Interviews With Pro Photographers

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Interviews With Pro Photographers

Brian Chapman: One Approach To Family Portraiture

Interview first published July 2007

Would you up-sell your clients to dizzy heights if you knew it would cause family friction at home? Have you thought about the consequences of your clients exceeding their budget when buying from you? And is it even something we need to worry about - surely it's up to our clients to decide what they can afford to spend?

While portrait photographer Brian Chapman isn't adverse to a large sale, he has a problem with hard sales techniques that line photographers' pockets at the expense of another family's harmony. His comments sparked a lot of interest at a recent series of business seminars which he helped co-ordinate with the NSW division of the AIPP, so much so a couple of people suggested that The Working Pro give him a call.

If you visit Brian's website (, you'll see he has a well-established, customer-focused business. He sells clean, stylish family portraiture in North-Western Sydney and obviously makes a good living from what he does. And how he does it.

The following is one of the most extensive interviews we've run in The Working Pro and one that I hope all portrait photographers will read with interest.


After school, Brian studied horticulture, landscape design and nursery management, but his love became photography when he picked up a camera to photograph his assignments. He approached Simon Mitrovitch from N&T Photography in Sydney and worked as an assistant after hours. "Simon was a great mentor with an amazing amount of enthusiasm. We'd get to the end of a long wedding when all I'd want to do was go home, and he'd suggest we go and take night shots in the city. He was always wanting to create better images."

Gradually Brian changed from landscaping to photography, shooting mainly weddings and portraiture. Then around six years ago, he attended a seminar where the presenter suggested he get rid of the parts of his work he didn't like (weddings) and concentrate on what he really enjoyed (family portraiture).

Marketing Family Portraiture

Like many photographers, Brian and his wife Kaylene promote their studio at shopping centres with a display and stand, although as the business has become established, more and more of their work now comes from referrals. But to get to this point you need to market yourself and shopping centres worked well for them.

"We had varying results, but kept refining what we did, looking at which locations worked best, which had good traffic flows, what we were offering people and how we spoke to them. I learnt this from being on the stand myself - and yes, they were long, boring days.

"On the stand, I noticed that at the start of the week I would only book one in five inquiries, whereas by the end of the week I might be booking one in two, simply by changing the way we listened and connected with people."

Everyone in the industry knows that the ‘trick' to getting bookings is to have a special offer and the standard for many portrait photographers is to discount the sitting fee. Brian's offer was $20 instead of his normal $95. However, as Brian discovered, this wasn't the real trick.

"When talking to people, we used to focus on the price or the offer and wondered why people weren't jumping at the chance to sign up. Now, when someone approaches our stand, we don't talk about the special offer (although there are signs on the display stands which show it clearly), instead we talk about the photography. I start by asking if they know where our studio is located and then talk about what we do and why we specialise in family portraiture, pointing to some of the exhibition photos and steering the inquirers towards images I think that are relevant to them.

"Often people pick out one of the display photos they relate to, such as three teenage boys leaning on a barn door in a relaxed, fashion catalogue way. Most mums who have teenage boys want their sons to look relaxed, but it's a difficult shot to get, so I explain how I achieve this and why the photo session is a nice experience as well.

"I also talk about the types of prints we offer, the prices and then, at the very end of the conversation, I finish up by saying that today she can buy a sitting voucher for just $20."

Approaching the encounter this way, Brian is able to talk about his work, identify what the client is looking for and then, when interest is aroused, make the offer when it is more likely to clinch the deal.

"The mistake I used to make was making the special offer the highlight of the conversation, rather than the bonus at the end.

"It's also very important for me that we explain our prices and that we are not deceptive in any way. We tell customers that this main size wall portrait is $390 or the smaller one is $120. We're always up front with prices and I find that this qualifies our customers as well."

Brian sees that some photographers in the industry don't give out their price lists, perhaps because they're worried that people will think they are too expensive and won't book them. However, generally his experience is that very few people tell him his prices are expensive - and those who do are usually comparing his prices to a minilab.

