Tuesday, August 17, 2010

So you want to be a wedding photographer... (part 1)

I meant to do at least one post last month devoted to getting into the wedding photography business, so I may as well forgo the August Monthly Special and pursue some posts I didn't do last month. For those of you thinking you might want to do wedding photography professionally, I thought it might be helpful for me to give you some of my own experience and advice.

Let me preface this by saying that business is a foreign world to me, which is why I became a professor. If you want to learn about opening a store front, dealing with tax issues, and coping with complex legal issues, you'll have to look elsewhere. If you want to hear a real-life experience rather than an exemplary perfect-world scenario, then this post is for you.

Consider all options

Before I delve into the wedding photography experience and advice, let me scare you away from listening to me with my story of graduate school:

I was finishing my B.A., doing quite well, and the department chair interviewed me and told me he thought I should go to Yale:

"I'm not sure that's what I want, and I doubt it will work well for my fiancée if she wants to keep taking classes."

"Well, she'll just have to understand."

"Well, that may be how your marriage works, but it's not going to be how mine does."

After that exchange, the chair only referred to me as "Michelle's fiancé" and wrote me off (until he ended up hiring me 8 years later). So if this illustrates anything it is that I tend to be impetuous and outspoken. My approach to grad school was not about finding the best school, but about where I wanted to spend the next four--uh--make that seven--years. "What schools do they have in Seattle?" I asked a friend. "Which one of those is the best?" So I went to UW. It was great. I loved it. I probably got more personal attention than I would have at Yale. The professors were happy with me, and as I neared the end of my M.A., all the professors were telling me I should go do my PhD at some Ivy League school (one went so far as to contact some friends at Princeton to set up a scholarship). All the professors were basically saying UW wasn't good enough. All except one. He said, "A pedigree will help you for maybe 4 or 5 years. Ultimately, what matters is what you produce, where you can be happy and productive." For me, that place was Seattle. So I stayed and chose that professor as my dissertation director.

Wow, that was a long story. The point is, I have never regretted those decisions. I think you should factor in your whole life (quality of living, family, etc.) when making decisions. But do I tell my students to follow my example? Hell, no! I tell them what I did and why it worked for me, but then I tell them to go to an Ivy League school. I'm not trying to set myself up as a model to follow, but I don't mind giving conflicting advice so the student will consider all options.

Enjoy photography as a hobby until that just isn't good enough

I've been taking photos since I got my first camera at age 7. I have always loved photography, but I never once considered it as a potential source of revenue until about 10 years ago. Really. Not once. I was too busy singing/dancing/acting and teaching French to even realize that I could get a degree in photography. There are tons of holes in my knowledge because I am a complete autodidact with photography. But I'm in good company because most of my favorite photographers were self-taught.

Three things got me wanting to earn money through photography:

1. I needed the money. I knew that being a professor wasn't going to be lucrative, but I thought it would be better than this.

2. A real go-getter friend who liked my photography decided that she wanted to do photography too. Within a month, she was earning money every weekend as an apprentice for a local wedding photographer. I thought, wait a minute! I inspired her but she's the one making money at it? What's wrong with this picture?

3. I met another go-getter who already had a line of postcards and was working on a gallery show even though his first time behind the lens was only six months earlier. I was in South Beach curating a show about design, and I got invited to a swank dinner with people way out of my league like Maury Moss. Fun taste of an alternate universe. But what inspired me was this 20-something golden boy rep for several design lines who just decided he wanted to do photography and so he did. It's horrible to admit it, but sometimes thinking "My stuff is better than that" can be a good (not very charitable, but good) source of inspiration.

That was the last straw. Suddenly, doing photography without profit wasn't enough. I still lack the business acumen of the go-getters, but that's just not who I am.

If you want to photograph people, start with portraits

Unless you take the apprentice route, I think you'd be crazy to start with weddings. I can't advise you on how that works other than to say that my go-getter friend just started contacting photographers until she found one that would take her on as an apprentice. Being a dynamic and smart beauty queen doesn't hurt either.

If you want to go it alone, do portraits. In my case, I did them for free or for meager wages to build up a portfolio. This was pre-business card and website, all purely word of mouth. The fact is, I decided early on that even when I launched as a real business, I would never do a bridal fair or do advertising. I'm still a word-of-mouth business.

Do you really want to do weddings?
If I could have made good money doing individual portraits—especially of kids—I probably would have never done a wedding. But almost no one was hiring me for individual portraits. Group portraits, yes, but not individual ones. If there was a good market for portraits, I didn't find it. Weddings, however, are happening constantly in Utah. I'm practically at the epicenter of a marriage factory where I live. And you can charge ten times as much as a portrait sitting to do a wedding. Tempting if you want to earn money. But there are good reasons that you charge more, the top two being:
1. They are super high-stress. Mess up with a portrait and you can re-shoot. Mess up with a wedding and you have just screwed up the most important event of someone's life. No that is what I call stress.
2. They take a ton of time. It's not uncommon for me to shoot for 10-12 hours on a wedding day. That's not so bad if you charge by the hour, but I charge a flat rate and then do whatever it takes to get the job done right. The sweat-drenched suit I forgot to drop off at the dry cleaner's today will back me up on this: it's hard, tiring work. Don't expect to sit down for a leisurely meal with the guests. Do expect to run around looking for great candids until your feet hurt. And when you're done, you've got to sort through all of your photos. For me, that usually means taking about 2,000 photos (more on this in the next post) and then weeding it down to a more manageable 400-500. Next I have to do some very basic retouching and then post the photos online, at least loosely organized by category.

Is that really the kind of stress and workload you want? Really?
OK, then. Stay tuned for the next post...

Sorry to have stopped again...

The busy end-of-wedding season is wrapping up. I had a great trip to do a wedding in Long Beach last week. As soon as I settle back into a routine, I will get some posts up.

Monday, August 2, 2010


I'm leaving Paris in about 8 hours. I'm still deciding what the August "Monthly Special" should be. I'm also thinking of abandoning the "Mister Linky" links and just having people leave a URL in a comment if they participate (since so few do and keeping the linky widget costs me money).

It has been interesting this time in Paris to take some more conventionally pretty photos and to better appreciate the challenges attached to that. I have a post I'm wanting to do about it. Maybe when I get back...