Starting a Wedding Photography Business by Ron Bowman
My background: At the present time I am a NH landscape photographer, but in years past I was a successful wedding photographer and for that reason I feel I’m qualified to share my knowledge with you. From the period 1970 – 1983, I owned and operated a part-time wedding photography business in southern NH, where I photographed around 300 weddings. Back in this time I used medium format, Koni Omega rangefinder cameras, with a separate handheld light meter and external flash. This equipment, compared with the digital cameras today, was very limiting. I only got 10 exposures per roll of film, so I had to have multiple camera backs preloaded with film and since I couldn’t change the ISO, I had to choose just one type of color film (ISO 100). Because of the camera limitations, I usually only shot around 100 photos. Once exposed, the film was then sent out for processing, which took up to 2 weeks and I always nervously awaited the results, hoping I didn’t mess up and that the film wasn’t lost, or damaged.
After closing my part-time wedding business around 1983, I then focused exclusively on taking landscape photos, but re-entered the wedding photography business again in 2008, using Olympus digital camera equipment. This time around, my part-time wedding photography business lasted only 3 years and I shot about 25 weddings. Although the digital camera equipment made it much easier to shoot weddings, the challenge for me was in dealing with people and the pressure to produce photos in a very limited amount of time. Although I’m glad to have experienced photographing weddings in my senior years, I’m also glad to have closed my business after 3 years, where I returned to my passion of landscape photography.
Using my past knowledge, I’m going to share some information with you regarding the benefits of wedding photography, how to get started, where to advertise, and what equipment to purchase. Before I get started it’s important to know that I’m only presenting on still photography and not video photography.
Benefits of wedding photography: If you enjoy people and photography, then wedding photography can be a great part-time, or full-time business. As a part-time business, you can use wedding photography to supplement your other job by working weekends and getting paid at a high hourly rate. Wedding photography can also be your full-time business, but you may need to supplement it with other types of photography (portraits, pets, industrial, commercial, etc.). So how much can you earn? When I stopped doing weddings back in 2011, I was earning about $100.00 per hour, so if you compare that with other types of jobs, this was quite lucrative. If I had to offer a guess today, I would assume you could earn anywhere from $50.00/hour to $150.00/hour. When I earned $100.00/hour, I was charging $500.00 for 4 hours of coverage or $1,000.00 for 8 hours of coverage. Because I shot in JPEG and not RAW, I didn’t have to spend much time editing and my fee only included my time, plus all images copied to a flash drive. The bride was responsible for all printing. This gave me an advantage over conventional studios, who charged thousands of dollars and spent a lot of time selling wedding books, albums etc.
Skills Required: As you can imagine, not everyone is qualified to shoot weddings. You need to have a complete understanding of your camera equipment and photoshop editing. From a personality point of view, you need to be very comfortable working with people, including difficult personalities, you need to have patience and you need to be able to operate under pressure. Let’s face it, some brides, grooms, along with their families can be extremely demanding and sometimes difficult to get along with. You are also constantly under the gun with respect to time, so you need to be organized, know what you need to photograph, and you need to be able to work in a highly choreographed time frame. If you think you have the skills required, then let’s discuss the equipment you will need and how to market your business.
Equipment: You will need to invest in 2 DSLR camera bodies, 4 zoom lenses (2- 18mm-55mm and 2 – 70mm-200mm or 300mm), 2 external high end electronic flashes, camera bag, misc. filters, tripod, 2 flash brackets (to raise the electronic flash about 6-8” over the top of the camera), several memory cards, extra flash batteries and 4 camera batteries. Many of the popular DSLR camera packages today are manufactured by Nikon or Canon (24 mega pixel), and range in price from a low of $600.00 to $2,000.00+. I don’t believe one brand is better than the other, so I would stick with the brand you are most familiar with using. Trust me, you don’t need to invest in a full frame DSLR camera. You will need to invest in the best electronic flash made for that brand of camera, which typically run around $500.00. A key point is that you will need 2 of everything just in case you have an equipment failure. So, a budget number for all your equipment should run somewhere from $3,500.00 - $5,000.00.
How to get started: When I first started out, I was working in a camera department located within a department store. One day one of the employees asked me if I would photograph her wedding, so I agreed to do it for free. I ended up photographing my first few weddings at no charge, except for the cost of film and processing. This gave me the confidence to start charging for my service. If you don’t have the same opportunity, I would recommend several other options: attend as many friends’ weddings and take your own photos, watch what the pros are doing, read up on wedding photography, take an online course, or go to work for a studio to gain the mentoring experience. You could also advertise to do your initial weddings for free or a minimal charge to gain the experience. Regardless how you get started, it’s vital that you understand how to use your camera and all it’s software settings. Do not offer to take pictures until you are completely comfortable with your equipment. If you get the opportunity to take photos at a friend’s wedding, you should reproduce those in an album, photo book, or on your website. Once you start doing weddings on your own, you can then add new photos to your albums, photo books and website so that new prospects can view your work.
Where to advertise: Marketing and advertising will become your biggest challenge once you decide to get into the wedding business. It will take time to build your business and grow your customer list. Once you do get started, referrals are a great way to build your business. Many of my leads came from engagements listed in the local newspapers. Today, most couples will search the internet, or social media, to find a wedding photographer, so you will need to set up a Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter, and a website. I would recommend attending one or more bridal shows, so see what your competitors are offering. Then, when you’re ready to market your business, I would recommend attending at least one bridal show as an exhibitor. You may find this to be an excellent source of leads and sales. I would also recommend visiting bridal shops, flower shops, and wedding event locations (hotels, banquet halls, etc.) to leave your business cards or brochures. These businesses could be an excellent source of leads. If your budget allows, you may want to consider running an ad in your local newspaper. Setting up a website can be expensive, so you may want to check out a website service like Zenfolio, where you can establish a professional website for several hundred dollars per year.
