We All Have To Start Somewhere
I'm gonna be very real with you, and put myself in a vulnerable uncomfortable position, to show you that it is okay to take your time and develop at your own speed. To encourage you on your journey in wedding photography I'm going to share some of the photos I took in the very beginning 10 years ago.
I will question though whether anyone would be able to get away with such poor quality today, as I did when I first started.
First of all because even consumer quality cameras, hell even new smart phones, take much better photos now than my first digital camera did 10 years ago.
Secondly, the overall skill level and creativity of our industry is miles above what it was back then. Although it didn't feel easy back then either, believe me, I still think you need to consistently produce a higher level of work today to even enter the market at a sensible price point in the first place.
But no one can determine your success but you. And you should be gentle with yourself. Learn to see your "failures" as teachers, enabling you to do even better next time. And during the span of this course I am going to teach you all the things that TRULY matter when it comes to standing out and attracting the best clients, and producing great work is just a fraction of that.
Way Back In 2008
I started with an Olympus camera with built in flash and a single zoom kit lens. I survived and learned alongside that equipment for about 2 years, creating some of the images you see below.
Clearly I used way too many different Photoshop filters and vignettes, I had no idea about light and shadow, my posing was cheasy etc etc, and do I cringe when looking at these photos, you bet!! But my clients loved them and still do to this day, because they mean something to them and remind them of a beautiful day in their lives.
So this is an example of what I was able to create way back in 2008:
Did it get much better in 2009? Nooot so much, no. My use of light is still very random, and I was still using several different Photoshop filters to edit each wedding:
But, by August of that year I started to get slightly more consistent. And now, looking back, I can see that although my technical skills and knowledge left much to be desired, I did have a 'voice' of some sort. A pattern emerged. Objects, compositions, and an approach that still flow through my work to this day, just in a much more consistent, intentional and creative way.
Natural interaction between the couple
Informal group photos
Small people in big landscape
My love of flowers
Almost exclusively natural light
My love of details
The bond between children and their parents and my ability to include the children in an authentic unposed way
In my 10 year journey in wedding photography I can easily identify 3 phases or moments where I made a significant and life and business defining leap.The spring/summer of 2010 was the first of those three. That's when I discovered I was now better than my camera. My equipment was literally holding me back from growing creatively and charging more for my services. And I grew more and more frustrated.
So, with my husband's reluctant approval, I borrowed 35.000 DKK (about 5.800 USD or 4.800 Euro) of our private funds (which I then paid back over the next year) and bought myself a Canon 5d Mark ii, a 70-200mm 4. lens and a very cheap 50mm 1.8 lens.
What this purchase did for me was that it enabled me to shoot beautiful images during the dark winter months as well as at low light receptions too. And I now had gear that I could grow with instead of being held back by. I felt a surge of energy and creative freedom and my word-of-mouth referrals grew exponentially because my images we're so much better.
I was able to see and capture light in a completely different way. I had more technical control over the end result and thus also got the courage to take more control of the situation while shooting, guiding my clients during the shoot and being more experimental and intentional with my compositions to bring out those details and moments of a wedding that I found uniquely beautiful.
The second major leap happened in 2012, which was an enormously eventful year for me.
It was the year I discovered the beauty of RAW files and finally stopped butchering my images with Photoshop actions and instead starting enhancing them in Lightroom.
It was the year that Craig, Chase, the rest of the crew at Creative Live and Jasmine Star made me feel less alone.
It was the year I joined a group of creative business women in the Copenhagen wedding industry just like me, designers, bloggers, photographers. We had meetings and created styled shoots together, lifted eachother up and thus lifted the Danish wedding industry as a whole into a new age. These bright and inspiring women made me feel less alone too, less confused, and more worthy than I ever had before.
I did 91 shoots that year. Which was overwhelming and to be honest, in hindsight, the beginning of the end so to speak. Some of them were portrait sessions, but most of them elopements and weddings.
I started to attract wealthy clients who hosted their weddings at grand venues. Their attention to detail and access to designer dresses, shoes and flowers enabled me to get published on blogs. But still even those clients were often unwilling to pay what was an already very cheap price for a full day of shooting (which in Denmark often amounts to 16 hours straight). I kept giving more and more, and they kept pushing me on price. It wasn't a great feeling, and to be honest I often ended up working those weddings from a slightly resentful standpoint. But at the same time I was just SO eager to create, to be surrounded by all those beautiful things just waiting to be captured, and to be THAT photographer.
