Mini Session Mistake

The Mini Session Mistake – and how you can make them work for you.

I’m sure this will ruffle a feather or two; however, if I feel it strongly, I tend to speak it.  I posted this on my personal Facebook page recently.

“$50 mini photo sessions [including files] —– you ladies want to be paid the same as men in the workplace? You screw yourself over left and right…… you’ll never be treated equal until you make good business decisions and act like you deserve or are capable of being treated equal.”

Harsh, right?  I know, it is……. and it came from the depths of me somewhere, the frustration of seeing where our industry has gone…… Hear me out…. I truly want to help.

For years, the portraitist photographed clients in a custom way.   We weren’t mass producing or cheap.  That market was already handled by Sears, Walmart, Picture People, and JC Penney.   We set aside 1 to 2 hours of time and worked hard to create a boutique-style experience that was tailor made for each client, creating a one-of-a-kind experience for a BIG fee.  I know many newer photographers would gasp to know that custom photographers in the Baltimore area generally had portrait sales of up to $20,000 for each client.  I know you probably don’t believe me, but that’s okay.  My most common portrait sales years ago were between $3,000 and $9,000.  I wasn’t the five-figure photographer, but that’s because I was a digital photographer.  The die-hard filmies were bringing in the larger sales with giant wall canvases even custom painted for enhancements instead of PhotoShopped, custom framed to perfection, and all the materials were expensive, thus the hefty price tag.

Fast forward to about 6-8 years ago, and custom photographers were bombarded with so many clients that they could no longer fit all their holiday portrait customers in.  We were all booked up for holiday portraits from July to December, 10 or more clients per week.  Those were insane times.  That was before the market became oversaturated.

But that is when the mini session was birthed…. out of necessity.

The idea of a mini session was to be able to fit even more customers in but just for holiday card sessions.  The session fee was small, but there were strict boundaries.  The photographer would only shoot a couple of images, and the client then purchased holiday cards which the photographer was able to place their logo on the back of the cards creating a beautiful visual advertisement.  It was a win-win for all.

Somewhere along the line, the purpose of the mini session became blurred.

Fast forward to today.  It’s amazing to me how lit up my newsfeed is with photographers offering super cheap mini sessions right now.  The problem, however, is the majority are not creating any boundaries for their minis, the purpose being just to drum up business because they are not booked enough and are desperate for cash flow.

From my observations, the majority of photographers are charging $25-50 for a “mini session” and then giving 20-30 or more digital files with that price, some even allowing multiple clothing changes and 30 minutes of time per customer.  What can you actually accomplish with that business model?

30 minutes in consultation/scheduling with client (emails, phone calls, etc.)

30 minutes for the session.

60 minutes for the uploading/culling/editing (I’m being kind here, many spend longer than that) of those 20-30 images
DSC_5315ANotice I did not count travel time or gas money, because at this moment, I’m going to leave that out, hoping that the photographer scheduled at least 10 clients that day to make it worth their while. Two hours of the photographers’ time for $50 (again, I have seen lower priced minis than that).  Most think – that’s $25/hour woohooo!  That’s where you are wrong.

  • Did you use any props for that?
  • Your camera, even if it was a birthday present, needs to be depreciated and divided among your photo sessions.  Same with your website, your software, your computer, your lenses, your memory cards, your insurance, your licensing and memberships, etc. etc.  I could go on and on.
  • Take out your 50% in taxes of whatever is left over  (What 50%???  Yes, 50% – you are self employed, I’ll do an article about that too).

What began as $25/hour has now crept down to minimum wage…. or less.

Let me ask a question.  How many $50 mini sessions does it take to make the same amount from a one-hour custom portrait session?  I personally charge $1,500 per portrait session (I will go into my pricing model in another article which I do not believe fits everyone’s business, and that’s okay).  It would take me 30 mini sessions to equal my one regular-length portrait session.  Which begs the question, would I rather book 4 custom portrait sessions per month or 120 mini sessions per month?  First, in this state of oversaturation of the industry, I doubt at this point, ANYONE can book 120 mini sessions in a month.   I’ll take the 4 clients thank you very much ;)

I’m not going to tell you not to do mini sessions.  I’m not some horrible ogre that is out to ruin your fun.  I just want to help you understand pricing for profit, and how to have business success.

 

CAN MINI SESSIONS BE PROFITABLE?

Yes, but let me back up…..

