When Kristin Farnsworth was in high school, she took every art class imaginable to escape the perils of P.E. Whether it was the group calisthenics, the countless dodgeball sessions, or just the smelly locker room that she was trying to avoid, parents around the country are grateful that she chose art over gym.
Now a gifted artist, Farnsworth's child portraiture is at once striking, and at second glance thoughtful and innovative. And who needs gym class anyway when your job is photographing children, especially newborns. Capturing that perfect moment when the expression, the lighting, and the scene form the type of synergy that make up a distinctive image can be difficult when you also have to consider whether the child has had his nap time, if he needs his favorite toy, and, for the really little ones, whether he's been properly burped or needs to be changed-one could even call it a workout.
Building an impressive career photographing mostly newborns and preadolescent children, Farnsworth has secured a loyal client base in only six years. When I asked her how she fashioned such a lucrative business in so little time, her answer was simple: "I know how to make people feel comfortable." From her initial consultation to the shooting session to the viewing appointment, Farnsworth is grounded, energetic, and sincere. "You can be the best photographer in the world, but if you don't know how to talk to people, that's the end of you as a photographer," explains Farnsworth. "If you don't know how to create a relationship or a sense of trust from the moment your client first meets you, then you're never going to get them to be comfortable enough to be creative with their images."
Babies as Props
Based out of Madison, Alabama, Farnsworth admits that her first love is what she calls "baby photography," or, as it reads on her website, "Little Love" sessions, where she will spend anywhere from four to eight hours on a single shoot. "Babies don't really care what you are doing with them, as long as you do it when they're ready for it," she explains.
A mother herself, Farnsworth also worked at a day-care center for many years and uses the tricks that she learned there with the children she photographs. "When babies are less than four weeks old, they are basically props that need to be fed," she explains. "Babies love warm temperatures, they like to be swaddled, and they also like the sound of the womb, so we have a bear that simulates a heartbeat, and we also have heaters. We want the baby to feel calm and comfortable during the session."
For the shoot to work, Farnsworth also has to remain calm herself. "Before I go into any session, I have to let go of everything that's going on outside of the photo shoot, because the minute I'm tense, the child will sense my uneasiness and the session won't work," she says.
Farnsworth wants her images to be as meaningful as they are aesthetic. Her photographs depict a process, an evolution in time as her clients move from married couple to family, or from newborn to toddler to child. To express this type of metamorphosis, she asks her clients to bring their own props to the photo shoot. "I always ask parents to bring something that is important to them," she says. "During our consultation, I'll ask the parents to describe how their house is decorated, what they're hoping to get out of these images, and what colors they like. This family that once was two is now three, and these images really need to reflect that. Having my clients bring in their own props makes the session all about them and not about me and my stuff. It's using these elements that make up who my clients are that makes these images 10 times easier to sell."
Part of Farnsworth's arresting photographic style is in the way she positions her subjects and in the scenes she creates with her camera. "We did a session with a dad who canoes, so he brought in his paddle," she says. "The baby was perfectly balanced on the paddle-it was about three seconds of shooting. I was in and out, and that's how we get most of those shots."
Her fast-paced approach allows her to capture her most unique photographs. "We had a baby on a Mustang once," she recalls. "The mom was nervous because it was raining outside, so we had to do it in the garage. I put a heater on the car so the baby would feel comfortable, and we began shooting. There were people and hands everywhere to support the baby, and I just edited them out in post-production. It only takes about two seconds to get the shots that I want, and then we're moving on."
Lighting Little Ones
Essential to any photography shoot, especially portrait photography, lighting is Farnsworth's hidden je ne sais quoi-it's the glue that holds her photographs together. Inspired by lighting gurus Larry Peters and Bryan Killen, she gauges her client's personal preference with her own photographic vision. "During a consultation we'll talk about whether we want bright and airy or dark and shadowy lighting," she says. "I'll also ask the parents what their favorite feature is on their child, and then I'll think about how I can light the set to accent that feature."
By focusing on the subject and the client's individual taste, Farnsworth's images are an eclectic mix of various lighting methods. "I like to shoot differently every time," she says. "I've been using a strip light for my newborns lately so the images are a little darker and edgier. I love light coming from right above, 12 o'clock, directly over their head-when everything seems to glow behind the subject. I love blowing out those shots to where the main focus is on the child's face."
When there's more than one subject, particularly in relationship portraits, Farnsworth will bring out the softboxes. "If I'm doing a family shoot-depending on the size-I'll use my biggest softbox," she explains. "I love using an eyelighter with relationship portraits-three people look great with an eyelighter. It depends on what the clients are looking for: do they want close-ups? Can I get the 3-year old spinning on the chair so that I can use an eyelighter?"
