The Business Of Children’s Portraits

2006 Shutterbug: The Business Of Children’s Portraits
By Maria Piscopo, January, 2006

shutter_coverJudy Host ( only started her business 12 years ago but today you can find her working either in the home of a celebrity creating her award-winning portraits or in Africa documenting conditions in Rwanda and Uganda. By the time you read this, she may be in Ghana and Kenya or traveling to Cape Town, South Africa. Photography is actually Host’s second career (she worked in the banking business for 20 years) and when she turned to her passion, it turned out to be working with families and children. 

Host is also very dedicated to helping children and in September 2005 helped launch the website “Project to End Poverty.” With her heart-appealing portraits of the children at risk (you can find the link on her website) Host intends to make a difference—not just in the lives of her clients but in the world. The “Project to End Poverty” will fully launch in 2006 with a line of products with profits directed back into job opportunities and poverty relief—especially for children. She got involved when founder Lawrence Koh saw an ad Host had placed in CA Image four years earlier. 

picture1Despite her busy schedule, Host continues to teach. She is also a member of Professional Photographers of America, from whom she holds a Masters and Craftsman degree. She addressed the Professional Photographers of California/Western States Convention in 2005, and will travel to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in 2006 to present to the Professional Photographers of Canada. 

Starting out in her own neighborhood, Host advanced in her new career very quickly. Because so many of the photographers I meet in my own workshops have the same beginnings as Host’s business, I was curious to ask her about her business and marketing approach that have made her a success today. 

Shutterbug: What is your current marketing plan to bring in children’s portrait assignments? You seem to use a lot of networking and referrals. What about direct mail? 

Judy Host: I started mailing for my Baby Program portrait session package about nine years ago. I mail out 50-70 cards a month. I only mail out one time to a customer and it is more invitation than hard sell. The card is a beautiful watercolor of a baby and introduces the program. They can check out my website prior to calling. I prefer to talk price on the phone, before meeting with them. That way, when they come to my studio, they are ready to book a session. The rate of return is over 1 percent. Only one new client is needed to cover the cost of the mailing, including the cards, but it also gives me a chance to build a long-term relationship with that client (SB note: and these relationships build repeat business). I’ve designed my business this way because I prefer to do less for more. 

picture2SB: Where do you recommend photographers shop for targeted mailing lists such as the one you use for your Baby Program? Also, do you design and produce your own mailers? 

JH: I designed and wrote my own marketing program—the card is produced by Jonathan Penney in New York. We wrote the inside copy explaining my Baby Program (a series of three sittings) and it is mailed out when the baby is about 3 months old. It truly is designed as an invitation and is hand addressed with a live stamp. I buy from an outside list based on zip codes and birth dates; I use List Service Inc., a compiled list service. 

SB: What other marketing tools are important to build your business? 

JH: My website is changed usually every two years. I get wonderful feedback on it, so I know I’m moving in the right direction. The balance of my business is strictly referral. I joined a small business networking group several years ago. It keeps me in touch with what is happening in my community and has been a wonderful source of referrals. A lot of my work is showcased in the local businesses and my name has become recognizable. I also donate my work to the local school charity auctions and this has become another great source of referrals.

SB: You had already been working—quietly, I might add—in celebrity homes creating children’s portraits.

JH: I was selected by the Hollywood Foreign Press to include a portrait session in the presenter gift box for the Golden Globes in 2004 and 2005. That was followed by documenting a private Golden Globes viewing dinner hosted by InStyle and Warner Brothers and creating images that were featured as part of the event’s decor.

picture3SB: How does your work with the Golden Globes and your work in Africa help to market your children’s portraits? They seem so far apart yet you make these two worlds work together. 

JH: My work with the Golden Globes and InStyle magazine gives me an edge over my competition. It also helps me increase my prices. As a perceived value, I have become the photographer who photographs the families of celebrities. The venture in Africa adds to that perceived value. It also gives me an additional product to sell while trying to do something good for others. Giving back is very important to me. 

SB: What is it about your approach and your style of doing children’s portraits that has made you so successful? 

JH: I’m told I have the patience of a saint. I’m very low key when I work with children. I’m always trying to calm them down or just watch what they’re doing. Once we get to a location, and the appropriate props are placed, everything becomes what a child will do naturally. My style is very true to the children’s nature. I try to make it as real as possible. The comments I get from the parents are that the images look just like them, not staged or stiff. When the mom gets teary-eyed, I know I’ve done a good job. 

SB: How much preproduction do you need to get to know the children before the portrait is ready to shoot? Do you prefer studio or location shoots? 

JH: Sometimes I do not meet the kids until the day of the shoot—my rapport with them is instantaneous and I am blessed this way. Seventy percent of my work is on location when I am working with children so they can be free and running around and be really who they are. I like setting them into an environment where I have the light and the setting but they direct themselves in order for it to be real and to capture the moment. I let it happen naturally. Props work great. I will set up a bench, chair, or even a basket and just let them go. Sometimes I will even hide items such as a flower for them to find—it should be fun! This is what really works for me. For the infants, we usually work in the studio and the baby is held by a parent. 

SB: What type of children’s portrait client are you most attracted to now at this stage of your business and what are your thoughts about adding commercial portrait work to your business? 

JH: Right now I’m working on a portfolio with the hopes of getting some commercial work. The market for photographing babies is wide-open and there are very few photographers who do it well. I have quite a collection of images that I’ve been working on for the last three years. It is very different from what I used to do. I love the challenge of continually changing the look of my work. As with all my projects, it’s just one more thing that I do. I love what I’m doing. I love photographing people of all ages, but especially children. My business plan includes the growth of my core business, photographing families and children, but now I’m going worldwide. My new marketing plan includes photographing all over the world. 

SB: You made a bold move when you contributed your portrait package for a celebrity gift basket program. Besides coming up with something as different and creative as that, what recommendations would you make to a photographer looking to make a career move into children’s portrait photography? 

JH: I would suggest joining photography trade associations. They are the best for those just getting started. It’s a great way to meet people and exchange ideas. You must have passion for the field. Without it, it’s impossible to be good at it and if you’re not good at it, you won’t be able to make money at it. If it is children you want to photograph, you must love working with them. The best part of my day is when a child I’ve been working with comes up and gives me a hug. There just isn’t anything better than that.