You've heard there is big money in wedding photography and you want a piece of the action. After all, it sounds like a good gig, right? Five hours of work one evening on a weekend and a $1000+ payday! What could be simpler?
Before the dreams of grandeur and big pay checks start clouding your vision, here are 20 tips I hope will help steer your growth so you are an asset to the happy couple entrusting you with their fond memories.
Persistence Is Essential to Success
I have this saying posted above my computer in my office. It stares at me every day I sit in front of the screen and get work done. It's drilled into my head from repetition. I can't remember where the quote came from but I want to thank whoever brought it into my life.
It is one of the single most important bits of advice which keeps me going on the days the phone doesn't ring and no magical “we want to pay you $10,000 for a photo shoot!" emails are filling my inbox.
Those phone calls and those emails (minus a few thousand dollars) don't come in unless you make them happen. And the way you make them happen is by keeping at the task of building your business every day of the week.
I can tell you, for a fact, I have received work only because I was persistent and sent four emails asking a potential client for work. You will hear over and over again, “I know you sent me an email before but it got buried. Thanks for the follow up." if you keep at it.
Not many fishermen get a bite on their first cast. You have to keep at it. Say it with me: Persistence is essential to success.
This bit of advice varies greatly from region to region, country to country so I'm not going to give any specific advice on what to wear. A suit may be required in your area or maybe a sport shirt will suffice. The key here is to look professional — both when you are meeting potential clients and when performing your wedding shoots.
There is a balance that must be struck between dressing to a tee and having functional clothing. After all, you will be walking and standing for hours on end, sometimes half a day or longer. Make sure your outfit is workable.
But also strive to be the second best dressed person in the room (behind the wedding party). Some photographers spend as much on their outfits as they do on their camera gear. The impression you leave on your clients and others at the event is one way to generate leads to other paying jobs.
Looking professional is not enough. You need to act professional. What does this mean? Do:
- Refrain from getting drunk
- Avoid chatting about politics/religion/sensitive topics
- Point out your positive attributes rather than put down your competition
- Be respectful to all everyone you meet
- Be on time
- Respond to emails and calls (see next item)
These are just a few of the items it takes to act professionally. If you want to make a living at wedding photography, you are going to have to stop treating it like a hobby and start treating it like a life long commitment. Your reputation is what will get you referrals. It will serve you well to always present a professional image.
It's tempting when you are starting out in the wedding photography field to hide behind your keyboard. It's easy to set up a 'store front' website, make some nice business cards and start sending out emails to potential clients.
Yet, many of us have a problem with direct contact if our confidence is anything less than 100%. And when you start out in the business, your confidence might not be 100%.
One of the ways that lack of total confidence manifests itself is in avoidance, especially when the deal is not yet sealed. I've known a number of photographers who are masters of the English language when typing up proposals and creating portfolio websites, but the moment their phone rings, they stammer or press ignore. If you aren't in a good position to take a call from a potential client, it is OK to let it go to voicemail.
And yet, you need to return calls, promptly. I speak from experience on this point. I still am not always the smoothest character on the phone, but I have found those phone calls to be the life blood of the business.
It does take some nerve when starting, but you will find more value in returning the calls promptly rather than putting it off for a day or two. Even a few hours could mean the loss of a client. Take care of your business first and return calls promptly.
Get Accustomed to Rejection
No one likes rejection. That's obvious. If you absolutely can't stand rejection, this might not be the best industry for you. A freelance photographer has to have tough skin when it comes to dealing with rejection.
Most of the time it is nothing personal, although at times a personality conflict might be exactly what it is. You're going to get turned down at some point in your professional career.
The good news is the world keeps turning. More clients will call, more leads will crop up, and opportunity will keep knocking. The sting of “No" doesn't last and gets easier to take as time goes on. The less you have all your eggs in one basket, hoping for that dream client, the better off you are to handle rejection.
Try to turn the rejection around and ask why a client has decided on another photographer. If you look at the situation in the right light, it's a chance to understand what the market is looking for and how you can adapt.
