Photographer of the Month Interview: Stephen Oachs & Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, October 2011:   Stephen W. Oachs & Aperture Academy

This month we have a special edition of our featured photographer interview. In honor of Aperture Academy's second anniversary, we managed to pull Stephen W. Oachs, founder and brain behind the Aperture Academy, away from his very busy schedule long enough to ask a few questions, reminisce, and have a few laughs.

:: This month you're celebrating the two year anniversary of Aperture Academy. For those not familiar with it, can you share a bit of its history?

Oh sure, well, it all started on a little farm in the middle of Oregon...[laughter] no, I wont bore you with my childhood. Let's see, let's go back about 10 years ago when I first picked up a camera with any serious interest in being creative. I spent the first few years teaching myself digital photography by way of books and the Internet, but mostly through a heck of a lot of trial and error.

I spent the next two years traveling more and refining my craft further. I was learning the hard way about the great importance of capturing the best quality image first in the camera. I had spent those first few years shooting fairly recklessly with my settings, figuring I'd correct any problems in post processing. However, because people wanted larger and larger prints, I found that my earlier images that were more post-processed just didn't have the quality that I needed, and wanted, for fine prints. So I refined my camera skills to get the best image possible in the camera, first and foremost, and my enlarged prints reflected that superior quality.

By 2007, I had about 20 images in my portfolio that I was most proud of, so I decided to begin setting up at local Art and Wine shows. To my surprise, people were interested in my work! I'll never forget packing up that Sunday afternoon after my first show and thinking how this could be a new chapter in my life... little did I know where things would go from there.

In late 2008 someone asked me if I could help them with their camera. We spent a day out shooting and I had this epiphany that I really enjoyed teaching. A couple months later I had sold four spots in my first on-location workshop (a day in San Francisco). Ironically, we still conduct this same workshop today, and the route we take hasn't changed!

Over the following eight months, I sold out one workshop a month. I capped the group size at six students, which was just the right size for me to give everyone individualized attention and ensure everyone came away having had a great experience. The problem was, the workshops were filling up every time and I was turning people away... and my business mind saw all the missed opportunity! (laugher) So, in mid 2009, I emailed Brian Rueb, a fellow photographer from Redding, California, and asked if he might be interested in helping me teach some classes.

We immediately found that Brian and I made a good team, and those first few workshops we did together were really great. We shared a very similar style of having fun first, and we were teaching from that approach, which the students were loving. Even today, this is the core of our philosophy.

Brian and I began brainstorming about what would be next. Do we grow this bigger, or just keep a cap on it...we decided to go big, or go home! I called upon another good friend and fellow photographer, Scott Davis, and then we were three [laughter]...bad movie line!

That is when I began the arduous task of writing a business plan and creating financial forecasts. The planning was insane, but we had to be sure our plan was solid. By end of summer 2009 I had secured a 4,000 square foot facility surrounded with 10-foot glass walls. It was the perfect location for what we had dubbed as "The Aperture Academy," a fine art photography gallery and school. We opened the doors in the fall.

In October of 2010, our first full year of business, we had 864 students that had attended our classes and workshops. This year (2011), we're on track to grow that by 478%.

Looking forward into 2012, we're adding many new classes and workshops, but I'm most excited about our new "Sojourn Workshop Series," which includes trips to Iceland, Africa and a couple other surprises!

:: That amount of growth is amazing, especially in one of the most difficult economic times we've seen in decades. When most businesses experienced a recession, why do you think Aperture Academy experienced so much growth?

I believe it's a combination of things, but primarily it's because our customers tend to see our workshops as "stay-cations," but with the added benefit that they can combine an outdoor getaway with the added stimulation of learning something exciting. I also believe that photographers, of any skill level, are passionate about honing their craft, and people are always looking for ways to learn and grow. Photography is a great stage for those who enjoy the outdoors and being creative. Not to mention we deliver a really good time...seriously, we really do pride ourselves on customer service and making sure each and every person who chooses to join us leaves having a stellar experience, as well as a camera full of new images they can be proud of!

:: If you could name one thing, what would you say has been the biggest key to the success of Aperture Academy?

