Andrew Kopp is one of Australia’s most experienced wedding and portrait photographers. A member of the AIPP for over 30 years and a Master of Photography, he is quietly spoken, yet very successful. Now living in the countryside amongst the vineyards, some might think he is in a transition to retirement, but his boutique studio is still very active and the majority of his clientele come from previous clients and referrals.
When you have a business that is based upon referrals, you know you’re doing something right.
The wedding and portrait photography markets are also in somewhat of a transition. While photographers have made the change to digital, our clients are still coming to grips with how easy the new technology is to use – and how much fun.
When Andrew started as a photographer, the process of developing and printing required specialist equipment and skills. Few people could process their own photographs and photographers were held in some esteem as craftsmen who worked in magical darkrooms.
Today, photography is far from mysterious. In fact it is commonplace, a supermarket product that costs 15 cents for a postcard size print. And everyone has a camera, probably two cameras if you include the one in their mobile phone. We are entering a very different marketplace.
“And there are a lot more people offering their services as a photographer”, added Andrew. “They have purchased an inexpensive DSLR and offer their services to an unsuspecting public. Why go to a studio which wants to charge $5000 for a wedding album when they have a friend of a friend who will do it for $500.
“It’s a cost thing and while they might understand that it’s the person holding the camera that makes the photographs, the difference in cost is so great they are prepared to take that risk.
“Plus they are well enough educated to want the high resolution files so they can put the photographs on their own computer. The need for prints and albums is not so strong anymore and I can understand this. After all, we don’t print out all of our photos either. So all they want is the 2000 JPEGs from the wedding and they’ll get the ones they like printed at Harvey Norman.”
While there is a part of the market that still wants a traditional album, it would appear that there is a much larger part of the market that is looking for something else. Perhaps it’s the wedding photographers who need to change what they are offering, rather than complaining about our clients not wanting what we’re offering!
“Exactly. The problem we have is that the perceived value of a JPEG file is not the same as a beautifully printed 8x10” print. All they want is a series of ones and zeroes on a disk. Issues of quality control are ignored. Will our photos look as good on their computer monitor as ours, what will the prints they make look like?
“I mean, if Harvey Norman could make prints the same quality as the prints I get from The Edge Photo Imaging (a pro lab in Melbourne), why would I use the services of a professional lab? I mean, I think the difference in quality is obvious, but not everyone thinks the same as me.
“We need to educate the public. Technology is racing ahead so quickly, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Clients asking for the high resolution files don’t really understand what they are asking for. There’s a big difference between a raw file straight out of the camera and a processed JPEG that has been colour and density corrected by the photographer.
“The tertiary-educated person with disposable income understands the difference, but they may not want to pay for it. As for the general public, they don’t understand what the high end photographers are really providing. They don’t appreciate how these photographers can walk out on any Saturday and come back with ballistic images every time. They are reliable, their work is exceptional, but photography isn’t considered to be such a craft as it used to be."
When photography was first invented you had to be a scientist who understood black magic. Then things became easier when Kodak said just keep the sun over your shoulder and we’ll do the rest. Still, people couldn’t make photos as well as a professional with a Hasselblad or a Mamiya, but today the amateurs are often using the same cameras as professionals.
In the eighties, many professionals received fantastic training in lighting and posing through Max Townsend and other pro labs. We learnt from Americans like Monte Zucker, Don Blair and Frank Crichio, but despite a small resurgence in interest I can’t remember the last serious posing and lighting seminar held in Australia. There doesn’t seem to be the same desire to learn these fundamentals, fundamentals that can separate the professional from everyone else.”
So given many people can’t perceive the difference between a good professional image and a friend who ‘shoots and burns’, what’s happening to our market?
“I don’t think the people we interview are telling us the whole story. They listen, tell us our work is wonderful, but we never hear from them again. Reading between the lines, it seems they are using a photographer who is working at unsustainable prices. I mean, you can’t shoot a wedding for $500 and still support staff and the latest equipment, but this is what’s happening and I think it is here to stay.
“If you want to stay in the wedding market as a photographer, I think you will need to alter your expectations of what you will make on a wedding and make it up with volume.” In other words, shoot more weddings at a lower price.
“Personally, I question this. Certainly it’s not how I want to shoot weddings. We budget 28 hours to produce an Albums Australia wedding album. This isn’t something we can do for $500 or $1000.”
And this is the crux of the issue. A photographer who shoots for four hours and burns the file to a CD might invest a total of seven hours in a wedding. Seven hours for $400 is around $57 an hour, assuming no costs or depreciation on equipment. For someone who works a full time job and is looking for some weekend income, this possibly seems like a good deal.
However, to produce a matted album like Andrew takes a lot more time than this. “The shoot is an average of five to six hours. Add in album planning of three to four hours, meetings and interviews, making up the album, sitting on the computer colour correcting and editing the shoot and it all adds up. Even taking shortcuts like using Nik software to enhance the images, there’s a lot of time needed to produce and sell the images.”
But most clients don’t understand this. And they are quite happy to do the printing and album preparation themselves if you’ll just give them the high resolution files on a disk.
“Clients don’t understand the time and skill required to turn the basic camera files into wonderful photographs, or they believe they can do it themselves.
“And without them understanding this, it’s hard for photographers to justify a high price for a bunch of JPEGs on a disk.
“If you’re selling someone a lovely 16x20” print on a good quality paper, matted and framed, it’s a product and someone can easily see the value in it. In comparison, digital files just sit on a CD and it’s harder to show people the value.”
In Australia there are approximately 100,000 weddings every year, but less than 20 percent book a professional photographer (these are unsubstantiated statistics), so there seems to be plenty of people the profession isn’t reaching. Or is there?
