How to Plan A Photo Session & Create an Unforgettable Client Experience

As a photographer, it’s our job to create beautiful works of art that our clients will cherish for a lifetime. However, as a business owner, we have to do more than just create art for our clients. We have to give them an experience. Something that will leave them raving about their photo session and your business. Give them something will have them and coming back again and again.

Create an photo session experience your clients won't soon forget Image by: Kendra Swalls
Create an experience your clients won’t soon forget. Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Word of mouth referrals are one of the most effective marketing tools a business owner can have. So how do you ensure that your clients will share your name with their friends and family?

Think back to the last time you were so satisfied with a company you were willing to tell others about it. What was it about the company that made the experience so great? Was it the product you received, or was it the service you experienced? More than likely, it was a combination of both.

A great client experience can set you apart from all the other photographers creating beautiful works of art. It is often the little details clients will recall even more than the products they received. A great client experience doesn’t always happen naturally. It has to be designed.

Here are some tips for designing a client experience that will make your business the talk of the town.

The details will set your photo session apart from your competition. Image by: Kendra Swalls
The details will set you apart from your competition. Photo by: Kendra Swalls

Before the Photo Session:

Attentiveness

The first time you receive an email from a client, start looking for little details you can incorporate into your response. I am a big believer in streamlining my workflow. While I have created template responses for client inquiries, I also make sure to customize them each time.

If a bride mentions the venue they are getting married in, I will comment on it in my response. I will also send over a sample gallery from the venue if I have one. Little details let them know from the beginning they are not just another name in your inbox.

Lauren Lim from PhotographyConcentrate, also suggests keeping a questionnaire template handy. In her article, The Secret to Effective Client Questionnaires, she shares a great list of questions which you can use as a inspiration to create your own set. Like me, Lauren also stresses the fact these templates must be personalized for each client.

Photo by Amanda Jordan
Photo by Amanda Jordan

Another interesting point Lauren makes is the importance of making these questionnaires easy for the clients to fill out and submit. She had contemplated having a fancy design inspired template made up that adheres to her photography businesses branding; however, she ended up vetoing that idea. Instead, she simply emails the questions in an email, with no special formatting. By doing so, she made it easier for the clients to view, fill out, and submit the questionnaire back to her.

You can also use web based services such as Google Forms, Typeform, or Woofu.

Recognition

As photographers, and business owners, we can learn a lot from other companies.  I live in a large metropolitan city. The dentist I go to is a very popular dentist in my area, and is hard to get an appointment with. I have considered changing dentists a few times out of convenience, but I keep going back.

Why? The answer is simple: each time I walk in the door, they greet me by name. When I sit down in the chair the dentist asks me about my kids, trips I have taken, and remembers things I have told him in the past. While none of that has to do with how well he cleans my teeth, it does keep me going back to him.

Photo by Seth Doyle
Photo by Seth Doyle

On the MCPActions blog, they shared a helpful list of 50 Marketing Tips For Photographers. There are lots of useful tips on the list, but one that’s especially pertinent to creating a great client experience during your photo sessions is this:

The same principle applies to my photography business. Each time I interact with a client I refer to them by name, and can recall key information related to their session. I use a studio management tool, 17 Hats, which allows me to keep all of my client information neatly organized. Before each session I can review all messages and notes, and I am fully prepared to make my client feel special.

On top of that, using a service such as 17Hats, I am able to save a lot time by automating the way I run my business. They make a really good point on their website

With the time I save from this service, I have more availability which allows me to better suit the needs of my photography clients.

Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography

Preparation

I work with high school seniors and brides who are usually hiring a professional photographer for the first time. They are unsure of what to expect, and a little nervous about the whole process. I make a point to set up consultations ahead of time to meet in person, answer any questions they have, and get to know them. While I have a studio space I could use, I will typically offer to meet somewhere neutral, such as a local coffee shop. It means more traveling on my part, but it’s less intimidating for the client.

Offer to buy their coffee and come prepared to take notes. I prefer to use pen and paper for my notes rather than a laptop. I don’t want to create a barrier between myself and the client, or seem disinterested while they are talking. During these consultations I will make note of little things I pick up on, such as any recognizable brands they are wearing, interests they mention in conversation or particular concerns they have.

Putting in ample time to get to know your clients is essential. It’s important to creating a great client experience, but you’ll also be able to use this information to capture portraits that truly represent the client’s personality. Thus, resulting in a higher quality product.

In the days leading up to the session, make sure you are in contact with the client to confirm times, locations, and answer any last minute questions.

Help ease client nerves with a pre-photo session meeting
Help ease client nerves with a pre-session meeting. Photo by Kendra Swalls

During the Photo Session:

Personality

The moment your client arrives make sure you greet them warmly. I try to arrive early and have my gear set and ready to go before the client arrives. This allows me to focus on my client rather than my gear.

Talking to them during the session will help them to relax. You don’t have to be an extrovert, or the life of the party, to accomplish this during a session. I know several introverted photographers that have great client interactions. The key is to have talking points prepared ahead of time so you aren’t struggling to find things to talk about.

If you are shooting a high school senior and you know her post-graduation plan is to go to nursing school, bring it up. Ask her questions about the school she plans to attend, what she is enjoying most about her senior year, etc. Create a mental list of “go-to” questions you can refer to if you need conversation topics during a session.

