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Rated: E · Article · Business · #2154851
During my time as a self-employed wedding photographer, I learned some valuable secrets.
Secrets of A Successful Wedding Photographer


Thomas Carlucci

Owner of Carlucci Photography

Ever since high school, I always had a camera around my neck. That was way back during the old celluloid days. It was a hobby, and I spent many hours in a darkroom developing and printing black-and-white photos. Color was too difficult to do by myself, so I left that up to the color labs who had all the professional equipment.

After high school, I was promptly drafted and had to leave my camera at home—until Boot Camp graduation. Then I took my camera with me all through my military career. Most of what I learned was either self-taught or by reading books. Let me tell ya, I made plenty of mistakes! But each time I made a mistake I learned something new.

I left military service as a Disabled Veteran and, of course, took my camera with me. Although photography was a passion, I never took it beyond the hobby stage. It wasn't until I was married that I began to take photography seriously.

I purchased a police scanner and it was always turned on. That bugged the heck out of my wife, but I told her someday I was gonna make some serious money as a photographer. It takes a while to learn what is important and what isn't on a police scanner. It also takes a little bit of inside knowledge to know what the police codes are. There isn't much money in accident photos unless you happen upon a big one and can sell the photos to a newspaper. The other way to make some money is to give your business card to one or both parties in an accident and hope an attorney calls you for pictures. Don't sell yourself short. Attorneys will triple or quadruple insurance companies what you charge them, so don't be afraid to ask at least a hundred bucks for copies of the photos. The photos could prove or disprove a case, but in any case, photos are always a valuable asset.

My first big break came when there was a shooting just a few blocks from me. I was the first photographer on the scene, beating even the professional NEWS photographers. I had photos they didn't and sold them to a newspaper in Los Angeles, California. They were front page photos. After that, the newspaper used me as a stringer or freelancer. They'd give me film, tell me where to go, what to shoot, and they'd pay me for each photo printed. You can't get rich like that, but I had my foot in the door.

After about six months, one of the newspaper employees asked me to photograph her wedding. Photojournalists do not like photographing weddings. All the other photographers said no, so that is how she got to me. I, too, said no, but she wouldn't stop asking.

"Okay, okay. I'll do it." A new opportunity just knocked on my camera lens.

I told her I would be using a 35mm camera, and I never photographed a wedding before, so not to expect too much. I only charged her for the film and processing. I kept a few copies of my favorite photos for myself to put in my portfolio.


(-a-) Obtain a business license, self-employed
(-b-) Get business cards
(-c-) Start a portfolio of your very best photos
(-d-) Always have a backup camera and flash
(-e-) Always have a tripod
(-f-) Always have extra batteries
(-g-) Keep a record of your income and expenses (mileage, too)
(-h-) Charge sales tax for photos you sell
(-i-) Do not neglect to pay your taxes!

Those are some of the most important tips. Do not skip a step! Just as sure as the sun rises in the East, you are going to have a battery or batteries fail, your camera will mess up, your flash will die on you, and you absolutely cannot hold a camera as still as a tripod can.

I found out after that first wedding I photographed there is a saying in wedding photography:

The going in price is not the going out price.

What does that mean? Well, you may charge someone a price before the wedding to photograph their wedding, but you'll make additional money from photos you sell after the wedding. The "going in" is not the "going out".

Read. Study. Research. When I was learning wedding photography, there weren't even cell phones, yet. No Internet, either. All my study was from books I checked out of a library. I went to photography seminars and conventions—at my own expense. I learned from other photographers as well as from the lectures. The main problem is—photographers are a stingy bunch. They are extremely reluctant to share what they have learned with "wanna-be" photographers. So, don't get your feelings hurt.

I was already an established photojournalist, so I wasn't considered a true "wanna-be". I always told wedding photographers, "I have no intention of becoming a wedding photographer. I am a newspaper photographer, but I am going to photograph a friend's wedding and want to make sure I do a bang-up job." That usually reassured them I wouldn't be their competition, so they would open up a little more to me.

Another tip: Join professional photography organizations like Professional Photographers of America. Read photography magazines. Learn any way you can all you can about photography, especially about wedding photography.

WARNING: Do not cop an attitude! The most obnoxious thing you can be is a conceited photographer. Weddings are not planned for your benefit. I always kept in mind photography is what I do best. It does not make me better than anyone else. I am no better than a truck driver, janitor, banker, teacher, etc. It's just what I do best. Don't get a swelled head.

