How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business


Photography Business Institute
Photography Business Institute

You’ve been using your Canon or Nikon DSLR for years, taking photos of all your friends’ kids, your family, and anything that inspires you. But now you’re ready to take the leap and start your own portrait photography business. Except there’s one problem: you have no clue how to run a photography business at all. The truth is, lots of photographers never actually went to business school. Some of them figured it out with the help of a coach or a course or by good old-fashioned trial and error. And some of them never got off the struggle bus and eventually let their dream die. Lucky you, because you’ve just come across the jackpot!

I’ve outlined everything you need to know about running a profitable portrait photography business. It’s time for you to actually start making money doing what you love while still putting family first. Everything here was used to build a photography business model that has generated $3 million in sales.

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

The Photography Business Models

While there are several different types of photography business models, the two most common are known as “shoot and burn” and the “boutique business model.” I like to think of the shoot and burn model like a fast-food restaurant. And the boutique business model is like a fancy, sit-down restaurant. These two photography business models serve very different types (and quantity) of clients.

The shoot and burn business model focuses on offering affordable digital images for your clients while allowing you to pick up the camera and shoot sessions all the time. Most photographers run a shoot and burn photography business, so there’s a notably larger competition pool, but there are also more clients out there that want shoot and burn sessions. It’s like a fast-food restaurant because you’re dealing with a large number of customers who appreciate their service to be fast and inexpensive. 

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

The boutique business model focuses on thrilling your clients by creating something they can’t buy at a store – custom wall art for their home of the people and relationships they cherish. Not many photographers know about the boutique business model, which also means that there’s much less competition with other photographers in the same area. It’s like a sit-down restaurant because through each part of the process, the photographer holds the hand of their client, delivers the highest quality of service, and helps them pick products that they love.

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

How to Brand Your New (or Old) Portrait Photography Business

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

When it comes to a boutique photography business, branding is EVERYTHING. It’s how you attract the right clients, the ones that are thrilled by the idea of custom art of their loved ones on the walls of their home. It’s how you can justify your premium prices and have the rest of the world know that you’re worth every penny. It’s how you can make your marketing efforts go that much farther, because you have a strong backbone behind you (your brand).

One of the easiest ways to design your brand is to get clear on what your target market is. Flesh out who your ideal customer is. And not just their demographics, like a 30-50-year-old married mother living in the Midwest with 2 children making $125,000 per year. Sure, you may need to know those things as part of your “ideal avatar,” but you actually need to flesh out WAY more than just a couple of demographics. Start thinking about what a day in the life of your client looks like. What time does your client wake up? Where do they go to work? How do they spend their free time? Is it reading People magazine? Watching Grey’s Anatomy? Going to yoga?

How to Find Your Ideal Portrait Photography Client

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

Finding your ideal client goes beyond demographics and generalizations. After all, what does age 30 to 50, 2 kids, married with a household income of $125,000, drives an SUV really tell you about the woman you’re trying to reach? When you understand more about your ideal client’s life, you understand where, when, and how to make real connections that actually mean something to your clients. A whole world of possibilities on how and where to connect opens up for you as a marketer when you drill down more deeply into understanding just exactly who your ideal client is.

If you find that you’re having trouble connecting with your ideal client, it’s probably because you don’t understand what their life really looks like. And if you don’t understand her life, you aren’t going to connect with her on a level that gives her a thrilling experience that she’ll be willing to pay more for AND tell her friends about.

So sit down now, and write out what a day looks like in the life of your ideal portrait photography client. And then look for places along the way you can reach out and attempt to form a meaningful connection with them. Then, write down ten qualities that you want your ideal portrait photography client to see your photography business reflect. What is going to “Wow” them? What are they going to remember about your photography business? What feeling are you going to leave them with after you shoot their photography session?

The Five Rules to Branding Your Photography Business

Remember, there are five things your photography business brand needs to be, all the time. 

