ADVICE FOR THE AFFORDABLE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER
Cameras prices are dropping and the barriers to entry in this industry are low. How do we, as wedding photographers, stay in business and thrive?
I often come across ads stating: "Affordable wedding photographer - packages starting from $500." This article is written for that artist who, unfortunately, can not stay in business at these low price points.
A Toronto Wedding Photographer Life is Tough
Many of us start a new career in wedding photography, like yours truly when we are unhappy with our current job. Websites like CreativeLive, WeddingSchool, IceSociety lure you with the promise of huge money and a dream life. Are you kidding me? There are photographers who charge $10,000 per wedding. At that amount, you need to shoot only 20 weddings a year to be, basically... rich. Well, they shoot well, but you took that amazing image of our dog and it got 300+ likes. We all know that guy who started two years ago and is traveling the world photographing big budget weddings. Truth be told, we see photos taken at luxurious resorts or venues, but we actually don’t know how successful that wedding photographer is. Shooting weddings with a high budget is useless if the couple does not appreciate photography and, therefore does not set allocate a fair wedding photography budget. Unfortunately, the pictures of the extravagant reception will not pay his bills, no matter how beautiful the reception was. On the other hand, I had clients with a small wedding budget, but who were so in love with photography that spent the vast majority of money - relative to the cost of the wedding - on photography. I remember my second shooter, a good friend or mine, saying with admiration: wow, this is such a small wedding yet they spent so much money on photography. Two photographers shooting a backyard wedding a full day at a good price? My absolute dream clients!!! That expensive wedding at Four Seasons where the bride wants you to shoot for free because it will look good on portfolio, not my client!
Demand for Low Budget Wedding Photography is Dropping
With such a high influx of wedding photographers, how is the demand part of the equation? After all, that drives equilibrium prices. If I remember well my Economy 101, equilibrium price is a result of supply and demand. I analyzed Google searches for a wedding photographer and they are dropping at an alarming rate. Many brides on budget hire a friend to do their wedding photography or they DYI their wedding photography…basically ask their guests to crowd source the photography through apps such Ceremony. Can you imagine if that trend becomes mainstream? How will you, the affordable wedding photographer survive? If you are serving the low end sector of the market, you will be replaced by guests with iPhones, which, we know can take damn good photos these days. I already see first dance photos posted on Instagram seconds after the first dance finished and some of the wedding pictures look very good. During the ceremony and reception everyone turns into a wedding photographer. The bride’s mom is fighting my videographer for the best spot to capture it all with her 0.9 megapixel tablet. By the way, the bride’s mom always wins.
Long story short, the demand for photography is dropping, but not the demand for good photography. The luxury clients will never hire an affordable wedding photographer; they will go with the best wedding photographer money can buy. In the bottom part of the wedding photography market, life is tough with shrinking demand coupled with an ever-increasing number of photographers. With the digital revolution in cameras, and that will only accelerate, the low end or budget wedding photographers will be extinct. A whole segment of the market is constantly churning. New photographers enter the industry, last for one or two years, burn out or go out of business, only to be replaced by a new wave of photographers. It’s the circle of wedding photography life.
We all Start by Shooting Low Budget Weddings
I get it! If you are new, you have to start charging a low price for your services…that’s what everyone does there is no shame in that. It goes back to the same equation. When demand for your services is zero, your price is … you guessed…zero or close to it. If you have no portfolio and want to start shooting weddings you will book clients with extremely low wedding budgets…if you are lucky. I shot my 10 weddings for free and I am not ashamed about it. I considered it unfair to the client to pay for a service where I had no experience. Even more, I offered to photograph weddings for free and nobody wanted to book me. It makes perfect sense…why would a bride gamble her memories for the sake of getting a good deal. Honestly, my skills were not worth much in the beginning, but I studied every day for fourteen hours, improved my craft and got lucky! One of my free weddings was a success and was published by an industry blog. I got a national award, which gave me credibility and I started booking clients with larger budgets along with cheap weddings
Demand for Wedding Photography is Inelastic, so Discounts do not Help
When I started my journey as a Toronto wedding photographer, I thought that by keeping my prices low I will attract more clients. Wrong. I was booking the same number of clients, just at a lower rate. Promos and discounts do not increase the number of weddings booked…actually, the other way around. In several industries such as perfumes, wines and photography…dropping prices is an indication of low quality and nobody buys. I had more clients who told me they booked a more expensive photographer than I had clients who told me I was too costly. Few brides gamble their wedding photos for a few hundred bucks and if they do, they are not your clients (please read the target market section)
Shooting Low Budget Weddings Does not Make Business Sense
Photographing a small budget wedding involves more work than photographing the more expensive wedding. Why? The venue looks bad, the decorations are low priced, the flowers look cheap, the make up artist was inexpensive, the hair will not hold after two hours because the cosmetics were bought on sale. Everything screams cheep and in order to make that wedding look good, you need a photoshop guru. That couple also bargained and you had to mark down your art to satisfy your clients. In the process of booking the client, you slashed your profit margins and are most probably losing money on that wedding. On the other hand, an upscale bride has the budget for a splendid venue, which is easy to photograph. The couple spend money on luxurious uplighting, so the venue looks lavish. They hired the fanciest makeup artist and hair stylist in Toronto and spent a lot of money on decor and flowers. The bride looks perfect and your wedding will be processed in a few hours. The couple never haggled as they love your work and know talent is rare. Considering all the above, which wedding should you book? A cheapo wedding or one like the venue in the photo below?
