It’s happened to all of us.

You log in to Facebook and there is a status update from friends (who were once clients) saying they’ve added to their family with the arrival of a new child. To your surprise and sadness, they are posting photos of their little one taken by a large retail chain. Washed backdrops and cheesy props don’t match the quality of their wedding photos.

What’s a couple to do when the cost of living is significantly increased by the arrival of a new mouth to feed, future plans for college, and don’t forget diapers! Grandma & Grandpa aren’t footing the bill for the rest of their lives; they gave up that luxury at the altar.

Children grow fast, so it would be difficult to pay our usual session fee each few months to capture their constantly-changing expressions and sweet stages of life. To my amazement, I discovered many of our clients walked in to the big box retail stores thinking they would spend $50-$100 on their images and walked away spending $300.

I believe in the importance of photographing your kids and family. We wanted to be within reach of their budget and sustain the relationships we had with our existing client base. After all, we really like them and watching them create their own families brings us joy. We wanted to be their solution, so a brainstorm began! This is where our “Shoots and Ladders” sessions were birthed.

Our website explains it best:

Throughout the year, we announce Shoots & Ladders sessions. Usually running 1-2 days, we open our daylight studio to kids of all ages for quick mini-sessions that are a fraction of our regular portrait session prices, allowing for frequent, up-to-date shots of your fast-growing cuties. The kids have a blast playing and posing in front of our custom-themed, hand-built sets. Parents appreciate the calm, controlled private atmosphere and the studio-quality results. We provide parents with a handful of incredible images to choose from. No pressure — order from home when it’s convenient for you (up to 2 weeks after a shoot). The only difficult part? Choosing the photos you like best. Child’s play, indeed.

Our initial idea was to do a session once a month. When we assembled our first set and opened it to clients in November of 2010, we realized that a once a month session was more of a grand idea than a reality. We rented out an empty office space with hardwood floors and loads of natural light and built a “Winter Wonderland” using four large trash bags of snow, birch tree limbs we borrowed from a friend, a 10-foot light gray roll of seamless paper, and a sled from my attic. A true Winter Wonderland was born! We photographed a slew of super cute kids bundled in toboggans, mittens and cozy coats. We spent hours setting up and tearing down, we had tremendous success, and learned a lot in the process!

What we learned Behind-the-Scenes: 

1. Sets take a long time to put together, regardless of how small they may seem!

2. Giving clients direction on how to dress their children is much appreciated.

3. Choosing a holiday or a teacher work day results in higher attendance.

4. Scheduling sessions close together is a sure way to get one client out the door and the next client in. (We love our clients and want to chat with them, but we also have lots of kids to wrangle and shoot in a short of time!)

5. Twenty minutes was more than enough time to give them the promised 4-6 images to view online and we had to scale down our shooting a bit to accomplish this.

6. We maintain a private email list so clients we work with often are the first to know. They get 24-48 hours to sign their kids up before the sessions are open to the public via our blog and Facebook page.

Based on the everything we’ve learned from the last few sessions, this is our current plan for 2012 & 2013:

  • We aim to do a “Shoots & Ladders” session four times a year – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.
  • A typical set for us is a 20-minute session. During Christmas season, we allow the entire family in the set (the rest of the year it’s kids only).
  • We extend the winter set to 30 minutes to include the entire family and a set of custom-designed greeting cards.
  • Each year we would love to do one fully-styled set. We consider our fully-styled sets to be custom wardrobe, like we did with our Woodland World set this year.
  • We enlisted the help of some awesome children’s clothing designers: ZoZo Bug Baby, The Measure, and Lillipops Kids. My word of advice to you for fully-styled sets is to charge more, it was A LOT of work.
  • Two of our sets each year will be simpler set ups with a smaller session fee (think $99). This allows us to really focus on making our Christmas set and fully-styled set really big!

A few more helpful tips:

We send out the pricing guide for prints and packages when they book along with a PDF that explains that they should arrive early, suggested outfits for the kids, where to park, and what to expect during the session.

We allow 14 days for viewing images and placing orders. If they don’t order within 14 days, then they have to pay a fee to have the event re-released. The goal is to get the shoots wrapped up quickly so we can focus on weddings, portrait clients, and future sets.

Packages were created so our clients could have easy selection and we reach out along the way to help with ordering.

Our staff enjoys doing these sessions because they often involve a craft night, along with loads of fun dreaming them up and finding fun and quirky ways to market them. We don’t claim to have perfected it yet, but word of our shoots is spreading quickly and we are booking up faster and faster each time. The most exciting news? The clients we created Shoots and Ladders for – the ones we’ve worked with – keep coming back. Their friends are now coming back as well and bringing more adorable subjects. Now the only problem is deciding which of our ideas to execute next!

Photographer Millie Holloman

Millie Holloman is a photographer based in Wilmington, NC. She opened Millie Holloman Photography in 2005 after graduating from Regent University with a B.A. in business. In five years she’s transformed her studio from a one-woman operation shooting 15 weddings a year to a staff of five photographers shooting 90 weddings a year locally and internationally. With her innovative visual style, breakthrough business and marketing strategies and inmilfectious enthusiasm she’s taken the industry by storm. Her reputation continues to grow and her work has been featured in Professional Photographer, The Knot, Southern Weddings, Weddings Unveiled, and Our State magazines. Millie’s blog and website attract more than 100,000 unique hits a month and her Love Affair Photography Workshop, a venture she created in partnership with three other female photographers, sold out in the first three minutes. A testament to her passion, talent and success, Love Affair Workshop has a waiting list of more than 900 photographers across the world. Millie says the keys to her success are few: faith, hard work, passion and an uncanny ability to foster lasting relationships with vendors and clients.

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