Wedding and Portrait Photographers Reflect on their Careers

© Kevin Kubota

© Kevin Kubota

All images used with permission by the photographers contributing to this article.

WPPI 2015 is quickly approaching, and in the run-up to the big conference, we asked a bunch of presenters to reflect on their careers with one simple question:

“What did you wish you knew when you starting out as a portrait or wedding photographer that you know now?”

Their answers are instructive and serve to help photographers who are still figuring it all out. Responses range from the inspirational to the business-oriented, but common to all of them is the need for growth and the recognition of the importance of making mistakes.

Head on for some insight from some of the most influential folks in the industry.

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Tamara Lackey

julius motal the phoblographer Tamara Lackey_ThePhoblographer

When I was first starting out as a photographer, I wish I had recognized how incredibly significant it is to build a business structure that would enable me to thrive more creatively and ensure that I was maximizing my efforts on each shoot and marketing reach I did. I eventually got there – but certainly not right out of the gate.

For more of Lackey’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Top 10 Tips for Dynamic Portraits

Phillip Blume

julius motal the phoblographer wppi phillip blume

I wish I had known that other photographers were never my “competition.” Quite the opposite. Our fellow photographers are our best allies. If I’d approached my new business more altruistically from the outset, I would have saved myself a lot of strife and unwarranted jealousy. I also would have gotten ahead faster! That’s because “a rising tide lifts all ships.” Success in our industry hinges upon community. Even if you don’t feel it, you need to believe it. No one is out to “steel our clients,” and we absolutely do not have to imitate the “top” photographer in our market to make it. On the contrary. Find out who you are as an artist — what you care about — and pursue that alone with excellence. There are plenty of weddings to go around. Focus on what makes you unique, and sell yourself to the clients who are uniquely suited to you. And along the way, enjoy the friendship and inspiration that accompanies creative community. When I love and serve my peers, I find reciprocity is always close behind.

For more of Blume’s photography, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: WPPI University-The Business Institute

Thea Dodds

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When I first started out I was afraid of failing. I wasn’t taking risks because I wanted every shot to be a success. Now, I realize that failure is part of my creative process and I fail and succeed almost daily. Failure isn’t easy but it does have value. As Bobby Kennedy said, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

For more of Dodds’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Posing Two Brides or Two Grooms

Sam Hurd

When I was early in my career a lot of my thoughts were preoccupied with how on earth I would find my own visual voice. I wish someone had told me from day one that the best thing I could do to realize my style is to photograph with my intuition rather than second guessing all of my decisions. Once I started shooting what I was compelled to shoot, and just not worrying about if it was the text-book right or wrong thing to do for the given situation, I started to see my unique visual voice easily defining itself over time.

For more of Sam’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Understanding Prisming, Lens Chimping, Color Spreading, and Freelensing

Tim Halberg

julius motal the phoblographer wppi tim halberg

The HANDS DOWN #1 thing I wish I would have known my first year in business is to avoid and/or shed debt like the plague.

Debt does nothing to help your business. This means you don’t need that fancy new camera, or that $2,000 lens – until you can pay cash. You don’t need to drive a BMW to impress your clients. You need to build cash flow and not out spend yourself.

It’s easy to feel like you’re making a lot of money your first year – but then it comes time to pay taxes, replace broken equipment – and if you’ve already spent all of that money, you’re likely to put yourself out of business.

I’m still paying off debts I created in my first year of business. If I wasn’t, I could buy a ton more toys (or a house) right now!

For more of Halberg’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Everything You Need to Know in the First Year of Business

Jennifer Rozenbaum

BrooklynShoot10.10.13AnelisaEdits-5

When I started as a portrait photographer, I wish I knew that it was going to be an emotional journey not just a business journey. It wouldn’t have made a difference in my decision to BE a photographer, but I probably would have made some different decisions at the start. An example of one of those decisions is taking less clients at the start. I thought I really needed as many clients as I could get, and practice (Which I DID!) But I felt so empty not getting to know the women and their stories because I was too busy to even learn their names. It wasn’t until I lessened the amount of clients I shot that I truly felt fulfilled by photography and what I do to help women express their femininity shamelessly!

For more of Rozenbaum’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Redefining Boudoir and Overcoming Challenges

Sandy Puc

I wish someone had told me that it was ok to make mistakes and that those mistakes would end up being the foundation for my success. Often times we stress so much about the sessions we fail. Perhaps we were unable to get a child to smile or our lighting gear didn’t work properly or maybe we even disappointed a client. Over the years I have found that going through those moments forced me to look at problems strategically and ultimately helped me create systems that improved my skill set and the total customer experience. I think the only real failure is when you give up, the rest are just stepping stones to the top.

For more of Sandy’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Fabulous Family Portraits with Phenomenal Sales

Roberto Valenzuela

julius motal the phoblographer wppi roberto valenzuela

I remember being at a party in Tucson, AZ where I was telling my friends that I wanted to get into photography, especially wedding photography. I was planning on getting married during that time, so I was in the middle of experiencing the entire concept of finding a photographer, getting engagement photos taken, etc.

