Kelly Dobson builds a foundation for baby portrait business
Kelly Dobson, CPP, wasn’t always an award-winning photographer with a stable client base and comfortable referral pipeline. Over the past three decades, her career has taken a few twists and turns as she tried out different specialties then discovered her strength lay in wedding and portrait photography. But the 2012 Michigan Photographer of the Year has never tried to shortcut the path to success.
Dobson landed her first job as a newspaper photographer right out of high school. After getting married and starting a family, she transitioned into forensic and evidence photography, then medical photography, both of which provided steady work and regular hours and neither of which provided creative satisfaction. But Dobson used that experience to learn as much as she could. She practiced her technique, attended seminars. She studied the great masters in specialties such as landscape photography, photojournalism, weddings, and portraits.
When her kids got a little older, Dobson elected to get back into more creative photographic work. She got her feet wet by assisting an established wedding photographer for a couple of years before branching off on her own. Then her diligence, training, and practice began to pay off. “I got very comfortable in my own skin as an artist because I had a very solid foundation in the basics,” says Dobson. “I knew the Monte Zucker style of posing and lighting, which at the time was the standard by which most portrait work was compared and what most photographers were doing. I learned how to read the light in any given situation and come up with consistent results.”
Dobson had learned photography on film cameras and was accomplished in the darkroom. The Digital Revolution was revving up just as she was starting her own studio, and the changes were intimidating at first. Then she had a chat with a one of her former photography instructors, someone who had known of one her idols, Ansel Adams. He told her that if Adams were alive today, he’d be all about the new technology. That was enough for Dobson. She took a Photoshop class, got comfortable with the new technology, and recaptured her love of printmaking. Today, printing her own work is a big part of her brand.
Dobson did wedding photography for several years, and as so often happens, her wedding clients had families and called for baby portraits. That work grew steadily almost entirely through repeat business and referrals.
“Being a wedding photographer for so many years made it really easy to segue into newborn and baby photography,” she says. “I have a pretty loyal following. By the time my clients come in for a newborn session, we have already been through the trenches of a wedding, and the relationship is already there. Many of my wedding clients are still with me years after the wedding and three kids later. My hook to make them come back again and again is guilt; I remind them that the adorable baby portraits I did for their first child must be done for the second and third, otherwise down the road you will get the ‘Mom loved you more than me’ complaints. It works.”
Dobson’s photographic style relies on her relationship with the client. “Making treasured photos requires conversation and being authentic,” she explains. “I can’t photograph a key moment in someone’s life without knowing them on a personal level. There must be a connection first. Most often, before a session starts, I’ll sit down with my clients and find out what’s going on in their lives. I have often laughed and cried at the stories I’ve heard; sharing their struggles and triumphs makes my job even more satisfying, mean ingful, and creative.” Dobson encourages input for the session from the client, though she’ll guide the shoot based on what she thinks will work best.
She loves photographing newborns but finds the most inspiration in working with 6- to 9-month-olds. At this age, they are old enough to react and put on adorable expressions but aren’t yet walking. “I enjoy the creativity of newborn sessions, but they are largely driven by the set,” she says. “I prefer the sessions with older babies because the images become much more about their personality and the interaction with their parents.”
Dobson gets the most out of a baby session by preparing some ideas and a loose concept. She remains ready to change gears if the baby isn’t responding. Working in a 900-square-foot retail studio space, in Plymouth, Mich., she sets up several scenarios in advance so she can switch from one portrait concept to another fluidly. “Most babies don’t like to be stuffed into things like flower pots and wooden buckets, even though it’s super cute,” she says. “It doesn’t take long to figure out which babies will tolerate being manhandled a little and which ones will only tolerate being held by a parent.”
To capitalize on the loyalty and strong relationships she builds with her clients, Dobson started a baby’s first year club, which includes five sessions. At the end of the year, she prepares an album of the best images from those sessions. Other big sellers include wall collages and gallery wrap collections, as well as custom-designed birth announcements. She makes every announcement from scratch, doing all the designing and printing in house on an Epson Stylus Pro 7890. No two are the same. The announcements double as advertisements for her studio when they go out to clients’ friends and family.
With capabilities such as custom product design, in-house printing, and the skills honed over more than 30 years, Dobson doesn’t feel much threatened by the legions of new shoot-and-burn photographers. Yet with Michigan being one of the hardest-hit states by the recent recession, she’s had to be flexible in her pricing and creative with her incentives. That’s made the difference between surviving and making a healthy profit. “It will be interesting to see how the world of photography will evolve in the coming years,” she says. “I think it’s best to embrace the changes for all the creative opportunities they offer. Moving forward and constantly learning is how I plan to tackle the future.”