First, I want to thank Scott for inviting me to be his guest blogger for the second time here at Photoshop Insider.  It’s always an honor and a pleasure to make his accommodation.  Also, let me say that today’s post in no way reflects the views of “this station.”  Today’s post is meant to be more than a social observation, but rather a revelation of what’s happening in the field of wedding photography today, why it happened, and what can wedding photographers do about it. It may seem to be a “Doom and Gloom” read but is not meant to be. It is meant rather to be an “eye opening” read that I hope shakes all sense of complacency from our bones, and fires us up to do something about the current state of affairs.

As I researched and wrote this post, I was amazed by the confluence of circumstances that have completely changed how most wedding photographers have done business for years.  Most amazing was the speed at which these confluences collided and changed things in just a matter of 24-36 months! And all these changes mean that we must do business in a brand new way if we wish to succeed.

This post is meant to be Part 1 of a two part post. The reason, as I continued my research and writing I was topping out over 2,900 words and I still had about 1,500 to go – whew!  So, although most of this post reads like “Doom and Gloom” for wedding photography, I scatter tiny rays of hope throughout. Part 2, to be entitled “Dreams and Opportunities” or something like that ;) , will point wedding photography readers towards concrete strategies about how to grow their wedding photography business stronger and better than ever!

I hope you enjoy today’s read in the social observation context in which it was written.  Read on if you dare….


Wedding Photography – The State of the Union

Are Weddings Broken?

Last year at an Imaging USA luncheon with some of the most prestigious photographers in attendance, one of the top wedding photographers in the country said, “Weddings are broken.”  I think this statement reflects the state of wedding photography for many photographers nationwide.

I also recently hosted our PhotoPro Expo in the Greater Cincinnati area two weeks ago and discussed this very same topic with several wedding photographers attending.  Most agree that weddings are currently “upside down,” meaning the sales success many of them enjoyed in years past has all but evaporated.  Back in 1986, my studio had a sales average of $2,600 per wedding on 72 weddings and watched it grow steadily over the years. The fact of the matter is that photographers would “kill” for my 1986 average these days.

On a more personal note, I know of three wedding photographers, photographers that were the leading wedding photographers in their respective cities who were all but out of the business in 2010.  One drives a large cross country rig (and loves it BTW), another is driving limos to make ends meet, and another 30 year wedding photography veteran works at a popular retail outlet for the same reason – no business. (He loves his new part time job too).

The turn down in sales is not just limited to wedding photography either.  It’s encompassing all areas of the photographic profession including family portraits, high school seniors, and all the services professional photographers have been offering their clients for the last 40-50 years.

And the real fact of the matter is that it has all happened in the last 24-36 months.  Photographers were having their best years in 2006 and 2007.  Things started to go south with the crash of the economy in October of 2008.  Although the “Crash of ‘08” certainly played a major role in the downturn of wedding sales averages, I believe the downturn was due to more than this single event.

Who Moved The Cheese?

This is where things really get interesting when analyzing this significant downturn. The photographer’s “Cheese” has certainly moved, meaning that what we always thought we could count on is no longer there. (See Spenser Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese [link].)  Let me hit on a few of the “cheese movers” that I feel have significantly changed the photography industry.

The Economy Takes A Dive:

The economy figures heavily in the market downturn.  In the boom years the consumer was doing great and loved to spend money – consumerism was at an all time high.  Folks were feeling “flush” with the stock market at 14,000. These “folks” I refer to are the moms and dads paying the big bucks for even bigger weddings.  I have a client who placed a $40,000 wedding order, the market crashed, and to this day she has never completed her order.  When did this happen? In late 2008.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to take a “braggadocios” position – this was one of those once in a lifetime “home run” orders most photogs will experience during their 20-30 year careers – more on hitting the “home run” later.

Sure, my studio has worked for and achieved a great wedding average over the years – over the years being the operative words. Like they say, hard work, nose to the grindstone, and a little luck all will help lead you to real success. Think Malcolm Gladwell’s “Rule of 10,000 hours” in his best-selling book “Outliers, The Story of Success” [link].

After 2008 and moving into 2009, the clients who could still afford the big buck events were cutting back regardless of their ability to handle any budget.  I was talking with one of the high end caterers in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2009. He that told me his wealthiest clients were telling him to cater the events with a less ostentatious look to the affair – dress it down a bit – but it was OK to still charge the same for the event.  In other words, don’t flaunt the wealth in front of those who were really hit hard.  Don’t we all wish we had clients like that!

