In the process of launching Best of Wedding Photography, we’ve had the chance to review thousands of the best wedding photographers in the world. I’ve personally looked at over 3000 wedding photography websites in the last three months, and as part of our invitation process (in the middle of that now), I’ve had the chance to trade emails with over 300 of the very best in the world.
It’s been an educational experience, and it’s given me a great feel for the landscape of the wedding photography industry. One of the most insightful aspects of this is seeing what kind of things separate the best from the rest.
The best wedding photographers are those who produce awesome, modern, artistic imagery. They combine great composition and lighting with incredible post processing to produce breath-taking imagery. But more than that, they are the ones who build distinctive, bold brands for their work that separate them from the rest. They participate in groups like the WPJA, ISPWP, Modern Photographers, Photographik, and now Best of Wedding Photography, and they use their participation in those groups to enhance their credibility and reputations among brides and prospective clients. They position themselves at the top of the market, shooting premium and destination weddings. These people shoot 30-200 weddings per year, at prices averaging between $3,000-$6,000 per year. If you multiply those numbers out, you’ll see that they really add up. For many of these photographers, it’s not uncommon to shoot destination weddings in Europe or the Caribbean for $10,000 or more. Many of these photographers share their knowledge, and add a lot to their bottom lines, by launching their own workshop series in which they’ll teach everything they know to you and a dozen others over a weekend for $850.
These are the people who don’t just scrape by as photographers, they thrive and prosper.
So how do you get there?
I’m not primarily a wedding photographer. My background is in photojournalism in Asia, and now I spend most of my time bringing photographers together for big projects like Photocrati or Best of Wedding Photography. But I have a good business mind, and exposure to the greats in wedding photography has given me a sense for exactly the steps I WOULD take if I wanted to join these photographers at the pinnacle of the industry.
I don’t plan to go that route, but rather than let the knowledge go to waste, I thought I’d go ahead and share my thoughts with any of you who think you’d like to try it. So here are the steps. I honestly believe that someone who did these with focused energy could establish themselves at among top in the field within about 2 years. The key point here is that you need to know what they know and do what they do. That means that you will need to invest in training, resources, branding and advertising. Many would-be photographers balk at such investments, but keep in mind that this is business, not a hobby. Every business requires investment – nothing ventured, nothing gained.
1. Achieve technical mastery by learning from the masters and using Photoshop Actions
You can’t thrive and prosper in this field unless you master the ability to produce consistently outstanding imagery. That appears to be a daunting challenge in part because most people learn slowly through trial and error or through reading books. You can dramatically accelerate your learning curve by finding people who produce the kind of outstanding imagery you want to produce, and taking a small, intensive workshops with them to see, first hand, how they do what they do. You model them, get feedback, and quickly and dramatically improve. Right now, if I were going to invest in one workshop, I’d do it with David Beckstead.
One important note here is that there are two distinctive steps in producing great imagery – the actual shooting, in which your ability to read light and compose are the critical talents, and post processing, in which your expertise with Lightroom and Photoshop is critical. In fact, my recent experience leads me to believe that the quality of post processing is now as important or possibly more important than your shooting skills. The top photographers are masters of post-processing. The fastest way to start post-processing like them it to buy a set of Photoshop actions, perhaps like those from KJImages. I would absolutely find a photographer who’s actions you like, buy them, and start using them. To be honest, I can’t think of a single step that would more immediately and dramatically improve the imagery of most wedding photographers.
2. Build your wedding photography portfolio with free shoots and model shoots
If you are an established photographer with a large body of work, but with imagery that doesn’t compare with the top people, I’d invest a few weeks re-processing my images from the last few years with new photoshop actions, and create a new portfolio of exquisite imagery that way. I’d strip everything off of my site that didn’t have the cool, fresh, modern style that premium brides are looking for. You need to be brutally honest with yourself. I’ve seen a lot photographers with 20 years of experience and good client and referral bases, but they are still shooting and post processing with a style circa 10 years ago, or even circa the 1980s. The top photographers produce bold, modern, and artistic imagery. That’s the kind of work that brides at the top of the market are looking for. Look at their sites, and compare what they’re producing with what you’re producing.
