How to Start a Wedding Photography Business
Wedding photography is a great industry to be in. You get to see people at their absolute best, dressed to the nines, giving beautiful speeches, and making memories that will last a lifetime. More than that, you get to be paid well to be a part of it, it gives you a legitimate excuse to buy some of the best camera gear there is, and often it takes you all over the world. What could be better?
Well the reality of it is that there’s a world of difference between taking photos at a wedding and being a professional wedding photographer. There’s an endless amount of competition, a tonne of work involved, and it’s a long road to being self-sufficient. This week’s blog is a bit of a compendium intended to streamline the process of it for those of you just setting out. My intent is to set you onto the path that will best serve your long-term goals, and get you as quickly as possible to a place where you have sustainable income with good profit margins, and a self-sustaining positive presence in the industry. It’s another long one, but it’s detailed and with links to help you easily find what you’ll need. Keep in mind that much of these points can be used for almost any kind of business, and that my business happens to be centered in Ontario, so many of the links may not be directly for you if you’re from out of province/country; just adjust the point of each suggestion to reflect your local representatives and you’ll still be on a solid path.
Step 1: Commit
The unfortunate nature of most businesses is that it takes time to see substantial success. Learning the craft of photography, building a portfolio, establishing recognizable branding, getting word of mouth, networking, acquiring equipment, developing an online presence, establishing a business model, hiring a team, etc., etc., etc. The list honestly never ends.
You need to recognize this from the onset, that if you want to be the next Jasmine Star or Cliff Mautner you’re going to need to realize how much time they each had to spend on developing their own businesses. Even if it’s just a small time hobby for you, a business on the side like it is for me, or a serious commitment, you’re going to need to put some serious time in before you’re going to see the results you likely are dreaming of at the beginning.
That being said, every journey is a series of individual steps, so make your first step a commitment to yourself that you’re going to ride it out and dedicate yourself to not giving up because it’s difficult. If there’s only one thing you take from this whole post it should be to dedicate yourself to it and keep pressing forward until your goals become a reality. Then find and chase new goals on the successes or lessons learned from the last ones.
Step 2: Buy a Camera
It seems like such a simple step, but the process of buying a camera can be pretty complicated. Not sure where to start? I wrote a blog post on it before outlining a few suggestions to make the process a little easier. You can check it out HERE.
For now just buy a camera, a memory card, and a card reader for your computer; don’t worry too much about accessories such as flashes, extra lenses, bags, and straps. Those things will come in time, and your tastes and interests will change as you learn more and more about the craft. So start simply: One camera, one memory card, one battery. To invest more at this stage might be a waste of time and money.
Step 3: Learn the Fundamentals of Business
To me the “Fundamentals” boil down to two areas which are relative to every person: Photography Theory and Business Theory. Many people may argue that business theory is not critical, but let me hard stop the train right here on this one and make a very strong statement:
Business theory is more important to a photography business than photography skills.
I can’t say that point enough. Why do I know that to be true? Honestly, there are so many reasons that I could list that it would be enough for another entire blog post; but if I had to pick one reason it’s that sustainability involves bringing in profits to purchase/maintain the equipment, and to pay for your costs of life. That means being able to realistically approach and manage the business side of things.
As for myself I was a business major and I graduated long before I got into photography, but that’s an unrealistic route for many of you. I would suggest getting a few books on the subject such as THIS ONE, or THIS ONE. Also, if you have time I’d recommend taking a night-school course on business math and/or entrepreneurial studies.
Focus on studying the areas of accounting in how to set and manage a budget, how to establish price points and profit margins, how to save and invest, tax law - specifically: how to file personal and business taxes (particularly how to manage receipts and claim tax write-offs), labour law (know your rights and the rights of your employees), and equally important: forecasting.
Remember, this post is titled, “How to Start a Photography Business.” This isn’t a guide to becoming a better photographer, for that read THIS. Tons of bad photographers see success off of the strength of their business model alone, so even more important that photography theory is business theory. Trust me, I wish I could say it wasn’t the case; I wish that the strength of your imagery determined the success of your business. Please don’t skip this step, it can be the difference between your business succeeding and failing.
