Industry News

How Portrait Photographers Are Pivoting During COVID-19

April 4, 2020

By Jacqueline Tobin

Illustration by Sharon Ber for Rangefinder/WWPI

As a portrait photographer based in Seattle—what’s considered “ground zero” for COVID-19 in the United States before it spread nationwide—Mary Vance is looking at an unrecognizable year. Last month, she wasn’t sure the coronavirus would have as much of an impact on her business as it would for other photographers. “I actually thought I would be isolated a bit since my senior season is concentrated in August and September,” says Vance, who also home-schools her children already. “Now, I’m becoming more and more aware that this is not the case.”

The number of confirmed cases has spiked dramatically, more than doubling from last week, when we reported on how COVID-19 is affecting the wedding photography industry. As of today, various sources have tracked over one million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, with more than 50,000 deaths. The U.S. has confirmed over 245,000 cases in the country (up from 46,000 early last week), and while New York remains the highest case count (north of 90,000), coronavirus cases have spread rampantly throughout all states in the hundreds and thousands.

Over the last few weeks, photo shows have announced cancellations, gear companies are delaying manufacturing plans, and photographers have been steadily adjusting and recalibrating their plans for business as the full picture of COVID-19 becomes clearer to their industry. “It comes in waves,” Vance says, “and I’m trying to figure it out as I go just like everyone else.”

[See our COVID-19 resource page for business information and creative inspiration that will help you rise to the occasion.]

Changing the Foundation

A few weeks ago, Vance released her senior portrait photography schedule for the year. As in much of the Midwest, senior portraits are a staple for high schoolers and their parents, a necessity in commemorating this coming-of-age milestone. Some students who are still years from graduating already know who they want to shoot their senior portraits, Vance says. “I have girls who were in the ninth grade who told me, ‘You’re going to be my senior photographer.’”

Having photographed seniors for the last seven years, Vance has a handle on how to run her business within Seattle’s school schedule, dodging its notoriously rainy weather patterns all the while to capture the outdoor, natural-light photos that her clientele has come to expect. Her season runs from the middle of June, when juniors in high school become seniors, through October, when sunlight becomes more sparse. “By November, any day you wanted to start a session would have to be by 3 p.m. because we’re so far north that we get so little daylight,” Vance explains.

The school districts whose seniors typically tap her for portraits have graduating classes of over one thousand. With only five months of true session time available, Vance usually books half of her schedule right off the bat. Days after she made it available, she told me, “I have had two bookings. It is the biggest crickets ever.” 

She’s not shocked. “People really were having to drive around to find toilet paper here. They’re not thinking of their kid’s senior portrait shoot in August.” But the fear among photographers is that parents won’t think of booking a session until even later. While a deluge of inquiries doesn’t sound bad on the surface, it could pose real problems if photographers, who will need the income, find themselves having to turn clients away. Vance suspects most parents might not consider booking until September or October, provided social distancing measures are safer by then.

When protective measures first started getting implemented in her area in early March, Vance says most people thought they’d be home for a couple of weeks. “And now our school districts are saying, ‘You might not go back this year.’” (As of now, they’re closed through April 24.) “We were eased into it by thinking we’d just put some things on pause.”

At the time, Vance figured she would only need to reschedule some of her sessions. That didn’t seem implausible for a genre of portrait photography that has a wider window of client planning and interest than, say, maternity or newborn photography. The birthing centers and hospitals in Seattle had already banned contact with newborns from outsiders. Photographers who had planned to go in for “fresh 48’s,” sessions that are typically done for new families wanting the first few hours of their newborn’s life captured—without having the entire labor or delivery documented, as birth photography offers—were facing cancellations across the board.

“Less than a month ago, I was receiving my steady flow of inquiries for newborn, family and maternity sessions,” says Michelle Lange, a portrait and wedding photographer based in New York. “Last week, I didn’t receive a single inquiry for a portrait session. My post-session sales are down significantly too as many are, rightfully, concerned about unemployment.”

At the end of March in New York, all “non-essential” businesses were authorized to close, warning of fines and penalties should business owners not comply. “As the main contributor to my family’s income, it is a time of uncertainty,” Lange says. “I am thankful for the savings we made in the past.”

Mandatory closure sparks certain financial concerns for small-business owners. The U.S. government recently passed a stimulus package that is designed to help various groups, including freelancers and self-employed individuals who are facing unemployment, and small-businesses owners looking for financial assistance (we put together a guide to help navigate this, along with more resources for photographers specifically.)

In the meantime, Lange advises newborn photographers to reassure clients that sessions can, in fact, be pushed until closer contact is deemed safer. “The photos you take of them with their babies are going to be cherished at whatever age,” she says. “Your clients may be really disappointed if they were hoping for a true newborn session, and we need to be there to support them mentally and reassure them that photos when their baby is 4 months old will be just as important to them as when their baby is two weeks old.”

For Guillaume Lechat, a commercial, fashion and lifestyle photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee, postponing shoots isn’t always in the cards. In one week, he watched five planned shoots for clients—three in Paris, two in New York—get wiped out of his books completely. That’s because “they have to be live at a certain time and won’t,” Lechat says, “especially for fashion brands.” In a threatening economic recession, he fears brands and agencies will cut their budgets substantially even when those projects are safe to pursue again.

