Stand Out in the Crowd: Building a Reputation with Seniors with Skip Cohen


Stand Out in the Crowd: Building a Reputation with Seniors with Skip Cohen

Over the past few years, the senior market has become one of the most competitive in professional photography. It also might well be the most fun, but only if you’re doing it right.

That’s my senior headshot from 40-plus years ago. There was nothing fun about the experience. We marched in one at a time, sat down, the photographer clicked the shutter, and a few weeks later, an envelope showed up with proofs with all the fanfare of a root canal.

Everybody had the same pose, and often the same outfit. The girls had the standard black shroud over their shoulders, and that was it. It was good enough for the yearbook and wallets to hand out to friends.

Today, if you’re doing it right, a senior session is more like a fashion shoot than a headshot for the yearbook. In fact, the fun of a senior session, at least for those students working with photographers who are doing it right, is the experience just as much as the end results.

That means you’ve got to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

  • For most students, this is their first one-on-one experience working with a professional photographer. This is their first time flying solo. It’s up to you to create an experience. Plus, remember that students become adults who get married, and you never know where the relationship might go in the future.
  • Work to build trust. Just like a good engagement session, great senior images are all about trust between the photographer and the student. You’ve got to invest some time in getting to know your client. Ask them questions about their friends, hobbies and thoughts on their future. Just listen. As they’re talking, look for that sparkle in their eyes whenever they hit a sweet spot about something they love to do, a great friend or experience they’ve had.
  • Make it fun. There are few groups of young adults with more esteem problems than seniors. They’re old enough to drive, but they’re still dependent on Mom and Dad. They still live at home and might still be wearing braces, have complexion and/or weight challenges. They are still trying to define their role in the world. You’ve got to be a buddy, one of the adults in their lives who’s there just to listen—and create great images.
  • Bring in the props. Once you get beyond that one shot the yearbook needs or Mom has requested, the sky’s the limit. Bring in their hobbies. Give them a chance to express themselves. Capture images that look more like a Hollywood portfolio than headshots for the yearbook.
  • Think about your product line. For my generation, the product line didn’t need to be anything more than a bunch of wallets, a few 5x7s and at least one 8×10. Today, you’ve got the whole presentation gamut to offer. Slide shows with both still images and hybrid, including video, help tell the story. Prints on virtually anything, including wood, metal and canvas, need to be in your offerings. Be creative with your options for every client. This is a young, contemporary audience, so you need to pay attention to what’s hot and what’s not.

Thinking About Some of the Great Senior Artists

Larry Peters is a legend in the senior market. Every time I’d see him at a trade show or convention, I’d check to see what his going rate was. One year, I was astounded when he said he was charging $5,000 a session. I asked how many sessions he was booking at that price. His reply: “Not very many, but it sure makes my $1,000 price point look good!”

But it’s not about pricing. Larry is one of the finest photographers in the world, and nothing could be more important than the senior in front of his camera at any given moment. His seniors know they’re important because Larry’s done such a great job building trust and a reputation for quality and service.

Whatever is important to that senior, Larry is going to do his best to capture the image. Over the years, this has included images underwater, on the football field, on a motorcycle or with pets, including horses. Nothing is out of the range of possibilities for Larry.

Years ago, I interviewed another legendary senior photographer, Kirk Voclain, for a magazine article. He talked about how he stays very selective in his images. Rather than giving the senior and her family dozens of images, all with just a varying collection of expressions, he starts talking with his subject. He’s looking for that spark that comes when they talk about something or someone special.

In addition to the images themselves, he uses YouTube to post videos of many of his sessions. He produces a short video for each client that captures the experience of their session, complete with some of their favorite music.

Senior Shooters Weigh In

I contacted a few well-known senior photographers and asked them two simple questions: “What advice would you give a young photographer today just starting out in the senior market?” and, “What makes your work different?”

Larry Peters

Larry and I have been friends going back to my Hasselblad days, and I’ve already told you a little about him. He has two studios in Ohio, and shoots up to 600 seniors each year.

For several years now, the senior market has taken the direction of on-location work. There’s not as much work done in the studio anymore. Regardless of what was going on in the market, I’ve always tried to make my work different and not do what’s normally done. So that’s exactly why I’ve been doing more studio work, because it’s different. Years ago, everything was in the studio and I was outdoors. Now, I’m back inside. You need to make yourself different.

Lori Nordstrom

Many of you have met and talked with Lori at ShutterFest. She’s also got an article on seniors in this issue. Lori, who’s based in Iowa, has worked hard to establish a reputation based on the experience, not just the finished product.

With seniors, you’re really marketing to two people. You have to have the personality to stand out from everybody else, but you also have to appeal to Mom. We have to create a unique and exciting experience and, at the same time, make sure we educate Mom on why she should be spending money with our studio and the value of our work.

Fuzzy Duenkel

I’ve known Fuzzy for years. One of my favorite magazine covers ever is one he shot close to 20 years ago, a portrait of a senior girl with half her face covered by her violin. It was an amazing image that I’ve never forgotten. His senior business is relatively small, which gives him a chance to spend more time with each senior. He might spend six hours with one senior, which a lot of photographers today would think is crazy. Fuzzy is all about quality and whatever it takes to capture the right image.
When I started out shooting seniors, there were only three photographers in our town. Today there are more than 70. That difference makes it difficult for me to offer advice on how new senior photographers can succeed because the challenges are vastly different than when I started. 

In the past, we could afford to be weak in one or more areas and still make a good living. But to make a living, now more than ever, today’s photographer must excel in all aspects of the business, including marketing, shooting, selling, and service. And yet it’s good to have one facet you’re known for. My strongest suit is the lighting. It’s become my signature, and it helps my work stand out. The look and feel of what I do is still focused on the quality of every image, because in the end, that’s what lasts the longest.

Melanie Anderson

Melanie, who’s based in Maryland, was digging out from Winter Storm Jonas when I caught up with her. Seniors are an important part of her business.

Be persistent. You’ve got to think outside the box. Everybody in the community thinks they’re a senior photographer. You’ve got to make your work different, starting with your lens choice. You need a prime lens. My go-to is an 85mm f1.4, and I shoot it at f1.4, wide open. That narrow depth of field has become part of my signature.

When it comes to marketing, be active in social media and document your sessions on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. Let your target audience see the fun your clients are having with you. I use video too. It allows me to showcase what makes my work different. Even if you’re only shooting video on your phone, posting 15 seconds of the fun you’re having on Instagram goes a long way. Lastly, don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. Work to develop your own style.

The senior market continues to evolve, but one thing that will never change is the importance of building trust with your clients and giving them an experience. It’s got to be fun for them and for you—and, in the end, keep Mom happy.

Remember, 98 percent of the decisions to hire a professional photographer are made by women, so listen more than you talk, and work to exceed client expectations. In other words, make yourself habit-forming.

Get the full story

To read the full article, launch the digital version of the March 2016 magazine.

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