A self-described “recovering CPA,” Emily Donohoe, M.Photog., CPP, spent the first dozen years of her career working in tax accounting for small businesses and high net worth individuals in Florida. She didn’t love it.
She committed to sticking it out while her husband worked on a Ph.D. in accounting so they could make a fresh start once he’d completed his degree. When that happened, Donohoe, her husband, and their infant son moved to Champaign, Illinois, where Donohoe prepared herself to leave public accounting and tackle the next chapter of her professional life.
That chapter opened with a rekindling of her longtime love for photography. After taking a class to freshen her skills, she launched a portrait photography business. She started small, working with clients out of her home, meeting at coffee shops, and slowly building a loyal clientele. She bought a laptop, learned Photoshop and Lightroom, and spent a couple of years digging into the business. All these efforts were precursors to Donohoe’s larger plan, which was to operate a high-end studio specializing in fine art newborn, maternity, and family portraiture.
Donohoe’s studio ultimately became Pixels by Emily, one of the most respected fine art photography outfits in Central Illinois. The growth of the studio didn’t happen spontaneously. Donohoe meticulously budgeted and planned, leaning on her accounting background and copious research to create a roadmap for success. She grew a sustainable business based on numbers, realistic forecasting, and a firm belief in her own worth.
Donohoe was determined to price her work correctly from the beginning. She knew she wanted to operate a high-end studio, and she also understood how difficult it would be to raise prices dramatically if she started too low. Additionally, she didn’t want to undercut the market, which would contribute to dragging down prices across all portrait studios in the area.
To price her work effectively, Donohoe first needed to figure out her cost of doing business. She started by working from an online template that helped her factor in the components of running her business, including gear, insurance, technology, studio rent, and utilities. She input her numbers into the template, added the additional factors that would be unique to her business, and then put everything in a spreadsheet for easy reference.
Next, she selected the products she wanted to offer and determined the cost to produce those items. She watched YouTube videos and photography business tutorials on how to figure out numbers and pricing. She researched pricing models and the factors to consider when setting prices.
One pricing consideration that photographers often forget, or severely undervalue, is their time. Donohoe got advance warning on this common oversight and conducted a series of calculations to determine her worth, which she factored into her pricing, down to every minute she spent on client work.
These calculations helped her determine the margins for each product. She plugged everything into a pricing spreadsheet that included two primary calculations:
For the second calculation, she broke down the numbers into three columns for different profit margins: 20%, 30%, and 40%. Her spreadsheet shows what she needs to charge for each product to achieve each level of profit margin.
With these calculations in place, Donohoe determined her overall sales goals. She worked backward, figuring out how much she wanted to make per year, then divided that by the number of sessions she wanted to do each month. That gave her a target sales goal for each session.
The final consideration was common sense. After applying all the formulas, Donohoe looked at the numbers and considered whether her prices were reasonable. In other words, were people in her target market likely to pay the rates she was asking? If she needed to make adjustments to the pricing, she’d plug the updated numbers into her spreadsheet and see how those adjustments affected her profit margins and, ultimately, the overall profitability of the business.
From the beginning, people paid Donohoe’s rates, an indication that her pricing, while on the higher end, was on par with customer expectations. Starting out as an upscale studio was a challenge, especially without a reputation or extensive portfolio to back up that elevated level.
“However, I knew it was going to be twice as hard to build the business by starting out low and then having to make a big jump in pricing,” says Donohoe. “I spent a ton of time and money building out the experience I wanted. You won’t get the experience I provide anywhere else in town. There are a million photographers, but no one does what I do.”
Donohoe understood that offering a superior experience meant backing up that experience with superior knowledge, quality, and credentials. From day one, she emphasized education as a primary differentiator. She consumes educational content constantly and has pursued professional certifications and advanced degrees. She is currently one of the only PPA master photographers who is also a certified professional photographer in her area, and she’s pursuing her master artist degree. She does regular photography business coaching sessions with Jeff Dachowski, M.Photog.Hon.M.Photog.M.Wed.Photog.Cr., CPP, to help continually optimize her studio practices. In addition, she is one of the only studio photographers in her area who focuses on fine art and offers printed products versus digital files. “I wanted to be a luxury provider from the beginning, so I did all the things to back it up,” she says.
Early on, Donohoe made a discovery that changed the trajectory of her business. While visiting the home of a client, she saw her work printed and hung on the client’s wall—by someone else. While she had been offering printed products, she’d left her initial sales process too open-ended, practically inviting clients to have her work printed elsewhere. She realized she was not only leaving money on the table but also relinquishing control over how her art was displayed.
