3 lessons in building a successful photography business

Professional photographer Jenn Lewis
Jenn Lewis © Jenn Lewis

Jenn Lewis has walked in the shoes of a struggling entrepreneur. Like many of the photographers she teaches, she’s made the mistake of undervaluing her work. She pushed through one challenge after another by trial and error until she discovered what works. Now running a thriving senior studio in Clemmons, North Carolina, she wants to help other photographers sidestep the hurdles she faced.

Eleven years into her work as a photographer, Lewis has a solid business model. She specializes in senior portraits and headshots, limiting senior sessions to 40 a year so she can take an experiential approach to client relationships. To make a low-volume strategy profitable, she notes, you have to be strategic in pricing and sales.

Lesson No. 1: Value yourself 

In the early days of her career, Lewis was a shoot-and-burn photographer. She charged a jaw-dropping $55 per session and closed out the transaction by handing over a CD. Shoot, burn, repeat.

“I was the epitome of the person who today I would tell to either step it up or just be done with the business,” she says. “I would basically come home, dump the pictures, burn a CD, and either drop it off at the client’s or put it in the mail. I had no idea what I was doing.”

High school senior girl portrait by professional photographer Jenn Lewis
© Jenn Lewis

Thanks to a bare-bones session fee, Lewis was working excessive hours just to bring in a little money. She was missing out on time with her kids only to spend it with someone else’s. She was exhausted, overworked, not earning much money. She inched up her session fee but continued to deliver a CD at the end of each session and call it a day. Lewis had no idea she was undervaluing herself and her clients’ needs. A workshop on in-person sales jolted her into reality. She decided to give it a try immediately.

“I wasn’t prepared for in-person sales. I didn’t have any samples,” says Lewis. “But I scrambled together a product menu with pricing and told a client I’d photographed before the workshop that I’d love to have her come over so we could look at her images together.”

After sitting down with Lewis, the client placed a $1,150 order. Lewis thought it was a fluke. But after subsequent attempts yielded similar results, she realized she’d been missing out on substantial revenue. Factoring in the additional time she was spending with clients, Lewis restructured her pricing and developed a strategy that allowed her to slow her pace while earning a livable wage. She pushed her sales averages into the $3,700 range. And she found an unexpected side effect of her new process was better client relationships.

Lesson No. 2: Value your client 

“I realized that just handing over the digitals was actually a disservice to my clients,” says Lewis. “I was basically handing over half-finished work and telling them to figure it out on their own. Clients don’t always know what they want, and they look to us as the experts to help them through the ordering process. I always tell people I’m a full-service studio, and I’m with them from beginning to end.”

High school senior girl portrait in milk bath by professional photographer Jenn Lewis
© Jenn Lewis

By adding in-person consultations after photo sessions and helping clients visualize their images as print products, Lewis positions herself as an expert to guide clients toward the best result. Spending the time to help clients navigate print sizes, albums, and printing styles completes the circle and educates clients so they can make informed decisions.

“When they get that wow factor from seeing the products in person, that’s when it hits home that I’m creating value in what I do as opposed to the shoot-and-burn photographer who doesn’t,” says Lewis. “It’s a very simple thing of walking them through the process. I wouldn’t design a kitchen on my own; I would go to an expert. This is the same.”

Recently Lewis had two clients come to her with CDs and print releases from other photography studios, unsure what to do with them. Lewis went through her usual post-session sales process and earned an additional $4,000 for her work. The lesson for other photographers: “Don’t leave money on the table because I will pick it up,” she says.

That shift in thinking—creating value for clients rather than simply raising prices—has resulted in increased profits, artistic fulfillment, and satisfying relationships.  Part of creating that value is educating clients. From her website to her Instagram captions, Lewis plants seeds that influence clients’ expectations regarding financial investment and the session experience. “Everything I do has a specific purpose,” she says. “I’m always going after a certain result.”

Portrait of two women by professional photographer Jenn Lewis
© Jenn Lewis

Lesson No. 3: Stop waiting for the right time 

 “Everyone wants to wait until Jan. 1 to make a change in their business,” says Lewis. “But think about it. January is the worst month of the year for portrait clients, so you’ll naturally get off to a slow start just because it’s January. I make changes right away.”

High school senior boy portrait by professional photographer Jenn Lewis
© Jenn Lewis

As she learned when she first implemented in-person sales, there’s no time like the present to make changes for the better. When she’s in the process of changing prices or products, she simply keeps track of where her current clients are in the process.

“I don’t want to keep going down a path that’s not working,” she says. “If you’re shoot-and-burn, you can transition your clients. You have to. People who go to shoot-and-burn photographers don’t value the work because it’s cheap.”

She suggests offering clients incentives as a way to transition your business to in-person sales. “Some will go and some won’t. Fear is what holds 90 percent of photographers back from making that transition to in-person sales. It’s not crazy to want to make a living off of this. You have to know that you’re worth it, put in the effort, and don’t wait for the ‘right’ time.” 

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Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.