How to become a successful wedding photographer
When I meet photographers new to the wedding world, the question I get asked the most is, “How do I get to do what you do?” Let's get into it.
Shooting weddings over the last fifteen years, I've learned a great deal. It's a self-journey of discovery I’m STILL learning about marketing, education and the craft of photography. The following will shed some light in a very competitive industry that has gone through a tremendous creative spurt in the last 15 years. Feel free to add your comments to the conversation below, upending decades of stagnant wedding photography.
From Chichester in England, UK, I immigrated to San Antonio, TX in 2006, to marry my best friend, Marcie. Before moving to America, I was a news photographer covering local stories and sports, managed a studio, and traveled the world.
A lifelong photographer, I'm self-taught and learned from mentors in the newspaper industry. Over time, I developed my craft heavily influenced by photojournalism.
My inspiration comes from numerous photographers. Among heroes of sorts are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Don McCullin, Elliott Erwitt, Alex Webb and the founders of Magnum.
If you aspire to become a wedding photographer, the first thing I would seriously ask you is why? The fact is, it’s an easy entry point for many photographers to start a career in photography. What is not easy, is to build a reputation based on the quality and integrity of your work and maintain that.
Is there a fast track?
There are no fast tracks to becoming a successful wedding photographer. It takes tremendous effort, time, passion, dedication, self-determination and, like any successful business, discipline, and perseverance. The ‘talent’ has to nurture and develop.
How do you start shooting weddings? The most common path is to start second or assisting a wedding photographer. I would not shoot a wedding without getting some experience. Most likely, the preferred start will be a gradual up-the-ladder approach as a second or third shooter. I do not recommend shooting a wedding without doing this first. I would even refrain from the temptation to shoot a friend’s wedding, just because, well, they’re a friend or family member.
Shoot with a photographer whose work you enjoy. You’d be surprised picking up the phone versus emailing a photographer does wonder. Many photographers will say no. Don’t take it personally. Keep asking. Keep shooting. Leave a short to-the-point voicemail and send a follow-up email with a link to your best work. If you haven’t shot any weddings, show enthusiasm that you’d like to observe, carry bags, lights, etc., whatever help you can give that photographer.
I would suggest shooting with a photographer’s work you admire. Many good photographers will just be too busy to take on the energy required to teach or help a new photographer into the market. It’s not personal. There are exceptions. Just don’t give up. I respond to every photographer by email and once a year I will show a photographer the ropes. Not just to be kind, but I remember where I was. We’ve all been where you are now. And boy, did I need a lot of help!
The right approach
Weddings are intensity, adrenaline-laced, super challenging, emotional days. And that’s just for photographers, let alone the bride and groom! Having the right attitude, being courteous and delivering on what you promised is only the half of it. Today, it would seem that anyone can shoot a wedding, right? Typing in a google and searching wedding photographers will bring up a few hundred. It would also seem that almost every guest at a wedding has a camera. And then there’s the particular ‘uncle’ with a superior camera to yours with a very, very long zoom on it and an equally sized flash gun. Wow, he must be good with the camera set to ‘P’ for ‘professional.' All jokes aside, the right positive attitude is required for life and wedding photography. You have to like people genuinely. If you’re not a people person, it’s entirely possible, photographing weddings isn’t for you.
It's not just your portfolio
Have an online portfolio is obviously important to your potential clients. Show images that you feel show your personality and style. Upon meeting clients in my studio, much of the time is spent chatting and getting to know each other. It’s a low-key meeting. If a client is meeting you, there’s a good chance you are already in his/her top three. If you have a favorite coffee shop, suggest meeting there. You’ll be more comfortable meeting in a spot you already know.
I find discussing pricing is secondary. Much of the process is the bride or couple deciding if you’re the right fit and if she can imagine you hanging out with her all day. I discuss my philosophy and a little about the day, expectations, but most of all I want to listen to the bride that we are both a good match for each other. I will also spell out that I have to shoot their day the way I feel most comfortable and tell their story unobtrusively.
If you’re just starting out, I would suggest two camera bodies, a 24-70 zoom, and a 70-200 lens will suffice to get the ball rolling. Ideally, a third smaller camera body as the backup should be on your radar. You do need some decent gear that’s not going to break down. If you can afford it, initially, I would spend more on sharp and fast lenses; the cameras do not have to be top of the line. In regards to cameras, go and try out what works for you. You can even rent cameras from your local store or just have as a backup. Add a small flash or two and get equipment insurance to cover all that gear.
I'm second shooting already
So, let’s say, you have shot a few weddings as a second or third shooter. You love it. So much that you say you are now seriously considering going full-time or, at least, a ‘weekend warrior.' It’s entirely possible that along this journey, you’re just content to second shoot with the first photographer.
Making it a business
There are a few things you have to do before assuming you are planning or already second shooting. A plan and a budget are a must. Ideally, I would recommend a six-month supply of cash flow just for your wedding business and to cover your cost of living. Pay yourself first. You might think, “I don’t need to pay myself.” The reality is you still have bills to pay, rent, a mortgage perhaps, utility bills. Just the roof over your head. Factor in your gear and the cost of setting up your business as a legit company. Equipment and liability insurance.