When I began this career, I had no idea what it really takes to do this successfully and profitable. It was much harder than I had anticipated. I didn’t realize that my marketing degree would come in so handy. A photography career is 80% business and writing and 20% photographing.

As many of us, I began my career doing everything myself. I wore all the hats. The accountant hat, the editor hat, the marketer hat, and of course, the photographer hat. It was ridiculous how busy I was. I sat in front of the computer for more than 10 hours a day gaining weight and eating junk. It was less than ideal.

As I began to witness the inevitable decline of my enthusiasm for this creative business, I had to implement changes immediately or else… The first wave of changes was to outsource many of the jobs I was doing. I stopped editing my own photos and starting using ShootDotEdit for all ofmy editing needs. I outsourced album design to the Graphistudio team in Italy. I then focused on improving my skills as a photographer, and marketing my business the rest of the time.

Outsourcing costs money, but it’s absolutely necessary. Set up a profit and loss statement and work out a pricing strategy that will allow you to be profitable even when many of the jobs are outsourced.

For more of Roberto’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: The Most Effective Approach to Effortless Posing

Peter Hurley

What I wish I knew when I started out was that it was my responsibility to pull the best out of my subjects every time I pointed a camera at them. I used to leave it up to them and think, “Well that didn’t go very well, but at least the quality of the pictures were good.” How many of us say that to ourselves because we lack the capacity to direct difficult subjects? That’s where I was and it took me a while to realize that their expression is and always will be my responsibility. I don’t care what mood they are in, how petrified they are of the camera, whether or not they respect me and listen to me one bit. I don’t care, my work is all based off of expression, so you better believe I’m going to pull it out of them. How could I leave that up to them when I started down this path? I realized that I couldn’t, I just didn’t know how to go about directing them toward an interesting expression when I started. When I threw the technical to the side and started working everyday on my directing skills that’s when my work really came together. Technically, yeah it had to be great, but couple that with an interesting expression and you nail what I call “lookablility” the ability of an image to capture the attention of an onlooker. And isn’t that what we all want out of our work? I sure do.

For more of Peter’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Start Your Headshot Business Today

Luke and David Edmonson

julius motal the phoblographer wppi luke edmonson

What would become our approach to the creative process. Today, we can tell you that our most effective concepts start first in our sketchbooks.

By taking time to percolate on an idea, flesh it out, refine it, cast it etc when it finally comes time to do the shoot most of our lighting, posing and compositional questions have been resolved.

The act of the capture becomes more fun because we’ve gone into the shoot with a clearly defined objective and idea.

Of course, there is always room to experiment and allow magical moments to just happen. It’s that initial clear vision that provides a reference point to guide us through our shoot.

For more of Luke’s work, check out his website. For more of his father David’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Why This Year’s Album Sales Predicts Next Year’s Success

Lindsay Adler

julius motal the phoblographer wppi lindsay adler

When I first started out as a photographer, I wish I knew that rejection was just part of the process of growing a business and establishing your brand. I wish I knew that I would often year ‘no’ and seldom here ‘yes’ as I tried to establish my business, yet through determination and persistence all of the rejection would eventually pay off and make this success even more valuable!

For more of Lindsay’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Fashion Techniques to Wow Your Wedding and Portrait Clients

Kirsten Lewis

I wish I knew that it was more important to embrace what is was I was drawn to in photography and nurture my own voice through my work than to try to make work that looked like everyone else’s. Nowadays, I advise my students to stop looking at other photographers’ work in the industry all together and to find inspiration through other types of photography as well as art and music. Most importantly, all of my students go through a pretty intense journey of tough introspection so that they come out of the year using their camera much differently, with purpose and intent. As an extension of who they are, making pictures that reflect their personalities, experiences and heart.

For more of Kirsten’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: The Fear of Photography (Gaining Confidence in Your Abilities)

Kevin Kubota

julius motal the phoblographer wppi kevin kubota

I wish I had a little more business education when starting out. Specifically, I should have thought about my long-term goals a bit more so that I had a plan for evolving my business and having an exit strategy. I eventually learned to do that, but it would have been helpful to have been more clear about that from the start. When I started out, I was just excited to shoot all the time and never really considered that someday I may get tired, hurt, bored, or need to retire! I didn’t have any backup plan in place.

For more of Kevin’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: The First Five Years:  How to Launch a Successful Photography Business

Zach & Jody Gray

julius motal the phoblographer wppi zach jody gray

When we first started our business, we wish someone would have come along side us and said, “Hey, when anyone does something extraordinary, or makes a stand for something, there are always going to be those who love you and those who love to hate on you… Listen to the voices who actually matter – those who are paying you and those who truly love you. Tune everyone else out and run the business you always dreamed of.”

