Michael Kormos’ journey from hobbyist landscape photographer to professional portrait maker is a familiar one. It began with the birth of his daughter in 2009 as he documented her babyhood and learned about equipment and technique, then gained momentum as he began making photos for friends and other families in and around Queens, New York. Demand grew. The business grew. And grew. And grew.
As the budding studio evolved, Kormos saw an opportunity to create a unique, premium portrait experience. His wife, Sophie, came on board to manage the business and help with family and newborn sessions. As the years progressed, they developed a sophisticated approach that appealed to an increasingly high-end clientele. Before long, clients were seeking them out from all over the city and even farther afield, and the Kormos name became almost synonymous with New York family portraits.
“We’ve taken it step by step, month by month, year by year,” says Kormos. In a world where everyone expects everything to happen quickly, the Kormoses have built a loyal client base through years of providing top-quality service along with a diligent approach to search engine optimization.
Most clients find the Kormoses online or by word-of-mouth referrals. Both sources have been growing steadily since the inception of the studio, and that’s by plan. “We live in an age where people have this on-demand mentality, and in many cases that begins with online search,” says Kormos. “Making sure we show up in those searches is really a symptom of doing good work, showing it on our website, and having good SEO. If you search ‘family photographer in New York,’ you’re going to come across our name. That is a byproduct of years of work.”
A strong web presence and good search optimization is particularly important for attracting out-of-town clients who are planning a visit to the area. Out-of-towners represent a large percentage of the studio’s bookings, and most of these clients find Michael and Sophie through online search. Kormos attributes much of that market to their location in an international tourist destination as well as their established track record of producing fun, high-quality sessions for families.
“Someone comes in for vacation, and they want to capture that vacation with the best imagery,” says Kormos. “They may look around for different photographers, and they’ll find many who do it all, but we stand apart because of our experience with kids and our focus on family portraits.”
Whether residents or visitors, these clients tend to be highly discerning, the types of people who do a lot of research to compare styles, view a photographer’s approach, and bring their own expectations. “Hiring a photographer in our price range is more of a commitment,” says Kormos. “It’s not just a 15-minute session and a set of prints. It’s more of an experience. So our website, our communications, and all our materials need to reflect the level of experience we provide.”
The Kormoses emphasize the client experience throughout their process, which has been central to building repeat business and earning the studio new referrals. The process begins with gathering as much information as possible before the session. Michael and Sophie try to get a sense of the clients’ personalities, their tastes, their likes, and dislikes. They talk about locations and recommend clothing.
As New York residents with detailed knowledge of the area, Michael and Sophie are able to build each location shoot around the particular tastes of clients. No two sessions are the same, just as no two neighborhoods in New York are the same. Whether they’re photographing in Central Park, on the cobblestone streets of Tribeca, or along the waterfront with the city skyline in the background, the Kormoses endeavor to bring a uniquely New York experience to every shoot, with distinctive images that resound with an unmistakable sense of place.
“People gravitate to something they can’t do on their own,” explains Kormos, describing both the portrait experience and the final images produced. The ubiquity of smartphones loaded with ever more sophisticated cameras means that anyone can snap a selfie in front of a skyline. It takes an intimate familiarity with a place, coupled with carefully applied professional lighting and capture techniques, to create something that makes people pause and look more deeply. It’s that extra element for which clients are willing to pay a premium.
To photographers looking to raise their game, Kormos recommends focusing on what you do extremely well and zeroing in on what differentiates you from everyone else in the specialty. Building a signature style, concentrating on a superlative client experience, demonstrating an absolute expertise in your chosen area—those are the pursuits that separate the premium providers from the masses. “Stay focused, but don’t pick a niche just because you think it’s popular,” says Kormos. “Instead, follow your instincts to a genre that appeals to you. You have to be naturally drawn to a genre to be really successful in it. Once you find that, stay on point.”
“If you want a high-end business, portray it that way. A lot of that has to do with branding. Good logo design, typography, and aesthetics are important, but so is understanding your client and what they are looking for.”Michael Korms
Staying on point includes developing a unique brand and depicting that brand through a well-designed, optimized web presence that’s focused on your target market. So much of photography business success depends on perception, and perceptions are often formed online first. It’s critical, says Kormos, to build a website that allows you to control what’s being published and how everything is presented. Instagram and other social platforms are great for outreach, but they can’t replace a carefully constructed website that serves as a reflection of your brand. Think about how you’re presenting yourself and your brand, then make sure everything you produce supports that image.
“If you want a high-end business, portray it that way,” says Kormos. “A lot of that has to do with branding. Good logo design, typography, and aesthetics are important, but so is understanding your client and what they are looking for. When they come to your website, what they see and how they see it matters.”
Every piece has to relate to the bigger picture, explains Kormos. Look the part, talk the talk, and walk the walk. That’s an effective brand executed from first impression through the entire experience. That’s a brand that builds confidence. Confidence helps people relax, be themselves, and work collaboratively. The experience is better, the work is better, and everyone wins.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large.
Adapt to ever-changing conditions and client needs while being true to your core values.
It wasn’t a straight shot, but the path she took to portraiture suits Shannon Squires-Toews just fine.