How to Become a Top Wedding Photographer

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

Comments

  1. says

    This is great stuff. My dream for the last two months has been to find out how to become a wedding photographer. I am super encouraged by this information. Will look for more as it comes. Thank you.

  2. says

    Beautifully written! 3,000 websites. Wow, that is a lot of work. Your article nails it though. It also speaks to how difficult it is to become successful in this industry.

  3. says

    I have some reservations about a couple of your recommendations.

    Firstly, using photos of models dressed in wedding outfits as part of your portfolio is generally considered unethical among professional wedding photographers. Shooting a model in a controlled situation when you have plenty of time is very different from creating images in the pressured environment of the wedding day, when typically you have a very short time in which to get specific shots.

    Secondly, just buying a set of Photoshop actions will not make you a “top wedding photographer”. There is far more to post-processing an image than just running it through an action.

    Thirdly, I feel your advice to target destination weddings is misguided. The last thing that a beginner to this industry should be doing is taking on a job in a foreign country, where they don’t know the location, may get delayed in transit, lose or have equipment stolen or confiscated, and have limited or no backup if they fall sick or meet with an accident, or have an equipment failure.

    Destination weddings may seem glamorous, but they are not a “fast track” to success in any respect. It should also be borne in mind that many countries require work permits for anyone coming from abroad and working in their territory, which can be difficult, expensive or impossible to obtain. Some destination photographers therefore choose to pose as a wedding guest, running the risk of arrest and deportation.

    Some of your other advice is sound, but these particular ideas are not going to help the newcomer to the business to succeed.

  4. says

    Hey Chris,

    Thanks for your note and your sober reflections on the article. You do a lot of good work, and your perspective here is valuable both as an alternative perspective that sets some bounds on my suggestions that I would have thought were implied buy may not be.

    Let me address some of these points.

    On model shoots. I can see your point IF a person is going out, doing lots of model shoots and few real shoots, using those images as the basis of their portfolio, and deliberately misleading visitors to their site to believe they’ve taken the images in the context of a real wedding. Perhaps I have a less cynical view of human nature than you do, but my working assumption is that most people would not do that.

    Using fashion-style model shoots as a supplement to a wedding portfolio, however, strikes me as not only OK, but as something that is fairly common in the wedding industry, particularly among photographers who specialize is artistic, fashion-style shooting that is characteristic of much of the best work being done today.

    I hope my article emphasizes the importance of getting out and doing a lot of real shoots with real people as well – engagement shoots, weddings, portraits, working with established photographers as a second shooter, etc.

    On Photoshop actions. Again, I’m not sure how you read what I wrote as “get some actions and that’s all you need.” As I wrote above, I believe the only way to really succeed is to achieve “technical mastery” of the craft, including post processing. My point on photoshop actions is two fold. First, you cannot overestimate the importance of quality post-processing today. I believe post processing is now as important as your ability to initially capture great images. Second, you can dramatically accelerate the road to mastery by learning from the masters. In shooting, that means taking workshops. In post processing, that means taking workshops and buying actions that allow you to see how the best in the field do it. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily re-invent the wheel.

    On destination weddings. A few things here. As a photojournalist who’s spend a lot time working overseas, I’m well aware of the logistical and legal challenges. I consider those things to be surmountable obstacles for those fellow photographers who have the drive and determination to aim for the top. It is challenging, but if you can figure it out, and I can figure it out, and lots of others can figure it out, then I can’t see why another driven, up-and-coming photographer can’t figure it out.

    I would agree that this is not necessarily the best step for a beginner. That’s why I put it last and said “as you build a larger client base, a better portfolio with great imagery, and a better reputation with stronger branding…”

    In sum, I have the sense that you interpreted this in a much more simplistic and / or cynical way than it was intended. For me, it’s about achieving creative and technical mastery, more and more experience, excellent branding and advertising, engagement in the industry, and, finally, moving toward higher end wedding as soon as your proficiency justifies doing so.

  5. says

    Great photographers don’t do different things, they just do things differently. So, try and be different in everything you do. Stay away from monotonous angles, subjects and backgrounds. Step out of your comfort zone and push the envelope of creativity to break new ground. Know the rules, but also set out to break them. Just be different!

