High School Seniors + Sports

Senior Portrait Savvy: Three Businesses on Clever Branding for the Millenial Generation

September 29, 2016

By RF Staff

Senior portrait photography once largely consisted of formulaic, mundane studio shots of high school seniors, often complete with drapes or tuxedo tops. Many school yearbooks still require that kind of uniformity, but in some pockets of the country, parents are seeking more. They’re investing hundreds, even thousands, in elaborate photo experiences to capture the look and personality of their teens just before they fast-forward into adulthood.

Many teens, especially girls, are not only on board, but lobby for particular shooters. “In cities like Dallas, it’s like a rite of passage—it’s like wedding photos,“ says Claire Anderson, who is based in South Florida but also owns a portrait studio in the Dallas area. “It’s a huge deal who you go to for senior pictures.“

Doting parents are more than willing to open their wallets for products like wall art, coffeetable books and more, including digital images. They may not generate as much revenue as prints, but they work hard as viral ads for photographers. Social media is so powerful for photographers in this niche that it fuels a large part of business growth.

Digital images are key to the experience, too. They may not generate as much revenue as prints, but they work hard as viral ads for photographers. It’s not breaking news that teens love to share snaps of themselves on social media or that their parents—who sign releases permitting photographers to broadcast the images—do their own share of sharing. Social media is so powerful for photographers in this niche that it and the word of mouth it generates fuel a large part of business growth.

We spoke with three senior portrait photographers who share some common attributes: they each stumbled into the specialty, use branding on their websites and social media that appeals to girls, and have built thriving businesses. They’ve also mastered the challenges inherent in working with teens and their parents.

Photo © Claire Anderson

CLAIRE ANDERSON: Finding Success, Then Starting Anew

Claire Anderson was photographing weddings, families and newborns (while also working in graphic design) when her sister asked her to take her senior photos. Anderson did, and then her sister’s best friend asked, and more requests started coming in. Within a year, Anderson was in the position to not only photograph full time, but also to specialize in the senior portrait niche she found to be so much fun and uplifting.

Four years later, 26 senior ambassadors help represent and promote her Dallas-area portrait studio, Clara Bella Photography—mainly through social media but also with promotional “rep cards“ the ambassadors can give their friends. The cards are one perk of the program—which has different sign-up levels, starting at $495—and feature individual model portraits on one side and a stylized group model shot on the other. Models receive cash back for every friend they refer and Clara Bella gives a free “BFF“ session to the model with the most referrals.

“It’s a win-win scenario for us and the girls because they refer their friends," Anderson says, “and also get to be a part of a fun and memorable experience where they get to meet girls similar to them from other schools."

Two years after she started photographing seniors, Anderson had a waitlist of more than 40 clients. But when the opportunity came to move away with her husband, first to Los Angeles and then to South Florida, she brought in a partner to handle clients in Dallas, and two more shooters joined later.

Now Anderson is building another business from scratch and is using a different marketing approach with her Claire Anderson Photography studio, which she opened in January 2015. Because interest in senior portraiture is more subdued around Miami and Palm Beach than it is in the Lone Star State, she markets herself as a teen photographer who shoots not only senior pictures, but also other teen portraits, like Sweet 16 sessions and Quinceaneras.

Her new studio doesn’t have senior model representatives, but she does rely heavily on social media to market her Florida business to both teens and their parents. She calls it “the tricky part and the fun part, because you have to be able to relate to both.“ Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter help her reach teens, while Facebook helps her reach parents.

Anderson also finds that reading social posts helps her learn more about her clients and the shops and salons they frequent, and she collaborates with some of those businesses. She recently photographed a model wearing clothes from a boutique, and both she and the shop used the photos to cross-promote themselves on Instagram.

Another useful tactic has been providing what she calls “strategic complimentary sessions“ to clients who can help her grow her business with teens at particular schools. “It’s like planting little seeds,“ she says. “For me, my time is money, and that’s how I’m spending my marketing dollars, per se."

