How to Book Your First Weddings Without Spending Money in 5 Easy Steps
One of the toughest parts about starting a wedding photography business is doing so without breaking the bank.
Like any business, having money to get started can be hard to come by. For the both of us, we continue to work full time jobs in graphic design and corporate compliance as a means to funding our vision for the future - to ultimately be able to run Hand and Arrow Photography full time. As with many start ups, sacrifices have to be made and our dedication to our photo business and clients has only grown in the past year of doing this.
When we began, one of our first questions was simply...
While there are plenty of articles out there from other photography websites, we are going to provide just a sampling of the things we have done in order to get those first couple of bookings.
It is a strange thing that we have seen much success with our business in the first year of operation, while we often read online of virtual horror stories of other photographers having no idea how to even book a single wedding.
Right now, we'll show you how...
Step 1: build a photography portfolio with friends + Family
There are a few things that are required of you before you even consider marketing yourself as a photographer to people looking to hire a wedding photographer.
While you might be rolling your eyes as you read this first step, it is critically important to build even a small body of work that you can show other people. After all, why would someone want to consider paying you hundreds or thousands of dollars to shoot their wedding if you can't even show a single picture?
You will want to leverage friends and family as a means to getting some pictures for your portfolio. No, they do not have to be the best in the world, but they should showcase some of your style, approach to photography, ability to pose (or capture candid, unposed moments). Your target audience when you start off will not be top of the line $10k spending clients, so the first little milestone is to just have some photos in the bag that are good enough to show to the world and expect payment for.
If you were to review our photography portfolio, you'd probably be hard pressed to tell which ones were family or friends on display, and which ones were paying clients. A significant truth comes from this: treat shoots of friends + family like you would an actual client. Of course, they will often be a bit easier, less stressful, and filled with more mistakes as you experiment radically with posing techniques (and maybe met with some sarcastic quips as we found out from Chris' cousin seen above) - but it will help you to educate yourself on what your future photography process will (and won't) be.
Step 2: build a photography portfolio with models + Wedding second shooting
If you can't tell already, the photography industry is dependent on having a good portfolio to showcase your work. While some of you might have a long list of family + friends willing and able to have their photos taken, others do not. For those who don't, becoming connected with individuals who work in the photography industry - photographers, models, other wedding vendors, etc. - is critical.
We once chatted with a local DJ at a wedding during our quick dinner and he said something we keep in mind often...
Running your own business, and in particular a photography business, is not just based on your skills as a photographer - but just as important, if not more important, is your ability to interact with others. Creating friendships and professional relationships with those in your local area (or just your target market: so could be all over the world if your looking to become a destination photographer) is critical to your success.
Fortunately, the introvert in you does not have to shutter too much at the thought. A lot of our networking these days is done online via social media. Building your reputation on Facebook and Instagram is important, and probably easy to understand for basically anyone entering the photography industry these days. In particular, localized FB photography groups have been invaluable for us - having presented many opportunities to volunteer to second shoot for other photographers in the area.
Most of these second shooting opportunities have been paid, and the photographers have allowed us to use the photos for building our own portfolio as well. It ends up being a real win-win for both photographers by creating a working relationship. Soon, I'll show you how these relationships translate into real wins for your business.
At it's core, the emphasis of this section of "portfolio building" should be on lower stressed situations for taking the photos you need. You can often find models locally for free or low cost to take pictures of, and second shooting weddings will help expose you to the wedding day event from a photographers perspective, and held you at least have some shots of a bride + groom all dressed up!
step 3: build a website and show your portfolio
Okay, last step before actually jumping into the whole booking of weddings thing.
While you may have a portfolio of images on hand now that you have worked with family, friends, models, and second shooting weddings with other photographers - the next step is figuring out how to showcase them to the world. A good photographer is expected to have a sleek presentation of their work. As with earlier steps, this does not have to be perfect by any means, but it needs to be good enough so that a couple will feel comfortable enough trusting you with one of the most important days of their lives.
If you like the look and feel of our website, you will be happy to hear that we use Squarespace - probably the easiest to use site designer and domain hosting platform. Yes, there is a cost associated with this, but at around $100 or so a year it is a small price to pay for having a web presence that you are in control of.
In terms of the site design, Squarespace provides many starter templates that you can customize to your needs. This is what we have done, and it works very well for our needs.
step 4: find budget clients
When we started to define our initial round of pricing, we asked ourselves one simple question:
There is no doubt that you should charge what you are worth in the photography industry, but a new photographer is certainly not worth as much as a seasoned vet with a strong hold on the market. You might not want to hear this honest truth, and other photographers might cry out in terror, but it is the reality.
