Recognized as one of the premier portrait artists serving metro Las Vegas, Lisa Holloway’s business runs off of an enthusiastic client base and strong referrals in an affluent market. Her portrait sales averages are well into the five figures. It took courage to make her way to this enviable place in her career.
Holloway started out like a lot of portrait photographers who build a business through trial and error, and she experienced many of the same frustrations as any fledgling entrepreneur: long hours, little revenue, time that seemed to evaporate.
“I was getting frustrated,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I was spending a ton of time away from my family, and it wasn’t working. To figure it out, I sat down and wrote it all down—hours spent, expenses, sales, how much was going to taxes, how much time I was spending on each client. It was eye opening. I would encourage every photographer to go through that exercise. I think people would be shocked to discover how much your time is really worth.”
What she uncovered was that the time she was spending on sessions and post-production work didn’t justifying the sales she was making. She needed a plan. She needed a different clientele. She needed to elevate her business to a higher tier.
Holloway sat down with her friend Suzy Mead, a photographer who enjoys the sales side of the business. They worked out a new model for sales and pricing, with an emphasis on reaching a higher-budget market. The new pricing and service model allowed for more time with each client during their session. They also designed a collaboration in which Holloway handles the photography and Mead manages the sales for a commission. Mead switched Holloway’s process from online gallery sales to in-person sales sessions that she conducts in clients’ homes.
They started to see progress in the new business approach. Holloway began receiving larger bookings and building referrals among a more affluent group of clients. These were consumers who appreciated the artistry and service she could provide. Her sales averages grew, her reputation blossomed, and she found herself working with clients who, on occasion, spent into the tens of thousands of dollars on a single family session.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to taking a photography business to the next level, Holloway offers suggestions based on her experiences.
Create a unique look. “If you want to have enduring success as a photographer, your imagery can’t look like everyone else’s,” says Holloway. You have to come up with something unique that sets you apart.
Develop a solid brand. If your style is all over the map, people don’t know what they’re going to get from you. Understand what type of style you want to market and sell. Take the time to figure that out because it may be one of the most important decisions you make as a photography business owner.
Be patient. “You can’t start a photography business and expect to make six figures overnight,” says Holloway. “There are going to be slow times, and you will learn as you go.” Developing your brand takes time. Working through your creative process takes time. Establishing a unique and recognizable look takes time. But when these processes are complete, your business and your brand will be in a much better position.
Accept that you’re not always the right fit. Understand that every client isn’t right for you, and vice versa. And that’s OK. “Most of the people who contact me don’t book me because of my prices,” says Holloway. “Learning to accept that has allowed me to focus on the people who appreciate my work—and can afford it.”
Move on from rejection. “Photography is such a personal business,” says Holloway. “Your personal touch is on everything you do, so when someone tells you no it’s hard not to take it personally. However, rejection is a natural part of the process. As photographers, we need to understand that and not let rejection completely defeat us.” If someone doesn’t come back after an inquiry, it probably wasn’t a good fit. That’s all. It doesn’t mean you’re not a good photographer. Allow yourself to move on.
Learn to say no. When you’re asked to do something that you don’t do well or wouldn’t enjoy, say no. In fact, it’s more than OK to say no in such cases. It will prevent you from producing work that doesn’t represent you at your best, and it frees your time to focus on what you do well.
Pay more attention. When you’re dealing with higher-end clients, they want more attention. They want to feel special, that you’re focused solely on them. This is a critical part of the experience, and you can’t rush through things.
Keep it simple. Clients get overwhelmed easily. Part of your service at the higher tiers of business is simplifying clients’ lives. Cull photo selections and products to the best options, and guide them through their choices. “My product list is very simple,” says Holloway. “We show what we want to sell, and we focus on what we can do really, really well.”
Make things easy. If you want to step up your game, make the process easy for consumers. “My clients want their hand held,” says Holloway. “They want someone who’s going to make the process as easy and seamless as possible. We even send a handyman to our clients’ houses to install wall art. That way, we know the images will be displayed well, and our clients don’t get things in a bunch of boxes that they have to deal with themselves. It’s a complete process from beginning to end. There’s nothing that isn’t done for them.”
Show, don’t tell. Mead does in-person sales sessions at clients’ homes, projecting the images on the exact spaces where they’ll be displayed. She can show clients product sizes and framing options, and can even custom-build different options on the spot. “We’ve likened it to shopping with a friend,” says Holloway. “We provide advice and guidance, and we help them feel good about their decisions. That personal attention shows in what they buy, and it’s really gratifying to see the end products.”
Do the little things. When Mead shows portraits at a client’s home, she always brings a gift—chocolate, wine, flowers. She and Holloway follow up with the little touches that show they care—hand-written cards, check-in calls. “If you make them feel valued, you get good referrals,” says Holloway. “It’s really that simple.”
Understand that value is relative. The value you provide means different things to different people. Your ideal client may be willing or able to spend much more money on your art than you would. This isn’t just true of people who are wealthy; it’s true of anyone who places a high priority on the kind of art you provide. The amount consumers spend is often less about income brackets than it is about priorities.
Prepare for a slowdown. “When you raise prices and change your business focus, it’s a scary process because you’re probably going to lose your existing client base,” says Holloway. “There’s likely going to be a slowdown in your bookings and a temporary drop-off in your sales. But you have to accept that situation and focus on the bigger picture.”
Make the move. When you’ve created a unique look, built your brand, established your processes, and focused your energies on the best use of your time, then you might be ready to make your move to the next tier. No one ever said entrepreneurship was easy. Leveling up is hard work and time-consuming, but it’s an opportunity to do more for a more invested clientele. The artistic and financial rewards can be well worth the effort.
RELATED: A photo gallery of Holloway's work
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.