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How to Go Pro
How to Become a Professional Photographer
© 2013 KenRockwell.com

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See also:

     Photography is not a Profession

     What is a Professional Photographer

     What Makes a Professional Camera

     The Seven Levels

 

Introduction

Adorama pays top dollar for your used gear.

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I use these stores. I can't vouch for ads below.

Everyone asks me what sort of camera they need to buy to go pro or what sort of photography jobs are available here in California.

Wrong questions!

I start off below with the practical realities of going professional.

If you last until the end I'll cover exactly what I did to make it work.

 

Professional Photography

Would you like to photograph anything you want, anywhere you want, anytime you want, any way you want, with a great professional camera system? Would you love to travel to luxury destinations and photograph whatever, whenever you want?

The only way to do this is to keep your real job and do photography on your own time.

If you want to photograph professionally you'll make less money, have to shoot the boring stuff in crappy locations for which you're hired, shoot it the way the client wants, and probably have to shoot everything as if it's some big emergency every time. You'll probably only be able to afford beat up old gear that's "good enough."

Making a buck in photography is a lot tougher than keeping a real job. The photo jobs and locations that pay the most are the most boring. Think you're going to have people hiring you as a travel photographer? Guess again.

It's exactly like golf or surfing. Golf is fun, and it's almost impossible to get people to pay you to do it. Only one guy in ten million makes lots of money in surfing, photography or acting. Everyone else who makes the money does it in something allied to the field, like making or selling product or the dream.

We all know the few actors who pull in $20 million per movie. Did you know the average annual income of the many SAG (Screen Actors' Guild) members, the majority of whom we've never heard, is something more like $20,000? The SAG website's FAQ page offers this advice on how to become a performer: "Develop another career to supplement your income." People pay photographers less than actors.

A person who studied stage lighting in college and worked in Hollywood discovered that almost no one makes it in the fun job of lighting. The people who make more money more regularly are those who become lighting salesmen.

Who makes more: an actor, or an agent who earns 10% from each of the 20 clients they represent?

If you want to make money in photography, it's probably not by doing photography.

You can become a super star photographer, but it's all in your self-promotion and luck. If you want it hard enough you can do it. In America you can do anything you can imagine, however if you want to make money and have fun making photos there are easier ways to live.

 

Professional Cameras

Everyone thinks selling photos gives them the green light to buy a fancy new camera.

NO.

If you' re doing this for money you can't afford expensive equipment unless it makes business sense. See What Makes a Professional Camera.

Better cameras only make it easier for you to produce results. They don't make photos any different from the camera you already own. See Why Your Camera Doesn't Matter.

 

Jobs in Photography

There are very few full time jobs in photography. The few out there are working at a photo lab or running the portrait booth at Wal-Mart.

Your local paper might have one spot for a photo editor. Everyone else are stringers. Big city papers may have a couple of photographers on staff. Great; that's five jobs in a city of a million. Most newspapers get much of their photos from people paid by the shoot or the shot, typically $100 to $150 per. Newspaper work is fun, but pays poorly.

 

Jobs in Photography Pay Poorly

In 2010, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics documents that the median pay for photographers is $29,130 per year, or $14 per hour. "Median" pay means that half of photographers make less than this. You'd make the same as a bus driver, day laborer, security guard or a local delivery route driver — and each of those jobs has ten times as many jobs available as there are for photographers.

To make more money, you're far better off as a trucker, personal trainer, bug sprayer, massage therapist or secretary, and there are forty times as many secretary jobs as there are for photographers!

Get a real job like a cop or fireman and make twice as much - and there are also ten times as many of those jobs. Try being a farmer, who also makes twice as much as a photographer, and there are ten times as many farmer jobs as photographer jobs. Other real jobs like electricians do much better than photographers.

Honestly, its difficult to find a lower paying job than being a photographer, and there are so few photographer jobs, good luck!

Why try to become a photographer for low pay when there are so few jobs, when there are twenty times as many jobs as a top level executive — and they pay over $101, 000 per year! Honestly, you're twenty times as likely to become a CEO, CFO or Senior Vice President as you are to find a photographer job, so get real.

 

Why Jobs in Photography Pay Poorly

Photography is Not a Profession. Anyone can call themselves a professional photographer. There are no licenses and not even a college degree required. See my page on Why Photography is Not a Profession.

