So you’re a photographer. And not just any type of photographer—you’re a wedding photographer. You’ve chosen a profession that requires many different skills, not the least of which is your ability to take a great picture.
But there’s a lot more to running a successful business than just having a service to offer. Many people have had a great idea or a special talent but have not been able to capitalize on that talent. This article is intended to help you achieve your dream of working on your own, providing a unique service to deserving clients, and doing it all successfully.
The Real Cost of a Wedding Photography Business
First and foremost, let’s get the necessities out of the way. If you’re going into business as a wedding photographer there are certain things you have to have at a minimum. Some photographers have done without some of the following items, but to be honest, I wouldn’t suggest it. These are just the basics to get you started. You can build up your equipment later on:
- website (with a secure gallery for customers) and email
- marketing plan
- photography equipment and home office
- a second photographer
- insurance, taxes, business license, and bank accounts
What’s Not Listed
You’ll notice that I didn’t list photographic skill. When it comes to your skill as a wedding photographer, I’m assuming you’ve already looked at your ability from an objective standpoint and determined that you do have something unique that others will want to pay for. If you have done this, you’ll also want to make sure you can handle the responsibility associated with wedding photography. This is an extremely special day in a couple’s life, so you have to be sure you are able to take on the immense responsibility of capturing every moment of that day. If you have both of those items then it’s on to looking at the other aspects that make up a business owner’s skill set, such as attention to detail, customer centric thinking, and patience.
The Devil’s in the Details
Details can make or break a wedding photography business. This is important to realize up front. If you don’t pay attention to those details you can easily falter. As a photographer you’ll need to pay attention to the details of the wedding. Equally important, you’ll need to focus on the details of the business. These details include the wording on your wedding contract, the promises you make to your clients, and your ability to keep track of the different weddings you might have at any given time. This leads us to the next important part, being customer-centric.
The Customer is Always Right
There is a reason that corporations spend so much money on figuring out ways to make customers happy; it’s easier and cheaper to keep a customer than to get a new one. The same goes with the wedding photography biz. If you learn how to make your customers happy you’ll get repeat business, referrals, and a better reputation within your community. There is no secret to making your customers happy. Here are some simple things to remember:
- Always deliver what you promise. If you say it will take two months to edit their photos, it shouldn’t take two and a half months.
- Be quick about your replies. Wedding photographers are notorious for not replying to emails and calls. Set yourself apart by replying to all inquiries within 24 hours at the most.
- Be courteous, friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful before, during, and after the wedding.
- Always keep in your thoughts that this is someone’s special day. When you have edited your 30th wedding and you’re looking at your 600th picture in that wedding, remember that while this is a job to you, it’s someone’s wedding day.
- Don’t be on time; be early. Being early to meetings, weddings, and events will allow you to prepare yourself for those events. It also has the added benefit of making you look more professional
- Dress appropriately. Black or natural colors are always a good choice for photographers. Dressing business casual for most weddings will be sufficient, but always check with the couple if in doubt. Remember, while you should look professional, you should also be comfortable
Patience is a Virtue
Remember that your photographic skill didn’t happen spontaneously, so don’t expect that your business will boom overnight. It takes work to make a business successful, and even given all of the right ingredients it still might fail. Even if it fails, learn from your mistakes, try again, and try and try and try. Never give up on something as important to you as pursuing your dream. If you have to work a day job during the week while getting your business of the ground then so be it. If you have to learn how to design websites just to put up your own website, so be it. If you have to shoot weddings for free to build up a portfolio then so be it. Just don’t give up.
How do I know all of this?
I’m the owner of a Pensacola wedding photography business. I have built my business from the ground up with no help from anyone else. I started by shooting weddings for free for friends and family members. My first cameras were consumer grade digital Rebels. I’ve upgraded everything along the way as I could afford it. I trained with a local wedding photographer and have always been into photography, web design, and marketing. With these talents I created a solid business that exceeds my customers’ expectations, stays profitable, and allows me to live comfortably based only my own skills. I’ve had failures along the way but have learned from them and have become one of the top Pensacola wedding photographers.
