Studio connects senior portraits with fashion photography
Fashion photography was Craig Stidham’s first love. In the early days of his Amarillo, Texas, studio, he successfully applied his penchant for fashion imagery to a senior portrait business, carving out a prosperous niche by merging fashion and senior portraiture to create avant-garde collections for fashion-forward high school subjects.
It’s not unusual for senior portrait photographers to promote a fashion influence in their images, but Stidham brings a commercial aesthetic to his work, creating photographs that could be in magazine ads. He also photographs fashion jobs for magazines and commercial clients, which adds to his credibility. The approach has set him apart in his market and opened up doors to complementary business lines.
In 2015 Stidham stepped through one of these doors when he launched Amarillo Modeling & Talent, a modeling agency designed to help some of the participants in his senior modeling program make the leap to professional modeling. The agency completes the circle for Stidham, who can represent the models, use them in commercial assignments, and provide photography for their portfolios. It also helps him provide a reasonable pathway for young people interested in modeling, where he can use his connections in the industry to help them launch their careers.
The key to understanding how a photographer can function effectively as a modeling agent begins with a look at Stidham’s senior modeling program. The program is open to anyone with a fun attitude toward photography, not just kids with a certain look. All of his senior models are regular paying clients. “Other photographers go out hunting for certain models—popular kids, cheerleaders, et cetera—and then they offer them all kinds of giveaways,” says Stidham. “That doesn’t work for me. Instead, our senior models are normal clients.”
Stidham extends invitations to join the senior model program after the seniors’ portrait sessions. There’s no cost to the senior, and no obligation to sell anything, hand out materials, or participate in any defined marketing program. “There are some promotional elements—like encouraging them to share images and video clips on social media—but mostly it’s an invitation to come back to the studio and play,” says Stidham. “We have fun, try different things, and create unique images. The program is truly about modeling. We build out sets and concepts and just create fun imagery.”
For Stidham, the senior modeling program provides a “massive creative outlet.” He tries out new equipment, experiments with different setups, and tests unusual concepts, all with no pressure because the sessions aren’t paying jobs that require high-quality images at the end. If the images are terrible, no big deal. If they turn out great, he gives them to the models to share with their friends.
Ironically, the lack of a defined marketing element actually leads to great promotional results. “By providing free, fun images to the models to share as they see fit, I see much more exposure than I would with a traditional senior model program,” says Stidham.
This isn’t conjecture; Stidham used to run a more traditional senior model program with incentives and giveaways and marketing requirements. It didn’t work very well. In fact, he lost money on it. The reason, he theorizes, is that his senior clients don’t respond well to the obligations of that kind of structured program. “In my experience, when you push kids to do certain things for your studio, then they tend to shut down,” he says. “So now I
keep it fun and unstructured. The organic marketing and word-of-mouth promotion works so much better.” How much better? Stidham is seeing referrals at a rate of 10 to 1 when comparing the new program to the old one.
If any of his senior models has the potential to go pro, Stidham sits down with them and their parents and talks about transitioning them to the agency. If they come on board, he creates the images for their portfolio, shooting at lower rates than his portrait services to help them build a portfolio affordably. He also uses his agency models in editorial and commercial jobs that he shoots for fashion clients, allowing him to provide work to his models and draw from his own source of talent for his shoots.
Stidham keeps a hand in both photographer and agent roles in his relationship with the model. He taps into the connections he’s made over the years with modeling scouts around the country and tries to get them work. He also promotes them to other photographers. Yes, other photographers.
“You want them to get photographed by other photographers,” he explains. “That’s how they get more exposure and more work. You can’t get mad about not doing all their photography because you’re representing them as an agent, not a photographer.”
The process of transitioning senior models to professional models involves a “semi-pro” stage where Stidham eases them into the world of modeling, getting them a few gigs for experience while managing their expectations. “A lot of agencies get a bad rap because they promise the moon and then dash the hopes of these young people,” he says. “I don’t want to do that. I want to be very up- front and honest and explain how the business works from the beginning.”
Stidham’s fashion connection is also helping spark another business avenue—an engagement portrait line with a fashion-forward approach. The concept is to stage elaborate, stylized shoots for engaged couples, with the resulting images looking like something out of a perfume ad or fashion spread. Currently, he’s using models from his agency to stage mock engagement shoots to build up a portfolio and promote the new product line. Then he’ll target a very specific clientele—couples with the style to pull off this type of a shoot and the budget to pay for it. “We want our engagement pictures to be hung up as art,” says Stidham. “Our engagement pictures are not meant for the church.”
For Stidham, innovating new business lines and derivations of his core services is an essential process. Especially in today’s topsy-turvy market full of low-cost practitioners, he feels it’s critical for established photographers to be more creative with their businesses, to offer something above and beyond what clients expect, and to stand by the value they provide.
“A lot of photographers are out there giving away everything just to get clients, but that’s not the way to build a sustainable business,” he says. “Instead, I urge photographers: Believe in yourself and what you’re producing. Value yourself, and your clients will value you as well. When you establish that value, you can get more creative, do new things, and really build a business for the long haul.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.