Why Do People Buy Portraits?

“You’re not just a photographer anymore.” The Boss says in a shape up or ship out tone. “You have to improve your sales average.”

“I’ll do what I can.” I say with a nervous laugh.

When I learned to take portraits, I was trained to run the Subjects through the Studio as quickly as possible and move on to the next group. I had a set number of poses I had to take. Sometimes this was easy, sometimes it was hard. After a while it was pretty routine. Selling the pictures was not my problem. But in those glory days of yesteryear I was slightly better at taking portraits than the rest of the crowd and my pictures sold.

Of course, I didn’t know those were the good old days at the time.  I started out shooting on film with a long roll camera. It would be about five years before everyone switched over to digital. Another couple of years after that when everyone started using their cell phones to take pictures. A year or two later professional photographers started showing up on Craigslist that would sell you a CD for $75 with a couple of hundred images on it. Now it’s more like a $150 for the CD, but I can still find people selling the CD for $35. Let’s just say you get what you pay for.

Back in the old days part of the Sales Pitch was to tell the Subject that our prices are about 40% of what it would cost to go to a local Studio. Even then no one we were shooting went to a ‘local studio,’ they went to Wal-mart or Sears or their Uncle who owned a camera. We still sold a lot of pictures.

So now I roll into town and setup my little studio in some church. We have maybe ten or fifteen names on the appointment list-in the old days it was more like forty or fifty. It’s hard for me to look at list with fifteen names on it and think of it as a Full Schedule, but that’s the way it is. So I now have a smaller pool of potential buyers to deal with. At least two or three are little old ladies or little old men that won’t buy anything. One or two will be young families that won’t buy anything. The rest will be our bread and butter-older couples that still see some value in a studio portrait and have enough money to pay the prices we are asking.

A good Passer will be able to get at least a couple of hundred dollars out of people who show even a hint of interest-and they will be able to generate that interest in the first place. With our prices, even a handful of portraits can quickly run into hundreds of dollars. I’m not a great Passer-I’m not really a people person.  Part of the reason I found Joey L so compelling in his workshops is that he’s not much of a people person either-but then, he spends a lot of time working with models and actors.  They’re used to people bossing them around all day and understand why they are having their portrait taken.

I’m still doing Directory Shots, still doing Assembly Line Portraits.  For the most part this is not all that bad, it’s just not all that good either.  I’m making my living from Photography, which more than many ‘professional’ photographers can say.  Would I rather be shooting movie posters and the covers of best sellers?  Sure, but I’m not even sure where to find that road, let along go down it.

My more immediate concerns have to do with selling portraits.  My job is commission based, so if I don’t sell anything, I don’t make much money.  When I first started I had a few pretty good sales right off the bat.  My second or third day on the Pass Table I had a $750 order.  I have several good days after that with total sales over $2,000.  I kept my numbers up for a couple of months, than I hit a string of bad shoots-not enough names on the sign up sheet, mop up days filled with people who didn’t want to be there, and places where people got up and ran when they saw our prices.  That’s a bit discouraging.  Somewhere along the line I pretty much surrendered to my fate and started thinking about the future after this gig.

I’m still thinking about the future, I still want to move beyond the world of Assembly Line Portraits, but for now I have a few weeks worth of work ahead of me and it would be nice to make some money for a change.

The Boss worked with me a couple of days last week at a Shoot where I was not having much luck.  She ran a $200 average while I was running closer to an, oh, $24 average.  Her sales pitch is a little different from mine and she does a good job of interacting with the people.  So it’s back the basics for me.  I’m re-learning the original Sales Pitch I used during those first few weeks and I’m going to shoot a few more images.  Put some of these fancy new portrait skills of mine to work and see if they preform as promised.   I certainly like my own self portraits taken with the new lighting patterns-but again, you don’t really make money in the Camera room-you make money in the Pass room.

The Photography part is where the fun is, where my skills are at their sharpest, and where I feel the most comfortable.  The Sales part, well, I feel pretty comfortable, but I’m just not having the success I would like.  So I’ll go back to what worked before and see if I can get back on track.


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