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December 2007
The View From Up There
By Janet Kropinak

     Some people are fortunate enough to know what they want to do with their lives, while others go at it by circumstance—and by trial and error. While the direct approach may seem the most desirable, it is oftentimes the latter that is the most rewarding.

     Larry Harwell didn’t get into photography the “traditional” way. Instead, he happened upon it one summer in college. He didn’t even imagine then that what started out as a hobby would lead him down the road of self discovery and eventually a life-changing career move.

 

Getting Focused

     Harwell started out at Appalachian State with the intent of studying business and hospital administration. “I wanted to take on the federal government,” he jokes. Admittedly, he wasn’t excelling in his classes and was forced to spend the summer in Banner Elk taking classes.

     It was this summer that he met Leo Touchet, a Time Life photographer and New Orleans native who was vacationing in the area. “I met him and I was really inspired by the kind of work he was doing. He had photographed Vietnam, Johnson, Nixon—and this work seemed a whole lot more interesting than hospital administration,” he recalls. Touchet soon became both his mentor and his inspiration for a career change.

     After that summer, Harwell returned to Charlotte and turned in a new direction. “Looking back, I didn’t go about things the intelligent way; instead I got into photography the hard knocks way,” he grins a little ruefully.

     He took a job at Bentley Photo System, a camera kiosk that sold camera equipment and processed film. Although this job didn’t bring with it the excitement of photography, it did provide him with some of the necessary technical skills.

     Learning everything he could about the industry, he soon had the opportunity to open a specialty camera shop, Photo Systems Ltd. in the Specialty Shops on the Park behind SouthPark, with two partners, Frank Alexander and Lance Van Every.

     The trio tried to make a business for themselves, but despite their efforts the shop only survived a year. Harwell chalks this up as another learning experience. It had furthered his technical skills while also giving him a realistic insight into the joys and perils of being a small business owner.

     Then, in 1980 Harwell joined Aerial Photography Service as their aerial photographer. “It just kind of happened; they needed someone and asked if I’d do it,” says Harwell. “And I jumped at it.” The bulk of the work Harwell did was focused around the real estate market tracking land development.

     Combining his passion for photography and what he had of business experience, Harwell saw an opportunity to help Aerial Photography Service grow by expanding its commercial department. “I took over the commercial side of things and spent my time finding ways to expand upon those services,” Harwell explains.

     Six years later with the company, Harwell again re-examined where he was and where he wanted to go. “I felt I had to decide if this was going to be my career or not, and if it was, what exactly that meant,” he says. He wanted photography itself to play a bigger part in his life. After much consideration, he decided to start his own business in 1986, The Carolina Photo Group, Inc.

     Harwell’s vision for Carolina Photo Group was to bring several photographers together, all specializing in different areas, and work with them to broaden the range of services that he was able to provide.

     “I never intended on doing the bulk of the photography myself,” says Harwell. “I was looking for a way to bring photographers together in a way that could be beneficial for the community as well as from a business standpoint. Our goal, from the very start, has been to offer a good product at a fair price,” Harwell states. “I think we’ve succeeded in doing so.”

 

The Business of Pictures

     Like is true with most businesses, a large part of Harwell’s job involves maintaining positive and mutually beneficial relationships with his clients. Whether it is protecting a company’s privacy or simply making sure the job is done correctly the first time, Carolina Photo Group is constantly striving to improve upon these relations.

     “We have been blessed with a tremendous client base,” he says proudly. Much of their business over the years has come from referrals and repeat customers.

     Harwell and his staff of five full-time employees and seven contract photographers strive hard to plan and execute every photo shoot flawlessly among many possible obstacles. “Of course, we are constantly working around the weather, but you have to expect that. Technology can give you a problem here or there, but we work around those things too,” says Harwell. “Having a good team to help lighten my load has really helped this business grow. I learned early on that you can’t grow if you are trying to do everything yourself.”

     Harwell also takes a moment to give credit to his photographers—aerial and sports photographer Fred Voss, interior and exterior architectural, wedding, product, and corporate portrait photographers David Iannarelli, Brian Treffeisen, and Michael Pressley—without whom he couldn’t do what he does.

     Harwell fit the mold of a small business owner perfectly: concerned with the well-being of his employees more than his own, putting business interests above his own, and somewhat hesitant, at least initially, to delegate responsibilities. But as the business grew, he has been able to strike a better balance and that has become the touchstone for the success of his company.

