10 Things I Wish I Knew 10 Years Ago About Being a Professional Wedding Photographer

Today’s guest post is by Stephanie Zettl, a photographer from St. Louis, Missouri who specializes in photographing people. She got her start as a newspaper photographer and enjoyed photographing people and their relationship to the events around them. In 2003 she started her own business specializing in documentary styled wedding and portrait photography. Her husband, Peter, later joined her in the business as a photographer and business partner. Stephanie is a respected lecturer and mentor and enjoys watching new photographers improve their skills. Education is important to Stephanie and she believes that photographers should invest in themselves by studying both the technical and creative side of photography. She has just published The Nikon Speedlight Handbook.

I was as giddy as a school girl the day I signed my new studio lease and took the first step towards owning my own business.  While I had a lot of my ducks in a row, I really had no real clue what I was getting myself into or where this job would take me. I wish I could go back and have lunch with that young, eager photographer and share with her some of the things I have learned in the past 10 years.

Since I really haven’t been able to figure out the secret to time travel, I thought I might share with you ten things I wish I knew ten years ago when I started my business. There was some valuable time, energy and money that could have been put to better use if I’d just had a little more direction and wisdom. While I would not have changed my decision – I love what I do! – here are a few pearls of hard-won wisdom you might find useful and helpful no matter where you are on your journey as a photographer and small business owner.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

1. When you start a Photography Business, you are starting a business.

Make sure you understand what is involved in starting a business. It’s important to have a business plan, an understanding of sales and marketing, and a financial budget.  Being a starving artist gets very old very quickly. My biggest piece of advice to anyone new in the business is to take a small business class and get some sales training of some kind. It doesn’t matter how awesome your photographs are or how good your equipment is if you can’t sell your work. 

I spent the first seven years of my business thinking that my photographs alone would sell my work.  When the economy took a hit, I was faced with the stark reality that to book work, I needed to have a better understanding of business and sales. I knew I couldn’t lower my prices and I didn’t have additional income to fall back on.

I took a year-long sales training and business coaching course with Ken Stark of Sandler Training, which I chose for two reasons.

The first was that the company is known for training salespeople from all different types of professions. The second reason is that it was an extensive year-long course that included personal coaching and lots of reinforcement.  There was a lot of information I had to learn, understand and practice.A one-day “get rich quick” photography sales training course is never the solution.

Not only has Sandler helped me to be a more confident person, but by combining it with a lot of hard work, I was able to completely turn around my business in a down economy and accomplish my goals. I count it as one of the best things I ever did for my business. And to be honest, it has also helped my photography. Because I understand business and sales, I now have less stress and more time and energy to focus on my photography, making it better and more creative.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

2. Selling is not a dirty word.

The sooner you get over this idea, the better. Selling is what keeps a roof over your head and food on your table. Your photography needs to support you and you need to charge prices that will support you.

In the beginning, I hated selling because I really didn’t know what I was doing and therefore I had no confidence in it. To become successful, I had to change both my attitude and technique. In my sales training classes I learned not only how to properly sell my product, but I gained the right attitude about sales.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

3. Keep It Simple.

There are no shortcuts on the road to success. You have to do the work and put in the time. That being said, there are ways to make it easier. If you keep things simple and get it right in camera, it will save you more time and money than any action set will. Focus on learning to see the light, shape the light, create the light and capture the light. I wasted too much time trying to get a style in Photoshop when I should have been developing my style based on my photography skills and what I captured in camera. When I finally figured this out, it saved me a lot of time on the back end with production.

The same thing goes for the products you offer and type of photography you shoot. Remember that you are a small business owner and not a large department store selling everything from lawn mowers to toilet paper. Choose your products carefully and choose the ones that make you money. I no longer offer greeting cards because I found I was spending too much time on them; they didn’t make me a whole lot of money, and I didn’t like doing them. So I don’t offer them anymore, and that is okay.

By keeping things simple you will find your pathway to success is much more direct.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

4. Know what you like and what you want to do.  Life is too short to not do what you love.

Gone are the days of the big studios that do all things for all people.  Our industry is getting very specialized which is why it is even more imperative to have an understanding of what you want to do and why you want to do it.

People will tell you that you should be shooting kids or high school seniors or weddings. They will tell you that you should be selling wall portraits or albums or purses with your images printed on them. While there might be some financial gain in doing these things, if you have no joy in shooting them or selling them, you will find yourself in a funk and burnt out. Life is too short to not do what you enjoy.

How do you figure out what you want to do? I had to take some time and really reflect on my own personal style and my own personality. I started going through magazines and ripping out images that spoke to me.  As I laid them out, I would ask myself why I liked a certain image. I started to notice patterns. I love images that are clean, elegant, introspective, emotive and much more classic than trendy. I also figured out that I love photographing weddings and adults. I try to make sure that my clients are a good fit so that I can create images that we both love.

