Profoto head and battery pack. “It’s an f/14 idea,” he says, “and I put as much power as I can on them in the early part of an evening session when the light is still quite contrasty. As the session progresses we’ll move all the way down to f/4 or lower. After the sun goes down, I love to use the 85mm f/1.2 in ambient—that light is simply dreamy.

“When it comes to using flash on the beach, you can guess. But I don’t want to guess. I don’t want to be chimping in front of my client. I want to measure, and go.” Connors says that Tim Meyer regularly brings his portrait classes from Brooks Institute for studio visits. “One of the students said, ‘You don’t look at the back of your camera much.’ I told him that I don’t want to look at the back of my camera. It interrupts the energy, and what we’re working toward is getting to that place in the shoot where things flow naturally.”

Connors talks about the little white lie inherent in modern portrait photography: retouching, which is all done in-house at Connors’ shop. “We follow, for lack of a better term, the Jack Davis method.” Davis is a San Diego-based Photoshop guru. “His basic philosophy is this: there’s a remove process to take out those things like blemishes and pimples that are irregular and that you wouldn’t want to have as part of a portrait. There’s a reduce layer. That gets to the wrinkles. We want to soften, not remove them.” The degree varies from client to client. Some want the equivalent of a Photoshop facelift, others not so much. Then, there’s a soften layer. “When it comes to that, we use Nik filters like their Dynamic Skin Softener, and we use Nik’s Pro Contrast, and everything before we print needs sharpening.”

The selling of a portrait is another thing entirely. Coast Highway Photography is known as one of the most expensive portrait studios in San Diego (“We get $750 for a 20-inch print, and on up from there. We’re basically $50 bucks an inch after the 20-in.) and Connor says he’s had only up years even through the economic downturn.

“We’re not in the photography business. We’re in the family heirloom business. That’s what we create. We make heirlooms that will be passed through your family for hundreds of years. That’s how we positioned the business.” After a shoot, the client returns to the studio for a showing of their images on the wide screen.

“One of the best partnerships a portrait photographer can have is with a talented, high-end framer. They bring clients to us, and the client goes right back to them. And I know that my work is going to be framed in the most spectacular way possible, which is the best advertising you can have.”

But the single biggest driver of new clients, he says, is his studio location. “The stop sign right outside the door? That stop sign is worth a lot of money. Two years ago when I moved in here I moved from a 500-square-foot space down the street. We’ve actually moved farther away from where the action is. But in 2009 we had a 25% increase. In 2010 we had a 30% increase. We’re coming off the strongest years this business has ever had, in a time when something like 30% is no longer around.”

Connors’ rise to the top has been rapid. Six years ago he worked in corporate America. He shot his first family portrait as a professional in May 2005. Prior to that he worked in the college textbook and educational software industry. “I started in sales and marketing and later became an acquisitions editor.” He also taught high school for a couple of years.

In 2003, he moved to San Diego and revived a childhood photography hobby with the purchase of a digital SLR and a printer. “I was amazed at what you could do.” He was tired of corporate life and began to think about taking photography seriously. He entered his images of flowers in juried shows. “I bought a Winnebago. I thought I’d travel around, shoot some landscapes and be able to survive that way. I learned very quickly that’s not a sustainable business model.”

He says a friend turned him on to portrait and wedding photography. While making a purchase of Profoto lights at Samy’s Camera in Los Angeles, Connors made what would be a fortuitous discovery. “That same day I bought those lights, I saw a flyer for WPPI. I thought I should probably go.” He packed his two dogs into his Winnebago and parked it behind Bally’s for all 10 days. “And I absorbed the pre-show, the show, the post-show.”

He drove back to San Diego and announced to his sister and his mother that he was going to be a photographer for the rest of his life. “It was one of those defining moments.”

How did he get that good that fast? “Really good teachers.” After WPPI, Connors studied with Joe Buissink (“He was the first to start getting me to look for light.”) and Denis Reggie. “And then I started to take these week-long classes at West Coast School and Texas School, where I studied with Tim Meyer, Bruce Hudson, Tony Corbell, Ken Sklute and Fuzzy Duenkel, to name just a few. I just devoured anything I could. I read like a madman.

 “I like to say there isn’t an image I make that doesn’t have a little ‘Fuzzy’ in it. To see what he could do with a reflector and a black flag? He really got me into thinking about the use of light.”

If a photographer really wants to be successful and not wait 10 years for it, he says the formula begins with finding one’s uniqueness. “You have to build a brand that has distinct differences from everyone out there. Who are you photographically? What do you love? Then build a brand around whom you want to be. Brand is so overused as a word, but it’s really who you are. You have to find a way to create a brand that is distinctive.”

“Your language is more important than your imaging. How you speak, how you address people and how you shake their hand.” Poor grammar and misspelling, he says, are the death of sales. “Your written communication has to match how you sound. Your language is important. People are looking for reasons not to use you.”

Connors’ brand? “Compelling, heirloom quality images printed on fine art paper and a beautiful gallery and studio on Cedros Avenue in the Solana Beach design district with a martini bar… And we shape light pretty well,” he says.


Dave Good writes about American culture and pop music for San Diego magazine, the Reader, Pacific Magazine, sandiego.com, and more. The occasional freelance photojournalist, he is based in Southern California. This is his first story for Rangefinder.

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