As wedding photographers, we all remember the first time we picked up the camera and somehow produced an absolutely AMAZING photo. We then spend the rest of our careers chasing that feeling again. Most of us will always do it as a hobbyist, but some of us will make it into a full-time job. And if we work hard, perhaps we can even make a career out of photography.
While we continuously strive to refine our art, most of us, unfortunately, will never get that far because the business will fold before we even get an opportunity.
According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 50% of businesses will survive past the first 5 years, and one-third will survive 10 years or more. It’s a staggering number, but also one that is very real for many of the photographers I personally know.
Having taught workshops all around US & Asia, and in speaking with hundreds of photographer over the years, I can say there are definitely reoccurring themes as to why photographers fail to achieve their goals. Not because they are not talented enough, or even that they don’t work hard enough. Many times it’s due to reasons other than our ability to create breathtaking images for our clients.
We all pour our heart and soul into our art and business, and nothing pains me more than seeing another fellow photographer having to “go find a day job” because their business has failed to bring in enough income.
1. Lack of technical skills.
Believe it or not, many people jump into wedding photography business with very little technical knowledge. How does this happen? For two reasons. First, the technological advancement of modern cameras has been unprecedented. Even an amateur can take a pretty good photo the first time he picks up a camera. Second, with the over abundance of social media and access to information, it’s very easy for a new photographer to check out other photographers’ work and get a pretty good idea about what is considered “good.” As compared to years ago, before Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc., it was more difficult to find a photographer whose work inspired you.
Photographers get easily frustrated when they can’t create the type of images they want throughout the wedding day. They might be good at natural light only, or they might be good at flash photography. Wedding is a fluid environment that requires the photographer to think on their feet and react accordingly. Over time, if a photographer can’t demonstrate he has the necessary technical skills, he will start to lose potential clients.
3. Fear of failure.
Fear of failure might be the single biggest reason why people actually fail. We all have fears; the trick is to turn fear into motivation, and not let it cripple your desire to achieve your goals. When I first started my business I still had a full-time job. Although I had a full calendar for the year, and more bookings on the way for the following year, I was scared to death of leaving my day job. The fear of leaving the security of a paycheck, benefits, 401K, you name it. I had every reason NOT to leave my day job as an architect. The fear was quite literally paralyzing. As the great comedian Jim Carrey once said, “Fear is nothing more than obstacles disguised as practicality.” The moment I was able to let go of the fear, that’s when I was able to grow my business into what it is today.
2. Not pricing yourself as a sustainable business.
Many photographers have other sources of income as they start out on their journey. It could be a supportive spouse or another full-time job, maybe even a trust fund. Many people also have a “back up plan” in case photography business doesn’t work out. While this is great security to have since it really doesn’t matter if they book or not, the major mistake a lot of photographers make is to price themselves too low in the hope of getting more work. The fee a photographer would charge in this price range most likely would not be sustainable if it were a full-time business. There is some merit to this strategy, though. After all, if there is no portfolio to backup the pricing, most clients would not see the value enough to pay a high rate. But the downside is that when a photographer is ready to raise their prices, they will lose most of the previous referral base on a much lower price point. When this happens, most photographers become frustrated with their business not growing or able to turn a profit. My advice would be to always price yourself as if you were running a sustainable business. Yes, even when you are just starting out. There are many different business models. A low price/high volume studio can still be very profitable. But a low price/low volume studio would not survive, for example.
The one exception would be for those that are not seeking to make it into a full-time business and will always want to do it as a hobbyist/part-time and not a full-time job. While there’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with that, I am specifically addressing those that want to make it into a full-time business.
As my business grows, I continue to face many new fears almost on a daily basis. The fear of not booking the next client when I raised my prices; the fear of not filling up all the seats for my first international workshop; the fear when I started shooting film and worried if my clients were all going to leave me… Bottom line: don’t let fear paralyze you. Let go of the fear and see how far it will take you.
4. Inconsistency in your work.
When a photographer is starting out, it’s natural to want to experiment with everything under the sun. Different editing styles, aperture, lens… you name it. Especially nowadays with the abundance of information on social media, it has become increasingly difficult for a photographer to nail down a look that is unique to their brand. For me personally, it took well over a span of 3 years to really start to know what my aesthetic is. And to this date, I am still constantly refining my work.
When a photographer’s portfolio is filled with inconsistent styles, a potential client can get easily confused and have less trust in the photographer. Different style can be defined as editing, framing, composition, use of light, mood, or any other number of factors that make a photograph. My suggestion would be to experiment with different style as you wish; but only post on blog or website the most consistent work you can produce. Over time, you will start to fine-tune your style and eventually will be able to curate your way to a recognizable brand.
5. Not understanding your ideal client base.
At the start of many photographers’ careers, we all struggle to find clients. It could simply be because nobody knows we have actually started a business. As time goes on, more and more people will find out about the new business and hopefully the referral base will grow. However, with the need to grow a business many photographers will start taking on every single client that walks through the door. I see this type of posts on Facebook newsfeed all the time. “I am so busy! I have a family portrait session on Monday, corporate head shots on Tuesday, shooting food for the menu of a new restaurant on Wednesday, newborn photo on Thursday, and weddings on the weekend!” While that may keep you busy, it will not keep your business sustainable. Specializing in one or two areas of photography will make you an expert in the field; therefore standing out from the rest of the competition more easily. We are in a society full of specialists, and consumers tend to put more trust in specialists than somebody who specializes in EVERYTHING.
At the very start of my career, I knew I wanted to focus on the high-end, luxury market. All the business strategies I’ve implemented have led to where I am in my career. Granted there were times where I really needed a booking, but it was not my ideal market, so I had to turn down the booking. It was hard since we all have financial obligations. But something I always have to remind myself is that it is a marathon, not a 100-meter dash. Don’t base your business decisions on short-term gains.
Those are my top 5 reasons why wedding photographers fail; what about you? Share your mistakes and how you overcame them in the comments below!