Today I am sharing the 3 things I did right and WRONG as a photographer. After 7 years of being a full-time wedding photographer and shooting 130 weddings, I am retiring from weddings to free up more time to do the things I love: which soon will look like rocking a baby, spending weekends at home, and of course creating content just like this to teach you! I will always be a photographer and still plan to shoot, it’s just going to look different than it has. As I reflect on a career that was filled with incredible, incredible couples and days spent documenting love and happiness, I realized that I have learned SO much in this journey and today I get to share my biggest wins and the places where I really dropped the ball in hopes that you’ll learn from me!
7 years in the wedding photography industry and it’s safe to say that I did a few things right, a lot of things wrong, and as I photographed my last wedding in August, I felt all sorts of nostalgia. I remembered that Jenna that was nervous before her first wedding and I remember the Jenna that was STILL nervous after 130 weddings. There are so many beautiful things about being a wedding photographer: telling love stories, getting invited into intimate moments, creating heirlooms and there are a few not-so great things too: like hauling 30 pounds of gear on your back through airports, being gone every weekend and worrying about memory cards and spending hours upon hours tethered to your computer editing images.
Let’s start with the first thing I did right:
I created a brand with an experience. Even from the very beginning, I knew the importance of an experience. Having just been a bride myself, I took a lot of what I gleaned as a woman planning a wedding and thus, made sure that I was helping the brides that could potentially choose me. From the first time they said hello (yes, even eight years ago) I would ask them about their relationship, their love story, what their vision was for the big day. I wanted them to know that I wasn’t just a price list but I was a human, who had just been through the exact process they are going through and I cared.
The thing is: so often, we focus on our service or our product. We don’t focus on anything beyond that, so we price everything based on the value of only the product or the service we’re selling and we don’t think about how an experience can play into the big picture. If I’ve learned anything, customer experience is EVERYTHING. Think about it: have you had a terrible customer experience before? Were you tempted to blast the company or leave a bad Yelp review? Now think about those times your expectations were blown out of the water and the company totally under-promised and over-delivered and went above and beyond… did you talk about it? Tell your friends?
I went into every wedding with THREE big goals:
1) To get asked for a business card before someone saw a single photo because they could tell how engaged I was.
2) To get offered a sip of champagne or a bite of cake from a bridesmaid because I made her feel cherished and valued throughout the day.
3) To get hugs from the parents, because chances are, if I left an impression with them, they will share that with their friends and it will create a residual effect.
Now on the flipside of this, I have to share what I did wrong…
because it wasn’t always this perfect or smooth. When I first started out, I had a huge huge issue with feeling like a fraud. Come to think of it, 8 years in, I still feel that way sometimes. But when I started, the whole identifying as a photographer when I really felt like a faux-tographer was a real struggle.
I remember specifics: I would look at other local photographers websites for hours, I would try to figure out their pricing, and I stuck myself smack dab in the middle (little did I know, doing this made me invite people to price shop the heck out of me, but consider that a lesson learned.) I remember being in photography groups where people would diss other photographers who went out and bought a nice camera and boom, opened a business and I shied away because that was ME.
It took me a few years before I was REALLY able to stand out – ya know, we hear people talk about attracting and repelling but do we really want to repel people? Are we really ready for rejection? Can our tender artist hearts handle it? It was when I wanted to raise my prices again and I realized I was entering more of an uncharted territory for Wisconsin and if I really wanted to command those prices, I had to prove that there was something different about me and the easiest thing to pinpoint was in fact, ME. Funny, right? So mistake number one was letting the fear of feeling like a fraud hold me back from playing the game at the level I should have been playing at. If you keep feeling like you’re being price shopped, you probably are and that’s because you’re not giving them ANYTHING else to compare you to others. So make yourself shine more than the amount your charging and focus on an experience that is worth every penny and not the amount of pennies someone has to pay you to work with you.
Smart Move #2
The second thing I did right was creating connections with people who might not be my ideal clients but who may be attached to those who were or would become my ideal clients. What do I mean by this? I didn’t just have social media accounts that were strictly for my business. I shared about my love of dogs, my passion for finding the perfect pair of yoga pants, the fact that I loved naps and home décor…. I created a personality that my followers could relate to and connect with.
