The most common question I have received in my inbox from other photographers over the last decade is, “I’d love to do this full-time! But I don’t know how to start. Do you have any tips?” So today, we’re going back to the very, very beginning of my journey to help you get started as a wedding photographer!
My Photography Story
In the Summer of 2006, I started using a D-SLR camera my Dad had purchased: a Canon Rebel XT. I had never used anything but a point and shoot camera, but when we took it on a family vacation to the Maritime Provinces, I had fun experimenting with composition. I used the camera in automatic mode the entire time and came home thinking, “I wonder if I can find out what all these buttons do?”
I started to Google obsessively. I read everything I could find about the technical side of my camera. I read my manual cover to cover. I bought a cheesy book about ‘how to take wedding photos’ on Amazon and basically memorized it. I practiced taking photos of lamps and chairs and stuffed animals and my dog. In the winter of 2006, I discovered a photography forum called OpenSourcePhoto Forum, created originally by David Jay, the founder of Shoot & Share. It was a simple Google search that led me to OSP and… it was life-changing.
Page after page of this forum was filled with full-time photographers making a living shooting weddings and/or portraits. There were threads about marketing, engagement sessions, wedding timelines, initial consultations, album predesign, album companies, camera gear and lenses, off-camera lighting, websites, blogs, literally every single part of the business side of photography.
I read every forum. After a few months, I was convinced if other people could do photography full-time, so could I. I started getting better at taking photos by practicing on a few friends! I bought a website template for $200, put up a bio and a few galleries, set a price for family photos and boom! I was open for business. The first month I put my website online, I booked a paid portrait session – this was June 2007.
I charged $275 and I was ecstatic.
At the same time I launched my website, I also started blogging. I knew from reading OSP that it was important to make yourself different, to show why a client would need to hire you to take their family portraits for $300 over another photographer for $100. Similarly, I started a facebook page, started linking to my blog and website, uploading every shoot, tagging photos, inviting my friends, inviting my brother’s friends, inviting my mom’s friends. Come one, come all.
News spread fast. I started emailing other photographers in my area, asking them if they needed assistants, asking them if I could take them out for coffee or out for lunch. I was still involved heavily in OSP forum and I started making online friends all over North America. These photographers gave me some great advice and inspired me through their work and a few are still my close friends today! I ended up second shooting two weddings in August 2007, through a forum connection, and this started my wedding portfolio.
With the main photographers permission, I put those two wedding galleries on my website. I added a drop down link that said “Wedding Prices” and listed them for $1000. Within three months, I got a wedding inquiry from a bride named Tamara. I remember exactly where I was when I got her email. I was so excited. I responded as professionally as I could, sharing my excitement, quoting my prices but being honest – I had never shot a wedding by myself. “But I’m very confident I could do a wonderful job!”
They booked me. In May 2008, I photographed my first wedding, one month before I graduated high school. In between booking their wedding in the winter, and shooting in May, I had managed to book a handful of other weddings through Facebook and word of mouth. The Summer I graduated, I shot 10 more weddings, a total of 11 weddings my very first year.
Things were happening! I couldn’t believe it. People seemed to like what I do, and I loved it. Every 3-4 weddings I booked, I would raise my prices a couple hundred dollars. By the end of 2008, my prices were more than doubled. My goal was never to be a $1500 wedding photographer. I knew where I was headed and I knew what quality work was worth!
But it didn’t come easy.
Every vendor I worked with, was about to work with or wanted to work with received a personal email. They all received images after the wedding on a disc (a disc! how novel! haha!) with a handwritten note and a folder with my business cards. I would look up their Facebook pages, I would comment on their blogs, I would email them after the weddings with a link to the blog post where I linked to their site.
Behind the scenes, I was marketing.
I was thinking about how to make my website better, how to increase the consistency and quality of my blog posts, I was improving packaging and scheming up client gift systems. I was making a list of vendors I’d love to meet with, I was emailing offering vendors complimentary sessions for whatever they needed. I read every business book I could get my hands on, including going through David Jay’s (founder of OSP forum) list of recommended reading — about 50 books total.
I soon realized I couldn’t be the kind of marketer I wanted to be if I was doing my own editing and album design: so I outsourced both of them and suddenly had 12-15 more hours in my week to work on the things that mattered.
In my second season (2009) I managed to book 15 weddings by repeating all of the above paragraphs. I added in steps like creating sample albums for wedding venues, organizing styled shoots to create portfolios for dress designers, florists, etc., submitting to online blogs and magazines for increased exposure.
By 2010, I booked 28 weddings and in 2011, I scaled it down to 21 weddings. Since 2011, I have stayed right around 19-22 weddings a year! Today, as I write this, I’m booking my 2018 season, which is insane to me! I have no idea where the time goes.
Full-time photography probably isn’t for you, if…
The steps I have described about how I got started doesn’t sound like fun to you.
Honestly. I’ve been asked before, How did you get motivated to work? Sometimes I find it so hard to be self-employed with no one to keep me accountable. It’s not a question I have really had to ask myself. I don’t need to get motivated because this is what I love to do. This is a decision I have made, to work for myself, so every morning I get up and I work because self-employment is a gift, not a free ride!
If I don’t find the motivation, I have to go get a 9-5 job. And that sounds brutal to me. So! If you struggle with motivation and self-discipline and “putting in the effort”… the reality is you may be better off in a job where you’re not your own boss. There is no shame in that, some people thrive in a career with more structure!
I am not one of them, so I’ve done what I have had to do to make my business work.
Full-time photography is likely for you, if…
You love creating gorgeous photos, but you also love the business game. If you can’t love both – and work equally hard at both, chances are, it’s going to be a struggle for you. Straight up, I thought I would be tired of weddings ten years in… but I am NOT. I love photographing weddings, It’s rad. I love being a photographer.
But I really love killing it in my business, as well.
If you are highly self-motivated, love setting your own schedule, love the idea of being able to work where you want, when you want then boom! Maybe you should look into this. However, if you’re asking questions like, “I want to learn my camera and become a full-time photographer, but I don’t know how…” I’m just not sure if it’s going to work out.
I’m a ‘thinker’ and I tend to speak my mind quite easily – so I don’t mean to be harsh. But most of the answers and the knowledge you’re seeking, is right there on the internet. And there are likely 200 YouTube tutorials on that very topic! It’s such an exciting time to be an entrepreneur because so many opportunities are available to us.
So if you want to do this, do this.
I want to see you succeed! (But you got to put in the work.)