How to lay the groundwork for a smooth portrait session

“Be prepared” isn’t just a motto for the Boy Scouts. It’s a surefire way to streamline your business so that sessions run smoothly for everyone involved. Jaimy Ellis, M.Photog., proves this time and time again through her thriving high school senior portrait business, which she runs out of her home just outside of Iowa City, Iowa.

© Jaimy Ellis

“I learned pretty quickly in my career that the more information and education I can give my client ahead of time, the easier the process is for me,” says Ellis.

To that end, she’s created a system to ensure that when session day arrives, clients know exactly what to expect, and Ellis knows exactly what to photograph.

In January, Ellis will present Imaging USA sessions on the senior portrait business. Here, she offers tips based on her experience.


Ellis’ well-thought-out website is clean and easy to navigate, with modern appeal that matches her shooting style and resonates with her demographic. An image-laden FAQ page covers everything from wardrobe to pricing, addressing clients’ most basic questions before they pick up the phone or send an email. “What should I wear?” walks them through outfit selection, while “Can I get digital files of my pics?” helps clients understand her policy on digital images. A behind-the-scenes section features images of Ellis at work, what she calls the “mom view,” which helps clients visualize the session. The result is that by the time clients contact her, they know they want her. It’s just a question of scheduling.

“My conversion rate is pretty high for booking,” says Ellis. “They’re not contacting me if they’re not prepared to spend the price range.”

© Jaimy Ellis

Part of what drove Ellis to put so much information online is that it makes the sales process easier. She’s found the best way to make everyone comfortable and to set realistic expectations for clients is to be as transparent as possible. That means giving clients an understanding of costs. She even includes a blog post called “Tips to Save $$$” with suggestions for senior clients who need to pay for their own sessions. The idea sprouted from one of Ellis’ Instagram polls asking what her next blog post should be.

“I’m higher priced in my area, and my sales averages are where I want them to be,” says Ellis. “So if someone has a lower budget, they could still have a session with me, and this post helps with that. But it also helps my seniors with other things, like saving for charity or buying clothes in the fall.”

© Jaimy Ellis

TIP: Be consistent.

Ellis relies on more than her website for educating clients. Her initial email to clients spells out her process. She attaches a digital magazine that artfully reiterates that process from start to finish, ending with a full product menu and pricing guide. She designed the magazine for parents and seniors to peruse together, each getting the information they need. Seniors learn about wardrobe, hair and makeup, and location ideas, while parents gain a full understanding of products and cost.

By matching the look and feel of the magazine to her website and branding, Ellis maintains consistency, which establishes trust. It’s such a well-laid path that by the time she gets to the initial styling consultation, Ellis gets few pricing questions.

“They’ve either already paid the deposit through a link I’ve sent, or they have a check ready for me,” she says.

Ellis maintains this level of consistency throughout her process, always prepping clients ahead of each step so there are no surprises. By the time they get to the post-session sales consult, clients know it’s time for another payment. The final payment is due with the order. Ellis says giving so much information up front has paid off; clients follow the process without much hesitation.

“There are always special circumstances here and there, but simply by their actions, I can tell it’s a good fit for them and for me,” she says.

© Jaimy Ellis

TIP: Take advantage of in-home consultations.

Having co-owned a brick-and-mortar studio for several years, Ellis prefers the simplicity and reduced overhead of a home-based business. And she’s found that in-home consultations are a boon. They’re convenient for the client and crucial to her business strategy. “It gives me a huge advantage for suggesting products they’re going to get the most use out of,” she says. “I can presell the whole time I’m there.”

Ellis gets a feel for the family’s décor style, color schemes, and the art and portraits already on their walls. She can snap reference photos for later. Do they like large wall art? Do they even have wall space? Are there portraits of older children in the home? She brings a bag of product samples and leaves behind a hard copy of her magazine for clients.

Another benefit of the in-home consultation is the opportunity to look at the senior’s wardrobe and help with outfit suggestions. While they’re putting outfits together, they can talk about locations so the pairing of clothing and setting are complementary. All the while, Ellis gets a better sense of each senior’s personality and how they’ll react in front of the camera. She can see if they’re quiet or outgoing, so she knows whether she can jump right in on the session day or if she needs to start out slow.

Breaking the ice early makes everything smoother when the camera finally comes out. The information Ellis gleans from home visits helps her to be more strategic when she’s making photographs.

“If I already know they like the album, I can suggest something during the shoot like a close-up of shoes for a spread,” she says. “I can tailor some of the shots and make suggestions along the way. When I show up for the order appointment, I usually already know what they’ll want.”

TIP: Rinse and repeat.

Ellis can’t emphasize enough how important client education has been in simplifying her business. She has her photo technique nailed, her pricing model on lock, and her branding flawlessly consistent from web to social to product, but client education is what makes it all flow.

“The biggest thing I stress is client education,” says Ellis. “It makes it so much easier for you throughout the process.”  

RELATED: A photo gallery of Ellis' work

Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.