  6. says

    Developing a personal style is trusting your own personal vision. There are many photographers who can shoot a technically perfect picture, but a sense of unique style is created when you master the basics of photography and go beyond them. Learn how to anticipate people’s reactions to events and each other and how to put yourself in the right place at the right time to capture these images that document the wedding drama.

  7. david says

    I would have to agree with Chris. I appreciate your work put in this article, Jason, but I believe it is YOUR view that is simplistic. For a beginner to jump into destination or to have that on their portfolio as a qualifier for professionalism/skill mastery/popularity is ludicrous. Many US wedding photographers REMAIN in the US, not outside of it.

    And the use of models to place on one’s site IS unethical. Potential clients want to see your REAL work, not work in some controlled situation where the conditions are concocted.

    The fact that you’ve spent a lot of time observing doesn’t mean you understand the work of a wedding photographer.

  8. says

    Another important aspect of wedding photography is that quality matters more then quantity. Photographers must always focus and try to obtain the best and most unique photographs. Also, you have to develop your own photography style. Clients always look for original photographs with their own unique style and vision. Also devote yourself to your work. Your photographs will last forever and it is a great way to be remembered by the clients or recommended by them.

  9. says

    Give wedding photography all your heart and effort. Long when you are gone your photographs will last forever. It is a great way to be remembered. Open your heart and your mind and great photos will happen. Concentrate on the human aspect of weddings, the details, and emotions and be ready to capture them. Let the camera become an extension of you.

  10. says

    This was an excellent article. So many wonderful pointers and tips where laid out nicely. It sure does help when you are thinking about starting your own wedding photography business. Just getting a business plan together is hard enough. Everyone needs to read this article, it will help you out greatly when starting your own photography business.

  11. says

    Hi Jason,

    I did not realize you were connected to the best of wedding photography blog till just now. Lots to keep you busy hu?

    Anyhow, your post is great and gives some solid pointers to those seeking to become the best and to anyone who just needs a little help getting a handle on attracting clients.

    You mentioned branding as a major part of the whole process and I agree. However, perhaps that is not as important as the need to learn well, and as you said, create stunning work…. consistently. If I were to balance the two, I would find branding to be on the low side of the equation by a good margin.

    Another interesting thing you mention is the need to emulate the “greats”. I guess you could be correct there if marketing is all that gets a photographer into the “successful” category. But realistically, I believe the “great” wedding photographers out there, make or made their mark by leading the way. By visionary imagery and raw talent. Sure marketing is important in “making it”, but probably secondary to the insightful imagery that the leaders in wedding photography offer.

  12. says

    As a wedding photographer in Aberdeen Scotland for the last 20 years, I was really interested to read your article. At first I thought you were over simplifying the situation, but when I thought about it some more I realised that you captured something very important. Wedding photography is one of the few businesses where you can progress from nowhere to top of the range in a very short space of time.
    Thanks for the insight.
    Graham Noble
    Aberdeen wedding photographer

  13. says

    This is a fantastic approach to the subject.

    It would seem your audience should be expected to have mastered the technical aspects of the SLR and also be able to capture a great image to start with. Not just anyone can take a great photo or manage a business, especially at the same time.

    I appreciate your insight here!

    I took a look at the Our Labor Of Love website and found almost every image to be soft or out of focus. I wonder if this is on purpose or if the site softens the images a bit? The branding is great, though.

    SEO is becoming a point of contention for me, since Google keeps changing the best practices every day… It’s tough to stay on top of things like that.

    I look forward to looking over the suggested photographer list later in the week!

  14. Scott says

    SEO really is changing all the time – have you looked into the Photographers SEO Community to stay on top of it?

  15. says

    Alot of good advice both in the article and in the comments. When you look at the big photographers out there you can see exactly why they are considered the best. The really do radiate their expertise and that they are worth the money couples spend.
    One point is that we all hear about the technical aspects of photography and marketing but the real guts of it all comes from connecting to your clients. Spend the time to get to know them, talk to them lots to break down the walls and you will see an immediate change in your photography. When people trust you and are able to be themselves in front of you, the camera is no longer the focus and you can get some beautiful and emotive images. Thats just my take anyway:)

  16. says

    I agree with much of what you are saying except the Flash website. Yes, they look pretty but, many more people are using tablets and smart phones which have a horrible time with flash and YES, SEO hates flash. With how competitive the local markets are for photographers, I would stay away from flash based sites.

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