When we first started our business, we wish someone would have come along side us and said, “Hey, what you’re about to do is going to be a lot of hard work. You’ll initially pull tons of late hours, change and tweak your business constantly, and sometimes it will seem like you haven’t been on a date with your spouse in ages. Your business will always demand more of you than you can give sometimes. There are seasons where it may be needed and it is ok for short periods of time, but never let it become the norm, and never lose sight of why you started this business to begin with – Freedom. Freedom to work less than 40 hours a week. Freedom to take days off when you need to. Freedom to be with your family as it grows. Freedom to be more involved in community. These are just a few of the many reasons are why you are starting this business. Not so you can feel suffocated by it. Write these reasons down and never lose sight of them.”

For more of their work, check out their website.

WPPI Seminar: Behind-the-Veil:  The Reality of a Successful Wedding Brand

Jared Platt

There is far too much emphasis placed on the art side of a photographic education. I was trained and educated at the university and earned my undergraduate and master of fine arts without learning a thing about business. So when I started my business, I was severely lacking in marketing and other business skills. Everything I learned about running a photo business, I learned from my first employee and mentor Dan Vermillion. My advice to any starting photographer is this: learn the business side of photography. It is the only thing that will put food on your table. A mediocre photographer with great business skills will succeed while a absolute master of the art will forever struggle without business acumen. So now you know how to prioritize your learning. Choose classes and workshops that will boost your marketing and business skills and increase your productivity first, then fill in the gaps with some artistic mumbo jumbo.

For more of Platt’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Serious Workflow in Lightroom 5, Photoshop CC and The Creative Cloud

Jacquelynn Buck

That a successful photography career is made on the foundation of a good business model and is 75% marketing, sales, client care and feeding, networking, math, and knowing how to write a business plan that includes measureable goals and objectives.

That photography is about building relationships not just with clients. With vendors. With other photographers. With other business professionals. With the mail man. Yes, really. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn and grow.

That problems are not obstacles, they are opportunities for better relationships and creative solutions. So instead of venting (well, ok, you can vent first) but then consider how to shift your perspective.

That photography is 90% hauling equipment, carrying heavy gear and moving furniture. So even though that shoulder bag is cute and trendy, it’s definitely not protecting my body. Go backpack or go home.

That one moment can change the path of a career, so pay attention to people, to conversations, to opportunities, to the world around you, instead of posting that selfie on instagram! : )

That photographing for joy is as important as photographing for hire.

That the only thing that sets me apart from the competition is who I am and what I bring to the photography experience. Comparing myself to others is useless and only serves to falsely boost or devalue my own work. Don’t be a stalker. Just be.

That actions and presets applied to photos are not the same as having a style.

That over-editing can plunge a photographer into a downward spiral. I spent allllll this time applying cool grungesaturationcolortonewow effects only to have the clients bypass and head straight for vanilla. Whaaaat? It just confuses the client and takes valuable time away from running a business.

That good lighting equipment and good lenses are the best investment. But that I don’t need every piece of equipment that comes on the market. Great things can be done with a flashlight and a table lamp as long as I understand lighting, posing and how to operate my camera.

That every studio prop that appealed to me should not have been purchased. I have an overflow room of things I do not use and probably never will. Flimsy paper backdrop of a fake door for sale. Cheap.

That finding photographer friends in other states that can be a sounding board is a lifesaver.

That I should always carry a backup camera. Always.

That equipment and liability insurance are two must haves. Go get them. Now.

That online sales do not in any way achieve the same result as in person sales. And that selling digital media alone is not the way I want to conduct business. I want to create heirlooms. Not CDs that sit in a drawer and collect dust.

That a good mentor is worth his or her weight in gold.

That it’s definitely not a good idea to photograph a wedding for hire if it’s the first time photographing a wedding.

Capture in RAW. Period.

That following up with clients who do not book a session is valueable and provides an opportunity to understand how I could have done better.

That there are only five questions the inquiring client asks, in varying ways, so having an email template to respond with saves me having to write the same answers over and over. And over again. My poor tired fingers thank me.

But the one thing that has not changed, and hopefully never will, is that this is the thing I am meant to be doing. It is the cream in my coffee. The joy in my joyful. And the best decision I ever made.

For more of Buck’s work, check out her website.

WPPI Seminar: Building a Boudoir Business for Every Body

Jaleel King

julius motal the phoblographer wppi jaleel king

When I started doing photography, as hobby, I knew I loved but thought that it would be too competitive. Mind you, I started before digital. However, I wish I knew that photography was so fulfilling to my heart and soul but more important that I could touch and connect with as many people as I have through the years and continue to do as grow.

For more of King’s work, check out his website.

WPPI Seminar: Go Viral and Get Press

Bambi Cantrell

I’d buy more Apple Stock! 🙂

Seriously, I would have counted the cost of doing business better. In the early days, I just copied the pricing of other photographers, (I was just too lazy to come up with my own,) and literally just about starved to death my first two years in business because I was so inexpensive that I could afford to hire myself. I gave away my services thinking that I needed to “pay my dues” and get samples and practice, and it would have been smarter to sit down and calculate the cost of doing business the way I wanted and charge accordingly.

For more of Cantrell’s work, check out her website.