May 01, 2011 — When you think of marketing gurus in the photographic boutique space, the name that most often comes to mind is The Joy of Marketing's Sarah Petty. Perhaps you've attended one of her lectures at WPPI, participated in an online seminar or perused her Web site for a business tip or two. What you may not know is, Petty is also an accomplished photographer that specializes in children, seniors and pet photography.
"When I first started, because I like to take pictures, I said 'Yes' to a lot of different things. But I learned very quickly that when I photographed events and things like that, it wasn't fun. It was more like work. Photographing children and babies wasn't work," Petty says. "It was fun and I loved it. So that's where I chose to specialize knowing that was where my passion was." Of course, as everyone also knows, photographing infants and small children has its ups and downs. "I think the most challenging aspect of photographing children and babies is the window of opportunity—I might have seven minutes to get what I need before they either melt down or need to be fed, etc. The key is speed and being prepared."
Since she often has to work quickly, Petty plans her photo sessions in advance. For instance, studio lights (mainly Photogenic lights and Larson Enterprises softboxes) and backgrounds are set up before the client arrives. "We want to be prepared. When the lights need to go down, we need to get them down quickly; and when we need to get them up, we do that quickly. I like to have a process so I know what I'm doing for each age group," Petty continues.
"For example, when they're 18 months old I have certain things I do with them before their feet even hit the ground, such as playing with toys or a magic chair. Because I know once they hit the ground, my window is mostly closed." Petty's studio is also "kid-friendly" to keep the parents from constantly saying "No" and "Don't touch." "It's hard to get kids in a happy place when parents are telling them not to touch things, not to run and not to do this or that. Our lights in the camera room are mounted to the ceiling so there's nothing kids can break, knock over or hurt themselves with. I tell parents to bring them to play," Petty adds, "and not press them to smile, because the more you tell them, the less they'll do it. And we want to capture real emotion—not just a big smile. So we have to make emotion happen instead of posing it."
What Seniors Want
Petty also has a stellar senior portrait business thanks, in part, to all the babies and children she photographed in the past that have grown up. When photographing seniors (she uses a Canon 5D Mark II; her favorite lens is a 70–200mm), Petty says she can slow down and be creative as opposed to being quick and creative. "It's a different type of photography and it's fun and challenging in a different way." Seniors, she notes, want high-fashion photography where they look good and feel like models. They want the full photographic experience because it's cool and it's a big part of high school. Petty, who's been photographing seniors for about six years, has seen quite a change in this market segment even in that short period of time. Used to be, seniors would walk in, look at a book, choose a pose and the photographer would duplicate that pose. They were then presented with proofs and would choose their pictures.
"Now," Petty says, "everything is so custom, and that's why I think the generation of senior photographers out there today are doing so well. They're not doing the same thing over and over again; they get to use their creativity." Granted, there are still contract photographers working with that tried-and-true format, notes Petty, but more and more studios are delivering an experience that's a far cry from senior portraits of the past. Part of the Petty experience includes using bright colors and fun patterns as backdrops as opposed to only neutrals. Besides providing a fun experience for seniors, the best thing Petty's studio has done to increase its sales the last few years is to include a complementary 30-minute sibling session with its larger senior sessions. The reason for this is, parents typically don't want to purchase a wall portrait of just one child (the senior), but will purchase one of each of their children.
The senior experience also includes some additional computer work not always necessary with younger children. Although Petty says she's not a fan of over retouching and making subjects look perfect, some retouching is necessary. "For retouching, we use Portraiture, Nik Filters and Photoshop, along with actions from everybody under the sun, including ourselves," she says. "We like to pop the curve if we have bright color; we like a slight vignette; and we like to experiment with different types of color and fun looks that are more dramatic or playful." One of Petty's favorite ways to add some zip to images is by using a Larson Enterprises' ring light she purchased a couple years ago, which creates a shadow around the subject. "We shoot through the middle of it to create a really fun look," Petty says. "Typically, we use it with bright colored backgrounds and clothes. It's a way to get an add-on sale—something cool for an album or canvas." Additionally, the studio paints many of its own backgrounds and also utilizes wallpaper scraps, curtains and vintage furniture that is painted and/or refinished for a variety of looks. "We try to avoid doing the same thing year after year," Petty explains.
Joyful, Profitable Marketing
Since Petty's marketing skills were so in demand—and competing heavily with her studio time—she started The Joy of Marketing. "I needed to free up more time to take photographs," she reiterates. "It's really hard to be profitable when you're leaving your studio to speak for three or four days at a time. I created The Joy of Marketing so I could help photographers more from home. We have monthly marketing programs and events, and a lot of educational materials on our site for photographers that maybe can't afford to go to a convention. This way, they can start to learn how to be profitable so they can begin to invest more in conventions and studying with some of the top photographers in the industry."
When it comes to marketing, Petty, who has 20 years experience marketing for both an ad agency and Coca Cola, knows what does and doesn't work. One of the biggest marketing mistakes photographers make, she notes, is looking for an easy answer from marketing. They buy a magazine ad for a year or purchase a template, put their logo on it and mail it to hundreds of people without a thorough strategy. "When they don't get the results they desire, they're disappointed in their investment. Building a database," Petty states, "is your most important asset. People on your database that engage with you will love you; they're not out shopping for the cheapest photographer. If you keep adding people to your database one person at a time then you'll have a relationship and you will have clients. Co-marketing also is a great way to build a database," Petty continues. "By working with other businesses that share your target market you cross pollinate your databases so you're introduced to their clients and vice versa, as opposed to working from a list where no one knows who you are."
Although Petty believes an emphasis on photography is extremely important, she feels it's very important photographers understand the financial part of their business. "I know there are a lot of photographers out there that want to make a living at photography that don't understand cost of sales, pricing, etc., which is going to keep them from being successful. What's cool about our industry is you don't have to have a 30,000-square-foot business with 30 employees to make money. You can make money part-time or full-time, with or without a studio. If you understand your numbers you can be successful at any level and still be profitable. I encourage everyone to get business skills," Petty suggests, "so they can be successful as a photographer because it's a great way to make a living."
For more information and/or to view more of Sarah Petty's work visit: www.sarahpetty.com and www.thejoyofmarketing.com
Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including, Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide.