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How to become a successful wedding photographer.

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How to become a successful wedding photographer.
Author : Philip Thomas
Article Date : 15 May 2014


No sugar coating it

In meetings with photographers new to the business, the question I get asked the most is, 'How do I become a successful wedding photographer?' I decided to write this to help you succeed in your business. This is based shooting weddings over the last eight years. Perhaps the following will shed some light in a very competitive industry that seems to have gone through a huge creative spurt in the last 15 years. Let's get on with it, shall we? Feel free to add your comments to the conversation below.



The fast track

The first point to get across is there are no fast tracks to becoming a successful wedding photographer. OK. That's it! Just kidding. But seriously, I hope you haven't come here after a google search looking for a quick and easy fix. There isn't. Still with me? It takes immense time, passion, dedication, self determination and, like any successful business, discipline and perseverance. Some talent is needed no doubt. And this talent has to be nurtured, developed over years. I'm still a work in progress and that is the humbling attitude that I suggest you keep in mind.

How do you start shooting weddings for a living?

Just don't do it for the money. You probably won't make that much anyway for the first few years. Do it for the love of photography. Yes, once full time, it is a business and you have to make a net profit at the end of the month. But right now, at this moment, how do you get started? How do you know you will like it until you try it?

Second shooting

First. I wouldn't shoot a wedding without getting some experience. Most likely, the preferred start will be a gradual up-the-ladder approach as a second or third shooter. I do not recommend shooting a wedding without doing this first. I say this with peace and love. I wouldn't even shoot a friend's wedding, just because, well, you're a friend or family member and things could go south. I've seen too many situations arise that go horribly wrong on the day or after a wedding. You've seen those news stories.

I've given the aforementioned advice many times and to only second shoot with a wedding photographer you really love. Don't shoot with a photographer whose work you do not enjoy. Not only will you be enthused by the standards of your favorite local photographer, but you will hopefully learn things the right way. You can do both too. Have your burgeoning wedding business and second shoot as you become more proficient.



The right attitude

Weddings are high intense and super challenging. Having the right attitude, being courteous, deliver what you promise and then over deliver. It would seem that anyone can shoot a wedding, right? Especially if you just do a quick google search for wedding photographers. It would also seem that almost every guest at a wedding has a camera. Speaking from experience, it would also seem that there is a certain 'uncle' with a superior camera to mine. And it has a very very long zoom on it with an equally sized flash gun. Wow, he must be good with the camera set to 'P' for professional.

It's not just your portfolio

Have an online portfolio is obviously important to your potential clients. Only show images that you really are proud of. Upon meeting clients in my studio, much of the time is spent chatting and getting to know each other. It's a low key meeting. You see, if a client is meeting you, there's a good chance you are already in her top three, or may be the favorite photographer. I find discussing pricing is secondary and always has been. Much of the process is the bride deciding on behalf of her fiancee if you are the right fit for her and if she can see you hanging out with her all day. I discuss my philosophy and a little about the day but most of all I want to listen to the bride that we are both a good match for each other.



Equipment

It's not about the equipment folks. It's about what's between your ears, that grey matter that makes the image in your camera. But you do need some half decent gear that's not going to breakdown. For starters, I would suggest at least two cameras, a 24-70 zoom and a 70-200 will suffice to get the ball rolling. The second camera is a back up. Notice I didn't tell you which brand to buy. You have to figure that out for yourself. Cameras just feel different to everyone. Go try out the camera that works for you. You can even rent cameras from your local store or just rent as a back up. You might find that one brand works better in terms of weight, for example. Then, add a flash or two and get equipment insurance to cover all that gear.

I'm second shooting already.

So, let's say, you have shot a few weddings as a second or third shooter. You love it. So much that you say you are now seriously considering going full time or, at least, a weekend warrior. Actually, it's quite possible that along this journey, after working with your favorite photographer, you realized that there's just too much work and commitment involved in running your own business and you are just happy to second shoot. Not everyone's circumstances dictate you can commit the time needed. Be honest with yourself.

Making it a business.

There's a few things you have to do before assuming you are planning or already second shooting. A plan and a budget are a must. Again, plan and a budget. Ideally, I would recommend a six month supply of cash just for your wedding business and covering your cost of living. How much will you need?

Well, let's discuss.

Pay yourself first. You might think, 'I don't need to pay myself.' Well, the reality is you still have bills to pay, rent, a mortgage perhaps, utility bills. Just the roof over your head. Factor in your gear and the cost of setting up your business as a legit company.