*PointRight* I learned from the Small Business Administration that photography was the most failed business in the United States. Why? Because all someone needs to be in the photography business is a camera, and a business card. BUT—very few "photographers" are good enough photographers or have the business sense to be successful. There are SO many "wanna-be" photographers that the competition is phenomenal.

So, with that bit of bad news, how can you be successful? How can you beat out ALL the competition? Well, it's a lot harder nowadays, because you can be a really crappy photographer but use a computer and software programs to make a crappy photo look good.

Back in the celluloid days, we didn't have computers to fix crappy photos. You had to get it right the first time. There were no "fix-em-up" solutions. So, it was fairly easy to be successful if you were a really good photographer.

Advertising helps, too. I'm not talking about the Yellow Pages or newspaper ads. I'm talking about promoting yourself. Here is where I excelled in my small town of 25K people. The other photographers (there were only about 4) who had been in the town much longer than me and who had copped an attitude refused to lower themselves to certain methods of advertising. I had no problem with promoting myself in ways the other photographers looked down upon.

F'rinstance, there was a new car wash in town. Inside the building was a boutique on the 2nd floor. The walkway where people could watch their cars being washed had a long blank wall. "Hmmm..." I thought. I spoke to the owner and he let me rent the wall space. I hung 5 16x20 framed wedding photos on the wall and added some business cards to all of them. Now, people could see some of my work and grab a business card.

I did some charity photography. For free. Every year, the town had an auction for charity. They printed a catalog and took bids from photographers to do the photo work. My bid was—zero dollars. I did it for free and only required that on the cover my business name would be printed: Photography donated by Carlucci Photography.

The photos were all B/W, so that cut down on the cost. All the donated items were collected in a school cafeteria one evening, and I set up my studio lights and a background. Someone would put the item on a table in front of the background, I would push the shutter button then the next item was put on the table, and so on. We (my assistant and I) and the auction workers enjoyed lots of pizza paid for by the organization holding the auction. The cost of developing and printing the film was mine. Hey, it may sound like a dumb thing to do, but I sure got a lot of recognition and business from that. Oh, yeah. I did that for several years.

The other photographers would NEVER do anything for FREE! <insert my laughing here> I did some free work and got a whole lot of business that more than paid my cost for film and processing.

When I ordered pictures for the Bride & Groom and the other people who wanted photos, I also ordered pictures for the florist, caterer, dress shop, tux rental shop, baker, church, the place where the reception was held, and I gave those pictures (usually 5x7's, sometimes 8x10's) to those business folks. They were ecstatic. No other photographer ever gave them pictures of their work. Now, the baker could show cakes they made, the florist could show flowers they put together, the reception hall could show what the reception area looked like—before it was destroyed during the reception. How much does an 8x10 cost at wholesale? A few bucks, but the thanks I received, the referrals I received were far, far beyond my cost.

The other photographers would NEVER give away free pictures. <insert my laughing here>.

I joined civic clubs like Optimist International, the Exchange Club, the Rotary Club. I was invited to join the Loyal Order of Moose. I accepted. People all over town got to know me, talk with me, and much of my business came from word of mouth. Almost all of my business came that way. I didn't have to advertise in the Yellow Pages, newspapers, on radio or TV. My method of advertising was practically free and the returns were many times more than what I invested.

Any way I could think of to get my pictures out where the public could see them brought me business. I was not a proud, conceited photographer. I was a smart photographer.

As I mentioned earlier, I went to seminars, conventions, and any function I could either be a guest at or participate in. You've got to get yourself known, folks. If the public doesn't know you exist, don't expect them to come running to your door.

Okay, so where am I, now? Let me tell you about my emergency kit. I always had it at a wedding because it never fails something is gonna go wrong.

Here is my kit:

1. Sewing needle
2. black and white thread
3. Bandaids
4. Safety pins
5. Duct tape
6. Scissors
7. Buttons
8. AA and AAA batteries (when some relative goes bonkers cuz their's went dead)

That is all I can remember right now. I might remember some other items later, but I was always the hero because I had the needle, thread, buttons, safety pins, band-aids, etc. No other photographer (to my knowledge) ever had such a kit at a wedding.

So, you are a professional photographer. Then LOOK like a professional photographer. I remember arriving at a reception as the previous reception was ending and before the reception for the wedding I photographed was ready. The photographer, who I knew, came up to me in a short sleeve shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. I asked, "Is that how you shoot a wedding?" I was wearing a suit and tie. He said, yeah, because he was behind the camera.

Behind baloney. He did not give the appearance of a professional photographer, but more like the next door neighbor. I always wore a suit until I could afford to buy my own tuxedo. When people saw me they saw a professional photographer looking professional. I dressed for success and it paid off. The tuxedo was expensive, but it set me off from the guests and associated me with the wedding party.