But that isn’t exactly top of mind for Lechat right now. Writing to me from the UK, he explained that back in March, he had flown to Europe to attend a family wedding. Everything escalated quickly and the U.S. travel ban kicked in before he could fly home. He has been stuck in the UK since, along with his 2-year-old daughter and his wife, who is 7 months pregnant. They live in Nashville on an E2 visa, a group that isn’t permitted back into the States for at least another two weeks. 

He informed his client and contact list in an email and included a link to his stock photography, in case anyone was interested in image syndication. “I have around 1,700 images and it’s bringing me a little bit of income each month, around $300 to $500,” Lechat explains. “For me, any little help is good at the moment. I have a lot of expenses right now with zero income.”

Coming to Terms

The effects of the coronavirus are so widespread and global that photographers are still piecing together how exactly it’s impacting their particular business. Throughout my conversations with Vance, the aftereffects were crystallizing as we were talking through the avenues of what she offers.

For the seniors she has already photographed, Vance offers something she calls “next-step mini sessions,” where she opens a block of time for seniors to walk in for a studio portrait that can serve as an official announcement for their post-high school plans. After making the decision on a college, military program or vocation, for instance—but before actually starting that new stage of life—is a milestone moment that she can’t capture for them now. Vance supposes she won’t be able to photograph group prom and graduation parties either.

She was hoping that she’d be able to keep her next-step mini sessions in the books for April, when about half of her seniors from the fall booked follow-up shoots. She was thinking that as long as she was healthy, she could still shoot these one-on-one. The social-distancing protocols wouldn’t be a problem; her mini sessions are 10 minutes long, and she interacts with one kid at a time. “It’s not going to be you and 15 of your best friends—oh that’s another thing,” Vance said, interrupting herself. “I typically shoot best-friend sessions this time of year too.” She sighed heavily. “So yeah! Won’t be able to do that.”

Seattle was placed on full lockdown about a week later, in late March. Now, any kind of shoot was out of the question. Like all wedding and portrait photographers, Vance is encouraging people to not cancel completely. Once restrictions relax, she figures she could begin photographing single-subject shoots with a longer lens and keep more than the recommended distance.

Vance also shoots fine-art school photos for a few districts in her area. She might be able to do those this coming fall, but a couple of them usually ask her to shoot spring photos in addition. With that not the case this time, Vance thought of a workaround that could also help parents who hadn’t ordered fall portraits yet. Normally, she doesn’t reopen her portrait galleries once an ordering window has closed, but reopening them would give families another chance to order before the year is over. “This is a change in policy to fit the times,” she says. “Some of them may have counted on a spring shoot, or the yearbook,” which will be abbreviated or cancelled. “Occasionally, I have parents who forget in the chaos leading up to the holidays. This feels like an easy and compassionate email to send.”

Her print labs were still open (she uses Pro DPI for prints and Miller’s for albums). But when we caught up a couple of days later, Vance had an update: “Guess what happened? My labs closed.”

Pivoting Focus

If there’s a silver lining that comes out of this experience, Lange says, “I am hopeful that this results in a stronger, more educated photography industry.” With everyone forced to reckon with the fine print of what they’re owed and what they’re waiving, she thinks that there could be some “tightening up on business processes, procedures and contractual obligations.”

Lange is choosing to waive her fees. While doing so accepts a certain financial hit, it could also elevate a business’ standing in the eyes of clients. “I personally have been waiving them for my wedding portraiture and allowing session fee payment deferral until we are able to get a new date on the books,” she says. “This may not work for everyone, but I personally do not use any funds until the session takes place.”

Read: Legal Take—Wedding Cancellations During the Outbreak

In the meantime, Lange is focusing on redesigning her website, finishing up post-production and ordering albums. “My near-term goal of opening a photography studio has been postponed,” she says, “but it’s certainly not cancelled. I will not let this take my business, or my future dreams for my business. To have some cash flow for my family and to help out a local essential business, I began a temporary job.”

“The way we’re coming together is how we’re leaning into working on our business, not in our business,” Vance says. “I’m updating my systems, workflows, templates and accounting—spending time working on my business so that I’ll be ready to come out of the gate strong when it’s time.”

The truth is, photo businesses will shut down operations completely. Sustaining income until it’s safe to interact with people will prove too difficult for some. The key to survival, many agree, will be to diversify and branch out. Some photographers are already planning to offer educational resources in the near future.

“At least in my area, almost everyone has a DSLR and almost no one knows how to use it,” Vance says. “Because I live in Microsoft’s backyard, I might pivot and do a series for people who are stuck at home and want to get off automode.” She already teaches basic photo skills to people who are interested in learning more about their cameras. Vance sees herself educating people about mobile photography too, “and I’m thinking about things like light-journaling throughout your house: What does it look like here on a sunny Sunday morning versus on an overcast day?”

From the UK, Lechat has already put together a platform to coach commercial, fashion and portrait photographers one-on-one for those who want to reach new clients and expand their focuses. “With my 15 years of background,” he says, “I think I’m feeling legitimate enough to give my tips to young photographers who want to make it in a competitive environment.”

This week, Vance says, “the biggest thing that I’m facing is staying on top of communication with my class of 2020 seniors.” When she sent a message to her client list expressing empathy and understanding for their losses, Vance received a lot of positive responses, she says. “Bookings for the class of 2021 are still in the toilet, but I’m staying hopeful that they will come when this has all blown over.”

Whenever that will be. Nothing is certain, but “any crisis like this becomes a point of connection,” Vance says. “I think we’ll tell our grandkids, ‘Yes, I was alive during the COVID-19 epidemic.’”