Retouchup Blog

June ’21 – Week 2 – An Interview with Bill Keane

Bill Keane - CEO and Founder

53 years of photography and related industry experience. You read that right, 53! Bill Keane has extensive knowledge when it comes to running a photography business and he opens up in this interview about how he’s been able to stay in business for so long and be so successful. To give you an idea of how far back Bill started, Bill’s first camera was a Kodak Brownie that he bought when he was 10 years old. (If you’re not sure what a Brownie is, click here to see.) The full audio and transcript of the interview are below. 


Full interview audio:


Links to websites and resources mentioned:

StudioPlus –

To connect with Bill –

Bill’s website –

Photo retouching – RetouchUp


Full Transcript:

Trevor: Welcome to RetouchUp’s interview series where we get to hear from some very talented photographers and how they turned their photography business into a success. My name is Trevor Black and I’ll be your host. We’re super excited to have the chance to speak with the well-experienced Bill Keane. Bill started photographing weddings from his dorm room at the Claremont colleges back when Nixon was president and film was the only way to record images. A great deal has changed since 1968, but his fascination with photography and ultimately the stories of the people he photographs has made every day of his over 50 years as a portrait photographer as interesting as the first. He considers himself very fortunate to do what he loves every day. As his own children grew, he developed a deeper appreciation of how important those photographs had become in his life. There was the picture of his uncle and the horse-drawn delivery wagon he drove for his father’s meat business on the unpaved streets of Berkeley. The portrait of his old grandfather smoking a pipe as he fished on the bank, near the family home in Morris, Illinois. There was his mom as a six-year-old child model in Chicago. Because his parents passed away when he was in his twenties, these memories of his family have become his link to the past and a way his toddler granddaughter can now connect with her history. Bill is a craftsman photographer and was the columnist for Professional Photographer and rangefinder. Bill welcome, and thanks for joining me

Bill: Thanks for having me.

Trevor: Oh, absolutely. Hey, does your granddaughter have a camera in her hands yet?

Bill: No, she just turned four.

Trevor: Right on, so maybe soon though. That’s awesome. Well man, I, as I was kind of going through some of your biography and learning that you started to do photography from your dorm room back in college, I was curious like what, what got you started there? Did you have a friend that came to you and be like, hey, could you take some pics of, of you know, of us? Or how did things get started for you?

Bill: No, it sort of started with a Brownie that I bought at auction when I was about 10 for more than the retail value of the camera, cause I thought it was so good. So I started bidding it against myself, don’t ask me and uh, then my parents, when I graduated from high school, saw that I had an interest in photography so for graduation they gave me a Pentax Spotmatic. It was all of a hundred dollars, I think at the time. And, I burned through a lot of film in the next couple of years. Then got into college and realized if I wanted to get that hasselblad I had my eye on, I better save up to $600 by photographing some weddings. That’s how it started. I had to support my habit in the sixties. Now you could add a turn, but it was photography.

Trevor: Gotcha. That’s interesting. And then at what point did you realize, hey, I got something going here, I could turn this into a business.

Bill: Well, the month I graduated from college, there was, Time Magazine actually had a print version that, uh, but Times cover that week was a college graduate in cap and gown – you know, it was in studio shot – a cap and gown, and he was pumping gas. I thought, that’s probably a, not a good sign for a classical languages major getting out of college and I’ve already photographed 150 weddings. And that was in the last two years and people seem to think that’s good. So maybe I’ll keep that going. And I have kept it going for 53 years now.

Trevor: Man, that is amazing, 53 years. That is incredible. And so as you got started, I mean, so this was back in the sixties, you said. So what, what kinds of ways did you need to market yourself in order to get yourself out there as a photographer? Cause I mean, it’s very different today.

Bill: Yes. Yeah, there was no social media, no computers, no nothing. When I wanted to print something up, I would type it out on my IBM Selectric, take it down to the local Xerox shop and, uh, I think it was about a dollar a sheet then just to do a black and white and I would run off a few of those and, then, you know, I thought, let’s see, I want to do weddings, and where do people go when they get married? How about a bridal shop? Nobody told me that was going to be difficult to do so I went to the bridal shop and said, hey bridal shop owner, how about showing my stuff? And they said, well, you seem like a nice young man, sure. And, uh, I got back to my dorm room, the phone was ringing and I had my first wedding and I thought, well, that’s easy. Then I got realistic.