  1. Your photography brand needs to reflect the identity of your photography business… it’s like having a face for your potential clients to recognize as soon as they see it. If one day your marketing materials (logo, signage, graphics, etc) are earthy and rich and the next they are edgy, and in your face, you’ve got a brand disconnect which will lead to distrust from your clients.
  2. Your photography brand also has to be consistent. This is why deciding on a brand message, graphic standards, and look and feel are important because you shouldn’t change it once it’s set.
  3. Your brand also needs to maintain its reputation. You want to be known for being that photographer that leaves clients bursting with excitement when they see your photography, not as the photographer that is lazy, uninvested, and doesn’t deliver. Your reputation is everything for your brand.
  4. Your photography business brand also can’t always please everyone, all the time. You need to know that when you build your brand if you focus on pleasing everyone, you will excite no one. Your photography business brand won’t be for everyone, and that’s the way it should be. Just like McDonald’s is for a lot of people, there are still people that like a fancy, sit-down restaurant more. This brings me to…
  5. Your brand needs to be gush-worthy. If you want to make money as a boutique photographer, you have to be willing to do things that cheap photographers won’t do. You have to want to go the extra mile for your clients and give them the dream session of their lives because that’s how you get to charge more. And that’s how you get your clients to know that you’re worth every last penny.

Products, Services, and Customer Experience

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

When you’re boutique, your photography products and packages are going to look different than what a shoot-and-burn photographer has to offer. Shoot-and-burn photographers offer digital files for a flat rate. They are selling their time for money. But as a boutique photographer, your products and packages are high quality, and they’re custom to your business. The reality is, there are tens if not hundreds of photographers in your area. So you need to offer products that set you apart from them, and that reflect your quality.

As a boutique photographer, you aren’t competing with the shoot-and-burn photographers, because you’re going to be selling something completely different than them. That’s your competitive advantage. So, you’re going to be selling only physical products that thrill your clients, get them talking, and they have never seen before. Sure, everyone has seen an 8x10p print. But, have they seen a 20 x 20 metal print with acrylic overlay? When you offer a different product mix, your photography will stand out from the Walgreens photo center. Sure, every photographer offers a 60-minute session. But they definitely don’t offer a leather-wrapped photo album with 15 images printed on fine art paper with torn edges?

The reality is, other shoot-and-burn photographers could copy your products if they really wanted to, but they aren’t going to be able to bring the same passion, creativity, and client experience that you will. They don’t have time to be high-touch with their clients, get to know them, and deliver a unique experience every time. And, other shoot-and-burn photographers won’t be able to afford the same quality of products as you. You’re going to use a premium photo lab to print your products, not the Walgreens Photo Center. I love to use White House Custom Color for everything from albums to gallery wrap canvasses. However, we have our own frames here at the studio, because, as I said, they are custom just for us.

The boutique experience is a two-way street. Clients are willing to pay so much more, but that’s because you’re willing to offer so much more with your boutique photography business. Think about it like this. When you go to a hotel, you can order room service, or you can microwave a Lean Cuisine in your hotel room. Is room service more expensive? Yes. But you’re not just paying for the food, you’re paying for the fresh ingredients. You’re paying for someone else to prepare the food for you, just the way you want it. You’re paying for a smiling waiter to bring the food to your door so that you never even have to leave your home to go get a frozen meal from the store.

That level of service is what your boutique photography business experience should offer. Your clients aren’t just paying you for your photography. They’re paying for the custom frames. They’re paying for you to come into their home and help them decide where to hang their heirloom artwork. They’re paying you to hold their hand through the process. It’s your job to make them feel like they’re your favorite client in the world. And in return, you get to work with high-end clients who love you and love what you do. They don’t whine and complain, and they don’t try to bargain with you on the price, because they know you’re worth every penny.

How to Price Your Photography

A lot of new photographers don’t know how to price their photography, but don’t get discouraged! Many photographers have been doing this for years and don’t know how to profitably price their photography, either. The most important thing to remember is that you can’t just make guess on prices and throw numbers together. You’re going to have to sit down and lay out all your costs. Then, decide how much of a profit margin you want to have.