If you are newer and just starting out, you need to get shooting. I would begin offering free portrait and engagement shoots to build up my portfolio. That’s a great way to build up not just your portfolio but your client list. Free engagement shoots are particularly valuable for newbies. The benefits: you get the experience of working with clients; you get the images for your portfolio; if you do a great job on engagements shoots, they’ll likely use you for their wedding; and you’ll get word of mouth referrals.
You’ll also need to build your portfolio of wedding images. One great way to do this is to hire models with wedding garb. This can be expensive, but it allows you to tightly control your shooting situations and work with people who know how to make your photos look great. A lot of top photographers use model shoots to produce some of their more exquisite and distinctive imagery. If I were you, I would also offer my camera for free as a second shooter to an established photographers, on the understanding that you get to keep a selection of the images to display on your own portfolio.
3. Get an awesome website with a great, sidebar-less WordPress BLOG
If you don’t have one already, get a professional caliber website. For your portfolio site, get a slick, flash-based site. I know, I know, many people (including myself) talk down about flash because of it’s SEO disadvantages. But flash sites display with a quality and pizazz that is just not achievable any other way. To get around the SEO disadvantages, you need to set up a blog on a separate domain. In fact, many people are using ONLY blogs, and skipping the flash portfolio. If you are shooting enough to keep your blog regularly updated, I think that’s a reasonable approach. But regardless, you must have a blog, and it must be a great looking blog. I would opt for a WordPress based blog WITHOUT a sidebar. Photocrati is about to release some great themes of that kind. The other great place to look, albeit rather expensive, is prophotoblogs.com.
4. Invest in a great logo and bold, distinctive brand
Great branding is second only to great imagery in distinguishing the great photographers. What is great branding? When people come to your site, what they see should be unusual, distinctive, bold, fun. Your site and style should stick in their minds. Achieving this effect is a combination of the name you choose for your business, the logo you have to represent you, the colors of your site, and the kind and quality of your imagery. For me, a great example of branding is Our Labor of Love photography. They have a great, unusual name, and that combined with the logo and distinctive image on their home page makes me remember them (and brides will remember them too).
Part of your brand is also market positioning. The best photographers in the world position themselves at the top of the market. They’re looking for brides who are willing to pay $3-10,000 for truly outstanding imagery. That’s where you need to move as quickly as possible, rather than competing with the masses for $1000-$1500 weddings. To justify the higher prices, you need to be able to produce outstanding imagery, which is why the training above is so important.
5. Master SEO
Any business today must master SEO – this is not distinctive to photographers. If you can get on the front page of Google for a specific set of keywords, and you have a decent site, you WILL get a endless stream of leads. If this is the only thing you did to promote yourself, you could still be highly successful in terms of bringing in a lot of wedding photography business. There’s a lot that goes into producing great SEO results. Sometime soon, we’re going to start offering SEO training and services for photographers through Photocrati. We’ve developed a great strategy there, and although Photocrati is just 9 months old, we now get 80,000 visitors per month, about half of which are from Google. Since we’re not offering those services yet, let me give you two other tips to get started.
First, while you want to do basic SEO steps for your flash portfolio site, you want to focus most of your SEO efforts on your blog. For many reasons, blogs do better.
Second, when you do SEO, you need to orient your efforts around specific keywords. In your case, the selection of those keywords is easy. You want to show up for “[location] wedding photographer” where location is nearest large metropolitan city or town. If you are near Denver, you want to show up on page one for Denver Wedding Photographer searches. That will be more valuable to you than, say, Denver Wedding Photography. You need to make sure that those keywords are prominent in your site title (ie, “Denver Wedding Photographer – John Smith”) would be a good title. And make sure those keywords appear throughout your site. Use those terms in the titles of your blog posts.
