Bringing it: Josh Petersen’s thriving senior portrait business

Josh Petersen
© Josh Petersen

“I’ll be honest, I’m a little surprised at how well it’s done,” says portrait photographer Josh Petersen.

He’s referring to his recent business transition from conducting in-person sales in his 2,400-square-foot studio to conducting in-person sales in clients’ homes. Since most of his portrait work of high school seniors is done on location, he felt his huge studio space was overkill. So he ditched it for a small office that he uses as a workspace and a print lab. The overhead savings is a real boon. What he didn’t anticipate is how much in-home sales would enhance his customer service and increase his revenue.

Families are busy. Meeting them at home saves them the grind of packing the kids into the car to make the trip to his studio, he says. Plus, since Petersen’s specialty is wall portraits, assessing a client’s home space and décor in person allows him to better select frame options and sizes that make sense.

“I can tell them in person why this size and why this frame is going to look best,” he says. “In my clients’ eyes, it takes me from being a photographer to being that portrait artist/curator/gallery-type of photographer, and that’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I want people to associate with me. I’m a portrait artist and I specialize in custom-curated wall galleries for my clients’ homes.”

© Josh Petersen

When he met with clients at his studio, he’d ask them to text photos and measurements of their walls ahead of time. They often forgot. He’d show them a slideshow of the photographs at the studio, and they’d cull together in person. The process took hours. Now he sends them an online gallery, and they cull their favorites on their own time. So sales meetings are much shorter—just 45 minutes—saving valuable time for both him and his clients.

A bonus is that by going to their homes Petersen feels more connected to clients: “I have a stronger rapport.” And his sales averages are higher. In 2017 he averaged $875 per senior; in 2018 he averaged $1,200 per senior. All thanks to a transition that he was initially afraid to make.

Model teens

Another thing Petersen was nervous to try but is glad he did: a senior model program. “I shied away from it because I thought it would be so much work,” he says. “But with good planning and a little bit of effort it’s not as daunting a task as I thought it would be.” It’s served as an organic way to market his business and sets him apart from other studios in the area that don’t offer an elite experience to teenage clients.

He keeps his program small—between eight and 10 teens—so he has enough one-on-one session time with each participant. There are no qualifications—it’s first come, first served. “I want it to be organic, and I don’t want to make it exclusive. If somebody wants to do it, they should be able to do it. We get a variety of people. Some are people who you wouldn’t think would be interested in it.”

Participants pay a fee of $395, $200 of which goes toward a product credit, and they receive a 25% discount on their order. The main event is a senior safari to nearby Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where teens are photographed in the area’s iconic landscapes. By offering to make a promo video of the safari for the local auto dealership, he’s been able to rent SUVs at a discounted rate to transport the groups in style. He also partners with businesses that rent prom dresses and tuxedos. After the portrait-making is completed, he wraps up the experience by taking the models to dinner, and they hop back in the SUV for home.

“The nice thing about having a model fee up front is that that money can then be essentially set aside to cover the cost of food and travel and anything else associated with that,” Petersen says.

Petersen never asks the teens to promote the experience on social media. “I want it to be organic and natural,” he says. But they’re always on their phones, texting pictures to friends, sharing on Snapchat, and posting Instagram stories. “So it generates some underground buzz without me asking for it,” he says. He also brings an assistant to take video of the safari that can be published as behind-the-scenes vlogs of the event, which allows him to give shout-outs to the businesses he’s partnered with. 

© Josh Petersen

The power of giving

One the most effective methods Petersen has found to gain new senior and family portrait clients and build relationships in his community has been senior free days: complimentary photo sessions that are made available monthly during the summer to rising seniors from both area high schools. In a five-minute session they get six poses on three different backgrounds.

© Josh Petersen

His goal is to wow teens (and parents who are present) in that five minutes so they’ll book him for a full senior portrait session at a later date. That means building trust in short order. Especially with male subjects, he says, the best way to break through their shell and get them comfortable is to ask questions: What’s the most fun thing you’ve done this summer? What are your plans for the rest of the summer? What are you looking forward to the most in your senior year?

“Typically that will break the ice enough that once we begin photographing them, they have that wall down a teeny bit,” he says. After a couple of shots, he shows parents the photos on the camera back. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, Mom is like, Holy cow! That looks amazing. So Mom’s wall is broken down.” And then he shows the teen subject their photos. Once the teen has seen those results, he or she is more relaxed and confident for the remainder of the session. 

“Some people respond better than others,” Petersen admits. “Some kids, they won’t let that wall down at all. But 95% of the time we are able to build a rapport and in such a way that they are calm and relaxed. And they look at themselves and are happy with what they look like.” Eight-five percent of the students make print purchases in the sales room after their mini session. A smaller percentage book a full senior portrait session with Petersen. “Ultimately I want them to go away with a feeling like, That wasn’t so bad. So when they come back for their senior portrait or family portrait, they know that working with me is light and fun and we’re going to have a good time.”  

© Josh Petersen

One of the hallmarks of Petersen’s business is authenticity, he says. “If you’re looking at clients as dollar signs, that kind of reflects in the experience. But if you’re coming from a place of love, and [thinking], How can I use my talents to most benefit my clients? How can my talents help them achieve their goals? and look at it from a service mentality—not What can they do for me? but What can I do for them?—then I think that genuineness is going to build rapport.”

And building rapport builds a business.  

RELATED: A photo gallery of Josh Petersen's high school senior portraits

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.