Wedding Photography Costs are Rising and so Should Your Prices
Don’t get me wrong! I want to shoot weddings, many weddings but at a reasonable price. Our costs are rising across the board, from the cost of living to the costs to operate a business. Last time I checked the Canadian dollar was crushed by the greenback. As all the equipment and services for wedding photographers are sold in US dollars, my friends, we are seeing our profit margins shrinking in real terms if we don’t pass the cost increases to our clients to preserve our profit margins. We just don’t see it because we are artists and cannot be bothered with budgeting, forecasting and margin analysis.
To stay in business and avoid being stuck in this low profitability segment of the market, you need to raise your prices fast to a more sustainable level where you can operate with some sort of financial success. If you stay for too long at the bottom at the market, you will be positioned as the cheap photographer. That will make it more difficult for you to move to become profitable, because you are the affordable wedding photographer, not the premium one. As your customer base increases, former brides, whom you served impeccably, will start referring you their friends and soon the majority of your business will come through referrals. The problem will be that, unfortunately, you will not want all the low wedding budget clients, but will have little choice, as you need to stay in business. You will burn out and hate wedding photography.
How can You Raise Prices in the GTA Over-saturated Photographers Market?
I talk with many photographers and raising prices terrifies them. Still, last time I checked everyone was doing it, but somehow we, photographers are nice people who cannot do that. Nonsense. You will not survive if you are not profitable. Let’s start the journey of raising prices together. Keep reading
First, Define Your Target Market. Taylor all Your Communications to Your Audience
I know my client. She is the bride with a wedding budget of $30-40,000, lives in Toronto or GTA, getting married the first time, loves photography in general and my work in particular and has the budget to hire me. Period. Define your target market and focus on it.
Second, Improve Your Unique Selling Proposition
What is your unique selling proposition? Ask yourself: why will my target market, my bride hire me? How am I unique? Why should a bride book me and not the next studio? I bet many brides are currently booking you because of your pricing. They don’t have a high photography budget, so they came to you. Yet they spent $5,000 on a wedding they will wear for 14 hours. Yes, you are cheaper than the dress. How can I change that? Keep reading...
Raise Your Service Level to Cater to Upscale Clients
Rich people like high quality delivered conveniently and timely to them. To recapitulate, clients with big wedding budgets appreciate quality, service, and speed. Bargaining for a $300 discount does not make sense to a rich client. Also, as a percent of total income, $300 is close to zero. You want to target those clients who can afford a high-end photographer and are willing to pay for.
Improve Your Work to Appeal to Luxury Clients
You currently shoot cheap weddings and that is ok. That pays the bills. Still, shoot that inexpensive wedding like it is a most opulent wedding ever. Use shallow depth of field to make the reception look lavish.
Learn posing, lighting and improve your post processing skills and your work will look awesome.
To Commend High Prices, Define Your Style and be Consistent
You need to find your own style and to be different from all the others. If you are not unique, you are a commodity and price becomes the only differentiator. When you start competing on price, you are doomed. There is always someone who can undercut you, as his or her cost structure is better.
Find a Niche and Own the Niche
This goes back to your target market. Who is your target market, the segment of homogenous people to whom you can offer amazing value? I am not talking about price. I am talking about your unique selling proposition. The value of your services should be so high, that hiring you is a no brainer. IF you cannot find a niche, define it! Check out the tattooed bride.com. This wedding photographer defined his own niche. His bride is the tattooed bride and he owns that niche. No major studio can compete with him on the niche and he is practically in a monopolistic position. If you live in Toronto, you are familiar with LCBO. They are a state owned monopoly and the profit margins are outrageous when for a monopoly in any industry.
