Sarah Petty: Mom of three young adults, Leah has spent nearly two decades as California portrait photographer.
She started her business as a break from little ones on the weekends and was making great money, 2,000 to $3,000 per session.
But as her family grew up, she wanted more weekend time with them, so she started doing digital files.
She put in all kinds of steps in automation so she wouldn’t have to talk to clients, only to discover that was the worst thing she could do.
She rarely got new clients, was making half what she used to.
When she started to dislike her business and couldn’t understand why it was so hard, she knew she needed a change.
Today, I’m talking with Leah about those changes and her $6,000-plus client order that she recently had.
The real question is, how are portrait photographers like us, able to run a profitable business and still put our families first without selling digital files for cheap and working all the time?
I’m Sarah Petty, your host of the Worth Every Penny Joycast, and I went from a stressed out, overworked mama with three babies to being named one of America’s most profitable photographers without working my kids’ lives away.
Each week, I’ll show you how to find and serve boutique portrait photography clients in a world where we compete with free thanks to everyone having a digital camera in their pocket.
Take the first step to adding more joy and profit to your life by downloading your free photography business tools at joyofmarketing.com/podcast.
Welcome, Leah. Thanks for being here.
Leah: Hi. Thank you for having me.
Sarah Petty: So, tell about your life.
You live in California and your family.
Talk a little bit about that.
Because you’re not a new photographer, you’ve been doing this for a while.
I actually started photography in 2006, 2007, when my kids were little.
I currently have two that just turned 18 and then a 21-year-old who’s at college.
And when they were little, actually the business was great.
It was great because I would photograph, I always liked to photograph at sunset time, last hour of the day.
And I would get to go away on the weekends and get some time for myself and then edit and do all the other work during the week when they were napping.
And it was a really nice thing for me to have for myself.
And when I first started out, I had decent pricing.
I sold product, I got Julie’s at that time.
But then as the kids got older, I got thinking, oh, I’ll have this business and I’ll have more time because they’re going to go to school.
And something happened and I had less time just driving them around doing homework in the afternoon.
And then there’d be sports on the weekends.
And then I wanted to spend time with them.
I wanted to spend time with my kids.
I ended up just doing less and less work.
And somewhere, probably 2012 to 2015 started doing more digital files and less product and did less and less clients, boundaried myself out.
I did a wedding here and there and I kept taking work, but no marketing, no business.
And I would just say, “I’m just not good at marketing or business,” which I wasn’t.
But the last year or so I’ve been really wanting to get back at it.
And I wasn’t getting clients and I knew I had to make a change.
So I went on my website.
I started working on my website, looking at my pricing, which is all digital file.
And I just thought to myself, I’m like, I’m doing the same thing over and over and I’m trying to make changes, but I keep getting the same result every time.
Sarah Petty: Well, let me jump in there a second, can I?
Because you were doing, serving in a way.
You were offering prints and products and you were getting good size averages and then you went back to digital.
Did you feel like the digital model, while maybe you had more flexibility because you were doing it in the day, at some point did you go, this is actually more work for less money?
Leah: I’m pretty good at that.
So that really wasn’t my biggest problem.
But I think my biggest problem was that I didn’t understand how 10, 12 years later, how my sales could go from 3,500 to $4,000 to like $600.
I was like, how, why?
And I couldn’t seem to ever figure out how to price digital files.
So I didn’t have the work, I’m pretty quick when it comes to photographing and editing.
So that wasn’t really, I know that that’s a lot for a lot of people and I was really resistant of the work that it would take to do in-person sales.
But now that I’m doing them, they’re not too much work.
They’re actually a joy.
Sarah Petty: And here’s the thing for everybody listening is that Chick-fil-A made a better fast food.
Chick-fil-A, I think most people would agree is probably a higher end to McDonald’s, but it’s still fast food.
You’re not going to ever charge what Ruth’s Chris, the steakhouse charges when you’re at Chick-fil-A, so you could charge a little more than McDonald’s.
I mean, there are higher priced fast foods, but when you’re offering digitals, you’re still in that same box as a digital file photographer.
Even if you’re excellent, even if you’re really good and you’ve got a system in all of that.
So you found yourself in that trap because sometimes people say, well, I’ll just keep charging more for my digitals, but there’s a ceiling on that, friends, there is a ceiling on that.
People aren’t going to buy steak at your drive-through window.
They’re just not.