Based in the Lehigh Valley (Pennsylvania), the market we operate in is very saturated - there are many photographers around here. Getting a slice of the "pie" (so to speak) is not easy when someone could just go pay another photographer with an expansive portfolio and more experience.
The only way to be competitive, then, is to offer something different to your clients, target different clients, and offer introductory pricing that makes people want to book with you - despite the risks associated.
As a married couple, we have another experience of this process from the client's point-of-view, which helps better understand this dynamic. There is no doubt that some "budget clients" will be a hassle, expecting things far beyond what should be expected from someone charging a few hundred for a wedding day's worth of work; but by and large most people that fall into this category are strapped for cash and, maybe, just don't care about photography as much as other people - maybe instead preferring to spend more on food or the venue.
To put it simply, at this stage, you will want to look for budget clients that appear to be your "ideal" client - just they are paying less for your service because they are new. Admittedly, it can be hard to find couples like this, but it is possible as we have learned and experienced ourselves. With this in mind, defining your ideal client is another topic in itself worth thinking about.
Resources for Finding Budget Clients
A couple resources we have used for finding clients include:
- Thumbtack. Thumbtack is a unique website where photographers (and other wedding vendors) can respond to job offers put out by clients looking for someone to fill their specific need. In the context of photography, this could be a person looking for personal portraits, boudoir, an engagement session, or a full blown wedding. We booked several weddings and a boudoir shoot using Thumbtack back in the day when they gave out free credits to use the site initially. They periodically offer free credits for using the platform, so this can be a good method for booking weddings without spending money.
If you are interested in using Thumbtack, consider signing up through our referral link.
- Craigslist/Backpage. Most people will recognize these websites - if only from the occasions when they pop up on news reports after some crime has been committed from someone who met someone off of Craigslist. There is no doubt that when considering doing work or meeting someone from one of these websites (or the internet in general), you should use common sense and take safety precautions. But, for a new photographer, putting out an ad in the services section will help draw some attention to you and potentially bring a paying client or two your way.
- Reddit. One of our favorite websites, Reddit is essentially one huge forum with a lot of niche and micro-niche sub-forums you can join. There is a lot of useful information on photography in general to be found, and occasional clients (particularly more nerdy ones if we are honest) might find your work through your personal profile or photography posts you might host there. It is definitely unique and modern way to find clients, that is for sure. You might also consider posting that you are looking for a client on a subreddit like r/forhire.
- Facebook. Coming back to the localized groups, it is entirely possible to find people looking to hire a photographer through one of these resources. Additionally, having a Facebook page (free) and having friends and family share that you are looking to take photos can be a way to widen your reach to friends-of-friends and so on.
- Instagram. Instagram has been a uniquely powerful tool in your wedding photography marketing, and has driven around 50% of our wedding day bookings in the past year. This comes down to having a photo feed that is consistent, and using #hashtags that people are searching for. This means you will have to do some keyword/hashtag research to find the best ones to use for your market area, but the value is inherently there, and at no expense to you.
step 5: go above and beyond for the clients you book
This should go without saying, but your early photography clients are the most important in shaping the longevity of your business. There are simple ways to provide more value, and stick out in the minds of the people you work with. Things that are so simple, but somehow overlooked by many. A few that come to mind:
- If you specify a quantity of images to provide to a client, give more
- If you are contracted to work 8 hours, and things are running late, stay extra time (at no cost) and tell your client you are going to get the best shots to document their wedding day in full
- If you usually expect to take 4 weeks to deliver photos, aim to get them done in 2 weeks to deliver sooner than expected
- Leave a small wedding gift and a note
Keep in mind, that as you grow with your photography business, your time will become more valuable - so it should not be expected that you will stay 9 hours if you are contracted for 8 without an additional fee.
However, these suggestions are just for those starting out, as they have been things we have done ourselves. In the wedding industry, offering good customer service and treating clients-like-family is really the way to go - as far as we are concerned. As you become more established, you should still strive to go above and beyond, but can find other ways that do not devalue your time, work, or brand.
Booking your first weddings as a new professional photographer is not always easy - even less so when you are not looking to spend any money on advertising. But, it is entirely possible, as we have done this ourselves to great success. There is no simple solution but to build your portfolio, build your online presence, and put yourself "out there" for potential clients to see. Price yourself competitively within your market, and go above-and-beyond for the couple(s) that book with you.
Once you have a few weddings under your belt, the sky is the limit as you become able to dictate more and more what weddings you will work, and can charge much higher prices to make your photography business generate a liveable wage.