I also started listing the things I didn’t like to shoot and made sure that I was not advertising that type of photography by showing it in my portfolio. The result was that my work was improving because I was doing projects I loved which made it easier to give all my energy and creativity.

Find what you love to photograph and pursue it with all your passion and energy.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

5. My happiness does not depend on someone else’s definition of success.

This statement became my personal mantra in 2011. It was the statement that had the most impact on my attitude about how I run my business.

Some photographers will tell you that you need to be photographing 50 weddings, 150 seniors, have a million dollar studio and go on a speaking tour to be successful and happy. Other people will tell you that you need to have a house in the country, work two days a week, have two kids, a dog, a cat and a white picket fence to be successful. Neither of these paths to success is my definition of success or happiness.

I had to develop my own personal definition of success and happiness. I don’t drive a fancy car, live in a big house, or have kids. But I have a wonderful husband, we get to travel, I have a job I love and good friends.  This is what makes me happy.

Having your own plans and goals and sticking to them is better than chasing someone else’s dreams. It takes time to think about what is important to you, but figuring out your goals and writing them down is well worth it.  Writing down your goals gives you direction and makes you much more likely to accomplish them. I wish I had done it much sooner.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

6. Be fearless.

I could write several articles on this topic alone. Becoming fearless can involve so many aspects of your life. For me, being fearless meant getting over my unhealthy need for approval. We all need to have some need for approval; it’s what keeps us from being jerks. But when we require too much approval from other people we become paralyzed. We become too worried about what other people think of us, and we lose our own strength and brilliance.

Many artists have this problem. We put so much into our work – our heart, our soul, our vital energy – and then we put it out into the world to be judged. We want people to like it. We want people to appreciate it. We want people to approve it, and in effect approve us.

Besides having an emotionally paralyzing affect, it also has a bad business effect. What’s the best way to get people to like your work? Give it away at a discount or even for free. There were times that I would make a financial decision that would put me at a disadvantage or even hurt my business, because I had a desire for praise and approval. By gaining strength and confidence in my self, my work and business, that misplaced need for approval has been controlled. I know I have talent, expertise and a specialized knowledge, and know that I deserve to be appropriately compensated for that.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

7. Photograph something every day.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at something, anything. Whether you want be a star baseball player, a violin virtuoso, or an accomplished photographer, a large portion to your success requires simply putting in the time. For a photographer, that means we need to shoot every single day.

Shooting every day doesn’t mean having a paying client every day; we just need to be making images. Whether it’s the spoon in your cereal dish, your kids playing, or a personal project, find something to shoot and find a way to make it visually interesting. Never be content with what you shot the day before, try to make it better.  And don’t feel that you have to use pro equipment for your personal daily assignments. The most important thing is that you are constantly looking and exploring – watching the way light falls on a subject, looking for  life and emotion in your images, trying to convey a message with your work.  I use my iPhone all the time for such images. Any time I see something visually interesting, I take a quick photo of it. Oftentimes my iPhone photos become creative inspiration for future paid sessions.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

8. Take every opportunity to learn something new each week. The more you know, the faster you will grow.

I believe that we are currently living at a pivotal point in the photography industry. We have gotten to the point where the cameras are so good and so easy to operate that most people have the ability to create a properly exposed photo. To really stand out as a good photographer and make a good living (which I believe you can still do) you have to have a deep understanding of lighting, posing, composition, and exposure – this is the art and science of photography. To continue to excel in this, you have to invest in your education. You can never stop learning.

The best thing I ever did was study with David Williams. His “Almost Alone” workshop (approximately 10 people) was the most inspiration and influential course I have ever taken. After Dark Education is another one of the best hands-on workshops /conferences available today. It boasts 30+ of the best photographers in the industry as mentors at each event. The creative energy that flows throughout that event is addictive and inspiring. Another great conference to explore is Mystic Seminars, which features a more classroom-based experience, and offers some of the absolute best photographers in the industry as speakers.

Online photography forums can also offer a lot of support and education. Forums that I personally have found to offer valuable and legitimate information include the Digital Wedding Forum and the Foundation Workshop Forum.

Other photographers that you might consider studying with are: Storey WilkinsJerry Ghionis, Greg Gibson, Cliff Mautner, Chuck Arlund, Tony Corbell and John Michael Cooper. These are a few of the photographers that have been very influential in my photography and are very good teachers.

You might also consider looking into your local PPA organization for local learning opportunities. The print competition aspect of your local and state PPA groups is an amazing learning tool. It’s a good day whenever you learn something new.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

9. Give yourself a personal project.

You must feed your artistic soul.

Personal projects are the projects that you do for no other reason than because you want to. Having one gives you permission to play and explore things without pressure. You will find that your personal projects will be some of your best work because they are the projects you are most excited about. The excitement, energy and technique that you discover in your personal projects will pour over into your commercial work.

Stephanie Zettl | Mentor Series

I have a project I lovingly call my “Mentor Series Project.” I’m on a mission to photograph everyone who has taught me something influential in my life. The goal is to photograph them the way I know them and capture their personality. Truth be told, this will be a lifelong project. One of the biggest challenges of a personal project is completing it. It’s very easy to start one; it is very difficult to have the discipline and commitment to continue working on it and finish it.

