A winning portrait business model.

A cropped image of a group photo showing only legs and feet.

Meghan MacAskill is an extremely talented photographer, and this isn’t the first time we’ve featured her work. MacAskill’s love of family portraiture started with photographing her own children. A mother of three, she’s since gone on to establish a successful family portraiture business. We talked with her about what it takes to start—and succeed—in the business. 

My philosophy on photo sessions.

When I was about 10 years old, my whole extended family got together for a family portrait session. My grandparents had convinced everyone to dress up in our Easter Sunday best and drive an hour to a lovely park with a lake to get a portrait of us all together.

On the way to this photo shoot, my mother realized I had worn my ratty, old sneakers instead of my shiny, black Mary Janes. She was furious. I knew I was in big trouble. The photographer simply put me somewhere in the photo where my feet would be tucked behind someone else, and the problem was solved in less than a minute. Still, I was so upset by my mother's outburst, and she was so angry at my poor choice of footwear, that all either of us ever remember when we look at those photos is what a terrible time we had.

The photos turned out beautifully, but we only remember how we felt that day when we look at them now.

This is the key to being a successful portrait photographer: Clients will remember how they felt and the experience they had on the day of their photo shoot with you. The photos will merely be a reminder of that, so no matter how technically accomplished the lighting was, how perfect the composition, how meticulously posed they are, if your client is not enjoying themselves, they will hate the photos later.

It shouldn’t be your client’s job to get their child to look at the camera, smile, or have fun. That’s why they hire you! You can’t hide behind your camera and expect families to laugh together, or all smile at you, or give you a real expression if you’re not the catalyst. You must make the experience enjoyable for them. Stop worrying about the perfect setting and worry more about the family dynamic and how you can bring that into your photos of them!

Your clients will love the photos you produce when you take the time to get to know them and what they love about their family. Then, capture that.

Why attitude counts.

My style is very interactive. I am talkative, funny, interested, silly, loud at times, and from the instant I meet a new client, I treat them like an old friend. There is no awkwardness, no breaking the ice. I jump right in and start playing peek-a-boo with their kids and asking them about their childbirth stories. I love people. I love hearing about them, their family, their job, their life. I want them to be comfortable enough to relax and show me who they are in the course of our shoot.

I also really love kids, and with three of my own, I understand when kids don't behave—in fact, I expect it! So when that inevitably happens, I roll with it and reassure the parents that their child is so much better behaved than so many kids out there, and we make it work by setting up a great candid moment or figuring out a way to get their child involved in the shot.

Family portraiture is not about perfection. It's about the beautiful imperfections that make us who we are. It's about capturing those imperfections and those wonderfully real moments in a setting and experience where we feel happy and connected. When you combine a fun and joyful experience with fantastic photos to show for it, that’s a powerful combination that will keep your clients coming back for more.

The problem of pricing.

I used to offer one option for every type of session except weddings: One price for newborn sessions, one price for family sessions, etc. However, I noticed I wasn’t being paid accordingly for the time and effort I would spend on one newborn session versus another. My clients seemed happy because I would charge them one price and then I was willing to bend over backwards to give them whatever they wanted out of their photo session.

The unfortunate part is that the person who was getting the short end of the stick was me. I was spending additional time on some sessions to get the shots that client requested or to photograph their baby with every family member, and I was only getting paid my basic fee. It just didn’t make sense!

The problem of prints.

Next, my clients were not buying prints. Why not? I offer my clients the option to buy the high-resolution digital images, and they almost always do. This bothered me not only because I wasn't making a profit on those prints, but it wasn't doing any justice to my work to have my photos printed at the drugstore. Photographers are artists, and to have our work printed at budget labs doesn’t convey the full beauty of our art. I didn't know how to combat this; I’d tell my clients they can purchase prints through their proofing gallery on SmugMug, and I’d show them different print options. They just weren’t pulling the trigger.

So I decided to include a print credit in the price of all my packages, and I raised my prices accordingly.

It’s invaluable for my clients to have photos I produced on their walls. It’s a built-in reminder that they love their photos, that they love my work, and that they want me to photograph them again soon.

The secret of a clean pricing model.

