7 rungs of the ladder

Jan 10, 2011 | Business, Wedding | 39 comments

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

One of my favourite brides in a favourite location Babington House in Somerset. I lit the groom with a small 50w battery light and used 1/8th second shutter speed with my camera on my monopod to make the exposure.

One of my favourite couples in a favourite location of mine, Babington House in Somerset. I lit the groom with a small 50w battery light and used 1/8th of a second shutter speed with my camera on a monopod to make the exposure.

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)

I created this shot up using the setting sun as my light source. I love not being able to see the faces of my couple because this forces the viewer to study their shadow instead. The double ogee moulding on the plinth tells the story enough to know that we are somewhere special; Blenheim Palace as it happens. I held the camera over my head to take the shot. This gave the higher than usual viewpoint to add interest to the composition. There’s nothing difficult about taking any of the shots in this post. They just need thinking through and setting up.

I created this shot using the setting sun as my light source. By not being able to see the faces of the couple the viewer is led to study their shadow instead. The double ogee moulding on the plinth tells enough of the story to know that we are somewhere special; Blenheim Palace as it so happens. I held the camera over my head to take the shot. This gave a higher than usual viewpoint to add interest to the composition. There’s nothing difficult about taking any of the shots in this post. They just need thinking through and setting up.

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.

I was photographing the groomsmen in a modern house with uPVC windows and I needed a ring shot. I borrowed a piece of A4 paper from the grooms printer tray and placed it on the window sill. I partly opened the window to create some interesting shadows from the sunlight and I took this picture. It’s not amazing but it is a good example of how I make up my shots as I go along.

I was photographing the groomsmen in a modern house with uPVC windows and I needed to capture a ring shot. I borrowed a piece of A4 paper from the grooms printer tray and placed it on the window sill. I partly opened the window to create some interesting shadows from the sunlight and I took this picture. It’s not amazing but it is a good example of how I make up my shots as I go along.

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.

I asked Superbike champion Troy Corser to hop up on the wall at Knebworth so I could create a fun diagonal composition. Julie and I treat each client differently and we rely on a great deal of mutual trust and respect to get the pictures we want.

I asked Superbike champion Troy Corser to hop up onto this wall at Knebworth so I could create a fun diagonal composition. Julie and I treat each client differently and we rely on a great deal of mutual trust and respect to get the pictures we want.

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?

I lined the guys up for this group shot making sure I kept a good balance and formality in the poses to match their outfits. The trick to shooting formal groups is to create a great moment that everyone can react to in a genuine way. Sometimes people are laughing at me rather than with me. I don’t mind, I’ll do whatever it take to get the shot.

I lined the guys up for this group shot making sure I kept a good balance and formality in the poses to match their outfits. The trick to shooting formal groups is to create a great moment that everyone can react to in a genuine way. Sometimes people are laughing at me rather than with me. I don’t mind, I’ll do whatever it take to get the shot.

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.

I always shoot groups into the sun on a long lens when we are lucky enough to have a sunny day. Julie and I set this shot up so that the girls had space between them. I like the randomness of the eye lines and the dynamic pose created by the girls walking towards the camera.

I always shoot groups into the sun using a long lens when we are lucky enough to have a sunny day. Julie and I set this shot up so that the girls had space between them. I like the randomness of the eye lines and the dynamic pose created by having the girls walk towards the camera.

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.

This is my statue of liberty shot. A low viewpoint with a long lens and plenty of exposure compensation gave this shot it’s unique look. Good clear direction with fun makes this shot possible.

This is my statue of liberty shot. A low viewpoint with a long lens and plenty of exposure compensation gave this shot it’s unique look. Good clear direction with fun makes this kind of shot possible.

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.

This picture of the same bride shows the dress after we snipped of the superfluous arm bits. We all agreed the dress looks much better like this. Now, I’m not suggesting you take a pair of scissors to your brides dress like we did here but when there is a real chemistry between you and your client anything is posable.

This picture of the same bride as in the picture above shows the dress after we snipped of the superfluous arm bits. We all agreed the dress looked much better like this. Now, I’m not suggesting you take a pair of scissors to your brides dress like we did here but when there is a real chemistry between you and your client anything is possible.

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.

A mistake you might think and you’d be right. I knocked the foot of the monopod during the long exposure. I was dragging the shutter to get the bubble trails in the Champagne. This shot made a great canvas for the couples home.

A mistake you might think and you’d be right. I knocked the foot of the monopod during the long exposure. I was dragging the shutter to get the bubble trails in the Champagne. This shot made a great canvas for the couples home.

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.

Another canvas and another couple. This shot of Julie’s taken at 1/3rd second met the client brief exactly. Our bride wanted to see the swish of the dress in the pictures. Nine years on and the bride and groom are still great clients of ours regularly commissioning Julie for pregnancy and child portraiture.

Another canvas and another couple. This shot of Julie’s taken at 1/3rd second met the client brief exactly. Our bride wanted to see the swish of the dress in the pictures. Nine years on and the bride and groom are still great clients of ours regularly commissioning Julie for pregnancy and child portraiture.

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

39 Comments

  1. Steve Watkins Photography

    Great list, these are all right on the money. For me it’s all about determination and that positive mindset. Without these basics it’s very hard to achieve a style or move forward in any area for that case, not only photography. Also be humble. Never view your work as finished, there’s always room for improvement and always things to learn.

    Reply
    • damien

      Great points Steve. I’m still learning ;)

      Best regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  2. Tony sale

    Have only just read this but thanks Damien some great advice. Really liked the last bit about book design

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Tony.