Step 4: Learn the Fundamentals of Photography
I’m not going to linger long on this one, as it should be obvious why photography skills would be an asset to a photography business. For a beginners guide, I’d suggest reading THIS, where I walk you through the foundations of photography theory, terminology, and application. It’s a great spot to start, and if you have any questions after that then I’d recommend checking out THESE BLOG POSTS or searching the search bar at the bottom of this page, and if still nothing pops up try contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This step, much like the last one, should be ever ongoing. You can never learn too much about photography, and you should always keep in mind that the field is ever growing and developing into new areas. Keep on top of trends, new equipment, and never let your continuing education become second tier to anything other than your strong business focus and maintaining commitment to your success.
Step 5: Shoot Everything
This is the part that should excite you! Sure, you’re probably interested in shooting weddings, but when I say “Everything,” I mean much more than just weddings. I feel like the term “wedding photography,” should be more broadly defined as: active portrait, studio, landscape, architecture, and product photography. When you really sit down and look at it that’s kinda what it boils down to. You’re constantly shooting family portraits, children, in front of landscapes and sprawling architecture, with macro product focuses on the rings, dresses, bouquets and details. There aren’t many types of photography that aren’t encompassed in wedding photography. To that end you REALLY need to be a well-rounded photographer to be successful in the industry.
You also need to develop enough knowledge of the field surrounding the photography so that you can effectively network. If you don’t know a little about video, lighting, and planning then it’s really going to not just complicate your relationships with the other professionals you’ll interact with, but it’s going to compromise your opportunities to secure references and future business through networking. Networking is such a critical element of a successful photography business that it ties into almost every other element and step listed here.
Summed-up: get your game TIGHT.
Step 6: Register your business
Why is this one so high on the list? Heck, most photographers don't even get through this step for ages after they truly become professional. Well, it's because unfortunately people associate professionalism with the amount of time you’ve been in the field, and from a legal standpoint this is the step you actually become a recognized business in. I’m not saying that the theory that time-in somehow equates to professionalism always makes sense (Joey L is an exception that comes to mind), but it’s just an unfortunate reality of how things are often perceived.
Bend the Sun was registered in 2010, and both it and my “B.” branding have been established and pushing out products and services since then. However if I were to have established my business in 2016 then people would question our experience and capabilities in the field. The fact that we have nearly 7 years of shooting weddings, events, and corporate work gives us a measure of credibility.
You should choose between Sole Proprietorship, Partnership, Corporation, or Co-Operative. There are benefits to both, for more on that I’d recommend reading THIS. Take your time, discuss it with a few professionals in the field and recruit their feedback before making your decision. When you’re ready you should register (Here are some links on where and how to register).
That being said, just because you’re registered doesn’t mean you’re actually doing anything. I would recommend even if you’re not actively engaged registering early for three main reasons: 1. The years add up quick and credibility comes with the number; 2. When you’re ready to roll you’ve got an established business to operate under; and 3. You can start claiming expenses as tax write-offs that can carry forward to be applied in future years.
Registering allows you to actively engage and establish the foundations of your business on the books. You’re free to open a business bank account, file taxes, bill, etc. at any time. Do keep in mind though that business name registration expires every 5 years in Ontario, so you will need to keep on top of re-upping the licenses.
Step 7: Decide About the Details
This one ties directly into Step 3. There are so many details of a photography business that need to be clearly defined for optimal results. You should focus on passion if it's realistic, the amount of commitment (time and money) you’re willing to invest in it, the size of your team, your price rates, the products you’re going to offer, insurance, web/social media presence, branding, short/long term goals, marketing strategies (price point, format, platforms, frequency), etc.
Picking your passion can be hard. That can mean more than just something like “High-end weddings,” it can be such details as do you want to focus on natural light, strobes, or studio light to support your style of photography or products. It can mean lens choices, interactivity, turn-around times, or even the approach (photojournalism vs. posed). Each of these choices can be defined by your passions, and each of them can directly and indirectly impact your road ahead, so take your time and choose wisely - from an educated and experienced standpoint.
I personally have a passion for natural light with primes in my getting ready shots, zooms and studio (if necessary) in my ceremony shots, and a mix of both with strobes in my reception shots. These decisions were born from my personal passions for styles of each event, and reflect what I think I would personally want if my wife and I were getting married again.
Your passions will change with time, specifically with your tastes, exposure, and with access to budget/equipment. It’s important though that you keep chasing your passions and encouraging/fulfilling them, otherwise your interest will dwindle and Step 1 (Commitment) will be more difficult to maintain. But it’s important that you keep your passions reasonable, and don’t let your failures dominate or deviate you from your determination.
