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Hard-sell tactics tarnish perceptions of portrait photography

High-pressure sales tactics used by some studio portrait businesses are resulting in an alarming number of complaints, and this is having a negative impact on businesses with a less aggressive sales approach, according to a long-established Perth-based portrait photographer.

Hard-sell techniques, non-transparent pricing, and allegedly deceptive promotions are characteristics of a specific portrait photography business model that has left many clients feeling ripped off.

At the heart of the model is the use of vouchers or prizes for photo shoots, often given away by local car dealerships  and even mortgage brokers to ‘sweeten the deal’.

‘It is assumed that if you are a photography studio you are going to try to rip off the client. This mean potential clients turn to the “part-timers” who seem less pushy, more open and there is a sense they are less likely to try to price gouge you.’ – Perth portrait photographer


These tactics are typically used by portrait franchises and shopping centre-based studios, with several businesses developing notoriety on the internet as a consequence.

A respected Perth studio portrait photographer with over two decades experience, who asked not to be named, told Inside Imaging that she has had clients who had been scarred by previous portrait studio experiences.

‘If it looks too good to be true…’ Unfortunately the huge chasm between  initial offers like this one and the actual bottom line has left a lot of customers with a negative perception of the portrait photography business. (Source: Groupon.)

‘People started coming through wanting baby and family photographs, who would on initial contact say they wanted to know up-front what the prices were,’ they said. ‘They had had a previous bad experience where they were left paying a small fortune for photographs after being pressured into buying them, with the threat that if they didn’t buy them, files would be destroyed.

‘It was literally every week we would take a call from someone immediately on the defensive when making an enquiry due to being previously put into a high pressure sales situation.’

The Perth photographer said that nine times out of 10 the studio was Viva Photography, a franchise with studios in WA and Victoria. Viva was founded by former AIPP president Vittorio Natoli, who is now also CEO of the new Emotions Wedding Photography franchise.  But there are other portrait studios across the country employing similar hard-sell tactics.

It need to be noted that disgruntled customers are not generally complaining about the quality of the work or professionalism of the photographers – even some one- and two-star reviews comment on the professionalism of the photography – but rather the sense that they have been coerced into spending more than they intended. Browsing various review sites, some clients more comfortable with the selling-up tactics employed still enjoyed the experience and the quality of the products they purchased, even though they were at higher-than-expected cost.

Here’s three typical negative reviews for Viva Photography in Melbourne:

…And here’s another three ‘not happys’ for Verve Portraits in Claremont, Perth. (Tech writer, Lara Brindley, also published a humorous essay in 2014 on Medium titled The Verve Experience):

…Meanwhile up in sunny Sinny, You Studios Photography in Drummoyne is also in on the voucher tactic:
After winning a contest or receiving a voucher, and thus being led to believe the photography will come at little or no cost, the clients tend to feel duped.

‘It didn’t take long before these competition “wins” were pretty well-known and word spread on social media telling people to be wary of them,’ the Perth photographer said. ‘Other businesses, such as ourselves, would hold competitions and people were immediately sceptical of them. When shopping centre displays were still a good means of generating leads, we had many people tell us they wouldn’t enter any more competitions from photographers, as they had already “won” contests which had cost them thousands of dollars in the end.’

In certain instances, clients redeem their free gift print, but only after a fierce back-and-forth with the salesperson. Reports of customer service rapidly deteriorating afterwards, as well as long delays with receiving a free gift, or not receiving it at all, are all over the internet.

The one- and two-star reviews are remarkably similar. Interestingly, they are juxtaposed with five star reviews, primarily from happy customers who booked a session anticipating they would be paying upwards of $1000.
‘As it is a very emotionally connected product, it can also mean clients overlook the cost as all they see is how they managed to get granddad and the kids together, or their precious newborn baby in an image,’ the Perth photographer said.

‘For others, though, the experience is one where they have gone in without any information on costs and are left shell-shocked.  I am not sure what they do now but eight to 10 years ago if you called Viva you would not be able to get a price out of them for different products.  They would re-direct any questions away from letting you know what something would cost.  They (customers) are pressured into making a purchase beyond their budgets, as they are threatened with the images being deleted – and when its you precious newborn baby this seems like you are hurting the baby by allowing this to happen.’

Cheryl Lardner, Verve Portraits director of sales and marketing, told Inside Imaging that management is aware of the negative online views, but they represent a tiny minority of customers.

‘We at Verve strive towards a benchmark of 95 percent customer satisfaction as a minimum standard and currently are achieving a 96 percent CSQ (Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire) score. 100 percent would be fantastic, however as you would be aware, that is difficult to achieve. We actively seek feedback from all of our guests at regular points throughout the customer journey.’

Cheryl says Verve is ‘very transparent’ in regards to pricing from the beginning of the customer experience.

According to Verve’s website, prices start at $195 for a standard 90-minute shoot and $250 for an extended shoot. An 8×10 in a frame is included in the price. But both positive and negative reviews suggest prices quickly head into four figures. The lowest-priced actual, physical product – a small, framed print – ‘starts at’ $395, with most artwork options over $1000. For instance a small square album featuring 10 – 15 images ‘starts at’ $2445. If you want a lay-flat version, that will ‘start at’ $2995.
‘Buy now, pay later’
Verve actually markets an HSBC credit card as a ‘buy now, pay later’ option with an interest-free period. The card costs $79 and attracts an interest rate of 25.99 percent, with a minimum Verve purchase of $1000 as part of the deal. So for only $79, you get to be in debt to a credit card company for at least $1000, at a near-usurious interest rate!

