Tip of the Week: David Hakamaki on Senior Portraiture

Art and Business in HS Senior Portraiture
Can they Coexist?

There are good photographers and good business people. However, it takes a real talent to marry the two and develop a thriving photography business. Now, throw in the wild card…the fickle high school senior. Ouch!

Over the years, I have seen a number of people attempt to forge into the hallowed grounds of HS Senior Portraiture. Many, alas, are no longer slogging that route. Why is Senior Portraiture so elusive to so many? There is a huge difference between getting a few senior portrait clients and gaining enough clients consistently to have a viable business. It is easy to take photos of a friend, lure someone with a session that will build your portfolio and then give away your images, or charge such a nominal price that you can never break free of the infamous “day job.” What is the secret? Is there a magic advertisement or product that will move you to the next level?

Unfortunately, the road to continued success is a lot of hard work, persistence, creativity and consistency. A successful photographer must intermix art and business together to really make it work. Just being a fantastic artist or business person will not ensure success. You can take all kinds of “creative” HS Senior portraits, but if you cannot sell that creativity and vision, long-term success will be elusive. A healthy combination of artistic flair and business acumen will greatly improve your chances of success.

I run a thriving full-time, home-based photography studio in the middle of nowhere. That nowhere is Upper Michigan: lots of trees, small towns and lackluster economy. It’s not the greatest area to try and run a photography business. I compete with other photographers, part-timers, hobbyists and everyone in between. How did I get to where I am today? I started out in the business world and developed an understanding of smart business practices–marketing, sales, customer relations. Top that with training in photography and the marriage was perfect. My customers are my biggest advertisers. They walk away from a session and can’t wait to Facebook, Tweet or tell their friends.

Once a client walks through the doors of my studio, everything is focused on making them feel that they had the best session ever. Each client’s session is customized for their family. I do not play the “I am the artist, so this is what I will do” card. You also cannot go into a session and try to photograph everything from an “over the top, artsy” approach. That may look great on Facebook or your website, but the client may like the style that you based the entire session upon. In that instance, you are missing the business side of things…what the client wants to purchase. I talk with the student AND parents to see what styles THEY want to see. This provides portraits they will be happy with and excited to show off on their walls. Are you experiencing lackluster sales? If so, then you should look at why the client is only ordering a minimal amount.

I vary the poses and “artistic flair” in each session. I need to understand if the parents (and relatives) prefer a more traditional or artistic style. We then ask the Senior what style they prefer, including smiling and non-smiling poses, coloration and locations.

Often, the more traditional poses and post processing will sell for a large wall portrait, while the artsy poses work better for wallets and unique products. I do not overshoot, which is a tendency of many Senior photographers. Ask any Senior which they would prefer–less images of a higher quality or more images of repetitive poses. I ask each client and the answer is always the former. This limits their expectations of seeing 200+ images. Plus, by photographing less, I save time culling and editing excessive images that will never be considered.

Having a nice selection of images allows me to promote books. This adds to my total sales and allows the client to have a wide variety of images in one location. I capture a series of images that will allow the client to have “so many good ones that I can’t choose,” but not too many to dilute the series. This balance is perfect to advise the client, “Instead of having a bunch of smaller photos, why not put a book together?” This brings a smile to their face and book orders are a regular add-on. Shameless plug time…we love using Fundy’s Album Builder to put our books together. It is a breeze to do the layouts and really keeps my designer efficient. But, since you are on Fundy’s site, you already know that!

What are some final words of advice that I can give to make your HS Senior Portrait business better? Give the client only top-notch images to view, stop and listen to what the client wants, do NOT undervalue your work (you only hurt the industry in general and will never make it financially), use Fundy software for more efficiency and continue to make your business the destination where Seniors HAVE to go to.

Have fun and keep shooting.


David Hakamaki is owner of Cutting Edge Photography in Iron Mountain, MI. David’s studio is a full-time, home-based photography business that focuses on HS Seniors, Youth Sports, Families, Children, Promotional/Travel and Weddings. He is a regular speaker at photography conferences across the U.S. on a variety of topics, including HS Seniors, Youth Sports, Client Relations, Home Base Photography and Rural Photography. David serves on Simply Color Lab’s “Senior Dream Team” and is one of Kubota Image Tools “Champions.” David has a wife and four children, who travel the country in search of adventure.