Good Morning Everybody,

Once again I want to say THANKS to Scott Kelby for letting me step up to the plate the second time for part two of my post, “Wedding Photography: The State of the Union – Part 2″.  You can find last week’s post right here.  I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest it raised among the readers.  And my sincere thanks to all those folks who took their time to add to the conversation with their thoughtful comments.

Wedding Photography: State Of The Union – Part 2

So where does that leave us today?  After the last post, it may have sounded like the “End of Days” for the wedding photographer.  That folks, I do not think is true.  The fact of the matter is that we will always have wedding photographers offering their services to brides and grooms everywhere.

We will continue to see wedding photographers outnumber, by far, the vendor category most often observed at bridal shows anywhere in the country – over 40 at a recent wedding spectacular in the Greater Cincinnati, Ohio area.  We will continue to see wedding album vendors outnumber all other types of vendors at conventions for example Imaging USA and WPPI coming up in just this weekend.  At last year’s WPPI Convention, wedding album vendors numbered over 45 booths – even more than photo labs who were always the mainstay of such shows.

And now many labs are offering wedding/portrait albums to their list of services.  And coincidentally, a few album companies are offering lab services – Zookbinders, my favorite album company – has been providing lab services for the last 4 years.  The boundaries are definitely being further blurred in our digital age.

The bottom line is this – there are about a “gazillion” wedding photographers in today’s market vying for the bride and grooms’ dollars.  Let me validate that remark.  Recently a wedding photographer friend was visiting with a very popular wedding reception venue in the Cincy area.  Since he knew the owner, he asked if he could see the list of events for the last calendar year.

The venue logs all the vendors that participate in each wedding event.  My friend looked over the list and saw, out of 300 events scheduled, with only one or two photographers listed more than once and, even those photographers were listed no more than three times each!  This certainly speaks to the explosion of new photographers, each taking a slice of the pie.

Another reason for so many new shooters is the fact that the “cost of membership” into the wedding photography world is fairly inexpensive, a digital camera, flash, and a few business cards – that’s it.  Back in the film days we needed to invest at least $5,000 to $15,000 in medium sized format film cameras.

On top of that we had the cost of film and processing before the client could even see an image.  On a typical weekend, I would shoot 600 film exposures.  That translated into about $1,000 in film and processing for me just to be able to show the clients anything!!!  The cost of doing business each weekend went from $1.60/exposure to FREE every time you pressed the shutter button.  The digital transition reduced that “cost of membership” to practically zero and the flood gates were open pulling new photographers onto the wedding scene.  Add to the fact that the cameras became easier to understand and produce acceptable images. The wedding photographers’ cheese wasn’t just moved, it was yanked away.

Coping With the New Market Conditions

How does anyone currently shooting weddings or even wanting to enter the field cope with such market conditions?  The answer does not just lie in the two most quoted factors of good business – quality and service. These are two essential, prime factors in that equation, but not the only factors.

Today there are additional ingredients that we must incorporate into our marketing efforts in order to influence today’s buying public.  Those ingredients must include product innovation, responsiveness to the client, studio-client “stickiness”, product diversity, creative marketing, full understanding of social media marketing, the ability to resonate with the client at their level,  and don’t forget price – yes, price too.  That’s a lot to absorb for some just coming into the business.  In fact, it’s a lot to get your head around even if you’ve been in business for years.  Too many “old-school” photographers were never able to accept, much less modify their businesses plan to accommodate this new business playing field and sadly, were out of the game quicker than they knew what inning they were playing.

Offering quality and service just doesn’t cut it by itself anymore.  These two ingredients alone do not guarantee business success.   Today’s wedding photographer needs to understand and incorporate the entire package described above.  Getting your head around all those elements takes time, patience, and practice too.  That would indicate that by that fact alone, the churn of wedding photographers is consistently moving simply because lots of folks don’t want to work that hard.

I always said that it’s easy being the best and most desirable photographer in town.  All you need to do is work a lot harder than the competition.  I believe that’s still true more than ever these days.  I was recently talking with my friend, Kent Smith who runs a million dollar portrait studio operation in the Columbus, Ohio area.  He reports to me that his sales are as good as ever, consistently growing year after year but he has to work harder each succeeding year to reach his sales goals.  The same is true in the wedding photography business.  Hard work, smart work, and creative work is the foundation to any businesses success.