Know Your Limits
Just how low will you go, financially speaking, for a shoot? How far will you drive before charging mileage? Do you have a midnight cut off? How many phone calls are too many?
Knowing your limits is an important aspect in this business. There comes a point when a gig starts costing you money (via time, usually). Clients will try to barter you down or get as many free items as they can. Not all of them, but some will.
You need to know your limits before the questions come up, or you stand a chance of wavering and faltering in the face of pressure. If $1300 is the lowest amount you will take to spend 10 hours shooting a wedding, stick to it and be OK with saying, “No thanks," when a client tries to lowball you.
Build a Portfolio
Building a portfolio can be a classic 'chicken and the egg' problem. You want to break into wedding photography, but you have no wedding photographs to show. What do you do? One thing you do not do is show clients other people's work. Ever. Not even in a “this is what I can do" manner. It's dishonest and a bad reflection of character.
What you can do is start on the low end. This business is a classic example of the school of hard knocks. You need to spend some time doing it before you can do it.
One way to accomplish this is signing on as an assistant for an established photographer. They can be a great resource for learning and, if you get lucky, they will act as a mentor for many years after you have professionally parted ways. Look for someone with a long history and who you feel you can work with.
Another option is to shoot as an unofficial second photographer. This is a bit trickier, because you will need the right set of circumstances to make it happen. You will need a wedding couple you feel comfortable approaching about the idea and the main photographer will have to be OK with it.
The latter is the harder piece to fit. But there are photographers out there who don't feel threatened by a newbie wanting to get into the field. Again, you might get lucky and find someone who is willing to give you advice while you both have a free moment.
They will surely have some limits, such as not allowing you to shoot alongside of them for the portraits (having two cameras to look at confuses most groups and you get wandering eyes). Don't be afraid to ask.
Know Your Gear
The night before your first or second wedding shoot is not a time to be pulling out the instruction manual or trying new things. Know your gear and know it cold.
Know how to adjust the basic settings in darkness or the flashing lights of the dance floor. Know just how far you can push the ISO before it is unrecoverable. Know how to control your strobe from the camera body and how long the batteries will last. Know your gear inside and out.
Have a Backup
Picture yourself at your first wedding shoot. Your heart is already racing. Your palms are getting sweaty and you're not too sure of where you want to stand. It's nerve-racking enough the first few times. Now imagine your camera won't turn on... If you think you were nervous before, now you're panicking!
Bring a backup for everything that is vital to your job at hand. Starting out, you might not have enough money to buy a spare camera body and lens, and that's just part of the game. Maybe you can borrow a friends.
As soon as you can, pick up another body similar to your main camera for a backup. And keep it within easy reach.
Some people normally shoot with two camera bodies to lessen time in switching lenses, but this doesn't mean your spare has to be on you at all times (especially if you are not accustomed to carrying a spare camera and it keeps getting in the way). Keep it nearby and handy.
The same goes for extra camera and flash batteries, an extra flash, and more than enough memory cards.
Remember, the bride and groom are paying you well (because you knew your limits and stuck to them) and they entrust you with capturing the magic of the day. It's your job to be prepared.
I mentioned it a little in the section about about returning calls. Communicate! While you can communicate too much, the odds of that dampening your relationship with your clients is not nearly as vast as the opportunity to alienate them by turning into a recluse.
If you are, in fact, a recluse, it's time to pop out of your shell and be proactive with communication.
In the beginning, you are learning and things won't always go right. As time goes on, you will learn your own pattern for communicating with the happy couple. You will start to get a feel for when they might be antsy to see their final images, or proofs.
You will know to call X many days before the wedding to check in, again, even though you did it two weeks ago. Different clients will demand different amounts of communication and it's your job to adapt to that and be proactive.
Being the first to communicate shows you care and your clients are important to you. That reputation is what will help secure referrals for other weddings.
Get to Know Other Photographers
Maybe you think of other wedding photographers as the enemy. Get over it. You need other wedding photographers, believe it or not.
While you can go it on your own and shun the industry, that tactic only works for a few. Make friends - or at least acquaintances - with as many local and distant photographers as you can.