Market Your Services Better
You are shooting cheap weddings because you get no inquiries. That is unfortunate and you need to improve your marketing. Improve SEO, advertising, social media presence so you become more visible to your target market.
Published Work and Awards Attract High-end Clients
Have some awards under your belt. That screams quality to clients who have the wedding budget to afford a good photographer. If your work is good and is accompanied by good customer service, high budget weddings will start falling in your lap.
Having a wedding published by a magazine or blog is hard. First, your photography needs to be spectacular and you need a certain style to match the editorial style of the blog. Style me pretty receive 500 submissions a week and it is really hard being published. That is the reason why appearing on blogs makes your work look more valuable and drives traffic to you, besides the SEO value of inbound links.
Shoot for a High-end Photographer if You Can Use Your Images for Advertising
A rich bride can smell an inexpensive dress from a mile and will not book you if your portfolio features such dresses. A way to get out of that is to shoot for an established photographer to learn and to be able to use the pictures you took. That wedding reception that looks like a million dollars will bring you similar ones. Make sure you are allowed to use the images.
Do not Book Low Budget Clients
Now that you defined your target market, you need to focus on it. Still, your former couples will send you clients who do not have the budget to hire the "new and improved you". Even when you get referrals for weddings with low wedding photography budget, respectfully decline. I repeat, if they cannot afford your packages, do not offer discounts to book them. It will cheapen your work; you will redefine your target market, upset your other clients (the ones who pay full price) and confuse the market. Are you a cheap photographer or not?
Know Your Numbers
What is your advertising budget as a percent of total revenue? What is your profit margin? Know your conversion ratios in your sales funnel. STOP! What? Ok, let me step back.
Sales funnel: if you have 1000 couples visiting your website (those are your leads), you receive 100 inquiries (prospects) and 10 couples book. When you draw the diagram, it looks like a funnel. You might want to Google Sales Funnel. The first ratio is Visitors to Prospects ratio: in the example above, it is 10% (100 prospects/1000 visitors). The Prospects Booking Ratio = 10 customer/100 prospects or 10%
Knowing those ratios you will see where you have a problem over time. Is it in generating visitors? If that is the case, you need to step up your advertising efforts to attract more visitors to your client. On the other hand, if your Booking ratio is low, you need to invest in sales.
Improve Your Sales Skills
The beauty of mastering sales is that you can reduce your advertising budget by simply becoming a better salesperson. Instead of spending $10,000, attracting 1000 visitors and booking one client, sell better. Set your advertising budget to $4000, attract 400 and sell to 40 of them.
To give you an idea where your booking ratios should be, I book 97% of the brides I meet. That is because I did the research, my targeting is accurate, my packages were built for my couples. The couples know my work, so why wouldn’t they hire me to shoot their wedding? The only reason would be that we are not a good fit, but that is the subject of another article.
Protect Profit Margins
While you are transitioning to the more lucrative segments, do not service a bride on a low budget the same as a luxury client. It does not make business sense. Spend the time and efforts proportionally to the wedding budgets of the two brides. If you spend 40 hours on a $4,000 wedding, spend only 20 on a $2,000
Improve branding to attract high budget weddings
Who did your logo? Does you portfolio look like you always shot cheap weddings? Change that! Organize a styled shoot, even if you have to pay for it…Advertise in high-end magazine using the images from the styled shoot.
Stop Offering Discounts
The bride who pays $3000 for your services will respect you as an artist, while the bride who has only a $1,500 budget will not. The second bride will not give you the time to create good work and over time you will suffer. Here is the test: there are two photography courses. You bought one for $1,000 and the second one, with exactly the same content is free on YouTube. Which one do you watch first?
Stop discounting your work. Instead of giving discounts, offer more time, if you have to. Ritzy brands do not discount. If you asked Apple to discount their new iPhone, you will be laughed out of the store…High-end brands do not offer discounts. If you cannot afford your services, they are not your clients. If your prices are fair and based on research, you will be fine. Her is an analysis of Toronto wedding photography prices.
You don’t have to book every bride in Toronto.
How many weddings do you need per year to be profitable? If you book every couple out there, there is something wrong with your targeting. Being more selective will help you in the long run as you will gradually get referrals from clients with bigger wedding budgets…Life will be good.
To summarise, the Toronto is a very competitive market when it comes to wedding photography, but if you do the work and focus on quality, you can be very successful.
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