Portrait Photography’s Missing Middle Market

Let’s get Booked Up!!!

children-photographer-marylandIt’s Spring:  The time of year where photography business picks up after the January-March lull.  For the past three months, we’ve all said to ourselves “it’s almost spring, we will book up in no time.”

For those who have been in business long enough to have seen a profit, even a slight profit, I bet you are wondering where the bookings are.  Yeah me too.

Years back, I watched many defend their prices for the middle market.  “I want to be fair.  I don’t want to price gouge and I don’t want to be cheap, I just want to be affordable and fair and turn out a beautiful product.”  This is absolutely a great thought… an admirable one……….. except that there is no middle market left.

maryland photographerQuick Disclaimer:  I am basing this off of my 12+ years experience in the Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia market for PORTRAIT photography – mostly newborns, children, and families.

I’ve always been one of the more expensive photographers in the area.  I never had trouble booking up my entire calendar full-time until a few years ago when I felt things change and started educating myself to prepare for the future in another area.  Everyone said evolve.  I did.   I still remained expensive, however, but evolved my products to include what the public wanted.

I decided for the past month, I would do a test.  I’d like to share my test with you.

My Theory:  There is no middle market left here anymore.

Upon taking my pricing off of my website, I had a huge influx of inquiries.  I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes every time I would open up my email.  I haven’t seen this many inquiries since around 2006 when I was turning clients away because I couldn’t work 90 hours a week and booking rate to inquiries was about 95% back then.

With these inquiries, I took the time every day to make sure I responded to these potential clients.  I treated each and every one like they were my one and only.   I answered many questions, concerns, and accommodated special requests in full.  I gave them no reason not to book.

I LOWERED my prices for this test.  *gasp*

I created three tiers – the top tier was the only one I have used for the past year.  The other two were the alternative much MUCH lower priced sessions.

  • Expensive Prepaid Digital Session (This has been my pricing for a year now so this remained the same) – included all digital images fully edited, plenty of time, product available if interested.
  • Low-Entry Session Only Price – this included the session time and then they could purchase anything they wanted after that.  I had taken this option off of my pricing years ago because it was too hard to chase clients down for their orders.  They received the satisfaction of seeing the images, but didn’t want to place an order right away.  One thing you know about photography is, time is of the essence.  They must place their order right away, or you will not receive a decent order because the novelty wears off.  That is just the nature of the product.
  • Cheap Mini-Session Price – I have never, in all my years, done a mini session.  I never believed the mini session model fit my product or business.  I do know it has worked for some, and I respect that, but for me, it was never an option.  However, for this test, I was willing to give it a go.   This mini-session included a certain number of digital files, a limited timeframe, and the session.   I was POSITIVE the mini session would book up and I would probably regret offering it.

I gave no reason for a middle market client not to book.  I gave them all three options that  are the most popular requests.

I received gushing emails “Your work really stands out.”  “We can’t wait to work with you!”  “Your work is just what I have been looking for!”

BALTIMORE-NEWBORN-PHOTOGRAPHERFYI:  I did not market this as a “sale”.  I did not market any change.  I left this to be purely chance.  I see I have a lot of hits to my websites every single day, I knew people were searching Maryland Newborn Photographer or Baltimore Family Photographer.  I wanted these to be purely cold call clients who see my work, formed no opinion except that they liked my work, and inquired.

My honest thoughts with this test pricing:

Well, this is awesome.  I should be booking up without a problem.  I lowered my price to make sure I am busy (because isn’t that the knee jerk reaction everyone has?  We think if we aren’t booking, we are probably too expensive).  What if I book up too much?  I have my day job now,  I don’t WANT more than a few clients per month.  I mean, I could stand to get one or two more in the next coming months, but I don’t want too many.   Well, if I get too busy, I will just have to suck it up and deal with it.  But I’m catering to the middle market with these prices, it will be nice to meet some new clients, etc.


The results of 4 weeks of testing –

Number of Inquiries:   33  (whoah right?  It’s been so quiet lately, I was wondering if my email even works – oh it does!)

Number of Bookings:

Cheap Mini-Sessions:   ZERO

Inexpensive Low-Entry Session Only:  ZERO

Full Priced, Full Prepaid Digital Sessions:  TWO

No kidding, my inquiry to booking rate was 6%

Let’s think about these results here.  

This test told me that there is no middle market in this area.   I did everything I could to accommodate the middle market and be fair and affordable, giving myself the bare minimum profit.  Anything below what I offered would have been putting me in the hole.  I’d be “in the red”…. and not turning a decent profit.

Now about those bookings.  Based on this test, here are my options and would be result by taking these actions.  

  • Lower my prices even more than what was involved in this test.   Where would that get me?  That would get me more clients but I would not be turning a profit more than minimum wage.  This is not an option for me.
  • Keep the original higher prices  prior to this test and rely on getting only a few clients per month (as I do now).   This would insure that I would still keep my profit.  Obviously, this is where I will stay because even though the client pool is small, it is my only viable option as a business seeking profit.
  • Cater to the middle market – nope… we just saw that didn’t work.  If the only ones that booked still paid full price, why have the lower priced options?

child-photographer-baltimoreI do want to touch back to the low price option and state – there are ways of profiting through volume.  I am not in that situation to profit through volume because I am pursuing another career and do not have the time to work with volume.   If I were to have chosen the high volume low price model, I would be doing mini sessions galore, but they would have to be at least 10 per day, 15 minutes each, and a set amount of what is included or nothing included and have sales separate.  I’d also not be spending hours on editing – probably not doing any editing at all.  Volume and mass producing cannot be ’boutique style full service’ and vice versa if you want to turn a profit.

And there you have it….  I had a theory and I tested it.  I may continue to play around with different options, and would be happy to share my results with photographers everywhere.  These are definitely things that we should be taking into consideration as we continue to navigate this changed industry.


Another Disclaimer:  Sharing these types of articles leave me at risk of having my clients read them.  I’m okay with that and am about being as fair as I can be….. If you are a client of mine who is looking to book – I will leave this alternative pricing open if you mention this article to me – I know it was not an announced situation, and I’d be happy to extend for you because it did exist, and I gave no warning :D