Trevor: Man. That is no, that’s, that’s really awesome. And so you’ve had to obviously kind of change your tactic over the years. Have you, do you yourself do, still do a lot of the marketing on social media or whatever, kind of, what kind of platforms are you using or do you kind of use a service, hire someone to do that for you?

Bill: Yes to all of the above. I tend to be behind the computer a lot more than I’m behind a camera these days. You know, I was just actually working on our next marketing program as, uh, as you called. We morphed over the years from doing weddings the first 20 years to doing families and children primarily for about the next ten. And then, about 25 or so years ago, the one of those babies that I photographed, called as the editor of the, one of the biggest high schools in San Diego, which happened to have been maybe a mile from our studio and said, would you like to photograph the 550 seniors?

Trevor: Wow.

Bill: And I said, uh, sure! Then I hung up the phone, called my friend who had done that before and said, I just volunteered to do Torrey Pines, how do I do that? And that was, about 45,000 seniors ago. We’re now doing the entire district of that original school, plus one other district and a couple of others. And so it’s 12 high schools with 6,500 seniors. That’s our primary business at this point in terms of volume. And then we also have our high-end legacy brand, which is for families and is more of an art piece. So, quite different extremes as the same thing, but we, we keep our studio quite busy that way.

Trevor: Yeah. Holy cow, that is, that is a lot of seniors, 45,000. That blows me away. And this is actually pretty interesting with you being kind of more in the school realm because I mean, a year ago COVID hit and rocked our world. So, I mean, what’s, what’s been your biggest challenge as, to kind of overcome for your business in the last year or so, and you know, is that challenge continuing into 2021 or what, what are you doing to overcome it?

Bill: Well, we really had no idea when we signed the lease at the end of January last year for a much bigger space, uh, that of course COVID would be coming. Well as it turned out, it gave us just the boost we needed because we had inherited the new district from a photographer who was retiring and had been doing it for 30 years. And they came in and said go to it, so we needed a larger space. And during the time everyone else was completely locked down, we were rather busy building out walls and making the place presentable. So, we were able to open up again at that location and just crossing our fingers, since we had committed a lot to it, that people would actually come, because we were right at the point where nobody knew what was happening next. Well, we have had a larger percentage of kids who have not come for their senior portraits for obvious reasons, but that’s still, we actively have photographed over 5,500 to 6,500 kids and still actually haven’t finished. So, most of it either come to us or we’ve done a few at the schools, which, you know, as they have reopened to a certain degree or just opened up enough that we could do the work on campus and an open area, it’s given us the opportunity to band group and everybody else is pretty much following them. So, uh, we were one of the lucky ones when it came to timing in a way.

Trevor: That’s very interesting. So a larger studio, cause yeah, I mean, social distancing obviously requires more space. So that’s, that’s kind of interesting how that worked out, going into a bigger studio, but then COVID hitting, but it kind of all just kind of turned around. Wow.

Bill: Yeah, it was a lot of nail biting going on.

Trevor: Oh, for sure. I mean, have you, do you think that you yourself have kind of seen the worst of it?

Bill: I think so. You know, we’re in California, which is certainly one of the very locked down States and the, the schools aren’t open, but I think what has happened is parents have realized that their kids aren’t really going to have a senior experience. And, I think it’s played well for us as we’ve made this transition because people realize that’s what they could do to give their graduating seniors a chance to do something special. There will be no graduations this year, there certainly will be no proms, so things that have been traditions of senior life are just completely passing this class by. So in a way that’s been better for us, even though we have, there’s been a larger percentage that have not been photographed at all. They’re always some who aren’t, they’re just not involved with school at all, but that gives a pretty much of an overview of what we do now.

Trevor: Gotcha, that’s, wow. Way to weather the storm. I mean, especially in California, that’s, yeah with all with all the lockdowns and stuff, you know, but I mean, I’m sure there’s been a lot of other photographers, you know, hopefully kind of in your situation where they’ve been able to weather the storm more, but I mean, I don’t know. I mean, I’m sure as well on the other side, there’s a lot, that, you know, have been struggling quite a bit. I mean, do you have any advice that you could offer up to them to, you know, I don’t know, hopefully just kind of motivate them and help them?

Bill: Ooh, for those who have not been in photography very long?

Trevor: Yeah. So yeah, you either, for those who are kind of weathering the storm still from COVID or those that have been, yeah, kind of just, just kind of getting their feet wet in photography.

