…But now you’re done! Time to swan dive into your roomful of cold hard cash like Scrooge McDuck!
“Government Sure Do Take a Bite, Don’t She?”
That’s from the Coen Brothers’ film, Raising Arizona. I’m a huge movie nerd. There’s this other great photography-related quote in that movie where Holly Hunter’s character is working at the local jail, taking mug shots of all the new bookings, and her superior turns to her and says—uh, nevermind. I got a little side-tracked there. I told you I’m a movie nerd. Moving on.
This was your first wedding, so you probably pulled in somewhere around $1,000-$1,500, but eight percent of that will go to the city and state when you pay your sales tax at the end of the month (you’ve embedded the sales tax into your packages because people don’t expect to pay sales tax on services, even though the powers that be force you as a business owner to collect it). Another 15 or so percent will be gone at the end of the quarter when you do your income taxes. You spent $50 on gas, $100 on lodging and shelled out another $150 or so to print the photo album. When all is said and done, you’re left with around 700 bucks to invest back into your business, which isn’t much considering the new lens you’re dying to add to your arsenal comes with a $2,300 price tag. Looks like it’s the McDonald’s Dollar Menu for the next, I don’t know, six months.
But hey, now that your first real wedding is in the books and you did such an awesome job on it, the weddings will start rolling in all on their own, right?!
In business, stasis = death, so you’re constantly working to generate new ideas and improve your artistic skills and business skills. You can’t slip for one minute, because there are a thousand other aspiring photographers nipping at your boot heels, desperate to take your place in the market. You devise new marketing plans, attend networking events and make photo albums for the venues in which you’ve shot. You submit your shoots to wedding blogs all over the world and, if you’re lucky, you get something published, which is great exposure for your business. You polish your website and work endless hours improving your SEO.
Photography is a tech-based industry, which means it’s constantly changing. So you spend several hours each week researching new trends, learning about/obtaining new equipment and keeping your techniques fresh.
This also means networking with other photographers, something that can be awkward at first because they’re technically your competitors, but feels more natural over time.
You spend 45 minutes each day keeping up with social media and writing articles for your blog. You spend another 45 minutes going through paperwork and making sure “the books” are up to date. You rewrite your contract because the old one just isn’t relevant anymore. You make spreadsheets for everything. You meticulously track your leads so that you know which marketing channels are working and which are not. You sign contracts for additional wedding expos and make new portfolios with your latest work.
Maybe you need to hire someone to help with the workflow, so you put an ad on Craig’s List and you interview three or four people. You finally hire someone and you spend a week teaching him or her the ropes and, if you’re very lucky, he or she stays with you for more than two days. If not, you start this process all over again from the beginning.
The business is starting to build momentum now, so you spend several hours each week meeting with new clients, building references and generating new leads and referrals. You also make sure to stay in touch with all of your past clients to keep those relationships strong. This means the occasional dinner or Christmas card or newborn shoot.
You spend two hours each day doing nothing but writing emails. Now that you’re a big shot, you’re fielding requests for assistants/job shadows, meetings with other up-and-coming vendors, etc. You know how hard it is to break into the industry – after all, it wasn’t long ago that you were in this very position – so you try to be as accommodating as humanly possible. Also, your phone starts blowing up with sales calls from telemarketers wanting to sell you ad space, web design and SEO services, etc., so you learn to screen calls from area codes you don’t recognize. But then they figure out how to start calling you from a “303” number. Ahhhhhhhh!
You’re also shooting every day, trying to earn a living and keep your skills sharp. Sometimes it’s an engagement session. Sometimes it’s an unpaid personal project. Sometimes it’s a favor to a friend or family member.
By now, your website feels dated, so you hire someone to redesign it for the third time in five years. This means a new logo, new business cards and miscellaneous promo pieces, a new portfolio, updating your 27 social media accounts and about 4,000 other things I don’t have the time to list here.
But hey, this is what running a business is all about, right? Hard work. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
Conclusion: So Why is Wedding Photography so Expensive?
“Four grand just for pictures?! My sister has a camera and she’ll do it for free!”
I’m sure she will. But what your sister will do and what a professional wedding photographer will do are two very, very different things.
“Yeah, but why’s it so expensive?”
As evidenced above, you’re not just paying for photos. You’re paying for someone’s years of experience. Someone’s hard-earned skills and knowledge. Someone’s blood, sweat and tears. Wedding photography is a luxury item and it’s priced accordingly.
And when you hire a professional wedding photographer, he or she isn’t just working for you for eight hours on Saturday. He’s working all week – heck, all month – on your wedding. During peak season, only around 10-20% of the hours a photographer works are paid hours. And during the “slow” season (winter), that figure can drop to around 5% or less. How many nine-to-five jobs can you say that about?
Second Conclusion: What it Means to Run a Small Business
Despite the length of this article, I’m really just scraping the surface on all of this. I could write a 200-page book on lighting techniques alone. Or on social media marketing. Or on any of the other subjects touched upon above.
As a small business owner, you have to wear many hats. You can’t just be an expert on photography. You have to be an expert on everything. You’re in charge of the business. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder telling you to get moving. Self motivation is imperative. If you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done. Period.
So maybe you can’t go to happy hour with your friends every day at five. Or maybe you have to miss the game on Sunday afternoon. Or you’re stuck on the computer when all you want to do is go outside and enjoy the nice weather.
There’s a great quote from Calvin Coolidge that I think fits nicely here:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
There’s always going to be someone who’s smarter than you, or more talented, or better-connected in the industry. For the most part, you can’t control any of that. The only thing you can control is how hard you work. This is what will ultimately separate you from the pack.
The fact is, most businesses fail. To be successful, you need to take risks, but in taking risks, you stand to lose. To own a small business is to live in constant fear and anxiety of the unknown, even if you’re successful. Heck, especially if you’re successful.
But you know what? It’s worth it. When you reap the fruit of your own seeds, the juice is that much sweeter (That sounds like a possible innuendo, but it’s not. I promise.) Every major or minor victory you have can be attributed to one thing, and one thing only: you. You’ve built this from the ground up and that’s something to be proud of.