Third, you need to start getting links back to your site. Submit your site to relevant, quality directories (either photography-related directories, or the big, important ones like the Yahoo! directory or Dmoz). Every time you do a shoot, post photos from it on your blog and let your clients know. They’ll link back to you, and those will boost your rankings. Comment on other blogs and link back to your own site that way. Produce great content on your blog that other people consider worth linking to. One idea is ask some great photographer if you can interview them for your blog, then post the interview. Mostly likely that person or others will link to the interview. Finally, you sometimes just need to go out and ask for links. Email website owners, comment on why like their sites, and politely but unabashedly ask if they’d be willing to link back to you. Uncomfortable, yes, but also critical.
There are a lot of other link building strategies, but that should at least get you started. The other big thing I might suggest is taking a workshop such as one with Lawrence at ToFurious here or one with us at Photocrati when we get it our services launched.
6. Advertise via Google Adwords and Strive for High Conversion Rates
In addition to your SEO efforts, or until they kick in, you should also plan on investing a substantial amount of money in Google Adwords advertising. If you cannot appear in the organic search results for “[your location] wedding photographer” then you need to appear in the paid search results for those terms. If brides go to Google and search for those keywords, they are looking for someone to shoot their wedding. They are ready to buy, and that’s precisely the time you want to be in front of them. Once you dominate search results, or once you’ve built a powerful client base with a lot of referrals, you can drop this advertising. But for now, you need to think of this as a necessary business expense to build your client base and brand awareness.
Paid search can be expensive. You may layout as much as $1000 per month to be in the top 1-5 keywords throughout the month. But keep in mind that if you charge $2000 for wedding, you only need to get one wedding every two months to break even on your advertising.
Conversion Rates. One important side note to this is that if you are going to do Google Adwords, you need to take every possible step to increase your CONVERSION RATE. If 200 people click on your paid search result during the course of a month, and each click costs you $3, then you’ve spent $600 on advertising. Conversion rates online tend to vary between .5% and 6% depending on the quality of your site, your marketing message, the quality of your imagery, and lots of other things. A conversion rate of .5% mean you’ll get 1 job from those 200 clicks. A conversion rate of 2% means you’ll get 4 jobs. If those are weddings with an average price of $2000, then 1 job = $2000 and 4 jobs = $8000. That means that a very small improvement in your conversion rate (1.5%) produces $6000 in additional revenue. That’s why conversion rates are so important.
How do you increase your conversion rate? That’s a science unto itself, and I could write a small book on it. But for now some things to keep in mind are: only display your best imagery; make it very, very easy and tempting for people to contact you; use various methods to enhance your credibility (membership in wedding photography groups, awards, etc); if you are just starting out, give people a risk free way to try you out, such as free engagement sessions. You need to spend time and energy on a free engagement session, but if you do a great job, the wedding will be yours.
7. Join Every Wedding Photography Group You Can
This get’s to the last point above about enhancing your credibility. Brides are more likely to see you as established and successful if you are a member of the WPJA, or the ISPWP, or Modern Photographers, or some other group. Of course, to get into these groups, you need to meet various standards, and that’s why their valuable. Some are more prestigious than others, such as the Grace Ormonde Platinum List. We’re trying to create the most prestigious of all with Best of Wedding Photography, but that’s invitation only and you can’t get an invitation until you’ve already established yourself at the top.
Once you are a member of these groups, display their badges prominently on your site.
Many of these groups run competitions on a quarterly basis. If you are a member, enter the contests. Winning third place in a quarterly WPJA competition allows you to write “International Award Winning Wedding Photojournalist” on your website, and that will increase your conversion rate (see above). The more such awards you have, the more credibility you will have, and the more likely brides on your website will call you up and try you out. Of course, to win these awards, you need to produce great imagery and that, again is why you need to invest in the technical training above. It’s the starting point for everything else.
8. Build Relationships with other Wedding Vendors
So far, I’ve focused on online mechanisms for building your client base. But another important mechanism is meeting, networking, and building relationships with great wedding vendors in your area. You are looking for wedding planners, cake makers, florist shops, wedding and reception venues, and other providers of wedding-related services. When you find ones you like, go meet them and introduce yourself. Stay in touch. Add them as preferred vendors on your own website – that is, you direct brides on your site to those vendors. You send them business referrals. And if you do good work, and you build good relationships, they will list you likewise on their websites and materials and send business to you. Getting plugged into that kind of wedding vendor network can transform your business, so it’s worth the time and energy you need to put into building the relationships.