Bill: Right. Well, fortunately I’ve been in groups of people who have done very well in photography in the past year or so, but that is because a lot of them have worked at a higher level. There, as a one friend of mine says, when he found out that there was a recession in 2008, he announced to his staff, we won’t be part, we won’t be participating in that. And I think that’s what people have done on the family portrait side of things. They’re looking at how they can move beyond just doing what they’ve always done and, um, invite people to do something different because families and little children, we have a 4 year old granddaughter, but we have another one coming in a couple of months. And those kids aren’t going to, you know, if they paid attention to not having, stepping out of the house or anything else, they would not have a record of those children ever having them babies. I photographed one family last weekend with a nine month old, and they said that this was the first time he had seen more than six people in her entire life.

Trevor: Oh my gosh.

Bill: He had a little bit of stranger anxiety. He got over it, but more so than most babies that age would, um, it was all just so new. So that, that brought it home a little bit to me to of how important these things really are. You know, I’ve been doing it for 50 years, but that means, in some families I photograph three generations. And that’s a little sobering when you start counting numbers, but it’s a nice feeling to know you’ve had that influence on people over time. And I think the direction that people have to go is simply realizing that we have something that they want, even if they don’t know it. And social media certainly is a way of reaching people, but, uh, it has to be done a little bit more proactively than just going out there and saying, hi, I’m a photographer. A shirt that says it all, it uh, has a big, you know, the dial that shows manual and automatic and portrait and all of the modes there, the, the heading is, everyone’s a photographer until, and the M is the, uh, marking that’s done.

Trevor: Gotcha.

Bill: So, once you get into manual, you’ve got to be a photographer, not just somebody that takes pictures with an automatic camera.

Trevor: That makes sense. And I guess, I mean, with the, the mark-, you mentioned some marketing and then like using social media as one of the tools, what are some of your kind of go-to resources that, you know, you use and would recommend yourself to other photographers to help them, you know, maybe save time or, you know, be more successful, create systems or something. What, what would be some of your resources that you would recommend?


You know, you took the word out of my mouth, systems is the big thing. I have had points when we were doing a lot less business and had the same number of employees that we do now. We do a lot of people, we have a lot of people that come in seasonally, but in terms of full-time staff, we are under 10, closer to 5 actually, uh, that are full-time year round. And the more systems you have, with people you have to throw at them, to manage those 6,500 seniors, personally, we use the StudioPlus software, uh, which allows us to automate a lot of the, of the, uh, of the elements that we send out to the seniors. We do that the same, in the same way with our, our upper end things. We also, on that senior end, we do all of our marketing now electronically one way or the other. It’s mostly by email, some backup on social media, but we’re not even attempting to do anything in a mailed piece, let’s say anything along those lines. Because we’re getting a list. We don’t have to generate leads for the seniors. That’s our contribution. We photograph a lot of people for free, but we have access to all of the kids. So, that’s that side of the business. On the family side, we get out there and try to differentiate ourselves by being, when everyone else is doing lots and lots of kids, which I used to do almost exclusively, we shifted more towards the family side because that’s something that people aren’t as comfortable doing. They, those who are, that is in a studio situation. So, we have something that’s now different from what most photographers have. When most photographers had a, some sort of an inside location, we were photographing outside. So we tend to go against the grain and that’s been important.

Trevor: Interesting going against the grain and then other tools. What, when for you, when did you realize that you needed to have systems in order to help your business really operating and get going to the next level?

Bill: As soon as you reach a point that you realize you can’t do this all yourself. You have to start systemizing some things and, uh, trying to have everything just tucked away in the proverbial shoe box and you know where it is, it doesn’t do any good once you have one person working for you. And, if, I would say that the biggest thing that has come around in the last year or so, most of the people that work for us now are millennials. We, we actually have four generations working in the studio, which is really crazy. And, yeah, needless to say, I’m the oldest. And, but we have, one of our front desk receptionists, if you will, during the summer was, 15 years old and he was fantastic, but he brought a completely different way of looking at things. So we’ve had to learn to co-op, to collaborate with a lot of different people. And if you don’t have a simple system that everyone can follow, then that becomes chaos. So boiling everything down to its simplest is always the best way.