The point I’m trying to make is this.  The market crash hit all vendors, photographers included, regardless of the market segment they served. The consumer was cutting back, and appeared to be cutting back across the board.

The Wal-Mart Effect:

OK, you might think I’m crazy but I think Wal-Mart was one of the “cheese movers” too.  Why, you ask?  Well, first let’s look at the average age of brides and grooms getting married.  USA Today did an article a few years ago on the average age of a couple getting married – it stated that the average age for first time marriages for brides was 25.6 years old and the average for grooms was 27.5 years [link].  This figure has not changed much over the last few years since the USA article was first published.

Now let’s look at I call the “Wal-Mart Effect” more closely.  In 1985, about the age today’s bride and groom were born, there were 882 Wal-Marts throughout the US.  That number has grown to over 8,400 worldwide, nearly 10x the figure 25 years ago.  What’s my point?  Today’s wedding buying generation has been bombarded their entire lives with “…that we are lowering prices everyday” in Wal-Mart, Target, and K-Mart ads. Every retailer is offering deals and today’s bride and groom want a deal too. Today’s wedding buying population is, like it or not, a Wal-Mart population – looking for the best deal all the time, even in their wedding photography.

Want proof? Just look at Craig’s List’s rise in popularity over the last 3 years. Heck, Craig’s List was only in 14 cities in 2003.  Now Craig’s List is 7th place overall among web sites in the United States (per Alexa.com on June 28, 2010), with over 49.4 million unique monthly visitors in the United States alone [link].  And, there are lots of couples shopping Craig’s List for their wedding photographer.

Want more proof about this deal craving public – just look at the exploding popularity of Groupon.  Groupon just started a little over 3 years ago – October 2008 to be exact [link] an now is having a major impact to how people spend money.  Uhmm, any coincidence with people being out of money (October crash) and wanting the best deal they can find? I think so.

Wait, there’s still more.  Did you hear? Bella Pictures [link], the company most wedding photographers love to hate was, on January 28, 2011, sold to CPI Corporation.  In a statement, David Meyer, CPI’s chairman said, “We are very excited to enter the $6 billion dollar wedding photography and videography industry and significantly expand our mobile photography operations.” [link]  You’re asking, “Who in the world is CPI, Corp?” Just read the entire link above and you’ll find, “CPI runs about 3,000 portrait photo studios mostly in Sears and Wal-Mart.”  Yes, wedding photography has come to Wal-Mart! The circle is complete!

The bottom line is this – today’s customer is looking for a deal – and not just in photography, but everywhere!  This should all be pretty scary to the small photography business, any business for that matter, doing business the same way they’ve been doing it for years.  Is there a solution to this low price quandary?  You’ll have to wait and see in Part 2. Now let’s look at a few more “cheese movers”.

Interest In Digital Photography Explodes!

We began our transition into digital when I photographed a few portraits in mid 2000 and then my first wedding on December 30, 2000.  What was the first big market mover back then in digital photography?  It was the introduction of the Fuji S-1 Pro, the first reasonably priced DSLR to hit the market.  The ONLY choice before that was Kodak’s DSC 500 and 600 series cameras [link] with a cost about $20,000.  Kodak lowered the price on their cameras to about $7000 to compete in May 2001.  Still Fuji’s S-1 Pro was still hitting the shelves at $4,000 [link]. That’s the camera I shot my first digital wedding with and the images were fantastic for a 3.2M camera.

Photographers were slow to adopt digital with many holding out and still shooting film as late as 2005 and 2006.  Even Kodak thought there was still a market in film when they entered into a $100M 20 year agreement with the Chinese firm the Lucky Film Company in 2003.  I was flabbergasted when I heard this news from a Kodak official with whom I was having dinner about that same time. Digital was clearly the future for photography – no exceptions!  I guess this deal was more lucky for Lucky than Kodak as things turned out.  On the other hand, consumers were on a tear to acquire the new digital cameras and clearly out paced the pro’s acceptance of the new technology.

The real market mover came when was Canon’s 30D introduced in mid May, 2000.  Then came the D30, and then in 2003 the Canon D60 – cameras in the $1,500 price range.  By mid 2004, most photographers were jumping on the digital bandwagon – the price was right and the exposures were FREE!!!

Still the photography market had not changed that much.  Customers were still willing to seek out the experienced pro for their daughter or son’s wedding photos.  Many were still apprehensive about the whole “digital thing” but after they saw the results, better than film ever was in my opinion, the objections were easily discarded.

