For more than two decades, San Diego portrait photographer Luci Dumas has welcomed clients into her studio, which she calls her bungalow—a rustic setting that accurately reflects the personal touch she brings to all aspects of her business.
“I am not a Wal-Mart, I am a personal designer,” she notes, likening the level of intimacy to a doctor/patient bond. “You can really see the essence of my subjects in my work—you can look into their souls.”
Successful in her boutique niche, she explains, “I don’t try to be all things to all people. I specialize in what I love, and what comes natural for me. I’ve never stopped trying to be one of the finest photographers in San Diego.” Averaging two sessions a week, each with orders in the $2,000-$10,000 range, Dumas is clearly held in high regard by her target market.
Turning Prospects Into Clients
Drawing prospective clients through her website, as well as online Yellow Pages, auctions, and magazines, Dumas markets herself by showcasing her images, avoiding catchy slogans and price slashing. In fact, she doesn’t mention pricing on her website at all.
“My approach is to get them to call me. I don’t discuss prices by email or phone; that’s part of the consultation,” she explains. “I avoid stepping into price list ‘landmines’ by setting a time to speak on the phone. Before answering their questions, I work to build a relationship, find out more about them and what they’re looking for,” says Dumas. Redirecting the client’s attention from the proverbial bottom line, to their own wish list and preferences, has proved an effective selling technique.
Dumas notes that “the art of educating people as to why they should want portraits takes creativity and imagination.” Her strategy is first to make clients feel relaxed and at ease with what she calls her “Aunt Luci” approach, then she helps them see the images as a lifetime investment. In this way, she sculpts a sales style that is light and friendly.
Her consultation meetings take place in a cozy room where the walls are dressed in Dumas portraits. Sitting at a round table, they flip through albums by Art Leather and Western Photographic Supplies, which are filled with more of her work. “I want them to see the photos as finished portraits, not as digital computer images. I talk to them about how it will feel to have portraits on their wall.” Then she gradually transforms their desire for photos into something of a necessity, rather than a luxury.
“I coach them, teach them what portraits could mean to them, and why they are so valuable. As they begin to understand the value, they become willing to make the investment,” says Dumas.
Preparing for the Session
Once clients book a date, Dumas begins to prepare for the photo session. As if she were a football player about to step onto the arena playing field, Dumas primes herself for a long day of hard work.
She creates a sensible plan of action with her clients in advance; considering variables like the climate, location, and subject. For example, she schedules a family portrait session around the best time of day to shoot children. Unlike a Macy’s or Sears, hoping for an agreeable subject, Dumas takes a more scientific approach.
“I understand the ages of children and what you can do with them. I allow ample time and have goals in mind, which I review with the client at the beginning of the session. Then we create a game plan. While we often go to locations I’ve been to, I do scout for new sites.” Working with an assistant, who carries her equipment, frees Dumas to concentrate on her pictures, rather than her own physical limitations.
“I offer a variety of options, including indoor, outdoor, color, or black-and-white. A single session can look like five different sessions.”
Selecting the Best
The myriad of shots taken during the photo session are sorted and organized during a “design session” with clients that can take three to four hours. “I shut the lights, close the door, turn on the music and tell my clients to just enjoy the slideshow.” As they watch the display, she observes them carefully. “I watch them to see which images make their hearts sing.”
After an in-depth weeding cycle, they categorize the images into wall portraits, small portraits, and albums. The remaining images are once again edited down. “I keep sorting until the very best emerge,” she says.