Some of the things I always took with me:

1. A female assistant (more on that later)
2. Spare Hasselblad camera (best wedding camera ever)
3. Professional tripod (I mean "professional". Not some cheap amateur thing)
4. Spare professional flash unit
5. Background muslin and stand
6. Lightweight, yet very good, studio lights
7. Slaves (no, not slaves as in human slaves. Slaves to set off remote flash units)
8. Spare lenses
9. Spare batteries
10. Changing Bag (not needed with digital cameras)
11. More film than I plan on shooting
12. White sheet (so Bride can sit without getting her dress or shoes dirty)
13. Black and white shoe polish
14. Light Meter
15. Close Up lenses (they screw into the lens on the camera for micro shots of rings, invitation, etc)

That's all I can remember right now.

Female Assistant

You need to train a female assistant. Train her to know what poses you want each wedding. She, being female, can help adjust the Bride's dress, clothing, etc. She does the posing while you concentrate on the mechanics of photography, i.e., exposure, framing, etc. You concentrate on your photography. She does the posing for you. She is an extra pair of eyes to notice things that are not right or people blinking.

She helps you at the reception. She knows the routine. She knows what you are going to do and when. Pay her well. Don't be cheap about it. You will depend on her a lot.

Okay. So, you are sitting at home or in your studio or on a log. Whatever. A potential customer approaches you. Always smile and do not be too formal. Be friendly. Act like you've known her all her life and want to make her feel at ease.

If she hires you, you will be spending a lot of time with her and the Groom. You have to make them trust you and like you. The photos will appear more natural. They won't be apprehensive or nervous. Be not only their photographer but also their friend.

Each wedding is different. No two weddings are alike. One wedding will be with educated, wealthy folks, but the next wedding may be with country folks, farmer types, or just plain every day people who don't act the same way wealthy people act. Your personality must change with the type of people you will be photographing. Adapt.

If you are hired get a non-refundable deposit. Why non-refundable? Because once you book a wedding on a Saturday (f'rinstance), anyone else who calls for that day is business you must turn down. You are already booked. If the people who booked you back out (for whatever reason), the deposit sort of makes up for the business you turned down.

The balance of the wedding must be paid BEFORE the wedding and in full.

Have a portfolio of your best photos to show your potential customer. Give them options. Have different "packages" with different prices.

Fill out the contract (more on that later) You need their names, addresses, phone numbers, date and time of the ceremony, the location of the ceremony, reception. You should also get the names of the parents, members of the wedding party, i.e., Best Man, Maid/Matron of Honor, Bridesmaids, Groomsmen, and so on. Will there be a ring bearer? Flower girl?

Get all the details you can. Limo? Who is the florist? Cake baker? Dressmaker? Tuxedo renter? Caterer? Reception coordinator? Anything/anyone you can think of who will have something to do with the wedding/reception. Why? Ninety-five percent of my business came from word of mouth. Not the Yellow Pages, business cards, or anything like that. Oh, yeah, they helped, but even when people saw my photos, my business card, or heard about me they always will ask others who would they recommend for a wedding photographer. The more people you can be in contact with, the more people you can give free 5x7's to for their participation in the wedding/reception, the more "mouths" you have working for you. Get it?

I am not going to tell you what to include in your packages. Most of the items are obvious like, a wedding album, maybe some proofs, parents' albums, a framed wall photo, perhaps. What you include is up to you. The more expensive the package, the more in the package.

When I opened my wedding albums to show my work, the very first photo the customer saw was a double exposure that only I did. I worked on it for a long time until I perfected it. Many times as soon as a Bride saw the photo they hired me on the spot. The other photographers turned their noses up at double exposures and special effects. They considered those photos to be "cheap tricks". Great. If there were people looking for those kinds of pictures, then there was only one photographer in town who did them. Below is the photo I was just writing about.

A Bride foresees herself in her wedding gown

My style of wedding photography was called Storybook Weddings I photographed only one wedding a day, not two. I was with the wedding for an average of 6 hours. The result in the wedding album was just that: A story told in pictures of their special day.

Here are a few more of my photos.

Bride sitting and surrounded by all the bouquets Groom kneeling and kissing Bride's hand Bride imagines herself in her wedding dress

Now, here is where I met my most opposition. However, after I explained why I photographed weddings my way, almost everyone agreed with me. Those who didn't and didn't hire me to photograph their weddings usually regretted it later and admitted—I was right.