Why? Because even though other photographers are indeed your competition, they can also be your comrades. As you build a reputation in the industry (see points above) you will also receive referrals, from time to time, from other photographers not able to cover a wedding.
If your name is in their mind and they know your work, you have a chance at securing gigs you didn't even know existed. And things do come up. Photographers get sick and can't cover a shoot. They need a second photographer and don't normally shoot with one. Or maybe they want to hand off some editing work and are willing to pay a good price for your time.
Not only that, it's great to have a community you can ask questions when in doubt. Shooting in a new location and want to know about great spots for portraits? Throw the question out to your community.
If you have made friends in that community, someone is bound to lend a hand or know someone who can. Don't underestimate the power of networking! And to help you out, you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to throw questions my way if you're just starting out! (obviously I like to help)
Who knows you are a wedding photographer? You need to advertise, period. This can be in the form of direct mailings to people you know, or a purchased mailing list. It can be shouting it out from Facebook every 15 minutes, or purchasing one of their ads.
There are lead generation sites where, for a fee, customers come to a common site and ask for bids for their wedding photography work. Pound the pavement, walk into bridal shops, let people know you exist.
Post business cards where you can, and network outside of your normal comfort zone because almost any interest group out there has someone looking to get married.
Value Your Time
Think quick: what is your time worth? Not “how happy would you be that anyone would pay you to shoot a wedding?" But really, how much is your time worth? Do you want to make a living at wedding photography?
It's easy when you are first starting out in the business to take any low hanging fruit you can find. $400 for your four hour wedding? I'll take it! That's $100/hr. I'm rich!
But wait, what about time to edit the photos? What about time to negotiate the contract and meet with clients on the other side of town through an hour and a half of traffic, each way?
What about your cost to advertise? And time to create the ads? Then there's time before and after the wedding itself, time to set up your website, wear and tear on your equipment, and the ever present desire to get nicer, newer cameras.
A lot goes into a photography business. I've heard it estimated only 10% of your time is spent shooting weddings. When you are starting out, ask around to other local photographers to get an idea of what they charge.
Those who charge $500 for a full day wedding shoot can not making a living in the business or will not last long. Value your time and charge accordingly.
Know Your Worth and State It
Wedding decorations last a few hours. Flowers, a week. Cake, a year (in the freezer). Photographs: a life time. That's why they aren't cheap.
Continuing with the item above, know what you need to make and charge that amount. State your value to your clients. Starting out, it's a bit hard, but with a few weddings under your belt you will be able to point out the experience you bring, the expertise, the knowledge of how weddings unfold.
Don't be afraid to state clearly what value you are adding to the wedding. Your job now is to be a salesman for yourself. Some people already have an understanding of a photographer's worth, but many people don't quite get it
It's your job to know your value in this situation and communicate it clearly.
A client has called! It's an exciting day and you've probably already told a few friends about the meeting next Thursday. In your glow, you set aside thoughts of the meeting until....it's Wednesday night! Wait! What is tomorrow really about? What will they be asking?
A better question is; what will you be asking. The initial client meeting is a two way street. Yes, you are there to impress them with your gorgeous portfolio and vast knowledge of your art. But it's also a time for you to decide if you want to take the assignment.
Remember; you are never required to sign on a client if you don't want to, and that's what this meeting is for - to make sure both parties involved want to work with each other. The best way to determine your desire to work with the clients is to ask questions.
I have turned down weddings before because the "vibe" wasn't right. Another word for vibe might be that our personalities didn't quite gel. Sure, you can still shoot a wedding like this, but do it once or twice and you soon realize the lost revenue is less than the heartache of working with a truly horrible client.
It can also be a disservice to the couple if your style and theirs don't match. I've also declined offers because they bride and groom wanted highly stylized photos, lots of posing and staged shots. That isn't my forte.
In the end the couple was better served by finding someone with whom they 'clicked'. You will only find out if this is the case by asking a lot of questions at that first meeting.
