by Missy McLamb
Photo by Missy McLamb
I remember when wedding photographers were considered outcasts by editorial, fashion and commercial photographers. In the early 90’s the photography industry hardly lauded wedding photographers for their artistic talents and relegated them to the bottom of the photography food chain. In the last decade however, irony has yielded to deference, as weddings are now one of the most profitable and successful fields in photography.
Many of today’s wedding photographers enjoy new-found respect and elevated status from clients and colleagues. Some are treated like rock stars, and like many celebrities, these esteemed photographers publish books, develop product lines and yes, hire press agents and secure endorsement deals.
It’s because so many top-flight wedding photographers are celebrated and command high fees that a “new school” of photographers has emerged. Members of this new breed include a bounty of young, hip photographers as well as a growing number of chic, creative women and even more-recently, seasoned editorial photographers seeking new revenue streams. While many photographers in the new school fuse artful imagery with savvy business skills, not all wedding photographers have been created equal.
Digital cameras enable neophytes who don’t know an f-stop from a lens cloth to join the party. And because wedding photography has relatively few barriers to entry – all you really need is a website, a price list and a neighborhood coffee house for meetings – the sandbox is getting crowded.
Since 1995, when I started photographing weddings, I have witnessed and experienced funny, enlightening and absolutely ironic truths about succeeding as a wedding photographer. In this article I’ll illustrate 7 of these ironies in order to highlight the importance of fueling your passion for photography and owning your own business with reason, self-awareness and well, I hope a bit of happiness. And at the risk of sounding patronizing I am defining an ironic truth as a belief that is contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.
But first a warning.
The advice in this article, like most advice, is far more effective when it simply inspires, and not replaces, your own ideas, feeling, decisions and actions. Learning strategies, tips and techniques should not displace your own thoughtful insights and earnest efforts about your photography business.
And with that said I now reveal the first of seven ironic truths about successful wedding photographers:
1) You Don’t Even Need an Extraordinary Portfolio.
Yes, a client usually has to like, and oftentimes love your photography before she chooses you; but she has one, if not many other reasons, for hiring you. Most of the time it’s not because you are the cheapest. And often, the bride is not even the ultimate decision maker.
We are all aware of wedding photographers whose fees run north of $20,000. Perhaps you have seen their work and appreciate how technically flawless their photographs have been captured, but the photographer’s talent clearly pales next to the photography of your colleagues, perhaps even your own. For these well-paid photographers their value to their clients is not simply the style of their imagery.
They are hired for a myriad of reasons, least of which are the bragging rights wielded by the father-of-the bride when he’s on the golf course boasting to his associates about hiring a famous wedding photographer who has worked for some of the most celebrated families in America. For this type of photographer, constantly hiring and networking with PR agents and high-profile event planners is essential.
For other photographers, brides may be drawn to a dynamic personality and simply can’t imagine spending her entire wedding day with someone she doesn’t connect with. I know a photographer who never presents a formal portfolio during her sales meetings. Even though she refers to these meetings as “portfolio reviews,” she spends less than 10 minutes of the 45-minute meeting showing her work (and even then it’s a small box of 5×7 prints the client flips through as the photographer asks questions about the wedding and the bride). It’s actually somewhat unfortunate, because this photographer has a collection of some of the most beautiful and artful wedding photographs, but at the end of the day, she understands how much her clients value the way she takes time to learn about them as opposed to talking about herself.
So should you stop improving your technical skills and photographic style since after all it’s only part of why you are hired? No. I’m simply urging photographers to recognize the importance and understand their “value” to a client in order to make the best use of precious time and resources regarding all aspects of their business.
Think long on hard how you are unique, or how you want to be unique, and allow that uniqueness drive everything from your sales, marketing and product offering decisions. Heck, it should even drive what color you paint your office and what you wear to a wedding.
