The Portrait Photography Business: From Kids To CEOs

While the destiny of the commercial photographer is still in the hands of the current corporate and advertising economy, the pro-active consumer portrait photographer seems to be doing well, even considering the times. Yet challenges remain from the shopping mall photo studio (26 photos for just $7.99!) to the DIY market, where everyone with a D-SLR gets in on the act.

Photos © Dennis Craft

In this column, we talk to four photographers working in the portrait photography market. Their coverage defines the market opportunities: children, families, high school seniors, Little Leagues, and executive portraits. They look at industry changes, the value of professional photography, marketing, portfolio and album preferences, and how to get started in today’s portrait photography business.

The pros we talked with were Lori Craft (Craft Photographic Gallery), www.craftphotography.com; Ivan Martinez (Ivan Martinez Photography), www.ivanmartinezphotography.com; Erica Payne (EP Photography), www.epphotography.com; and Tina Wilson (Tina Wilson Photography), tinawilson.com. Check out their websites to see more of their great work. (Editor’s note: The emphasis given to certain concepts (in italics) is the author’s, used to point out key ideas she has gleaned from her research.)

Photos © Ivan Martinez Photography

Shutterbug: What is the biggest industry change you have seen in the portrait photography business in the last two years?

Erica Payne: The explosion of the GWC (Guy With a Camera) and the MWC (Mom With a Camera). The rates are lower due to the MWC and GWC jumping into business and not knowing how to charge. Since to them it is “extra income,” they don’t consider the cost of doing business. They have insurance through their full-time job and don’t factor in costs like rent and business insurance as if this was their only job. The request for the originals is also a major change. People seem to think the more the better. They want the files and want all of them. We must now place higher value on digital images. Today those are worth more than full-resolution prints!

Lori Craft: It was rare for a client to ever ask to buy your negatives, and they understood the artist’s copyright. Now, everyone wants to receive the files. There doesn’t seem to be as much appreciation for the art of the photograph, or the artist. The professional portrait market has been diluted with so many digital cameras and millions of images on the Internet that the portrait has lost some of its value in the eyes of the client. We, as portrait professionals, need to keep educating our clients and community in the art and value of the professional portrait, and the wall portrait that is beautifully displayed in their home.

Photos © Erica Payne

Tina Wilson: Tons and tons of new photographers are seeping out from every crook and crevice, from the very young (14 to 16 years) to people in their 60s; being a photographer is the hip career to have these days. It’s interesting to me that so many people are drawn to this profession. I think in part because digital is becoming advanced and affordable, so it’s easy to acquire the equipment.

Learning how to use it is simpler now than it ever has been. There’s a workshop, online forum, YouTube video, or just passionate hobbyists out there giving it all away in just a click. Anyone can start up relatively inexpensively with their extremely advanced equipment, then invest a miniscule amount in their education and off they go! Pair this series of events with posting images on social networking sites, friends seeing the images and chiming in with a “wow, you’re so super talented and you should start your own business” statements. This becomes the fuel needed to burn away fears and you have yourself a full-fledged “newbie” in the marketplace.

Take this “newbie” and let them be a person who happens to have a little talent and teachable spirit and watch them soar! This seems to burn some of the “old hands” up; what they have doled out in blood, sweat, and tears for 10 to 20 years is legitimate. It’s paid for…at a very high price, I might add. When that gets surpassed with some newbie-cotton-candy talent, it just doesn’t go over well and no one is afraid to say it.

So over the last two years, I have been actually embarrassed on more than one occasion to be a part of this industry. An industry whose purpose is to document people now so they will have memories later and blaze the trail to create new art, only to have to listen to a bunch of Little Rascals shout “you can’t play in my clubhouse because you tried to do it too quickly.” It is just completely ridiculous. I say, “Grow up and shoot.”

Photos © tinawilson.com

SB: Regarding marketing tactics, what seems to work best for finding portrait clients given the different marketing tools available—advertising, direct mail, e-mail, website, sales calls, or social media?

Lori Craft: Everything has changed here, too. Now, you have to do everything! We have been in business since 1979, so we have clients who still want to receive our newsletter, or direct mail pieces. They don’t respond to social networking. We have incorporated much of the new media into our marketing. It just takes longer to get it all done! We have a website, blog, Facebook, e-mail blasts. We are doing it all.