I also changed my pricing model. I now offer four different packages to gently steer my clients to purchase the two middle ones. The first and fourth packages are there for particular clients who want more or less. When my client is looking at the four packages I offer, they’ll see that Package #1 is a very basic package. It comes with a short time stipulation, much like a mini session, and a small print credit.

Then Packages #2 and #3 include more time, more coverage (different groupings, more detail shots, etc.), and larger print credits. Package #3 also includes outfit changes, multiple locations, and an album.

Then my largest package, Package #4, is my VIP package. It includes all the bells and whistles—a whole “day-in-the-life” session where I spend the entire day with my clients' family/child photographing their personality, activities, dynamics, and expressions. It includes a much larger print credit, a bigger album, and a very large price tag.

The point of this package is not to get people to book it. If they do, that's awesome! The point is to show what you CAN do, and what you’re capable of offering. It makes people feel like you’re a true professional at your craft if you’re able to offer such an amazing experience; and, even though they can't afford it, they feel more confident in you knowing you could do it for them if they could. It also makes the second and third packages by comparison look very affordable.

You may notice that digital images aren’t listed on any of these packages. Technically, they aren’t. I don't advertise that I offer digital images, but when my clients ask about them, I say that with Packages #2–4, the digital images are my gift to them. I have priced my packages high enough that I can comfortably give away digital files. By telling my clients it's my gift to them instead of saying it's included in the package, now I’ve made the images a bonus instead of something that’s costing them more money.

I’ve found that this new pricing model has worked like a charm. The vast majority of my clients have opted to go with Packages #2 or #3. I still do, on occasion, have someone select Package #1, but when I do I don't mind because I’m meeting their needs and getting paid well for my time.

From start to finish.

My business is 100% referral-based. I rarely blog. I stink at SEO. I hardly ever book a client from giving them my business card. I book clients when they see photos I have taken of their friends or family members and they instantly want photos like that of their family. My clients are also my biggest cheerleaders and always become really good friends. They send everyone they know my way because they adore my personality and the photos I’ve given them. I have a beautiful website with SmugMug that has been customized from top to bottom. My website is a huge marketing tool for me. People who see my website are always impressed, and it truly sets the tone and shows them my style and impressive work.

My client relationships almost always begin with an email. Somehow, they have made it to my website and have used the contact form there to send me an inquiry email. I answer every email personally and respond with pricing information, availability, etc. My pricing isn’t listed publicly on my website. I do this for several reasons:

  1. I want the freedom to change my pricing based on factors like timing, location, and client, and
  2. I want clients to actually contact me to discuss pricing so I can explain things rather than having them land on a pricing page and only see a number with a dollar sign.

I will spend anywhere from 15–30 minutes over the course of time between initial contact and our actual shoot purely on building the relationship with my client—emailing or talking on the phone about dates, locations, questions, wardrobe, tips, what to bring, etc.

At the shoot I will spend anywhere from 30 minutes to all day taking photos, depending on the package they’ve selected. On average a newborn session will take 4–6 hours, a child portrait session will take 1 hour, and a family portrait session will take 1.5–2 hours.

I process my photos in Lightroom, and I edit every image I give my clients so they’re print-ready. I usually will take between 500–1,000 images in the course of a session and provide my client with only 150 or so finished images. I do basic editing on most of the images, but I will do artistic edits on 20–40 of my favorite images from the day with some black-and-white conversions, antique actions, texture—whatever I feel the image needs. Editing will take 2–3 hours for a newborn session and 1–2 hours for a child-portrait session or family session.

My clients are allowed to ask for additional editing, and I will do it at no charge unless it gets crazy. I reserve the right to charge money when clients ask for too much in-depth processing. So far my clients have all been very respectful of this, and I haven’t had any instances of out-of-control editing requests.

I use SmugMug’s Events feature whenever my client has selected a package that includes an album so my clients can pick their favorites. After the photos are posted and I have provided them with their event-page information, I ask that they select their 50–75 favorite images; when they’ve done this, I begin work on the album using these favorite images.

I design my albums using Aperture. I have a very clean and classic style when it comes to my album design, and Aperture’s book-building software meets my needs. I have created many albums in Aperture, and I use these past books as templates but then go in and adjust or create new pages to fit the photos my client has selected. Bay Photo is a print lab for albums as well as prints, and I simply adore the Pacific albums. I like both their full photo-wrap cover and the covers with the photo and partial leather wrap.