Photo © Claire Anderson

Meanwhile, she likes using her camera to make teens feel good about themselves. She gets emotional recalling the time a mom told her she had changed the way her daughter looks at herself.

Of course, sometimes a teenage girl has a different view than her parents of what it means to look good. “It’s a fine line and it comes down to posing,“ Anderson says. “I’m in Miami, so girls are going to wear bikinis, but I’m never going to oversexualize them or put them in an inappropriate pose. I always keep in mind that for these parents, she’s their little girl.“

Advice from Claire: Reaching a Balance between Teen and Parent

  • Have them bring multiple outfits that showcase their individual personality. Parents will usually want something more formal, but the girls may like ripped jeans and a tee. We tell them to bring both.
  • Capture all of their expressions. While we love a good “soft smile,“ we know parents want to see big smiles and laughter. We try to capture a good balance so Mom and Dad and teen get what they are after.
  • Be personable, professional and confident. Mom wants to know they are dealing with a professional, and the senior will feel more comfortable with someone who they feel “gets them.” We send questionnaires to our seniors beforehand asking fun questions like who their celeb crush is, their dream job and their favorite song, so when we meet we can talk about something that interests them.

Photo © True Creative Portraits

TRUE MOUA: From Hobbyist to Sought-After Professional

True Moua wanted nice pictures of her son when he was graduating from high school, so she bought a Canon Rebel off of Craigslist and learned how to use it in manual. She started posting casual pictures of her family on Facebook. People noticed, wanted her to take some photos of their own family members, and began telling their friends. “By that summer I was shooting people I didn’t know, and charging,“ Moua says, “and I started a business.“

Over the next year and a half, she took all kinds of images—of weddings, babies and families—but she discovered she was happiest photographing high school seniors. “I love senior pictures because my clients truly want to be here,“ she says. “They’re excited and I feed off their energy.“

In 2014, she quit her job as a dental assistant to focus fully on senior portraiture. Today, she photographs local teens and others who drive distances to see her in Onalaska, Wisconsin. Boys still come in, but most of her clientele are girls now, and selling the idea of a senior photo to daughters isn’t a challenge.

“Senior pictures are a big part of their senior year,“ Moua say, and in fact, some local schools will allow seniors to use photos taken by independent photographers like her as their official yearbook pictures. “I just have to sell the experience I’m offering,“ she says.

Photo © True Creative Portraits

Indeed, while parents come to Moua for the photo products, there are other drivers for teens. “The kids love coming and having the experience with us of being pampered, having great pictures, being put on social media—all of it,“ she says. “It’s the whole package for them.“ Clients can opt to have Moua’s hair and makeup artist work on their hair and use, among other things, airbrush makeup. The makeup creates a more natural look, she says, and also greatly reduces her need to do blemish touch-ups in post-production.

As an added bonus, Moua likes to give her clients some behind-the-scenes raw footage, like a few clips of them walking or laughing. “It’s just kind of fun,“ she says, though she stays away from creating longer films, unsure that parents would make the investment.

Moua benefits from her clients’ passion for social media. It’s her sole vehicle for marketing, and many of her posts feature recent shoots and short shout-outs to her young subjects. She posts on Facebook and Snapchat, and, like Anderson, she invites people to pin photos they see on her website and blog to Pinterest. Still, about 90 percent of her teens find her studio, True Creative Portraits, through Instagram—generally when they see pictures of their friends she has posted.

As important as good marketing and photography skills are, Moua knows they must be coupled with other abilities, like being able to communicate well with parents and subjects, and having a great degree of patience. “We’re working with teens, and they don’t always listen or do what they’re told, so being patient is important,“ she says. “Sometimes they’re just looking for someone other than their parents to guide them."