Your budget and forecasting both in demand and organizational direction should dictate your commitments in time and finances. Don’t let your passions push you into making bad decisions about where you’re investing yourself and your profits. Be purposeful in your decisions as well as rational, or you’ll send your business off the rails.
Step 8: Figure out SEO early
SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. Summed-up this refers to developing your online presence so that your business scores well and places high in search engine results. It's a long and complicated process involving the strategic use of keywords, meta tags, images, text, urls, crawling, and dozens of other critical little elements which all contribute to how easy it is to find you, and how likely Google is to post your website as high as it can get when the words "Wedding Photographer" and your area pop up.
Unfortunately it's an incredibly long process that takes a lot of work, and there are literally hundreds of people who are already in the field that are years ahead of you. That's why you need to START NOW.
IMPORTANT: DON'T HIRE AN "S.E.O. EXPERT"
Most of the pre-designed web hosting platforms are already configured to make SEO incredibly easy! So where do you start? Here's a great spot: Google's SEO Starter Guide. Most people use Google, so you should definitely follow that one to the T. Next you need to do some selective application and research based on your personal host. I personally have been using Squarespace for the past couple of years, but you may be using one of many such as Wix or WordPress. Here are some useful links for each of them:
GoDaddy is another one that many people use, but I don't personally understand why. I use them to secure web domains, it's simple and easy, but they offer their own SEO management team and they charge you for it. I think it's a horrible model, and I don't find their sites attractive, nor do I know anyone who has used them and has absolutely loved them. That's not to say they don't have their own place, but I wouldn't recommend investing any time in GoDaddy.
Don't even get me started on SmugMug - they can be REALLY well done, but I don't know what it is, most of the ones I've seen are really gross, basic, and scream, "amateur."
Here's a stage when you may again want to touch upon your marketing strategy. Developing advertisements and using some of the platforms that your SEO is directly aimed at such as Google with GoogleAds. Some platforms feature specific support for the Ads as part of a strong SEO support, you should research yours and find out if it works for you.
If you're SERIOUS about this then there's a good chance you're going to consider investing in a web developer, which is a fantastic idea. If that's the case then you really won't have to worry about S.E.O. as your developer will manage that for you. Be sure however that you're prudent in selecting your developer, touch base with their other customers and explore their pages thoroughly. This is a whole other subject though, one large enough for another entire blog post, so I'll leave it at that for now.
Don't take this section lightly! It's really hard to make even a dent in the market, but back to Step 1, you really need to commit if you want to see success! Why do you guys think I write so many blog posts and do equipment reviews? It's all a part of my personal SEO plan!
Step 9: Define yourself on social media
The times they are a changing, there's no question about that. Nowadays it's more and more apparent how important social media is becoming as a factor in your business strategy than ever. This is another one of those points that could be an entire blog post unto itself, so I'll keep it short and sweet. First: Learn about social media. Second: Use it, and use it well. You simply shouldn't even try if you're going to overlook the value of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, etc. It's basically suicide for your business to not engage your clients using them. Not only does it provide you the opportunity to market for free, but it also allows you to poll your clients and keep up on trends.
It should also be said that there are clear and distinctive rules and techniques to optimize your efficiency in the field of social media. Keywords that draw more attention, optimal times to post to certain platforms, and even the frequency of your posts are all elements that deserve your attention. Some organizationsemploy teams of social media specialists who are well versed on the subject; even the Army itself does it, I work with them! Don't fall behind in this area, it all directly ties into the last point on S.E.O., and it can absolutely make or break you to not have any relevance or representation in this field.
Step 10: Inspire yourself!
Such a critical step! You really need to find photographers who speak to your soul! Here are a few of mine:
William Claxton - I absolutely love this man's work. It's such a shame he passed away a number of years ago, I honestly couldn't imagine anyone inspiring me more. Plus he worked with Steve McQueen, who is so classic cool it hurts.
Steve McCurry - You probably know him for his photo, "Afghan Girl," or perhaps from the recent less positive attention he's had regarding some of his work with Nat Geo, but his imagery is incredible regardless of what it took to get it.
Gregory Heisler - The man knows portraits like no other. Totally incredible, and his B&W work is beyond words.
Those are a few of mine, but you should totally find what speaks to you. Reach out to them, see if you can bend their ear and get some advice. They're generally pretty responsive from my experience, so get to finding your inspiration!
