Crisp and clean in style yet snug and sweet in spirit, Meghan Doll’s baby and family portraiture isn’t fine art, she says. It’s “heart art.”
People get hung up on what constitutes art and what’s appropriate for their walls, she explains. But ultimately what most parents want is something that makes them smile, that swells their hearts, and that reflects the love they feel for their children. “It’s different from fine art,” she says. “It has a different place in your life. But it’s an equally valid place.”
Doll went to school for fine art but says, “It never felt 100 percent me. I love working with people and capturing their emotions, their energy.” She sees herself as a mirror reflecting the love parents have for their children and vice versa. “I know it’s not picture-perfect in real life,” she says. “But when people see that image, they feel the love I see when I take the picture.”
Doll came into baby, family, and professionals’ portraiture via weddings, which she began photographing in 1998. Although she enjoyed the work, she found weddings to be physically draining, so when former wedding clients began having children and inquiring about newborn portraits, she took that as a sign to move into portraiture. Since weddings book so far in advance, it took Doll a year and a half to complete the transition. And while the move was scary, she says, it was worthwhile. “I was at my limit with [weddings], and I knew I had to do it. And I’m really happy I did because I love it so much.”
When she made the transition to family portraits, Doll assumed she’d experience a loss in income, so she tacked on professionals’ portraiture as a sideline to make up the difference. For a few years, it did fill in that void, but eventually the revenue she generated from family portraiture caught up with her previous wedding revenue, and now her professionals’ portrait work is supplemental. “It’s proved to be quite lucrative and it’s a big part of the business now,” she says—about 25 percent. Plus, she enjoys it. “When you work with kids all day it’s nice to have adult conversation,” she says, and she loves the challenge of earning an adult client’s trust and putting them at ease. “When people come in they are always a little uncomfortable to have their picture taken.”
Many of her professionals’ portrait clients are lawyers or doctors who need images for their websites. She also counts authors and speakers among these clients who need a portrait for a conference brochure or website. No matter the client, she usually captures a selection of both power poses and more casual shots.
Whether Doll is capturing newborns, families, or professionals, one thing is clear: She loves light. Her Minneapolis studio is set in a warehouse built in 1906 that once housed an elevator manufacturing business. The structure has expansive windows—one reason she selected it. In her main camera area, there are three 8x6-foot windows; there are three on the other side of the studio as well, and two in the back. For softer light, she moves subjects to the back of the studio. For a bright, sunny setting, she uses the main space by the three large windows, where she’s also set up couches, stools, and chairs.
Although blessed with an abundance of natural light, Doll still modifies it according to the weather, time of day, and season of year. The walls and the ceiling of the space are white, making it easy to bounce light onto subjects using a reflector. When there’s an overabundance of sunlight in the space, she puts a large octabox to use. “It softens everything and keeps everything bright in the windows but also balances out the light on the subjects,” she explains.
Though the charm of Doll’s photos is their seeming spontaneity, she always visualizes a session before clients arrive. She begins each session with a specific series of poses. “I think about who is coming and how old they are and come up with two or three positions to start with,” she says.
When her subjects are children, she starts to “get a little silly” during that first posing sequence, making funny faces at the kids and tickling them with a duster (which she calls her “tickle stick”). Once her little subjects are in a light mood, she moves them to a second sequence, where they’ll typically sit on the floor and hang out while Doll orbits the area taking photographs.
While Doll loves that her style is simplistic and neutral, allowing the personalities of her subjects to shine through, she wants to remain fresh. “I want things to be different enough each year for repeat clients but still have a similar look and feel,” she says. In light of that, she recently built a new floating wall that’s decorated differently on each side—one might be decorated with snowflakes for holiday captures, and the other painted white with a molding affixed for a classical background. Molding is also used in other areas of the studio, as are a new couch and some boxes built for posing. The molding and furniture make the space look as if it could be somebody’s home, she says.
“I am a firm believer that photographs should be seen and enjoyed and not just live on the computer. It should be on the wall so you can smile to yourself when you see it,” Doll says.
Her ideal client is someone who’s ready to invest in artwork for their home. Eighty percent of her clients do purchase wall portraits, and she makes sure to keep artwork top of mind by sending clients home from their sessions with a look book, a packet of information to inspire them about where and how they might display wall portraits in specific areas of their homes, like the dining room and living room, with price points. It also includes homework, she says, instructing them how to share photos of their walls with her so she can create a template of various customized portrait arrangements.
To keep her work fresh and to remind clients of her services, Doll offers themed mini sessions a few times a year, which she advertises via her online newsletter—she’s done one “funny faces” mini session and several holiday-themed mini sessions. She keeps the sessions to 20 minutes, sometimes with specific products attached to them, such as a custom framed print. Each Halloween, she hosts a party, complete with games and snacks, that incorporates mini sessions of the children in their costumes. Proceeds from any orders and additional donations made at the party go toward Operation Smile, a nonprofit that conducts surgical care for children with cleft lips and cleft palates. “We made enough for two operations last year,” she says.
The mini sessions are nice supplemental income, but they also keep her on clients’ radar. Often, after sending out a newsletter announcing a mini session, she’ll receive emails requesting full sessions instead—usually about five full session requests for every email about a mini session.
But whether Doll is capturing themed mini sessions or full-length family and newborn sessions, she always remains true to her style—“clean but natural and fun”—which is perhaps her brand’s greatest strength. “What makes it stand out,” she says, “is the idea that less is more. Keep it simple and the personalities can shine.”
RELATED: See a gallery of Meghan Doll's work.
Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.