Business Trends
Reinventing Your Business, Selling High End Portraits; An Interview With David Freeman

Business Trends

Photos © 2002, Davis Freeman, All Rights Reserved

Because you need a specific marketing message to sell to potential clients, most photographers base their business on the subject of the photograph such as people, products, and architecture. Some photographers find a personal style for their photography. When you can combine the two--subject and style--you have the potential to sell to the bigger, better clients. Also, this combination message gives you a powerful advantage over your competition because it is unique to you. This is the story of one photographer's transition from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the bread-and-butter clients to the high-end clients willing to pay more for something special.

Davis Freeman,, is in the second year of his shift from straight commercial work to high-end creative portraits. The first part of his career was spent as the Chief Photographer for the University of Washington. It was there he experimented and developed his unique portrait style. He started his commercial career nearly at the top with an annual report for Microsoft. With a substantial marketing effort, he went on to corporate photography for clients such as Nordstrom, Washington Mutual Bank, ICOS Corporation,, as well as a host of smaller hi-tech companies. His editorial work has appeared in magazines such as Newsweek, People, and Fortune.

Shutterbug: Why did you decide to target high-end portrait clients?

Davis Freeman: I have always had a focus on portraiture. The bulk of my commercial photography work was annual reports and corporate collateral and almost always included people actively involved in some activity or portraits. Another large part of my business was editorial work, which were always portraits. During my time off I had devoted a great deal of creative energy to my "Illustratype" process, a technique I had discovered in 1989. I was hung up for years over the common practice in consumer retail portraiture of accepting very low fees for the initial session; then making the money on the back-end, e.g., selling the prints. Commercial photography is the reverse, charging a fair but higher usage fee for the initial assignment with accompanying modest markups on the print costs. This stumbling block was resolved in my mind when I clarified my new style and approach to the "family portrait."

SB: It took several years for you to decide on your portrait style, what was that process like?

DF: From 1996-2000, I took out source book ads, hired a marketing person, and started a national direct mail campaign. To a degree it was successful. I was invited to have an exhibition of my work at Young and Rubicon (New York), my work appeared in Fortune, Money, and People magazines among others. Polaroid used my images for national and international ad campaigns on creative uses of Polaroid film. My work is showcased in Kathleen Carr's definitive book on the Polaroid process, Creative Polaroid Techniques. However, it became clear that for me to become financially successful I needed a presence in L.A., Nashville, and/or New York City and I was unable and unwilling to relocate from Seattle. During this time I was polishing my "Illustratype" process and its applications to my personal work and commercial assignments.

The process is an alternative Polaroid film process using 4x5 Type 53 Polaroid film. After the film is processed, I discard the positive and scan the faint image on the paper backing. Since the mid-90s I have used Adobe Photoshop to enhance the image with the final print being an ink jet print. During the mid-to-late 90s, I amassed a large body of work and began to show and exhibit at galleries. I began adjusting the technique to produce a more commercial appeal. By 2001, I had reworked the technique to have both a broad commercial and consumer retail appeal.

SB: What is a typical assignment for you now?

DF: I developed my style based on the idea that we are a society of individuals connected through our families. From this belief, for a "group family portrait," came the idea of photographing the members of a family individually; then framing each picture individually and grouping them in clusters. This structure allows the individual personality to blossom while preserving the family structure. Additionally, the viewer may gain insight into the family dynamic. I will not do a traditional group portrait in the "Illustratype" style.

The other idea, the Triptychs (a work consisting of three images) is a more contemporary and striking approach to creating a family portrait. Flowing back and forth, the interchange and energy among the family is captured within the three images. I place the family members together and let them talk, laugh, and horse around among themselves.

By continually shooting the interchange I come up with three images that make a whole, a gestalt.

SB: How does your marketing differ when dealing with commercial clients and consumer retail clients?

DF: When I meet with an Art Director (commercial client), I present a well-prepared portfolio of laminated 8x10 images in a brushed aluminum case. The work is representative of how I work with executives or people on location. It might include several "Illustratype" images, which usually creates some excitement among the clients. When meeting with retail portrait clients I present two portfolios of 14x18 and 16x20 prints that are representative of my "Illustratype" approach as well as my BW fiber prints. I then discuss the different approaches and the differences in the final print. This helps the client understand why the costs are considerably higher for the one than the other. This also allows me not to lose the client who is not prepared to spend the amount required for an "Illustratype" portrait or who desires the traditional group family portrait.

SB: Describe your future marketing plans for selling your high-end portraits.

DF: Every 9-12 months I will have a "salon" viewing at my studio and invite highly qualified potential clients, past clients, and a few supporters (usually about 30-40 people). It is a catered event and I offer an incentive to sign that evening for a portrait session. I will have rotating exhibitions of my work at local businesses that include wine shops, coffee shops (this is Seattle), bistros, and restaurants. The criterion is that the location must have an abundance of "mothers with children" as customers.

Also, I plan to initiate client-sponsored salon parties at their homes for their friends. I will photograph their children with no obligation to buy the prints. However, with a festive salon party atmosphere, the framed images of beautiful children on easels create a strong enticement to purchase. Though there is no obligation to purchase, there is an incentive to purchase because when one person purchases, they all purchase.

SB: What recommendation can you make to a photographer looking to make a big career move like this one?

DF: Take the time to investigate the market, prepare, and then stick with it for at least three years. It is tremendous amount of hard work but very satisfying when the transition is complete.