Make a List
This item is a simple task which takes some time upfront to get ironed out, but saves a lot of time on the backend. Create a shot list you can hand to the bride and groom, long before the wedding day.
Ask them to check which shots they want, and highlight which shots are vital/do not miss. Leave space for them to add their own requests. Then make them a copy and keep the original some place safe until the wedding day.
The good part of making the list is you can reuse it from wedding to wedding. There are a number of lists on the web and I've even posted mine if that will help you get started.
Preview the Location
Sometimes, the wedding party has been to the ceremony site and knows it like the back of their hand. Sometimes they don't have a clue.
Either way, it is your responsibility to preview the site to know where you want to shoot portraits. It's OK if the bride already has plans, but it's not OK if she doesn't and neither do you.
It's best to try to view the ceremony site at the same time of year to get an idea of how it's lit. As a lot of weddings are in summer, this can be accomplished by visiting in the Spring when the sun sets at the same time of day. If the ceremony will be in a remote site, show up a few hours early to scout for shooting locations.
Remember the earlier items about responding to emails and communicating? This is the last step in that process; following through. You've talked the talk and now it's time to walk the walk.
Deliver proofs when you say you will. Deliver the final product, be it a disc, album or online gallery, when you say you will. Make sure contracts are in hand when they need to be.
You will rarely hear it said to your face, but if you are mercilessly consistent with your communication and delivery, your reputation will grow. Those referrals you will be getting will be bolstered by the statement, “He always returned our calls promptly and delivered the photos on time."
People want to know you will do what you say and that comes from doing it over and over and over again. Know your deadlines and meet them before they are due to ensure everything is done on time.
Here you will need to be responsible for your time and commitment. Make sure to block out time for editing soon after the wedding. Don't let things linger until the night before because your quality will suffer.
Who doesn't love receiving an unexpected email, two weeks early, telling them their photos are ready? Deliver time and again, and the work will build with your reputation.
Don't Get Drunk
If you are normally the life of the party, it's time to hand the reins to someone else while you are working. It might be tempting because it is a party, after all. People will nearly force you to drink at times, insisting just one shot won't kill you. “Loosen up!" they'll say.
While I enjoy a drink just as much as the next guy, I feel it is vital to hold off on the booze while working. You're a professional photographer, not a guest.
I know that line gets blurry at times and it's great when you're shooting a wedding at which you really feel welcome. Again, it's about your reputation, which will linger long after the alcohol has left the party guests' systems.
Your responsibility is to your clients, the bride and groom, and they hired you to shoot photos and capture the fun of the party, not to be the life of it. Your goal in this regard will be to hear a month or two later, when the pictures are delivered, “He didn't really party with us and wouldn't even take a drink of the wine." “No, but he gave us wonderful photos."
You may be offered food at the reception and you may not. You might even request it. But don't count on having time to sit down and eat. I'm lucky in this regard. When I shoot, my stomach shuts down and doesn't request anything while I concentrate on the shoot.
But not everyone can do that. If that someone is you, pack a number of snacks as if you are going for a hike. Some sugars, but lots of protein and fats. You will be on your feet for hours, so don't worry too much about gaining weight on this one day. Worry instead about having enough energy to get the last shot of the couple driving off into the sunset.
This bit of advice holds true for many aspects of life: remain calm. There will be enough energy and emotion swirling around the ceremony without you adding to it. Be a pillar of calm.
When the bride turns to you and wants to know when the portraits will be shot, you can reassure her there is enough time, they'll be in 15 minutes and it'll all work out.
You might not know it, but you will soon become the most experienced person at the wedding. Most of us have seen or been in a wedding, but photographers and officiants are the ones who people turn to over and over as experts on what to do, where to stand and what comes next.
It will all work out. Even if you are nervous during your first wedding shoot, confidence will come in time. Until then, fake it and remain calm while those around you give in to all the nervous energy.
Bonus Advice: Have Fun
Weddings are a fun, frantic and exciting time. While it is considered a job for you, don't forget to have fun with it. It's a celebration and you are doing what you love to do; taking pictures. I can't think of a better career to have than that of a wedding photographer!