Step 11: Surround yourself in your subject
Preface: Be open and honest with yourself. You'll never grow if you refuse to accept that you need to.
You're at a place by this point where you've got some chops in the field of photography. You've found your style, inspired yourself, and you're comfortable in your skin as a photographer. Now you need to truly dive in and learn more of the refined skill sets you need. Educate yourself in the field of your personal vision, gain some experience in that field however you can. Many incredible photographers start of apprenticing under others, the guys at SLR Lounge and FStoppers come to mind on this one. Put in some time, perhaps even as an intern, and learn the ropes!
When I say dive-in, I mean truly immerse yourself in the subject. If it's weddings (like me) then that means getting to weddings and shooting as often as possible. It will not only help you develop in the area, but it will build you a portfolio. You'll have plenty of opportunity to network at the events, and more than that, if you play your cards right people will come to share your imagery and do some of the marketing for you. In your evenings spend some time researching, watch YouTube videos of your favourite photographers and heed their advice. We all need to learn and develop, don't let your ego be your biggest hurdle.
Step 12: Revisit step 7 (Focusing on the passion)
Now that you have surrounded yourself in the subject, determine if it's still for you. It's easy to say you want to be a wedding photographer before you've survived a bridezilla or two. You may be in a different headspace now, there's a chance you've come to find that the field simply isn't for you. If that's the case then perhaps a bit of introspection, see if you can redirect your passions and hone your skills to something comparable. Either way, this is the point to redefine your passion.
Likely you've met and even surpassed your hopes, you've already redefined and found new passions along the way. Take some time and put a pen to paper and write down where you're at. Make a plan as to where you want to take that passion, and how you want it to mold you. Spend some really open and vulnerable time with yourself and your passion and determine what the next successful step for personal growth looks like in tangible terms. Make sure your goals are attainable, but clearly defined. Your passions will always be in flux, but having a game plan is always a great idea.
Step 13: Purchase what you need
I don't just mean buying a single Speedlight, a new bag, some gels, or a small modifier, I'm talking about the big items you need to get the job done. You shouldn't be starting off buying a 200mm F/2, waiting to find yourself in your work is important before that kind of commitment; so be sure you wait until after everything above has been taken care of before making the big purchases. Research what you need to accomplish your passion. Find the real reasons you're not able to achieve the results you need, but be positive you're not just making reasons up to justify something you want.
This is a great time to purge too. Don't become a pack-rat, if you don't need something then get rid of it. Otherwise your significant other (wife in my case) will probably kill you. ;)
Step 14: Get the Team you Need
When the time comes to it don’t hire people you don’t need, and be sure you have good team cohesion. Be certain you understand what you’re getting into when you hire an employee, both in who they are (thoroughly interview them) and in what they’re entitled to by law (This ties into the labour law section I mentioned earlier in step 3). Don’t open yourself up to a lawsuit, and don’t hire someone who will reflect you or your business badly. Every person you hire is a reflection of your business so be diligent and committed to hiring the best. Also, learn how to treat them fairly. That means something different to every person, so learn their personal language and encourage an open dialogue about it. Employee retention and morale can have a huge impact on you realizing your goals and on your client fulfillment, so in as much as they are committed to you be equally if not more committed to them.
Step 15: Re-Forecast and adapt
Now you've got things going, you're up and running and getting steady business with good results. This is the point where you have figured out sustainability, and are ready for more. Now it's time to consider expansion. Here's when you should research areas of predicted consumer demands to see if you're prepared to fill that void. You should determine how long will you be doing this, at this stage and in what role. Your plans should include those members of your team it will effect. When you've determined a refined focus, now you need to work through some of the previous stages again relative to your new perspective.
Remember, at all times you should be looking both forwards and backwards. Be sure that you've defined what success looks like to you, and that you're being honest with yourself about whether you're succeeding. If you can't tell then I'd suggest choosing someone you trust who has no vested interest in your business, who will be absolutely blunt in their feedback, then do the following (here's where it can get difficult): Take their advice.
These steps are just intended to be a basic foundational direction for anyone interested in the field to follow. They're built on my personal education graduating as a business major tailored to application in the photography field. There are many key and critical elements I didn't delve into deeply (Networking and Marketing Strategy are HUGE ones I barely touched on), but those subjects would have made this entirely too long for a beginner's guide. Plus it gives me something to chat about in a future blog post. ;)