Ivan Martinez: A website is a must. Facebook has proven to be helpful. I am currently re-evaluating the use of online galleries for clients to proof and select images. I have found that clients lose interest after the session and I have to spend a lot of time chasing them to get their portrait orders. Many successful portrait photographers have told me not to do this and instead do one-on-one meetings where images are projected and the client is then asked to make the selection.

Tina Wilson: Word of mouth and silent auctions have been best for us. It’s easy to get people to say bad things about a bad experience. I’ve always heard that if you do one thing poorly, 12 people will hear about it. If you do one thing over-the-top incredible, one person might hear about it. My entire business is based on this “theory” and so far, so good. We work at blowing the top off of every client experience in hopes that they won’t be able to contain themselves, they’ll feel compelled to mention us to at least two or three of their closest friends who they have influence with.

Silent auctions are pretty huge for us as well. Silent auctions are held by local nonprofit organizations in the forms of a gala, a dinner, a speaker/presenter, a dance, or just a huge party. We know exactly who our client is and which events they will attend, so we donate to those organizations and the guests of these events bid on our sessions. The winners pay the organization for the session and we get a new client—a win-win. It’s a perfect way for us to get our name in front of people who have just moved to the area and are getting connected for the first time. It also proves to be a great buzz generator when someone is standing around our display. All around it is a great and purposeful marketing tool for us.

SB: What types (formats) of photography portfolios do you find work best for portrait clients? What kind of prints or albums do you still show or sell?

Ivan Martinez: I show actual prints, framed images, and canvas wraps. Digital albums are also helpful as a way to showcase style and location ideas for the client’s portrait session.

Erica Payne: My iPad works best with retail clients. Also, I show complete custom-designed printed albums of an entire session similar to the one they are booking; for example, senior sessions have a senior album. Also, custom albums are big sellers.

Lori Craft: Our goal is to provide as much service as we can for our clients to set us apart from the competition. We use ProSelect software for our presentations. I am in control of the sale and it gives lots of opportunities to help my clients make the best choices for their portraits.

Tina Wilson: We create custom coffee-table books for our clients because they see too many images to display on walls and because of the nostalgia it offers. Books give our clients seven important benefits: they have all of the images from their session in one place; they can ditch the idea of scrapbooking and let us deal with it; they can put a copy away for their kids; they can gift a copy to their parents and/or relatives; they can decorate with them; they can collect volumes; and they can have all of the nuances of their family’s relationship and personality in one place. They are absolutely priceless and we sell one to almost every client who walks in our door.

SB: What recommendations would you make to a photographer looking to make a career move into this field?

Lori Craft: Learn the business of photography; there is so much more to running a studio than taking pretty pictures. Know how to price your work, market and promote your business, and how to do the accounting to support your sales and expenses. Learn how to pose families and individuals, how to work with different lighting, and how to create the best portrait of your subject.

Erica Payne: Charge a fair price! Even if you are starting out you still have costs. That camera cost you, that flash cost you. These people probably won’t boost your portfolio like you think so don’t pay for them to have great pictures. Have them at least cover your costs. They would have paid more at Walmart. Remember that!

Ivan Martinez: Be prepared to spend a lot of time educating clients on the value of your craft. It is not just about posing and lighting anymore. Portrait work is a mix of home decor, family bragging rights, and personal reinforcement of esteem. Look for products that will help your client do this so you can set yourself apart in the marketplace.

Tina Wilson: Do your homework, dream a lot, and be you. With the expressway of individuals entering this field, you must answer these hard questions: what do you want people to say about you? Who would you photograph? What would you want one client to say to the other about you? What can you truly offer in your market that doesn’t already exist? Can you do it better, cheaper, or faster? Will people come to you at your studio or will you hand deliver everything? How will your clients select their images, with your help or without? Why? What do you want to accomplish through your work? What difference can you make through the images you create? How can you make money at this? How will you stand out among so many outlandishly talented photographers?

Rick Warren said, “To be unique, just be yourself—because everyone around you is trying to be someone they aren’t.” Artistically speaking, I love this quote so much because the photographers who stand out and the ones who truly have a tight and solid style are the ones who are being true to themselves. They allow other people to inspire them, but they know who they are and their work is a mere reflection of who that person is. It’s beautiful. It’s unique. No one on earth is like you.

So what if it’s not mainstream? So what if you have critics? So what if you create controversy over work you created by being you? What a success that would be! Clearly, you want clients who will pay you for your vision so don’t be confined by the walls of other photographers’ work.

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