Define “Wedding Photographer” For Me

You know, another thing we need to define is “What do we mean by a wedding photographer?”  Is it just anyone who shoots weddings?  What kind of income level defines a true wedding professional photographer?  Is the photographer in business for a little extra “beer money” each month?  Or, does he/she need to make the house payment, car payment, buy shoes for the kids, etc. from the income generated by his/her wedding business.  That consideration sure puts a new twist on how to think about a professional wedding photographer, doesn’t it?

I know there are several levels of “wedding photographers” currently active doing business.  They range from what I call…

- The “beer money” photographer shooting for a few bucks on the weekend;

- The “aspiring pro” just getting started in the business while maintaining another job;

- The “part time professional” who makes a decent amount of extra income for his/her part time wedding photography profession;

- The “seasoned pro”, a person who is a respected within the photography community and who has been shooting weddings full time for a number of years.

Does this mean that anyone that fits within these classifications are professional wedding photographers?  A professional wedding photographer is first of all, in business to make a fair profit from his/her energy, efforts, and creativity.  Nothing wrong with that, that’s any successful business’ first goal.  Being good in business is surely the first step to calling oneself a pro.

The second quality of a professional wedding photographer is that he/she wants to do the best possible job for their client.  Here quality and service come into play heavily.  A pro is always trying to improve and enhance their photography skill set in order to do just that, quality and service.  More simply said, “If you ain’t learning – you’re dying.”

The true wedding professional brings a sense of passion to each job – they are NOT in the field just for the money.  A professional exhibiting good business practices, great marketing efforts, and a keen sense of passion and creative expertise that is brought to each event – is on the pathway to success.

I think that pretty much describes a true wedding professional but it only hints at what one must do to bring the business to his/her studio door.  That’s where it really gets interesting in today’s digital world of photography.  Today’s marketing playing field is completely different from what it was only three or four years ago.  No longer does having your images in the local bridal shop, participating in bridal fairs, or even having a prominent Yellow Pages ad do the trick. What is a Yellow page ad?

Client Acquisition: Engage Now!

Today we all stand on the edge of a brand new marketing frontier when it comes to client acquisition.  I love that term “client acquisition” it speaks to the fact that we must really reach out to new clients and can no longer wait for them to come to us.  We must seek and reach out more actively than ever before, because if we don’t the photographer down the street will.

I believe that today’s most important marketing efforts must be social media centered. Yes, that means Tweeting, Blogging, and Facebooking. Only a few years ago, everyone thought they needed an exciting/flashy website to get noticed.  Well, I think that was then and this is now.  Only having a cool web site for potential clients to look at is like leaving your studio doors open, having someone wander around without ever being approached by studio personnel.

Don’t get me wrong, an exciting website is a good start, but the experience must be dynamic for the prospective clients.  I’ve always held that the first page of a person’s website should be a frequently updated blog.  That makes the visitor’s first experience with your brand more current, more exciting.  They can see that you are busy, current, stylized, excited and proud of what you are doing.  Using Facebook in that same manner gives the prospective or current client those same experiences.

Facebook takes it to the next level.  Now you have a chance to introduce your clients to a more “personal” you.  Today’s client wants to feel that they know you; they want to feel that you resonate with them at a more personal level.  Blogs and Facebook accomplish this task very well.  I feel that’s the reason so many long-standing professionals have gone out of business.  Those that have stayed “hip” and “cool” – (am I showing my age? ;) ) – have remained relevant to the new crop of clients making the buying decisions.

Are You Relevant To Your Client?

That’s an interesting point – just who is making the “buying decision” for wedding photography today?  Up until about 3-4 years ago, it was the parents of the bride most often. Today, I contend that the “buying decisions” are made much more often by the young couple.  That implicitly means that our marketing efforts need to target the new wedding client shopping for photography services.  Sure, one’s business stature in the community, personal word of mouth referrals, all are important to your perceived value.  But a huge influencing factor is how well the photographer’s work and personality resonate with the couple.

