Rather than go about slashing prices in this economy (at which point it’s not worth the trouble, to be honest), I have been trying to add value to what I do as a photographer. One thing is to offer on-site printing. I can do this in a number of ways, but being able to actually see the image on the computer and then hit “capture” would be nice. This free software is intriguing. Now if I could only get a few more bookings.
Truth be told, I’ve been having doubts about my wedding photography work over the last 6 months. Don’t get me wrong – I have faith that I am a more-than-competent photographer. I understand lighting, I understand what I should be getting, I have a myriad of tricks up my sleeve to get what I want to be getting, and I enjoy working with clients (there’s about 30 other things I can list but that’s just a start).
However, the “art” of my photographs have honestly not been improving. I have hit a kind of wall in my creativity when it comes to new types of shots, different kind of feel, etc. I am merely a good photographer, and seem to be stuck here. And not for lack of effort. But perhaps lack of talent. I keep an eye out, I rarely sit down and stop during a reception or ceremony so that I can capture those key moments, etc. But other than getting all the necessary shots and doing a solid job, I’m not sure I’ve been doing a great job and I’m kinda-sorta confident I’m not getting a whole lot better.
Recently, I applied to a group known as the Wedding Photo Journalists Association (WPJA) with the hopes that my membership would improve sales. I had not heard from them at all for a long time, and asked about the issue on photo.net. I didn’t provide a link to my website or samples because it’s still kind of rough around the edges and I didn’t think my ego could take it, honestly. But, aside with a confirmation that I didn’t get in if I didn’t hear back, I have gotten more feedback on the quality of my photos than I had really wanted. This was one that really discourage me:
- Too many detail and posed shots, I would say 10-15% of your images are photojournalistic. It needs to be the other way around to qualify.
- Too many f/3.5+ photos (This would be shots with too much in focus, I guess).
- Please don’t take this personally: Your flash photography probably isn’t good enough. There are quite a few direct flash shots, or seem like pop-up flash.
The reasons why I am so discouraged is that 1 – literally 2 of the dozen+ photos on my website are posed. Nothing else is. Some may look like they are, but they aren’t. Isn’t that part of the trick? I guess not. And 2 – I thought I had a good grasp on lighting. Yes, I prefer to use flash than just open my lens wide open and have no depth of field, but I think I go after a very even flash look, not a “deer in the headlights” look. None of my shots are direct flash. And I have never used a pop-up flash.
But if they look that way, then perhaps I’m not getting the job done. I’m not up to par. I’m the kind of photographer that I have told others to avoid. Someone “good enough” but nothing more.
Thus far, I have tried to avoid putting up posts from threads on photo.net. I have a whole other blog that did that extensively, to the point of annoyance, I think. It also became less and less useful as it became more and more full of links.
However, I have been struggling with group poses – they are all so traditional. So time constraint aside (and that’s a big aside), I’m going to try and make use of these examples this Saturday to be a bit more creative, if the venue allows. Even just a set of steps at the altar can make a big difference.
While listening to This Week in Photography, Frederick van Johnson aired an interview he did with Dane Sanders, a well-known (and fantastic – check him out on flickr) wedding photographer that has written a book on getting started in the business – Fast Track Photographer.
One of the items Dane mentioned was about protecting one’s brand, and adding value to existing prices and packages as a way of combatting any decline in sales. The alternative would be to just charge less. I think this is very important, but that there are a lot of other things that need to be considered for wedding photographers such as myself, charging between $1000-$1500 for a base package (as compared to $2500-$3500, which is kind of the next step up).
The key part is that if you have created your brand as in a certain part of the market and as a certain type of photographer, it is important to protect that brand. This is marketing 101, to be honest. I’ll take myself as an example – I started out charging very low ($550) but made it very clear that it was in order to build my portfolio. Even when I met with potential clients I stated this quite clearly. As soon as I had 6 weddings under my belt (an arbitrary number, to be honest), I went up to $1000 for the same package. After about a year of doing weddings at that rate, I discovered that I was meeting with more couples that saw photography as an after-thought than I wanted. I have now gone up to $1250 for a wedding, which is apparently, based on those with whom I now meet and talk about their wedding plans, an amount that makes couples think about their overall budget and have made a specific decision to find a solid photographer to capture their memories. You can read more about what I offer on my wedding photography site, if you want.