That's easy, it's the staff. We truly have an amazing group of talented individuals. Everyone shares the same passion and dedication for delivering a high quality learning experience. Plus it's important that everyone works well together, which can be a hard thing to do. It's one of our challenges today...finding new staff that can meet and exceed our standards. Most of all though, I love how everyone brings their own unique style, and that's great for our students in that they get to learn in a variety of different ways, which helps ensure that they come away with the best opportunities to learn.

:: I understand that Aperture Academy has a high percentage of students that return for additional classes and workshops.

We sure do! We are averaging about a 30% return rate. In fact, we often joke with those who are on their 4th and 5th workshops with us that "we may need to consider a restraining order" [laughter]. Seriously though, we really do have a loyal following, and it's certainly something we never expected we'd see in such high numbers. I love to watch them grow and improve in their photography. Every time they come back they are anxious to refine certain skill sets as well as join us in the field of our latest journey.

We recently launched a page on our website called the "Hall of Fame", which is a spotlight on some of our returning students. We've extended them a lifetime discount to thank them for their returning business. And our record holder? It's a gentleman who has taken 16 workshops!

:: It sounds like you guys have a lot of fun on these workshops; can you tell me about a couple of your favorite moments?

Where do I start?! Granted, with the amount of classes we do, I can't teach all of them, but of the one's that I've helped instruct, I can think of some pretty funny times. I think my favorite all time funniest moment was on our San Francisco/Marin Headlands class just this past spring.

We had stopped in Sausalito for a short break and once everyone was ready, we loaded back up in the van to head to our next shooting location. Not 30 seconds from the restaurant, the back of the van erupted with shouts of, "we're missing somebody!!" When I looked in the side mirror, I could see Sunny, our "missing" student, sprinting down the road after the van. Boy that guy could RUN! We, of course, pulled over and he jumped in, a bit winded, but again with us! We all laughed pretty was the first time we'd ever left someone at a stop! Sunny was a great sport and we still joke to this day about it...he's been on two more workshops since then and he always says he's going to "stick close to me." [laughter]

The other times I can recall aren't so much funny as they are entertaining and those would be the times we get together as a group for dinner on our two-day workshops. It's always a lot of fun to get to know everyone more on a personal level and I'm always amazed at the dichotomy of the group. The camaraderie never ceases to amaze me and I learn so much.

:: The Aperture Academy is a 4,000 ft. fine art gallery featuring your photography, can you talk a bit more about the retail side of the business?

Of course. The gallery is a key component of what we do. The gallery is located in the Campbell Pruneyard Center, a well known landmark in the South San Francisco Bay area. We are open from 10am to 8pm, 7 days a week.

Attention to detail in the gallery is huge. I'm very particular about presentation and the experience people have when they come in. The visual is most important, but we also work hard to tempt their other senses with great smelling candles, relaxing music and large, comfortable sitting areas where they can relax and enjoy the photography.

We also rent the gallery as a venue and have had some amazing events. And twice a year we hold our own Gallery Open House events, where we typically see 600-800 people come though. We invite vendors such as Bay Photo, Canon, F-Stop, Photozini and others to share their products and services with our guests. It's always free to attend... and food and drinks are provided.

One of my favorite things we've done so far is when we had a wildlife show with wild cats, owls and other exotic animals brought in by a non-profit educational facility. They brought in rescue animals that would not have survived in the wild. The animals were beautiful, and the educational aspect of it was really great.

:: With 2012 just around the corner, can you talk about what plans you have for the upcoming year?

Well, first it's hard to believe that 2012 is here already. Everything we've done in the past two years has been building the foundation for the new things to come.

I'm most excited about our new Sojourn Series of workshops. These will be international trips to places such as Africa, Iceland and beyond. We are in the final stages of planning and the new year's schedule will be fully posted soon.

We are also looking into the idea of expanding with a second gallery location to act as another sales outlet for fine art prints, as well as a base of operation for an expanded workshop itinerary.

On top of all of that, we also have some other pretty exciting news that I can't quite go into detail on yet, but let me just leave you with saying that 2012 is going to be a BIG year for the Aperture Academy!

Stephen W. Oachs

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