7 Key steps to building a world class wedding photography business
Here are seven of the twenty five key steps that I have identified that are needed to develop a world class wedding photography business…
1. Start with the end in mind
Having an exit strategy is one the most important parts of the process, hence why an exit strategy isat the top of my list. What do you want your business to achieve and when? Will you own the business or will it own you? Will your business continue to function without you or will it only generate money if you are working in it?
There are entrepreneurial career paths you can take in the wedding photography industry but they are certainly not for everyone. Here is one example:
Plan to leave a good career in corporate finance or recruitment etc. (age 29)
Break away from the 9-5 routine to set up as a photographer (age 30)
Get trained, second shoot at weddings, book the first weddings (age 31-32)
Establish a successful brand and reach targets for the first time (age 33)
Work in the business, take on staff to cut the workload, earn good profits and pay off the mortgage over ten years (age 34 – 44)
Work on the business, train others to shoot, (their children perhaps) (age 45 – 47)
Have a small group of talented photographers shooting for the brand (age 48)
Sell or franchise the business (age 48 – 49)
Retire in the sun (age 50)
Recognising your ideal career path will, to some degree, govern how you set up your business. Obviously, plans change but it always pays to have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve at any given point.
It’s not the best photographers that make the most money or have the finest lifestyles. It is the photographers whose businesses are well run that reap the benefits of success. Being good at what you do is certainly important but it doesn’t guarantee you success. There are many starving artists in our profession.
2. Stay ‘above the line’
Effective/ successful people have a common attribute, they are positive minded achievers. There is a common phrase that describes them. They are said to be “above the line”. The imaginary line is the division between positive thinking and negative thinking.
A positive thinker is a person who is constantly looking for opportunity, someone who takes full responsibility for their actions and doesn’t make excuses or apportion blame when things go wrong. They use phrases like “let’s make it happen.” ‘Above the line’ people are often perceived as being lucky or always falling on their feet when in fact they make their own luck in life.
Below the line people by contrast always blame something or someone else outside of their influence. Typical quotes by ‘below the line’ photographers are: “There are too many new photographers in this over crowded industry”, “My competitors are undercutting me”, “The recession is killing my business” and “People around hear are always after a bargain and don’t want to spend the money” etc. Protect yourself from negative thinkers. They may well suck the will to live out of you.
Success happens when preparation meets opportunity.
3. Describe your ideal client
Last month I discussed creating personas for your customers. This is a vital step in the process of establishing a business. Without a clear understanding of your customers tastes you won’t be able to design products they will want to buy. It will also be tough to set up a web site that attracts them.
When I first set up my portrait business a few years ago I chose frames that I liked for my studio. Unfortunately my clients at the time wanted something else. Apparently my vision wasn’t ‘out there’. My clients wanted fresh, new, funky and I was offering them classic. With hindsight I found that It wasn’t my products that were wrong it was my clients. My eventual clients wanted simple but beautiful leather bound matted albums containing straight black and white family photographs that sold for thousands of pounds.
A car analogy: A Suberu Impreza Turbo with it’s spoiler, diffuser, body kit and go faster stripes will appeal to one type of client who thinks it’s the best thing in the world whereas an Aston Martin that relies on fabulous classic good looks alone without the need for stripes will appeal to another type of person. What type of car will your ideal client buy? What photographic products will you offer them that share the same design principles? Use strings of adjectives as a guide. One photographers product design style guide might include: loud, cutting edge, ‘out there’, wild, funky. Another photographers set will read like this: sumptuous, elegant, understated, luxurious, timeless and lavish. What will your ideal clients be attracted by?
4. What is your unique sales proposition or USP?
This is often a hard question to answer for wedding photographers because your unique combination of personality, artistic vision and craft ability counts for so much. But at some point the question needs addressing so that you don’t have to compete on price.
Marketing can be driven by USPs alone. If your competitors don’t sell what you sell, then your customers have nowhere else to shop. The market is therefore exclusively yours. This relies on there being a ready supply of customers who are hungry for your unique products. Generating demand for a unique product line is another topic altogether. You need to create a buzz, and word of mouth marketing is one of the best ways to do this without the need for expensive advertising. Online communities of brides contributing to forums and visiting blogs can be exposed to your unique products via buzz marketing very quickly.