Early on I realized a stellar portfolio only gets you so far. Fortunately, my reputation for being professional and easy to work with makes clients feel comfortable. When I photographed Cassandra Fontana’s wedding (a Ford Model) to NY Islander hockey player, Rick Dipietro, Cassandra told me she loved my work, but more importantly, she felt Rick would be most comfortable with my style & sensibility.
2) Sometimes A Fingernail Does the Talking.
Prospective clients need to see themselves in the photographs you show them. They need to feel that you “get them.” Simply put, show what you want to shoot. If you want to be photographing lavish weddings in an urban setting, be sure your website is filled with photographs from these types of weddings. Granted, you may first need access to those weddings and give away your services for almost nothing but it’s a worthwhile investment.
And no detail is too small. As Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, has observed, “…little changes can have big effects.”
I have a photography friend (I’ll call him Mark) who regularly consults with me regarding his wedding photography business. Mark and I talk about every aspect within his business almost weekly and once in a while I play the role of cheerleader, which in my opinion, is a must-have for every wedding photographer. Mark recently sent me an absolutely stunning image of a bride adjusting her veil that he wanted to include in his website. Everything about how he composed, lit and toned the image was sheer perfection. But I told him he shouldn’t use it. It may sound silly, but the client he markets to would not be caught dead with the nails manicured the way this bride’s nails had been painted. Unconsciously, his target bride could have felt that because of this single photograph, Mark’s photography appeals to clients unlike her and may ultimately hire his competitor.
Details do matter. This image is one of my personal favorites. I love the shallow depth of field and the still motion of the bride’s hands. I also appreciate how delicately and subtly her nails have been manicured. If I surveyed my brides I’m sure at least 80% of them keep their nails short and natural. When I select images for my portfolio, I not only consider the artistic and technical merits, I also consider how my client will relate to “what” is in the photograph.
3) “Managing the Optics” has nothing to do with a camera.
The term “Managing the Optics” is often used in politics. In the corporate world it’s usually called “managing the symbols,” and it’s important. In the political landscape, if you are a candidate running for President of the United States and the base of your platform is the war on poverty, you might not want to build a multi-million dollar mansion the year before you begin campaigning.
In the corporate arena, managing the optics could mean several things: One strategy employed by Sprite over a decade ago when they realized bottled water was outselling soda, was adding a subtle blue graphic to the bottles in order for the sugared water inside seem more clean and pure.
As a wedding photographer you should carefully select the symbols and consider their meaning for clients, staff, conduits and vendors. Everything from the greeting on your voicemail, to the font on your website – even your wardrobe – are a small component of your brand and it forms your clients, staff and prospective clients view about you and your business.
For years, my accountant has been recommending that I not accept American Express credit cards as a form of payment. Indeed, the fees levied on these cards are steep but because I serve a high-end market who almost exclusively use American Express it’s imperative we accept them. As I told my accountant, we not only want to reduce any roadblocks to be being paid, we also appreciate the message we would be sending if we did not accept American Express. Our clients, unconsciously or not, may feel we are unaccustomed to serving clients like them.
Managing the symbols is also important within the operations of your studio. We call our brides “clients” instead of customers. For us, a client represents a long-term relationship instead of a customer who may only purchase our product or service once. Whenever a client thanks us for delighting her we reply, almost with a Pavlovian response, “My pleasure.” It’s simple, says volumes to the client, and best of all it’s FREE.
I am also fanatical about proper grammar and syntax regarding client communications. When a client asks my studio manager, “how are you,” she always responds, “I’m well, thank you.” Not, “I’m good thanks.”
Managing the symbols is a slippery slope. You have to be careful not to justify superfluous expenses in an effort to maintain an image. Do you really need to invest thousands of dollars for fluffy packaging to ship your books and prints? Indeed, the packaging you use is a critical branding symbol, but there may be a high-concept and lower-cost solution that still conveys your message.