"Sometimes I even agree with them that it could be seen as a lot of money for a piece of paper with dots on it, but we will do a good job for them and all of our work has a 100% guarantee. They can ask for their money back or a re-shoot at any time. No catches, no fine print!"

Prints With Or Without Frames

Offering a 100% satisfaction, money-back guarantee may seem to be a risk, but Brian says for the very small number of clients who take him up on it, it's a risk well-worth taking. "I am so thankful for those customers coming and telling me if we get it wrong! It gives us a chance to do it again and do it right. We're not after a quick job where we get as much money as we can out of a client. We want a long term customer who will also provide us with referrals to other customers."

Brian mainly sells wall prints and the most common size for a main Wall Portrait is a 20x30 inch print which costs $390. This is an unframed, unmatted price. Framing, Brian believes, is a separate purchase which can add another $200 or so to the print being ordered.

"We don't include framing for our prints for a couple of reasons. Some customers have their own framer, so there's no pressure to use us, and it also means they're more likely to spend more on their prints because they can delay the purchase of the frame for another time.

"Kaylene looks after the framing side of the business and we offer a full range of services which will usually add $500 to $600 to each sale. We also ‘educate' our customers that the framing decisions should be done once the finished print is back. We use a special, low bench on which we can lay the prints, matt and corner mouldings. It's important to match the print with the client's home décor, perhaps picking up colours from their walls, cushions or furniture."

Referral Systems

Brian says he's tried a number of referral systems and all rely on giving each and every client a fantastic experience. Unless you treat your clients really well, no matter how attractive a referral system may be, unhappy clients simply won't recommend you to their friends.

"We're actually trialling a new referral system right now, but in the past we've given our clients a referral form when they place their order. We explain that a lot of our work comes from referrals and then say that if they'd like to participate, there's room on the form to write down the names of three friends and, in return, they will receive a set of 20 gift cards [just like you'd buy at the newsagency, except they have a photo of their family on the front]. It's a great incentive.

"We then send a letter to the three friends, offering them a discount sitting fee or other offer. The other great thing about the personalised gift cards is that it has our studios details on the back, so our customers are happily mailing out 20 gift cards to their friends which provides further promotion for us! And they are paying the postage, how cool is that!

"Another incentive if you don't want to do the gift cards for the client is to give a bonus 6x8" print in return for their completed referral form. These items have a low cost for us, but high perceived value to the client. This meant that about 90% of clients were happy to fill in a referral form for us.
"We'd find around one in three of the referred friends will respond, so in effect each client is referring a new client to us. However, it's not enough just to have your clients write down any three names to get the gift. Many clients will ask if they can take the form away so they can check with their friends first. We encourage this because what it is really doing is qualifying the referrals - their friends are unlikely to agree to have their name on the form unless they are interested in a photo session.

"Referrals are the best type of new customer because, in a sense, having seen their friends' photos they already trust you. When they arrive for the shoot, they just put themselves in your hands, whereas clients who don't have this association often require extra time to relax and learn to trust us.
"To have an effective referral system, you really have to look after the original client. They won't trust you with their friends if there's any chance of an unpleasant experience. So, it means you have to treat them really well through the entire process, show them your prices up front and be completely honest.

"Our studio is based on a friendly policy. We don't assume our clients are going to rip us off or have their photos taken and not pay. It's true that on occasion a client won't pay for one reason or another, and when it happens it always takes me by surprise. However, it's important that this ‘one in one hundred' client doesn't change the way we treat the other 99 who are ‘friends'.

Spending Too Much?

Treating their clients as friends extends to the sales process as well. Explained Brian, "I've heard a number of presenters talk about getting maximum sales and that if your client doesn't spend it with you, they'll spend it somewhere else. And when it comes to placing a large order, other presenters say it isn't our responsibility to judge how much a client can spend.

