My Problem with Mini-Sessions

The Typical Formula

There’s a trend in the photography world that’s had me scratching my head since I started my business. It’s this phenomenon of the “mini-session.” You’ve seen the marketing blasts on Facebook, maybe even taken the bait and gotten a few cute pictures for a steal and for that I wouldn’t blame you one bit. They're appealing. A "mini-session” for those who are unaware, typically follows a formula something like,

> 15-20 minute session
> one or two specific days
> some specific, well-known location
> a variation of thematic props staged in a cute scene 
> all the full size image files from the session on a CD, maybe a few small prints

all for a majorly reduced price somewhere <$100. 

I’ll confess, I’ve tried season after season to jump on this mini-session bandwagon but continually found myself in a fit of contradiction and either timidly launched a special that fell flat or skipped the whole process altogether.

At first glance, mini-sessions seem like a great idea. From a business standpoint, this model seems like a quick and sure way to drum up business and engage new clients, maybe build a starting portfolio with little risk or commitment from your subjects. From a client perspective, it seem to provide a cheaper solution to the common need—“I just want one good picture of Billy that’s not on my phone in the backyard!”  Except...

The Big Questions

As I’ve honed my style and packages to create the Firefly Experience, there are a few aspects about which I feel passionately. My business is built around personalization, relationships, capturing genuine moments, and providing quality printed images. I can offer my best work and clients their best images/experience when I’m able to: 

1. Communicate with the client in-person or via phone meeting to break the ice, get to know one another, and plan logistics like location and wardrobe that suit their personal style

2. Spend 60 minutes shooting on location, allowing time to take breaks, explore, chat, and play so everyone is relaxed and comfortable

3. Meet with them after the shoot to go through the final gallery, answer questions, and help design print orders that make sense for their home and budget with efficiency 

  • So if a mini session cuts out personalization, communication, shooting time, and only provides arbitrary files or a couple 5x7’s in an envelope, how could I possibly feel like I’m giving a client my best?  
  • When all the sessions are running back to back and it’s just a matter of sitting a different kid down in the same prop or backdrop, how does that showcase their personality?
  • How can I validate myself as a “professional” photographer if really, a nice camera and some funky props do half the job? 
  • How can I capture organic interaction and gut-laughs when a child is wide-eyed and terrified of the stranger suddenly pointing that giant machine in his face? 
  • And lastly, my prices are set for a reason — I don’t pick them out of the air. They’re carefully calculated to account for my business expenses + my time and talent + details that make their experience efficient, quality, and enjoyable. The typical mini-session formula is a cheap way to "get them in the door," yes, but in order for me to afford to charge such low prices, I’d have to cut out valuable pieces from their experience, quality, and final product. How could I let them walk back out that door knowing that I gave them a fraction of what they deserve and what I can offer? 
  • There’s a theory with the mini-session that it’s more of an appetizer that leaves the client wanting more — but I think I’d rather not tease my clients with appetizers when I have an amazing meal waiting for them! 

Counter Conundrum 

I do understand that it’s hard to trust someone right away and photography is a luxury investment. Sometimes people need a taste before they bite into the real deal, and that’s legitimate—which is why I offer a session option that allows clients to get a slice without investing in the whole pie right away. This session time is shorter (but long enough to still confidently warm up to the camera and capture real expression), the final gallery is paired down to fewer final images, and clients loose the planning consultations for styling and final gallery reveal with hands-on design and ordering advice; but where it differs from the typical mini-session is that they still have the option to personalize their location, dates, times, and props, receive the undivided attention and communication of their photographer, and have the same access to quality print products after their shoot.

There are a few photographers who have crafted successful versions of mini-sessions that veer off this typical formula and still provide a solution to the need for quality photography or way to explore a fun, unique theme without devaluing the customer experience. For other photographers, the typical mini-session formula works just fine for their needs, style, and market, so I’m not sitting on a throne here saying it’s a terrible idea and either demographic are terrible people/business owners for promoting them. One of the great things about the photography industry is that it’s a creative industry which means every photographer is going to have a different style and approach which will suit variable needs and wants for varying types of clients.

After trying and trying to figure out the perfect solution to my mini-session conundrum, I finally decided to just stop looking at how “everybody else does them” and instead, look at what I want my business to project. The typical mini-session model doesn’t work for my goals, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up of the mini-session all together, or that that “typical” formula will remain the standard in the photography world. For now, I’ve come up with a new formula to celebrate the back-to-school season that I think serves my clients much better. Instead of taking away, I’m adding value for a limited-time special price.

More details on the actual special to come later this month, but be sure to subscribe to The Mason Jar to get the first inside scoop and dibs on my alternative mini-session back-to-school special!