Expenses per month unless noted:
* Camera gear $3000-$10,000 (basic gear, 2 cameras, 2 lenses. You have some of it already.)
* Website hosting $10-$50
* A lawyer $300-$1000 (to check that contract)
* Advertising $500-$1000
* Office Expenses $500
* Cost of sales- producing those images/prints/albums 10% to $25% of total revenue
* Shipping and mailing $30-$100
* Gas/petrol $100-$200
* Accountant/bookkeeping $300-$500 a year
* Salary 50% of total revenue
These expenses are different for everyone. No business is alike. Things to also think about are will you have a studio space or are you going to meet clients at a coffee house or hotel? Things can add up pretty quickly.

And then, what do you charge for a wedding? How many do you need to book in a year to break even? In reality, most photography businesses do not last very long. Some a year, some two. Many come and go. It's a business first. It is easy to start feeling overwhelmed but it all comes back to loving what you do with a passion, that you can get past the challenges, but be a realist. Further down the road, start thinking about retirement savings if you haven't started yet. Don't overlook any of this. Budget and plan.

Yes, as photographers, we do get a little carried away about the shooting and the artistry. This is who we are. But to be a really successful photographer, you have to follow some rules, run the business, pay taxes and register your business. Every state is different, but there are some basic things that must be done. You have to set up yourself as an entity. An EIN is needed, and you have to register as a LLC or S-Corp. Some research is required on your part what is best for your circumstances. Sales tax has to be charged to every thing you charge. In Texas where I reside, this means even photo sessions (portrait session, rehearsal coverage for example). All my collections have sales tax added to them. I simply pass that onto the state after collecting from clients. Even after 5 years, many businesses fail at this point ignoring some aspects of their business. Then there's franchise tax paperwork, even paying estimated income tax that you may have to pay quarterly.

Then there's that pesky budget. Yes, I know, I hate this as much as you do. But you want to be successful right? So keep reading.

There's plenty of good software out there that can help you do this. Successware or Studioplus are a couple of them. My good friends can recommend a few more in the comments below. I do not endorse any of these products, but just go do a search. They are made by photographers, for photographers. Not only budgeting, but you need to keep track of all those expenses and set up a business checking and credit cards for your accounts. Keep your personal accounts separate from your business. This is crucial. For legal reasons and so you can see how profitable (or not) your studio is going to be.

So now you know what you have to do just to get up and running. There will be the need for a good accountant. Your accountant (another expense) should have an excellent understanding of all your expenses, and advise you what is the best entity for your situation.

Go and meet other photographers. Start educating yourself more about your interests. There are conferences throughout the year. Here in the States, I found the PPA and WPPI very helpful in the early part of my career let alone all the online help now. Some photographers are also very open to helping others and genuinely care to see you succeed.

Learn about SEO (search engine optimization) for your site. Learn the craft. Enter competitions if you find this will motivate you to be a better photographer. Go to exhibitions, study photographers at a local library and attend some workshops. These are all further expenses, part of the running of your business.

Balance

It's not just the wedding day. I work my business full-time. I spend 80% of my week behind the computer, editing, marketing, meeting vendors, meeting clients, preparing agreements, accounting, bookkeeping, blogging. About 40 hours/week, sometime 60. And then my life is filled with two little girls (and one big one < -- my wife added that). It's simply hard work.

Like any full-time job, there are pitfalls. As a self-employed individual, it's super important to find that right balance between play and work. After eight years as a wedding photographer, I've learned to embrace life and outsource some major parts of my workflow. If I didn't, I would be back to working late nights, and that would impact my life with my wife and kids. Let alone lack of sleep that any parent incurs when bringing up family. Some things have to give. Keep this in mind as your career develops. I shoot around 20 weddings a year. Some other weekends I'm shooting engagement or bridal sessions. That leaves me about 20 weekends free for my family.

I've been a wedding photographer for the last eight years. With passion and coffee, I'm a lover of life and photography. I want to be surprised in life and weddings seem to epitomize what I'm looking for as a photographer. I enjoy the challenge to capture peak moments of perfection in terms of emotion, geometry, composition, light, tone, shadow. When all these things line up and I click that shutter I hopeful get that shot. Then it's on to the next peak moment. I still cannot believe that I get to do this 24/7. Pinch me!