Senior portrait photographers across the U.S. are tuning in to teen-targeted media like "Laguna Beach," "The O.C.," and Maxim to make seniors look like they just walked off the screen or out of a magazine.
Add the right light, surroundings, attitude, and trendy hair, makeup & outfit—and suddenly teens are senior superstars. Meet four photographers who have made this rite of passage a lucrative enterprise.
YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL IT'S TRUE
LA-based photographer Kirk Voclain, of KIRK VOCLAIN PHOTOGRAPHY (www.kvphoto.com), is experiencing extremely high per-client sale average. "I'm finding that today's seniors are more into that fashion look that you might find in Seventeen," says Voclain, who is constantly examining magazines and TV to find out what people are being exposed to. Natural settings are also huge, says Voclain. "Maybe some gross rustic alley with an old dead car down the side will create a contrast with a pretty girl in a prom dress that's really fun to look at."
The newest challenge with digital is that "seniors are starting to realize what we can do with the computer," says Voclain. He even had one girl come in wearing no makeup. She told him it didn't matter because he could just put it on later using Photoshop. His response was, "I need a little help."
Having done away with packages entirely to remove the ceiling on the number of prints people end up buying, Voclain's custom-made Zookbinder's Leather Album Design Book (that H&H binds) is immensely popular this year. The album includes the senior's entire conglomeration of proofs, "because they want them all," says Voclain. Another popular album is one the client lays out themselves on a piece of paper. Afterward, a Photoshop action—specially designed for the purpose—is used to physically make the files for the book.
Occasionally, Voclain will go hog wild over a one-of-a-kind ad campaign that he knows will get people talking, but aside from that he doesn't spend a single cent on marketing. "One time I bought a Harley, parked it out front, and hung a banner on it that said 'Senior Portraits on a Harley.' Hardly anyone actually wanted a picture on the bike, but tons of kids came in asking if the ad were true and had their portraits taken with another background," recalls Voclain.
GO CHASING WATERFALLS
Claude Gagnon, of CLAUDE J. GAGNON PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY (www.cjgagnon.com) says clients are asking for one thing in particular: "They want more location stuff. A lot of times, people have a favorite park, yard, or pool; they are trying to be unique." Fortunately for Gagnon, there are plenty of lakes, sandpits with ponds, and water parks within a five-minute driving distance from his Timmins, Ontario, studio. "What we are getting a lot of now is people wanting shots in the water. We are on a main business street, so we do a lot of shoots out on the street with a cityscape background, in little parks, laneways, you name it. Teens are big on imitating music videos and magazines," says Gagnon.
This year's big seller is a small Capri Album containing 20 different 4"x6" and 5"x7" prints, including one special-effects photo. Black-and-white colorized is always a favorite, and Gagnon says he also uses "cross processing, infrared effects, motion blurs, just about anything Adobe Photoshop can throw at us."
Gagnon's website is his most effective marketing tool. It hosts his "Most Photogenic Contest," which he advertises by putting promo cards for "Casuals" in every cap-and-gown package he sends to schools that contract him to take standard portraits of the whole senior class. Seniors who order Casuals attend a separate photo shoot, where they receive up to two hours of individual attention; only Casuals can be entered in the contest. "They can win $500, so the money must motivate some people, but they also like that it's a competition," says Gagnon. Another hot spot on the site is "Pics of the Week," which features a different teen every week. Clients are excited at the chance to be the center of attention or to discover that a photo of one of their friends has been chosen.
LIVING IN A MATERIAL WORLD
Because she says "each kid sees him or herself differently than the kid they see in the mirror," Kalen Henderson, of HENDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY INC. (www.hendphoto.com) in Iowa, considers it her job to capture seniors looking the way they want to be seen by the world. To accomplish this, she considers everything from the clothing they wear to the reaction they have with her. "You have to be part photographer, part mind reader," says Henderson. And because it's the standard that every kid compares themselves to, "A lot of them just want good clean 'make me look like I belong on an Abercrombie shopping bag,'" continues Kalen.
Ever since White House Custom Colour Lab in St. Paul Minnesota developed the technology to print Henderson's photos on greeting cards, senior after senior has purchased them to announce his or her graduation in style. Wallets are also a hot item, but instead of just putting her studio logo on the back, she puts it on the front. "It's a little bit of advertisement and no one complains about it being there," says Henderson.
Logo recognition is one thing Henderson has worked really hard for. Art Leather prints it on her digital portfolio cover and it serves as a very effective marketing tool. The way she sees it, whenever a kid walks around sporting one of her complimentary lanyards or elastic bracelets with a little red squiggle on it, it's a way of saying "I had the best there was but I don't have to wear around the name, I can just wear the logo," says Henderson. Offering a limited number of discounted appointments for early birds has seniors scheduling for their portraits a year in advance!
YOU'VE GOT TO PUMP IT UP
When Ohio-based photographer Michael Ayers began THE AYERS INC. (www.theayers.com) in 1986, his motto was: "We're going to be different and better," says Ayers. The strategy has worked exceptionally well. Among his hot techniques: turning a baseball player into an entire team, by using special effects to post him at all nine positions, and making a track runner look like the Bionic Woman. And when it comes to removing braces, glares on glasses, blemishes, etc. there's no extra charge. But, before doing any touchups, he finds out from each senior exactly how much he or she wants retouched.
Ayers says his phone starts ringing off the hook every time he delivers one of his General Products Senior Premier Albums, which include a mix of multiple-print pages and full-page images. The success of the albums is only trumped by his wildly popular multi-image wallets. Because kids can't decide which image they want to use for their wallets, he puts 1 to 5 photos on a single wallet. "We end up looking like heroes to the moms who don't want to buy more than one set of wallets," says Ayers.