Leah: And I think that when I did get into Boutique Breakthrough and I ended up really honing in on my what and honing on my why, and then really thinking about digital files, ’cause my argument used to be that digital files are worth so much because you know can take that digital file and you can print it huge.
So that’s worth a lot of money.
So I would always argue at having a bigger price for digital files when I would get into debates with people.
And my one friend who I’ve talked to about this a lot of times she’s like, you can’t charge that for digital files anymore.
And no one is doing that.
They’re all charging.
So I was trying to evaluate my pricing and I knew one of the problems that I probably wasn’t getting more clients is because I didn’t give them anything real, nothing tangible to look at to hold.
So I was like, how can I introduce some product and still keep these digital files?
And it’s like doing back flips and somersaults in your brain because it doesn’t work.
And it finally hit me that digital files aren’t worth anything because they truly do just stay on the hard drives.
And I’ve been talking to clients and none of them really printed except for just a few here and there.
I think there was a lot being at this point in my career and photography to come to that realization that things weren’t actually happening with the work I was making was, it’s really disheartening.
It just wasn’t fulfilling anymore.
So I think just so many things clicked when I got into Boutique Breakthrough between the worth of digital files, my worth, and just a structure where I could go from my old model, which was talk as little as possible to my clients to really having feedback.
I have real feedback now.
I talked to them the whole time.
I understand where they’re at.
I know the kids’ names before I get to the session.
Sarah Petty: Were you scared of feedback before, even as good as you were?
What were you telling yourself about, I don’t want to talk to people because I think a lot of photographers are that way.
Leah: I don’t know.
It’s so funny because I feel like this whole process has flushed me out so much that I don’t even know.
I don’t even know why I was so afraid to talk to them, but I was certainly afraid to talk to them.
I did not want to do that at all.
Sarah Petty: How have you changed after doing Boutique Breakthrough?
Do you feel confident now just talking to anybody?
Leah: Yeah, I feel much better.
I think that the writing exercises and the really figuring out your what and your why and being able to talk to that, it wasn’t just the process of figuring out how to talk to other people.
It was the process of how to talk to myself.
It made me figure out, it just was eye-opening.
And I’m a really resistance one to journaling, so I don’t know why.
It’s just a little hangup I have.
But whenever I do it, things clear up.
So the class made me do that, so that was great.
Sarah Petty: Because you had told yourself, I read something, you wrote that you had told yourself you didn’t like business, you didn’t like marketing.
Leah: No, no.
I still don’t.
That’s not going to be my favorite part.
I mean, that probably will never be my favorite part, but I know that if I want to do the one, then I have to do the other and when I learned that marketing could be talking and then I figured out how to talk, that part is starting to click for me and make sense.
And I think I can, it’s continuing to put myself out there, which is still a part of me that I think I need to work on figuring out why it’s hard for me to put myself out there.
It’s just part of the journey and figuring out what’s going on.
Sarah Petty: And you went through a phase where you tried to automate all the communications?
Leah: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah Petty: So you just wouldn’t have to talk to people.
Leah: Yeah, whatever way.
And I have to say that I was so scared of in person sales and after I went through my first one to get the feedback right then is just amazing.
It used to be you’d send off the gallery and you’d maybe get, oh, good job.
Oh, we love it, whatever.
And now it’s like I had the senior portrait session, she was like, I don’t like that.
And I knew why immediately why she didn’t like that.
So then you can go right back in and shift and change what you do or just take it in a note.
That happens three times then you’re like, oh, maybe that’s not the right thing to be doing.
Maybe next time I should just skip that prompt.
Sarah Petty: And there’s so much more love coming at you than negative.
I think that’s probably an exception.
But I’m so proud of you for saying, I’m glad I know that.
Because if you don’t know it, you might do the same thing over and over again.
Now you won’t do that again.
You’ll do something different and get different results, which is so amazing.
And you just cut it, boom.
And then it’s out of the picture And you go into the other things.
Sarah Petty: So you’re Julie, talk about your Julie, will you?
Leah: All right.
Well, I think where I had gotten in my business was mostly just friends, especially now that my kids are juniors, and I know a lot of seniors.
I’m getting people saying, oh, I’d like you to take my pictures.
And I didn’t have a business structure.
I had no structure.
And I was floundering it like, what should I charge these seniors?
And seniors aren’t going to have the money, or no one’s going to want to spend the money on senior portraits.
And a woman that I knew that she was a friend, not a close friend, but enough of a friend that she said, I really want you to take my daughter’s portraits.
