The Boutique Photographer: How Sweet It Is

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Are you ready to be a boutique photographer? Can you offer the products and services that command high price? Can you adjust to the business model of working on just a few projects at any one time, giving up the ostensible security of a constant stream of customers?

Initiating a new order or approach to an existing business is difficult to carry out, and also uncertain of success. Yet boutique businesses are springing up in some unexpected industries. A good example is how some hospitals and medical practices, traditionally egalitarian, are recording unparalleled profits from health care options featuring extra cost boutique style amenities such as personal chefs and same-day test results. Hefty up-charges are not supposed to reflect a difference in basic quality of care, but rather innovative products, attractive presentations and superb experiences. I’ve often noticed how people can be quite concerned about being photographed, just like being nervous about visiting physicians, thus the comparison is a valid one.

What does this mean for the would-be boutique photographer? There are four basic requisites, all of which define how a franchise of one takes on characteristics of a large, mature organization. 

Exuding confidence and promoting trust is your first job. To a client, the prospect of a portrait sitting can seem physically intrusive, leading to avoidance and expectation of disappointment. You'll also find that presenting and selling a $10,000 wedding is a great deal more difficult, and fits a much more limited clientele, than a $1,000 wedding. No one buys that higher priced package from a stranger, nor in the beginning do willing buyers simply show up at your door.

This was perhaps the hardest lesson for me to understand and accept. As recently as 2000, new clients still made themselves known to us with little outreach effort on our part. Higher price, far greater competition, more discount-driven buying habits as well as a tighter economy have changed all that. We recognize the need to inspire clients to trust us with their dreams and aspirations. This takes time and effort plus huge attention to our appearance and that of our studio facility.

Just like big business, we dress for our clients and provide comfort and amenities in-house. For an additional unique hook, we invite clients into our computer and print rooms (redesigned three years ago, floor to ceiling) to collaborate on the finished products. We listen not just to what clients need, but rather to what they want, and reassure them that we are absolutely able to fulfill their dreams.

In this era, a brief, friendly exchange with a grocery checker can be a welcome change and make us feel better about shopping at a certain store. Listening is not passive; our conversation must radiate joy in order to instill the trust that will result in a new commission. The trust we've built with our clients was evident in a recent phone call from a distraught attorney, wanting not to discuss a photo project, but to tell me at great length of the failing health of his dog whom I had photographed just once. Photography and psychotherapy.

Boutique photography is not an entry-level business. The second prerequisite common to big, successful businesses and the boutique alike is continued training and consummate technical skill. It’s the necessary foundation, yet also the lowest common denominator. Experience alone can solidify technique. In portrait and event arenas, equipment handling must be nearly automatic. Aspects of your job draw from sports, fashion and architectural photography, in addition to knowing great posing, documentary photojournalism and all kinds of location and studio lighting. And you have to do it all simultaneously, quickly and accurately.

Particularly in digital capture, the pursuit of skill is a never-ending process. Karl and I spend several hours each day reading, testing and studying. We find that speakers and articles can explain only a portion of what you need to know. There is no substitute for hands-on training. Interactive workshops, rather than seminars or recorded instruction will unquestionably net more thorough understanding and practical techniques.

Regional workshops of one to several days in length are to us one of PPA’s best inventions. The interaction engendered between participants is more more valuable than any lecturer or recorded DVD, even before the quality of in-depth instruction is considered. Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, among other independent institutions, also delivers predictably value-packed experiences. We find our local monthly photographers’ and videographers’ meetings never fail to provide nuggets of useful information in the form of idea exchange.

You simply have to be on the forefront of product trends, hardware and software. Growth of personal ability and keeping abreast of the very latest equipment and innovations is a big part of what the boutique client expects of your services. Convention trade shows are of course one of the best ways to learn about and evaluate what’s new. Photography is now an investment-heavy profession; the boutique photographer never goes to a job with scanty equipment. The same is true if you know you’ll need to be in two places at once. A carefully briefed team spreads out the responsibilities and gives the client a priceless sense of confidence that every detail is being covered. Less is definitely not more when it comes to the right hardware and backup.

On the job we leave nothing to chance with the location, the personnel or the equipment we carry. At a recent wedding, the cake was inexplicably positioned in a corner, completely hidden behind a large flower arrangement and the band’s speakers. Neither the club staff nor the party planner was willing to move it! Just a small pastry, we determined it would not fall over and easily moved it to the center of the dance floor, where it became the focal point of lengthy toasts and cutting ceremony. Photography and furniture moving. 

Don’t be satisfied with the status quo, because you’ll get
blamed later for something that was not your fault.
Judge for yourself whether you could have made a decent
image of the cake as placed by the club manager behind
the speakers and flower arrangement in the right rear.