A major upside of 2012 was that I got the chance to photograph my first two destination weddings that year for two wonderful kind and generous couples, one in Texas, USA, and the other in France. Both of these couples had gotten married officially on my island earlier that year and absolutely loved working with me and felt relaxed in front of the camera. They trusted me and thus wanted to work with me again. Your work is important, but what is equally important, if not more so, is that your clients have a WONDERFUL time in your company.
2012 gave me a family holiday in France and a 2 week roadtrip alone with a girlfriend across the States. I felt like there was nothing holding me back now.
2012 had slowly started to take me in a direction I thought I wanted to go, but that wasn't actually what I needed or what was compatible with the basic circumstances of my life (two very small children, a husband who was travelling internationally for his work half the year, and living on a small island a day's journey from the airport.
Then, in 2013, I did a whopping 119 shoots. I still cannot believe how I pulled that one off. Oh, no... wait... actually I DO know! It was because I didn't really sleep. Seriously. I had gotten deep into the habit of working every single day until 3 in the morning, dragging myself to bed when my right arm hurt from scrolling and clicking, or when my eyes couldn't focus on the screen anymore because of all the red dots flying around, and then getting back up at 6-ish when my kids woke up.
Despite putting myself through this hell of body and mind willingly, I still wasn't charging even a third of what I should have considering the level of my work, my attention to client service, turnaround time on images, getting published on multiple blogs etc.
By the end of the year I had a calendar full of incredibly happy clients, lots of publicity, and the people who knew me outside of my immediate family (who saw what I was doing to myself on a daily basis) thought I was living a dream life. And they told me so consistently. All the beautiful images I was creating and putting out there, all the acknowledgement they saw online, all my exciting travels. How lucky I was.
But on the inside I was DYING, slowly but steadily. Putting in 90 hour work weeks inbetween mothering a 4 year old and a 3 year old. And still, I could barely pay my bills, scraping by on considerably less than I could have received in unemployment benefits.
But I felt like I couldn't tell anyone, because I was living "the dream".
2014 came around with more travels photographing beautiful sweet people. But although I had raised my prices slightly, I still kept budging, and going down, down, down, whenever someone with a stunning wedding came along. It is difficult to explain what it does to your creativity, soul, and self esteem, over the long term to methodically and consistently let others dictacte the value of your work.
Although I had cut away quite a few of the most appalingly paid jobs I'd taken on the previous years, I still did 86 shoots in 2014. I even moved my workspace out of our home and into a shared office in town to try to create some kind of seperation between work life and home life.
But during that summer I started to feel like there was something seriously wrong with me. I often couldn't catch my breath. Whenever I got an email from a potential client I would get serious stomach cramps, and I struggled with headaches constantly.
And yet, I could not stop working. My work had swallowed me whole, and had become my whole identity. At the same time there was a voice inside of me desperately calling out for someone else to yank me out of it. For my father or husband or one of my friends to sit me down and forbid me to keep this going. But no one did. I was a train heading for a collision.
One day, in autumn of 2014, I found myself sitting in my new office, ten minutes before I was supposed to photograph an elopement, shaking incontrollably and crying like I hadn't cried in years without being able to stop or pull myself together. It just kept coming.
For months and months my body had been sending me signals, begging me to change my ways. And since I didn't listen, it eventually took matters into its own hands and MADE me listen. Still to this day I have NO idea how I managed to get through that shoot as if everything was fine. Maybe my substantial experience and routine at this point carried me through it. But honestly I can't remember.
After that I cancelled every shoot that could be cancelled or postponed, started therapy, and started to slowly dig myself out of the hole it had taken me 6 years of destructive habits to dig myself into. I set a very specific early bedtime for myself. I made serious improvements to my diet. I started exercising. And I started being very attentive to my stress symptoms. It took me about 6 months to get out of the worst part of the depression that followed that breakdown. And it has taken me every day since and will continue to do so, to remind myself to take care of me. Some days or weeks I forget, and the "punishment" is instant.
One of the most efficient tools I have used to throttle bookings and work, has been to raise my prices. And each time I start to feel overhwelmed I raise them slightly again to scare more people off, so to speak.
I only travel once or twice a year now, focusing instead on the couples that elope to my island. And I have put a cap on how many bookings I take each month and each year.
In terms of my mental health, it has helped me enormeously to become crystal clear on who I am and who I love to work with. It took me many years of feeling out of place and fake in grand ballrooms and fancy hotels, to realise that where I feel most at home is in nature. And luckily, as soon as I was able to articulate that, I felt much more like myself.
And so we come to the end of my story.
I hope you will keep it in mind as we move on, starting tomorrow, to focus on what YOU want. What YOUR personal version of success is.
I can't wait! :-)