What does it take to become a successful wedding photographer? How have the opportunities available to today’s wedding photographers changed, and what are the most successful wedding photographers doing to make the most of them? Those were the questions that we were considering as we started putting together The Successful Wedding Photographer. To answer them, we got in touch with some of the world’s leading wedding photographers. We asked them how they had created their brands and their businesses, what they were doing to bring in clients and generate word-of-mouth marketing, and how they had coped with some of the biggest practical challenges of today’s wedding photography such as building websites that worked and calculating rates that were competitive but which also reflected their talent. We wanted to know where they advertised, how they used new, digital marketing channels, and which opportunities they were exploiting that other photographers tend to overlook.
The answers came in from across the country and around the world, a characteristic in itself of modern wedding photography. We ended up with a book that did more than offer tips and advice to rising wedding photographers. It explored the nature of modern wedding photography, from Facebook marketing to video advertising and from print-on-demand wedding books to photojournalism and Trash the Dress. Many of the results surprised us.
The Value of Networking
For a profession that’s usually solitary, networking, for example, turned out to be surprisingly valuable. Julie Kim, a Canadian photographer now based in the UK, started looking up her competitors when she found that she was receiving more enquiries than she could accept. She wanted a place to send her overflow “to be helpful,” she said.
She contacted photographers who shared her style and soon found that many of them were already in touch, swapping ideas and sharing experiences. The standard of photography, she told us, was high and she was soon chatting with photographers whose names she recognized and who were well-established in the industry. They stay in touch through email and the Internet, and also meet occasionally in person for talks and for coffee.
Most importantly, the photographers that Julie now networks with regularly refer clients to each other.
“Now a bulk of my bookings come from referral networks,” she says. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done for my business.”
Julie Kim wasn’t the only wedding photographer who had discovered that cooperation can bring more rewards than competition. Brady Dillsworth and Paul D. Van Hoy had been circling each other ever since Paul moved to Rochester, NY in 2005. Leads would tell Brady that they needed to speak to one other photographer before making a decision, and inevitably that other photographer would be Paul. They’d meet at photography events, became friends and finding that they shared a similar view of photography began putting on workshops together for other photographers. They still shoot weddings of their own but their joint workshops have the potential to bring each of their businesses a new revenue stream while giving back to the world of wedding photography.
But it wasn’t just the way that wedding photographers were coming together that was surprising. Some of the particular strategies that they were following to improve their income were creative too.
Stock, for example, might look like a completely separate branch of photography but as long as buyers need photos of brides and grooms, cakes and rings, wedding photographers will be in a position to earn extra income from their shoots. We found that many photographers who chose to submit their images even to microstock sites were doing well. This picture, for example, has generated more than 3,600 downloads in the eighteen months it’s been available.
Shots like that though require model releases and the photographers we contacted while preparing the book reported a variety of different methods to acquire them. Some went as far as to offer discounted fees or additional images in return for the ability to sell some of the photos afterwards. Others, such as Todd Kuhns, a South Carolina-based photographer who shoots stock and about fifteen weddings a year, decided simply to ask his clients. It worked:
“I have only had very positive reactions which has been wonderful because I was not really sure what to expect when I started approaching couples with the idea,” he told us.
One solid tip that the photographers offered though was to be sure to obtain the release before the wedding and to bring a stock shoot list to the event. The first goal of a wedding shoot will always be to satisfy the client so knowing which additional images you want will help to keep your mind on the main job.
Building a Wedding Photography Business
But perhaps the most remarkable characteristic that we found while researching the book was the way in which each individual photographer had been able to build a photography business that suited their own personality, their own preferences and their own desires. In fact, that choice to shoot the way they want and to work the way they want was a key element in achieving a success they could call their own. So Christian Keenan, an award-winning photojournalist who had left Hong Kong to create a wedding photography business on his native island of Jersey, was happy to limit the number of weddings he shoots each year and to work only with a single employee. Kathleen Ferry, on the other hand, a former advertising executive, employs ten freelance photographers and runs her photography studio like a small business, taking orders and passing them on to her team of photographers while still accepting jobs herself.
We started with the idea of identifying the characteristics that make up a successful wedding photographer — the best strategies for bringing in clients, the methods of generating referrals, the marketing tools that delivered the best returns — but what we discovered was that just as there is more than one kind of wedding photographer so there is more than one kind of success. The most successful wedding photographers don’t just create success, they also define it for themselves.