"We have all heard the story of the client who turns up in a beaten-up car, poorly dressed, doesn't spend much and we write them off, only to see them return to pick up their photos in a Porsche! In reality, this is a one-off story, but we like to keep telling it over and over again, a bit like when we brag about our highest portrait sale!

"If you start with a policy that your clients are your friends, then you're acknowledging that these clients are real people and I don't think we should treat real people as just another sale or claim to be ignorant of their situation."

Brian isn't going to stop all his clients from spending up big (he enjoys a good sale as much as the rest of us), but if he thinks clients are going past what is comfortable for them, he will step in and suggest they reduce their order.

"As an example, a wife might come in without her husband (even though we always encourage our clients to come to a viewing session as a couple) and fall in love with the photos. However, I may sense that she is uncomfortable, so I ask her what she's thinking and she explains that her budget is only so much, but she wants to spend double that. I would encourage her to stick to her budget. Why? If she spends double the budget, she'll go home and have a fight with her husband. It probably won't cause a marriage breakdown, but it will certainly add to the family's stress. That's not what I'm about. It's hard enough keeping a family and marriage together these days and I see our photography as a way of helping and encouraging that family unity. As a photographer, I don't need every sale to go up to ridiculous levels to make a good living."

Brian says quite a number of his clients have been photographed by other studios where they have spent $3,000 to $4,000, but they haven't gone back. Perhaps they didn't feel well looked after - or treated as friends.

"I tell my clients I don't want them to buy lots of photos if they're just going to sit in a drawer at home. I'd rather they picked out their absolute favourites and put them on the wall so they can enjoy them. People appreciate this kind of honesty, so much so they will often ask us what size they should buy and if they're making the right selection. The point is, we want our clients to go away happy with no buyer's remorse. It has to be a very positive experience."

Asked if this was a good approach since so many people only have their portraits taken once, Brian quickly remarked that it's a mistake to think this way. "It doesn't matter if they don't come back personally, but whether they send their friends. Some of our clients come back every year, but more often it's every few years, generally for a milestone such as the kids when they are young, pre-teens, then teens and so on. But if you look after them the first time, they are more likely to return and so are their friends. This is so much more important than getting as much money as you can out of one family."

The Photo Session

So what does an average client experience at the Family Image Studio?

"When a client calls us, we ask them if they've already seen our work or are just ringing up to make an inquiry. If they haven't seen our work, we encourage them to visit our website first because we only want people to book us because they like what we do, not because they just need a photographer.

"Assuming they've seen and like our work, over the phone we will explain how our sessions work, how long they take and the types of photos we shoot. We also explain our prices and the fact there's no minimum order and no set packages.

"If they make a booking, we send out an information package that confirms the appointment time and explains what they need to do and bring, and runs through the prices again. We welcome them to ring up and reschedule if the kids are sick or it's raining - there's no point photographing sick children and the sales usually aren't very good if it is too gloomy and cloudy.

"When they arrive at the studio for their photo session, there's a chalk board at our front door with their name on it to welcome them. There are two reasons for this - it prompts our staff to know who's coming in so we know their names, and also it shows our clients that they're in the right place at the right time and that we're ready to serve them.

"We invite them in and have a chat. Often I'll squat on the ground and ignore the parents a bit because it's a priority to bond with the kids. The parents also relax when they see that I care about the children.

"On the shoot we try to ensure that everyone has a great time and a good laugh. I try to break down the barriers so that by the end of the session, most of the families say they've had a lot of fun and that they really enjoyed it. This is very important for the sales later on. Sometimes we will have family members who just don't want to be there, or are going through a teenage rebellion. It would be so easy for us to just say, ‘Oh well, what could I do - they were ugly and uncooperative'! But the reality is we are professionals and it is our job to get great shots every single time. So we have to work even harder to get those clients laughing, relaxed and loving it! I want their experience with us to be fantastic, almost magical.

"At the end of the session, we have a little treasure chest full of lollypops and shells. It's mainly for the younger children, but it's amazing how they will remember it.

