Jim Lersch, M.Photog.Cr
HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS, My Way
James Lersch, M.Photog., Cr., API
Most of my fellow judging, speaking and photographer friends know that I've been a commercial photographer for my entire career (35 years+). Yes, 8x10 transparencies, view cameras, the whole nine yards. I've even done 4 years as a fashion photographer, shot food, automobiles, location and catalog photography. If anybody had ever suggested that I'd be shooting high school seniors someday, I'd still be laughing. Now I'm laughing but it's not at the thought of shooting seniors - I'm making money doing it and I'm taking customers away from established studios.
As an PPA API, I give seminars for PPA and affiliate state conventions dealing with simple commercial work for portrait photographers but most popular is my seniors seminar, "Seniors My Way".Why would a relatively sane photographer with a commercial client base like mine decide to shoot seniors?
Simple - my wife suggested it. We all know that good husbands consider the suggestions that their wives make..... My wife Carol and I had been to a convention and although I'd never photographed seniors, I'm serious about furthering my educationin my chosen profession and consider every seminar as a means to that end. The speaker had some very creative images that stimulated my mind. Like any business, we decided to check out the competition AND talk to some seniors to see what they DIDN'T like about their images.
Since I'd already befriended the head of the Art Department at the local high school (I do short seminars on professional photography for the photo students), we asked her to invite a dozen of the most popular kids in school to a pizza party at our home. Keep in mind that these were kids that had already had their senior photo sessions.
The number one complaint from these seniors - EVERYBODYS' SENIOR PHOTOS LOOKS THE SAME. Hmm, same complaint I had when I was in high school. Other complaints included stupid posing (kids don't really hug trees and lean on barn wood) and the fact that they generally didn't get to do what they wanted to. Sounded like we were on to something!
The greatest thing I learned from that first meeting was this: the MOST important thing that you must do to succeed in the seniors market is to BE DIFFERENT. This means not only in your imagery but also in how you deal with students. They want to give input and I listen to them and their ideas...my images speak for themselves.
Each and every human being is unique and different. Obviously, so are seniors. Knowing this, I've decided that I will meet with each senior several time BEFORE we shoot so that I'd get to know them in a more trusting, less stressful and friendly way. Other photographers say that you can't possibly take that much time with each senior or you'll never make any money. Fine, I'll do it because now they want me to be their photographer and friend and they'll pay for it. Believe me, these kids think deeply and want to share their thoughts and ideas. An adult that listens to them is a rare and wonderful thing and they appreciate it. I do 6 presentations each Career Day for the high school and always have standing room only because the students have heard that I will listen to them. Bottom line - get a reputation for that and create unique images...they won't want to go anywhere else because they know that they'll have one-of-a-kind images that they'll be proud to give their friends.
For example: the images of the young man looking through the rainy window (in studio)and holding the hammer and nail are from the same session. The hammer and nail story is 2000 years - hard to tell in one image but we did it, together. Because these kids have an effect on my life just as I do theirs, I'll always remember their names.
Another example: Darcy (currently studying acting in LA) loved the movie Chicago and asked it there was any way we could do an image based on the movie...sure, why not! Darcy did put in some sweat-equity on helping construct the "jail", which she paid for and painted. She brought a friend over who also appeared in some images (bought prints, too).We even donated the jail to the high school drama department for their summer show that had the song "Jailhouse Rock" in it. You can bet that everybody at school knows where that cool prop came from too. All of these images are from regular senior sessions and NONE of them were done strictly for competition.
I also learned that business cards always get lost (most likely in the trash can).So I hand out CDs with images of students from the school that I've photographed along with my contact info on the first and most striking image. I also send them to my website (www.lerschphoto.com - click on Seniors). Since I design and maintain it, I can instantly change it to KEEP IT CURRENT with the latest cool senior sessions.
During my seminars, I'm asked about my Photoshop techniques but mostly about my lighting styles. Today's seniors are growing up in a society of excess and extremes and have always had computers available. They want extremes in both color and tones so try using other light modifiers besides soft boxes. Fresnel focusing spots, strip lights and parabolics will set your imagery apart and give them the edgy, contrasty look that they crave.The photographic industry needs to go back, study and master good lighting techniques.
High school seniors are now half of my work and they are the most rewarding,both visually, creatively and mentally - my photography feels young and refreshed again.I'm having so much fun that it ought to be illegal..... my challenge to all photographers that work with high school seniors is simple: take a little extra time to listen to your subjects, let them suggest some ideas and trust their instincts. They know themselves better than anyone else and they'll pay you for the privilege of being your subject.
Jim Lersch, M.Photog., Cr., API, PPO-F
1002 W. Yellowstone
Nixa, MO 65714
Jim's web site
Back to EPhoto 2008