Trevor: That’s awesome. Cause yeah, I mean, starting a business, especially photography business, I mean, you got 50 different things on your plate from marketing, to customer relations, customer experience. There’s a lot that needs to get done. So I mean, creating those systems like you were talking about, I think that’s, that’s, that’s awesome, from fairly early on you realized, you know, I, I’m not gonna be able to do all this myself, so I’m going to need to either, you know, hire help, get, or, you know, find other resources online to be able to kind of automate some of this stuff. So that’s, that’s, that’s awesome. Gotcha. Well, man, I, we want to respect your time. So I mean, just a couple of last things then, and we’ll close up, but I’m super curious with all of the experience that you have, what, what has been maybe one of your proudest moments as a photographer up to this point?

Bill: Yeah, that becomes rather tricky. You know, when, I have reached lots of different little points along the way that I would consider high points. I always considered that I’ve had three or four different businesses going. I was doing weddings. I started a second business actually. I created a bridal show because there wasn’t one in San Diego and I needed to have a marketing piece for it. Well, when that show ended up having 6,000 people, you know, we started in a half of a small hotel ballroom and by the time I sold it, the, there were 6,000 people attending and we had a ballroom of over 10,000 feet and 150 exhibitors at the show. So, that was a high point in that world. And, photographing in the wedding world, you know, photographing, um, usually as many as six weddings in a weekend, but always one or two. And virtually once I reached a point of never having, never missing a weekend, which was rather important then. Now I think there’s, the prices are a lot higher, about 10 times literally, but you don’t do as many. And, one weekend I had six weddings from Friday night and Sunday night, and by the time I got through, I couldn’t figure out my own name, let alone the bride’s and groom’s. So, those were highs at that point. And then, getting to the point where I was the recognized children’s photographer in our area, which turned out to be a very good place to move. And then, just this last year, for the second time ever, it was the last time we, we seem to require a national emergency to hit a million dollars, but we hit a million in 2008 and then, uh, things settled down a little bit. We hadn’t hit a million since again this year. So those were definitely high points of hitting that seven figure gross sale. But, uh, it’s, it’s not so much a high point thing as it is, you know, just the journey. It’s, it’s being able to stay in this same profession that other people like to, to do as a hobby and I get to do it and actually make money at it.

Trevor: Yeah, exactly. Like you said, doing what you love every single day. That’s, that’s the perfect way to do it, I think. Well, man, if people are interested in connecting with you, Bill, what would be the best way for them to do so?

Bill: Well as you learned yourself, email is always the best for me it’s

Trevor: Fantastic. Really appreciate your time, Bill, lots of stuff, I’m going to, I can’t wait to go back and listen to this again, to, to learn from your expertise and your experience. And I hope that others will also have that opportunity and, to learn from you. We want to just give you a really big thank you for your time and yeah, need anything from us, let us know we want to be there for you.

Bill: Well, I’ll put in a plug for you. We started using, actually I had mentioned that three generations, one family I started photographing a young girl, out of college and by the time, two or three years ago, I photographed her whole family with her grandchildren. So, but that particular photograph that I did, she asked me a few years ago, if I could, you know, it’s an old film shot and it had faded a bit. So she asked if I could restore it. And I sent it down to you and was just amazed how well you did at that. So we started using, using you for that side of things, before retouching as such. And we’d sent you a few little things, but this year we switched from being in-house for everything, for all of the retouching that we did, to sending you, I think, it was about 1800 orders this year.

Trevor: Keeping us busy!

Bill: I was a little nervous. Yeah, we certainly gave up all of that control and the amount of, the amount of service that we received and the lack of criticism of what you did, surprised me greatly, you know, very pleasantly surprised. I wouldn’t of turned it over to you in the first place if I hadn’t thought it was going to be good, but it turned out far better than my expectations. So just a plug for you on that side.

Trevor: I appreciate that. That’s awesome. Yeah. We want to do our best. So we, that we love that. I mean, it makes us feel so awesome when can give back photographs, especially, you know, those restored ones that, you know, have so much history to them, back to those families and to hear that they were just thrilled or, or, you know, even cried tears of joy, that, that just makes our day for sure. So thanks we really appreciate that.

Bill: You bet.

Trevor: Like I said, we, we appreciate you. Thank you so much for your time. And we look forward to being able to post this on our blog in and you know, can get you a copy or anything, if you’d like.

Bill: Very good.

Trevor: Thanks so much, Bill. Well man, you have a great rest of your day. We appreciate you.

Bill: And same to you Trevor. Bye-bye.

Trevor: Bye-bye.