The beach is a popular place for families to gather for their annual vacation. And Kansas Pitts, who’s based in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, has seen more than her share of them, happily. Her studio, which sees return clients from throughout the Southeast each year, thrives on these sun-soaked vacationers.
When she started out, Pitts planned to focus on newborn photography, signing up for workshops to learn more about that niche. In the meantime, she was receiving significantly more calls for family portraits on the beach. “I guess maybe because I was doing it differently—with a wide angle lens and more environmental,” she says. So she reimagined her studio to appeal to the families who vacation along the Florida panhandle each year.
While mom, dad, and kids are the primary subjects in her work, the sun always plays a central role. Portrait sessions take place on a designated stretch of Santa Rosa Beach at sunrise or sunset, and the resulting wide-angle shots are unusually colorful—the lovely pinkish-orange hue of sky and sand during the golden hour, with the family wrapped by light, smiling and laughing.
“Most of the old-school beach pictures were close up and very controlled,” she says of the market when she entered the game. And while she captures a few of those posed shots, too, her signature images are less planned and more dramatic. Families pay a lot of money to come to the beach to relax and have fun, she says, so she creates a session that’s an extension of that fun and a product that reflects it. “That started to set me apart,” she says.
Given that her clients are on vacation, first and foremost is making the session stress-free, which she accomplishes by keeping it to 30 minutes, the length of time that’s best for the light and the attention spans of small children (and vacationing dads). Florida summers are hot and muggy—admittedly not great for hair. So she warns clients about the humidity, suggests hair products, and most important, snaps the close-up shots at the beginning of the session while hair and makeup are fresh, saving wide-angle environmental shots for the end. Most of her sessions are at sunset, which takes place around 8 p.m. in the summer, but she’s been encouraging clients with small children to try a sunrise session, since little tykes tend to be wiped out after a full day at the beach but are balls of energy in the morning.
The sales and ordering session is also expedited, both to reduce stress on the client and to make purchasing easy. If a family is vacationing in Florida for a week, Pitts schedules the photo session on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday and the sales session on Thursday or Friday. She edits the photos the night of the photo session and immediately orders proofs so she’s ready to show clients the work on a quick turnaround.
“I have clients come in before they go back home so they don’t have to go it alone,” she says, since going through proofs online to make buying decisions can be overwhelming. Like the photo session, she keeps the sales session short—just 20 to 30 minutes. That’s enough time to display a brief slideshow, some sample prints, and various types of wall portraits, which are hung on the studio walls. “A lot of them have heard of the acrylic and metal [prints] but they’ve never seen it in person,” she says, and lately many clients prefer the metal prints to canvas since they brandish vivid sunset colors so well. “They’re very eye-catching,” she says. The goal is for clients to receive their order at home as soon as they return from the beach.
During Pitts’ busy season, which runs from mid-March to Labor Day, she photographs three to six beach portrait sessions a week. She attracts new clients via her SEO-savvy blog and social media and then retains them with a breezy scheduling and purchasing process (thanks to her workflow software) and simply keeping in touch.
These days she credits referrals for her packed schedule. But in the beginning, it was the internet and good SEO, she says. When people are booking a vacation, they’re looking a lot of things up online, and she wanted her studio to show up in searches. She blogs about 80 percent of her sessions immediately after each sales session, and she tags clients when she shares those posts on social media. “I got rid of the typical website a couple of years ago and merged my blog and website into one,” she says. The site automatically updates with new images each time she blogs a new session. And even though she blogs a lot, it still takes just 45 minutes of her entire week, she says. “Every time you blog a session, you have another opportunity to reach somebody.”
Keeping in touch with clients post-session is paramount since some of them return annually or biannually to the Panhandle. The ShootQ workflow software she uses allows her to set a reminder to send a specific client an email about a year after they booked their initial session. During the winter holidays, she sends each client a card and a small gift or a gift certificate for the coming year—a reminder to schedule a session if they plan to return.
Pitts also sends clients a questionnaire when they schedule a session with her, which helps her learn more about them and deliver a better overall experience. “I really just want to know everyone’s names and ages and to ask them what attracted them to me so I know what they’re looking for,” she says. “And I try to ask about any special circumstances with the family—anything from autism to a broken leg or a prosthetic leg, or something as simple as, ‘My youngest takes a little while to warm up.’”
Pitts’ signature wide-angle images are captured during the hour before sunset or the half-hour after sunrise, at times that vary as the season progresses. She prefers not to incorporate artificial light because it means keeping the family in one spot, which she feels diminishes authenticity. But going with natural light also means “embracing a certain level of grain and trying out different noiseware,” she adds. Her photos are backlit, with the family blocking the sun, which is low enough in the sky during the golden hour for that positioning. “The light wraps around them and doesn’t give them too much haze or glare,” she says, making for a dynamic image.
Pitts uses the Canon EOS-1D X, an upgrade from the Mark III, because it handles noise better and the burst frame rate is faster, benefits for chasing kids on the beach. She rarely stops shooting during her brief 30 minutes with families, capturing photos even as she chats, trying to loosen them up.
For her wide-angle images, she wants an organic look, so she often tells the parents to embrace and then asks the kids to run up to Mom and Dad and give them a big hug. Or she simply tells them to play in the water—an easy sell for a vacationing family. “I don’t tell them exactly where to go. I set them up to create a moment,” she says. That moment becomes a memory—forever framed on the family’s wall.
Amanda Arnold is the associate editor of Professional Photographer.