When I searched for packaging options for my studio I was floored by the expense of custom-printed boxes. Instead I sourced pre-made white boxes from a wholesale supplier and high quality, acetate envelops from a store in Chinatown. Before a wedding book or print order is shipped, and after I have a final inspection of the objects, I “autograph” the top of the box with a bold sharpie. It’s an elegant, striking and affordable solution.
One final example of how we manage optics in my studio is our lack of “contracts.” Let me correct myself, yes, we do use them, but we call them “agreements.” Contracts are scary for clients. Our parents taught us to be paranoid when signing them and the legalese ring of the word implies a lack of trust between two entities. Referring instead to contracts as a “Photography Agreement” nourishes our client’s confidence, allows this vital sales tool to enhance, rather than detract from, our value.
While my work seems to appeal to a variety of clients, I focus on delighting brides who come from traditional families, but whose personal style has a bit of an edge. My clients seem to appreciate the way my photographs, and the subjects in them, are both glamorous and approachable all at once. The desires and wants of my ideal client infuse every aspect of my business. From marketing to product offerings and cameras and film…even which credit cards I honor.
4) You Need to Have a Bit of An Ego.
With emphasis on the “bit” part. For anyone who owns her own photography studio a healthy ego is a must, but to paraphrase Colin Powell, “…a balanced ego must be combined with intelligence, judgment, a capacity to anticipate, to see around corners and a high-energy drive to get things done.”
Your ego is your best friend and your worst enemy. It enables you to produce great, not just good work for your clients. It pushes you to take risks and will fill your tank. However, your ego is not you. This idea was reintroduced by Michael Singer in his book, “The Untethered Soul: The Journey beyond yourself.” According to Singer, your ego is more like a roommate inside your head and you need to carefully consider what it’s saying and why it’s talking.
David Foster, a music producer with 15 Grammys on his mantle, absolutely appreciates his ego and understands when it attempts to impede his success. Foster, known as the “hitman” for many pop singers including Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Josh Grobin and Michael Buble, is consistently bashed in Rolling Stone Magazine for his syrupy sweet, and romantic love songs. In the past, Foster’s ego routinely complained about the critics, since after all, Foster’s talents could enable him to produce deeper, more nuanced music if he were so inclined; but after tasting the sweet nectar from Foster’s success, his ego learned to ignore the detractors
WAIT!!! I AM NOT SAYING YOU HAVE TO SELLOUT YOUR CREATIVE SOUL TO MAKE A BUCK. I’m just urging you to understand and appreciate the benefits and liabilities of your ego. It can be good to you at times. Like when it sits on your shoulder during a sales meeting and forces you to stop talking once you review pricing instead of letting you over explain why you are worth such a hefty price. Your ego boosts your confidence and nudges you not to give up on pursuing a long-shot assignment. It provides the armor you need on days when you don’t have the fight within yourself.
That same ego, however, can turn on you and give you an inflated feeling of self-importance. Your ego, for instance, may override your judgment and persuade you to sever ties with a long-time vendor, one who has been loyal and supportive, simply because the vendor injured the ego. Or maybe your ego convinces you to mortgage your home in order to rent studio space in the hippest part of town. I’m just saying to consider the advice of your ego as you would anyone you consult about your business. Listen by all means, but let you’re actualized self make the final judgement.
Once, my ego convinced me to, on a whim, drive to the local camera store and drop $5,000 on the newest digital SLR. My ego had grown tired of wedding guests approaching me and telling me that while I had a nice camera, theirs was much nicer. All that being said, my ego and my “real” self delighted in knowing that most of those financially-endowed guests left those fancy cameras on the “P” setting because they thought it was the “Professional” mode.
Ever mindful of my ego, I consider its advice as I would that of any adviser. It supports me to take risks like open a gallery in NC and hustle for work in NYC, but it’s also been known to drive decisions not in my personal or professional best interest.