That studio/client resonance I refer must also speak to the product diversity the studio offers.  Are you showing the same old thing the bride’s mother would be interested in, or are you developing innovative products and services not available from other photographers in your community?  How often do you review your product mix, brainstorm with your business team for new ideas, bounce or solicit new product ideas from your clients?  This must be a pro-active endeavor for anyone in business wanting continued success in this fast moving digital world of wedding photography.

So where does all that lead us to in today’s discussion?  It continues to mean that we must do the same thing top photographers have been doing for years.  It means constantly evaluating the competition and then continually differentiating ourselves from that competition. It means working harder than the competition.  That’s the easiest way to make yourself the stand out from the crowd within in your community.

Connectivity Is Vital

Equally important is “connectivity”.  You’ve got to build your network of vendor buddies to help you build your business.  I’ve always said that another important way to build your business is to get to know the people doing business with the people you want to do business with.  Define your client by age, income level, types of wedding and start introducing yourself to the vendors working with those identified customer base.

How are you going to connect with potential vendor buddies?  Simple, you need to start participating in organizations that bring these kinds of folks together.  Right off the top of my head I think of ISES, the International Society of Event Specialists.  Each month they hold meetings which bring together these like-minded vendors.

That includes event planners, hotel sales staff, bakers, florists, photographers, etc.  It’s a great way to get to know the people doing business with the people you want to do business with.  I have been a member of our local chapter for years.  It’s not inexpensive to join, but within my market area, it has proved to be worth every dollar of the annual membership.

A few years ago our local ISES chapter hosted a very large event for press, wedding vendors, upscale brides and grooms, and their parents.  As luck would have it, one of the speakers was not able to make it to our conference because of bad weather in her flight’s originating city.  Since I was known to give the occasional lecture, the leadership of the event asks me to step up to the plate and cover the vacated program spot.  I had two hours to pull a program together. I knew I could do it, and within a few weeks after the conclusion of the event I booked five weddings!

That’s why you want to continually reach out and connect with your wedding vendors.  ISES is one way, but many of the bridal consultants are holding their own open houses for prospective brides and are happy to have other wedding vendors involved.  The bottom line is to always be searching for ways to connect with and befriend the wedding vendors in your market area.

Be an Expert

Who do brides and grooms want to hire for their wedding?  It’s the person who is the expert in the field.  How do you become an expert?  It comes down once again to engaging civic groups and community organizations and offering to speak at their monthly meetings.

I think of my good friends, Bruce and Josh Hudson.  They make it a point to do several speaking presentations within their local community of Seattle, WA.  Bruce’s topic is basic and encompasses the general community: “Taking Better Photographs with Your Digital Camera.” Sure he displays several of his own landscape and fine art images, but he also includes family portraits and wedding images in his presentation.  His goal is to teach the Rotary Club members to take better photographs, but who are they learning from? The EXPERT!

There are more than 50-60 local community organizations that are always looking for speakers for their monthly meetings.  Seek them out, share your expertise, show them your images and leave your “calling card.”  It’s a great way to spread the word about what you do and can become a great business builder for you as well.

Creating Customer “Stickiness”

Create a sense of “stickiness” with your clients.  What in the world do I mean by that?  It’s simple, after any interaction with a potential client, I want a way to be able to reconnect with them or have the potential client reconnect with me. Let me share with you five quick ways to do just that.

1. At your next event you have a client come up to you and ask for your business card – what do you do?  Give them one?  I would suggest that you don’t!  That’s the most fool proof way of NOT hearing back from your potential client.  Sure, you might hear back from a few but the over all percentage of reconnecting with that client is very slim. Why? Because they lose your business card well before the time they need to call you.

In all of my years of doing business, I NEVER owned business cards.  Crazy, you say?  Not really, every time I was asked for a business card at a wedding, I would tell the inquirer that I didn’t have one on me; could I have one of theirs?  Of course I could, and if they didn’t have one, I wrote all their contact info down on a napkin.  You get the idea; I wanted the ability to be able to re-connect with them 100% of the time.  That just doesn’t happen when you give them your card.

