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5. What might a weekly schedule might look like for a full-time wedding photographer?
In the perfect world, I would shoot three days a week, edit for two, schmooze for one, and do nothing else. Okay, realistically for a portrait/wedding shooter, one could hope to shoot for 3-4 days a week, mostly weekends. Do editing and post production during the traditional work day. Arrange to go out to at least one business-contact meeting a week outside of your client meetings. Make check-in calls to clients at night.
Business growth and development can happen in your off season; January and February are traditionally slow months if you are on the East Coast. You’ll need to plan your personal time off in advance. It is so important to keep up on the more mundane tasks when you are slower because (hopefully) you won’t have much time to prepare during your busy season. One of the hardest things I have found being self employed is that after a very productive shoot I feel like I deserve a vacation. Well, guess again… that’s when you should be planning for the next one. Which isn’t such a bad thing after all, when you love what you do.
4. What are some ideas for what a photographer’s initial marketing push might look like, considering things such as re-branding, making new contacts, and re-energizing old ones.
I think (and many others would probably agree) that a photographer’s most important tool is their website, so start there. Look at a bunch of websites. (Here’s mine.) What do you like — or hate for that matter. Check out ProPhotoResource.com. They have a lot of valuable information on do’s and don’t for websites. What is your look? How do you describe your work?
Once your site is completed, decide what the best way is to get as much traffic to it as possible. Online advertising and print ads are favorites. What about your local markets? Can you do a joint advertising project with local vendors? Maybe some cross-marketing with the local florist and bakery? Provide free pictures for a photo credit at places such as schools, churches, doctors offices, even the YMCA; anything might lead to work. I volunteered to shoot my daughter’s Girl Scout dance held at her elementary school. It may not have been the most glamorous event, but those girl scouts sure love pictures of themselves. It drove a ton of potential clients to my site, and I looked like a super mom at the same time. Unlike commercial photography, portrait and wedding work touches everyone. Everyone has a family and will at some point know or be a bride. So carry lots of cards in your pocket, and get out there!
Q: What are the biggest up-front costs a photographer will need to budget for to make the transition to shooting weddings full time?
A: The obvious one is gear. As a professional you need at least two of everything and a wide selection of lenses. You wouldn’t really show up to a wedding with just one camera, would you? One thing that surprised me was the wear and tear on my gear. My previous years as a stock and editorial shooter didn’t require the shutter activations I am seeing in my wedding work. My first year, with more than 40 weddings, I sent in three speedlights and one body for repair. Your website, identity, and branding are also going to be a big expense starting out. Don’t forget promotional pieces and print costs for your studio or portfolio.
There is a lot of trial and error that goes into deciding how best to spend your hard-earned dollars. My first several weddings I promised my brides the world, then I had to deliver expensive albums that ate into my profit. Now I prefer to get most of my profit up front in the form of a creative fee instead of marking my albums way up — especially because not every client is interested in a traditional album.
Workshops and conferences are a great way to brush up your skills and learn from other photographers’ experiences. Some provide great information while others are pointless. I think their real value comes in networking. All in all it is helpful to speak to as many pros as possible to see what worked and didn’t work for them and to adapt their advice to your current situation.
Q: What is the biggest mindset change that needs to happen in order to make a successful transition from part-time to full-time wedding photographer?
A: Making the switch from commercial photography to the private sector seemed like an easy transition. At first, I thought private clients would be easier than photo editors and art buyers… somehow not as demanding. This is not the case. Just think about how much is riding on a wedding: all of the planning, money, anticipation. You can almost always reshoot a model — not a wedding. I think you should approach your families and couples like a commercial shoot. You should always have a concept or an idea you are trying to convey. Are your subjects free spirited, strong, inspiring, or traditional? How will you illustrate this visually? Having a concept brings depth to your images and brings them to life. In the end, whether it’s an art director, a bride, or a new mom, all you really want is for them to be happy with the end result.
This is also really a question about values. I would prefer to think of myself as more than simply a service provider or vendor. In the end I am providing my clients with a photographic product. But, I am not making widgets here; I am giving 110% of my time, talent, and heart as an artist. My values tell me to treat it like a business. Your customer always comes first. It is my job to make sure they are satisfied. So before, during, and after the creation of the photos I am a business professional, they just get a little piece of me in every sale ;-)
Q. How can you assess when is the right time to make the transition from part-time to full-time wedding photography?
A. It is extremely important that you be ready to deliver a professional product when you make the switch from weekend shooter to pro. You really are only as good as your last job. You have time to bone up on the business end of things, but your images are your reputation. Go out on as many jobs as possible as a second photographer. Then you’ll have time to learn but not the pressure of being a lead. Your knowledge of your equipment should be second-hand. Practice at home in every conceivable lighting condition until you feel comfortable with any challenges that may arise. Look at the other work in the marketplace and ask yourself if yours measures up. Then, if you feel confident with your skill and vision, go for it!
I graduated photo school with some great contacts but not a lot of practical photo skills. I didn’t feel technically astute enough to be a first assistant so I became a photo editor. That taught me a lot about producing a great shoot, but it wasn’t as fulfilling for me as taking pictures. So in 1993 my husband and I took the leap and started building our stock photo library. We walked into a stock agency with a box of 8×10 black-and-white prints and got signed on the spot. The thing that was great about stock was that we could learn how to shoot on our own time. Granted it was our own dime, too, but through trial and error we figured out what we were doing. The stock allowed us to build a portfolio, which led to magazine assignments. The editorial work led us to a rep, which got us a few advertising gigs.
The ironic thing is that when we were first starting out people would ask us to shoot weddings. We ended up doing about ten a year. But we hated it. We had no control over the situation. We were used to directing our subjects and having time to figure out the lighting. With weddings you have to be “on” the entire time and the only time you get to direct is during the formals. So we let the weddings go by the way side and shot primarily stock for the next decade.
Then digital happened. All of a sudden everyone was a photographer. The cameras got better and more affordable. The price of equipment was no longer an obstacle to beginning shooters. The market was flooded and our stock sales dropped a lot. Now, here comes the bride… all of a sudden weddings are looking pretty good, and so are family portraits.
The great surprise is that now I actually love weddings. All the things that drove me to photography to begin with exist in weddings and portraits. I love people! As long as I get to photograph them, especially at a big party, I am happy. And, may I add that now that I have been shooting for twenty years, and I know what I am doing, the lack of control isn’t such an issue!