©Karen Bagley

Expecting More

It sounded like a dumb idea to Karen Bagley. After making portraits as a favor to a friend who wanted to chronicle her pregnancy, Bagley’s husband told her she seemed to have an eye for that type of portraiture—perhaps she should focus her fledgling photography business on the maternity niche. Bagley, who’d aimed to be a newborn and family portrait photographer, scoffed at the idea.

“Literally, word-for-word, I was like, ‘That is ridiculous. You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” she says. Nobody wants to spend money on maternity portraits, she told him. “I was a little cocky and not listening to him,” she admits.

But after letting the idea marinate over the course of the next day, she realized her husband might be onto something. She apologized and set to work, running four model calls and photographing subjects in a style of maternity portraiture that felt right to her. The results were a breakthrough for her business. “Once I posted those on social media, my company blew up,” she says. Her first maternity portraiture sale reaped $2,400—so much more than her previous sales that she literally cried.

©Karen Bagley

When Bagley came on the maternity portrait scene, she noticed several things: First, there’s a significant lack of photographers who dedicate their business to maternity portraiture. For most, it’s a side niche to supplement the income they generate through newborn or family portraits, she says.

Second, most maternity portraiture has what she calls a “mom feel.” “At what point in time are moms not supposed to be sexy?” asks Bagley. “Who put that rule in place? I wanted to change what people thought of maternity portraits.” When she photographed those first four models she listened to her gut and created images that embrace the idea of a pregnant woman as sultry and beautiful. “We are at a time where women appreciate their bodies regardless of shape or size,” she says, a time ripe for maternity portraits celebrating that attitude.

Third, when Bagley’s business hit six figures, she realized there’s more money in maternity portraiture than many photographers realize. If you pay attention to social media, you see women spending thousands of dollars on gender reveal parties and baby showers, she says. It follows that they would be willing to spend the same amount on portraits. “This need for maternity photography is out there,” she says.

©Karen Bagley

When Bagley was starting out, she worked in retail selling wedding dresses, doing wedding, engagement, and portrait photography on the side. One day while helping a wedding dress customer, she overhead the woman mention she’d done a boudoir photography session as a surprise for her fiancé. Bagley peeked over the woman’s shoulder at the photos and was shocked at the amount of money she said she’d spent. The photos were fine, nothing out of the norm, she says, but she’d paid a lot. “It was like a lightbulb went off,” Bagley says. She knew she could do better. She turned in her two-week notice at the bridal shop that day and delved into photography full time.

When Bagley was learning photography, she often signed up to assist professional photographers who were teaching seminars at local conferences. “I don’t do well in a school setting. I never went to school for photography. I do much better with hands-on learning,” she says. One thing the photography pros shared with her is the importance of in-person sales. “Even if you think of brands of photographers like Olan Mills, they have you sit down and pick your images,” she says. It made perfect sense to her.

So, when she quit her retail job to dive full time into photography, she simultaneously dove into in-person sales. Photographers tend to rationalize that they’ll wait for some fictional perfect time to start doing in-person sales, she says. But Bagley was thinking about feeding her family. Her attitude was, she says, “I am going to do this. I don’t care if I throw up everywhere.” That first in-person sales meeting was also the one that earned her $2,400. “When it comes down to it, IPS was just a game changer for me.”

©Karen Bagley
©Karen Bagley

Bagley offers other advice for building a successful business:

Don’t price yourself based on your competition. First of all, “There is no competition,” she says. “Everybody in photography has a different eye, skill set, journey in their business. So, you can’t base your rates off of what other people are doing.” Also, the photographer whose pricing you’re copying may have a very different cost of sales, so you’re not comparing apples to apples.

Start low. There’s pressure in the photography profession to base your worth on your ability to hit a certain sales number, she says. But in the beginning your skill set may not match up with that pricing. When she started working full time, Bagley calculated the hours and money she put into everything—paying for the gas for her car to drive to sessions, time spent emailing customers, making phone calls, editing, packaging products—and realized she wasn’t even earning minimum wage. Her first goal was to change that. That meant charging a session fee and diving into IPS.

“Photography isn’t charity. Breaking that mindset has been a difficult struggle."

Karen Bagley

When calculating your wage per hour, consider your skill level. Also, what type of gear are you using? Gear doesn’t make the photography; the photographer makes the photography. However, you have to have sufficient image quality to produce wall art, for example. If you’re not able to upgrade your gear due to financial constraints, there’s a reason, she says. It may be that your skill level doesn’t yet command the prices you need to charge to afford more sophisticated gear.

Raise prices incrementally. Bagley and her husband decided that if they noticed seven, eight, nine customers purchasing the same thing, the price needed to go up. It can be scary to raise prices on a product or service, but she just reminded herself that people do it all the time. “Every other company—makeup artists, hair stylists—around the New Year, they raise their prices.” Her general rule: When your schedule is filled out with sessions, it’s time to charge more.

©Karen Bagley

Realize pricing isn’t personal. It’s business. “Photography isn’t charity,” she notes. “Breaking that mindset has been a difficult struggle.” She advocates educating consumers that when they pay for and participate in a photography session, they’re receiving a luxury service. “This is not a need; this is a want.”

Up your customer service to justify price hikes. Provide a level of care that no one else offers. That could be as simple as answering the phone. “Most people don’t handle phone calls,” she says, making contact instead through social media or email. “But that is one thing I’m thankful I learned in retail: Answer the phone with a smile.” She always meets with clients in person before the session to customize their experience and follows up that meeting with a handwritten card to thank them for their booking. 

Think globally. Once you’ve established a profitable business in your area, consider branching out to others. For example, when Bagley began doing underwater maternity sessions, she marketed them to potential customers in Florida and New York, reasoning that people there might be more interested in underwater images than local clients and might not balk at paying a premium for these customized sessions.

©Karen Bagley

In the age of social media, you can do a lot of marketing at no cost, so Bagley recommends using as many outlets as possible—TikTok, Instagram, Facebook. “There is no reason for photographers not to have a portal to every social media network,” she says.

In the first few years of marketing her business on social, 80% of her business came from Instagram—something she found out by adding a question to her contact form on her website about how the client had heard of her. Her posts would often wind up on Instagram’s Explorer page, which meant that people who’d searched or clicked on posts about baby showers or gender reveal parties were seeing her portrait posts. When she wanted to market her underwater maternity work to other areas, it was easy for her to add a hashtag like #miamiunderwatermaternityphotography to target those clients. “Sure enough, after a couple of months,” she says, “I started getting people flying in to get their underwater portraiture done,” which she makes at her Conyers, Georgia, location.

©Karen Bagley

Unfortunately, social network algorithms change by the quarter, so you have to stay on top of it. Where Instagram used to bring in 80% of Bagley’s business, it now brings in 15% to 20%. That’s because Instagram often shadowbans her account (so that her posts no longer show up on the Explorer page) because of its policies on semi-nude portraits. She now finds better luck getting eyes on her Reels and Stories, which are not shadowbanned. 

In general, she’s learned that marketing involves a lot of trial and error. “You are going to have times where you spend a couple hundred dollars on marketing that goes to waste,” she says. But don’t let that sticker shock discourage you. Learn which social media ads didn’t reap clients and continue to make tweaks until you get results.

She also has some advice regarding tasks that have to be done but don’t come to you so easily: “Know what you don’t know.” If you struggle with some aspect of your business—for her, that was SEO—outsource it to an expert.

“You need to know the things you’re good at and the things you struggle with in business,” she says.

And it helps to have a husband who tips you off to your greatest untapped strengths despite your misguided misgivings. 

Amanda Arnold is associate editor.