Same sex marriages: I didn’t have the opportunity to photograph same sex marriages, but they have become popular today. When I describe which photos to take, I’m going to be referring to the traditional bride & groom couple based on my past experience, but you will just need to apply this to the same sex couple you will be photographing.
Pictures to take: If you were hired for a full day’s photo shoot you will probably start where the bride is getting prepared and dressed. This could be at her home, a friend or relative’s home, a hotel etc. I would arrive at least an hour prior to the start of the ceremony and then allow enough time to get to the church or where the ceremony will take place. In some cases, the bride will be getting married at home, so this will make things much easier. Practice patience, as the bride is rarely ready on time. Most likely, she will be ready for photos 10-15 minutes prior to leaving to go to the ceremony. I’m not going to go into how to set up each photo, but here are some photos you will want to take:
Bride dressing, maid or matron of honor helping her get dressed, putting on the veil, bride with her attendants, bride alone, bride with flowers, bride with father or other key person, bride with parents, bride with friends, bride getting into limo. Some of these photos may be taken outside if the weather cooperates and the setting is appropriate. If it’s overcast, you’re in luck, as the lighting will be more even outdoors. If it’s sunny out, seek shade when taking photos of people outdoors.
Ceremony location photos: Back in the 1970’s virtually all my weddings took place in a church. Today it could be the town hall, a backyard, church, synagogue, banquet hall, hotel etc. If it’s a church, you should talk with the minister, rabbi, priest, or other clergy member to check on protocol regarding photos during the ceremony and if there are any restrictions regarding the use of electronic flash.
The groom will have arrived 15-30 minutes prior to the ceremony, so this will give you some time to take a few photos of the groom and groomsmen. Other photos include: Bride getting out of limo, bride entering the church/hall, bride with her Dad or person walking her down the aisle, attendants walking down the aisle, ring bearer and flower girl walking down the aisle, bride and groom along with officiant, bride and groom exchanging vows, bride and groom exchanging rings, bride and groom kissing, bride and groom walking back down aisle. Please keep in mind that some of these photos won’t be appropriate, or available due to the wedding venue, or people attending.
Formal photos: Formal photos are usually taken where the ceremony took place, at the reception hall or at an outdoor location. If it’s an outdoor location you should familiarize yourself with this site prior to the wedding day, to get an idea of the best location for photos. Seek shade if outdoors on a sunny day. If the location is different than where the reception will take place, keep in mind the distance in travel time, as you will need to make sure you’re done taking photos and back in time for the reception to begin. This is often a time of great stress, as you will need to stage all group and individual photos in a very short time frame. Having a family member assist with rounding up people will greatly help.
Some of the formal photos will include: The bride and groom together, the groom and groomsmen, the bride and bridesmaids, bride with her family, bride and groom with her family, groom with his family, bride and groom with his family, bride with friends, groom with friends, bride and groom with friends. There will also be photos that the bride and groom are going to want of specific family members or friends. Remember, when you photograph the bride and groom, take a series of close up ¾ length shots and full- length photos showing the entire bridal gown and train if she has one.
Reception photos: These photos are typically candid and not posed. This is time to relax a bit, as things will slowdown and you won’t be under the gun to meet a time deadline. Photos at the reception include: Bride and groom entering the reception hall, bride and groom’s first dance, bride and her father’s dance, groom and his mom’s dance, various dance photos, photo of the guest book, gifts, cutting of the cake, feeding each other, removal of garter, bride throwing bouquet, groom throwing garter, and bride/groom going away shots.
Other business expenses: I would recommend hiring an attorney to help you set up your business (as a sole proprietorship, LLC, or a corporation). In addition, you will need an accountant, business insurance, registration of your business name with the State, and a wedding contract. The contract can either be created by your attorney, or you can download one off the internet.
What happens if you are unable to photograph the wedding: The biggest fear I had throughout my wedding career is what if I was sick, had an accident, injured, or the car broke down and couldn’t photograph the wedding. I was lucky in that I never experienced this problem, but it was always on my mind. My recommendation is that you have a backup plan in place if this ever happens to you. Reach out to other wedding photographers to see if they can be used as a backup. Let’s face it, every wedding photographer has the same challenge, so try and work together on a solution. Another idea is to hire an apprentice to work with you on all weddings so that they could take over in your absence. At one point in my lifetime, I even considered starting a business where I would make myself available in emergencies to other wedding photographers and charge them an annual fee to keep me on backup.
Education: Keep experimenting and learning from other pros by looking at competitor’s website photos, reading wedding photography books, joining a professional photography association, taking an on-line wedding photography course, etc.
RAW vs. JPEG: You will also need to decide if you’re going to shoot in RAW and do all your editing in your computer, or if you are going to shoot in JPEG, which will save a lot of editing time. Shooting in JPEG will save you with post editing time, but, shooting in RAW will allow you to enhance your final images.
Wedding offering: You will also need to decide if you are going to just shoot the wedding and give the bride the flash drive, or if you want to offer finished photos, albums, or photo books. You will make more money by offering various print packages, but keep in mind this takes time and if you don’t have a studio location, you will end up having to travel to meet up with the bride later.
Payment for services: My policy was to get a 50% deposit up front when I booked the wedding. There have been some reported, unfortunate incidents, where photographers took deposits and then didn’t provide any photos. So, you may need to modify your payment policy for certain brides if they won’t agree with your 50% upfront deposit. Perhaps you can work out something where you will be paid 50% at the conclusion of the reception and the balance upon delivery of the flash drive or photo package.