The business side of photography can be incredibly frustrating to folks who just entered the field in order to create great images. The artsy creative personality who started a photography business in many cases probably didn't spend any advance time thinking about a marketing strategy. Most likely there is little-to-no advertising budget in your business plan for this niche market. BUT, senior portraits are a fantastic revenue stream that can really help the bottom line with your photography business.
1. Create A Presence
Whether you are relatively new on the scene, and just trying to blaze a new trail, or a twenty-year veteran of the photography industry, you need to be seen (and seen often) as a provider of great senior portraits. It may seem a bit on the ‘obvious' side, but nobody is going to hire you if they have no idea who you are. If this is a market that you are looking to capture, you need to get out there in front of that particular audience, and become a known quantity. Students need to see and love your work. Parents need to trust you, and feel comfortable entrusting their son/daughter's senior photos (and their hard-earned money) in your hands.
Marketing is not just about having a snazzy business card, or a sleek looking flyer to hand out to prospective clients. It's about immersing yourself into a particular community, in a way that the entire community thinks of you when it is time for photos. The effort and time that you invest in building a connection to a particular school (or schools), is actually an effort to build connections with a wide array of people.
2. Be a GREAT photographer!
Above all else, the quality of your work MUST speak for itself. When your photography is seen by the community, it has to stand out as truly great work. If it looks like the photos taken by Suzy's dad with a mid-line camera, then guess what…they are going to ask him for a favor, and they are NOT going to hire you. Mission number one is to delve in deeply to your craft, and know how to capture consistently superb images. If you are just beginning with this, there is just an incredible wealth of information available online to help get you rolling. Here is a video produced by Jim Harmer, that highlights several posing ideas for senior portraits. I agree 100% with his assertion that you need to be using lighting (preferably off-camera), and you need to have some sense of posing techniques. If you just sit a person out in front of your lens, and take a great natural light photo, you most likely still have nothing more than a superb quality snapshot. In order to cross over into that professional photographer ‘look,' images need to be more polished and refined.
3. Work Your Way Up
While looking around the internet for some ideas about senior portraits, I discovered photographers that are charging nearly $2,000 for senior portraits. Every photographer and studio will price their photography at a point where they feel that it has great merit, and where they feel that it is a fantastic value. Speaking from my own experience, I started my senior portraits at $50.00 plus prints before I had any portfolio at all. I had NOTHING to show people that I knew what I was doing. In fact… as much as I had listened to podcasts and read articles on the internet, nothing can replace the growth curve of your first several sessions. Confidence is a tricky tightrope to walk. You NEED to have confidence to be a photographer. You also NEED to be critical enough on your own work to ensure continued growth. The key is not to try to make your first customer pay the same rate as you will be eventually charging once you have mastered your skill set. Find some family friends or children of co-workers, and shoot their photos on the cheap, until you KNOW you are offering a great value at a higher price. Speaking personally, My rates are now between $150 and $250 for the photo sessions (generally 60-90 minutes,) plus prints. I feel comfortable in my market, and at my quality point, that $150-$250 for a session fee is absolutely reasonable. Will I raise my prices? Sure – probably a little bit. For me, another piece of the puzzle is that I don't want to be positioned as the “super high-end” photographer that normal folks can't afford. I want to be accessible to a rather broad percentage of the population, while still charging enough that I feel that my time is compensated fairly.
4. Inspire Trust
I am not a full-time photographer. One thing that I make a very prominent point when talking to parents about photographing their sons/daughters is the fact that I am a full-time teacher. I have been teaching for 20 years, and I have all of the experience dealing with teens that one could hope for. I also happen to have all of the FBI and state background checks in place to offer proof that I am someone who has earned the expectation to be trusted. ANYONE can procure the background checks that teachers have to have. I would strongly encourage any person that wants to interact with school-aged children in any capacity, to have those forms in hand. The number of laws that have been enacted in order to protect our children are ever-growing. Speaking from the perspective of a teaching professional, it's actually becoming quite a challenge to even be able to find parents to chaperone trips and dances. Anyone who is hoping to make a business of photographing minors should eagerly invest in the necessary certifications and clearances that are required to work in a school – even if you aren't entering the physical school building to do your work.
5. Get Into the School
Part of building a photography business, just like any other, is to get out there and hustle! It is completely unreasonable to think that you will book senior portrait clients from a few Instagram or Facebook posts. Even boosting and targeting your Facebook posts, you may wait a very long time to attract your first client. I can't recommend strongly enough, the idea of going out to school events, and shooting them to generate interest in your work. I always make sure to attend at least a couple of football games during the Fall. But that isn't too far out of the norm. In my area there are always a number of great DSLRs and long lenses in the end zones at the high school football game. What you want to find are the events and activities where there are NO other photographers. I'm a band director, and the performing arts is a great passion of mine. So, I have made that my main ‘thing' to do in order to generate publicity and awareness of my photography business. Most folks are aware of the Fall football game. But during the winter months, band kids participate in a number of other activities. They have Indoor Colorguard, Indoor Drumline, Jazz Bands, Orchestras, Concert Bands, along with a wide variety of dance teams, drill teams, etc.
I personally like to shoot the events that are largely ignored by other photographers. In addition to shooting those events, I include a coupon for $50 off a Senior Portrait Session for any student who has purchased an event photo from my coverage of their event. It really works out great, because that drives traffic to my website for the event photos, AND it makes everyone well aware that I'm interested in doing Senior Portraits. Anything that I can do to get the parent/student to think of me as a Senior Portrait photographer is good marketing.