More people do photography for fun than do it for money. Because it's fun, people looking to hire photographers can always find someone to do it for less.

Jobs pay based on how badly the jobs are needed and how many qualified people are available to fill them. If a job makes the employer money, he's going to pay more to fill the spot.

There aren't millions of experienced, successful mutual fund managers out there. The few that are out there can make hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the financial houses which employ them. This is why the decent ones earn seven to eight figure incomes annually.

There are tens of millions of photographers. Photographs don't usually earn a business much money. Therefore there isn't much money there to employ photographers, and when there is, there are so many photographers who often will work for free that employers don't need to pay very much to fill the spot.

So much for getting a job making big bucks as a photographer. The positions may be out there, but there are easier ways to earn a living.

 

Education

Photography is self-taught. Ansel Adams' only formal education came from working one summer in a San Francisco photo lab. I and everyone I know who does this for a living taught themselves. I read books and practiced.

It's nice to have a degree from a photo school, but costs more in money and lost career time than it's worth. If you have what it takes you can teach yourself faster. If you don't have the eye, no schooling will teach it to you.

Far more important than learning photography, which is self-taught and not particularly difficult, is to learn what you really need to know, which is to learn how to run your own business in a very competitive world.

If you're serious about working as a photographer and attending NYIP or Brooks, I'd suggest some serious guidance counseling. Don't listen to the school's admissions (sales) people. These schools have lots of history, but it's a tough way to make a living and the schools aren't much help careerwise.

 

Brooks Institute

I love Brooks Institute. It's the best school of which I know to learn everything about photography. All of Santa Barbara is picturesque and has an infrastructure of labs and pro camera stores to support the students, instructors and local professionals. The people who work at Brooks form an incredible network of people who know and share everything about photography. Because of Brooks there is more photography infrastructure and support in the tiny resort town of Santa Barbara than there is in the metropolis of San Diego.

I've wanted to move to Santa Barbara since the 1980s. I still intend to wind up there. I'd love to teach at Brooks and be associated with them in any way possible.

The dirty secret is that a degree from Brooks usually only gets you huge student loan debts. It's not likely to land you a job, and certainly not one that can make enough money to pay the bills you'll ring up.

Brooks has always struck me as a comfy place for the rich to send their kids to learn a vanity hobby and get them out of the house. People who can afford Brooks can afford not to work.

It's very sad that Brooks has been busted for misrepresenting photography employment opportunities. Brooks is not a public school like UCLA. Brooks is a part of a private company run to make money off of students and their parents. Brooks was busted in a NY Times article "The School That Skipped Ethics Class" on Sunday, July 24, 2005.

The Times reported that the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary & Vocational Education sent an investigator to pose as a prospective student. She was told to expect a starting salary of $50,000 to $150,000, or more, in the first year after graduation.

An examination of Brooks's records showed not a single 2003 graduate had even $50,000 of earning potential. Brooks reported that 45 graduates employed full time earned an average income of about $26,000. Let's see: average photographer earns $24,040, Brooks grad earns $26,000. You can make $1,960 more a year if you go to Brooks. Of course the average debt level of the people who got jobs and went to Brooks was $74,000 each. That means you might break even in 40 years. But wait - there were only 45 grads employed full-time, and Brooks runs about 300 students at a time and growing. Good luck!

See more about Brooks here.

I'm bummed by this. It's Brooks that makes Santa Barbara so desirable. If Brooks shrinks as a result of penalties from this, that shoots a big hole in my genius future plans.

 

Hallmark

Hallmark seems to be a different sort of school. From what little I've heard from graduates, the school and its instructors are quite honest about career and income prospects in photography, and Hallmark also teaches the importance of, and how to run, your own business.

The best thing you can do to research Hallmark is to ask its graduates. They have their own superb alumni website, HallmarkHipsters.net, done by a successful graduate living in Las Vegas.. By comparison, Brooks' Alumni site is a part of Brooks' main site and appears to be PR for the sales department.

 

Your Own Small Business

Sorry folks, but here's the important reality: to make it as a photographer you must become your own small business. You don't have the luxury of working for someone else: there are almost no jobs in photography. As a small business you're in charge, which is great, but you have almost no one to whom you can go for advice or direction. You're on your own in the jungle.

