You could say that Melanie Sikma has a Type A personality. You might also say that she's a detail-oriented photographer to the nth degree. Some who know her best admire her fastidiousness. Sikma herself is a bit more wry. "Sure, I'm anal-retentive," she remarks during our interview. But it's her meticulous character that gives Sikma an edge in her business. In fact, Sikma's family and child portrait photography is a well-balanced blend of raw talent and precision, giving her an exacting, natural appeal that sets her apart from other portrait artists.
Her five-year career has taken Sikma out of her home studio and into a chic boutique-styled space in Elm Grove, WI, an affluent suburb of Milwaukee. "It's a very old community," explains Sikma. A former pediatric nurse and a mother of two boys, Sikma is unpretentious, candid, and comfortable in conversation. When I asked her to explain her photographic style, she was reticent to pigeonhole herself. With some coaxing, Sikma conceded, slightly, and said that her work is honest. "I capture who the people are, and I offer a comfortable experience," she explains. "What they are getting from me as a person, and as a photographer will hopefully set us apart from the competition."
In fact, her competition probably didn't serve Champagne cocktails when they first opened, but Sikma and her business partner, Nicole Holland, did. "We try to make everything seem a little bit nicer than average," says Sikma.
Indeed, her high-end approach doesn't stop when she puts her camera away, but it is meticulously threaded throughout her business, from presentation to production, evidenced even in her posh studio dιcor. When the two first renovated their would-be studio in April, they changed the flooring to hardwood laminate. Their walls are off-white with white trim and decorated with framed images and gallery wraps; their ceiling is black with track lighting throughout the space. "It's kind of an art gallery feel," Sikma explains. "There is an image on every wall, but it's not wall-to-wall images. When my cousin came to visit, she said, 'It just feels nice, it smells nice, and it looks nice--and that means everything to a woman' [women are the majority of Sikma's clientele]. We definitely have a taste for finer things, but it goes a long way when you're dealing with female clients--we, as women, eat that stuff up."
And they're eating it up in droves, even asking for seconds in some cases. "We just made a huge brand transition," Sikma continues. "My initial brand was very simple, and I was focusing exclusively on children, so I had soft colors; then when we decided to make a change, we brainstormed and came up with a new brand that is a little bit more refined and clean. I added more seniors, which is something that we want to really tackle next year. I'm doing more family work than I had initially thought. I'm not expanding into commercial stuff, but I definitely see myself being more well-rounded than I was before, and comfortable across all age groups, rather than just focusing on the little ones."
When Sikma is photographing small children, she tries to connect with them on their level. "I don't want them to feel like I'm there trying to use them for photography," she says. "Last week I had a session with a set of 9-month-old twins, and they had a 3-year-old sister who, of course, feels pushed aside because now she has these two little babies in her life. So during the session, I tried to get her into it by involving her. I asked her to help me make the babies smile. I would say things like, 'Can you look at this picture in my camera--do you think it's any good?' I wanted her to let her guard down and let me in."
Having been a pediatric nurse, Sikma is calm under pressure, especially useful when photographing newborns. "I don't often have a hard time connecting with kids," she says. "I've been with families and kids [at] moments of crisis, so I know how to talk to them in a way that relaxes them."
Sikma recognizes the importance of keeping within a set schedule. "I try to be as accommodating as possible," she explains. "I ask them about their child's schedule--what times do they usually nap, when do they snack. [As a nurse], I've been trained to pick up on the subtle cues. I can sense when they're getting overstimulated, when you need to take a break, when they need food, when not to push them. I also try not to push the parents, either." She also encourages parents to schedule sessions at their homes, since children are most comfortable in their own environment.
Half the battle, according to Sikma, has been knowing when to stop shooting. "For the most part, children are best in the morning," she says. "At some point, you have to stop. The sessions could go on forever if you wanted them to, but the children get restless, and then the parent's stress level is going to rise."
Using mostly natural light, Sikma looks for pockets of illumination through windows and doorways to add a subtle glow to the children she is photographing. "I try not to make my images too dramatic or harsh as far as lighting, because they are children--it's a softer focus with kids," she explains. "If I'm shooting just one child, I focus on what he or she is doing with his or her eyes, and the expression on his or her face. If it's a relationship--if Mom or Dad is in the shot--I want to capture that parental love. Sometimes my favorite pictures are ones where the child isn't looking at the camera."
Presentation is Everything
Inspired by Vicki and Jed Taufer, Sarah Petty, and Brianna Graham, Sikma says that aside from their dynamic images, she most admires their business savvy. "They've all gone from nothing to huge in a short amount of time," she says.
In the past, Sikma relied heavily on referrals; however, since bringing her business partner, Nicole Holland, on the scene in January, she wants to rev up her marketing to hit a wider margin of prospective clientele. "Nicole's primary responsibility is networking, and marketing," she explains. "We develop ideas together, but she's doing more of the execution."
This year, the two have tried to network with other businesses in the village to bring traffic to the studio. "We want to give some of the local business owners gift certificates that they can offer to their clients. We're working with the art center--we donated an item for its fashion show. We're also doing some photography for its holiday program. We're trying to establish relationships with children's boutiques in the area as well as other business owners who service the same target market."
Sikma also donates a sitting fee and canvas wrap to her children's school auction and participated in the local Art Crawl. "We cross-promoted it in our regular newsletters," she explains.
Like her trendy space, Sikma's marketing is an aesthetic branding. "Everything is black and white with our logo," she says. "We mount all of our clients' prints, and our black-and-white trapezoidal bag is filled with the color tissue related to the chosen product line--so families have a color, kids have a color, and newborns have another color. We use the pearl paper from WHCC and decided to go with the square format instead of the average 5x7."
From her posh studio and manicured marketing campaign to her well-fashioned style, Sikma uses her unique experiences and raw talent to build a name and a dynamic brand. "My clients trust me to capture the memories that will endure a lifetime, and it's a huge honor that I take very seriously," she concludes.
Melanie Sikma's Gear Box
Camera & Lenses
Canon 5D Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L Canon 85mm f/1.8 Canon 50mm f/1.4
Canon Speedlite 580EX Larson Reflectasol Larson 4x6 Soff Box
AlienBees B800 PocketWizard
Apple Mac Pro and 30" Cinema Display
Apple 15" MacBook Pro laptop
Wacom Intuos3 9x12 tablet
LaCie hard drives
PicturesToExe slideshow software
BluDomain website templates
White House Custom Colour pro lab