Recently I was thinking back to my first time at the WPPI (Wedding and Portrait Photographers International) in Las Vegas back in 2008. I had only been photographing for a few years, and it was my first time at a conference with thousands of wedding and portrait photographers getting to meet and listen to long time industry pros. Topics covered everything from lighting to business.
However, there was a recurring theme throughout the entire conference, especially in the business classes. It was that photographers should stick to their guns and charge what they think they were worth and not compromise artistically or financially. It made sense in the context of the time, when digital cameras were finally able to exceed the quality of film, and a lot of the existing barriers to new photographers in the industry had seemingly disappeared overnight. The result was a market flooded with new competition that were able to work with low overheads on weekends while holding other jobs, and as a result they were able to sell their services for a lot less than what established photographers had been charging.
I completely understand the sentiment, but I think the message didn’t have the desired intent. Yes, there were a lot of new photographers so excited about getting work, and lacking in business experience, that they were willing to work at a loss. The message probably reminded many of them to pay more attention to their bottom lines, but it also had a deleterious side effect.
That message has been shared and propagated so much over the last few years that we have a large number of new photographers that can only be described as entitled. They insist on telling themselves and other photographers to never work for free or discount their prices, and their contracts read more like the contract of a music diva demanding a bowl of M&M’s with all the yellow ones removed, than the contract of a wedding photographer. In some of the photography groups I am a member in, I have seen dozens of posts in the last week regarding photographers demanding that no one else (including the couple’s own family) can be allowed to take pictures. Or more disturbingly photographers posting screen shots of emails from potential clients mocking them for asking if they can negotiate on prices. Or I see photographers complaining at requests for specific photos from couples.
The fact is that photographers are really only worth what clients are willing to pay. I am probably one of (if not the) most expensive photographers in the area, and that is mainly due to the fact that at my current prices I am typically booked a year in advance. The trend I find a lot more disturbing is the animosity so many photographers feel about their clients, and the guests at weddings they photograph. There is a recent trend now about a confrontation between a photographer and a DJ at a wedding because the DJ took some photos (#weddingphotogate). The ethics of what the DJ did aside, the photographer has now dragged their client into a public argument with the DJ, and I think as a result, as done their client a huge disservice. The fact is we should be problem solvers for our clients, not problem creators.
So on this #TBT, I want to address my start in the wedding photography industry, by sharing some of the very first wedding photos I ever took. Below are photos from my first three weddings. For the first wedding I photographed, I was paid nothing. Not one dime. It was my college roommate’s wedding, and his photographer was not able to photograph the guys getting ready so I offered to help with that. The second wedding I photographed, the couple only paid to cover the cost of an album I put together for them. For my third wedding, it was again for a friend who paid me $500. I didn’t really have my artistic style developed, and I did anything the clients wanted including selective color and white vignettes.
By the next year, I spent a lot of time developing my own skills and starting to lay out a style for my photography. The images improved quite a bit as did my confidence in creating them. I was still charging barely enough to break even. Within a year my style was starting to emerge on its own. Increasing my prices was not a result of other photographers telling me I needed to, it was the simple economics of supply (me) and demand (potential clients were starting to notice me.)
My point is that new photographers really shouldn’t be that worried about what they are charging, or maintaining their artistic integrity (within reason) at the starts of their careers. For starters, every wedding you photograph is a chance to learn and develop your style. I don’t think I made a dime my entire first year of wedding photography, because I wanted to take every opportunity presented to me. I didn’t worry to much about artistic integrity, because at that point I had no idea what my style was. Style is something that develops organically. And as far as dealing with clients now, if they wanted me to add a white vignette or some selective color, I would be happy to do it, but I wouldn’t show it to anyone because that is not my personal style.
In the last decade my experience has taught me to balance client satisfaction with my own satisfaction in what I show. I have spent that time developing a style, and a genuine desire to make clients happy, and to be their problem solver and not a problem creator. I am not suggesting that new photographers should work for free (but maybe it wouldn’t hurt,) or that they should abandon integrity when it comes to their art. What I am saying, is that they should consider allowing themselves to develop those things naturally. Eventually you have to charge if potential clients are all clamoring for the same date. Your style will develop eventually as well, and as long as that is what you show, that is what people will ask from you.
My message to new photographers reading this post is this: The business side of photography is critically important. Don’t neglect it. But on the same token, allow your ego to be earned. Don’t focus on paying the bills with your camera; focus on being a great photographer. Make your main business focus be making your clients happy. Take the opportunities that come up for you without regard to money. Keep your day job. If you stay focused, everything else will develop on its own.