"The parents are then asked to fill in their contact details on a form, including dates of birth and email address for our future marketing. We also ask them to sign a very basic contract, simply worded, that says we own the copyright in the images, that the images may be used for promotional purposes, and that there is a full satisfaction, money-back guarantee.

"I used to include a check box on the form which allowed the clients to agree to us using their photos for promotional purposes, but I found that when the Dads completed the form, they would almost always tick no, whereas the Mums would have ticked yes. We men are far less trusting!
"Now, I just include it as part of the contract that says ‘Your photos may be used as part of our promotional advertising to show others examples of our work'. Almost everyone signs it and only the occasional person will question it, but that is usually because they have privacy issues with their job, or they are internet paranoid! We gladly cross out that line of the contract and they sign for the rest.

"Before the clients leave, we book the parents in to view the photos, usually on a week day evening. We offer a number of set times and they choose what's most suitable for them. To help them remember, we give them a card with the appointment date and time and another copy of our price list. I think it's important that both the husband and wife attend the viewing as this is a family decision. These photos will be on their walls for a very long time. Sometimes the men pretend they're not interested, but once they come to the viewing they quickly get involved because they fall in love with them too. The Mums who occasionally turn up by themselves end up saying, I wish my husband was here."

The Sales Session

"Finally, when they are leaving, we suggest that before they return to view the images that they look around their home for suitable wall spaces they could hang their photos. This helps overcome the objection in the sales session that they don't know what size print they want or where they're going to put it. It's all about educating the customer at every stage of the process because many clients have never bought family portraiture before. It's our job to show them how to create a great family portrait and to display it well."

The viewing or purchasing session takes place around a week after the shoot.

"We don't show the images straight away because we shoot in RAW and we also need to edit the images. After some basic exposure and colour corrections, the files are dropped into a folder and opened up in Peter Howlett's ProSelect software. We have also created a series of layouts which are stored as templates in ProSelect.

"Allowing a little time between the photo session and the viewing improves sales. We've found that if the shoot went perfectly, then it mightn't make much difference, but if one of the children was playing up, it does. While we know we can get great shots of children when they play up, it can still be a bad experience for the parents, even if the child is smiling in the photo. However, after a week has passed, the parents don't seem to mind and they often comment that the photos are much better than they expected.

"On the other hand, if you leave the viewing session too long, clients tend to lose interest and it can be hard to get them back for an appointment because of their busy lives.

"At the viewing session, the chalkboard is up again, but this time it says, ‘Welcome Back to the Jones Family'.

"We have a nice theatre set up with lounges, spot lights on framed prints, a digital projector, sound system and a large screen. It's a nice environment to be in.

"I explain to the parents that we will start with a little slide show of all the images and I make sure I tell them how long it will last (around six to seven minutes). I think this is very important because, if you don't know how long the show is going to last, you spend all your time wondering when it will end rather than looking at the images. I also tell them not to worry about writing down numbers because we will do all this later - just relax and enjoy the show.

"After the show I ask them if there were one or two good shots and usually they say there were lots. Then I give them two options. I say we can go through all the images individually and they can select their favourites, or I can show them my favourites which I have already placed into special arrangements.

"I don't want them to choose the first option and most people go for the second."

The ‘special arrangements' are groups of two, three or four photos for which Brian has a range of layouts (templates) stored in ProSelect. It is an easy matter to drag and drop the required images into the layouts, and just as easy to change them around if the client so desires.

"Assuming they take the second option, I show them my layouts and explain that I'm looking for groups of images that work well together. I show them each layout for four or five seconds, just enough to tickle their taste buds, and then move onto the next. There might be ten to 15 different layouts.

"When the last layout is shown, I explain that these were my favourites and did they like the concept. I usually get one of two reactions.

"The first is that they loved all of them, which is nice to hear but it makes the sales process a little harder because they haven't made any decisions. The second reaction is that they start choosing layouts they really like. The first to be chosen by the Mum is usually a large landscape shot of the family with three smaller images of family members underneath.

