Bernie Griffiths and his wife Wendy have set up the Australian School of Wedding and Portrait Photography. After putting the necessary steps in place and trialling his workshops, Bernie is now in a position to take on more students. I spoke to Bernie about what it takes to be a successful wedding photographer.
“The main problem for photographers new to wedding photography is that there are too few people to talk to if you’re looking for knowledge and motivation.”
Bernie is himself a very accomplished wedding and portrait photographer with some 40 years experience. “I was fortunate when I started because I had connections with people like Max Townsend (pro lab) and Dave Cimino (Albums Australia). I would be invited to meet famous photographers and lecturers from overseas, including Lord Litchfield and Gary Glenn.”
What Bernie appreciated most was the direction these speakers gave to his own career, and this in turn is what he is aiming to achieve with his new venture, the Australian School of Wedding and Portrait Photography.
Many photographers begin by photographing friends’ weddings, but how do they expand into the general market? The obvious answer is advertising and promotion, but how?
“Most new photographers discover that money runs out very quickly, so the first step in starting a new business is to promote yourself so you can earn some money to promote yourself more. Start with the network of friends who you’ve photographed already, add in associated businesses and register yourself with the free bridal websites to give you an online presence.
“If you spend money on advertising, you must measure everything you do so you know the results you’re getting. However, there are also ways of promoting your business without spending money, such as creating arrangements with reception centres, bridal gown boutiques, florists and other businesses within the industry. By building a network of people who will recommend or promote you, you don’t need to do as much advertising.
“Some people think that a great website will automatically get people phoning, but this is a long way from the truth. Even with a website, you still need to create ways to direct people to visit it. And when they do, you better make sure it is different and styled in a way so people will remember you.”
There are so many photographers on the web that it can be confusing for our potential customers when choosing a photographer. Certainly if you are one of a thousand that don’t stand out, you’re unlikely to be very successful.
“For instance, two years ago I decided to do just black and white photography. It became my speciality which in turn gives me something to talk about with passion. I believe it has a timeless quality because B&W photos on the wall will live forever.
“Whatever you do, customers must be able to perceive a difference between you and the rest, and you must be passionate about that difference.”
Once the phone does ring, how do you handle the inquiry? “Handling telephone inquiries is difficult”, Bernie admitted. “The initial call is only a stepping stone in a long communication process. What you really want to do is turn the telephone inquiry into an interview, and from the interview into a booking.”
And the most common and natural inquiry is how much do you charge, which is where many new wedding photographers stumble.
“The first thing most of them do is undervalue what they do. They try to price their work based on their current experience, but if their experience is nil, they price their product down.
“What these photographers don’t understand is that it’s not about the quality of the product or working from home, it’s their mindset. Your mindset is the key.”
For instance, many photographers entering the industry are offering a $500 shoot and burn service. Is this a sustainable business model?
“I would suggest shoot and burn isn’t sustainable unless you also have a pricing model that offers clients more expensive options or allows you to increase your sale afterwards.
“The shoot and burn product can vary widely. Some photographers simply shoot and burn whatever they shoot onto a DVD, some spend hours in Photoshop editing all the images, while others provide the DVD with proof prints.
“My suggestion is to provide four levels of shoot and burn service on a price list. For instance, it could start at $1500 for a straight out of the camera shoot and burn, but climbs to $1900 if the couple would like us to do some basic editing and retouching of the photos. Then there’s another level where we include a set of proofs and finally our top level at $2400 includes a wall enlargement as well.
“At least with a price list like this you are giving your prospective clients a choice of shoot and burn products. Importantly, photographers don’t end up doing work they are not being paid for (e.g. the retouching), and the clients can spend more if they want to. Charging a flat $500 for a shoot and burn devalues what we do and it restricts you from expanding your business. There is little chance of progression.”
Historically, wedding photographers have always offered clients a wedding album as the final product, but Bernie suggests this is something that new photographers seem to be more scared of than their clients!
“We advised one photographer to try our price list solution and add in the option of a wedding album. He converted five of the next six bookings to albums simply because he changed his mindset. Sometimes photographers convince themselves that clients don’t want extra services, but in reality our clients don’t know what they want until they are shown it. That’s why you see so many women wandering into shoe shops, just looking, but when they see something, money doesn’t matter because suddenly there’s something that they really want.”
Why shouldn’t a wedding photography price list be just the same?
