It takes a certain skill to be able to capture the essence of young adulthood in an image. Senior photographers certainly have their work cut out for them: they have to be in touch with what teenagers want, but also with what their parents want; they have to know how to market to a completely digital client; they have to understand that seniors are maturity mixed with childhood, and they have to be able to portray both.
Senior photographer Holli True has what it takes. She’s grown her Oregon-based business and now also travels around the country, sharing her skills and knowledge with senior photography hopefuls at workshops and expos. We were thrilled to be able to pick her brain about all things seniors!
ShootProof: You’re extremely successful, but everybody starts somewhere. Did you always know you wanted to focus on seniors? How did you arrive at them being your core customer?
Holli: I actually didn’t ever think I was going to specialize in seniors. I had this romantic notion like, “I’m going to be a wedding photographer and it’s going to be amazing.” I started really to advocate for that but I’m a very hands-on photographer who likes to communicate and talk. At a wedding, you’re a fly on the wall. Seniors actually just sort of happened; I was in Vegas and had the opportunity to work with these two girls, and I told my husband, “I’m going to specialize in this because I love it!” That was 6 years ago, and since then, that’s all that I shoot.
ShootProof: Was it a difficult transition, going from weddings to seniors? We’re not too embarrassed to ask — did you make more money shooting weddings?
Holli: I actually make a lot more as a portrait photographer than I ever did with weddings, but I think that’s because I love to shoot, so my business is structured in a way that I’m doing multiple photo shoots, because that’s what I love. If I wanted to be more boutique, then I could adjust my pricing so that I would be shooting less. But I love to be out there with the girls, I love to be busy.
ShootProof: It’s hard to give pricing advice because there are so many variables. But, do you have any?
Holli: My collections are based as an all-inclusive, so I know going into a shoot exactly how much they’re going to be spending with me, which allows me to not overshoot my sessions. I used to go to a shoot, get a beautiful girl and do all these poses and be like, “I rocked that.” Then they would come back with a budget that didn’t support the number of photos that I shot.
ShootProof: That makes sense. So you sell a collection up front, not just a session or a shoot fee.
Holli: Exactly. Pricing is tricky. But I attacked it like a wedding: going into a wedding, you know what those clients are going to spend with you in advance. You know how many hours you’re going to be there, what’s expected of you. I was like, “Why can’t I do that for seniors?” So I did. Now, I have four different collection options: I do printed magazines, an online gallery and a Mobile App through ShootProof, and then they get a handful of prints, because I understand the beauty of printed products AND digitals. They want digitals, but I also think they’re out of touch a bit with printed products.
I do have an à la carte menu. They get what they get, but in addition to their collection, maybe they want to add another album or another magazine. They can upsell themselves from the collection that they’ve purchased as much as they’d like, which is like frosting on the cake for me because it’s basically a bonus.
ShootProof: Do the girls make those purchasing decisions? It must be the parents, right? How do you work with girls AND their parents and keep that all flowing nicely?
Holli: With seniors, they’re usually the decision makers, but mom and dad are financing it. I have to appease both of them. Typically what happens is my clients, the girls, are the ones that actually contact me from my website but then I ask for mom and dad’s email address so that we can all be on the same page. I do interviews with all of my senior models. When I get applicants, I do an interview and the requirement is that the senior model is there, but also a parent or guardian. It’s crucial that parents are involved from day one, so I can say, “Here is the expectation, here is the timeline.” They get all that information so that later, it’s not, “Wait. What are you talking about? What did you sign up for? What’s going on? Who are you?”
ShootProof: You talk about posing a lot at conferences and workshops. Will you share a tip or a trick that maybe you haven’t put out there before?
Holli: Yes! In my in-person workshops, I focus a lot on teaching photographers how to stay in one location and yield multiple, sellable images without moving. I always loved art, and drawing, and sculpting; I learned how the body moves and I think that’s why I understand posing so well; I started to realize that location and posing really are tied together. What I use is a flow-posing method, where I pose a subject one way and just do little adjustments (to the hands, the feet, or the shoulders) in the same location.
So, the number one thing I look for is beautiful light. If I have that, then I will actually stay in that location for a prolonged amount of time. By adjusting the crop, and the angle, and where I am in relation to my client (moving in, moving out, things like that), I can get multiple poses of my clients without ever moving them from that area. So, I’m able to literally get out about 10 to 15 sellable shots in a matter of minutes, versus one great shot here, one shot there and then a handful where I’m like, “Oh, wait, that wasn’t very good.”
That allows the photos to then totally look different, because as they girls are pivoting around me and as I’m pivoting around them, what’s in the background is changing a little bit but the quality of light is not changing and my camera settings aren’t changing. I can stay in the moment with them and work through a series of shots without them feeling exhausted because we’re moving to 25 different places. It’s a better utilization of space and time.
ShootProof: Is senior photography only profitable in certain seasons? How do you keep busy when you’re not shooting?
Holli: I have senior models that are all over the state; the benefit to that is that having two or three in each city gets me into those different markets, which allows me to stay busier throughout the whole duration of senior season, versus just over-saturating where I live.
I also create Campaign Shoots, and they each have a theme, like “Cabin Fever” or “We Are PNW (Pacific Northwest).” My girls have to come to one of them, but they’re free to come to all of them if they like. When the girls sign up with me, they get a ShootProof gallery that stays open for a whole year. For each Campaign Shoot they attend, I load a few photos from the shoot into their galleries and they can have them and share them.
ShootProof: That’s smart, very smart. And do your seniors also use their photos to market for you? Do you do the classic “senior rep” program, or do you put a different spin on it?
Holli: Most of my clients come to me by word of mouth. Most of the girls use Instagram over Facebook these days, and so they post there and others see it and want to know more about their photographer and such. So, social media is a big one for me, and then just the organic word-of-mouth that the girls use. I give them Mobile Apps from their Campaign Shoots, and those are cool because they show them around at school, which is not a place that I can organically be in.
But I don’t ask people to post anything; I don’t beg my senior models or past clients to continually advocate for me. My girls do not hand things out. I don’t give them anything to give to their friends because that’s not something they naturally want to do; they lose them or they get stuck in the bottom of their backpacks. They just talk about me or share their photos on their own because they love the experience so much that they’re happy to talk about it. I have girls that I shot two or three years ago who STILL post their pictures on social media!
I think a huge takeaway is not to create little sales people. Treat your clients and your senior reps really well, and when they are super excited about the whole experience, that’s when your business starts to grow.
Want to learn more about senior photography? Check out Holli’s workshops, guides, Client Organizer, and other photographer goodies.
Ready to take your senior program to the next level? Sign up for a free 30-day trial of ShootProof.
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