You will have no employer and no job. You, at best, are an independent contractor. You have to provide your own health insurance, fund your own retirement and have no paid vacation or sick leave. I don't even know what a weekend is! You have to find every one of your own photo gigs. Most critically, you need to market and sell yourself. No one is looking for you. Your skills at self-promotion are critical.

Your success depends almost entirely on your ability to run a successful small business. Almost nothing depends on the quality of your photography.

It's sad to see people get laid off from an office job and think that they can just wander into creating a small business. Some can, but only if they develop competitive survival and differentiation skills. If they had those instincts they'd be the ones still working, not the ones let go.

Eat or be eaten, although actually it's more like promote effectively or be forgotten. Effective promotion is more different than simple promotion. Real estate people are in a tough field, but at least they need licenses which photographers don't. All of us laugh at the ridiculous attempts at self-promotion thrown on our lawns and in our mailboxes. Many of those attempts make those people look stupid. Don't let it happen to you. Promotion is a difficult skill. Real estate is a sales job, so those people already have the sales background that photographers don't. Every photographer mails out promotional cards and emails every month. How can you stand out as the go-to-guy for serious photography?

Haven't we all seen photos in magazines, posters and advertisements we could have done better? Of course! Some other guy won the job because he had the promotional skill you lacked. Photography skills are a very, very small part of the business. Anyone can do it. If you think photo skills are more important than marketing, you'll fail.

Most small businesses spend only 15% of their time on the core of why they got into business, and the other 85% of their time on critical side issues like marketing and bookkeeping. You'll be too busy to spend much time on photography. You have to crank out the results, not spend time experimenting.

You need to be able to keep books, figure out how to provide for your own retirement and medical benefits, calculate taxes, and most importantly, be able to promote, market and sell yourself.

You and I appreciate fine photography. That's why we photograph. The people who pay us don't. That's why they are out buying photography. As a business you need to put your efforts into things appreciated by the people paying you. Learn to create great work, but not on client's time.

You must be skilled at dealing with people and selling and promoting yourself. You need to be able to differentiate yourself from the millions of other photographers also trying to make a buck.

 

The Key to Business Success: SCORE.ORG

SCORE is the golden key to everything. My background was technical. I have a degree in engineering. Luckily 10 - 15 years ago I veered off to the marketing and then the sales side of the digital imaging industry, so I gained experience in both.

Marketing and sales are completely different. Marketing is promoting yourself to everyone and determining what products and services to offer. Sales is finding and closing individual deals.

I got good in these areas, but still had zero knowledge of everything else involved in running a business. 15 years ago I took a class from the IRS about it, and it was so complicated I never tried again.

I never took any business classes in college. I took classes in economics, but not business.

Then I recalled some public service ads about SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives. Supposedly they were retired guys who loved what they did in business so much that they volunteered seasoned business advice free for the listening. A fast internet search uncovered SCORE.org. They work throughout the USA. I'm unfamiliar with the rest of the world.

SCORE is your key to success! They are the real thing. They are incredible. If you ask via their website, they will find someone experienced in any field and get you a real answer from someone who knows. I was able to get advice from someone experienced in publishing when I was contemplating writing a book.

I got real answers from people who had been there and done it, not from academics. God bless teachers, but if they could cut it in the competitive business world they probably would be doing it, instead of analyzing it in class for much, much less pay.

I took a one-day class taught by folks from my local SCORE chapter. In a one-day's overview it covered what makes a successful business and what makes it fail. It laid out exactly what you need to know, like business plans, taxation, getting loans, bookkeeping, marketing, promotion, competitive analysis and, well, everything I had always needed to know. This one class had many students realize if their business ideas were doomed, or if they should move ahead. That's what business plans do.

They stressed the old wives tale about "99% of new businesses failing in the first year" was baloney. They pointed out that if you consider every half-baked attempt at business, like people giving money to casual acquaintances to start weak partnerships in undefined business ideas you might see 99% fail. They explained that people who did their research (the sort of people smart enough to attend that class) almost always succeeded if they chose to move ahead. This is because something as simple as making a business plan, which is writing down what you're going to do, makes one look at all the pitfalls and makes very clear which businesses are likely to succeed. People who do their diligence and realize an idea isn't likely to succeed don't do it, so they don't fail.

