“Four grand just for pictures?! My sister has a camera and she’ll do it for free!” I’ve heard some variation of this more than a few times throughout my wedding photography career. And I get it. I feel the same way about dentistry. But here’s the thing: there’s a lot more that goes into running a wedding photography business than just snapping a few pictures on Saturday afternoon.
We here at J. La Plante Photo are all about educating our brides and grooms so that they can make informed decisions when planning their weddings. So what is it exactly you’re paying for when you hire a professional wedding photographer?
Let’s dive in…
There’s a widely touted theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a skill. Photography is no exception. So you spend four years at a university, learning everything you can about lighting, composition, dark room and digital workflow, and everything else photo-related. It’s an immersion program, so you not only have classroom hours, you also pull double-duty working in the industry, which teaches you how to function as a professional.
Contrary to popular belief held by 22-year-olds, there’s nobody standing in the auditorium on graduation day handing out jobs on a silver platter. You’re starting from square one. Nobody will hire you because you don’t have a real portfolio and you can’t build a real portfolio until someone will hire you. And you can’t get a different job because you don’t have any other marketable skills.
So what do you do? You start shooting weddings for friends and family for little to no money. You volunteer your “second shooter” services to professional wedding photographers in your area. You do anything and everything you can to create a body of work that’s worthy of gainful employment.
You’re a poor recent grad, so your camera sucks and you have virtually no lighting gear. So now you have to make some cash and upgrade your camera. And now you have to make a little more cash and get a nice lens. A little more cash, a bunch of memory cards. More cash, a strobe light. More cash, another lens. And so on into infinity and beyond. Many wedding photographers carry $10,000-$20,000 in equipment during weddings and believe me, it’s a long, long road to outfit yourself with that caliber setup.
And throughout this process, you’re spending every waking minute researching equipment to determine what’s best for you and reading instruction manuals to learn your new gear inside and out.
And don’t forget about insurance! Now that you have all this shiny new equipment, you’ll want to get yourself some business property coverage, lest some wily wedding guest with sticky fingers slips away with your camera bag and, in turn, your livelihood.
Oh, and you’ll also need a computer and some decent photo editing software. Go ahead and throw in a few terabytes of external hard drive storage so that you won’t lose your life’s work (or someone else’s Most Important Photos Ever) in the event of a computer crash.
Almost forgot: your one pair of dress pants is wearing thin and jeans won’t cut it if you’re going to shoot weddings, so tack on a new wardrobe as well.
Okay. Now you’re ready to start your new business, right? Wait a minute. I’m starting a business?
There’s a lot you need to do before you can start charging real money.
But I didn’t go to business school!
What, you mean 18 year-old you didn’t have the foresight to see this coming?
Not to worry. Meet your new best friend: Google. You’ll be spending thousands of hours with her in years to come. For starters, she’s going to teach you a lot about what goes into starting a small business.
Here are the Spark Notes:
You settle on a business name and register it with the state, set up a bank account for your new business, figure out how you’re going to take payment (people don’t have cash or checks these days), and procure state and city sales tax licenses (if you don’t want to find yourself in hot water with the IRS, that is), which is easier said than done because you’re going to be shooting weddings all over God’s green Earth.
You also work out a system for bookkeeping (which potentially means purchasing more computer software), create a business email account and phone line (or at least change your voicemail greeting to something other than, “Sup? You know what to do.”), and set up an office with some sort of filing system, even if it’s just in the dusty corner of your parents’ basement. You know, right between the Christmas decorations and the washing machine.
Next, you write up a contract.
Wait! I didn’t go to law school!
So you call up your new best friend, Google. I mean text. People don’t make phone calls anymore. Nonetheless, you two spend countless hours reading legal jargon which, for a normal person, is about as comprehensible as Cyrillic.
Finally, you outfit yourself with a basic level of liability coverage so that if someone sues you, you won’t be washing dishes at Olive Garden for the rest of your life.
Okay, so now you’re ready to start shooting weddings professionally, right?
You don’t have any customers! Why is this, you ask? Because they don’t know you exist, that’s why.
Well, how the heck do I let them know I’m here?
I think you already know what I’m going to say here. Hours, days, weeks and months of research. Your fledgling business is a cruel mistress, but Ms. Google is here to help.
You start with your brand image, which at its most basic level, means you make a cool logo and print some business cards on which to display and distribute said logo.
Then you go ahead and figure out how to build a website (Google, Google, Google) or pay someone to do it for you.
So now you have this awesome new site displaying all of your best college work. Surely, the brides-to-be in your area will begin flocking to your parents’ basement, cash in hand. Right?
Wrong! The internet is a big place and nobody can find your website. Back to Google. Time to learn about search engine optimization (SEO). But that takes months to start working, right? Why, yes. Yes, it does.
So in the meantime, you start building your social media presence (this means Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.). You also begin networking with other wedding professionals and trying your darndest to charm their socks off so that they’ll risk their professional reputations to recommend a newbie with little to no real world photo experience. This is easier said than done because there are a hundred other aspiring photographers in a 50-mile radius doing the exact same thing.
So you use the money you don’t have to take out ad space and/or pay for a listing on a wedding website like The Knot or WeddingWire and/or sign up for a booth at a bridal expo. But before you can exhibit at the show, you need to make prints to hang in your booth, which, by the way, you need to build, and also make a nice print portfolio containing your very best work.
And then, one day, you get a bite.
It’s a wedding next August. Are you available? Darn it all, you have a seven 0’ clock tee time next August—heck yes, you’re available!
You email back and forth a dozen times (this goes on for weeks because, let’s face it, not everyone is as
desperate prompt, as you) answering questions and trying to set up a face-to-face meeting. Finally, you’re able to nail down a day and time and you meet your prospective client at Starbucks, which is a huge pain because it’s loud and crowded and dirty, but hey, at least it’s not your parents’ basement. You do your best to be helpful and charismatic, but it’s tough because you’re nervous and, let’s face it, you possess an innate proclivity for introversion because you’re an artist at heart, not a salesperson. But you’ve done your due diligence and your natural talent shines through in your portfolio, so, after much deliberation, the jury returns a favorable verdict: they want to hire you for their wedding!
Whew! Smooth sailing from here on out, right?