I would call 2004-2007 the golden years of wedding photography.  The client would gladly invest in wedding photography and seek out competent, professional photographers to shoot their wedding for them.  Wedding photography was still important to them and a quality job was the order of the day. That together with lowered production costs and higher profits made it a good time to be in the wedding photography business.

The Wind Begins To Shift:

Something else began to happen about that same time – consumer enthusiasm in digital photography began its rise.  I still remember seeing that same kind of enthusiasm for photography grow back in the late 70’s and early 80’s with the introduction of the Canon AE-1 film cameras and so many others from Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, etc.  I know I’m showing my age here, but that’s about the time I was caught up in that same excitement.  It’s in those times that I decided chuck my job as an engineer and become a professional photographer.

In the mid 2000’s lots of folks were going digital. Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco were installing Fuji Frontier mini labs for the digital shooter – the world was going digital and people were loving it!  More and more and more regular people (exaggeration intended), not just the pros and semi-pros, were buying and enjoying the digital experience.

To help them enjoy the digital experience even more we saw the emergence of photo blogging.  Although blogging was going mainstream by 2005 [link], the popular photoblogs did not hit the scene until 2006 and 2007.  David Hobby began his hugely popular Strobist.com blog on February 2006 [link]. Our good buddy and ¼ber blogger, Scott Kelby, for whom I’m writing this post, didn’t begin blogging heavily until March 2007.

I jumped on the daily blog schedule myself with DigitalProTalk.com, thanks to Scott’s encouragement, on July 29, 2007 hitting my stride in August of the same year [link].  Now there are tons of great sites with great content offering this new breed of enthusiastic photographers the knowledge and insights to take their photography to brand new exciting heights! The cameras make the art of photography easy, enthusiasts’ skills are getting better and better to the point where they think they might even give wedding photography a try. Sadly, the pros and semi-pros didn’t see it coming.

The Perfect Storm Hits!

OK, a quick review – the wedding pros and semi-pros are happy as clams shooting wedding with no film costs.  The aspiring photographer is getting better and better with the ease of use the new digital cameras provide and the bountiful amount of all the free training online. The whole world loves digital photography. But in October 2008, the stock market goes from 14,000 to just below 6,600.  The housing bubble bursts and unemployment starts to shoot up dramatically! Check out the graph below showing the growth of unemployment over the last three years.

People need to supplement their income; they’re excited about photography; they’re been trained to know an F-stop from a shutter speed; Craig’s List and eventually Facebook, sure seem like an easy and cheap way to advertise – the new breed of weekend wedding warrior is born.  And, they are entering the wedding market at an exponentially increasing rate.

Facebook and iPhones Too!

Facebook and smart phones gain amazing popularity during that same time period – more strong winds to fuel the strength of the perfect storm.  Just look at the growth of Facebook’s popularity over the last three years – unbelievable!

Smart phones, and P&S digital cameras make photography more accessible to everybody, Facebook makes the sharing of any photographs easier than ever to with family, friends, actually the world.  Are high school wallet photos even necessary any more?  This combo begs the question, “Is professional photography even relevant anymore?!

OK, OK – I know I’m dropping many doom and gloom “bombs”.  What I’m trying to point out is that this confluence of circumstances definitely moved the photographers’ “cheese.”  And it has happened excruciatingly rapidly over the past 24-36 months, and most photographers never saw it coming.

Folks, that means it’s imperative that we think differently, create differently, deliver images differently, and most of all, do business differently if we are going to survive in the brand new field of digital photography. Mark my words; it definitely is a brand new playing field out there!

But “surviving” is not what we want to do with photography as our chosen profession. “Surviving” is what people do on life rafts.  I, for one, would never want photography to be a “life raft profession” – with me out there just trying to make ends meet for my family.  That doesn’t sound like much fun.  I would rather it be a Robb Report yacht profession, wouldn’t you? We want to thrive in this profession. We want to enjoy the excitement of creating wonderful images that excite ourselves and our clients, don’t we? It’s time to find the cheese again.  In the second part of this post entitled “Dreams and Opportunities” I’ll show you several ways to do just that.  Stay tuned, and … keep smilin’.  And remember, as Dan Cook said in 1976 [link], “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”  And she’s singin’ in the second part of this post ;)  Hope to see ya’ then.

My thanks to Scott Kelby for asking me to write this Wednesday’s guest blog post.  He’s the inspiration that got me started in 2007 with my own blog and I thank him for that too.  Just know that I’ll keep writing if you keep reading.  -David


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 is launching this week.

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.