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Photographer captures niche with newborns Add to ...

Clients entering the foyer of Chandra Lee Tim’s photography studio in Bowmanville, Ont., are greeted by poster-sized portraits of newborns. Some are curled up comfortably as though in the womb. Others sprout from props, or rest their heads on their own relaxed hands, wearing nothing but a finely detailed knit hat. All are in deep, peaceful sleep.

It’s a cruel irony that the newborn images Ms. Tim has of her own daughter, Madison, now nearly three years old, are nothing like these. “It makes me a little sad,” she acknowledges.

The professional newborn portraits she paid for at that time, collected in a small collage behind Ms. Tim’s desk, show a baby looking more tense and posed more haphazardly than those lining her foyer.

“The pictures weren’t really what I envisioned,” Ms. Tim says. “The only two that I really love are two photos where she is on her father’s arms – and I posed her for those pictures.”

But that gave her a vision for her own future. While she wasn’t a photographer at the time, she figured she could become one – and give parents the kind of posed pictures she wished she had of her own daughter.

It was also the alternative to her career as a law clerk that she’d been searching to go after when her maternity leave was up.

When Madison was just 10 months old, Ms. Tim launched Chandra Lee Photography to enter the crowded market of baby portrait artists.

It was a bold step for Ms. Tim, who had no business experience, limited camera know-how, and was still struggling with how to comfort her own fussy infant, let alone get strangers’ babies settled enough to shoot adorable images.

“I kept telling myself that everyone has to start somewhere, and every photographer must have started somewhere with the same issues I was having,” she says. “I had a lot to learn all at once.”

It’s risky for neophytes to think they can make a name for themselves in an established industry. But there is an advantage in knowing a demand already exists for what you’re selling, says Michael Donahue, business development manager for the Toronto Business Development Centre, an incubator for startups.

“It’s easier to enter a crowded field than it is to enter a field where there’s no existing market in which you then have to work to create demand,” he says.

It’s not enough, though, to just think you can do it better than the competition. You also have to cultivate a thorough understanding of the business and the market, carve out a niche and find ways to get noticed in the crowd.

“One of the key considerations is to really understand the competitors’ offerings: What their competitors’ strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and what gaps might exist in the marketplace that present that opportunity for that new business entrance,” Mr. Donahue says.

“Competitors might not be too forthcoming, but suppliers have a wealth of knowledge and want to win the goodwill of potential clients.”

Many portrait photographers shoot couples, weddings and families, and won’t shoot babies until they’re several weeks old. Ms. Tim found her niche in photographing newborns only 10 days old and younger.

She started by poring over the manual to her digital single-lens reflex camera, which she’d only ever used on automatic mode. Once she learned how to operate the camera, she practised when her daughter was asleep.

“I would practice with her Cabbage Patch doll, because she was too big for newborn photography,” Ms. Tim says.

She took more than 30 photography classes and workshops all over Southern Ontario, travelled to work with newborn photographers she admired in the United States, and was accepted into the Ontario Self-Employment Benefit program, a provincial initiative that provides employment insurance payments to participants while they learn business-development skills.

She credits the OSEB program with putting her three years ahead of what she might have achieved on her own. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them,” says Ms. Tim, who sunk tens of thousands of dollars of her own savings into equipment, studio supplies and courses.

She also learned some needed tricks to help her handle newborns. At a new parents group, for instance, she learned to soothe her own fussy child using the five S’s familiar to parents who’ve read The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Dr. Harvey Karp.

Soothers and swaddling get in the way of her photo shoots, but she now uses the shushing, swinging and side/stomach positioning techniques to get her subjects calm enough for the relaxed poses.

It’s a job that requires an abundance of patience, and the occasional change of clothes. Newborn sessions can last three to six hours, most of the time spent soothing the infants into a very deep sleep before carefully posing their pliable bodies and quickly capturing the moments. With the infants undressed for most of the shots, the studio is kept near 30 degrees C, and it’s a rare day that she doesn’t get peed on – or worse.

After launching the business in October, 2008, free photo shoots for friends and family quickly led to the first paying clients. She had to be creative to generate more business.

She approached midwife clinics to try to get them to display her photos on their walls, but most already had relationships with other established photographers. To get around that, she often hands clients free prints to give away as thank-you’s to their midwives, who then proudly display the images of the infants they have helped bring into the world.

A stint doing Internet tech support while she was studying to become a law clerk at college had taught Ms. Tim the importance of search engine optimization, and she was able to make her Web site the No. 1 result when searching for “Toronto newborn photographer.”

It took so much work to stay in the top spot that she eventually hired a company specializing in SEO for six months to help keep her there. Now, her site generates enough traffic on its own to stay right at the top.

In the last three years, she has shot portraits of more than 200 newborns. The key to her business growth, she says, has been maintaining relationships with her clients to generate referrals.

Until recently, she was giving clients free purse-sized photo booklets, knowing they’d show them around. Her blog is constantly updated with sneak peeks of new images before parents see all the proofs; they’re so eager to share the results that the web site gets a lot of traffic that brings in new clients.

And now that she’s established herself, new photographers are looking to her for an edge. Rather than feel threatened, she turned that into a revenue-generating opportunity, selling her list of suppliers to those who inquire, and conducting workshops in posing newborns for photographers who’ve come from as far away as Bermuda to learn from her.

Ms. Tim recently had to hire her first employee, a part-timer she’s training to edit the images and prepare them for presentation so she can spend more time concentrating on the part of the business she loves most: taking newborn portraits.

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