Techniques from the Masters

Today's post comes from the book Professional Portrait Photography by Lou Jacobs Jr. In this book he profiles ten professional photographers to learn the secrets that have helped them achieve success in every aspect of the business. Here is an excerpt from Lou's profile of photographer Vicki Taufer about the photography studio she co-owns with her husband Jed. This book is available from and other fine retailers.

Describe your studio
We have a 6,800-square-foot studio with a lot of window light in three camera rooms. Currently V Gallery is operated by Jed and myself with the help of three full-time employees: an office manager, a graphic designer, and a salesperson. We employ a second photographer part time, and my sister Michelle does retouching, bookkeeping, and is webmistress.

Our studio was designed and decorated to look and feel like a boutique so clients might feel our fees were worth every penny. Recently we’ve expanded the studio by over 3,000 square feet to create Haven, our educational retreat. The space also doubles as two more camera rooms. In the last two years we’ve hosted over a dozen workshops, and we plan to do about twenty more over the next eighteen months.

Jed and I have made sure our roles are well-defined. I am the primary photographer, and I mainly shoot in the studio, usually without an assistant. I take care of most (brand-based) marketing for the studio. Occasionally I take Jed with me on location. He’s a jack-of-all-trades in charge of everything technical.

Do you have a philosophy that guides your approach to fine portraiture?
My philosophy centers around making sure clients are comfortable and enjoying the session experience in an atmosphere where they can relax and be themselves. This is an important part of my style and may even be my defining attribute. We love to hear that a husband or father has enjoyed his time with us. That’s exactly what “fine portraiture” is all about. It’s more than beautiful lighting, posing, expressions, or backgrounds. It’s an experience.

Describe your approach to scheduling.
Most of our sessions are shot Tuesday through Friday with a few on Saturdays. We reserve several weeks in the year to attend or speak at photographic events. We would like to take more time for ourselves, but we become overwhelmed with business opportunities. We realize taking a break has its advantages; many of our best ideas originate away from the chaos of the studio when we see things from different perspectives. Some of our best creative conversations occur when we can think without distractions, but in the last few years, time off has usually been a day or two tacked onto a speaking trip. This is when we take most of our personal pictures. Images from Italy are all over our home and studio.

Were your early business expectations realistic?
I was pretty aggressive when I created our business plan, but I didn’t really know what to expect. Starting a business was fairly easy, but managing it effectively was a completely different thing. Coming to that realization forced us to think about both the short-term and long-term effects of our decisions. And the most important decisions were who we hired to work with us. Our employees are central to our business, and managing people is very challenging for me. Jed has helped a lot because he has a tactful way with handling certain situations.

A key benefit of working with your spouse is filling in the gaps for each other; he or she can also provide support. One person’s strengths can help to offset the other’s weaknesses. From an emotional standpoint, a huge challenge for us is dealing with fear. It pops up out of nowhere and as our careers have progressed, using fear as a motivator has been a major sign of growth and maturity for us. It’s definitely easier said than done, but as time passes, dealing with fear becomes an almost normal part of the business process, and it isn’t that scary.

How do you approach posing?
As opposed to formal posing, I tag my style as “unposed.” I see myself as the conductor of a symphony. I try to offer limited guidance and suggestions at a session, because I want subjects to do most of the “work” themselves. Sometimes I’ll demonstrate what I want by posing myself, but I rarely touch my subjects in order to pose them. I’ve found that I can achieve a natural look more easily if I leave most of the movement and posing up to them.

What strategies do you employ to communicate with your subjects and elicit the desired expressions?
I spend much of my energy throughout the shoot just talking to and encouraging clients to make them feel comfortable. I’m not talking to distract them but to encourage them to open up and relax. Jed has helped me quite a bit as he is very good at read ing people. If I’m having trouble with a family or even a small child, I’ll ask him into a session. He has a way of making people laugh and open up.

Smiles. Often the easiest way to get someone to smile or laugh is to tell them not to. Or ask for a fake laugh that usually turns real. This works for all ages. I get some of my favorite images this way. With shy people I pay close attention to help them get comfortably involved. However, some people will never be at ease being photographed, and as an antidote, I offer the most pleasant experience possible.

How do you promote your studio?
We promote our studio through two main concepts: relationship marketing and event marketing. Relationship marketing is when we work with other businesses in the same market niche and display images in their stores. We also build relationships with the owners and employees. We send them business cards and gifts for the holidays. We photograph their families so they can fall in love with the experience we offer. We advise following up on a regular basis. Our best displays are in women’s and children’s clothing boutiques plus spas and hair salons.

We also do event marketing, which gets people in our community talking about our studio. One of our biggest annual events is Girls’ Night Out. When we host this event on a February evening, twenty-five vendors sell everything from handmade jewelry to clothing and mini neck massages. Each vendor pays $50, brings food, advertises the event, donates an item to the 250 gift bags we give away, and donates a large item for a raffle. The proceeds are given to a charity. V Gallery promotes new products and offers special prices on frames and sessions booked. Of the average 300 women who attend, thirty will book sessions. If you don’t have a large studio
space to host such an event, share the costs by hosting with another business in the same niche market.

Web Site and Blog. Both web sites and blogs are great marketing tools. My sister handles them in-house. We have considered outsourcing some of the web site, while maintaining control of content. V Gallery also offers four to five limited-edition specials a year for Mother’s Day and Christmas, which includes holiday cards. Year round we offer the Bebe Collection; my associate photographs a baby three times during the infant’s first year. Clients also buy matted images, collages, and coffee-table books from these sessions. We donate to numerous auctions and charities that agree to return our display. We also donate our time for a variety of nonprofit organizations.

Are there any business details you’d like to share?
The first two years we put our money back in the business, but for the past six years Jed and I have paid ourselves a salary. We also put retirement funds away from each paycheck. It is important to have money saved to fall back on.

How important is a photographer’s personality to his or her success?
Communicating is very important to successful portrait photography. When clients pay for sessions, they expect us to responsibly make them feel comfortable. They expect their portraits to include honest and true expressions. Some clients have told me about negative experiences they have had with other photographers whose personalities seemed indifferent. Being aware of the experience you offer your clients pays off in mutual satisfaction as well as income.

*excerpted from the book Professional Portrait Photography


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