5) A Kid Can Be Taught To Photograph a Wedding
I was only half-joking in my introduction when I mentioned newbie wedding photographers who don’t know an f-stop from a lens cloth. Recently, my friend Eric was photographing an assignment and after becoming fed up with his incompetent assistant, he asked the assistant to fetch the f-stops from the car, the hapless assistant eagerly complied.
BTW, if you are confused by the f-stop anecdote, you are in the class of aforementioned newbies.
So can you succeed as a wedding photographer without mastering the fundamentals of photography? It’s completely possible. Today’s digital SLR cameras are incredibly sophisticated and forgiving. I’m convinced that within an hour of training, and a pair of stilts, my 9-year-old daughter could deliver a competent collection of images from a wedding (and the stilts would be a must, I’m not joking when I tell you I was hired over another photographer partially because I was taller. The wedding planner felt, and for good reason, people look sort of fat when photographed from a very low vantage point).
But getting whiny and bummed about the proliferation of successful, albeit unlearned wedding photographers, in your market will not help you. In fact you should ask yourself what other value they could be offering prospective brides that enables them to book jobs. And more than likely, it’s not because he shoots Canon instead of Nikon.
But what about cameras? Should you use digital or film? Should you shoot in RAW or JPEG? Should you use fixed or zoom lenses? My advice. Go back to the beginning. Who is drawn to your work and why? Is RAW the highest-quality way to capture digital images. Yes, by far, but until recently it was more time-consuming and expensive due to the resources it required to capture, process, and archive. If your business model relies on a simple and cost effective workflow then you may see the benefits to shooting JPEG. Then again, if your clients value high-quality, naturally-lit photographs which require you to shoot images with a wide range of tones at high shutter speeds DO NOT PASS GO AND DO NOT COLLECT YOUR $200 until you devise a RAW capture workflow.
6) Plan, Focus, Execute. Then Forget it All.
For whatever reason I’m naturally disorganized. Thoughts and ideas ping around my head like kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn. However, before a wedding my brain flips a switch and engages my inner geek. My inner geek loves systems, order and planning. In the early years I would print a blank day-calendar (thank you Franklin Covey) and for every hour of the wedding day I created a detailed outline of what would be happening and which cameras and film (I’ve been known to shoot up to 8 varieties of film stock and sizes on one day) I would use for the specific activity. I’m not just talking a general timeline, i.e. the cake cutting the posed portraits. Oftentimes I thought about the length of the church aisle and predetermined everything for the processional including which camera body I would have on which shoulder (and neck) and which lens I would leave sitting in a bag next to the church door for when the bride arrived to the altar.
Having said all this about planning, it’s important not to be too rigid or anxious. Once you make the plan remain flexible. Try to “forget it all.” Live and photograph the moments. Someone once told me learning it all then forgetting it is part of Zen practice. I really have no idea what to label it, but I do know if you are freaked out and seem distressed at the wedding your bride will not be delighted with you.
As for my specific photographic style, I want my clients to feel as though I’m a friend floating about the room more than a “vendor” she has hired. I use film, in addition to digital capture, because I love the way my grandmother’s 1956 Rolleiflex (paired with Kodak Portra film) renders ethereal and soft images (and it does so without having to launch a Photoshop command). I prefer to use small, fast lenses so I don’t look like a war photographer or paparazzi. And by using vintage cameras and lenses I not only produce unique images, but what also happens, as an unplanned benefit-my cameras illicit interest from guests and the wedding party (AKA future prospective clients).
Shooting film also adds value for my clients. They appreciate the inherit difference between digital and film. Clients often believe, even though it’s not always true, film photographers have a better grasp on the technical & aesthetic aspects of photography.
WARNING: FILM & PROCESSING HAS BECOME VERY EXPENSIVE. Most studios still shooting film today are less profitable so proper management of your fees and expensive are hugely important if you shoot with film.