So how do you work out your prices? “Some salespeople say you should price your products up to a ‘cringe’ point, but I think it should be below this. However, it’s easier to take your prices down than it is to put them up. If you start with high prices, you can test the market and if you don’t get any bookings, you can look at starting at a lower level.”
But not too low. There are prices which are simply not sustainable for someone wanting to be professional full time.
“We give our students a pricing structure to follow and then challenge them on the prices that they set. What’s in their head is normally ridiculous. One photographer wanted to charge $35 for a 5x7-inch print, $65 for an 8x10-inch print, and $95 for an 11x14-inch print. That’s crazy stuff because it’s too low. Photographers think they will get business if the prices are low, but actually it can put people off because there is no perception of value.
“I took some photographs for a family member who insisted on paying me for them, so I charged her the $4 for each print that it cost me at the pro lab. She thought I was expensive, expecting to pay 60 cents for the prints like she did at her local department store. However, I might as well have charged her $104 because she was going to think I was expensive no matter what I charged! We’ll probably find most of our clients think the same way, but if they love the photography – which is what they have hired us to do – they will pay our prices.
“From the other side, photographers are always spending money on equipment or a website. You have to get this money back and you should aim to get it back quickly. If you spend money on your business, you should be able to get it back within six to twelve months, otherwise all you have is an expensive hobby.
“The role of the photographer on the wedding day isn’t to just take pictures, it’s to keep the wedding to the schedule and deal with whatever turns up. It’s up to us to keep the bride and groom comfortable with what you’re doing as a photographer, and what they’re doing as well. Try to protect the dress if you’re going on location, suggest they move on if it is getting late. It’s all commonsense.
“Most photographers have good people skills. They are friendly, straight-forward, and not shy. They need to be a warm welcoming person because photography is a people industry.
“On the shoot, the trick is to let your passion shine. Be yourself and just release it. You have a lot of licence as a wedding and portrait photographer. People think of you as an artist or creative person, but I think some photographers hold themselves back and don’t let go. Some of the most successful photographers are those who really pour themselves into the wedding day.
“On a practical level, you need to produce good photographic results consistently. You also need to show your clients that you have good equipment and plenty of backup. It’s not good enough to go to a wedding with one camera, one flash and not enough memory cards. If your first line of equipment stops, you must have enough backup equipment to carry on.
“Good backup means extra batteries, fully charged and always have sufficient memory cards to shoot the entire wedding. I know of photographers who have lost photographs taken in the beginning of the day because they formatted the wrong card.
“Do your homework. This might mean visiting the locations before the wedding day so you can feel comfortable about where you’re going to be shooting, working out the day’s timing and finding out who the important guests are.
“If you stay at the reception, don’t drink. Remember, there are 100 or 300 people looking at you and making judgements, so those judgements should be positive, not negative.
“And if we consider ourselves a guest at the wedding, we should dress accordingly. I am a bit from the old school, but I think we look much more professional if we dress and act like professionals. Ryan Schembri is a young wedding photographer who really does it well – I watched him work one day and he presents magnificently. I felt good about being a wedding photographer because he is one of us.”
Clients don’t necessarily know how to judge a professional photographer. To them, the standard of photography we produce is much the same, so one detail that can indicate if you’re a good photographer is the ‘size of your camera’. The bigger the camera, the better photographer?
Bernie doesn’t agree with this, although he acknowledges the issue.
“Good cameras are affordable, so really there’s no excuse for not having a professional camera which in turn will give you the optimum results.
“Being a Canon user, I like the 24-105mm f4 zoom lens with its Image Stabilizer. If you can only have one lens for wedding and portrait photography, then I think this is it. It has a good range of focal lengths so you can shoot a head and shoulders portrait without distorting the face at 105mm, and then zoom out to 24mm for a group or location shot.
“When you’re starting out, a shoot list is essential. The list should also be consistent with your sales system, so the photos should relate to the album that you want to present to your clients at sale time.”
Bernie says the album is the preferred wedding product because it will help you develop your photography more quickly. “When you’re shooting for an album, you need to capture images that will allow you to create a design. You’re not just shooting whatever you see and hoping for the best. You need to have the end result in your head throughout the wedding, visualising what the final album is to look like.
“For instance, if you visualise your album opening with a nice photo of the bride and groom, followed by two pages of the bride getting ready, putting her shoes on and twirling her dress around, then another two pages with the bride and bridesmaids, each individually and one full length group photo up large… suddenly you have a shoot list to work towards. You’ll have to work out if you want horizontal or vertical photos, whether they will be in colour or black and white. You need a plan.
