Charles Wheeler got his degree from Brooks Institute of Photography. After many years on the West coast working as a photo editor for a large publication, he moved back to his hometown in Kansas where her met the love of his life and future business partner, yours truly. We opened our studio fifteen years ago and built our current studio thirteen years ago in Hutchinson, Kansas. My husband and I have a small 1,000 sq. ft. studio with a large lot in back decked out with all kinds of funky stuff for our seniors. We do an enormous amount of work in our small studio and have found a way to make use of every inch of it. Most of our business comes from weddings and seniors and we also do a huge amount of commercial and business photography.
There are only two professional portrait studios left in our small town in Kansas. Many of our wedding and senior portrait customers come to us from hundreds of miles away. We take this a compliment on our work but we also see that there simply are not a lot of studios left in our area. The trained professionals and long time studio owners have been quickly replaced by a bumper crop of weekend photographers and trendy moms with professional cameras. We don’t even have a department store or mall photo studio within 50 miles. While our business has thrived and grown, we see that many of the studio owners in our town simply could not make it any longer or grew so frustrated with the new trends that they just simply quit.
In all honesty, there was a time when we were worried about all the “weekenders” with there Facebook businesses. We were horrified that the trendy mom carting around a Cannon 5D Mark III with a huge collection of pro lenses taking pictures at t-ball practice has no idea what she is doing and has nicer equipment that we do. We spent hours stalking the weekender’s Facebook businesses. Our stomachs turned seeing the dozens of sessions that they were doing at fifty bucks a pop for a one hour session, a disk and release with all the images. The pictures seemed to all be taken on the same trail at a local park and were, for the most part, borderline horrible, out of focus, poorly lit with a sad attempt at retouching. I would see these images posted all over Facebook with hundreds of likes and nice comments about the photo session. I struggled for an answer as to why people were so happy with these awful photographs? They answer, they are “good enough”. After about five years of watching the weekenders come and go, I see that they have had no negative effects on our studio. If anything, they have added value to the fact that we have a studio. People still see us as “real photographers” and them as weekenders. They know that their fifty dollar session with the weekender isn’t going to be great, but when they need “real” photos they are still calling us. In all honesty, I mean no disrespect to the weekend photographer, we all have to start somewhere. In the end, we thank the weekenders. They are weeding out the non serious customer for us and now we can fill our schedule with the more serious buyer.
We haven’t changed our business plan or style much after fifteen years in business. Let’s be honest, we live in a small town in Kansas, people like things to stay the same here. We have kept current with photographic trends and styles and we are constantly buying and selling props and backgrounds to keep things fresh. The way we run our business, the way we proof our images, our pricing structure, we have kept everything the same, because it works for us. We have held our heads up high and kept moving forward and we are successful. I believe that if you start second guessing yourself, changing things, and worrying too much what everyone else is doing, that is when you fall into a trap. We don’t do any sales pitches. We still have a full set of proofs printed for every session to take home and decide what they want. We leave gift bags and bottled water in the dressing room for our seniors. I hold the babies and hug the little kids, we treat everyone like they are family. This is our approach, people feel comfortable here, this is what works for us. When I see Mom slip off her shoes during a senior session or Dad fall asleep on the couch in the waiting room, I know that we have succeeded in making our customers feel comfortable here. They are relaxed, they trust us and they know that we aren’t going give them a wine and cheese sales pitch in two weeks when their proofs are ready. I truly believe that, as a professional, you just have to pick your style and your approach and stick with it. There are a lot of people out there that are looking for the wine and cheese sales pitch! If that’s what you are doing, go for it. Much to my dismay, others are looking for a quick fifty dollar session and a disk with a weekend photographer.
That being said, we have made one small change or addition to our services at our studio over the last two years, and it has been madly successful. While spending all those hours stalking the weekend photographer’s Facebook businesses, I noticed one similarity in almost all the photos sessions, children. Almost every session that the weekend photographers are doing in our area are of small children and young families. Baby and child photography has been the center of many debates with my business partner/husband over the our fifteen years in business. I, a thirty-something mom with two kids and baby fever, would LOVE to fill our schedule with newborn baby sessions and screaming two year olds in tutus. My husband, on the other hand, while he loves babies and children, doesn’t quite have the goo goo eyes for them that I do. What it all comes down to, for us, is that babies and sessions of small children just don’t average near as much in sales as our seniors, and our schedule is full with seniors eight months out of the year. We just simply can’t afford to schedule many baby sessions when we know that we can fill that spot with a senior.
With no way to compete with the weekend photographer’s “fifty bucks and a disk” approach, I still felt the need to get these kids in our studio. After much debate and convincing, I talked my stubborn husband into trying “Kid’s Days” sessions. I wanted to find a way to fill my need to photograph and prop baby and small children sessions and to get these kids in our studio and keep them coming back. My ultimate goal was to give people quality professional portraits that are inexpensive and simple to have done. New parents shouldn’t have to settle with the “good enough” image files from a weekend photographer, just because they can’t afford professional studio prices. I decided that our most expensive package would be $49. I wanted people to be able to bring their child into the studio and get our best package for less than they were spending with that weekend photographer.
Our first Kid’s Day was a nautical theme, complete with a boat, fishing net, and sea shells. The very first Kid’s Day was a learning experience for us, so we marketed only to our long time customers, friends and family. While our first Kid’s Day was fun and successful, we have done a little tweaking. Now our Kid’s Days sessions are a fine tuned machine that runs easily and is always a huge hit. We have done everything possible to keep the Kid’s Days separate from our regular studio sessions for kids. Kid’s Days sessions are themed and we only shoot for a few minutes. We only offer online proofing and photos are delivered in plain white bags. I don’t have the photos mounted or use photo folders or any of the boutique packaging that we use for regular studio sessions. We only do the Kid’s Day specials once every six to eight weeks and we offer up a Friday or Saturday option with twenty minute time slots. We require an small deposit on the day of the Kid’s Day and that money is credited toward their order when they order within one week. We have found the deposit a good way to get people to order quickly while they are still excited about the pictures. Believe it or not, the average sale on our Kid’s Days sessions is very close to that of our regular sessions. We shoot a lot of photos and most people can’t help but to order five or six packages, in order to get a variety of poses. Our Firecracker Kid’s Day Special, our fourth of July theme, was a huge hit this year. We had thirty-eight children scheduled, thirty-eight show up, and thirty-seven that were excited to have their photo taken. They all left with a treat bag in hand and I know that they will all be excited to come again next time. The parents are wildly happy with these quickie sessions and kids are in and out before they know what happened to them. Kid’s Days have created a huge amount of buzz about the studio and we are getting clients in the studio that would have never called us before. Most of all, these sessions are fun and they make me happy.
We joke that we are the last of the dinosaurs. We are the last of a dying breed of true, educated professional studio owners. To stay alive, we have done everything possible to set ourselves apart from what all the weekend photographers are doing. We have chosen to stick with a mostly traditional style and it has paid off for us. We have added our Kid’s Days sessions without devaluing our regular studio work. Mostly, we have continued to produce work that is still exciting for us and that makes our clients happy. Our biggest asset, aside from knowledge and experience, is our studio. We have been able to corner the market on studio photography in our area. My advise, be consistent but don’t be afraid to try something new. Pay attention, but don’t worry too much about the work that everyone else is doing. Worry more about the work that you aren’t doing and change it. Most of all, do what makes you happy and your work will reflect your happiness.
By Erin Wheeler