Business Trends
Marketing Portraits With Personal Style

All Photos © 2004, Marilyn Sholin, All Rights Reserved

I first met portrait photographer Marilyn Sholin when both of us were teaching classes at the Golden Gate School. Impressed by her wonderful images, we talked about business every chance we could that week. I was quite surprised to learn that Sholin was working with a rep, usually a business relationship reserved for the commercial photographer. Her style is so distinctive that it was easy to see how attractive her work would be for the right type of rep (more on that later).

Sholin ( is truly an artist, combining photography of children and family portraits with Corel's Painter software to create a mixture of vivid color and textures that are bold and soft at the same time. Her work is by private commission and she teaches classes at professional photography schools worldwide and is the author of two books published by Amherst Media. Sholin's accolades include award-winning photographs published in the PPA magazine, National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) awards, and she is the only artist approved by the Miami Children's Museum to link to their website. Contributions from her photography brought in over $100,000 last year to the museum.

In this piece, Sholin will do more than just show her work, she will talk to us about her business and marketing success.

Shutterbug: How important is your style to giving you a marketing "edge" in such a competitive market as children's portraits?

Marilyn Sholin: I have always sought to be on the cutting edge of whatever market I entered. When I began professional children's portraits, I researched the market and saw that around the country high-key white backgrounds with props was very hot. In my market area, no one was doing that style. So I went after learning that style and made my "name" doing high-key children's portraits. I was the only game in town at that time. So for 25 years I have always worked the same way, incorporating my personal style of portraiture into what is missing in my targeted markets. That is what has always given me the edge on the competition. Being not only the most original and innovative, but being first with a style and creating styles of my own. If they can't get it anywhere else but from me, then the clients must book me for their portraits.

SB: How did this style combining your portraits and the Painter software evolve and do you still market "traditional" portraits?

MS: The evolution of my paintings is a great journey. I went from admiring the "look" and having someone else do the painting in the beginning to realizing that my vision wasn't theirs and I had to learn how to do it myself. I took classes, private classes, got up two hours early every day so I could practice tutorials and study and paint.

One day I was trying out new ways of doing things and still searching for something that said "Marilyn" when I came upon what made me feel good, happy, and expressed my own artwork in the strong colors and details of a painting. It took me a short time to learn ways to replicate it over and over and still have every painting be an original. I studied the art world and learned that, like great photographers, being able to create a look that says my name and can be duplicated is the way to success.

My main sales target has always been traditional photographic portraits. It still is, but after five years my clients know about my artwork, however they can't visualize their own portraits in that style. So I am usually booked to create photographs and when I sit with them and do the sales presentation, I show them my ideas for a painting. They usually buy at least one of the paintings. After they see themselves in my vision they are very excited. But they always think of photographs as their first purchasing objective. I extend and expand the sale from there.

SB: What has been your best marketing strategy?

MS: The best marketing strategy is one I would never have believed years ago: give it away for free. Again I studied successful local and international artists and actually even viewed their careers online to study them. I found that artists are failures when they keep their work to themselves. The only way to get artwork sold is for the public to see it. The best way to get to the market that can afford the prices is to get it seen by them. The fastest way to get the right client is to donate to a charity event where they must bid on the artwork (not a free door prize giveaway). This guarantees that the person bidding and paying already likes the style and wants to buy something. It immediately qualifies them not only as a buyer, but as someone who can afford my artwork.

Giving away to charities is the artist's best way to get their product seen by the right client and to meet and rub elbows and socialize with the target market. There is an art to this process and I have spent the last few years getting the details down right for this market and how I actually enact all the events. My best clients who now pay full price for my work are from previous charity events and they also are ones who always purchase at least one painting from every portrait session.

SB: It is unusual for a consumer portrait photographer to work with a rep but a trend we hope to see more of in portrait photography. How did you decide to work with a photo rep and--most of all--how did you find the right one?

MS: Looking at artists again, I found that they all have staff who do their groundwork and connect with the events, galleries, and businesses that they could possibly work with. I started to think that this would be a great help to me in that I am only one person and limited in time to be a photographer, do my own sales presentations, produce the orders, find new markets, travel and teach, and create art, all with just one full-time employee. I did not want another full-time employee, but instead someone to work on projects and also to find projects for me. I realized that I needed what amounted to a "rep."

Then I looked at my personal client base to see if there was anyone I already did business with who was knowledgeable and might want to do a "trade out" to test out a relationship. It turns out that I found one person who had not only managed an art gallery for many years, but was a client I trusted, enjoyed, and still had two young children who she had me photograph every year. I invited her to lunch one day and presented the idea and showed her my portfolio and asked her advice. She immediately knew what actions to take, how to do it, and presented me a few days later with her thoughts and a contract for her services for a year with renewal options. We brainstormed and she brought me in more business than I ever thought possible from the right clients in the first two years of our working together.

My rep is invaluable. She opened doors for me that I couldn't get in. When someone else is representing an artist, it's not the "poor little artist knocking on the door" but instead a prestigious and knowledgeable representative who knows the artist's work, knows not only how to talk about the benefits of the artist's work, but, knows how to create a beneficial environment for the purchasers.

It's a win-win situation where my rep tries to make the clients happy while making money for me. She takes the stress out of my days by contacting new markets and doing the groundwork to find the right events and charities for us to work with and be sure we are not wasting our time. She also constantly sends my work out to larger companies and gets the feedback I need for national sales and licensing of images so I keep myself on the right track with my art.