Why is it that so many photographers burn bright, then burn out within 2-3 years?
What does it take to have a successful wedding photography business?
After serving professional photographers around the world since 2004, I’ve seen it all. (Probably.)
It seems like when I really think I’ve seen it all, someone surprises me.
Like the client who was by far, highest in sales for the entire year. They did massive volume, loved our work and our workflow was like clockwork.
Until I noticed that I hadn’t heard from them in a while so naturally, I gave them a call.
And sent an email.
But they had gone out of business.
When I finally caught up with them, it turns out they weren’t making any money and had to go back to their old corporate career path.
But the most common story is of the new mom who starts taking pictures of her baby, sparks a hobby, grows a small business and after 2-3 years she’s done. She’s overworked, underpaid and her creative flame has long faded.
That’s not to say it happens to ALL my clients, of course. However, the ones who have been with me for more than a few years are the smaller percentage.
So what does it take to become a photographer with true lasting power with a successful wedding photography business?
I recently caught up with a photographer I served long before I ever started my own post production company (circa 2003 when digital workflow was just a baby).
I worked at a pro lab where I did his album designs, retouching and would occasionally drop by his studio to help advise his digital workflow.
His name is Paul Barnett and he’s a heavyweight photographer.
“Whoa, Leon! That’s a big claim, how do you qualify that?”
We could talk about:
- his *insane* studio in downtown San Diego
- his veteran travels for destination weddings
- his gig as a private photographer to ultra-wealthy vacationers
- how he used CIA-type ear pieces and mics to communicate with his associate photographers- back in 2004!
- what he’s paid per wedding
- his staff, his darkroom… ad nauseum…
But I think the real tell-tale is his lasting power. Paul started shooting in the 1980s.
He never quit, he never went out of business, even as a young photographer with a family when he wasn’t sure how he was going to make it.
I’ve always known Paul was awesome, but I was stunned when I opened this email newsletter below:
Start a Tradition
Don’t wait for Graduation, start the tradition now with Paul Barnett. Here’s Noah in 1997, 2008, and now graduating from high school 2015.
Call and Book Today!
You guys… this is the same kid! As a baby, a boy and a young man graduating high school.
Raise your hand if you have photos to show from an 18 year period… Anyone?
How many of you work with this mindset to establish long-term clients? Are you deliberate about your long-term goals or focused on “how do I survive this busy season???”
(And hey, this message is for me too!)
I asked Paul some questions via email and he was kind enough to respond.
Below are my questions, his answers and my commentary:
Leon: When did you start shooting professionally?
Paul: 1927. Seriously I think it was sometime in the 80’s.
—> (editorial) Let’s pause for a moment and think about how glorious things were in the 80’s for photographers. Just think of the technology, the style, and the trends that have come and gone since then. (Spot color, anyone?)
Think of how much weddings in general have changed. Paul has always shot in a classic, timeless fashion so that his work stands the test of time.
Also think of how some photographers resist change, they don’t adapt as things change around them. Paul adapted, learned digital but has always maintained his love affair with film.
You have to be steadfast in your long-term vision yet flexible enough to adapt through changing times.
Leon: What is the biggest misconception you see new photographers have when they start their business?
Paul: Photography is fun, really fun with many perks. However most people don’t realize that at the end of the day you are in business to make a profit.
—> (editorial) And here we have the darkest part of being a wedding photographer. I have observed:
PHOTOGRAPHERS HATE MATH!
I get it. We are all “artsy” people. We make decisions based on how we FEEL most of the time. Spreadsheets, ledgers, profit & loss statements, all make our eyes roll back in our heads and we fall over drooling of boredom.
We just want to buy all the best gear, take pictures, and have a healthy bank account.
But this is where we get into trouble.
I’ve watched too many really talented photographers throw in the towel because they aren’t even covering their costs.
Dave Ramsey says, “A business that doesn’t make money is a hobby!”
Which leads to the next point…
Leon: When you started your business did you have a long-term strategy?
Paul: Yes, work only for clients that had a high level of taste and sophistication. Charge them much more than the average photographer, and treat them like royalty, sparing no expense to make those clients happy.
—> (editorial) And there you have it: “Charge [the client] much more than the average photographer…”
But the problem with the race to the bottom is that you might win.
You might make a few more bucks for now, but not for long and not with pride. Someone will always find a way to be cheaper or more brutal than you.
Most artists doubt themselves. They don’t think they have what it takes to charge what they’re worth. So they don’t. That’s a problem!
Bringing this point into the wedding post production conversation:
Do you think Paul sits at his computer and edits every one of his photos? No.
He probably couldn’t tell you how to import photos into Lightroom. (Sorry if I’m wrong, Paul!)
Paul knows his time is best spent finding more long-term clients. That may be taking consultations, meeting with vendors, and certainly treating his current clients “like royalty.”
His business becomes more profitable through his efforts in business development, rather than photo development. Paul chose to be a better BUSINESS OWNER instead of a better EDITOR because it makes better business sense.
Last time I paid Paul a visit he had two employees who handle all the post production so he is free to “work ON his business instead of IN his business.”
(This quote is a reference to the must-read E-Myth by Michael Gerber.)
To summarize on what I think it takes to make a successful wedding photography business:
- Have a steadfast, long-term vision yet be flexible enough to adapt through changing times.
- Don’t race to the bottom with pricing. Know your numbers, make a profit.
- Forget being a Master of Lightroom. Be a master of photography, but more important, a master of business.
Obviously there are so many deeper levels than can be covered here in this blog post. But I’d love to turn the mic over to you!
- What are you doing to create lasting power with your clients?
- Are you conscious of creating long term goals for your business?
- What are your sources of inspiration for lasting power?
Leave us a comment below and I’ll draw three winners who will get a book of your choice by any of the three authors listed in this blog post.
Cheers to you and may you all have lasting power!