Portrait Sales: Which Model Is Right for You? With Lori Nordstrom
Just a couple of years ago, I would have fought for my stance that in-person product sales are the only way to make a profit in photography. Heck, there was even research to back me up! The PPA Benchmark Survey has concluded that photographers doing in-person sales of prints and other portrait products were making more money than those who were selling online or selling digital files only. With the cold hard facts in black and white, how could you argue?
While I still believe that selling products to clients in person (rather than online) is the most profitable across the board, there are many ways to do in-person sales and present images to the client for selection. I’ve also found that other models of conducting sales can certainly create a nice profitable income. Photographers choose different models for different reasons.
Years ago, we were taught to print our favorite portraits on spec to display on easels so clients saw them when they walked back through the door for their sale. Seeing the portraits in person made it hard to turn down the pieces. In the film days, we printed negatives to slides, scanned the negatives or had the option to print proofs of the images to present to the client. Printing proofs for selection became very popular in the 1990s.
Some photographers are returning to this sales approach. Proofs are printed and then reviewed with the photographer for the sale. The proofs may be taken home and are discounted based on the sale amount, and are given away free if the client reaches the sales goal. Some photographers send the proofs home with the client for review and selection for a specified amount of time. Clients pay a deposit to take the proofs with them, and if they keep the proofs, they are paid for. If they bring them back, the deposit goes toward their final order.
In both of these circumstances, the photographer believes the proofs have enough value that either the client will meet the minimum order to get their proofs for free, or will love the proofs so much that they will want to keep them and order more. Photographer Sue Bryce (www.suebryce.com) takes this idea to the next level and presents a collection of larger prints displayed in portrait mats on shelves for the client to view. Sue calls this the “reveal wall,” and many photographers have adopted it. The purchased matted prints go into an image box that the client can take home immediately after the sale. Some photographers claim to have doubled or even tripled their returns with this method.
Once photography went digital, image projection sales were all the rave. Projection allows the photographer to show the actual size of the portrait on the wall. In fact, I was told when I converted to a 100 percent digital studio in late 2000, “Don’t go digital unless you buy a projector for sales.” I did, and never looked back.
Many classic portrait studios still use projection to help their clients through their order. Some photographers do the sale themselves, feeling that this gives them one more touch point with the client. Others have a dedicated salesperson so they can concentrate on photography.
One such studio is Kimberly Wylie Photography (www.kimberlywylie.com) in Dallas, Texas. Wylie’s business partner, Jessica Sikes, handles all client communication and sales, allowing Wylie to focus on creating.
“Having someone else do your sales gives them the freedom to brag on you as the most amazing photographer ever, giving you a more exclusive and expert status,” says Wylie. “It also benefits your clients, who are able to talk more freely about their likes and dislikes regarding your images. Overall, having Jessica has increased our sales dramatically over the years.”
Other photographers choose methods that better fit their lifestyle. Audrey Woulard, who specializes in tweens and teens, chose online sales for her business to accommodate her family.
“Online sales help ensure that I maintain the ever elusive home/life balance,” Woulard says.
Her most popular products are prints and albums, which her clients view in an online gallery, and then email or call in their order. One of the keys to making online sales work is to prepare your clients and put strict guidelines into place, she says. Her family comes first, and bending policies for clients might mean sacrificing precious family time. If clients don’t place their order on time, they lose the privilege to place an order at all. While it sounds harsh, Woulard explains that she works with clients who love their images, and simply love working with her.
“Clients will always do business with someone they like and respect,” she says. “If your product blows their mind, you will not only build client loyalty, but you will build valid, vetted word-of-mouth.”
Digital Files Only
A sales model that has been debated since digital imagery came on the scene is to sell digital files only. The industry dubs this “shoot and burn,” meaning the images are photographed and then burned to a DVD or thumb drive. Clients own the files and do with them what they please.
This model is usually equated with part-time photographers, or those who don’t need to support their families with their photography business. Prices are typically low due to the sheer number of photographers who have adopted this model, creating big competition based on price. Most photographers who do it spend hours at the computer editing and retouching their files, making this model a low dollar-for-hour model.
One photographer who stands out from the crowd is boudoir shooter Mistie Simone (www.littleblackdressboudoir.com). Simone defies the masses by not only charging a lot for her digital files, but by spending almost no additional time on sales. Simone does immediate (in-person) sales after the session and markets herself as a “Photoshop Free” studio. When asked about the fact that she doesn’t retouch any files, Simone replied, “I tell them that they don’t need it. I know with proper lighting, a great-fitting wardrobe and beautiful posing, they will look amazing.” Clients take home their images following the sale that same day, which gives Simone more time for shooting, and allows her to be more profitable with digital-only sales.
I myself am a fan of immediate sales, and have been doing this with my portrait events since 2002. Unlike Simone, I retouch and finish the ordered images, but immediate sales cut down so much on workflow. Cutting out the workflow that traditionally happens between the session and the client viewing can make most photography events and sessions much more profitable. In 2009, I started offering this option for my regular client sessions (not just events), and it has been a very popular choice. Clients appreciate not having to make a second appointment for the sale, and I save that time as well. Clients trust me to finish their order beautifully, and I enjoy not having to touch the images that haven’t been ordered. The time saved is immense, thus raising profitability.
Kirstie Marie Photography (www.kirstiemarie.com) calls her packages, which start at $1,495, “all inclusive.” She structured them to be more like a wedding photographer’s packages than a portrait photographer’s. Kirstie has never photographed weddings and has no desire to, but she says the way their packages are laid out just made more sense for her clients’ needs.
“Understanding the needs of your clients will make a big difference in your sales,” she says. “You have to be really passionate about what you do, including the way you sell and what you sell.”
Kirstie includes a boxed proof set and digital files in all of her packages. She posts her starting package on her website so there are no surprises or disappointment when a potential client calls. Because she knows what the client will be spending before the session, Kirstie does not feel the need to meet with clients in person for the sale. Images go into an online shopping gallery where clients can choose additional prints to purchase. I love Kirstie’s wording. She sells digital files, but instead of promoting a digital package, she promotes an all-inclusive package that comes across as much more upscale. Her pricing is high-end for a digital photographer, and I love that she also provides a printed image of each file for her clients, even in her bottom package.
There are many methods of presenting client images and conducting portrait sales, and photographers will defend their own method when it’s working for them. When I asked photographers for their tips for others wanting to try a new model, there were common threads: Plan and prepare your clients for what to expect; put guidelines in place for both yourself and your client; and be passionate and positive about what you are offering.
The more confident you are in how and what you are selling, the easier it will be for your clients to make their decisions, which is what we all want in the end. You are the only one who can decide what method is best for you, your business and your clients.