“There’s a significant percentage of people who don’t want a professional photographer. Photos aren’t important to them. They’d much prefer a stretch Hummer or a big cake. Some people don’t even want a wedding, prefer to spend the money on an extended honeymoon in Europe. It’s all a matter of priorities.
“And some people don’t like being photographed. I can’t remember doing a wedding or a portrait sitting where at least one person involved didn’t say they hated themselves in photographs and they hated being photographed! Photography can be perceived as being a painful thing.
“Now add into this mix the fact that most people have friends with good quality DSLR cameras who love to take photographs. It’s a bit like the disposable camera phase ten years ago when people would give their friends cameras to use at the wedding. Now these friends have just finished a course in photography, so there’s another reason to change the priority they place on professional photography.
“I started in 1979 and the photography profession has been changing constantly, but just recently I feel the rate of change has accelerated. The good news is that people still want family portraits, but most of my portrait clients are past wedding clients who are coming back with their children. This is a relationship we nurture and clients will come back several times as their family grows. Even better, by this stage they have more disposable income and because they have dealt with me before, there’s the important element of trust as well.
“Repeat and referral clients are so valuable. I have used marketing promotions to attract clients, but they aren’t the same because they don’t value photography as highly as my repeat clients."
Unlike most wedding photographers, the majority of Andrew’s clients prefer the traditional matted album, not the magazine style. This, he believes, allows him to produce the most profitable wedding album and he acknowledges Leslie Downie as introducing him to the system, one of the advantages of being a member of the AIPP and meeting other photographers.
After editing and processing the files, Andrew orders ‘first run’ proof prints from The Edge, 3.5x5” black and whites and 5x7” colours, all with black edges. He then arranges the images into an album format using sheets of cardboard as pages to sit the proof prints on top. It’s just a rough layout, but it gives the client an easy to understand starting point.
The client already knows that they will end up spending around $5000, so Andrew designs an album that will cost around $6000 and invites the couple to work through the pages and remove the ones they don’t want until they reach their budget.
“Clients need to be shown something they can visualize and this system works brilliantly because most of the prints end up in the album the same size.
“With the digital albums, there are so many options that it makes it difficult for people to decide what they want.”
When the album pages are finalized, Andrew orders the handful of enlargements needed and the rest of the pages are filled with the first run proofs used in the ordering process. This approach keeps his costs down and his profits up – and today, working like this also gives him a point of difference. Although he will produce a digital album if requested, many people are choosing him because of his quality of photography and the simple yet elegant presentation.
“Honestly, we have had three couples this year who wanted so many photographs we had to produce double album volumes to fit them in. We didn’t twist their arm, they just couldn’t say no to the photographs. I guess thirty years of photographing weddings pays off. I know what photographs to take because I know what photographs sell. If nine times out of ten a photograph sells, you keep taking that photograph.”
The problem experienced photographers like Andrew have is selling this skill to prospective clients. Everyone says they are experienced, everyone is an award winning photographer, so it is hard if not impossible for our market to know who is good and who is not.
A friend of Andrew’s assistant, Sarah, recently hired a cheap ‘shoot and burn’ photographer, and felt that she had been burnt. The friend was at Andrew’s studio asking his Sarah if she could salvage a series of images to put an album together.
“The problem was the photographer hadn’t taken the basic photographs you’d expect. For instance, there wasn’t one full length photo of the bride with her dress, or a photograph of the groom with his parents.
“They were bitterly disappointed and of course, being friends of Sarah, they should have known better!
“I can actually see a market down the track for experienced studios offering a service to fix up the horrible files of inexperienced wedding photographers!”
In fact, adding this as a line item to your price list mightn’t be a bad idea! If your prospective clients see a service offering to fix up inadequate wedding photographs, it opens up the conversation and gives you the chance to explain why they should consider spending a little more in the first place."
So what are the photos that sell?
“It’s the basic ones. I mean, you should take as many photos of the groom as you do of the bride – the groom’s family is just as interested in him as the bride’s family is in her. And then there are the obvious family group combinations, with the bride’s family, the groom’s family, the bridal party and so on. And photograph the bride and groom in different locations.
“What most inexperienced photographers forget to do is take these photographs where the lighting is good.
“Once you’re taught, it’s not a difficult thing to find, basically a good short lighting pattern. Once you understand subtractive lighting it’s relatively straightforward.
“But what sells are the basics, nice, clean photographs with good expressions, properly exposed with good lighting.”
Andrew works on a minimum order which includes a fee for his services on the day (his time) and the album cover (he uses Albums Australia covers which range in price from $400 to $800). From here the couple can spend as much as they wish on extra photographs, but they know up front that this is the system. The don’t need to spend more than the minimum, but chances are they will want to because it’s in Andrew’s interest to produce great images. This incentive doesn’t exist for the flat-fee photographer, and certainly not for the shoot and burn photographer who doesn’t even need to produce prints.
“Most of the weddings I shoot now are referrals, so they already have an idea of what I cost. I’m sure they’d all like to spend a bit less, but they start off with a realistic budget.”
Extra album sides are priced at $120 for digital, but for his matted album pages it is priced per print. “This is why this approach is so profitable. Primarily people purchase what they see, so when we do the album plan, it can be hard to convince them to enlarge images. It’s not a price thing, it’s just that they like what they see.”
As the wedding market becomes more crowded with lower priced options, the competition for the top of the market will become increasingly competitive.
According to economic theory, this will also mean the top end of the market drops its prices in a bid to be more competitive. Despite this, Andrew still has hope for professional photography, although he himself may move more towards family portraiture. “People still need portraits and if you do good, arty work which they can’t do, we’ll have a market.”