Just outside Fort Worth, Texas, Phyllis Kuykendall, M.Photog.Cr., CPP, runs Lilly Blue Photography on three verdant acres of land. On the property are a weathered, vintage truck, a rope swing adorned with floral garland, a swimming pool, and an old barn recently outfitted with a 12x20-foot bay and various backgrounds. It’s an idyllic setting that offers an ample variety of textures and backgrounds for high school senior portraits. And it all but eliminates the need for location work.
After briefly pursuing family, child, and newborn portraiture, Kuykendall trained her focus on high school seniors in 2009, and they’ve been her priority ever since. About 95% of her senior clients are girls—unsurprising given that she makes cheer team photos for several area high schools, which has proven to be a fruitful networking tactic.
These days Kuykendall is concentrating on simplicity and streamlining to deliver the best for both her clients and her business. As is often the case for entrepreneurs, finding the right formula took a little trial and error.
The standard industry advice for photographers is to increase rates, and rightly so since many new photographers start out undervaluing their work and time, often giving both away just to get started. But to set the appropriate pricing you have to know what your market will support. Feeling inspired after attending a workshop, Kuykendall increased her rates in hopes of snagging $4,000 to $5,000 sales averages.
“I did fairly well that year, but the next year all I heard was crickets,” she says. “It was like people decided that I was a great photographer, but I was just too expensive. I didn’t want to be that person and lose clients.”
Kuykendall photographed 25 seniors the year she hiked her rates but only 11 the following year, clear evidence that something was off since her prices were all she’d changed. She realized that her local market couldn’t support her rates. She considered expanding outside her local area, targeting the more upscale neighborhoods in Dallas and Highland Park, but she wasn’t willing to commit the time and resources to do that.
“Do I want $4,000 sales?” she asks. “Well, yeah! But I also value my time with my kids and grandkids. I had to price things for my area because I just wasn’t willing to go outside of that. And you know what? That’s OK.”
Kuykendall found that in her market, a $2,000 per sale average was a much more attainable goal. But to get there she had to analyze what her clients were buying and attach real costs to each item, including her time. This sounds like business 101, but a lot of photographers forget to factor in their time when calculating their true costs. Kuykendall keeps a cost/profit spreadsheet for each client. She records the total sale, the cost of the individual products (lab prints, slideshow, packaging, flash drive, retouching, etc.), sales tax, her time, and in the last column, her profit. By tracking those numbers over time, she was able to determine palatable pricing for her market that wouldn’t undervalue her work and would enable her to clear a respectable profit.
Through her analysis, Kuykendall also discovered that most of her clients came from dual-income households, purchased one of two mid-level packages, and preferred small prints to large wall art. Analyzing her costs helped her to see what clients were actually buying so she could laser target her sales.
“Something I hear a lot is that my clients don’t have the wall space for a large print because they have multiple kids,” she says. “So instead of focusing on large wall canvases, I steer them toward 8x10s and 11x14s or a wall collage of 5x7s. Those make me the most money and happen to be what my clients actually want.”
Once Kuykendall embraced her new pricing structure, she made tweaks to ensure she didn’t put in unnecessary time that would ultimately devalue her profits. The lowest-hanging fruit was to rethink her hair and makeup arrangement.
For years, a hair and makeup artist came to the studio to style clients before their sessions. “It was a scheduling nightmare that made me dependent on the makeup artist’s schedule rather than mine,” she says. “It was also an hour and a half that I was just sitting and watching them, which was not cost effective.”
Instead, Kuykendall partnered with a local salon that’s open seven days a week. The salon offers her seniors a discount, and it’s up to the client to schedule the appointment ahead of the session. The arrangement is beneficial for the salon, as many girls return to have their makeup done for prom and formal dances.
Kuykendall also streamlined by setting up payment plans for clients that start with a $250 deposit. By accepting credit cards, she can auto bill each installment on the first of each month for the duration of the plan. Not only does this make the investment feel more manageable to clients, but it also guarantees a monthly income.
“This helps me cover expenses throughout the year: Texas School, memberships, etc.,” she says. “The last payment they make typically covers their products, so I’m not out any money. So far it’s been working out really well for the parents, too. It makes the higher packages seem more reasonable.”
If there’s one point Kuykendall wants to drive home it’s that you don’t have to average $4,000 per sale to be a successful photographer.
“Price for your market,” she says. “Do not be ashamed of how you earn your living, but don’t give it away, either. Sell what makes you the most money. My area is smaller prints, so I have to maximize my sales of those to make the most profit from each package. You have to do what works for you, not what works for someone else.”
Stephanie Boozer is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.