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

10. To be a great artist, stop worrying about success.

I sat in on a college photography class a few years ago. The professor, Jim Norton, spent the class reviewing the student’s work from that week. As he looked at one print, he turned to the student and said, “Quit being worried about being successful.”

Those few words have stuck with me. So many times we think we need to photograph things a certain way or do certain things to be successful. We chase after that hero print. But in the process we forget about what we are creating, why we are creating it and the actual journey we are on as a photographer.

Norton went on to explain that it is was better to have a print with potential than something perfect with no soul. Ideas cannot be corrected. You have to be psychologically ready to photograph. What is inside you?  What does your heart want to share? This is what you should focus on every time you pick up a camera, and not how many people you want to impress.

The truth is, life will give you many twists and turns. Being too caught up in an idea of success will destroy your opportunity to explore things that will really enhance your career.

All of this reminds me of a quote from Conan O’Brien that has become my approach to my career: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get, but if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Truer words have not been spoken.

To see more of Stephanie’s work, please visit her website at www.zettlphoto.com/blog

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

Stephanie Zettle Wedding Photography

Ok, it’s your turn. What do you wish you knew when you were starting out as a photographer? Between today and April 30, I’ll randomly pick the best entries to win a copy of Sarah Petty & Erin Verbeck’s new book called “Worth Every Penny.” It’s a great read and I know as a business person, you’ll want to get your hands on it. I only have a very limited number of copies to give away. Sorry, US residents only, though everyone is still invited to comment!

  • willwohler

    Great post. I think the thing that struck me the most was this:
    “People will tell you that you should be shooting kids or high school seniors or weddings. They will tell you that you should be selling wall portraits or albums or purses with your images printed on them. While there might be some financial gain in doing these things, if you have no joy in shooting them or selling them, you will find yourself in a funk and burnt out. Life is too short to not do what you enjoy.”

    It is so true. I am finding what I like to shoot. It has taken me through many different genres of photography, but I am slowly narrowing it down. I have to try it first to see if I don’t like it, and I can’t make that decision until I try it. I may end up liking it but at least I stepped out of my comfort zone for a bit and tried it. 

    I also like your personal project topic.

  • Terry Ammons

    Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. (Proverbs 4:23 NLT)  In other words, know what your desire is for it is God given and do all you can to support it . . . including learning, networking, sharing, supporting, being fiscally responsible, etc.!

  • Christine Walsh-Newton

    I wish I had known how incredibly hard it was going to be to not only be the photographer, but the web designer, the marketer, the retoucher, the orderer, the designer, the receiver, the studio bathroom cleaner, the interior designer, the webmaster, the brochure layout specialist, the marketer, the accountant and all the other hats I now wear. Just when aI think I have a handle on it all, a new software update comes out and I have to learn something else.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7TLLT66U6CADJTRPNXIU3CXXGE Quinna

    I wish I had learned sooner not to compare myself with everyone else and get down for not being as good as “them”, I read the other day,”the only photographer you should compare yourself to is the one you used to be” So very true. thanks for the read!

  • http://twitter.com/EventPhotogSoc Event Photographer

    You don’t need all the business you can get, you need all the profitable business you can get

  • http://twitter.com/rachellacour rachellacour

    Ironically, a new series just started on The Photo Life that focuses entirely on the Power of Personal Projects! Just thought I’d share here since Stephanie mentioned such wonderful – and similar – advice here about feeding your artistic soul!

  • http://twitter.com/AuroraPhoto Aurora Daley

    Spot on Stephanie great post!  LOVE IT!

  • http://www.agilephotog.com/ Eric O’Connor

    “My happiness does not depend on someone else’s definition of success.” There are so many great points in this post but this one really hit home for me. Of all the the things I learned in my first 10 years this one took the longest. I hope a lot of photographers that are just starting out spend some time on this post.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/yukisorcerer David Chang

    This is such an amazing blog. The great wisdom brings light to every photographer’s journey!
    Never worry about success, but truly understand the essence of why a person is into photography! GOD BLESS YOU & YOUR ENDEAVOR!!

  • http://twitter.com/KJPImages KJP Images

    Excellent words of advice. Thanks for sharing :-)

  • http://mirchevphotography.com/ Nikolay Mirchev

    I found your advices very helpful inspiring and thank you for sharing some of your hard earned experience

  • http://www.hillarycraig.com/ Hillary Craig

    This is great advice and cannot wait to utilize it with my new photography business!! Thank you!

  • http://graphicexpertsbd.com Brian Dean

    Oh my!!! You are
    just too true to be good. How do you manage to write and research on such
    wonderful things? You have inspired me to work harder now. I shall try as
    much as possible to enjoy life to the fullest and be satiated with the
    wonderful things that are around me, which I have been unaware of until now.