Before a wedding I think through the technical details of shooting so my brain won’t interfere with my eyes and my heart while I work…did I really just say that? yup, I did. For instance, I consider the length of the aisle and predetermine which cameras, lenses and f/stops i will use before, during and after the bride processes. My style utilizes natural light and shallow depth of field so I only use fixed lenses for weddings.
(L) Nikon D3 35mm manual Nikon lens f1.4.. RAW & high noise reduction ON
(R) Nikon FM2 85mm f1.4 Ilford 3200
7) Making it Rain Is Easier than Harvesting the Garden
If you, like me, started your photography business and assumed P&L was a record label and not an accounting principle, find some help.
When you develop a signature photographic style, create a vision, manage the symbols, and market your value to clients, selling becomes natural and your gross revenue will balloon. However, if you do not consistently measure, monitor and implement sound financial practices you will leave fruit in the garden that your family will never eat.
Even if you’ve been photographing weddings for over 10 years, and somehow you’re earning a decent salary, what you will learn from sound reporting and accounting processes will help realize greater profits.
This is a gross generalization but in my experience I find successful wedding photographers did one of two things: either they came to the business with already existing knowledge of accounting and are good with money, and over the years have learned to think more like an artist; or, they already possessed artistic sensibility and technical skills and taught themselves to think like an accountant. While I’m fairly certain I’ve bumped elbows with successful wedding photographers who rarely, if ever, think like an artist; I dare say, I’ve yet to meet a celebrated, profitable wedding photographer who didn’t also learn to think like an accountant.
Lastly, it’s important not to allow your passion to deflate when you see wedding photographers touted in magazines and blogs and you hear they garner sky-high fees. According to the 2005 PPA Benchmark Survey of High Performing Wedding & Portrait Studios, more often than not, the most profitable wedding photographers are not found in big cities with lavish studios and a client list of celebrities. Most successful photographers work and live in the suburbs and earn higher salaries by coupling their passion for creating great photographs for clients who value them and their work, with solid financial controls and processes.
For many photographers, if you’ve made it to the end of this article, I think I hear a resounding “AMEN” since you also appreciate and understand these ironies. If so, I urge you to mentor and groom emerging wedding photographers instead of fear them. As a collective, we have the power to erase, perhaps forever, the outdated image of the schlubby wedding photographer in a brown suit wielding a potato-masher style flash on a big camera.
Rod, my stalwart cheerleader and partner, used to joke, “…you make a profit despite yourself,” and he was right. I am naturally wired to think as an artist but over the years I’ve taught myself to also think like an accountant. No one else can do this for you. You have to take the bulls by the horn and become disciplined about financial monitoring and reporting or you and your family will not fully realize the fruits of your hard work. Now when Rod and I discuss the benefits and liabilities of cash vs. accrual accounting methods he can’t help but laugh.
[Konica Hexar with 35mm lens. Ilford Hp5. It's been so long I don't remember the exposure...my guess is 1/250 @ f 2.8 since it looks like the AF camera backfocused and the bride and groom are a little soft...]
I guess a bonus ironic truth is that today the iconic wedding photographer with the bad suit and silly flash has almost been replaced by a woman in her late 20’s who lives outside a major city with a $50 Holga she bought at Urban Outfitters and a $2,500 Nikon on her shoulder for a client who is paying her more to shoot the wedding then you paid for your car.
Based in Chapel Hill, NC and New York, NY Missy McLamb has a modern approach to wedding photography since 1995. Today Missy McLamb Photographers, Inc. represents over a dozen photographers and is managed by a staff of seven. Missy has photographed many weddings and assignments for high-profile clients including the children of Mia Farrow and Stephen King. Missy’s photographs have appeared in the New York Times, People Magazine and Martha Stewart Weddings. In 2007 Missy appeared on NBC’s the Today Show to discuss a personal photography project documenting the reconstruction of Debbie Horwitz, a 30-year-old breast cancer survivor. Missy lives in Chapel Hill, NC with her husband and daughter and is available for weddings and portrait commissions throughout the country.