In a simplified equation, you need to figure out the actual cost of the labor and printing for your artwork, and then add a profit margin that is usually 4 or 5 times the initial cost of the artwork. However, there’s a lot that goes into the initial cost of the artwork beyond just the print, like shipping, packaging, credit card fees. Not to mention the utility bill and taxes you’re paying for your studio. Needless to say, pricing is a little more complicated than people expect, but don’t let that scare you away. I have a step-by-step guide on pricing an 8×10, which you can use as a rough outline for pricing other products. When you’re ready to create and print a full photography price list, make sure you take a look at these 5 price list tips that most photographers don’t know about.

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

Now, if you’ve been in the business for a while, but have always done shoot-and-burn pricing, don’t run away just yet! You can still transition from inexpensive digital-file pricing to full-on boutique photography pricing. But, you’re probably going to have to rebrand your photography business. You’re not the first photographer to ditch the digitals, and here’s how they did it. And believe it or not, you can still raise your photography prices, even if you’re not getting clients. Because when you rebrand, you’re entering a whole different bracket of potential clients that want high-quality artwork.

Whatever you do, do not have discounted sales in your photography business. When you’re a boutique photographer, every price you set for your artwork is what the true value of it is. So when you discount your photography, you’re telling your clients that sometimes you aren’t worth every penny. Instead of discounting your photography, use a different strategy: add value to your existing offers. Instead of discounting your sessions by 50% off this month, you can include a free digital app of all images a client purchases for sessions booked this month.

You can also consider including a physical product that isn’t even offered on your price list.  This wood keepsake photo box from whcc is a client favorite. It’s available as a value-added incentive when a minimum order investment has been made.

Marketing and Selling in Your Photography Business

Your marketing efforts as a boutique photographer are going to look a lot different than things that other shoot-and-burn photographers do to get clients. You’re trying to attract high-quality clients in your target market. So, it doesn’t make sense to run radio, TV, or newspaper ads. Those type of marketing activities are seen by the entire public. Remember, you aren’t targeting everyone; not everyone wants a sit-down restaurant experience, and that’s okay. Instead, the marketing activities that are going to work for you are the ones that involve you going out in the community and making connections. Here are 13 crazy simple photography marketing activities that will attract the right clients for your boutique photography business:

  1. Build a customer database.
  2. Write notes of joy.
  3. Find co-marketing partners.
  4. Donate to silent auctions.
  5. Engage your network.
  6. Share your expertise.
  7. Create your own “dog whistle”.
  8. Partner with charities.
  9. Get featured.
  10. Create a referral program.
  11. Host an event.
  12. Use value-added incentives.
  13. Send an amazing holiday card.

What Is Boutique Photography Marketing?

Boutique marketing is about attracting clients that aren’t price-sensitive. These ideal portrait photography clients notice your attention to detail and expertise as a photographer. When I say expertise, I’m not saying that you need to go take more photography classes or get an MFA. But you need to be at a place where you’re comfortable and confident in your skills as a photographer. If that means taking a couple of extra photography classes, it might be worth the investment.

Really, you need to be an expert on boutique photography and heirloom wall art. You will have clients knowing they want custom wall art, but have no idea what print size they want. Or what color frame would look best above their mantle. It’s your job to walk them through figuring the small details out. You will go to their home and help them decide where they want to hang their 40×60 canvas gallery wrap.

When you sell custom artwork to your clients, it should never be a “hard sell.” That’s because you already have explained to your clients what you do. They know why you are worth more than other photographers. So, by now, they will be thrilled to invest in custom wall art from you. When they fall in love with the images from the session, instead of feeling pressured, they are prepared to make a large purchase for photography of their loved ones. “Selling” doesn’t have to be a word that makes you cringe, or feel like a slimy salesperson. When you’re a boutique photographer, selling is about building rapport with your clients. Your clients trust you to help them solve a problem that they have. They want someone to create custom wall art of their loved ones. 

How to Start a Portrait Photography Business

The Bottom Line of Starting a Photography Business

Ask yourself, what do you want your brand to be like? What kinds of clients do you want to attract? How are you going to offer products and a client experience that sets you apart from other photographers? Before you get overwhelmed, take it one step at a time.

  1. Figure out your photography business brand.
  2. Decide what products and experience you’re going to offer your clients.
  3. Go through your total business expenses and decide your profit margins.
  4. Get ready to market yourself in your community to attract high-quality clients.
  5. Live the life of your dreams as a photographer!


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