Real relationships built Ike & Tash’s senior portrait business

If you ask Tash Haynes how the photography studio she owns with her husband, Ike, stays relevant in the ever-changing senior portrait market, her answer is succinct: relationships.

Tash and Ike Hayes will present a session at Imaging USA 2020.

Tash and Ike Hayes will present a session at Imaging USA 2020.

A lot of photographers say that. “Relationships” is a marketing buzzword, and everyone with a camera likes to talk about how they build connections with clients. But at the Haynes’ Tacoma, Washington, studio, Ike & Tash, the relationship building happens at a deep level.

“We are really invested in our young people,” says Haynes, who worked in youth development before becoming a professional photographer. “The actual photography is secondary to what we offer our seniors and our community. We spend a lot of time giving back to our seniors. For young people, there’s a lot of value in that. These days, there aren’t a lot of relationships that young people have with adults outside of things like youth groups, so having that opportunity with us is special and different for them.”

A coming-of-age community

The Hayneses look at the senior portrait experience as a coming-of-age turning point in a young person’s life. Recognizing the importance of that turning point, they endeavor to create a community of people who can go through the journey together in a supportive environment that’s less about turning profits and more about helping young people navigate the transition to the next stage of life.

In practical terms, this means the Hayneses open their lives to the teenagers in their senior portrait programs and offer their time and support whenever possible. They show up unannounced at senior events, take pictures, and give them away for free. They attend graduation parties, football games, and community parties. They open their studio to serve as a safe house for kids in the community. They’ve spent Thanksgiving in the hospital with a sick teen and taken transpacific calls from another senior who was diagnosed with cancer.

It’s a business that exists at the intersection of advocacy and commerce, and the Hayneses see that as a mission. “What a blessing to have a small business and use it to do good in the community,” says Haynes. “We are unique to our city and our community, and we want to make sure we continue to provide a valuable resource for the people who need us.”

© Ike & Tash

The ministry of photography

Artistically, the philosophy carries over to the photography itself. Haynes is a believer in “the ministry of photography,” which she describes as her calling to help young people see themselves in a new, positive, self-esteem boosting way. “I know the difference that good photography can make in terms of confidence,” she says. “It makes me want to really show up and give my best every time, to tune in to the experience and make the most of it.”

To help bring out the beauty in each senior, the Hayneses hired a team stylist to work with clients. All seniors talk to her first to start crafting their vision for their session and creating a plan for hair, makeup, and styling.

Seniors fill out a survey designed to help Tash and Ike learn more about them, including insights into their overall style, favorite music, likes and dislikes, and tidbits of information that can serve as conversation starters. This information is helpful from an artistic planning standpoint, and it’s also a trust-building exercise to create a comfortable environment for the seniors.

“When they come in, we’ve already done the research, so it feels like we know them already,” says Haynes. “It shows that we’ve done our work ahead of time, that we care. Photography can be intimidating [for the subject]. You want to trust the person behind the camera and know she has your best interests at heart. As a photographer, when you can demonstrate that you’re worthy of that trust, it opens up more options and improves the experience.”

© Ike & Tash

Starting with the end in mind

Young people can size up an adult in a matter of seconds, Haynes points out. You can’t get much over on them, and it’s a lot of work to build relationships the right way. It requires energy and intent. “If you see your business like a retail store with an attitude of If you want to be here you have to pay the price, that is going to feel different than a business where you feel like you belong,” she says.

With that in mind, Haynes believes there are two approaches to a service-based business:

  1. Constantly reinforcing client relationships and building for the long-term.
  2. Continually recycling the client base and always chasing new customers.

“As photographers we often don’t start with the end in mind,” says Haynes. “We’re always thinking of ways to get new clients. That’s important, but research shows that you can build a much better business on clients with whom you have a relationship. They come back again and again, and the relationship is much more sustainable than one and done.”

For example, Ike & Tash just shot the wedding of a former senior portrait client. They’ve been photographing some families for 10 seasons. Haynes describes these people as cornerstone clients who will come back to them for years, maybe generations. “If you can build those relationships with them as seniors, you will have clients for life,” she says.

© Ike & Tash

Staying relevant

Haynes acknowledges that staying relevant is a constant challenge. Being cool—creating cool products and building a cool brand with cool collateral—is expensive and time consuming. And there will always be competition, not just from other photographers but from everything else—family friends who will do photographs for free, new DIY tech like the latest iPhone with three cameras, and evolving trends that push kids away from traditions like senior portraits.

So it comes back to relationships. In spite of the competition and distractions, there will always be people who appreciate the artistry of a professional photographer who is dedicated to bringing out each subject’s beauty. “You have to find those people and speak to them,” says Haynes. “You can’t get discouraged. There will always be competition, but your job is to work harder and have a voice that speaks louder over all of that noise.”

People want to know they are valued, she adds. It doesn’t matter how old they are—five or 15 or 50—they want that sense of worth and encouragement. “The more we can show up with our cameras but also put down the camera and really see people, the more successful we’ll be. That is how a business stands the test of time.”   

RELATED: A photo gallery of Ike & Tash's work

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.