Photography Equipment and Your Home Office
Setting up a wedding photography business entails you have the appropriate gear to get the job done, on location and at home. But it doesn’t mean you have to go into debt to get it done. I’ve seen photographers buy brand new top of the line gear spending over 10 grand only to find that they weren’t able to make the business work. I started with two Canon Rebel EOS cameras and some moderately priced lenses. In fact you might already have these or better. I’ll go over briefly some items you’ll need just to get started. I’m not going to cover top of the line items, just the minimums. You can upgrade as you go along. In my business I’ve moved on to Canon 5Ds, Canon L series lenses, and the whole shebang, but it didn’t happen overnight. While the gear may be similar to other types of photography one major difference is the amount of backup items a wedding photographer has to have.
The most important lesson that I can’t stress enough is to have backups of everything: back up cameras, back up lenses, back up computers, back up images, back up memory cards, back up everything. Because while you may never need any of them, the one time you don’t have a backup camera, your shutter will lock up and you will have just cost a bride and groom their images. Even with photographer’s insurance, at this point you’d be hard pressed to justify the failure to the insurance company, not to mention the bride and groom. I’ve had memory cards fail, hard drives dropped, cameras lock up, images deleted, and computers crash. Luckily I heeded the advice of wedding photographers before me and had backups in place. So in closing, back up, back up, back up!
If I was posting in a forum I’d get flamed for telling you this next bit. When starting off, don’t go out and buy the top end camera gear. There are three different categories camera gear falls into: consumer (average joe), pro-sumer (avid hobbyists), and pro (for people who do this for a living). The problem is when you start off in wedding photography you’re not doing this for a living yet. You’re trying to do this for a living. So live within your means and purchase gear that will work for your price range.
I started with Rebel EOS XT cameras, and while I wouldn’t want to go back to using them I see nothing wrong with them. Cut your teeth learning on a Rebel EOS and you’ll be that much better when you can afford a 5D. When it comes to lenses there are lots of options, but if you’re on a budget most Canon lenses won’t be on your plate and that’s OK. There are other lens makers out there that put out quality products. I’m also only listing a workhorse lens and one fixed lens. I’m not going to go into the telephoto lenses, because in my opinion they aren’t a requirement. I didn’t get one for a year until I could afford the Canon 70–200 IS L series lens. I’m also only listing Canon gear but if you’re a Nikon fan, then go for it. Here is a listing of some essential items. Remember, double what you see here and back up, back up, back up.
- EOS Rebel XTI or XS without the the kit lens. The kit lens isn’t worth the money.
- Sigma 24–70mm f/2.8 EX DG lens, less than half the cost of its Canon counterpart and to be honest I still use it as my workhorse lens. I’d be hard pressed to pay over double for the slight gain in quality that you’d get for the Canon 24–70 L series lens. There is also the Tamron SP AF 28–75mm f/2.8 XR Di LD lens, which is close in quality to the Sigma and a bit cheaper. I used it for awhile and now it is my backup lens.
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.8, very inexpensive and great for low lighting. But it is fixed so if you haven’t shot with one before remember, there is no zoom; your feet are the zoom.
- 4 GB memory cards—as many as you can afford. Regardless of what some might tell you, the brand doesn’t matter. I’ve had the most expensive ones fail and some of the cheapest ones are still going strong. Back up often and change your cards often. Don’t buy larger than 4 gigs or you’ll be tempted to put a lot of the wedding on one card. BAD IDEA.
- Canon 430EX II flash. You could go with a cheaper flash, but I wouldn’t. Lighting at receptions requires at least the power of a 430EX II flash. Your backup can be a Sigma or something similar. Later on upgrade to the 580s.
- Tripod and monopod. You may not like shooting with these but in low light conditions they can help to limit camera shake and sharpen your pictures.
