Our next studio spotlight is Irene Abdou Photography, LLC in Germantown-Clarksburg, Maryland. Irene is the owner of the award-winning boutique portrait studio that specializes in baby, children, and family photography. Together, with her husband as the only other employee, they have found that by offering each client unique professional photo albums and in-person consultations the studio has been able to dramatically increase sales and most importantly, the customer experience! The studio also gives back by offering private one-on-one photography classes and coaching – with some photographers coming as far as 900 miles! Irene is also passionate about giving back in charitable donations as well, she has participated in PPA Charities’ Family Portrait Month and Operation Smile Studio, and made a big push in 2016 to donate to non-profit, school and charity auctions. Through the auctions she has been able to donate significantly more and they help bring in business at the same time!
Irene, what is your strategy for selling albums?
You sell what you show! So that is my #1 strategy for selling professional photo albums. I would never be able to sell any albums if I didn’t have sample albums. I am in love with Zookbinders’ Bon à Vie albums (here is her link on her site for BAV: http://www.ireneabdou.com/bon-a-vie-albums), which I first saw at a mini-trade show last year. As soon as I saw them, I knew I had to offer them to my clients. I went back and immediately began designing three sample Bon à Vie albums – one 8×8 size senior portrait album, one 10×10 size boudoir photography album, and one 12×12 size family photography album. A secondary strategy is that because most of my clients come to my photography studio for a pre-session planning/design meeting, I am already showing them albums before they’ve even stepped in front of the camera. That gives them plenty of time to think about how much they love the albums! And finally, I offer duplicate albums at a fraction of the original price. A same-size duplicate is 40% of the original album cost; one size down is 33% of the original, and two sizes down is 25% of the original.
This past year, I had a boudoir photography client who ordered a 10×10 Bon à Vie album as a gift for her husband. Well, her husband is a military contractor living overseas. She loved the photography so much and felt so empowered by it, that she decided to get a same-size duplicate album that she could keep at home for herself! I am able to give these high discounts on the duplicate albums because I’ve already done the design, retouching, and proofing for the first album. All I have to do is pay for the printing for the second one!
How did you and your camera first meet?
Well, it’s a little bit embarrassing to say this, but after getting a B.A. in physics, I went into the Peace Corps. Before leaving for West Africa, my dad asked me if I wanted him to buy me a camera, and I said… wait for it… “What a waste of money! Why would I ever want a camera?” So I left without the camera, and after just a few weeks in Africa, I was back on the phone with him asking him to send me a camera. That said, all I knew how to do was change the lens and put the camera on automatic. (He sent me a Canon SLR with 2 lenses… film back then.) Looking back, after 3 ½ years living in West Africa, I came out with one sellable image. And it had a date stamp on it that I later had to remove in Photoshop!
After a session is done, what is your workflow from uploading the images from your card reader to delivering the album?
First, I cull. In Lightroom, I make several passes through to weed out images that are too similar or don’t meet my quality standards. Then I make Lightroom exposure/tone adjustments to the remaining images (usually 35-70 images for a 1-hr maternity/newborn/family/boudoir session). I run all the images through Imagenomic Portraiture for a “first-level” retouching. I take another pass through the retouched images, making any additional Lightroom adjustments, and flagging images that I feel need more advanced retouching in Photoshop before the client sees them (e.g. toning down skin shine, head swaps swaps for family portraits, etc.).
For all my photography work except headshots, online dating, and wedding & events, my clients do not see their images until their in-person “photo reveal” and ordering appointment, which takes place at my studio. I start the photo reveal by playing an Animoto slideshow of their images. Then if they choose an album, we go through each image using ProSelect to choose the images they want to include. We talk about album style and design, and we look at album samples, and what they like/don’t like. Then, we part ways, and I can proceed with designing their album.
I use Fundy Album Builder to design albums. First, I go through their selected images in Lightroom and envision the order I want to put the images in, and which images I want on which page. Then I import the images into Fundy and build the design to my vision. Fundy is awesome! It is so much easier than using ready-made templates. Sometimes (depending on what my client likes), the spreads will have white or single color backgrounds, other times, I use patterned or photo backgrounds. For patterned backgrounds, I purchase a commercial license for digital papers on Etsy or other sites. I also purchase design elements available for commercial license.
Once I’ve finished the album design, I upload to Zookbinders. Because the Bon à Vie albums don’t have the traditional splits, I love that the Zookbinders system allows me to send a visual proof of the album to my client showing exactly where the page splits will be.
My clients get up to 10 changes in their album design at no additional cost. Since I started sitting with my clients prior to the album design to understand what they like and don’t like, they rarely ask me for more than a few changes. My average range is 0-2 changes! (1 change = swapping 2 images OR changing the size of an image OR moving an image, etc.)
Once they’ve e-signed my album approval form, then I proceed with additional retouching for that album size. I double check all the margins, image placement, etc. If the album contains text, I print the pages with the text on my regular laser printer, because I’ve found that it’s easier to catch typos on a printed page than when looking on the computer. For Bon à Vie albums which are photographic paper, I send the album spreads to a printer to print proofs, review, make adjustments, repeat as needed, and then submit the finished album spreads to Zookbinders.
What is something your business tried and you learned from (either by it succeeding or failure)?
Ha! I tried the shoot and burn model for portraits for 3 years. Well, I shot, edited, and then sent over the digital files. I found I was making less than minimum wage when all was said and done. Then, in 2010, I moved to in-person sales using ProSelect, and overnight, my average portrait sale tripled! (And since then is 7-10 times what it was.) My new clients were more appreciative and thankful and were happy to invest more. I was also getting more clients! Moving to in-person sales was the best move I’ve ever made in my business.
How do you find customers?
Last year, 43% of my business came from people searching online. That is my #1 source. I have spent years doing my best to accumulate online reviews from past clients, and that has paid off. (Though it’s frustrating when companies just decide to delete reviews, like when Yahoo a few years ago deleted all Yahoo reviews and replaced them with Yelp reviews. I lost 20-some reviews.) The remaining 57% of my business came from a mix of repeat clients, referrals, networking including on social media, and charity auction donations.
What is your favorite website/book for photo inspiration?
My favorite books early in my career as a professional photographer were by David Du Chemin: “Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision” and “VisionMongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography.” They were very inspiring to me at that early time, especially as I was only doing photography part-time and had another job back then. I also have really enjoyed “The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes” by Joe McNally.
Do you prefer to shoot by yourself or with an assistant and why?
My husband works as my lighting assistant for most sessions – all outdoor sessions and indoor sessions, especially if involving small children when I have to move quickly. He doesn’t work with me on boudoir sessions. Since I have a home-based studio, he gets kicked out during boudoir sessions!
For me, light either makes or breaks a photograph. When outdoors, he carries a monopod with four flashes and an umbrella. Indoors, he moves around light stands for me. Especially outdoors, his assistance is absolutely critical. I don’t like to rely on natural light, since I can’t control it! Often, clients look at my portfolio, then call me up and say there was something different about my photography – it has depth and dimension and feels real. I’m pretty sure what they’re seeing is the lighting.