2. In today’s digital age, it’s even easier and much more impressive to connect with your potential client – that is, of course if you travel with your iPad, which I believe is the best portfolio sharing device on the planet.  Now when a client asks for a card, I whip out my iPad and let them enjoy a few of my images.  iPad images look great in a dimmed reception hall.  When they comment on one of their favorites, I ask for their email info and send then their favorite image with a nice note from me.  What could be easier in impressing a potential client and capturing their contact info all at the same time?

3. If someone insists on a business card, why not give them a gift card instead?  This is about the best idea I’ve ever heard.  My buddy, Frank Wilson, taught me the secret success of gift cards.  At any encounter with a potential client and many times even a current client, Frank always gives them a $50 gift card that the card recipient can use for any photographic services/products he offers. A gift card is much better than any kind of discount you can offer a client.  Everyone is familiar with the concept. A gift card is like money burning a hole in the client’s pocket.  And, that potential client can only spend that money with you.

4. Here’s one more way to build customer “stickiness” – creative use of your Facebook Fan page.  First of all be sure to set up a Fan page for your business, not just a regular Facebook page.  Be sure your potential and current clients “fan” you and let them know you will be posting images of their wedding within 48 hours of the event – speed is of the essence. You don’t want to lose any of the wedding celebration excitement.

They hit your fan page; tag themselves and some of their friends in your images which drive more potential business in your direction.  I think it’s a good idea to come up with a Facebook image posting strategy.  I would post an image or two of the bride and groom, the large family photographs of the bride and groom, wedding party pics, and any other large group photographs, (high school friends, sorority sisters) you captured at the wedding reception.  Now you’ve maximized the number of potential visits you’ll get because of the large number of wedding guests that can be tagged on your fan page.

5. Don’t overlook the very cool Animoto shows you can quickly put together.  These are short, fun, exciting to view presentations that showcase your favorite images from the wedding.  Post the Animoto show to your blog and your Facebook page.  The utter simplicity of this is that you have your best, most current samples of images always in front of your potential client’s eyes. Animoto is FUN!

Product and Service Diversity Is Key

I mentioned this above – let me bring it around one more time. Can you survive just being a wedding photographer these days?  I think that’s a very good question.  My gut reaction is, “It’s tougher than in previous years to be a specialist shooter in today’s market. Back in the day, wedding photographers were specialists at what they did.  Today, just the shear increased numbers of new photographers churning through the profession means it’s difficult to make only weddings a specialty field anymore.

Sure there are a few photographers working that still specialize only in weddings. My good buddy, Cliff Mautner, does just that – nearly only weddings all the time.  But I think Cliff is more the exception than the rule these days. A lot of exclusive wedding photographers have now found the need to be diversified in the services they are offering their clients.

Recently I had a conversation with Lynn Michelle, a very talented and successful wedding photographer in Dallas, TX. She keeps a fairly busy wedding schedule but also offers very elegant boudoir sessions and photographs about 80 sessions a year. This combo of services has rewarded her with quite a busy studio operation.

Another aspect of that must be considered is the diversity of your products.  What products do you like to sell?  If you love what you sell, your passion and enthusiasm will show through and resonate with your clients helping them to make a buying decision purchase of what you love.

Many, many wedding photographers are doing the “shoot and burn” style of business.  Sure, it looks like quite easy cash, and yes, it has driven down the prices of wedding photography.  By the same token, I think the “shoot and burners” leave a lot of sales possibilities on the table.  You don’t have to be a good salesperson to be a “shoot and burn” photographer, so by default the sale has to come up much shorter than it could be.  Successful people are successful salespersons too – no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Regardless of what your field of expertise, and that doesn’t just mean photography.

The “shoot and burn” photographer takes the “home run” out of play.  What’s a home run? A wedding sale that sits firmly in the five figure level.  Those of us that have been in business for a number of years still vividly remember our first “home run” sale.  A few years ago, I almost made it into a six figure sale – boy, do I remember that sales experience.

It was a three-day destination event.  I shot over 8,000 images and showed the client 4,000 images.  We worked through 3 sales sessions together and on the third day, she asked me how many images she had selected.  I said that the image count was at about 1,200 images that would be bound in 6 volumes.  She giggled and told me she would take three sets!!!! One set for herself, one for the bride and groom and one for the groom’s parents. GRAND SLAM home run!  Would that have ever happened if I offered a “shoot and burn” option? NEVER!

