Belly Beautiful thrives on powerful feelings
Karen Marie Hourscht builds a brand—and a creative portfolio—on client experience
A former labor and delivery nurse with 13 years of professional photography experience, Karen Marie Hourscht understands what it’s like to work with pregnant women and newborn babies. She also understands the importance of creating a good client experience. Hourscht’s photographer-client relationship is driven by the experiential focus, which ultimately defines the success of her creative process.
Hourscht, whose professional moniker is simply Karen Marie, operates Belly Beautiful. Her Sacramento, California, business features two side-by-side studios, one for maternity portraits and one for newborns. A few years ago, she achieved national recognition with a series of Disney-princess themed newborn portraits. Babble Entertainment, owned by Disney, picked up the images and turned them into video, which received 17.9 million views in two days. Hourscht, who was already well known in her market, saw her brand recognition skyrocket. Disney hired her to do another series, and Netflix hired her for an ongoing project.
Hourscht leveraged that high-profile work by redoubling her emphasis on client experience. As a result, her clients trust her more, respect her more, and give her more creative leeway. This trust has led to more innovative imagery that has clients calling again and again.
Here’s how Hourscht creates the client experience:
Respond quickly and communicate clearly. When a client reaches out, Hourscht is quick to respond. “First, because we want them to know we’re excited,” she says. “And second, if we don’t respond right away, they will look somewhere else. Instant gratification is everything these days.”
After the initial contact, Hourscht and her team keep the lines of communication open, walking clients through the entire process. The goal is to make sure clients are never confused, never anxious about anything.
Consult. A pre-session consultation is a critical step. Hourscht covers the investment and policies to get all the details in the open, then quickly moves the conversation to her clients. “We want to hear their stories,” she says. “What’s their goal? What have they been through? What does this pregnancy mean to them? A lot of our clients have gone through infertility, miscarriages, or other issues. We want to learn about their experiences and understand why the images are especially important to them. That helps inform so much of what we do from that point on.”
Create a stress-free environment. From start to finish, Hourscht helps clients through everything—styling, wardrobe, props, and themes. She communicates all the details and expectations so clients don’t have to worry about anything. She has hundreds of dresses available at the studio for maternity clients to wear in their sessions. She also offers assistance with hair and makeup. “We want our clients to feel comfortable and reinforce that they are beautiful during this special time in their lives.”
For newborn shoots, building the stress-free environment is even more critical. “Newborn photography is a different field from anything else,” says Hourscht. “When dealing with a brand new baby, everything has to be on point. The studio needs to be clean and safe. Nothing touches the floor [and then touches the baby]. The staff is always up to date on their immunizations and wears masks when a baby comes in from the NICU. New moms are already exhausted and don’t have the time to go around picking out things for a photo shoot. So we have props, wraps, and outfits, which instantly puts the moms at ease.”
Hourscht guides her clients through every step of the process. She writes out a step-by-step outline so they don’t have to wonder what’s next. They can give input on the style if they want, and then Hourscht and her team handle everything else.
Make them feel important. Clients want to know that they matter. Hourscht and her staff express their gratitude to each client. They provide extra touches to add to their comfort.
Listen actively. “A lot of photographers have their style, and they’re going to shoot their way no matter what,” says Hourscht. “That’s going to lead to disappointment if that approach doesn’t match what the client expects. You don’t have to change everything about the way you shoot just to please a client, but you should listen to each client and determine if they’re right for you. If they are, then dedicate yourself to helping them get what they want.”
Continue the excitement. From photo shoot to sales session to followup, Hourscht and her team express excitement about the process and gratitude that the clients have chosen Belly Beautiful. When clients call back about their next pregnancy, Hourscht makes sure they know how honored she is that they’ve chosen to share this important part of their lives with her again.
LIGHTING NEWBORNS & MOMS
Whether a maternity portrait shoot or a newborn session, lighting is critical to setting the mood and determining the creative direction of the photography.
Karen Marie Hourscht prefers natural light for newborn shoots. It provides a softer, more realistic feel, and there isn’t the shocking pop of flash that comes with electric strobes. She sets up sessions next to a wall of windows, which she uses as the main light shining from the side, modifying as needed with a reflector. The room is fairly small and gets very bright, so her lighting setup includes a lot of side light and rim light. On gloomy days when the quality of natural light isn’t as great as she wants, she uses an 86-inch PLM umbrella system as an artificial window light. Overall, the approach is light, warm, and natural.
For maternity sessions, Hourscht moves to the studio next door and usually works with a custom backlight setup that provides a light, airy effect. To create this look, she painted a wall pure white, then set up two strobes pointed at the wall. Next, she hung a large, sheer, chiffon curtain between the strobes and the wall. When she fires the strobes, they reflect off the wall through the sheer fabric. That modifies the light down a couple of stops and creates a softer look that wraps the light around the subject’s body.
Hourscht invests so much into the client experience because she knows that experience colors everything related to her work. She tells the story of a client who came to her after having a negative experience with another photographer. The process had been poorly organized. She didn’t understand what was going on. She didn’t feel that the photographer took time to find out what she wanted. And she didn’t like the pictures. Hourscht asked to see the photos, which she thought were pretty well done.
“That exchange taught me a lesson,” says Hourscht. “No matter how good the images are, if the client has a bad experience, she will forever associate those negative feelings with the images. So it’s very important to me that my clients have positive feelings about working with my studio. I want them to remember feeling beautiful, feeling taken care of. What they feel behind the picture is so important.”
The value of those impressions goes well beyond positive feelings; they impact the bottom line as well. When you compare high-end, high-revenue photography businesses with those that are struggling to make ends meet, the client experience is often the primary differentiator. Being able to provide a premium experience usually translates to being able to charge premium rates.
“I price myself higher because I am giving a better experience,” says Hourscht. “I encourage other photographers to do the same. If you are spending your time and money to do something right, then you are worth it, so charge it! But you have to put in the work behind it. If you are going to call yourself a professional, be a professional in all aspects—from customer service to technical skills to the products you deliver. Then you can demand the rates you deserve.”
RELATED: Karen Marie explains how to stage a newborn session.
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.