Differentiation In the Portrait Market – Lindsay Adler On How to Become a Successful Photographer
To distinguish oneself as a photographer is a hard endeavor. It is a small business and the competition can be tough. Lindsay Adler has many years of experience from portrait and fashion photography. Here she writes about how to differentiate yourself as a photographer.
I’ve been a professional portrait photographer for more than 15 years, beginning with a small studio in rural upstate New York. In this relatively small market, I shot a wide range of subjects to try to make ends meet but still found it very hard to stand out from all the competition. I felt like everyone had a mother, father, or uncle who was a photographer competing for limited business.
Today I am a fashion and portrait photographer in NYC with clients ranging from celebrities, professional athletes, models and more. How did I find the solution to differentiation? Trust me, it wasn’t a smooth or pretty path.
To differentiate myself, I started by competing on price. In fact, my first first package was one 8×10, two 5×7 and eight wallets for just $59 including the session, retouching and prints. TRULY those were my first rates! Obviously I quickly discovered that I would go out of business at these prices.
Next, I honed my craft. I tried to compete on overall technical quality of images. Unfortunately, in the area there were many other competent photographers who had been in business longer, with beautiful studios and beautiful images.
Through years of pushing to differentiate myself I discovered three things that personally helped me stand out from the crowd; relationships, experience, and style.
PORTRAIT ABOVE: Family portraits don’t have to be static or typical. They can reflect the unique qualities of your subjects and help differentiate your style in the market place. Here my clients were lit with a single Profoto B1 on location with a XL Umbrella with diffusion, while balancing ambient light in this beautiful library.
Relationships are paramount to growing a successful portrait business. Word-of-mouth really is the best marketing and helps grow your business quickly. When people are looking for a photographer, they defer to their friends and trusted acquaintances for recommendations. A real fan of your work who you build a strong relationship with will be your greatest cheerleader and advertiser.
Of course for each target market there will be different relationships to build. Maybe as a wedding photographer it would be beneficial to become close friends (even do favors for) a local high-end wedding planner. For children’s photography it might be beneficial to be active in school fundraisers, events or do a session for a local little league coach’s family. For a fashion photographer, it may be worth networking with editors at magazines or makeup artists with connections to target clients.
For me, I started my portrait business photographing high school seniors while still in high school myself. I used the relationships I already had to target my peers, and then maintained relationships with those families to encourage future family shoots, their younger siblings, and even my peers when they were older for their weddings.
My relationships with these individuals differentiated me in their mind from the competition.
This high school senior portrait session was a mix of ambient light and a kiss of strobe light to the face from a Profoto B1 with Softlight Reflector (also known as Beauty Dish). The shoot was styled including hair and makeup, as well as wardrobe from Dreamshootrentals.com.
Another way I’ve differentiated myself is by treating my photo shoots like experiences. They aren’t just snapped head shots where you show up, get a photo taken, and leave. They are special experiences intended to celebrate milestones in life or the people you love.
This allows my sessions not to just be photos, but a way to mark a special occasion like marriage, high school graduation, or an anniversary.
To enhance this experience, all of my female clients have their hair and makeup done. I would discuss concept with all of my clients and provide consultation for clothing and more. People weren’t shuffled in and out like a commodity or assembly line. Each one got a unique experience, and therefore I was able to charge a premium.
In fact, I had even created a specialty package to include pampering at a salon, the photo session, and dinner after. Packages like these emphasized and differentiated my portrait sessions as a special occasion and experience.
For an engagement session or couples shoot, I aim to make it a memorable experience for both of them. This may mean infusing something about the couple into the shoot as I did in this example since both subjects are dancers. This may also mean encouraging a ‘pampering’ session before or beautiful dinner after. This image was lit with two Profoto D1 500 Watt strobes, the main light with a Profoto Softbox 3′ Octa and a Profoto 10 degree grid on the background for separation.
Because I was in a small market, when I started I felt the need to photograph everyone and avoid a niche. Babies, engagements, families, anniversaries, you name it, I shot it. Unfortunately by shooting everything I became more ‘consumer’ and easily forgettable. No one remembers the ‘everything’ photographer with no specialty– you blend in with the jumble of other photographers.
While I didn’t want to limit my subject matter, I eventually realized that having a style was a way to give myself a unique calling card and way to be remembered. This style could be unique visual elements, a marketing approach, or specialty subject matter.
For me, personally, my portrait niche and style grew from apply fashion techniques to portraits. All of my clients, whether model, engaged couple or high school senior would get the same high-fashion treatment.
Each shoot was treated like a fashion production through styling, hair and makeup, and concept. My specialty is what I now call fashion flair.
Lit with a single Profoto D1 Air 500 Watt and Umbrella Deep White L with diffusion in the studio. I focus on posing my subjects with a fashion feel instead of focusing on more traditional portrait poses.
I marketed my fashion flair style through word-of-mouth, offering unique experiences and showing before-after shot of what I had to offer my clients.
Eventually I was able to break free of my low-end packages and ‘bulk’ style of photography. Instead I differentiated myself and devoted more time, creativity and more of a high-end product to fewer clients. In the end I created more work I was proud of and was able to charge premium prices for premium services. What I had to offer, you couldn’t just get anywhere, and thats what differentiation is all about!
If you want to learn more about this path and my techniques, check out my free 40 minute tutorial.
Although this family is beautiful, with the help of styling and posing we create much more of a “Vanity Fair” influenced family portrait. The final image was lit with a single Profoto D1 Air 500 Watt using a Umbrella Deep White XL with diffusion while on the “Couture” background from Seamlessphoto.com