The Boutique Photographer: Keeping Up Appearances

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

So many small businesses look … well … small. By small I'm referring to a quality that has less to do with physical size and more with appearances, specifically those that are unattractive to high-end boutique clientele. A dirty front door, less than spotless lavatory, untidy sales area or shop-worn samples shout limited technical expertise, carelessness with details and unresponsive customer service.

In recent years the public has been very tolerant of home-based businesses, yet going that route can easily profile you along with multi-level marketing and part-time, low-budget services. Only a really great home studio space and loads of personality can make this scenario work well over time. Yet rent and upkeep on a substantial studio space befitting the boutique operation are beyond many photographers’ resources, especially those who’ve just started out in business. Maintenance and basic service costs for our 1,400 square foot business-zoned building and two inner city lots of portrait garden is equivalent to many photographers’ annual gross income. And we already own the property free and clear.

If you’re in business for love, money and long-term commitment, purchasing a property in the right location at the right price is a great way to spread out your investment in your business, similar to how financial counselors recommend diversification when purchasing stocks and mutual funds. I believe storefront studio galleries are a rising industry trend.

But whether you currently have or plan to own a studio in the future, your clients now judge appearances first by six additional main factors that aren’t solely visual: your Web site, attire, phone manners, e-mail etiquette, image presentation and your final product. These are the things clients consistently pay more for, even in times of economic downturn or a saturated market. Add up all of these factors to determine your uniqueness quotient. With our profession in flux, many say crisis, the boutique photographer’s job is really about creating unique experiences.

•    Web Site Presence: organized, easy, informative, succinct, arty and attractive, well edited, comprehensive, fun. This is many clients’ first impression of you, and it’s appearance and function is virtually as important as your brick and mortar location.

•    Groomed Appearance: sharp, clean, fashionable, alpha girl or guy. Do you look like you believe in yourself and are ready for anything? Great camera-side manner counts for big appearance points here, too.

•    Telephone Personality: inquiring, personable, knowledgeable, informative, cordial, inviting call to action. Can the caller see the smile in your voice? Never hesitate to call a client with news or to clarify details of a job.

•    E-mail Etiquette: proofread, proofread, proofread! Write succinctly, but with the personal touches of a hand written note to a friend. Include a kind salutation and close, your complete contact info and logo. I use frequent e-mails to update clients on job progress, verify details I need in writing, send teaser presentation images, show before and after retouching and always remembering to say thanks. Carefully chosen words become my voice telling them how much I care.

•    Image Presentation: Boutique photographers never allow images to be printed or posted without meticulous editing and sequencing for meaning. Clients, especially male clients, don’t want to wade through 6 versions of the same group pose or the accidental shot of your foot. Cull until you show only the best of the best, and your orders will increase. Collate all images to tell a story in logical time sequence that’s easy to read and select.

•    Final Product: The boutique photographer simply does not consider shoot, burn and release. That’s “fast food” photography: consumed in a moment and forgotten immediately thereafter. Without post-production and album design your work cannot possibly be considered unique. The personal art on your client’s coffee table or wall fulfills everyone’s desires. Not that we disagree with image release. We heartily promise limited usage rights to the edited capture, once a completed album or retouched portraits are commissioned. Considering that the typical wedding client is paying us at least $10,000, or more likely closer to $20,000, well, we’ve made our fees and we want brides to be able to archive their own images for the distant future.

Five Studio Scenarios in the Denver ’Hood   

Sara calls this “jewel box of a commercial property” her best investment ever. It’s a corner lot with portrait garden in a retailing enclave of important small businesses and restaurants.


Photo Mirage HD, Sara Frances and Karl Arndt
“I’ve always believed that “boutique” describes a small, designerly shop with clever products, salespeople who think in possibilities, and an atmosphere affording a totally fun experience.” —Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Photo Mirage HD started as shop within an all-service bridal shop. Sara Frances netted more than 50 clients in her first year, having found her niche early on. A minimal initial investment allowed her to save to purchase her own building. Sara is a self-taught photographer; over 38 years she’s photographed some 4,000 weddings and events. With the additional skills of her husband and business partner, Karl Arndt, the business evolved to include complete still and cinematic imaging with extensive in-house post-production and Epson printing. Sara and Karl recently ceased hiring employees, and the studio is open by appointment or happenstance. “Telephone and Web allow clients almost immediate personal access to us all of the time. We’re delighted when we get calls at odd hours, because that means someone really wanted what we do. Our goal this year is not more than 15 clients, allowing us time to prepare seminars and work on documentary projects.”

Enjoy Sara and Karl’s new Web site and blog, designed by Jeff Johnson, M.Photog.CR. and hosted by Marathon Press, at


Debra Bourgeois DesMarteau
As French as her Louisiana background, Debra Bourgeois DesMarteau has worked more than 10 years in a virtually anonymous home based studio, without even a listing in the phone book. Her part-time business grew out of her 20 years of experience as a Boy Scout leader and her volunteer photography centered around her sons’ interests, particularly the swim team at a high school in a high-income district, where her youngest is still enrolled. Her fees augment, rather than support, family income.

This year she hopes to decrease her boutique-priced senior sessions to about 25, with a smattering of weddings and portrait groups.

Debra has joyfully branched out into the fun of digital painting. She quotes Marcus Bell’s “digital shaping” as her inspiration, adding that “After the shutter is clicked, that’s when the artistry comes in.”

You can’t hire her artistry unless you find her first! Debra’s business presence relies exclusively on referrals and her delightful personality.



Photo Element, Julie Luehrs and Tait DeBaca
Julie Luehrs and Tait DeBaca, both BFA college graduates, apprenticed for more than 5 years each in a variety of studios and types of photography, with commercial rather than fine art goals in mind. When recently the time was right to go out on their own, they joined together to maximize ability and spread out both investment and work load. They knew immediately they wanted a brick and mortar boutique, along with a well-publicized Web site.

Tait says, “We believe it’s important for the industry to raise the bar of professionalism that comes with a business location.” Julie adds, “A sense of business community and artistic neighborhood is very important to us.” Photo Element, Denver, has passed its fourth year and is now looking to purchase and renovate a building of their own.

Meet Julie and Tait at

Photo Element has a sweet location on the corner of a 5-street intersection in an arty inner-city neighborhood. The big show windows are people-stoppers.


photospace, Dan Jahn
International art photographer Dan Jahn has long recognized that most photographers cannot justify the purchase and maintenance of studio space of any kind, much less at the level of equipment and amenities expected by high-dollar clients. In business since age 16, and with a more than 20 year entrepreneurial track record, Dan Jahn calls his latest endeavor photospace. It’s a turn-key rental space with total post-production staff and client facilities modeled on SmashBox and SplashLight studios. His philosophy is that contemporary photographers want a “buy as you need” studio, an interval service, rather than the high initial investment and daily burden of upkeep. photospace will open the first week of June in Denver.

Watch for grand opening details and get rental rates at


Karen Rubin
Master Photographic Craftsman Karen Rubin worked at home for 7 years when her children were small. After 16 more years in an office complex location, she had burst the seams with all the accumulated technical gear needed for digital capture and post-production. With a new contemporary interior, ceiling-hung strobes and state-of-the-art projection, she is “ready to service high end clientele without apologies. I’ve updated my logo, packaging and advertising.” How much does Karen believe in her trendy second-floor urban style walking/shopping development? She’s signed a 7 year lease!

See Karen’s luscious website at

Brand new, colorful and inviting, Karen Rubin’s move to a Village-style shopping center with higher profile, but higher costs, is already paying off.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 6, 2008 11:18 AM.

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