I was expecting a bunch of dull old farts teaching. Retired doesn't mean old. These guys had been so successful that they had retired young. Talking with them at the end of class as we walked out to the parking lot we noticed that these weren't business teachers driving clapped-out old Volvos. These dudes were driving new Mercedes S-classes. These guys were winners, and loved what they did so much that they couldn't keep out of it after they retired. These are the guys from whom you couldn't afford advice, yet they offer it for free!

The class for the day cost about $60, which paid for the room. They even threw in free lunch! The teachers, and there were many of them, all volunteered their time. Unlike most things, I got far more than I paid for.

Take the classes you need at SCORE and you'll have what you need to plan if your idea to start a photography business makes sense. Ask and you can get real advice from people who know.

 

Some Tidbits I Learned from SCORE:

1.) Forget Partnerships. These almost always fail. It seems like a great idea for two friends to team up if one has the photo skills and the other has the business skills. The problem is that as things develop they both want to be in charge. You can't have an animal with two heads. Eventually they each want to go in a different direction, and the business falls apart. The really bad thing is that it's not pretty, and they lose each other as friends, too.

2.) Keep your day job and take your time planning your business. The longer you plan, the more likely you are to succeed. You won't be making money for some time and you'll need your day job. Six months of planning is a minimum, two years is better. Don't just quit and say "Bingo, I'm now a pro photographer, yeah!" Plan for some time and know exactly what you're going to do.

3.) Business is competitive. It's a jungle. People win and people lose. It's not like a job working for someone else. You have to plan to win, otherwise you will die.

4.) Do it! Most encouraging was the sentiment that anyone can do it. This is America and anyone can become anything they like. Your only limitation is your imagination. Plan it of course, but think big. When I was setting my goals one instructor was taken aback at my low figures. He said "What, that's your goal? Why bother? Set something worth achieving!"

5.) Don't worry. The worst that can happen is you have to get a job again, which is exactly where you started. I've met several people who lost everything in attempts at their own business and were still glad they did it. They were happily working regular jobs again.

 

Other Observations

Weddings

This is the easiest way to make money on weekends.

You'll pull in a few hundred dollars to start, and today decent guys pull in at least a few thousand just to give a CD with photos to the bride. That saves them from having to deal with prints later.

Old timers still try to charge for shooting and then to take print orders for profit. People hate that.

Sell them the CD, let them print their own, and get on to the next job.

Of course this is also dangerous. A guy in my family had his lab lose his film. Today one computer glitch could lose your whole job. He had to fly almost everyone in the wedding party back to the USA to redo the photos. They had to come from Brazil! The photographer had to pay all this, since he was liable. He lost so much money he gave up.

You only get one chance to photograph a once-in-a-lifetime event. That's why it can pay well, and why you'll be in deep trouble if you screw up.

I don't do weddings. The one I have done have been for fun for friends. When they've wanted to pay me in advance I've been very clear that their rate is as low as it is because I'm accepting no liability for anything.

Other friends do weddings and already have $60,000 in bookings for the next few months after only being at it half a year. They key is marketing, promotion and sales. They hump themselves and get out to every bridal event and ask for the business. They invite prospective couples over to their home gallery, show them walls loaded with great wedding shots and get top dollar.

It's not the photo quality - look at any wedding photos and you'll see. It's all in how well you can run your own small business.

 

Health Insurance

This was my biggest worry, but easy. I called Blue Cross and got a plan for $94 a month. Easy! It even covered annual exams and drugs.

Be certain not to quit your day job before you arrange to get health insurance. In my case it was easy to get new coverage because I had coverage from my day job. If you currently have no coverage it's much more difficult to start new independent coverage.

You save money with a large deductible. You save so much each month that even if you have medical expenses you've still saved money at the end of the year.

My plan had a $5,000 deductible, which of course you need to have in the bank when starting a business anyway. If I wanted a smaller deductible it would have cost maybe $250 a month. At the end of the year that's $2,000 in extra premiums. If you don't get sick, that's $2,000 in your pocket. If you do, you're probably even.

