Stillwater is the kind of picturesque college town you might expect from the expansive state of Oklahoma, with a quaint historic downtown that gives way to green lawns and neat rows of houses. Situated between the bustling cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, it’s a comfortable base for Heather Beadles, M.Photo.Cr., CPP. Her studio occupies a refurbished historic building across from Oklahoma State University and is furnished with beautifully framed portraits and understated décor that dovetails with her luxury brand aesthetic.
Such attention to detail defines Beadles and her work. She plans everything—from portrait sessions to her business model—with the end in mind. Her specialty is large-scale mixed-media portraiture, an elegant hybrid of photography and painting that elevates her work to the realm of commissioned oil painting. Her classic compositions and color palettes give her work a timeless quality that evades the dangers of following trends. Beadles adopts a low-volume, high-sales business model that enables her to earn a good income while preserving quality time with her four children. Her sharply defined niche complements the white-glove service she offers clients, which is time-intensive.
“I had to let go of certain genres like newborns, seniors, and weddings to focus on families and children,” she says. “I concentrate on the significant moments in a family or a child’s life, therefore I am OK with not being an annual photographer for families. These are the art pieces that will never come off their walls.”
To cement her brand as a luxury portraitist, Beadles took inspiration from the recognized, uncomplicated styles of popular luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel. The quality, marketing, and aesthetics of these companies’ products signal that they’re made for discerning consumers with enough discretionary income to spend on exclusive goods. That branding permeates Beadles’ business, including the way she photographs—with the intention of creating wall art. Though she offers small prints for tabletop display or gallery walls, those are offered as add-ons. Beadles’ aim is to sell large portraits.
“I always photograph for scale and face size,” says Beadles. “I was taught to photograph a family on location within a scene so that you can sell something larger. I always start with the end in mind. This will be on the wall as an art piece. It isn’t just a family portrait; it’s also the story it tells.”
Beadles charged top dollar for her work from the start, more than she could have afforded herself, she says, because she believed in establishing her value from day one. That said, she spent over five years working for another photographer to sharpen her photographic and business skills before taking a paying client of her own. During those early years, she regularly attended the Texas School of Professional Photography (and still does) while gleaning as much as she could from mentors Sherry Braden, M.Photog., Gregory Daniel, M.Photog.Hon.M.Photog.Cr., CPP, F-ASP, William Branson III, M.Photog.Cr., and Bill Sorenson. She learned the importance of surrounding herself with a group of masterminds, fellow photographers she can share ideas and experience with. She quickly saw that photographic skills and artistic creativity would account for only a fraction of her business success.
“At the end of the day, this is not a photography or an art business,” she says. “This is a marketing business. You definitely need the art and technical skills, but it really comes down to spending time on the parts of the business that actually create revenue—marketing and selling your photography.”
For Beadles, that meant finding clientele who could afford her product. She focused on relationship building and getting her name on the lips of affluent clients across the state.
“When you think about the population of Oklahoma, you have to market all over,” says Beadles, whose master’s degree in counseling is an aid in relationship building. “It really is like a small town, and you have to think about it that way, which means focusing on those relationships.”
She put herself where her ideal clients would be at fundraisers and events around the state. It took time, and her efforts paid off. Most of her current clients drive an hour or more to her studio. Her relationships are cemented by the time she spends with each client. She starts with an in-person interior design consultation, gathering insight about the client’s home, color scheme, and décor.
“I truly am designing for their space,” says Beadles. “But this consultation is also where the sale really happens because I am giving them a vision of what I can do. We narrow down the size, location, etc., and they hear the prices before I ever pick up a camera. They know what to expect.”
The initial consult equips Beadles with the knowledge to envision the composition, including the orientation (vertical or horizontal), the setting, clothing the family will wear, and most important, how large the print will be.
“The only time I’m a photographer is during the sitting,” she says. “Even then I’m using language that continues to sell my value. I’m talking about how amazing the finished piece will be. I’m talking about how future generations will feel looking at this portrait.”
By the time Beadles gets to the selection appointment, her sales work is already done. The appointment is simply a confirmation of final choices. She uses in-person sales software to allow clients to visualize the art on their wall. All that’s left is frame selection, painting details (how much brushstroke and detail), and installation, which she oversees.
“What’s really important is listening to my clients and having that relationship,” says Beadles. “I want these portraits to remind them of who this family is, that the children are deeply loved, as a reminder that gives them hope, encouragement, and commitment.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.