Photo © True Creative Portraits

Advice from True Moua: Creating a Year-Round Add-Value Product

Being a natural light shooter in the Midwest, business is slow during the winter season. Nevertheless, I found a way to have sessions all year long to bring in consistent, reliable income with what I call my All Season Sessions, an hour-long session per season for high school seniors. Most of my sessions are done in one day, and the All Season Session is the only session I shoot throughout the year. Besides allowing us to incorporate all the gorgeous seasons we have, parents love it because it captures their child’s growth inside out throughout their senior year. It also allows me to start marketing to the next graduating class early because we start the session in the fall or winter of their junior year. More sessions also result in higher sales because clients have three times more products to order from.

Photo © Pink Fly Photography

MISTI DAVIS: Building Bonds with Local Teens

Dallas-based photographer Misti Davis also has a little sister to thank for introducing her to senior portraiture. The session wound up completely shifting her attention. “That moment just clicked where I was like, ‘Oh, I like this, I like working with teens,’“ she says, “and then I dove head first into it.“

It was a deep dive. In 2011, Davis stopped photographing kids and families, having focused on them for about two years, and dedicated her time to shooting soon-to-be graduates. Back then, she had to educate her ideal clientele about why her sessions—which involve hair, makeup and a fashion-oriented slant—were a better investment than standard studio portraits.

Today, Davis doesn’t need to do much convincing anymore. “Now I feel like girls are at the point where they don’t know many people who don’t get [senior photos] done,“ she says. That’s especially true if they want to use a picture in a yearbook ad, or if they’re going to rush particular sororities that request a headshot as well as half- and full-body photos.

She once advertised in programs for high school football games and dance performances, but they didn’t generate a great return. To be the photographer that seniors pick, Davis needed to get clever about marketing the services of her studio, Pink Fly Photography. Now, she relies largely on social media and a model program.

The 15 girls who are accepted into her Pink Fly Fam program help promote her studio during their senior years. They get to be part of a stylized, editorial shoot that Davis puts together. The resulting images are featured in a magazine for potential clients and on cards the girls can give to friends. The models can also post the group images on social media. The program has two fee levels: $250 and the more popular $400 option.

“I don’t want them to ever feel like they’re totally being a salesperson for me,“ Davis says, “but if I provide a great enough environment for them and positivity and we have a good little community, it gives them something to talk about in relation to me. It doesn’t have to be just about how great the senior pictures are. It’s that they’ve got a connection with who I am, and I have a connection with them, and they want to tell people about that.“

Davis herself posts recent portraits on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook, and she uses social media to build her own connections with prospects. “I think that girls really want to know more about who they are hiring for senior pictures as well as what it’s like,“ the photographer says, “so I definitely post behind-the-scenes images as well as give them a small peek into my personal life.“

Davis’s clients come to know and trust her, and she recognizes that if she wanted to, she could use her business as a gateway for other photography opportunities.

“Honestly, if you can do weddings and seniors, you are going to make it huge, because I do have a lot of these girls coming back to me who are engaged and they’re asking me about wedding pictures,“ she says. “As much as I would love to jump on that bandwagon, I know myself as a photographer. I’ve tried weddings before, and I just don’t think they’re for me.“

That’s okay: Davis is based in one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation, and that means her pipeline of smiling seniors won’t be cut off anytime soon.

Photo © Pink Fly Photography

Advice from Misti Davis: Getting Teens to Engage On Camera

  • Don’t go straight into taking pictures. Spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of your session chatting with the senior, explaining how it will go, giving posing tips, and asking them if they have any reservations or insecurities. This helps break the ice and gives them a better idea of what to expect during your time together.
  • Remember: Teens love music. Bring a small portable speaker and let them play their favorite music station during the shoot. How can you not relax and have fun with your favorite tunes playing?
  • Show your seniors what you’re capturing. It encourages them to see around two or three images from the back of your camera throughout the session because it’s assuring to see that the images are looking amazing.
  • Talk, talk, talk. Being quiet will just worry them that something is wrong, and make it awkward and uncomfortable. Constantly chat and connect with them while you are shooting and make sure to compliment them on how great they are doing. 
  • Use movement. Having the teen walk, play with their hair, dance, spin around, or interact with a prop lets them do something that may feel more natural to them than standing posed, staring at the camera.