“I decided right then that I would never again allow someone else to print my work,” she says. “I spend so much time on retouching that I wanted to make sure my work was printed and displayed correctly.” Donohoe switched her sales process to in-person sales and took control of the ordering and printing process from beginning to end. The move not only helped her increase average session sales, but it also increased the value she provided to clients. Instead of handing them files and letting them figure out printing on their own, she offers a white glove approach to guide people all the way from capture to display.
Donohoe’s business grew rapidly. She outgrew her initial home-based studio quickly, graduated to a 750-square-foot space, and then upgraded to a 1,400-square-foot commercial space in the basement of a building. She outfitted it and customized it. Before long, she outgrew that space as well and added a set of offices on the second floor of the building.
During these early years of the business, managing growth was a challenge, one that Donohoe admits she didn’t always handle well. “I didn’t sleep,” she says. “To keep up with the work, I was staying up until 3 or 4 in morning, not taking care of myself.” Her health suffered, and she started dozing off during the day and in public places as her body desperately tried to claw back some rest.
Seven years ago, she hired a part-time assistant, who eventually came on board full time earlier this year. She also hired a marketing person. With her husband handling digital content, promotions, accounting, and functioning as the studio’s CFO, Donohoe was eventually able to establish a strong four-person team to spread out the workload and help her get some rest.
“The hardest thing for me, even to this day, is outsourcing,” says Donohoe. “But it’s also the most necessary.” She did some soul searching to determine which pieces were the most important for her to keep and then resolved to delegate the rest. “No one is going to take the care that you will, but sometimes done is better than perfect. So, figure out what is important to keep close, and let go of the rest. It’s scary, but you have to let go. There are only 24 hours in a day, and one person can’t do it all.”
Donohoe points out that if you think you can’t afford to outsource, then it may be time to change your prices or cut expenses. “That’s a lesson I learned the hard way,” she says. “It’s always scary, but if you can get some of those things off of your plate, it will give you space to grow your business.”
Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of business you want. Can your business keep running if you’re not there? Or does everything collapse if you’re out sick or on vacation? If you are outsourcing and have people to help you, then your business is bigger than just you, and it can keep running even when you’re not on site to manage every minute detail.
In June 2022, the landlord who owned Donohoe’s studio building told everyone to vacate the second floor within 60 days because he was renting it to a single business. Looking for a replacement space, Donohoe found few viable options. Rent costs for available spaces were exorbitant, and more affordable spaces wouldn’t fit her growing operation. Dismayed, she considered closing the studio.
Then she found a 3,000-square-foot building for sale in a nearby town. Donohoe hadn’t considered buying a building, but when she ran the numbers, the mortgage payment would be similar to what she would be paying in rent, plus the building purchase would allow her to build equity in a piece of real estate. “The accountant in me refused to throw that much money away on rent when I could own something,” she says. “Plus, I didn’t want to move again. It’s costly and disruptive.”
Donohoe got in touch with a local banker and started looking at Small Business Administration loans, a government-backed program designed for small businesses. She’d need to finance the purchase of the building as well as a complete remodel of the space, which had previously been used as a machine shop. After several months of saving, budgeting, and working out details, she purchased the building in November 2022. Renovations began the next day, and Donohoe moved into the newly refurbished space in February.
The purchase and renovation of the studio was part investment, part smart budgeting, and part leap of faith. But that leap of faith wasn’t blind. Donohoe justified the expenditure with plans for additional business growth as well as new product lines that were difficult to pull off in her old space. For example, the new space allowed her to host more in-studio portrait events, like Storytime with Santa that requires extensive staging and a dedicated space. Donohoe ran previous iterations of the Santa sessions in a borrowed space that required her to set up and strike down the elaborate set each week. Now she could leave the set and shoot more sessions with less setup work. In her first year in the new studio, she doubled the number of bookings for these sessions with plans to double the bookings again next year.
“Ask yourself, are you planning on growing your business more? Or are you tapped out?” says Donohoe. “If you’re satisfied and your current book of business doesn’t justify buying a studio, then don’t do it. Why raise your overhead if you are already where you want to be? But if you have bigger plans, then look at how a studio can help you expand.”
Whether it’s a new studio space or more profitable business practices, it’s helpful to consider what is blocking you from growing—if growth is your objective. Look at what’s hindering you, suggests Donohoe. Is it your space? Your pricing? Your current clientele? Your technical skills? Your product line? Your staff or lack of staff? Pinpoint those obstacles and work around them.
Most importantly, invest in and believe in yourself. Stand firm in the value that you know you provide. “If you believe you are worth it, your people will find you. Just keep going,” says Donohoe. “It’s scary, but that shouldn’t stop you. Do it afraid. There isn’t one thing I’ve done throughout this whole process that didn’t terrify me, and I almost talked myself out of so many things. But I ultimately had to trust in my abilities and my plan, and that has allowed me to keep moving forward.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.