Unfortunately, new photogs are justifying their low prices because they don’t understand that minis should come with specific boundaries, upselling, or even loss leaders (which are not a good idea generally speaking in a biz climate such as ours currently)….. so they don’t understand pricing and structuring for a profit. All they see is $50 price and justify themselves going cheap year round. And they definitely don’t understand cost of living (COL) vs different areas…. there are those in Balt/DC/NoVa charging cheap and their COL is astronomical… just because someone in the middle of Nebraska that they admire charges cheap, doesn’t mean they should be even cheaper in a big city cause they feel unworthy.  New photographers see photographers that they admire and who appear incredibly successful doing inexpensive mini sessions, but they don’t necessarily see that the successful photographers are putting boundaries on their photo sessions in order to remain profitable.  Most just look on the surface and think “oh, they are only charge XX for a photo session, well I’m way newer than they are, so I can’t charge that for my minis”.

HOW TO CREATE A MINI SESSION SUCCESS

BOUNDARIES…… I cannot stress boundaries enough.

Here are two suggestions:

1.  Low upfront, upsell.

2.  High upfront, all inclusive

Option #1  — Low upfront, upsell.  If you are a salesperson, here’s the model for you.  You hook them in with a low mini session fee, but you have to gamble and rely on a sale after the session.

Low upfront, let’s say $50 as an example (I’m sorry, but if you charge $25, please rethink that in every way).  This includes….

  • 15 minutes of time
  • No clothing changes
  • A family shoot only OR one subject only  (Never promise individual shots of each kid.  Allow them to take on an additional 15 minutes for $25 for each additional child).
  • One prop/scene.
  • A gallery of 10-15 images to chose from (DO NOT INCLUDE PRODUCT OR FILES)

Now is your chance to upsell.  You have 10-15 images for them to look at.  Now they can order either packages (if you want more boundaries, do packages that only include one pose, or if they want individual poses, individual prints can be ordered.  Do NOT do discounted prints.  Full price prints fit here – please never go below $25 for an 8×10 – there’s an article for that coming as well – personally, my price is $85 for an 8×10)  If you prefer to sell digital files, make the digital files a higher up price – $50-250 EACH digital file is standard, or sell them all let’s say around $500 (that’s about $50 an image, that is not a bad price at all to have a digital image that they can print in any size as many times as they want).   You have now guaranteed yourself a sale – worst case, they may purchase the session and one digital file, so you have now made $100 for those two hours that we discussed above per client, this will give you a much better hourly rate – more like $25/hour after your expenses come out.  THIS my friends, is a better hourly wage for a business owner.  However, be careful. If you are going to try for in person sales, you have to compensate yourself for the time spent doing in person sales.  Most photographers choose online galleries for this type of situation – make sure you watermark your images very well.

 

Option #2 – High upfront, all inclusive.  If you are NOT a salesperson and would rather remain hands off and you are not a gambler, you want to insure your sale, this is your model.

High upfront, let’s say $250 as an example.   This includes…..

  • 15 minutes of time
  • No clothing changes
  • A family shoot only OR one subject only  (Never promise individual shots of each kid.  Allow them to take on an additional 15 minutes for $50 for each additional child).
  • One prop, one scene
  • 5 images digital download (this comes to $50 per image), no product.

Here’s a tip:  You can upsell in this type of situation too which could be more profitable than option #1.  Promise 5 images for digital download, but show 10-15. They can choose which 5 images.  Then, you can give them an “all files” price which will bump your $250 up higher, or optional purchasing product through you in addition to their 5 digital images.

 

 

The usual disclaimers:

Do you do mini sessions?  No.  I have honestly never done mini sessions.  There were times I thought about it when things got a bit slow, but my hesitation was that my brand does not mesh with mini sessions.  I’m out to create a custom product and work with individual families to create customized portraiture that is tailor fit to the individual.   I always felt that if I did mini sessions, I would not only be compromising my brand, but also customers would no longer book full sessions, but wait until the mini sessions happened.  Frankly, I also do not trust myself with mini sessions.  I know how I am.  If I don’t get “the shot” that I am looking for, I will sometimes run longer during a session.  If I made sure I got “the shot” that I wanted and ran longer, it would quickly turn from a mini session to a custom session, and there would be no purpose for customers to come to me for regular-length sessions, and then I would just be losing profit in the long run.

Would you ever consider mini sessions?  I don’t know.  At this point, no.

If you were to do mini sessions, what would your structure be?   For my market in the Baltimore area, I would charge $500 would include 20 minutes of time (no clothing changes), 5 digital images included, but I would show 10 images, and an option to order product or more files as well.  I would spend no more than 10 minutes editing those images.  I would need at least 5 mini sessions booked at one location with 10 minute breaks between clients, no props, no individual shots – it’s either one family or kids together, upgrade for individual shots.  This would guarantee myself $2,500 for one day of work which would inevitably be a weekend, and my weekends away from my family are priced premium.  The digital download any product purchase handled automatically through Pixieset which takes a cut of my product sales, but would be well worth it not to take any more time away from me.

Work Smarter, Not Harder