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The Boutique Photographer: Feeling the Pinch

By Sara Frances, M.Photog.Cr.

Think you’re immune to economic downturn because your boutique clients are less affected by ups and downs and will remain faithful buyers? Given the current volatility of the market and social patterns, this is almost certainly naive thinking that can seriously damage your business.

If you work with just 15-20 clients a year like we do, the loss of even one of them means a substantial percentage drop in annual gross income. And carriage trade clients, while they may spend lavishly once they’ve decided to do so, have always been conservative and careful with every purchase. Don’t panic; think of creative ways to keep yourself invested in the people you value most. I certainly don’t recommend sales or deep discounting. Those strategies do nothing good for your reputation as a boutique.

Find ways to add value and put yourself in the public eye. You need to show your “family” of clients how much you care about them. Special people who seek out the boutique photographer are, without fail, involved in civic projects and charities. They give time, effort and money to further all kinds of interesting and worthy events and fundraisers, all of which feel the economic pinch of falling contributions.

Director of the Denver Art Museum Dr. Lewis Sharp and his wife, Susan, pose outside the entrance to the recently completed Hamilton building, designed by Daniel Libeskind. The perfect holiday card! Image ©Sara Frances

Make their passion yours. It’s a great idea to turn your honed ability with people to helping with promotional PR  photography, thank-you images, archive of events, first class illustrations for programs and brochures. Imagine how you can contribute your skills to create the level of quality, creative imagery that most charities never receive because they must generally rely on students or amateurs from the office.

On the Saks Fifth Avenue fashion runway for “Be Beautiful, Be Yourself” are Sidney Robertson, left, and Lyssa Dominguez, right, escorted by one of the Colorado Crush arena football team cheerleaders. Image ©Sara Frances

This is nothing new, you say. True! Like you, we have our own favorite community projects, ranging from school PTOs to the art museum to medical charities. In the current election campaign, both sides of the aisle have called for renewed volunteerism as a bulwark, a remedy against social ills and economic downturn. Michelle Obama and our Colorado first lady Jeannie Ritter co-authored an opinion piece for the newspaper that encouraged citizens to serve others, and pointed out how our nation is built on a history of service. John McCain has urged stepping up civic participation to practice good citizenship and make the U.S. a better place. Clearly our leaders are of the opinion that we are what we do for each other.

I have great respect for people who can and will pledge fortunes to the benefit of their communities. Every community has this kind of philanthropist. Whenever asked, we’ve always attempted to work for material costs for charities and give our time. You probably have done the same. But we never actively sought charitable event photography. I didn’t know what we were missing!

Congressional Medal of Honor Society President Robert Lewis Howard reviews his honor guard at the 2008 convention. Image ©Sara Frances

Let me be clear that this is not doing free sittings as a perk for charitable donation. This scenario is not to my taste because it feels like the studio is sliding in on the coattails of the charity, often with what a hard-sell effort to get people to buy after the fact. I have only rarely heard of free sitting charitable promotions that sit well with my sense of ethics.

Here’s how I accidentally got hooked up with public relations charitable photography and how it works for us. A local luxury magazine, Colorado Expression, follows prominent community events and publishes social snaps of the organizers and donors. Fluff reportage unworthy of photojournalism you might think, but not so. Noticing that these pictures printed poorly in the otherwise glossy and well-designed magazine, I called the publisher and started a dialogue that eventually brought me to volunteer my decades of experience to making better images out of respect for the wonderful people who give fortunes to the public good. Bringing substantial people and technical skills to bear for fine imaging is a special talent that I (and you too!) can give.

Charitable PR photography has been an extraordinary opportunity to be introduced to some of the most exciting events and people we’ve had the privilege of meeting. These are potential clients we want forever.

Imagine dining at the Denver Art Museum fundraiser honoring a forward-thinking city planner, who just happened to be the protégé of Karl’s late mother, who served on the Denver Planning Commission. How about participating in the annual Medal of Honor convention, in the presence of scores of awe-inspiring past honorees who gave service above and beyond the call of duty? How about helping to influence Colorado legislation to smooth the path for citizens with disabilities through the Down Syndrome Educational Foundation event? The potential to go national with a new film for the Children’s Diabetes Foundation?

Senator Bob Dole and our own Colorado philanthropist Barry Hirschfeld, comparing ties made of the same fabric. Image ©Sara Frances

So how does this benefit our business? Charitable photography can easily become a huge time commitment. Obviously you must set limits that are right for you. I now ask our clients and potential clients about their favorite charities. Be prepared to sit and listen at length; they’ll want to tell you all kinds of information and talk about their friends who are also involved. The people who are desired boutique clientele generally know each other very well. Referring a quality professional who has embraced their own pet projects becomes an active topic of conversation, not just an occasional mention of a company that did a good job. Yes, you must have superior photographic capabilities, but it’s all about who knows you and your willingness to help.