Insurance is to cover you in case of a dire emergency that would wipe out your finances. It's wasteful to expect it to pay your month-to-month medical bills. If you're an employee that's fine, but not if you're self-employed. A friend had an infection and spent a month in the intensive care unit. The bill was over one million dollars! They paid nothing since they had insurance. You need coverage for emergencies, not for expected bills.

 

Equipment Insurance

This is the tough part. Your homeowners' insurance probably excludes any items used in business. Once you do photography for money you're probably not covered.

If you're a new business no one wants to write you business insurance. You typically need to have been around for two years.

I got lucky. Farmer's, for about $50 extra a year, sells a business pursuits rider on homeowners' policies.

I'm in California where the Farmers' guy explained that my problem finding insurance was tough because most or all of the other popular insurance companies no longer offered that kind of coverage.

Of course homeowners insurance only covers some kinds of losses, like theft. It doesn't cover my stupidity, like dropping it. Thankfully homeowners insurance covers everything up to my limit. I don't have to provide a list and add to it everytime I get something new.

I avoided paying about two cents per hundred dollars per year for most other equipment policies. Those policies cover any sort of loss, but only apply to the list you provide and pay for. If you buy new gear you have to add to the list, and it gets cumbersome if you want to include straps and filters and etc.

 

The Client is Always Right

Always do what the client wants, even if he is an idiot. He may be stupid, but that's too bad. I've heard stories about photographers who thought they were right and the customer was wrong. They lost the jobs. Duh. This isn't about art. It's about commerce. Do the art on your own time.

I warn people obsessing about cameras that photography depends on imagination, not equipment. Success in photography for money depends on your business savvy, not the quality of your photos. Worse, very little depends on your ability to make a photo that you think looks good. It's your ability to get the client what he thinks he wants.

Only after you've earned a clients' respect might he start paying attention to your suggestions. Be careful.

 

Trade Associations

When I've attended meetings of professional photography groups I was saddened by the overall crummy attitude. Everyone whines about how they are beaten down to bottom dollar by all the new people coming in and every other whine imaginable. Regardless of organization, no one seems to have a confident handle on running their business. Everyone is too busy complaining about why it's not their fault. Tough, it's a competitive business, and to succeed one needs to rise above the whining and differentiate one's self in the eyes of the people who hire you. If you can't make clear why you are different from everyone else, you'll always get bottom dollar.

When I shopped for things like insurance I didn't see any great deals offered compared to what I found on my own.

I don't belong to any of APA or PPA or ASMP or any of that. People should join, as it's the best way to meet others doing the same thing and to learn from the camaraderie. I didn't find any of them that encouraging from a business standpoint.

I'd suggest joining these groups to learn specifics about pro photo issues, but stick with SCORE to learn about how to be successful.

Professional photography is about running a business. It's not about creating art. Sadly the folks I often met at trade association meetings seemed too concerned with being victims and not enough about confidently taking charge of their futures. Don't let these guys wear you down.

It's like learning about photography. I suggest people wanting to improve their photography hang out with painters and other artists, and not hang around camera hobbyists or photographers. Likewise, I suggest people looking to become professional hang around successful small businesspeople.

 

Know When to Call it Quits

Small businesspeople are great. Ask them about their baby (their business) and they'll talk you ear off with free advice.

One pearl I learned was to know when to give up. Set a time table before you start. If you're not profitable within that time, give it up before you lose everything.

One person told me how sad it was that they saw friends finally get into the businesses of their lifelong dreams, and they didn't know when it was time to give up. They threw everything they had at the dying dream and lost everything.

I picked two years. I was lucky; things worked great.

I picked two years because I had enough cash to live on for two years when I quit my real job.

 

What If You Have to Get a Real Job Again?

I was worried what would happen if I took off for two years to do my own thing, gave up, and had a huge hole in my resume. You have to have a job to get one, and having a two-year period of unemployment didn't seem like a good idea.

I was told no problem! Every decent employer would look at someone who made a real attempt at their own business very positively. Most employers dream of doing it themselves. You will be seen as more of a self-motivated go-getter than any of the other dull employees applying.

Independent businessmen have completely different mindsets from anyone who's an employee. It's the difference between being caged in a zoo with free food, no fighting allowed and HMO-grade medical care for life, or being on your own in a jungle. In the jungle we have to make do for ourselves. 80% of being an employee is just showing up.