And I said, oh yeah, sure, let’s take them in January.
We had an idea of when it was going to be, and in my mind, everyone who asked me for photographs who I know are going to want them for close to nothing.
That’s just what I thought.
We’re in the middle of Boutique Breakthrough and it’s like two days before the session.
And I just learned the first phone call and I just worked through my what and my why, and it was making so much sense to me.
And I texted her and I said, I’d love to hop on the phone.
I’m taking this business class.
I want to run through some things with you.
And she’s, oh yeah, I’d love that.
So we got on the phone, I did the whole phone call and told her all about it and hadn’t gotten to the pricing, was getting close to the pricing.
I said I’ll do it how we discussed, but I really feel like that would be disservice because I’d really like to do this program with you.
And she’s like, oh, absolutely.
I’m totally into it.
Blah, blah, blah.
I mentioned the pricing.
She’s like, Leah, we’re all just working and business owners, and the price doesn’t affect me at all.
I don’t want a deal.
So I think the biggest thing I learned from that was that I make assumptions.
I think what other people want and I think what they’re going to want to pay.
And sure, there’s people out there that have a similar mindset, money mindset that I’ve had that will respond and not be who I want to work with.
But she ended up becoming this my most beautiful first full process client that I could have ever asked for.
We went through the whole process and I actually did give her 25% off because she’s a friend.
I did, because it was my first one and I said
Sarah Petty: It’s okay. I know.
Leah: But it still ended up a total before the 25% was like $7,600.
She just kept ordering.
I was like, what was going on?
Sarah Petty: Don’t you have conversations in your head of, is she serious?
She’s getting into thousands here.
And I was writing it all down and then I was like are you sure?
I was trying to act like I’d done this before and it was quite the experience.
And then I walked out with cash in my hand.
She just pulled out the cash and just gave me cash.
It ended up being a little over 6,000 with the 25% off, but yeah, I just worked with her fully, I mean, all the way through.
And I even found an installer to hang the artwork and I was like, I love this.
I’m going to go out and serve the clients all the way until it’s hanging on the wall.
Because I know for me it’s hard to do those things.
It’s hard, you don’t even want to have frames just sitting and waiting for your husband to have to hang them up.
So it’s so easy to talk about that in terms of
Sarah Petty: Yeah, what did you think when you’re standing there?
Well, someone just gave you $6,000 for taking a few pictures.
Leah: It was crazy.
I didn’t even know.
I didn’t even know what to think.
It was surreal.
It was really hard to get my head around.
Sarah Petty: What did your husband say when you walked in?
Like, oh honey, guess what I did today?
Leah: Yeah, he couldn’t believe it because he knows these people too.
He’s like, don’t start the technique with them.
I’m like, why?
I’m like, oh, I’m going to do it.
And that, I think it just proved both of us that there’s people out there that are going to pay.
Since, I’ve ran across some people that are more hesitant.
And it’s funny because before it would just crush me.
I’d be like, oh, you don’t like me or you don’t like my work?
And now I’m just like, it’s not the right fit.
I feel like I was one of those people out there at the farmer’s market where you’d be like, bargaining, I’ll give you this discount or whatever.
And I would do it.
I would probably do it.
I’d be like, oh, well I just want to photograph, so I’m going to do this.
And now I’m like, I want to photograph and do it this way.
And if you want to work with me, great.
And if you don’t want to work with me, then I’m fine with that.
And I was not like that before and now, totally like that.
Sarah Petty: Looking back, having just done Boutique Breakthrough not that long ago, what was your favorite part about it or thing about it?
Leah: Oh, gosh.
I think really the structure to get me to do the work, to just get in there and do the work to learn from the money mindset part, because I think that’s still something that I get hung up on and abundance and realizing that we are worth what we charge, were huge for me.
And just having that structure because like I said, I was just floundered before, I didn’t really have a business structure to work off of.
So I just love that I have that now and I feel much more comfortable in that than working with…
Before again, I’d barely learn about the client, I’d photograph the client, I’d probably edit it quickly.
I’d send back out the gallery, and they’d pay me and it was over.
Sarah Petty: Transactional versus the relationships?
Leah: Which makes you more comfortable with the money aspect as well, which is really inverse to what you think.
But I think if you just go in and go through the process, then it works.
You just have to go in and invest and go through the steps that are laid out.
Sarah Petty: Yep.
Well, hey, thank you for sharing your story.
I love that you’ve found yourself again and you now have a repeatable system to just make that money consistently.