Think about it: if I ONLY shared my work on my account, the ONLY reason people would want to follow me was a.) if they happened to be wedding obsessed or b.) if they were an engaged person in Wisconsin who still hadn’t decided on a wedding photographer. Those two camps weren’t enough for me – they were too narrow and left out a ton of other people who might eventually want to know about me. I think too often we’re SO focused on our dream/ideal clients that we forget that we can connect with people who can refer us TO our dream clients. I wanted to create a space online where people felt like they knew me enough to talk about me and share me with their friends. I promise if you show up and show up well, people will come back for more and they will bring others with them.
But Going Off of This…
I have to share a little tidbit and truth about identity… remember how the first thing I did wrong was feel like a fraud? Well, the second thing I did wrong was that my identity was wrapped up in numbers: income, how many weddings I did, how many awards I won. That feeling like a fraud thing really sunk its teeth into my desire to prove the world wrong and really show them that yes, a girl who bought a $300 Craigslist camera could be a true success. I found myself hiding behind numbers and titles to try and prove my worth and it turned into an unhealthy habit that ultimately led to my burn out.
I was chasing more. I was on this upward trajectory. The first wedding season I did 25 weddings, the second one I did 27, and by the third season I was shooting 30 weddings between the months of April and October. If you do the math there were plenty of double header weekends, some that had me driving across state borders overnights and frazzled and it also meant that there weren’t many weekends off or time spent with family. I developed anxiety.
I felt like a crazy person chasing her tail, spending each weekend shooting, and each week feverishly editing and trying to stay caught up. I wanted to be impressive, I wanted to tell people: I’m a wedding photographer, I shoot 30 weddings a year – to prove to them it was more than just a hobby. In fact, I still feel myself sneaking into that trap even to this day, it’s something I can’t escape: that desire to make people understand that what I do isn’t just a hobby, it’s a business – a really successful one at that.
ANOTHER RIGHT MOVE:
Onto the next and last thing I did right: I invited people into the stories I told – so much so, they could envision themselves as my clients and they felt connected to the work I created. Have you ever stared at a pretty picture you’re wanting to post onto social media and wondered: what the heck do I have to say about this? Yeah, I’ve been there too.
I started telling stories that made people care. Instead of just saying that Andrea and Adam were pretty and beautiful (things you could clearly see if you simply looked at the photo) I started to share the story behind the photo. “Andrea stood in the sunlight as her mom and grandmother helped her into her satin gown – the same gown her grandmother wore decades before when she married Andrea’s grandfather. As the church doors opened and Andrea approached her groom, I caught out of the side of my eye as her grandma watched on adoringly, probably remembering her very own wedding day.”
There is so much power in stories: your stories, your clients stories, the stories behind what you create. Stop using fluffy words and empty invites to make a sale and start painting a picture that people want to envision themselves in! That will change everything for you.
One last bit of food for thought:
The last thing I did wrong was this: I put myself on an island. I operated alone, I didn’t want to let people in, and I surely didn’t want to make a lot of friends in the industry. When I look at my 8 year long photography career, I have a handful of TRUE friends who are in the industry – not because I felt like I was better than anyone, but I struggled with the feeling of competition over community and I believed the lie for far too long that there were true secrets that needed to stay secrets in order for me to stay at the top. I didn’t really go to meet ups, I didn’t really try and meet other photographers, I didn’t create a ton of true friendships in the industry.
It’s easy as an entrepreneur to retreat and to isolate yourself – maybe even unintentionally and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and really diving into in my own life. There are the friends I voice text or check in with but when I look at true community in my life, there’s been a lack of it since I started flying solo on this mission to grow a successful business. So if you can learn from this mistake it’s this: don’t put yourself on an island. Find an industry friend or two who you can trust, connect with, send referrals to one another, and vent to. It can be a lonely road if you isolate yourself and instead of building higher walls, build a longer table – it will make the journey more fun and at the end of the day, those relationships will mean more to you than any amount of success.
To sum this whole thing up: it’s been a ride and while I’m done shooting weddings, I’m not leaving the industry but just changing the kind of work I’ll be shooting and what it will look like as I continue to be a photographer and create images of our lives. No matter what industry you’re in, you’re going to have seasons of growth, seasons of questioning, seasons of hustle and burn out, seasons of fierce passion and wondering if you can keep going. It’s a beautiful ride, so buckle up goal diggers, learn from your mistakes and embrace the beautiful messy ride of dream chasing.