Yes, I offer free mini sessions in my photography business.  

No, I’m not crazy.  At least not for that reason.  

Today, I’ll share with you how I structure my mini-sessions, why I occasionally offer them for free and how that has helped grow my business.

The Origin of the Free Mini Session

I struggled with mini sessions.  For a while, I struggled getting any bookings.  Then I struggled with getting them completely booked out.  I was discouraged and frustrated.  

As part of my membership in Cole’s Classroom, I took a course on mastering Facebook ads taught by Cole Humpus.  I hoped he could teach me how to write better ads to help me book my mini sessions and all would be well with the world.

Through the course, I realized it wasn’t my work or my ad copy that was failing.  I simply didn’t have the client base or name recognition yet to book a ton of mini session clients.  Cole suggested giving away mini sessions in a “try it before you buy it” model.  He said it would be a great way to build some buzz about my business and connect with new clients.

I tried it.  And damn if it didn’t work.  

I booked a full day of mini sessions in two days and pulled in 10 new clients to my business. Nine of those have since become loyal clients and supporters over the years.  And each of those first mini clients purchased something! After expenses, I put $1,500 in my pocket from free sessions.

That first go-round of free mini sessions worked so well, I decided to keep that model for mini sessions. And it works, every time.

So how can I make money shooting for free?

How Free Mini Sessions Help My Business

How My Free Mini Sessions Work

The mini session itself is free, but the products (digitals and prints) are not. I bill it as a “only pay for what you love” experience. I don’t even ask for a deposit. Clients schedule a time slot, sign a contract and come to the session.  

After the session, I choose 5-8 of the best images to share with the client via a Shootproof gallery.  I usually offer four packages at different price points clients can pick from, including an all-digital package.  Clients can also buy ala carte prints.  Clients understand these details and know the pricing ahead of time when they sign the contract.

Types of Free Sessions

I’ve offered free mini-sessions for Christmas photos, Valentine’s sessions, summer ice cream sessions, and cap-and-gown sessions.  Sessions are usually 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the style.

My holiday themed sessions are targeted towards kids. I also offer free cap-and-gown mini-sessions to all my existing senior clients as a thank you for booking a full session.   I always give existing clients and my social media followers the first chance to sign up.  Then I run Facebook ads to fill the remaining spots.  

Occasionally, I’ll also offer a free session and a small number of digital images as a gift to existing to members in my community just as a goodwill gesture. For example, I had an acquaintance who was going through a really icky divorce and money was tight.  I offered her a free mini-session and 3 free digital images as a fun thing for her and her kids.  

She didn’t buy any additional products, but later, her mom booked me for an anniversary shoot , and her sister booked an engagement session, and eventually, she booked me for a full family session.  I got to give her family a fun experience and eventually, I earned a loyal client.

Should You Shoot for Free?

Consider the Risks

There are some risks you take by offering free sessions.  There’s a chance none of the session participants will end up purchasing products and you don’t make any money.  I’ve had a few people participate in sessions and not purchase products afterward.

Offset that risk by keeping my set costs low and securing free or low-cost studio space.  I use free mini session templates, borrow props instead of buy, and only purchase items I know I can reuse in the future.  

There’s also a risk in not requiring a deposit. You may have people simply not show up for their spot. If that concerns you, ask for a deposit. The deposit can apply toward their purchase or be refunded if they don’t purchase.

And finally, you might wonder why a client would return for a paid session if they get one for free? I eliminate that risk by only offering limited time mini sessions that are season-specific, such as a kids’ Christmas PJ set or a back-to-school mini session. I ensure my mini-sessions don’t compete with the bread and butter of my business – family portraits, senior pictures, and volume photography.

Graduation mini sessions

How Free Mini Sessions Help Build My Business

This model might not be right for you.  But for me, it was a great marketing idea that helped my fledgling photography business in a number of ways.

  • Income.  Even though the sessions are free, the end products weren’t. The first year, I netted $1200 from my mini-sessions after expenses. Not huge money, but it felt like a fortune to my fledgling photography business.  
  • Generate Buzz.  There are several other photographers offering mini-sessions in my area.  But none were free.  That immediately creates a bit of a buzz in our local community and got people talking about my business.  
  • Generate Leads.  Even if they don’t book, free mini-sessions 
  • Attract new clients.  Because these sessions are low risk, it made it easy for new clients to try a session with me.  I leverage that initial experience into long-term relationships.
  • Build relationships with new people.  Most of the clients I host for mini sessions turn into long-term clients that come back year after year.  But even the clients that don’t purchase products (only 2 in all the time I’ve been doing this!) still have good things to say about me and refer me to family and friends.
  • Strengthen relationships with existing clients.  Any touchpoint is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship I have with my existing clients.  
  • Social media and portfolio imagery.  Mini-sessions give me lots to talk about and post on social media.  They are also a quick way to update my portfolio if needed.  Clients also share these sessions online, which helps promote my business.

By the numbers

  • On average, my free mini sessions return $150 per client for a mini photo session. A morning of minis can gross me upward of $1,500.
  • 95% of clients buy something from their session.  
  • 80% of my new mini-session clients turn into long-term clients.  Over three years, free mini-sessions have garnered me new, repeat clients AND referrals for other clients.  
Cap and Gown Mini Sessions for Senior Clients

Never Work For Free?

At some point in your photography career, you’ll hear someone tell you that you should never work for free.  

I disagree.  I think it’s okay to work for free when it’s on your terms.

Working for free has benefitted my business.  But I’m dictating the terms. This is different than if a potential client that calls up and offers me “exposure” for providing them with a free session and a gallery of digital images.  It’s also different than a company using an image I’ve taken and being too cheap to pay me.

I’m not devaluing the end product.  I’m simply letting clients see the value of working with me first before investing in prints, products, or digitals.

At the end of the day, you have to decide what feels right for you.  It’s your business, your time and effort. 

But if you’re still trying to build a client base or looking to create some buzz about your business, hosting free mini sessions might be a great way to build your business!