The Goring of the Sacred Cow

David Jay, a wedding photographer, has caused an uproar with his online post 10 Step Guide to Starting A Photography Business.

Reviewers like KennyG on are wailing away that Jay’s guide is unrealistic. It all sounds like Chicken Little claiming the sky is falling.

Photography is a serious business the critics seem to be saying and Jay’s post makes it all too rosy.

Gary Fong, a former wedding photographer and now famous for the Lightsphere, wrote a post that I find just confusing but he talks about the crossover from teaching to marketing. I went to a Gary Fong workshop when he was in Toronto a few years ago and he was terrific and generous with his comments and information. (Fong made a lot of money up selling photo albums to brides as an add-on to the normal wedding shots. He boosted the sale of each album by posting images of all the family and guests online the day after the wedding so when it came time for the bride to pick her album photos she picked more rather than fewer photos to avoid leaving anyone out. Clever.)

But I believe Jay has figured out that the photography business has changed and changed forever.

Let’s face facts. Now for under $1,000 Uncle Fred can  own a great digital camera and two lenses capable of shooting professional quality images. That’s not to say Uncle Fred is capable, but his equipment sure is, so when the bride-to-be and her mother are shocked that you are asking $3500 to shoot their wedding while Uncle Fred will do it for free you’ve got to know these aren’t your preferred clients.

So how to you get preferred clients especially when you’re new and shiny?

You follow Jay’s suggestions which IMHO after 40 years making my living as a professional photographer are terrific.

Here’s what Jay says in brief (and in no particular order):

  • Network. Tell people you’re in business. Let people help you.
  • Don’t be scared into not doing it. Everybody has to start somewhere. You get better with practice.
  • Shoot for free. I completely agree as it beats sitting at home waiting for a phone which never rings. Volunteer with your local United Way or Business Improvement Association.
  • Build your business using referrals. This is essential in any business. And how to do you get referrals? You ask for them.
  • If you’re shooting weddings or special events figure out a workflow so 1500 RAW images reduce down to your best 100 JPGs inside of an hour or two.
  • Shoot first and brand and market yourself later. I know guys who have spent $50K on a website that never brought in one extra client. (But pay for decent business cards.)
  • Be prepared. Everything about running a photography business is online. Study and make it work for you.
  • I like Jay’s “Perform” page. Keep your gear simple. Go to Program mode* if you get confused. Shoot lots and lots. Smile…lots more.
  • Figure out how to provide your clients with a special experience. Most wedding photographers look identical online and have lost any possible competitive edge when it comes to pricing.

Look the old 80/20 rule still applies. Eighty percent of photographers suck. Not necessary suck a lot but some do and none of them are as good as the top 20 per cent. How do you move from being in the bottom 80 per cent to the top 20 per cent? You shoot lots of images. You create a plan of action and you work on your plan everyday. You work hard.

If you suck you either get better or you go into selling insurance or working at WalMart. It’s your choice.

I’ve said this before: Back in the early 1970s I was told there were no jobs available in photojournalism. And everyone who believed that never worked as a photojournalist. I started by freelancing for a community newspaper. I screwed up my first few assignments and they were unusable. When I finally shot a photo worth publishing the editor wanted to pay me with a photo credit. I asked for a $1. Astounded the editor asked why and I said if he paid me a $1 I could call myself a professional. Since that day I’ve always been paid for my commercial work.

And I’ve also volunteered my services a lot. (The shot above was taken at the TEDX Waterloo conference where I volunteered.) Why? Because there was no budget for photography at some of the places I volunteered my services and rather than sit at home in my self-delusion that I was better than that I went out and shot photos. Now I wouldn’t volunteer to shoot for places that were making profit out of what they were doing but it’s been my pleasure to volunteer for charitable and non-profit groups. And guess what? I got a lot of real business from my volunteer marketing work 🙂

The big trick to starting any business in any profession or craft is to start and then not stop. Oh yes avoid the critics.

It comes down to this: Those who can do and those who can’t complain. Now get out there and keep shooting.

*I was at a workshop where Beverly Hills wedding photographer Joe Buissink claimed he shot most of his amazing wedding shots on program mode. There was an audible gasp from the audience of wedding photographers who never use any other mode than aperture. If Joe Buissink showed up at my wedding with a $100 point-and-shoot I guarantee you he’d out shoot all of us…easily. He’s an amazing photographer.


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