Just counting the companies exhibiting press books and specialty albums at trade shows demonstrates that product innovation is the third hallmark of of the boutique photographer. Across the country, studios are faced with competition that we feel degrades professionalism by selling digital copyright without image optimization or product fulfillment. To us (and the boutique approach), this is as ridiculous as John Singer Sargent handing his portrait client a sketch on canvas and some dollops of paint. A good start, yet a total disservice to our public, the people who have placed their trust in our hands to create something unusual they cannot do themselves. I can’t name any other profession than photography where half the practitioners refuse to finish their job and hand the last essential steps over to rank amateurs. 

It seems like every wedding guests snaps a flash photo of
the cake, which usually results in a featureless, washed out
blob. This is such an easy time to grab an exciting angle
and attractive light. The familiar transformed by genius
makes for memorable artistic effect.

Everyone has shoe boxes of snap shots and reels of old movies left unseen and unenjoyable. Photos are personal, emotional art that is the glue between generations, times, places and social order, yet how often we deny ourselves the value of the stories those photos can tell. From the early days of film, technology has made it easy to capture images, but much harder to collect and organize into usable form. Karl says, “A million little things need to come together in a single presentation, pleasing one client at a time.” It’s both our job and our duty to finish our art in a way that provides continued enjoyment and literal memory across time for our clients. This is postproduction, and for the boutique photographer it’s undeniably as much creative time as pressing the shutter. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise, or claims that you don’t make money sitting at the computer. In fact it is this very finish, this postproduction which sets you apart from the competition in a very lucrative way.

I don’t necessarily mean you must offer new photo products like purses, mugs, tiles, jewelry or ceramics and glass - all of these can be excellent or mere gimmicks in unartistic hands. Here are some of the presentation ideas I’ve found that are classically based, but flexible, fresh and tactile.

Seldex albums imported by Finao, for instance, are big and bold. Their 16-inch square album has fold-out pages to make a whopping 5-foot panorama that is totally friendly to the finest giclee printing.

Nik Color Efex Pro provides Photoshop integrated automations, far more sophisticated than repetitious actions, that are infinitely variable to create unique image interpretations.

A moderately priced press book, recent from Apollo Photo Imagizing features a matte finish cover and deckle edged smooth finish pages that look like they come from an art gallery.

And indeed your images presented in such a manner with careful enhancements, thoughtful cropping and storytelling sequence do come from an art gallery—your boutique! 

Presentation excellence produced a memorable, lifestyle product catalogue for a bakery. For each double page spread, I featured evocative backgrounds, fun quotes about desserts and warm, fuzzy editorial imagery about the baker and her family.

The fourth element I consider essential to the foundation of the boutique studio is the intangible ingredient that we call art. No longer only the province of couture clothing, many industries now boost boutique product exclusivity by adding the word art to their product names. In the grocery store alone we easily find artisan breads, artisanal cheeses, artisan chocolates and artisan coffee drinks. When ordering our own wedding cake in Acapulco, after lengthy negotiations in Spanish, I was able to convince a doubtful baker to use my unusual color scheme by saying, “You are the artist; please use my colors with flowers or decorations in the manner that you prefer.” That produced a quick conclusion of business, with great smiles and a delicious result. 

The explanation that both bride and groom were artists, and that we considered the baker a fellow artisan with vision, produced both a collaborative pastry of note and an unforgettable personal experience. Cake delivery in progress.

I’ve heard it said by some photographic instructors that, “The minute you put film/pixels in the camera, you’re making art.” I am certain this statement should be unequivocally denied. To quote a line from the movie “Top Gun,” “It takes a lot more than fancy flying.”

I prefer to paraphrase Pasternak out of “Dr. Zhivago”: Art is not a category, nor a form, but a secret, hidden part of content. Any artistic creation can appeal to the viewer in all sorts of ways, for instance its theme, subject, situations, story or characters. But above all, what moves us deeply is that difficult to define essence, what we call the art of the work, which is worth more than all its other elements combined.

And how do we achieve that artistic essence? Mozart was quoted as saying, “I pay no attention to anyone’s praise or blame; I simply do what comes from my heart.” Naturally, as commissioned photographers we do pay attention to the desires and styles of our clients, yet it is certainly our job to lead them and reveal the edge of the envelope our skills can reach. A great photographer/designer must be allowed the freedom to explore new techniques, materials, combinations, voices and angles. The ideal boutique client knows this instinctively and is able and willing to fund the process that will put an amazing architecture of meaning in her hands.

A final quotation from Kurt Vonnegut: “Art is known to make the soul grow.” How sweet it is that our work serves both us and our clients in such a lofty and satisfying manner.


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