There’s comfort in having a system. There’s also freedom, Saray Taylor-Roman would argue. Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, Taylor-Roman has cracked the code on working efficiently and profitably without sacrificing quality or client satisfaction. By strategically clustering her bookings into just one or two days each month, Taylor-Roman has the flexibility to structure her schedule around her family and other personal commitments while averaging monthly sales of $40,000.
The constraints allow Taylor-Roman to control her life, her business, and her livelihood. Taylor-Roman first identified what was most important to her then developed a system that supports her goals. Rather than letting her workload dictate the flow of her life, she has a workflow that harmonizes with her needs and can be adapted as those needs change.
How does she do it? For starters, she recognized an underserved micro-niche in her market: corporate headshots. She found that niche almost by accident. In 2015, when she was still getting her business up and running, Taylor-Roman told a realtor friend that he needed a more professional headshot and she could make it for him. He agreed, and when she dropped off the prints at his office, her work grabbed the attention of the agency’s top broker.
“She called me and said that I had made my friend look like he was the owner because she didn’t even have great pictures like that,” recalls Taylor-Roman. The broker wanted her own headshots but was hesitant about trying an unknown photographer. Since she was still building a business, Taylor-Roman offered to gift the broker a session and one image. “A week later, I took her prints to the office—she picked five, by the way—and next thing I knew I was booked for the next four months.”
Recognizing there was a need in the community, Taylor-Roman saw an opportunity to specialize in the realtor micro-niche, which soon led to sessions for lenders, home stagers, and other real estate-adjacent professionals. Seeing the potential in that previously untapped market, Taylor-Roman knew she would need to be intentional about work-life balance so she could spend time with her young daughter and be present for her family.
Formerly a high school Spanish teacher, Taylor-Roman knew all too well the toll of long workdays and overcommitment. Her photography business needed not just to serve her clients but to serve her as well. To make it a win-win for everyone, she needed to be smart about structuring her work. A longtime mentee of photographer Sue Bryce, Taylor-Roman quickly adopted Bryce’s methodology of efficiency, tailoring it to suit her clientele and needs. She also credits Michael E. Gerber’s book “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It” (1995, Harper Business) for showing her how to systematize parts of her workflow.
“At first, I was thinking, No way, photography is an art, not McDonald’s,” she says. “But I pushed myself to see what I actually could do, mainly for my headshots and branding work.”
Having learned from Bryce, Taylor-Roman felt confident in her posing prowess but was concerned about wasting time in the studio running clients through too many options. She knew she needed to whittle down that process, so she started studying what clients were ordering and realized just a handful of poses sold nearly 80 percent of the time.
“I came up with five poses that would feel easier and natural to move through,” says Taylor-Roman. She advises headshot photographers to go through their work to determine the one or two poses that sell nearly every time. Combine those with three more poses, and you’re good to go.
For photographers who worry this is a cookie-cutter approach, Taylor-Roman notes that her system speaks to efficiency. Don’t create images that aren’t going to sell. That’s just doing extra work that cuts down your profitability.
“You’re not going to come up with new poses for every single client,” she says. “That’s too much time. Clients want to be seen and heard, so when I’m not flustering over equipment or what pose to do next, I’m able to be present and connect with them. It’s freeing.”
Outsourcing isn’t new, but Taylor-Roman finds that a lot of newer photographers don’t outsource in the most helpful ways. Or they won’t outsource at all because they’re reluctant to give up control. By analyzing her workflow and creative strengths, Taylor-Roman assessed which tasks would require her personal attention and which could be done by someone else—for example, the initial clean edit of raw images.
“I don’t want to be on a computer forever,” she says. “I can do it, but I learned I don’t need to do it.”
Because her lighting and posing systems are structured, Taylor-Roman’s images come out of the camera close to final. Because hair and makeup are done prior to the session, a lot of skin issues are eliminated. All that’s left is to put her personal mark on the images she creates.
Taylor-Roman hires studio assistants who are multitalented. Everyone has two roles. One handles hair and makeup as well as photography; another is a photographer as well as the social media guru. She recently hired a full-time studio manager. The other photographers handle sessions she can’t take as well as clients who want to pay a lower session fee than hers. Session days run like clockwork. A client is in the chair for hair and makeup at 9 a.m., the camera room at 10 a.m., and the sales consultation by 10:30 a.m. At the top of every hour, one client is in hair and makeup while another is in a session. Her assistants have been trained in Taylor-Roman’s lighting and posing flow, so they know when to bring in an apple box and when to move things around, allowing her to stay connected to and focused on the client in front of her.
“Because of this system, I am 100 percent present for my clients,” says Taylor-Roman. “Even though it’s quick, we connect at a very personal level. They’re allowing me into this intimate space, and I want to be present and connect.”
Understanding her own value was Taylor-Roman’s biggest lesson, she says. That’s a hurdle for many photographers. She cleared it by staying true to what was important to her and knowing what she wanted her business to enable her to do. Identifying those goals empowered her to dictate the terms of her business.
“When I valued myself, my time and talent, I was able to charge accordingly and also minimize the time I was spending on the business by creating this structure,” she says. “Working this way also establishes me as an expert in my field, and people are willing to pay more for that. I serve a very defined niche, which makes me specialized. You can’t pull this off if your focus is too broad.”
Knowing her worth also makes her more resilient when potential clients tell her no. Rather than taking it personally, she can keep moving forward to find the clients who say yes. When Taylor-Roman first approached area dance studios to break into dancer portraits, she was turned down several times. But she kept at it and was able to pick up enough studios to make the endeavor worthwhile.
“Some shut the door in my face,” she says. “But I kept looking for the right people to say yes, and I really only needed two. I was able to create a portfolio, spread it around on social, and create a desire in that community.”
Taylor-Roman notes that you don’t have to target realtors or dancers, you can find a micro-niche anywhere. Look for an area in your market that’s underserved.
“I just happened to have a realtor friend with a bad headshot,” she laughs. “You can do this with maternity, dentists, lawyers. Find an area and see if they have a network that you can service.”
The big lesson Taylor-Roman wants photographers to learn from her experience is that your business can work synergistically with your life. Make time to identify how you want to work, how you want to live, and then create a business that supports your goals. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can make it happen.
“As I’ve gone through this, at times I’ve been terrified,” she says. “But every time I look at my daughter, I know I can do this. The bolder I become, the more value I find in myself.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.
Tags: portrait photography