Throughout this process, I have pursued developing my brand as a photographer that takes a wedding seriously, offers professionalism and a personal dedication to the needs of the couple. I book no more than 15 weddings a year and never more than 2 weekends in a row. I have actually turned down weddings that pushed these limits (despite my honest desire to keep revenues up). That is my brand. That is who I am, as Allan Chen the Wedding Photographer. My pricing has reflected that – I want to work with couples who value those parts of the brand.
Well, if I have spent so much time on that, then it’s critical that, even if inquiries are down due to the recession that I still protect that brand. However, I also have to recognize that couples are watching their wedding budgets more closely, and have to make some hard decisions. So the question posed to Dane Sanders was how does one keep moving forward in such a situation?
Sanders’ opinion was that it’s about adding value, rather than cutting price. What does a couple get for that same price? Yes, the personal touch, etc – that stays the same, of course. I can’t be more than 100% devoted to their needs, after all. But I could, for instance, offer an online slideshow for the same price, or add more prints, or a higher end album, something like that. Many of these options don’t require a lot of extra time on my part (the online gallery in particular) so they are also cost-effective for me. I think this makes a lot of sense.
The danger, though, is for photographers that charge about what I do. If I were to take into account the time I spend on processing a wedding, my margin would be very low. Even if I add an hour or two, it eats more and more into that margin. If I offer an additional service as part of the package, same problem. If I’m doing the same amount of work but am charging $3000 (because I’m in that market, or I’ve established myself to justify that price, or whatever) then the margins are better and it makes more sense. But right now, it gets thinner and thinner.
So what am I doing, having listened to Dane Sanders and agreed with his fundamental recommendations?
Let me qualify this post by saying that I am not bashing those that are trying to get started in wedding photography, I realize that many are “sucked in” by friends and family and get in over their heads, and that I know that wedding photography is hard.
But, I was one of those “getting started” photographers not too long ago, and I think I went about it in a very serious manner. I did not do anything until I had my lighting and techniques down, and took every opportunity to learn more and more so that the next wedding would be that much better. But I didn’t let up on any of the first ones, either.
Recently, I helped a coworker who got married back in June. She knows that I do wedding photography and asked if I could help with some of the photos. I usually would not go editing someone else’s shots but she said that she and her husband were so upset by them that they have not given any to their parents and really wanted to give a frame or two of images.
When I did even some rudimentary work on them in Adobe Lightroom, she started crying. Just color correction and some exposure, but she was crying. I’m just trying to give you an idea of the situation.
Now, you have to be, in my opinion, a good photographer with a good sense of timing and quick composition to be a good wedding photographer. But you also need to know equipment and lighting. The usual maxim in photography is that equipment does not matter. Well, with wedding photography, it kind of does. You must have backup cameras, a full spread of lenses, and you need to know how to use flash and artificial lights. Perhaps not a full blown set of off-camera flashes, but you need to know how to use your stuff, period.
Well, some of these photos were taken at ISO 1600, which is not an ideal setting since you get a lot more noise. It also wasn’t really appropriate since they were situations where artificial lighting seemed like it would have been okay (ie – not during the actual ceremony, etc). Also, even at ISO 1600 the shutter speed wasn’t fast enough – there are blurred formal photos. Of all photos, set-up formal ones should not be blurry.
And, as far as I can tell, almost no flash was used. Flash is so critical unless you’re shooting with the very latest set of full-frame digitals which can get away with ridiculous ISO settings.
I really mean no disrespect to this photographer – I don’t even know his or her name. But the bride cried, in front of me, in my office here at my day job. A wedding is an important day, an emotional day, and one which, as a photographer, you need to be ready for and must have nerves of steel.