“You can use a shoot list for a shoot and burn wedding too, but if your clients definitely don’t want an album, then why not let your head go and shoot a style that’s really loose.
“However, shooting for an album allows you to have a little bit of pride in producing a really great, finished product. And yes, it also gives the customer the opportunity to purchase a larger number of pages if the photography exceeds their expectations.”
So, is this ripping off our customers, getting them to pay more than they budgeted for?
“You’re only ripping people off if you use an incorrect sales approach. It wouldn’t be fair to ask a customer to pay more for a larger album if they had no prior knowledge of what you intended. I know this does happen out there and that’s because the sales process isn’t being conducted in a correct manner.”
“The hardest thing to learn after pricing is selling. If you’re offering a shoot and burn service, this isn’t really selling. Selling is when you’re building an album and encouraging clients to purchase extra pages because the photography you produced is so good.”
Just like most products that are sold in the world, there should be a choice for your customers. Bernie suggests a choice of four different albums.
“I used to think I’d just offer one album, but women don’t walk into a dress shop and see just one dress in the middle of the room. This approach doesn’t work, so for wedding albums, I think four options is about right. There’s enough to choose from without things becoming complicated. Prices are structured according to the size of the album, both the physical dimensions of the album and the number of pages.
“In selling, everyone knows that most people choose the product second from the top – the second most expensive item on the price list – so this should also be the product that you really want to sell.
“Many shoot and burn photographers simply lack a system of presenting their customers with a better alternative and lack experience in selling. A price list like this solves both issues.”
So how do you learn the art of salesmanship?
“You go to a course on selling techniques or you come to us. We have developed a retail selling system for wedding and portrait photography, but it doesn’t really rely on salesman-like questions that lead the customer into making a decision, rather it’s based on choices and how these choices are presented.
“We tell our students to forget about selling photos and think of selling products. The emotional connection with the photography is already there because they are photographs of family and friends whom their clients love, so all you have to do is offer them products that include these photographs.
“For instance, we started selling collages which could be from three to eleven photos in the one frame, all done as a single digital print. We offer a choice of metallic paper or canvas, framed or unframed. In our sales room, we have examples of what these products look like, so when clients are viewing their own photographs, it’s very easy to walk them around the walls and go through the price list with them.
“The process is very easy. Point to the examples on the wall, show them the different sizes and refer them to the price list. Then walk away and give them some space. They’ll come back to you with some questions about surfaces and framing, but the system will basically sell the prints for you. You guide and help them through the decision making process, but you’re not trying to force them to buy something they may regret later.
“Clients can’t feel forced into a sale. If they do, they will never come back and the lifetime value of a customer is many times more than even the best sale.
“My definition of selling is providing people with what they want at a price they are willing to pay. There are no smart sales questions, but there is a structured approach that can take you to a good result. Certainly you want to maximise the sale, but maximising the sale doesn’t mean having unhappy clients afterwards.”
“There are so many new photographers entering the profession, partly because cameras are very affordable. Lots of mums start by taking photos of their own kids and then, realising how much they love photography, want to know more and how to turn their photography into a business. Some join camera clubs, but clubs can only take them to a certain level.
“There are also many great photography colleges around, but most of them don’t teach business in depth. It’s great to learn how to create high quality photographs, but how do you earn some money from it?
“With ASWPP, I think I’ve created a place for new photographers to go.”
The School covers both wedding and portrait photography and Bernie isn’t the only speaker, bringing in other experienced professionals like Julie Ewing M.Photog. who specialises in portraiture.
“Julie’s presentations are based on running a home business because that’s where most people sit. However, a home business can create a number of tensions within the mind – for instance, photographers feel they can’t charge as much because they don’t have a retail studio. We show them how to deal with these issues.”
Education is an ongoing process. It’s not a light switch that gets turned on and you know everything, but certainly your mindset can change and suddenly you will see the possibilities in front of you.
The ASWPP is a big supporter of the AIPP and encourages its student to enter APPA and earn its distinctions. It has also introduced its own photography Awards of Excellence and its major sponsors are The Edge Photo Imaging, Seldex Albums, and Kodak Professional.
For more information about the Australian School of Wedding and Portrait Photography, visit www.aswpp.org.