by Mark McCall
I have to admit. I still think this is nuts… “Volume photography is your biggest money maker.” Those are not my words. Those are the words of my accountant. Going over taxes a few years ago, she was amazed that I was in the 8th year of my studio lease on Broadway in Lubbock, Texas, shooting the same things I’ve always photographed: weddings, bridals, seniors, commercial work, a few preschools, and three sport leagues.
But it was Accountant Betty who enlightened me. “The overwhelming majority of your money is coming from your volume jobs. You’re making a lot more per hour shooting a preschool than portraits.” I’d never thought about it before, but seeing numbers on paper was a real shocker. If I had invested xx number of hours into THIS instead of THAT, I’d be up $10K for the same number of hours. A light went off in my head.
What if? – What if I could take the jobs that were paying the most and design a shooting/workflow process that would speed up the entire production? What if I could cut overhead costs in the process? For the record, I didn’t want to just do undergrad photographs. I wanted to focus on the preschool age, none older than 5 years… preschools, daycares, early learning centers and parents’ day out programs. Basically, any child under 5 years of age was my target market, and lots of them.
The background wouldn’t be just a plain, uninspiring look but rather an interactive themed set. Cowboy Days, 50s Drive-In, Route 66, Gone Fishing, Tailgate Party were some of the themes I came up with. But I needed a plan: to spend as little time as possible in shooting and production, with easy set up and fast tear down, and simple, flat lighting. Inexpensive props came from garage sales or thrift stores while lab prepping the images was courtesy of Photoshop’s Batch Editing feature. This was not going to be award winning photography, just simple “momma loves her baby” type of photography.
How am I going to market that? – Over lunch, I happened to glance at a pile of post cards in that day’s mail. There were postcards from pest control companies, carpet cleaners, lawn guys, and local restaurants. Interesting. “They wouldn’t be mailing out these things constantly if they didn’t work,” I told myself, and we did this in the ‘90s with seniors. So I was familiar with the concept.
I was concerned about watering down the reputation I’d built for my studio name after 20 years in business. McCall’s doing school photos? I addressed that by creating an alter ego, a new name, a new logo, and a new phone number. “HallMark” became the new brand. I designed a postcard in Photoshop and saved it as a template so it could be updated regularly. Next, I found a mailing list online and started mailing regularly, every six weeks, starting mid-July. The calls started coming.
Here’s where it gets crazy. When a school calls, they usually don’t book for either fall or spring. They’ll book for both. So, I thought, “I bet I could get into these schools if I had a Santa for yet a third visit to the school during the year.” IT WORKED! I had no idea it would take off the way it did.
When a new school calls, I book them for three visits: Fall, Santa, Spring. About 2/3rds of them have me come back for cap and gown images (kids graduating into Kindergarten in May) or I photograph them when I’m there in spring. Three of them have me come back in the middle of summer. Preschool photos in JULY?! That’s just nuts!
Santa is the biggest money-maker of them all and he’s the best tool you have to get into schools. We use Santa two ways: schools and pop-ups at local venues. Venue pays Santa when we’re doing a pop-up. We pay him when photographing schools. Santa has his own postcard mailed to schools starting September 1st. We create the “Storybook Santa” look and feel using Photoshop’s Bath Editing feature. Photoshop will magically create the storybook look autonomously on every image of every child.
Santa will agree to work for a fraction of his normal rate because we’re booking him at a time when he won’t be getting any other work, 8am to 10am, occasionally at 11am, on weekdays. I’ll have him booked Monday through Friday for six straight weeks starting November 1st. For Santa portraits, we raise the price of each package just a few bucks, deleting the least expensive package from the order form. We are with each child less than a minute.
Artwork is done using Photoshop’s Actions palette and Batch feature. Photoshop will carry out the artwork to each image, save the file, then open the next image. This is a bit of an oversimplification but if you haven’t used Photoshop’s batch edit feature, you’ll find it under File>Automate>Batch. Create your artwork action first, then batch it on all of the images from the school.
Almost all of our school images have a blank sign placed strategically into the scene. This is for two reasons. First, placing the name of the school on the sign gives them brand recognition and administrators love it. But it also gives you a chance to make an extra $10 from each order. Parents can opt to have the child’s name placed on the sign instead of the school. About 25% of the parents opt for the rebranding. Again, we’re using the batch feature in Photoshop to place the name of the school on each sign.
There are a few things we’ve learned about this genre of work. We can control HOW parents pay us. Want more cash payments? Use round figures, ie: $40-$50-$60. Non-round figures will draw more check and credit card payments. Proofs slightly outsell pre-pay, but that’s not why we do proofs. The workflow with proofs is so much easier for us and the school. There are less mistakes and late orders are easier to process. Also, seeing images before purchase makes Mom happy. Preschools are trending away from owner/operators. Now most of them are owned by corporations. When you book one, you’re most likely to book multiple schools.
A typical workday goes like this:
- Arrive at the school at 8am. Bring donuts for teachers.
- Shoot for 1-3 hours, depending on how many kids
- Pack up, head to the studio.
- Download images, cull to two best images. Create proofs using any contact sheet design software.
- Print proofs on a Fuji DX100.
- Staple each to an order form. Place them in a Tupperware style shoebox. Drop off at school for distribution, no later than 2pm the same day.
- Arrive 5pm at next school to set up for the following day’s shoot.
2021 was my biggest financial year ever, even with Covid, and 2022 looks to be up about 30% over that. What I love about this type of work is that it’s very compartmentalized. I know what I’ll be doing each hour of the day. I’m off by 5:30 every day, spending more time on hobbies, my home, and time at the lake. We’ve spent more time in the boat than we have in years while making more money than I ever have in my career. For Christmas, I sent my accountant and her family to Vegas.
Mark was 2014 TPPA President and is the author of TPPA’s Print Competition Guide Book. Mark represented Team USA at the World Cup of Professional Photography in 2020 and was on the Certification Commission that wrote the PPA Certification Exam. Mark owns a boutique studio in Lubbock, Texas.