I wish Senior Portrait season would last all year long. Interesting (and willing!) subjects, all kinds of fun ways to photograph them, and very good money -- who could ask for more? If you do portrait photography, this is as good as it gets.
If you're not doing senior portraits now, you should be. Get ready now for this summer and fall. A few things you need to know to get in on this enjoyable and lucrative side of the business:
Most high schools have an "approved list of photographers" -- students can only have their photos done by those on the approved list. Contact the high schools in your area, and tell them you want to be on the approved list for next year. Usually you'll have to meet with the school yearbook advisor, and probably show some samples. If you don't have samples, offer to do some portraits for some kids in your area for free -- it'll be worth it to get on the school's list!
Senior Portraits usually consist of two things...a formal portrait that will go into the school yearbook, and "fun" portraits for the kids and their families. Schools have strict requirements for the yearbook portraits, certain lighting styles, backgrounds, clothing standards. Make sure you know their rules and follow them! It's with the "fun" shots that you can be creative. Get the kids to bring their athletic uniforms, band gear, etc. Try fun and unusual poses, locations, and props. The kids will really get into the session -- they don't often get a chance to ham it up and show off their special talents. And the "fun" shots are also the biggest sellers when it comes time to sell additional prints!
How much should you charge? First, check the other photographers in your area to see what their prices are. If you're new, set your price a little below the prevailing rate to drive business to you, but not so low that it's not profitable. While many photographers charge a flat "session fee" that includes shooting time and proofs only, then sell additional print packages after that fee, I've found it's best to have a complete package up-front -- that includes the session, proofs, and a print package all rolled into one (for example, my $200 standard package includes a 1-2 hour studio session with unlimited outfit changes, printed proofs, and a print package of 1-8x10, 2-5x7's, and 12 wallets. It proved much more popular than a $150 session fee with no prints!). Your fee should always include delivery of their chosen yearbook photo to the school on CD or DVD.
Advertising your senior portrait services should start before the end of the current school year -- in May or June. Most schools have a campus newspaper, where ads are resonably priced. Put brochures or flyers at the school's office as well (if they allow it). If you can, a web site with examples of your work should be done and up, and referred to on your ad materials. You'll usually start shooting in July or August, and have to deliver final yearbook shots to the school by October.
When clients start calling, be sure not to overbook yourself! Leave time to edit photos, prepare prints, go over proofs with clients, etc. For a small one-person studio like mine, I found that 6-8 sessions per week is about the limit I can do and have time to do all of the additional work well. Most of the sessions will be late afternoons or evenings, and weekends -- so plan your free time around weekday mornings!
One cautious note: I'd strongly advise that you never, ever shoot a session with just you and the student, with nobody else present. Always have an adult relative of the student (parent is best!) there. It's sad that it has to be this way, but you don't want to leave yourself open to even a suggestion of inappropriate behavior with a minor. Make sure you protect yourself by having other adults present during sessions.
With session fees, print package sales afterwards, novelty items (mugs, calendars, etc.) and other fun items, I averaged a net profit of $260 per student this past year. I was pretty much fully booked from the middle of July until October. You can do the math...this is a great money making opportunity, and it's some of the most fun and enjoyable work you can do as a portrait photographer.
Go get on your local schools' lists, and have an enjoyable time making good money -- and giving these great kids a memory they'll cherish for years!