Business + Marketing

How One Midwestern Portrait Studio Increases its Session Volume Yearly

March 13, 2018

By Jacqueline Tobin

All Photos © Arnold Clark Photography

Arnold Clark Studio excels in its market at senior portraiture through personal service, a variety of incredible props and sets, and lots of promotions and special campaigns geared toward their high school senior clients.

When entering the Arnold Clark Studio in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, clients are no doubt struck by the 12,000+ square-foot space that boasts seven camera rooms and extensive outdoor sets.

Arnold Clark Photography is a family-owned portrait studio specializing in senior portraits. Bill Clark, president and CEO of the studio, purchased the studio in 1972 from E.W. Arnold, combining the previous owner’s and his own last name to create the studio name Arnold Clark. As a longstanding name in Omaha, Bill Clark wanted people to know it was the same studio. Clark’s wife, Theresa, is the creative talent, marketing and studio coordinator. Their son Billy is the lead photographer.

“We have a successful senior, family, dance and cheer business with nearly 5,000 sessions each year,” explains the trio. “We have 17 staff members, including four photographers. With absolutely no social media marketing, we maintain ourselves as a high-volume studio that operates and charges like a boutique studio. Our numbers are achieved with steadfast and creative personalized marketing.”

One thing that has worked well for the studio over time is having the teens who come in for sessions treated with “first-class service and pampering,” according to the Clarks. “We stay socially connected via community, social and charity events, as well as school activities,” says Theresa. “We have an aggressive print campaign that arrives in mailboxes 16 times during their senior year. Kids really want to be a part of this and often call the studio to find out how they can be involved.”

To market their brand, the Clarks use Marathon Press—the studio is a big believer in direct mail. They also team up with other high-profile businesses in the area, including malls, television and airport displays. Beyond direct mail marketing, Arnold Clark Studio prides itself on picking up the phone. “It’s the single most important tool we use,” Theresa says. “We use zero social media—no Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.”

One key to their success, they say, is that their seniors are photographed and sold to in a way that has “loads of personal service.” And they do many promotions and special campaigns, including a Representative, Leadership and Sports program. “Each has their own way of being beneficial to the seniors,” says Theresa.

At the end of the senior season, the Clarks get flooded with requests from students who, after having someone who might be a recent camera owner take his or her portraits, come to Arnold Clark to have their images taken correctly and creatively.

“We truly love restoring people’s faith in photography, and we make it fun for them,” says Billy. Each camera room has a plethora of one-of-a-kind props from all over the world, and occasionally, the Clarks completely change a piece by adding fur or changing the upholstery. “We have several types of furniture, so the style of the sessions often has more variety,” Billy explains. “We have mid-century modern, baroque, French country, ‘70s disco, hippy, gypsy, clean contemporary and more. We even have a couch made of bullhorns, chairs covered in Tibetan lamb in different colors, and large chairs that we call Pope Chairs because they are over-the-top gilded in gold with gold leather.”

Set design is also very important to the Clarks. “We choose our set designs based on fashion magazines and what we see abroad, not from what we see other photographers shooting,” says patriarch Bill. “Some of our sets are so elaborate that movie producers have asked to use them, too. And we are located close to downtown Omaha so our buildings have so much character that we use them in our sessions.”

Bill continues: “We designed our studio so that our clients would know they were going to spend money but not feel as though they were going to be taken advantage of. A well- stocked snack bar and fresh baked cookies are available to our clients to make them feel at ease during the portrait process.”

In other words, everything they do is first-class, down to the custom, hand-wrapped delivery boxes containing their products.

In that vein, last August, the Clarks hosted Elite Mastermind, an event they created for a select set of photographers and industry leaders to reinforce their message that portrait photography is “still as vibrant as ever!”

Photo © Arnold Clark Photography

Changing the Family Recipe

Senior portraits will always be our bread and butter, but like all photography studios, we also like to profit during our off-season. For the last six years, we’ve been very profitable with our family sessions and packages as a result of marketing changes.

In the past, we have always taken to shooting a more traditional style of family photography, but we decided to change our family recipe this winter in three different ways, and as a result, we saw a large increase in spending by our clients.

The first thing we changed was how our product looked. We moved away from the traditional 8 x 10 format to a square format.

Secondly, during our sales appointments, all photos are now shown in black and white, with the option to purchase in color.

Our last big change was the hardest to transition over to but we needed to stay current. Our old family portrait model, where each person is dressed in their Sunday best, sitting on posing stools with a canvas background, has seen its time. The formula we found that works best today is to cater to a more modern and casual look. We tossed out all of the old rules of posing and building pyramids, and instead now line the family across, horizontally and avoid building up. We also use select furniture pieces—like couches and chairs—instead of posing stools.

In terms of dress, we recommend solid black tops paired with jeans or dress slacks for men, and solid black dresses for women. When possible, we try to keep our camera angle low, no more than 2 feet off the floor. And because we use a lower camera angle, how shoes look are an important element of the photo. Vertical family portraits cropped square tend to have more negative space, so we use the rule of thirds and put the empty space primarily at the top.

The overall look of our family portraits is now more polished and artistic. Best of all, we have seen an increase in sales and how the legacy of our art is perceived.

—Bill Clark, President and CEO

Related: How Lindsay Adler Bridges the Worlds of Fashion Posing and Senior Portraiture

How To Price and Structure Senior Portrait Packages

The Harrowing Path to a Wedding and Portrait Photographer’s Dream Studio