The language of retail. Be careful with the choice of words you use to describe your products. Avoid the excessively overused and subsequently devalued words like ‘lifestyle’, ‘classic’, ‘candid’, ‘reportage’, ‘contemporary’, ‘natural’, and relaxed. Just about every photography advert you see uses them. If your picture style is different to everyone else’s, then stand out above the noise. If you can’t find the right words to describe your products or shoot style then make them up. ‘Crocks’ and ‘UGGs’ are self defining words. Crocks are not described as shoes, trainers or slippers, they are simply known as Crocks. Sometimes it pays to think big. ‘Trash the dress’ is one example of a recent style genre to be conjured up. ‘Cherish the Dress’ is another style genre that became a brand created by Chris Hanley.
5. Style and Substance
A clearly defined picture style is right at the heart of a great wedding photography brand. Inspiration for pictures comes from many sources, but if you want to improve your ability to learn from the masters, you must first understand the language they use.
You need to be able to deconstruct photographs in order to learn from them. When you see a picture that makes a deep impression on you, stop and take time to learn how it was made. Look at the lighting. The shadows and contrast will tell you what’s going on with the light. Look also at the pose, the camera viewpoint, the framing of the picture. Then look at the perspective, the depth of field, the tones’ foreground and background, the expression, and the dynamic in the picture. Finally, put everything together. The success of a photograph depends on all of these elements being in harmony or in discord. I say discordance because almost all of the greatest photographs that inspire me show scant regard for the ‘rules’ of composition. It is often the lack of conformity that sets a picture free from mediocrity. The greatest artists were great not because they stuck to conventions of what had gone before, but were free to explore beyond boundaries. Picasso rearranged the scale of elements of the human body to break the rules of relative size and position as laid down by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. Liberating stuff.
6. Hone your core photography skills
Wedding photography is not that hard to do well. Fashion photography, photo journalism, advertising photography and some commercial photography requires imaging skills at another level entirely. To be a top fashion or editorial photographer like Testino or Lieibovitz is tough. To be a top wedding photographer is not quite in the same league. There are many who think it is, but egos aside, wedding photography can be learned by nearly anyone with good craft skills and excellent interpersonal skills.
I can teach you how to use a camera just as I could probably teach you how to drive a car. I can certainly teach you about light, composition, texture, tone and depth in photographs. I can show you how I shoot at weddings, the systems I use and how to anticipate the moment. I was taught shot timing and rhythm at the BBC so I know it can be taught. But, and this is a big but, the “drive” to practice and succeed has to come from within. Just like learning to play the piano, success relies on practice and an inner desire for self achievement.
The most original concepts in art or science can take a lifetime to create, and next to no time to learn how to understand or reproduce them. You could learn Newton’s, Charles’ and Boyle’s laws of physics in a day. A good art forger could probably teach you Monet’s brush techniques in a day too.
My point is never miss the opportunity to shoot alongside an inspirational photographer on a one day workshop. It may change your life. You can learn skills from others in a short time that took them a lifetime to master. These are skills that no amount of reading textbooks or forums will never teach you.
Don’t stop learning and developing your photographic skills. Make every wedding the best you have ever shot and you will reach your true potential. This is good for wealth, health and happiness.
7. Design your products
How will you present your pictures and how will your customers use and share them? Not just for now but in 20 or 40 years time? If you go the album route you will need to create prototypes, do some market research and make adjustments to your designs before creating your show stock.
No matter what products you go for, if you want to charge high prices, keep the design beautifully simple and simply beautiful. Good, clean, elegant design commands the top prices.
The magazine style albums prevalent from 2002 – 2008 with multiple pictures on one spread, stroked borders to the images, washed out picture effects, drop shadows and pictures taken on angles look quite out-dated now, so beware. Resorting to stylised gimmicks will limit your potential price point and your market base. Great photography doesn’t need to be messed around with.
Task: Go to the art and photography section of a good bookshop. Find yourself a book that you like the look of with few words and plenty of photographs. Compare page 5 with page 25 and then page 55. They have identical design cues; the same margins, fonts and image quality. The visual weight of photograph to white or negative space will be the same too. That is because the book will have been designed by a book designer. If you are going to design your customers’ albums or books, you need to take onboard the skills and rules used by the professionals. Treat yourself to a book on the fundamentals of book layout and design while you are in the shop.
There is one place left on my Evolve training programme for wedding photographers that is about to get underway and there is no better way for me to prepare for it than to exercise my mind and write. I find writing things down forces me to question and challenge my thoughts. We all learn and function in different ways and I’d be interested to read your thoughts on the points I have raised above.
Please feel free to comment below.
© Damien Lovegrove 2011