The Price of Image

How to establish a high-end niche, image, and prices to match

By Leslie Hunt
First Published January 2003

“They needed to define a photographic niche with a style distinctly their own. Unlike high school senior portraits and wedding photography—things everyone needs and anticipates having to pay for— they settled on a style of portraiture that aroused the cus

On a gray afternoon about 10 years ago, Mr. X sat glumly pondering the future of his photographic business. He and Mrs. X were more than competent photographers. Did they not strictly adhere to the tried-and-true fundamentals of family portraiture, and didn’t they have the PPA degrees to prove it? Yet after a decade, the studio was struggling. Oh, they had weddings booked solid six months ahead, sent out quarterly newsletters and two-for-one promos, notices of seasonal specials.

Indeed, these specials did draw people to the studio. During peak seasons, Mr. and Mrs. X were too busy to think about the consequences of sending out every third print gratis, of virtually volunteering their time to the business. They were barely breaking even, never mind recouping the cost of the mailings. And to whom? A fickle, price-shopping clientele. On this afternoon, Mr. X had seen something else on the horizon, something more ominous than the chain store portrait factory squatting at the edge of town: Digital reprographic capability would soon be in the hands of the masses, and then…In his mind’s eye, Mr. X saw his studio disappear beneath an ashy cloud like the lost city of Pompeii.

Mr. and Mrs. X are a composite of many photographers we know, among them, believe it or not, two portrait artists who today are the very image of success, Beverly Walden, M.Photog.Cr., and Tim Walden, M.Photog.Cr., F-ASP, of Lexington, Ken.

Ten years ago, says Tim Walden, “Our images were like everyone else’s, no distinctions, no defined style. We had sporadic income, and sales were so-so at best. We were never much on special deals and discount prices. People did price shop, and we fought that battle all the time, explaining our ‘superior lighting and posing,’ doing our best to convince them, but we never did more than just get by.

When the scary digital equipment showed up, I was convinced it would be our demise.”

Established years earlier by Walden’s father, the studio existed to be “all things to all people,” says Walden. Clearly, that business model was no longer working.

They needed to define a photographic niche with a style distinctly their own. Unlike high school senior portraits and wedding photography—things everyone needs and anticipates having to pay for— they settled on a style of portraiture that aroused the customer’s desire to own something original, personal, unique.

Dubbed “relationship portraiture,” the Waldens’ distinctive brand of intimate black-and-white portraiture didn’t come together overnight. But having defined a niche and committed to refining their photographic style, the Waldens laid the foundation for a new and profitable business model, based not on pricing or customer need or a season of the year, but on the perceived value of their work.

From that point on, every dollar they spent, every decision they made, would be to build the perceived value of Walden portraiture. With no seasonal specials and no discounted prices, the Waldens’ marketing efforts went toward promoting themselves as artists, their portraits as originals. That’s when they began to focus on marketing the image of Walden Photography.

And effectively so. Says Walden, “Our profit margins have nearly doubled since we defined our style, and we have two more full-time personnel and two people who market for us on a part-time basis.

We do just high-end portraiture—with fewer sittings and higher prices—and no weddings, no social events, and no seniors.” The Waldens charge “much higher prices” for black-and-white prints than for color, and in much smaller sizes.

“We bill them as an art form, so we’re not selling sizes but art pieces,” he says.

Sometimes inspiration derives from a single, near-subliminal source, sometimes from a montage of sensory snippets. Tim Walden says he looks for it “around every turn.” Not long ago in Paris, Walden was en route to the Musée d’Orsay when inspiration hit him like the thwack of a two-by-four. Hanging from the lamp posts along the Rue de Lille were magnificent banners announcing a show of Impressionist works. The words on the banners were few, the graphics both spare and potent—the quintessence of Impressionist expression.

Back home in Lexington, Walden sketched out a trio of banners of his own for the studio, each bearing a high-impact black-and-white portrait and the words “Images that speak from Walden’s,” and one of three provocative messages: “Eyes thatSee,” “Hearts that Feel,” “Lips that Touch.”

Walden engaged a graphic designer to polish the design and a sign-maker to output the banners onto durable, mattefinished vinyl, each panel measuring about four feet high and two feet wide. Even in miniature on these pages, Walden’s banners pack a wallop. Imagine coming across them at the Lexington airport and area shoppingmalls, or seeing them grouped together, full-size, hanging behind the photographer as he speaks to a community gathering about the nature of relationships—pow.

In search of style
Tim Walden is among scores of professional photographers who find artistic energy almost everywhere—art galleries, museums, and art fairs, local and national photographic exhibitions, travel destinations, nature, and in the company of creative people of any discipline. In the artist’s mind, new experiences combine and interact with innate sensibilities and personal history to become fresh and unique interpretations of the world.

The more intense and sensuous the experience, the keener the photographer’s eye.

“Sure, you’re going to create some junk in your quest to define your style,” says Walden. “But you’ve got to define yourself as an artist, believing that there is value in owning an original, and that no one can truly copy your style.”

Yes, it can take time and research to discover it. Kimberly Hoskins, Cr.Photog., and husband Dean Hoskins (who teaches high school photography as well) are the owners of Details in Chino Hills, Calif., a mostly wedding studio with a reputation for candid black-and-white photography.

The work looks artistic and it’s priced accordingly. Now Kimberly is pursuing family and children’s portraiture. First, she needed to define a niche among the competition with a style all her own. She studied the prevailing styles in Southern California, then looked nationwide for a style that would set her apart. She found it the black-and-white work of both the Waldens and Rod Evans, Cr. Photog., of Sioux Falls,
S.D.

The clean, uncluttered styles had much in common with her own. Hoskins learned all she could about portraiture at PPA’s national seminars and affiliate schools, even from the Waldens themselves. She began to adapt and personalize the look she admired, making it consistent with the studio’s reputation for capturing meaningful but oftenforgotten bits of the wedding day, the details for which the studio was named.

Life is in the details, say the Hoskinses, who adopted the phrase “capturing life” as both the motto of the studio and the focus of the Details image. It’s imprinted on their business stationery and promos, and displayed on the pages of their Web site (www.detailsphotography.com). For this studio, the profits are in the details, too.

Who’s gotta have it?
Without question, the target audience of the photographer’s first image promotion is the photographer himself. If you haven’t pinpointed what makes your work unique,

“Then make it up and live up to it,” says Ann Monteith, director of the Guerilla Management workshops for photographers. (Monteith’s newest book, “The Professional Photographer’s Marketing Handbook” from Marathon Press, includes worksheets to help you structure your own marketing plan.)

Like Kimberly Hoskins, you can mine your existing client base as you build a portfolio of new work. Monteith says you must create value for your client and achieve profits simultaneously. Reward your best clients with the gift of a no-strings-attached sitting and a beautiful portrait.

Hoskins puts a brilliant spin on this advice by actually leveraging her giveaways. On occasion, she prints handsome certificates for complimentary portrait sittings, which she presents to select businesspeople whose high-end, personal services are sought-after by the same clientele she’s after. In turn, these service providers award the certificates as thank-you gifts to their very best clients, who are not dissuaded from believing the certificates have been purchased as gifts just for them.

The clientele that the Hoskinses and Waldens wish to impress are the people who can afford to buy pricey portraits just because they want them. They are not shopping prices. Is this the clientele you’re after, too? Where do they live, where do they shop, what do they buy, and where do they go for entertainment? Who are their doctors and dentists, what clubs do they belong to, and what community events do they attend?

The answers are yours to explore as you begin to build a business image uniquely your own.

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