- Camera bags
- Backup batteries for you camera and flash (as many as you can afford)
Your office will need just as many redundant (backup) items as your photography gear. I’m not going to go into specifics about processors and such, because they change too often. Needless to say, you’ll need a computer that can handle Photoshop or whatever graphics program you’re using. I’d say you need a second computer in case yours crashes, but if you can’t afford that you’ll at least need to be able to gain access to another PC if yours dies. You’ll need a large amount of hard drive space within the PC/Mac and at a minimum one external hard drive with a large amount of space. If you can’t afford an external hard drive then you’ll need to back everything up to DVDs.
After every wedding you should back up all your images onto the computer’s hard drive and a second external hard drive or DVD set. Then whatever you do, don’t leave your external drive or DVDs in the same location. I keep mine at a close friend’s house. If your house burns down your customers will only care if they get their images or not. There are lots of other things for your office that you can buy for your wedding photography business, but this should cover the essentials.
You’ve got your portfolio online, and you’re waiting for your first call or email and…nothing. Where do you go from here? Have no fear, Google is here. Without a well defined marketing plan you will not see many returns from your online portfolio. There are many pitfalls along the way to a good marketing plan, including wasted time, money, and increased frustration. It’s taken me a while to figure it out but I’ve learned a lot about how to get the most from Google. As an example, if you type into Google, “Pensacola wedding photography,” my website will pop up in two different areas, within organic search results and paid for results. I’m on the first page in my local area in several searches.
When it comes to marketing, as the new photographer stay away from print. What I mean to say is stay away from marketing off of the internet. It has very low returns in the beginning unless you’re in a rural area where internet usage is at a minimum. The two primary areas of online marketing are paid for advertising and bum marketing. They work well separately and together. I use both for my wedding photography business. Both also require good SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
Big Bad SEO
So here is the lowdown on SEO. It means making your website easier to find for search engines. It also means making sure that it is pulled up under searches that are relevant. You wouldn’t want someone searching for horse tranquilizers to come across your wedding photography site. There is lots to SEO, but here are some basics.
Use of keyword phrases is the primary way you’ll want to use to be SEO compliant. Basically, you’ll want to include keyword phrases in your HTML code and throughout the text in your site to get the full benefit of the keywords. There are thousands of sites out there that teach you the ins and outs of keywords and how to place them. I joined a site for a couple of months for $40 a month and studied hard until I gleaned everything I could from it. Then I cancelled my membership. I suggest checking out affiliate marketing sites. They are geared toward making money online, but to be honest they have lots of good info on how to get your site up to snuff with regards to SEO.
Here are some of the basics. First, think like a customer. What do they search for? Then think about the buying process. A customer searching for “wedding photographer” is not ready to get a photographer yet; they are just looking at examples. So don’t waste your time using these keywords. A customer searching for “Pensacola wedding photographer” is ready to look at local examples so that they can find the one they like. They might also search for “Pensacola wedding photography,” so you’ll need to consider that when you think of keywords: variations. You’ll want to include your keywords in your title, header, and throughout your site. Take a look at my wedding photography site as an example. Once on the site in your browser, got to view, then view source code. You’ll notice I’ve included lots of keywords. I use these keywords in my paid for advertising and in my bum marketing.
Paid For Advertising
Paid for advertising gets your website out to the searching populace without delay, but it does cost money. When it comes to paid for advertising for the wedding photography business, the primary players in the game are Google, Yahoo, and Bing. To be completely honest, Google is the only one you should worry about right now. Google’s market share of the online searches comprises over 75 percent of the entire market. Yahoo, Bing and several others make up the remaining difference. I’ve tried advertising with Yahoo and Bing, and I can’t say I was impressed with the results or the advertising methods.
Your keywords are going to be important here as well. You’ll use them for your advertising and in creating a campaign. You’ll set a daily budget that you don’t want to go over. Just be careful, $5 a day doesn’t sound like much, but it quickly adds up. Never spend more than you can afford, and remember this is no guarantee that you’ll get clients; it just puts your link in front of their faces. There are plenty of sites detailing how to set up your advertising. The affiliate marketing sites are good places to go to learn the ins and outs of advertising with Google.