      Reply
  3. Graham Morgan

    Point number 2 is so important and easily overlooked, don’t pay to much attention to negative thinkers, (easier said than done at times)!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Graham,

      You are spot on. I don’t know of any successful negative thinkers. Success happens when preparation meets opportunity. It’s like making your own luck. Thanks for your contribution and feedback.

      Damien.

      Reply
  4. Stephen Hayes

    Damien

    Stunning images and very inspiring. Great advice and hopefully will take some of it on board!!

    Stephen

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Stephen,

      I wish you every success with your career in photography. Stay in touch.

      Kindest regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  5. Brandon

    Great article as always, you make weddings look like fun, and not like work!

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Brandon,

      Weddings are fun. Super fun, and to have the opportunity to take pictures at them with an ‘access all areas pass’ is even more fun. It’s worth leaving a good career in accounts or IT for. Many do.

      Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply
  6. Liam Crawley

    Thanks for sharing such positive and informative points Damien – my business would not be where it is today had I not discovered the Lovegroves.

    Reply
  7. Matt Foden

    Great article Damien! The first rule ‘Start with the end in mind’ is great advice, not just for running a photography business but anything in life!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Matt :)

      Reply
  8. David Cooke

    what can I say, the superlatives have already been used no more left, so that leaves me with one thing, thankyou very much.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thank you David. Have a great 2011. Damien.

      Reply
  9. Steve Gower

    very inspiring , especially number 2.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Steve.

      Commit to make 2011 your best year yet.

      Damien.

      Reply
  10. Graham Fletcher-Hill

    If this were Desert Island Discs & I could take just one photographic resource with me then Prophotonut would definately be it (plus access to updates of course :-) Thankyou for the continuing inspiration Damien.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Graham,

      And if I had just one reader I hope it would be you. Haha. Thanks for your continued support. Have a fabulous 2011. Damien.

      Reply
  11. Terrence Bibb

    It’s moments like these after reading your awesome commentary that I wish I lived in Bristol :)

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Terrence,

      New Jersey and the big Apple are quite exciting locations too. Shall we swap homes for a bit? Haha.

      We will get together again soon. That’s for sure. Fondest memories and best wishes, Damien.

      Reply
  12. Sue Venables

    Hilarious description of your ‘entrepreneurial photographer.’ I fit the description to a tee apart from the fact I’m lagging a few years behind. Oh well I think I’ll just have to adjust my exit date.

    Thanks for sharing. I admire and I am grateful for your generosity.

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Sue,

      You may be a few years behind, I’m not, but I’m older than my years. I don’t know which is better :)) Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Best regards,

      Damien.

      Reply
  13. Stefan Vogelzang Fotografie

    Just like your book…. true in every aspect. It gives a real positive vibe knowing i control most of the things you point out. But still… there is so much to learn. Keep up giving great inspirations.

    PS. Ofcourse you are to busy. But it you want to give a workshop in the Netherlands i can set up a team of professional wedding photographers here from the North of Holland.

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Stefan,

      Thank you for your very kind words and support. I was teaching in Amsterdam and Garderen in 2010. It will be Germany, Italy and Spain this year. Maybe Holland again in 2012 :)

      Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply
  14. Julie Lucas

    Hi Damien

    I was sent this by my husband. Although not a photographer myself I found these steps very inspiring. Filling me with excitement of his planned venture and being part of it.

    Fantastic inspiration

    Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Will :)

      Reply
    • damien

      Hi Julie,

      Your appreciation and involvement behind the scenes is going to be vital on this exciting journey. 2011 will be life changing (in a good way).

      Best wishes,

      Damien.

      Reply
  15. OttossonPhoto

    SO GOOD article Damien! I agree on every point. So generous of you to give of your knowledge. You inspire me all the time. I´m often out of my comfort zone. I´ve been in the business for only 2,5 year. Next monday I going to shoot a 30 pages wedding shoot for LIFESTILE Wedding magazine. Then I´m going with Lundeby (Jorgensens Scandinavian agent) to 12 cities in Norway, Sweden and Denmark on a winter seminar tour as a speaker. And on this Wednesday I´m going to have my biggest workshop ever, with five delegates. Much thanks to the inspiration you give! Keep on rocking Damien!

    Reply
    • damien

      Hi Benny,

      I want to see feedback and pictures of your recent work and workshops. I’m sure we could be good for each other. Your ability to forge such a great path in such a short time is inspiration to us all.

      Kindest regards and total respect,

      Damien

      Reply
  16. Gwyn Cole

    I love posts like this Damien! Gets the mind thinking and I love the buzz and inspiration in your writing style. I’m still working through the material from the 3 day wedding workshop and putting it into action. I’m currently working on point 7 (Design your products).

    As a side note, I recently came across some advice that suggested that photographers should read some fiction. The article proposed that this exercise would help you to visualize… and that visualizing makes for better photographers. Not sure what to make of this point (specifically reading fiction), but I thought it was interesting nevertheless.

    Reply
    • damien

      Haha Hi Gwyn,

      You really do help me by making my efforts worthwhile and appreciated. Every point of contact I have with you is special and I know your customers must feel very special indeed. As for the reading fiction thought, I’m sure everyone is different. I think in pictures and my imagination needs no stimulation as it is already hyperactive. I’m sure reading is a great thing however listening to radio plays on headphones might be just as or even more effective. Research needed perhaps :) Have a fabulous 2011 and I look forward to seeing you soon. At Focus perhaps.

      Damien.

      Reply
    • damien

      Thanks Kevin :)

      Reply
  17. Gemma

    Great post Damien, and just what I needed to inspire & motivate me on this Monday morning! :-)

    Reply
  18. Marcin Smigielski

    Many thanks Damien for such an important words!!!

    Reply
    • damien

      Thank you Gemma and Marcin.

      There’s no time like the present to shape your future.

      Kindest regards, Damien.

      Reply

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