 

Picture the Business

     The main focus and business for Harwell and his company is aerial and architectural photography. Their aerial services stretch across both North and South Carolina and the architectural spans the Southeast.

     Helping secure these jobs for the company is Bill Plampin, who joined Carolina Photo Group two years ago and works in sales and marketing. “Bill has really brought new life and new ideas to the company,” comments Harwell. “He has been essential in helping us take things to the next level.”

     Carolina Photo Group shoots around five to 10 jobs per week on average, though that number has been known to double as demand dictates. For their aerial and architectural shots, they rent out a Cessna 172 Skyhawk plane or a Bell Jet Ranger Helicopter, depending on the job.

     The charges are more reasonable than one might think. For less than $500, Carolina Photo Group can do an aerial job in Charlotte which includes the plane rental, pilot, photographer, and 12 views of a site on a high res CD. The views will include both close-ups and also higher altitude shots in all directions, making sure to pick up on neighborhoods, highways, schools and retail areas.

     The price for photographing architectural jobs generally runs from the low hundreds for a couple of views of the building or home, and increases in price for additional views, both interior and exterior. There is an additional charge for digital clean up, should the customer prefer landscaping repair and enhancement or trees, grass or skies to be added or removed or somehow “tweaked.”

     Although Harwell still enjoys participating in the shots, he has had more than his share of being in the air and generally leaves that to the staff. The thrill-seeking in him has given way to the necessities and practicalities of running a business.

      One of the mainstays for the business has been aerial shots of popular areas such as SouthPark, Ballantyne, and of course the Uptown skyline. “We take these shots routinely twice a year, though we often are out there more than that as demand increases,” says Harwell.

      Though these traditional jobs are a good source of revenue for the company, Harwell notes the importance of evolving and broadening your services in an effort to stay current. The company has recently acquired new state-of-the-art graphic equipment and personnel, necessary for handling the sophisticated graphic work that such photography inevitably involves.

     “I think we are ready to grow in this area,” Harwell says. “Not only is it an investment in making more and better use of what we do with photography, but it will also allow us to expand into the graphic design area generally, as a new source of revenue.”

     Carolina Photo Group already has a few regular clients on their roster and is actively recruiting more. Believing that quality work is the best form of advertising, Harwell is patient with his company’s growth, having already acquired several high profile jobs.

     One of Harwell’s proudest accomplishments has been winning a contract with the Wachovia Golf Tournament, making them the only company flying overhead taking aerial shots. They have had this position since the tournament came to Charlotte four years ago.

 

Going Digital and Beyond

     In 2001, Carolina Photo Group made the costly but necessary move to digital photography. “We were a little before the curve on this. I didn’t really see it as a choice; it was something we had to do if we wanted to be able to compete,” explains Harwell, “It was just a matter of keeping up with the times.”

     The change has brought with it many advantages. “Obviously crossing over made things a great deal easier for us,” says Harwell. “Having the ability to touch up photos and digitally enhance them when necessary has taken away a lot of the time-consuming work from the back end of the projects.”

     Instead of having to wait six or seven days to have photos to show a client, the company now has a much faster turn around, which only helps to increase their marketability among their clients. One downside to the digital age of photography, however, is keeping ownership of the photographs. When a CD of images is handed out to a client, it can be hard to monitor how and when it is used.

     Much like the city of Charlotte, Carolina Photo Group is growing and maturing into a full-service company. Looking back on how the city has changed since the company’s inception, Harwell notes, “The city has really exploded. They are adding so much business and with the commercial market being so strong, it has done nothing but help us grow. This really is a great place for us to be doing what we do.”

     Noting that the subprime problems have slowed the residential side of things, he remains optimistic that things will turn around in the near future.

     As for other future plans, Harwell plans to continue doing what they are doing. “We hope to continue to grow and explore new opportunities,” Harwell notes. “We’d like to work with a few more developers and hope to expand upon the graphic and design services that we are currently offering.”

     For someone who stumbled upon photography by happenstance, photography has served Larry Harwell well over the years and his passion for it is more than evident upon meeting him. “I spent the first half of my life thrill seeking and now I’m focusing on surviving the new world of digital photography,” he jokes. But it is apparent that he has found himself and a rewarding business career at the same time.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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