Scouting out areas for on-location shoots beforehand, Farnsworth jokes that she knows the best lighting situation for most areas within a 30-mile radius. Then, half a second later, she adds, "No seriously, I can tell you where to shoot a client at a given time of day, because I'm always driving around looking for places to photograph. My goal when shooting outside is to find the best possible lighting scenario, because I hate being forced to have someone hold a reflector over my subject's head."
The Bigger the Canvas, the Better
Because Farnsworth's artistic roots lie in more conventional forms of expression, like drawing and painting, it seems only fitting that her niche in this market-if it can be considered a niche-is her ability to create big canvases that can be displayed as fine-art pieces. "I'm all about complementing your 8x10s with a bigger image," she explains. "There's so much art out there, and there's so much you can put on your walls. I have art, but the biggest pieces are of my family. I know that different people have different priorities, but nine times out of ten, my clients want to have their kids up there."
And up there they are, as large 16x24s and 40x60s, hanging in the darnedest of places, including the local hospital. Farnsworth creates what she calls "love canvases" that she donates to schools, businesses, and hospitals. "Our displays are the first thing that a birthing mother or a new mother is going to see when they are walking down those hallways-the return is far greater than the initial donation," she says.
In fact, Farnsworth suggests donating your work wherever you can. "We donate to a lot of private schools," she explains. "The minute someone calls and says, Hey, we're having an auction,' sign up! This is the first way to get your name out there."
Knowing where your clients are and getting your work in front of them is more than half the battle. "What has worked well is putting our displays into businesses that cater to the same type of people that we do, which are boutique studios, as well as Mommy and Me' maternity places," says Farnsworth. "I would get five calls a week from just those displays alone, which was way more of a response than the shiny ads that I invested in-they were nice, but they weren't going to the right people. High-end kids' clothing stores are another good place to go. If you're going to spend 50 bucks on a dress, you're going to want to have photos that complement it and show it off."
Selling about three of her highest-priced canvases per week, Farnsworth began using Simply Canvas after hearing about the company at the Light Pro Expo.
Marketing to Mommies
In a standard shoot, Farnsworth will take anywhere from 200 to 250 images; after weeding those down to 40 or 50 shots, she'll begin retouching in Adobe Lightroom. "I'll use a color pop, a sharpen-that's it," she says. "I'm going to have three black-and-whites along with tones that I love, but I stay within that range."
She doesn't like to heavily retouch her images for preservation purposes. "All of the images I show my clients have been retouched in some way," she says. "I sell more this way, because if the mother's face in my image is touched up, she's buying it. I charge a very high price for my proofs, so if they want them, they're going to have to pay for them."
Another tip Farnsworth lives by: don't showcase your prices. Only sending lists upon client request, Farnsworth offers incentives that can't be found on these price lists so that she can explain pricing with clients in person. "We want them to sit with us and ask us about our pricing," she says. "I'm a big believer in not giving your prices out; you're shooting yourself in the foot the minute that you do that. We live in a society where we're being told daily that we're in a recession, and I'm telling you that you're going to spend this amount of money for pictures-that doesn't feel good. I need to be able to sit with the client and explain to them that this is why they're doing it, and I'll pull up a huge 40x60 on the wall-it reminds them that their kids are beautiful and that they need to have these photographs on their walls."
Farnsworth offers three different packages, which are mainly made up of larger prints. "They're all set up for what I would want clients to buy, which means there are no 8x10s and 5x7s-it's all 11x14s and larger," she says. "For our biggest package, we sell our digital negatives in a 5x7 format."
But what really sells Farnsworth's images is her charisma, both behind the lens and in front of people. A mother, a businesswoman, and an artist, Farnsworth's flexible outlook and novel style sets her work apart one big canvas at a time. "I get to be a part of their life, hear their story, and see their kids grow up-that's a gift and I treat it like a gift," she says. "I'm thankful that I've gotten this far."
For more on Kristin Farnsworth's images, go to www.whispersphotography.com
Besides my camera and Photoshop, the slickest tool on my desk is my WACOM INTUOS 3 pen tablet. Besides being the peppiest mouse I've ever used, its really quick response and pressure sensitivity make it sublimely easy to control and edit images. It was an excellent investment-I can't even imagine living without it.
Hard-Hitting Business Tips
Always give back to your community. Donate, donate, donate-and make sure you tell people you did it. Send out a press release, or blog about it on your website. You have to give back so you can get business.
Get a light meter and learn how to use it-it will make your life much easier.
Don't rely on RAW to save you-learn how to take the picture right the first time.
Shooting is just 10% of your day; 90% of it is running your business.
Referral programs are wonderful-make them work for you.
Give your clients a special gift-25 note cards, or something else simple that they'll appreciate.
Kristin Farnsworth's Gear Box
Nikkor 50mm f/1.4
Nikkor 85mm f/1.4
Alien Bees 400 and 800 units
Alien Bees Vagabond II for outdoor stuff
Larson soft boxes: 10"x36", 4'x6' and a 3'x4'
generic machines that run little things
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