Every human being likes to feel like someone is interested in them. Getting to know your Seniors, and capturing what they are truly passionate about will help you create photos that they positively adore. Some of them will be easier than others. For example, if it's a member of the football team, or a star musician, they might want one of their outfits to be their jersey, or posed with their instrument. In other cases, that personal interest may be a bit deeper under the surface. The real key is to put on a psychologist's hat while you are qualifying your client, and figure out what really truly makes them excited about life. Once you know their passions, be sure to find creative and fun ways to incorporate those into the photos. Not only will this help make your client absolutely love their photos, but it will also keep your photos fresh and different. As your portfolio expands, you will have far more diverse “looks” to share out with prospective students.
7. Follow the Most Current Social Media Trends
It is very easy to become entrenched in a social media platform, and feel like you have “arrived” when you are experiencing great success of that platform. The problem is, trends turn over very quickly in today's technological world. The undisputed king of social media platforms from a few years ago was Facebook. Even though they still rank VERY highly in terms of account holding teens, they are no longer in 1st place. You are probably thinking that #1 spot is Instagram. That honestly would have been my assumption before doing a bit of research for this article, but no – Instagram is #3. The highest saturation of teen participation is actually Snapchat.
Here is the breakdown for the top 8 social media platforms for young adults (aged 13-24) according to Statista.com.
Snapchat – 72%
Facebook – 68%
Instagram – 66%
Twitter – 36%
Kik – 29%
Pinterest – 27%
Vine – 26%
Tumblr – 24%
Senior portrait shoots are among the most light-hearted, enjoyable sessions that you will have! The kids are usually VERY willing to ham it up for the camera. They are at such an exciting point in their lives, and they are filled with wonder, excitement and most likely a fair dose of nerves about what comes next in their life. Just delight in the time that you spend with them, and be willing to be spontaneous and goofy. The creative juices can really get flowing when you are shooting a really funky kid with a neat world view. There is MUCH to be learned from youthful hearts and spirits! If they have a ton of personality and some unusual ideas, run with it!
9. Become Comfortable With Posing
One thing I have noticed from working with a lot of teens is that they are still delightfully awkward when it comes to posing. It's sort of odd, because they are the “selfie” generation. You might have to explain why they should not create the “duck face” for each image. I think the most beneficial thing for my understanding of posing was actually to work with an experienced model. I shot a LOT of senior portraits and similar things before I ever worked with a semi-professional model. When I finally did work with a trained model, my eyes opened up tremendously! Then, when going back to work with my seniors, I would actually offer up a little “modeling 101” session to talk to them about how to react to the sound of the shutter click by moving to a slightly different pose. The girls in particular LOVED the little mini-lesson, and the speed of our sessions would pick up tremendously.
10. Make Sure Your Products Are As Awesome as Your Photography
Senior Portraits are more than just the digital files. There is an endless debate about selling prints, giving files, etc. etc. That is a conversation for another time and place. BUT – if you are offering products as part of your package, make sure they are absolutely phenomenal. You want to make sure that if you DO give the files, and the client goes off to CVS to make their fine art print, that the items they have directly from you absolutely knock their socks off.
Photographers are not necessarily graphic designers. I will use myself as a prime example. I'm quite confident in my ability to take some fantastic images. I'm not out of touch with reality – I'm not the best, but I'm certainly far from the worst. BUT… I really stink at the graphic design side of things. I'm a huge fan of templates. Miller's is my go-to lab for all of my print product, and they offer so many fantastic options to help the graphically impaired like me. I'm sure that every other major print lab is the same way – they will offer so many great templates, lay-outs, designs, products… take full advantage of those resources!
It's a fair assumption that many photographers actually are talented at graphic design and lay-outs. If that is you, then by all means, do them yourself, but just be sure that your products are remarkable in every way.
Keep in mind, every kid that you interact with as a Senior Portrait client is quite possibly a wedding client for 6-10 years down the road. (maybe sooner!) I always view the quality of my print work and hard products to be my very best advertising. In fact, the past two weddings that I shot were both booked as a result of the client seeing a print of mine on the wall of some other previous client. Nothing will be better advertisement than word of mouth and tons of delighted customers!
But wait, there's more!!! Use “Sneak Peeks” to Draw More Business
Sneak peeks on Instagram and Facebook (my two chosen platforms) create a MASSIVE amount of interest. When you have some fantastic images from a particular shoot, share them out on your social media sites, and tag the student in the photos. We all make our own choices in terms of water-marking and branding. My own personal choice is that when I have a paid client, I do not put my watermark on the images. I explicitly ask them to tag me and acknowledge me as their photographer. I also ask them whenever possible to share my actual post, so that it helps drive a bit of attention to my page. Those images do remarkably well on social media.
I do offer mini sessions once in the Fall, and once in the Spring. With those, I do watermark the social media files. I guess it's a silly distinction in my own mind, but when they are already getting a very discounted session, I feel that it's a fair trade to watermark the photos. Another part of this is probably that I have not found my mini-session clients to be quite as “invested” in the relationship with their photographer as my brides and portrait clients. Someone who is doing a mini session hasn't had the consultations, or the “hang out and get coffee” time that a full portrait client or a bride will have had. They are looking for great photos, but unless that rapport is already established from prior encounters with them, it's just the very beginning of building a relationship. Hopefully many of the mini-session folks will eventually become full-blown clients! But, for those less expensive encounters that are fairly blatant marketing events anyway, I do use my watermark.