Take a look at this calculator created by my friend and photographer, Kurtis Kronk. I would strongly recommend you don’t price shop and compare yourself to the competition. It’s far better to rate yourself on your lifestyle, expenses and how many weddings you plan to shoot in a year. Download the excel spreadsheet here. Everyone’s pricing will be different to varying degrees and to price yourself to your perceived competitor would be a disservice to you and your profit line.
Expenses per month unless noted: * Camera gear $3000-$10,000 (basic gear, two cameras, two lenses. You have some of it already.)
* Website hosting $10-$50
* A lawyer $300-$1000 (to check that contract)
* Advertising $500-$1000
* Office Expenses $500
* Cost of sales- producing those images/prints/albums 10% to $25% of total revenue
* Shipping and mailing $30-$100
* Gas/petrol $100-$200
* Accountant/bookkeeping $300-$500 a year
* Salary 50% of total revenue
These expenses are different for everyone. No business is alike. Things to also think about are will you have a studio space or are you going to meet clients at a coffee house or hotel? Things can add up pretty quickly. And then, what do you charge for a wedding? How many do you need to book in a year to break even?
It is easy to start feeling overwhelmed. It all comes back to loving what you do with a passion you will get past the challenges.
As photographers, we can get a little carried away about the shooting and the artistry. But to be a successful photographer, you have to follow some rules, run the business, pay taxes and register your business. Every state is different, but some basic conditions must adhere.
Set up yourself as an entity. In the USA, get an EIN, and you have to register as an LLC or S-Corp. Some research is required on your part what is best for your circumstances. Sales tax is collected. Every state has a different set of rules. In Texas where I reside, this means I charge sales tax for a portrait session, rehearsal coverage for example. All my collections have sales tax added to them. I pass that onto the state after collecting from clients. Then there’s franchise tax paperwork, even paying estimated income tax that you may have to pay quarterly.
There’s a wealth of good software out there that can help you do this. Tave, Successware, 17Hats or Studioplus are a few of them. They are made by photographers, for photographers. Along with budgeting, you need to keep track of all those expenses and set up a business checking and credit cards for your accounts.
Remember to keep your individual or personal accounts separate from your business. There will be the need for a good accountant. Your accountant (another expense) should have an excellent understanding of all your costs and advise you what is the best entity for your situation. Further down the road, start thinking about retirement savings if you haven’t started yet.
Go and meet other photographers. Start educating yourself more about your interests. There are conferences throughout the year. Here in the States, I found the PPA and WPPI very helpful in the early part of my career let alone all the online help now. Some photographers are also very open to helping others and genuinely care to see you succeed. Learn about SEO (search engine optimization) for your site. Learn the craft. Enter competitions if you find this will motivate you to be a better photographer. Go to exhibitions, study photographers at a local library and attend some workshops. These are all further expenses, part of the running of your business. All of the above helped me. I continue to purchase books to feed my soul and in turn, subconsciously make me a better photographer. Photography books, in my opinion, are better than learning online as they’re resources you can return to at any time.
I’m a full-time photographer. I think it’s important to find a healthy balance in your life in order not get burned out. I balance my life with what pay the bills and personal projects, like street photography and documenting my girl's daily life. Approximately, I use 80% of an average week on the computer, editing, marketing, meeting vendors, meeting clients, preparing agreements, accounting, bookkeeping, blogging, putting in about forty hours a week. I have an active family life. But I have a balance in my life where I’ve outsourced a few things and utilized the latest technology to design album and edit images. The fundamentals I still do myself, but I no longer work crazy hours. After a house fire a few years ago, things came into sharp focus, and I shifted my priorities to a more balanced life style.
As a self-employed individual, it’s super important to find that right balance between play and work. After ten years as a photographer who shoots weddings and street photography, I’ve learned to embrace life and outsource some major parts of my workflow. If I didn’t, I would be back to working late nights, and that would impact my life with my wife and kids. Let alone lack of sleep that any parent incurs! Some things have to give. Keep this in mind as your career develops. I shoot around 15-20 weddings a year. Some days of the week, I’m shooting engagement, bridal sessions, commercial projects or ongoing projects. That leaves me about twenty weekends a year free for my family life.
I’m a member of the PPA, a fantastic organization and an influential advocate for professional photographers has listed some beneficial information in regards to pricing. And, the PPA latest wedding and portrait photographer benchmarks are available here. There is a wealth of handy information to digest. Over the last ten years, I’ve used the PPA benchmarks to improve my business and workflow.
If there’s one thing that I’d like you to take away from all this, it’s this. If you’re just starting out in wedding photography, believe in yourself. There are a lot of negative thoughts out there, especially on the internet. Shoot for yourself and your client second. Happiness is the most important thing in life and success cannot measure in how much money you’re making. Remember that finding a balance in your life is the most important. The art of photography is a journey, and everyone has a different road.