A great way to build these relationships, as well as get more clients directly, is to attend bridals shows. If you have not done so, find the big ones in your area and do what’s necessary to sign up and attend.
9. Build Relationships with Other Great Wedding Photographers
There’s an old saying that you become like the people you spend the most time with. Ideally, you want to spend more time training with, corresponding with, and meeting with top photographers. Call up the best photographers in your area and ask if they’d be willing to spend 30 minutes sometime in the next month sharing their wisdom in exchange for lunch. Take workshops with the best photographers. Find the best photographers in places like Digital Wedding Forum, and interact with them via the forums. Consider asking top photographers if you can interview them for your blog – start an interview series. There are a lot of ways to break the ice and begin interacting with top photographers. The more you do, the more their knowledge and strategies will rub off on you.
10. The Transition: Moving Toward the Pinnacle of the Market + Destination Weddings
As you build a larger client base, a better portfolio with great imagery, and a better reputation with stronger branding, you need to keep focusing your efforts on moving toward the top of the market. Raise your prices, be more selective, radiate excellence from your site and blog. You would much rather shoot 20 wedding per year at $4000 each than 40 weddings per year at $2000. Same income with fewer clients and less work.
One step that distinguishes the best photographers is also a move toward destination weddings. Most top photographers shoot A LOT of wedding that are not in their own geographic locations. They travel around their countries or to increasingly exotic destinations to shoot weddings. You should make this a focus. Why? There are several reasons. First, destination weddings pay more. When people are willing to fly you to New York or Mexico for a wedding, that means they really want you. Destination weddings often pay$7-10,000 or more. Second, destination weddings add an elite flavor to your branding. If you can say you regularly shoot destination weddings in this or that exotic location, it enhances your credibility and attractive even to brides who want a local wedding. Third and finally, destination weddings often produce spectacular wedding imagery. The images from a beach wedding in the Caribbean make a GREAT addition to your portfolio.
Ultimately, you want your branding, website, blog, imagery, and relationships to look like those that distinguish the top wedding photographers. Study the greats, emulate them, train with them to accelerate the learning curve dramatically. If you walk, talk, shoot, process, and look like a top wedding photographer, eventually you will BE a top wedding photographer. The big thing to recognize is that looking and acting like the top photographers is NOT as difficult as it might look. If you have good photographic talent and a decent business mind, you have the basic resources you need. After that, it’s just a question of learning what they know, emulating them as much as possible, and spending time with them. Once you’ve emulated them successfully and mastered what they know, you can start innovating and pushing yourself in directions even they have not gone.
UPDATE: You can also get started by checking out the work of some of the masters in the field. Here’s a selection from Best of Wedding Photography from around the world:
INTERNATIONAL WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS
Italy Wedding Photographers
Mexico Wedding Photographers
United Kingdom Wedding Photographers
France Wedding Photographers
Toronto Wedding Photographers
Vancouver Wedding Photographers
Spain Wedding Photographers
Tuscany Wedding Photographers
London Wedding Photographers
Switzerland Wedding Photographers
Riviera Maya Wedding Photographers
Bahamas Wedding Photographers
Greece Wedding Photographers
US-BASED WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS
Los Angeles Wedding Photographers
New York City Wedding Photographers
Hawaii Wedding Photographers
San Francisco Wedding Photographers
Boston Wedding Photographers
Miami Wedding Photographers
Seattle Wedding Photographers
Atlanta Wedding Photographers
Napa Valley Wedding Photographers
Orange County Wedding Photographers
Denver Wedding Photographers
Charleston Wedding Photographers
Minneapolis Wedding Photographers
San Diego Wedding Photographers
Chicago Wedding Photographers
Kansas City Wedding Photographers
Portland Wedding Photographers
Philadelphia Wedding Photographers
Washington DC Wedding Photographers
Phoenix Wedding Photographers
Houston Wedding Photographers
Virginia Wedding Photographers