Bum marketing is the poor man’s advertising. It doesn’t cost any money but takes time to get your site in front of people searching. Basically you will use a strategy of writing articles, blogs, and on forums to get more links going back to your site. If you do this correctly it will increase your ranking within Google’s organic search results.
A note of caution, if you live in a major metropolitan area, such as New York or San Francisco, you may not benefit from doing this due to the high level of competition. Then again, if you have nothing but time to write articles all day long it may work well for you no matter where you are. It depends on how specific your keywords are and how well you’ve defined your niche market. You can find out information about it by doing searches or once again by using the affiliate sites found on the internet.
Most importantly, before you start there are a couple of key things to know. First, you can’t just post in any forum. It has to be highly relevant to your subject matter. Wedding forums are good, photography forums work as well. Second, don’t just post gibberish. Post meaningful content that helps people out. Just make sure to include your keywords within the content. You can usually include a link back to your site within your signature or within your text. If you are allowed to post a link within your text back to your site don’t just use a link like “here”; use your keywords like “Pensacola wedding photography”. It matters to the search engines doing the indexing. Lastly, don’t quit. I’ve been doing bum marketing along with paid for marketing for years, and I never stop. If you want to stay on top you have to be vigilant.
The Wedding Photographer’s Geico
When I first started as a wedding photographer I had no idea that I needed insurance. I backed up all my camera gear, images, workstations, and even had a backup photographer so why would I need one. The thing is it’s for all of the things you can’t plan for. There are two primary types you need to worry about: liability and malpractice. One covers your rear in case you somehow fail in your normal duties and are sued. The other covers you in case you injure someone on the job and covers your gear in case it is damaged. Both are covered through PPA, which is a great community for photographers.
Death and Taxes
A lot of wedding photographers and home based businesses do not pay taxes. This does not make it OK for one more person to not pay taxes. If you are caught the fines and penalties can be extremely stiff. Do the right thing and pay your taxes. Just put a given amount for each wedding into a savings account specifically for your taxes.
You’ll be surprised at the number of legitimate tax write offs a small home based business has. If you use a certain percentage of your home as a home office then part of your rent and utilities are able to be written off. Purchases for your business, travel expenses, meals at client meetings, and so on are all tax deductible under most circumstances.
Read up on it and find a certified CPA to help you out. It’s not as bad as most people make it out to be. In most cases, small businesses are not considered profitable for the first couple of years anyway, so you will probably not end up owing much. But even if you do, it’s your responsibility to pay those taxes. How else would our government be able to function?
License to ILL
A business license may or may not be required in your area. It’s been awhile since I got mine but I remember thinking it was going to be a hassle. It was extremely easy and even easier to renew it every year. It’s also extremely cheap in most areas and adds certain credence to your business in the eyes of clients.
Your Business Money Does Not Belong Under Your Mattress!
Equally important to your budding business is where you’re going to put your hard earned money. Sure you’re going to pay bills with it and could go without an account, but what do you do the first time someone writes a check to “My Pensacola Wedding Photographer”. Try getting that cashed at a bank. So once you have your business license you can and should sign up for a business checking account. Any money that comes into your business should come in there first. Once you’ve paid your business expenses and put aside money for taxes then take what you need for your personal life. Remember to also save up for that fancy new lens you’ve had your eye on.
About the Author
Justin Gilbert is a professional photographer with My Pensacola Wedding Photographer. With 11 years of professional photography experience around the Gulf Coast area and five years of professional wedding photography experience, Justin photographs everything from weddings to events to portraits. Justin has shot in areas from Gulf Shores to Destin and everywhere in between. To learn more about Justin Gilbert’s Pensacola Wedding Photography visit http://www.mypensacolaweddingphotographer.com
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