Rethinking the Business of Wedding Photography
This article was first published in Professional Photographer in March 2003
©2005 Thomas Kachadurian
If your business is based on a model that worked perfectly in 1977 it may be time to rethink what you are doing. Consider these things: In 1977 the state-of-the-art color print film was Vericolor II. From a perfect 35mm negative you could make a barely acceptable 8×10. There were no computer-controlled minilabs. In 1977 a great photograph required a clumsy, hard to use, medium format camera. Only a professional lab could produce a consistently balanced print. Professional photographers had an edge based on technology, equipment and resources.
Today, a skilled amateur with a $300 camera can make a photograph that technically rivals the best most pros made 25 years ago. Prints can be copied perfectly with equipment most people have in their homes. The wedding album on the coffee table is no longer a family standard.
As photographers we don’t have much left to give us an edge. What we do have are the things that have always made us professionals, the three things that we should most cultivate –Talent, Skill and Reliability. But what are you selling. Are you selling your Talent? Are you getting paid for your Skill? It’s time to readjust your thinking about photography. By taking a few simple steps you can enjoy your work more and have better relationships with your clients.
Get paid for your creative skills and get out of the printselling business.
Sit down for this one: Copyrights are overrated. I am a great defender of copyrights, but I am also an advocate for using them reasonably. You can fence off your front yard and keep every kid from cutting through on his way home from school. It’s legal, but it doesn’t make you a great neighbor. It’s hard to keep kids off your lawn but defending your copyrights at the end user level is even harder, and getting worse everyday.
What is the copyright worth? The answer is “a lot” if you are in the printselling business. If your business depends on the $36 profit margin between an $4 print and a $40 sale, copyright is everything. But how do you keep someone from scanning your photo on a 1200 DPI scanner and printing it on a 2800 DPI printer, when they have all of that technology at home? You can’t.
You don’t have to. By reconfiguring your pricing, you can allow your client to make copies without cutting into your profits. In fact, you can make money with greater certainty. As an added benefit, you can end the relationship that pits the photographer who owns the creative rights against the clients, who are in the pictures they can’t duplicate. The client is not the enemy.
The model is simple; get paid for making the photographs, not by selling them. Before I show up at a wedding I have already negotiated for and sold limited rights to my clients, and they don’t even know it. We don’t talk in terms of rights and ownership. Instead we talk about photography. My Clients have come to me because they want great photographs.
I set my base price at my required profit. For that fee I spend the day of the wedding making photographs. I talk openly about where I make my money, which is up front. I often tell my clients “you are paying for my talent and my reputation.” In the sales pitch I tell them how I will capture their wedding. I don’t show them the album leather; I show them my photographs. Although albums represent the most labor for me, and the greatest expense for my business, clients don’t always want them. Clients want my photographs in the albums. I don’t sell a package; I’m selling me.
My base price is high compared to photographers who profit from future sales. When I explain that I include in my base price permission for my clients to make whatever prints they want from my copyrighted photographs, most clients easily understand the price. Some prospective clients do feel they can’t afford it, but none question the value. I lose some clients because of the high up front costs, but those are the clients who are so price sensitive they’re out trying to scan your proofs. The base price includes permission, not ownership. I keep all copyrights beyond making prints for personal use. If Martha Stewart wants to publish one of my photos, she still negotiates with me. I never “sell” my rights. I own the images. Clients just have my permission to make prints. When they do make prints, I want them to have first quality prints, so I give each couple a set of disks with full-sized, high-resolution, profiled files of all their images.
Although I don’t require it, clients can get all the prints they want from me. By the time we get to that point I have a good relationship with my clients. Faced with five CDs of 700 images, a few brides and grooms ask me to handle the prints for them. Many newlyweds are too busy to fill orders for aunts, uncles, and friends who want reprints. Those people can call me and I produce prints for them at a slight premium. It’s a partnership.
Clients love the honesty. They love the flexibility. When they do buy prints from me they understand the service I provide. My clients never have after-the-wedding-sticker shock. No one has to decide if that photo of Aunt Millie is really worth $40. I never get any additional orders from some clients. They get the CDs and are happily printing their own pictures. And many of them become great referrals for me, because they got exactly what they wanted.
Just as brides are no longer looking for 25 posed 8x10s of the wedding party in a line, you should no longer be basing your business model on the competitive environment of 1977. We became photographers to make photographs, and, under this pricing model, that’s what I get paid to do.