It’s Jamie (Todd’s wife and business partner), and I’m here for another guest blog post. I know you all have missed me. And I’ve missed you too.
I think there is a misconception in the photography industry, and I would like to do my best to clear it up, or at least throw another idea out there for you to chew on and either swallow or spit back at me.
In our seven year career as photographers, we have worked at quite a few levels of the wedding photography market. And when I say “levels of the wedding photography market” I don’t mean to say that we have worked with hicks and yokels all the way up to hoity-toity snobs – though some may read into it that way (it is not, however, my intent or meaning). I mean instead that the budgets of weddings we have photographed, and the locations- have been wildly varied from a couple thousand dollar budget wedding in a one-horse town where the nicest restaurant was the Subway attached to the gas station- all the way up to a lavish six-figure plus budget wedding at the inarguably nicest hotel in town.
So, we can say, I think without argument, that we have photographed low-end weddings, middle market weddings, and high-end weddings. If you leave the first two years out of the equation (because we had no idea what we were doing on a business level, at that point, and were therefore charging an unsustainable sum- our fault, not the market’s)- we have made pretty close to the same averages from weddings across all markets- give or take $1-2,000. As a side note, in our experience, the biggest difference from a money standpoint, is that the “high-end” wedding clients we have had prefer to know every cost up-front and they generally prefer not to be nickel and dimed or sold to after the fact. Our experiences in the lower and middle market level clients (at least at the time)- were more comfortable with a lower buy-in, but enjoyed the process of buying more stuff later on. It required more involvement and hand-holding, but it was worth it. Your mileage may vary.
And, although I’m sure for some “high-end” wedding photographers- the higher end does mean more money overall. The choice to target the higher end of the market was more of an answer to “where do we fit best?” Where does our style of photography, our personality types, our professional demeanor, our comfort level, our manner of speaking, our approach and belief system- what part of the market is the closest to being a perfect fit for that?
I remember years ago sitting in a class at a national photography convention, given by a very “high-end” photographer. He did very well for himself and photographed beautiful, super-expensive weddings. I was crazy impressed, until he showed a slideshow of his work. In my opinion, it was mediocre at best. Maybe the rest of the audience was impressed, but I was not.
And then it hit me.
I strongly believe that the level of the market you work at does not equal the level of photographic skill and artistry you have. Now, I don’t think it’s okay to suck. You should certainly have professional level skills to be charging money. And let me be clear that I’m not talking about whatever photographer is popular or revered amongst other photographers. I’m strictly classifying market level by the budget (of the wedding NOT necessarily the photography) and overall priorities of a wedding. “High-end” does not mean better photographer. It can be true that one “high-end” photographer is photographically more skilled than a lower or middle market photography, but it doesn’t have to be true, and it is occasionally/sometimes/often untrue.
To add more complication, clients (brides, grooms, parents) are individuals- they are not solely defined by the amount of money they spend on a wedding. The decision to spend money they choose to spend (or not to spend) can be motivated from many different human impulses. And for every 15-40 sets of people who have the same impulses to spend what they spend on their wedding, there’s a photographer (or two, or ten) that is perfect for that set of people, whose beliefs align perfectly with their beliefs, who represents what they want their wedding (and their photography) to mean.
Instead of thinking of market level as a hierarchy, where one level is better than another- think of the various market levels as a guidebook- a set of general “dos” and “don’ts” to help your business find alignment and success. There are often over-arching similarities between what people tend to believe and want at different levels of the market. It doesn’t mean one set is more right or more wrong than the other, it just means that some photographers will fit better than others- some photographers will be “righter” for that part of the market.
So, when we say that we shoot “high-end” weddings, we don’t simultaneously mean that “our weddings are better than yours” or “our clients are better people than yours” or that “we are better photographers than you are” (some of you are way better photographers than we are- more creative, more skilled, more technical- etc, but are really perfect for weddings that have lower budgets than our typical weddings do). Instead, we use that term to classify weddings whose budgets are typically $100,000 and up. Spending that amount of money on a one-day event tends to lead the people spending it to a certain set of beliefs and ideals. On the day, they dress a certain way, they act a certain way, and they expect a certain type of service and behavior from the vendors that they hire. Sure, there are variations within and outside of that set of beliefs and ideals and expectations, but if you’re in the business of branding and marketing, you have to believe there are groups of people who believe close to the same thing, so we’re going with it.
I write all of this to challenge traditional thinking for a moment. Instead of judging where you fit best in the marketplace against how great or terrible you think your photography is compared to everyone else’s, it might be more helpful to think about what you care most about, what you believe, how you want to act and interact (or not) with your clients, how you look, how you wish to dress, and how you want to be perceived by the clients that hire you, their family and their guests, and place yourself in the market based on that. Finding that you fit with a more middle market wedding is not a bad thing, it does not mean your work is (because of that realization) mediocre. You could, in fact, be intensely successful working with the middle market or high-middle market. It likely means that you will want to and need to make very different business choices than someone working at the “high-end” does- again, it doesn’t mean it’s worse or wrong, it’s just different business models have different requirements and paths to success.
When we made the decision to commit to working “high-end” weddings, we wanted to do less in volume, and we found we loved big ballroom weddings. We are not, by nature, gregarious, outgoing people. We are pretty reserved in style and demeanor. We were growing tired of running around with the bride and groom and their bridal party for an hour or two trying to be fun and entertaining and doing gobs of creative portraits because we thought we had to because that was the most important part of the photography. It is for some couples, but it isn’t for everybody. We found a great fit for ourselves in the “high-end”. We didn’t suddenly become way better photographers than we were when we did weddings with budgets in the tens of thousands. In fact, we were probably way more “creative” back then- and all of you photographers might even say our work was better back then or that we suck now.
Market level is just about where you fit best. Not about how great you are. Or even how much money you make.
I would even go so far as to say it is a choice that you should make actively. Most brands in any other field make that choice and use it to their benefit.
Target isn’t a worse company than Neiman Marcus because it is perfect for the middle market. Target also doesn’t have aspirations of becoming Neiman Marcus one day. Target found where it fit best and committed to kicking ass there. p.s. Target’s retail net income for 2011 was $2.93 billion (with a B), Neiman Marcus’ 2011 net income was $31.6 million. I would say they are both successful.
We have been trained to think hierarchically. The world just doesn’t always work that way.