"My aim is for them to choose five or six layouts that they really like. If they only choose two, I encourage them to look at a few more and, using ProSelect, I can isolate the final choice of layouts on screen and we look at these in more detail.

"Of course, sometimes the family loves the layouts, but wants to change one or two of the photos, so I make a copy of my layout and make changes to that. More often than not our original layout is working better than their's, but I let them recognise this. By the time we get to the third layout, they don't have any changes because they trust what we're doing. This process is important because it gives them control over the decision making process and we're not seen as being too pushy.

"With their favourite five or six layouts confirmed, I then say let's look at the different sizes available and choose one that's right for your home. This is where ProSelect is really great because I can project the layout onto the wall at the actual size of the finished piece. It makes it easy for the family to say it's too big or too small - or just right.

"I show them our common sizes and also point to framed examples which I have hanging on the wall. Usually they go for our ‘medium' size.

"People rarely ask the prices because we've already told them several times, so they're not too worried. This is exactly what we want - we want them to make a decision based on what will suit their home, not on how much it will cost.

"Once they have agreed on the size for the first arrangement, I set up a little shopping trolley for them within ProSelect. I do this in front of them, typing in their name and the order. The price comes up on the screen and I allow them to see it, but don't linger on it. I click the screen to add the print to the trolley and then move onto the next arrangement."

Finishing Up

Every sale is different and so Brian has to judge what the client wants. As the ordering finishes, he might suggest the client would like another print or two for the mantelpiece or as gifts for family members.

"If I see they are starting to order a few 5x7s, I might suggest a Seldex portrait box which holds a series of ten 5x7" prints in 8x10" matts. I also reference other families, explaining that they often place the matted prints on plate easels which they can rotate every month or so, and because the matts are a common 8x10" size, if they are out shopping and they see a frame they like, the print will slot right in.

"And as a final incentive, I tell them that if they order ten prints they receive the portrait box for free."

Note that Brian is not discounting his prints which currently sell for $70 each, rather encouraging his clients to make a $700 order for which he includes a box which costs him around $35. Brian also has other options such as albums and DVDs which are offered after the main prints have been purchased.

"People occasionally ask for discounts, but we tell them that we don't discount our work. If they really push us, I say we can take half the price off, but then we'll have to do half the retouching as well - to which they invariably answer, no, make us look as good as possible! I think it's good never to get into the discounting mentality because once you start it's hard to stop.

"When the ordering is finished, I ask them if they're happy with what they have and if the answer is yes, I press the print button in ProSelect and say, "Let's walk out to get the order and fix it up", indicating that now it is time to pay. ProSelect produces a great order form which includes little images and the price. I don't give them the order form, explaining that this is the paperwork we use to process their order.

"I then ask how they would like to pay for it - cash, cheque or credit card. Most pay in full without question, but if people ask if they have to pay for it now, I say yes please, payment is due with the order if you're able. If they've read the price list and information we provided them, they will know this, but by saying ‘if you're able' I'm indicating that if there's a problem they can talk to me about it.

"We have other options such as debiting their credit card over two months or using the Ezypay system which only costs them about $10 extra over six months. (If any readers of The Working Pro decide to use Ezypay, which we have been very happy with, please tell them I referred you - they will give me a little reward! Yes, they have a good referral system too -

"After payment is made, I explain it takes four to six weeks for the retouching and printing. I also explain that when we get the prints back, if they are not to our satisfaction then they will be done again until they are. Then, when the prints are finally ready, they can come back for a framing consultation." And so while Brian's print prices are excluding a matt and frame, he leaves the door open to increase his sales further with framing.
Reading Brian's approach to photography, you'll see he is not adverse to a healthy portrait sale and gives his clients every opportunity to order what they need.

"However, we do sell a highly emotional product and it is easy to overstep the line, pushing people to spend more than they should and ignoring the consequences of these actions. The old saying, ‘what goes around, comes around...' is true in all areas of life, so it is important that we treat our customers with the same care and respect that we would like our own family to experience." 

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