Another interesting page on the website offers vouchers for Verve Portraits to schools and community groups: ‘At Verve, community support is of high importance. Over the past decade we have provided hundreds of donations to schools and community groups to achieve their fundraising goals.’ (First prize, a Verve Portraits gift voucher. Second prize, two Verve Portraits gift vouchers!)

People may argue there’s nothing wrong with pushy sales tactics and tricky pricing – ‘buyer beware’ and all that. And pushing a client toward printed products and away from digital files is beneficial for both the industry and, ultimately, the client. And while the voucher-driven studio portrait experience may be an unpleasant surprise for some unsuspecting clients, it’s a proven business model that’s operated for decades in a tough market.

The Perth photographer said her full-time studio portrait business and others have been ‘tarred with the same brush’, which is driving clients away from the high-end studio.

‘It is assumed that if you are a photography studio you are going to try to rip off the client. This mean potential clients turn to the “part-timers” who seem less pushy, more open and there is a sense they are less likely to try to price gouge you.

‘There is also the problem that the public doesn’t understand why professional photography is priced at what it is, because after all it’s “just a digital file’ and that doesn’t cost anything – so when companies that do need to charge professional rates go well beyond that, it hurts everyone else in the industry.

‘It is interesting that these companies often have in their terms and conditions that there is no cooling off period and all sales are final.’

(Inside Imaging approached Viva Photography and You Photography for comment but there was no response by time of publication.)



  1. Robert Piccoli Robert Piccoli December 7, 2018

    These businesses are behaving badly and giving all photographers a bad name.
    It’s a shame that these short-sighted practices occur. As a result, we have to work twice as hard to gain the trust and respect of new clients, many of whom have previously had bad experiences with these types of studios.

  2. Lea Lea June 2, 2019

    Oh, God – I wish I saw this article before I went to Viva yesterday – they are exactly like you say…evasive on pricing, even when I stated before the session that we we were on a tight budget…” That’s fine, we can work within your budget”…I should have listened to my inner voice and just forfeited the $750 prize voucher my daughter had “won”. We were totally rumbled…you are emotionally attached to the photos that look so nice and how can you possibly choose just one or two…. totally duped and now with a big debt to pay. It’s 2:30am and I can’t sleep because of it. I feel so stupid that I let them run right over me.

  3. Joe blogs Joe blogs July 25, 2019

    ACCC Call and lodge official complaint.
    Accordingly to the law they have approached you unsolicited to enter a competition 9/10 times. There is a cooling off period of 10 days for any unsolicited sale and you have rights to refuse payment and demand refund. See the ACCC action against expressions photography Pty Ltd

    I have recently had a run in also with the scam like this and have a charge back issued with the bank cancelled my contract with the dodgy studio and advised them of my consumer rights. If you feel ripped off speak to the ACCC and demand action or your state department of fair trade. Contracts can be broken and even though they scam you with sorry there is no cooling off period.

    I proudly name and shame the company
    Heritage Portraits Pty Ltd

  4. May Tan May Tan January 17, 2020

    I should read this article before I fall into ‘VIVA Photography’ gift voucher trap. My storey is exactly the same as Evie P comment that left 2 years ago. Viva Photography is refused to refund $310. I am disputing this matter with my credit card now due to the service is not rendered. PLEASE AVOID VIVA PHOTOGRAPHY. Non-transparent pricing.

  5. Zoey Zoey February 6, 2020

    I really wish I had read this before I went into Good Life Portraits in Perth. We got completely ripped off. We told them we really couldn’t afford it and they called us every few days until we gave in. They said we didn’t have to buy anything as our “voucher we won” would cover at least one or two photos and they come with the digital copy. We were pretty happy with that considering we thought all we needed was a couples photo for our budget wedding. Well we got our little prints and bought another Cos it was really too good of our 11 month old. We got the digital prints and they are such low terrible resolution you can’t do anything with them. We were promised we were ok to reprint from them and they were good resolution. I hate being lied too. They promote how they are a family business and how they look after families. Well they just shafted this little family. It took us over an hour to get ready then over an hour to drive there. Then to keep a baby and 2 year old occupied and happy for the shoot was so stressful. They are a joke.

  6. MG MG August 13, 2020

    Well, I wish to say something in defense of these businesses.
    it is not true that the sale is unsolicited, most of them leave competition boxes out in different retail businesses, it is your own decision to grab a pen and fill the card with your details. Pretty much all of them offer you a free photo shoot and the opportunity to walk away with a free print of your choice, if YOU choose to buy 15 of them or a big piece to put on your wall, you get told a price and pay for it you can’t blame them for their sales tactics. it’s like going to buy a TV, you have in mind you want to spend $800 and then the sales person shows you a 2k one and explain how better it is, you buy it and then accuse him of stealing your money! makes no sense to me. Photography is an expensive business, not just because of the physical cost of prints, equipment etc.. but also because of the creative mind behind it. Always puzzle me when I see people covered in tattoos complaining for the cost of a photo, when they spent thousands on black ink! If you have a weak personality and regret spending money on memories for a lifetime, then maybe get someone else to manage your life.. don;t go around complaining that someone forced you to spend money!

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