I’m not trying to start a debate with the “shoot and burn” photographers.  I even believe delivery of the wedding images on a disc has a place on any wedding photographer’s price list.  I sell albums. I LOVE albums to showcase my wedding celebrations.  Lynn Michelle mentioned that she sells albums.  For her own wedding a number of years ago, she only received a few hundred 4×6 inch images.  She tells me she never looks at them and that’s why she feels a wedding album is so important for her clients.  Her clients sense her feelings for the importance of the album and this is what she sells most often.

The bottom lines is this, as a professional wedding photographer, are you interested in just making a few extra bucks on a weekend, or are you challenged to make it a go as a successful profession?  Your answer will probable determine the direction you’ll take your product mix and business plan.

Continue Your Education All the Time

It amazes me when I hear stories about how some folks photograph a wedding with very little to no experience.  This speaks to how diluted the craft has become.  If we want to become really good and stand out from our competition through our imagery, we need to train and learn and continue to learn to do just that.  I’m not suggesting you need a PHD to be a wedding photographer – you don’t.  But you do need a desire to continue to your training if you eventually want to differentiate yourself from the competition and not just be like everyone else with your style or better said, lack of style.

One of the easiest ways to learn is to expose yourself to as many speakers you possible can at the major conventions that take place across the country each year.  We’re heading off to WPPI in Las Vegas tomorrow and I can’t wait to see a lot of the talented wedding photographers presenting at the convention.  Upon our return from this convention we are heading up to the Northern portion of Ohio for the Professional Photographers of Ohio, PPO Convention in March.  Then at the end of the month, it’s Photoshop World in Orlando, always a fabulous learning experience! Even after all my years in the business I never stop wanting the opportunity to learn some new tip, technique, sales idea, product diversity from the platform speakers .

Budget a little tight for travels? Then sign up for the best training value on the planet earth – Kelby Training.  There are 1000s of hours of training just waiting for you to tune in – and it’s only $25/month!

I’ve always felt that the best way to learn was to partner with three or four like-minded photographers within your community, or just outside your community but easy enough to stay in contact. Myself and two other photographers called it our “brain trust” well over 20 years ago when we formed our small learning-from-each-other-group.  Get your own group together, meet every few months just to kick around shooting ideas, business strategies,  marketing ideas – the ideas will keep on coming, I promise.

Hire a model or two from Craig’s List, buy and inexpensive gown from a local Bridal Salon- yes; sale wedding gowns can be purchased for $99 or less.  What a kick it is to just be going out and shoot with your buddies, experiment with ideas, challenge each other and capture some great images without the burden of the actual wedding day.  The “brain trust” effect is a great way to polish your skills, each person bringing their own level of expertise and perspective to the shooting experience.

In Conclusion

So does all this sound like a lot of work – blogging, Facebooking, networking, constantly developing new products and service, continuing your education, practicing?  Of course it does, and it’s that extra effort that separates you from the competition. Achieving success and obtaining prosperity in your business has the same key ingredients now as the recipe held 20 years ago. It’s about always working harder, smarter, and faster than the next guy.  It’s about keeping your edge, constantly sharpening your saw, always looking over your shoulder to see how close the competition is, never being complacent.  And yes, quality and service too, but all the rest is equally as important these days!

Hey gang, thanks so much for hanging in here with me today.  My thanks once again to Scott for letting me share my thoughts and ideas in Wedding Photography – State of the Union – Part 2. Hey, want more good ideas on running a wedding business?  Then be sure to follow me over at DigitalProTalk.com where you can read my Business Day Thursday posts regularly.

David has shared his message with over 15,000 people in 2009 and 2010 through his tours and training.  His 4 DVD set which features his live Captured by the Light 2010 tour just launched last week covering many aspects of lighting, composition, and business building.

David is also the author of Captured By The Light: The Essential Guide To Creating Beautiful Wedding Photography, one of the top selling books on the subject.

Follow David at his daily blog: DigitalProTalk.com.