Be engaging and give directions to ease client nerves for the ultimate photo session experience
Be engaging and give directions to ease client nerves. Photo by Kendra Swalls

Direction

Unless you are photographing a professional model, more than likely your client is going to feel nervous and awkward in front of the camera. Make sure you are giving her/him lots of direction to help ease the nerves. I will typically model the pose and facial expressions for the client to see how it should look. This helps them feel less awkward because they have seen you do it and know it isn’t going to look weird.

Professional photographer, Jana Williams, has done tons of photo sessions with a diverse group of clients. Her work primarily involves wedding and engagement photography, and she has developed her own personal style of directing and engaging with her clients. I really like this video she made, where she shares some of her best tips for working with clients during a photo session.

Here are a few key takeaways from Jana William’s clip. As you can see, they relate to all types of portrait photography. So even if you don’t plan on shooting weddings and engagements, this is still healthy advice.

  • Encourage your clients with positive reinforcement. Talk to them as much possible so they aren’t left wondering if they are doing a good job. Tell them how awesome they look and how great they are doing. Bolster their self confidence with genuine kindness!
  • Be firm and confident in the directions you give them. If your voice sounds hesitant when you are giving a direction, your clients will notice the hesitation. It could affect their confidence in you as a photographer.
  • Be clear in your directions. As I mentioned before, most of your clients will not be professional models. If you give them a vague instruction like “Put more shape in your body”, they are likely to look at you with an utterly confused look. Show them what you want them to do!

The best compliment you can receive at the end of a session is for your client to say they had a great time!

Photo by Callie Morgan
Photo by Callie Morgan

After the Photo Session:

Appreciation

Your client wants to feel appreciated, and to know the time they spent with you was valued. After each session I immediately send a thank you email. I let them know how much I enjoyed spending time with them and that I appreciate their business.

I also do a quick edit on one or two of my favorite shots and post them to social media within 24hrs. This gives the client immediate gratification, and allows you to capitalize on their excitement. Most of my clients will share the image or tell their family and friends about it. This is the easiest kind of marketing there is.

Presentation

There are several different methods for delivering products these days. Some photographers offer all-inclusive options and deliver digital galleries, while others prefer in-person sales sessions. No matter your business model, it’s important to make sure your product is delivered in a way that not only fits your brand, but helps your business stand out.

When I deliver print products to my clients, I wrap them like presents using colors that match my brand. They love seeing the stack of boxes and ribbons, and opening their “gifts”.  It extends their photography experience beyond the photo shoot, and creates an extra opportunity for me to leave a lasting impression.

There are many options when it comes to custom packaging and you should choose one that best represents your style and branding. For example, DesignAglow offers clean, modern looking boxes in a variety of shapes in sizes. You can also purchase custom embossing to brand the presentation boxes. Here’s an example from their web store:

proof_boxes_design_aglow_08
Custom photography packaging from Design Aglow

LensTheory did a write up on a business that specializes in packaging for creators by the name of Kraft & Jute. The LensTheroy article explains why Kraft & Jute have an advantage in the packaging market, because they offer neutral colors that lend themselves to “complete customization & creativity.”

In fact, that’s what Kraft & Jute was founded on. The business was born out the founders need to have customized packaging for her photography that fit her exact style. Here’s a sample of what you can find there:

photo session packaging
Custom photography packaging by Kraft & Jute

Alternatively, many photo print shops and suppliers also offer custom photography packaging. Check out Miller’s Lab, WHCC, and BayPhoto for inspiration. Many high end print shops will also offer custom packaging. Check with your printing service company to see what options they offer if the idea of one stop shopping is appealing to you.

Following Up

In my opinion, this is one of the most crucial parts of the client experience. Once the client’s time with you is over, you want to make sure you are not forgotten. You also want your client to know you haven’t forgotten about them.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to wait a couple of weeks after their product has been delivered and send them a thank you note and/or gift. Hand written notes, and small tokens of appreciation go a long way in letting your clients know you care.

One of my brides loved Kendra Scott jewelry. I knew this from a conversation we had during our pre-session consultation. She had purchased one of my largest wedding packages so I splurged a little. I sent her a beautiful pair of Kendra Scott earrings. Not only did I receive a lovely thank you email, but she shared a photo of them on social media and tagged my business. That is the kind of marketing you can’t buy!

Photo by Alexander Solodukhin
Photo by Alexander Solodukhin

I also like to keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, so I can acknowledge them on social media or with a personal note. Most of my clients and I become friends throughout the session process and follow each other on social media. I will comment on their images from time to time and keep in touch when I can. Being a constant presence will keep you fresh on their minds. When someone asks them if they know of a great photographer, your name will be the first one they suggest!

Cultivating Repeat Clients Takes Time

Creating a client experience doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to design a workflow and system that works for you and your business. Knowing your clientele, and what they value, will help you design an experience that will be meaningful to them. No two clients are the same, so being flexible and willing to tailor the experience for each client will also set you apart. Clients will be dying to share your name with everyone they know, and will come back to you time and time again.

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About the author

Kendra Swalls

Kendra Swalls is the owner of Paisley Layne Photography, a premier boutique portrait and wedding studio in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. With a background in education, Kendra incorporates her love for photography with her passion for teaching others through workshops, e-books and tutorials.

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