Even the smallest of businessmen has a mindset a few steps above any employee, even if that employee's title is Vice President. As employees, even the most hard-working lust for approved ways to screw off or take more. Raise? Excellent! Extra vacation day? Yes!!! Christmas week off? BULLSEYE!!!!! Life is completely different when you pay yourself. I don't even know what a weekend is! I get no vacation. Any time I'm not working, it's costing me. I pay myself; there is no such thing as a raise or time off. If I ditch an afternoon it costs me forever.

If you've made a valid attempt at running your own business it's better than having worked for someone else the past year.

Put your business and title on your resume. You are the Owner, Big Kahuna, or CEO or whatever you call yourself. It's OK to give up and go back to work. It's better to try and lose than be a wimp who never tried.

A caveat is that I haven't looked for a job personally in years. I asked a headhunter when I was considering quitting and was told employers welcome business owners back into employment.

I have personally experienced the complete change in mindset from employee to working for myself. It's interesting, because my wife is an employee of someone else. Things we each consider absolute, like the value of a day off, are opposites! She loves days off, and I want to keep working. You never get a day off in the jungle, unless you want to be eaten.

 

Share Everything You Know (separate article, click)

 

The Salesman and the Polaroid

I knew of one guy who had great people and sales skills, borrowed a Polaroid camera, went to a tourist area here in San Diego one night, and made hundreds of dollars selling couples photos of themselves on vacation. He wouldn't take no for an answer!

Photography isn't nuclear weapons design. This guy had never held a camera in his life.

Success comes to those who can sell and promote.

 

Differentiation

All salespeople learn to differentiate their product or service from their competitors. Your success is critically dependant on your ability to educate others why your photographs or photography services are superior. If you can't you're going to get bottom dollar every time.

If you can differentiate yourself, you'll be the one pulling in $10,000 for a few hours shooting a wedding on Saturday. I know of one guy who was so good at this he kept raising his wedding rate trying to get out of the business. At $85,000 a shoot he kept getting calls. Only when he raised his rate for a few hours of shooting over $100,000 did people stop asking him to shoot weddings.

Unless you can differentiate yourself, there are hundreds of others hungrier than you hoping for the same job. If you won't take their lowball offer, the next guy will.

 

Negotiation

Negotiation isn't about price. If you're stuck on negotiating price, you lose.

Everyone wins in a good negotiation. Good negotiation is learning what the other side really wants. Negotiation isn't about one side wining and the other losing. It's not a competition. It's a constructive collaboration.

If you can't differentiate yourself you'll only be able to negotiate pricing and payments. If you're only negotiating pricing, you'll always lose to someone newer and hungrier.

The best way to learn to negotiate is to read Herb Cohen's You Can Negotiate Anything. Back when I was a senior manager at a multi-billion dollar company we took many courses on negotiation. Nothing ever taught us anything that wasn't already covered in this book.

People who buy photographs know how to wrap photographers around their fingers. The standard line used against photographers for probably over 100 years is "We only budgeted this much for the job today, but if we like your work we have another project coming soon for which we can pay you much more." If you fall for this one you deserve bottom dollar.

When people try that line on me (they do all the time) I either ignore it and keep on with the discussion, or say "sure" with an intonation that lets them know I'm calling their bluff. Also I'd realize that they intend to get someone at bottom dollar. I'd either walk away, or apologize that I was unclear in explaining that I'm a guy who is paid a premium because those who use my products do so precisely because it sets them apart from their competition. Since standing out is the purchaser's whole point in buying, I have to get them to see that they can't afford not to pay top dollar!

You have to differentiate yourself. If you can't show why your work is better than everyone else's, you're only worth bottom dollar. If the only way you can win a job is on price, it's time to get a real job again.

 

Retail

We all admire the few photographers who have glorious retail stores selling their work.

These photographers are successful because of their skill at retail. These guys could have opened successful chains of stores selling anything else instead.

You can do it, too, but it requires retail skill. Photo quality alone gets you nowhere.

 

Summary

Go investigate SCORE and start planning your own business as a business, not a hobby. You'll do great!

 

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Thanks for reading!

 

 

Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.

 

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