©Sondra Laray’s Photography

Small and Mighty

Sondra Miltenberger started her photography business in 2017 as a child portrait photographer. After taking her first wedding assignment in 2018, she became a convert to the niche. Business took off quickly. But when she and her family decided to return to their northern Michigan roots, Miltenberger was concerned about losing momentum on the business development she’d done, especially since they were moving to the small market of South Boardman, which isn’t bordered by a major city.

Miltenberger started the transition by reaching out to wedding vendors throughout northern Michigan, explaining who she is, what she does, her connection to the area, and how she partners with other wedding vendors. Miltenberger’s commitment to sharing referrals and advocating for other vendors resonated. It helped that she brought a sophisticated style that incorporates a mix of personalized candid photography and signature dramatic portraits made with off-camera flash. She started picking up referrals for clients who wanted to infuse a higher level of sophistication into their wedding photography. Miltenberger’s Sondra LaRay’s Photography was soon attracting clients in numbers that one might expect from a much larger market. 

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Working in a smaller market requires close attention to the mindset of the clientele while demonstrating the unique value you provide, explains Miltenberger. “A lot of times people feel like in smaller areas the budgets aren’t the same as in a bigger city. To raise prices to a similar level of a big market studio, you have to show people the value they’re going to receive from you.”

Miltenberger sets herself apart not only stylistically but through the service she provides. She makes a concerted effort to get to know all clients and then delights them with little customizations and unannounced extras throughout their working relationship. During weddings, she does same-day edits on a selection of photographs, usually about 20 to 30 high impact images. Then she puts up a big screen in the reception hall and shows a slideshow during the reception. While she usually gets the OK from the mother of the bride, the slideshow is a surprise to the bride and groom, who are typically awestruck at the unexpected display. At the end of the show, Miltenberger’s name and studio info are displayed for a little same-day marketing while the wow factor is still fresh in everyone’s minds.  

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Miltenberger rejects the scarcity mindset that plagues many smaller market photographers who feel they’re locked in competition for limited opportunities. Instead, she recognizes that she’s not the right photographer for every client, and she doesn’t need to be, so she doesn’t attempt to force a fit with clients who aren’t a good match. If she focuses on the clients who understand and appreciate her, then her business will inherently grow stronger. “You want clients to come to you, but you want the right clients to come to you,” she explains. “Because if you don’t vibe with someone, it won’t be a good experience for either party, and the work could reflect that lack of connection.”

It’s a change in mindset from seeing other photographers as competition to viewing them as part of a community, she says. “If someone is looking for something I don’t do well, that gives me an opportunity to refer business to other photographers and build that community. If you do that, there is more than enough work to go around for everyone.”

If the photographers in a community buy into the same mindset, then everyone stands to benefit. They can find better clients, generate good revenue, and do different kinds of work. They can foster opportunities to second shoot for each other, teach each other new skills, bounce ideas off each other, and ultimately raise the standard of photography for the entire market.

©Sondra Laray’s Photography
©Sondra Laray’s Photography

Miltenberger has experienced the trend toward smaller, more intimate weddings that has become prevalent across the country. On the surface, smaller events could create a drag on wedding photography rates. For Miltenberger, however, they represent an opportunity. She explains to clients that her packages are based on the time involved and the images she delivers, not the number of people at the event. Smaller events allow the photographer to spend more time taking photographs and interacting with people at the wedding, she says. They also provide better opportunities to capture the kinds of images that people care about most—intimate portraits and unique images of loved ones.

Miltenberger’s approach to weddings relies on forming personal connections with clients. Through conversations, pre-event consultations, questionnaires, and other interactions, she does everything she can to learn clients’ stories and what makes them unique. The emphasis on forming connections goes a long way in a small town, and it also helps her understand clients so she can personalize her image creation. “I want my clients to feel something when they look at their images,” she says. “I work hard to learn their story, and I take what I learn and use it on the wedding day.”

©Sondra Laray’s Photography

Miltenberger includes a free engagement session in all wedding packages so she can get to know clients and they get a sense of how she works. It’s a great warmup for the wedding day, and it provides advance intelligence for Miltenberger that she uses at the main event. When she brings up lessons learned during the engagement session and other interactions, it shows clients she’s paying attention and making efforts to build a personalized experience. 

The information she learns has a dramatic impact on Miltenberger’s photography during the wedding, but that doesn’t mean she abandons her artistic vision. “My clients book me for a reason,” she says. “If I see something that I feel like they would like, I show them what I’m thinking and see if they buy into it.” When they do, then Miltenberger has the creative license to produce something truly unique.  

©Sondra Laray’s Photography

Sondra Miltenberger urges wedding photographers not to hold back any of the creative genius that makes them unique. It’s only when you know your worth that you can build a business around the value you provide, she says.

“It’s scary at first to jump in because you don’t know what you’ll get back. But if you invest in yourself and your education and you are confident in what you’re producing, go full speed ahead because people will ultimately see the value in what you provide. Don’t talk yourself out of it. If you have the passion, if you learn the skills, if you master your craft, people will follow, and you’ll do amazing.”

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.