My biggest challenge was overcoming—TRADITION! It is traditional that the Groom not see the Bride before the wedding. "It's bad luck," people say. BAH HUMBUG!

In the traditional way to photograph a wedding, formals are not photographed until after the ceremony. DISASTER!

(New entry Nov 4, 2019)

You see, I say disaster because that is exactly what it is. By the time the ceremony is over, the flowers are beginning to wilt, the Groomsmen want to start drinking, trying to get everyone together at the same time is difficult, taking pictures of just the Bride and Groom by themselves is difficult, because while you are doing that, the rest of the wedding party wanders off or makes commotions attracting the Bride and Groom's attention, and (worst of all) all the guests are trying to take pictures the same time YOU are trying to take pictures.

There IS a better way!

Think about this: When an author writes a story and gets it published, when you buy a copy of the book, do you also get the original manuscript? No, of course not. You get a COPY of the manuscript in the form of a book.

When a musical group makes a recording, when you buy a record/CD whatever, do you also get the RIGHTS to that song? Of course not. You only get a copy.

The same with a photographer. The photographer is like an artist, an author, a songwriter. When you purchase a copy of a photo, you do NOT get the COPYRIGHTS to that photo. You only get a copy of the photo. A photograph is the photographer's creation and only he/she has the rights to that photograph.

Here is how I choreographed my wedding pictures:

After the couple decides they want me to photograph their wedding, I tell them I want to do the pictures BEFORE the wedding. Most people hesitate, but after you explain why, they agree. Then there are the few who want to stick to tradition. If they do not want to see each other before the wedding, I tell them to find another photographer.

Before the wedding, ALL the flowers are fresh. The Bride, Groom, Bridesmaids, Groomsmen, and family are fresh. That is when you will get the best photos.

I give a starting time, usually 2 hours before the ceremony. The people to show up at that time are the Bride, Groom, Maid of Honor, Best Man and the florist with the flowers. No one else.

I have the Bride usually sit somewhere. If you are doing the photos outside like in a park or some very photogenic, beautiful location, find a place for the Bride to sit. If there is no place, put your white sheet (which you should have) on the ground and have the Bride sit on the white sheet. Then tuck the white sheet just under the hem of her gown. This will keep her dress clean.

Find the Groom. Do not let the Groom see the Bride, yet. Give him the Bride's bouquet. Walk him backwards until he gets within a very close distance from the Bride, like about 2-3 feet. Then get to your camera, get ready, then tell the Groom, "When I say go, turn around and look at your Bride, but don't move toward her yet."

Say "Go." Then start taking pictures of the two of them. Tell the Groom to get down on one knee and hand the Bride the bouquet. Take more pictures. Tell the Groom to take the Bride's hand while still looking at her. More pictures. Then have the two of them look at the camera. More pictures.

Now, give them five minutes together alone. This will be the ONLY time the entire day when they will be alone. Let them say sweet nothings to each other. Then start the photos again.

Have the Bride stand up and pose with the Groom. You want to take photos of them full length then close up. Still they are alone with just you and your assistant, which you should have. I tell the couple, "Go ahead and say whatever you want to each other. I don't listen and I've heard it all a thousand times already." This usually gets a nervous laugh. Then continue with the close up photos.

Give yourself about 15-20 minutes tops. Then bring in the Maid of Honor and Best Man. At this time, the wedding party should be showing up while you are doing photos of the four.

Take about ten minutes for photos then bring in the wedding party (all the Bridesmaids and Groomsmen). Now you are doing photos of the entire wedding party. That will probably take about 15 minutes, if everyone cooperates. Then the parents should be showing up. The parents and all other family members the Bridal couple want in the formal photographs. To take all those pictures should take no more than 30 minutes.

By now, you've got photos of the Bride and Groom alone and with each other, and everyone else while the flowers are fresh, makeup is fresh, dresses and tuxes are clean and not wrinkled. Now you have some awesome formal photographs without interference from every guest with a camera.

Be sure to take photographs of the flowers for the florist. If you give the florist photographs of their flowers while the flowers are fresh and for them to use to show future customers their work, the florist will be extremely grateful and will definitely recommend you to their customers. Give these photos free of charge. The photos cost you next to nothing, but the business they can bring in can be enormous.

Now, all the formals are done! After the ceremony, all you have to do is take pictures of the Bridal couple and any guests or family members they want. The guests cannot take pictures of your formal photographs because they were not present at the time. If they want copies of those formal photographs, they have to pay for them. That's how you make money: selling photographs.

So, about 20-30 minutes after the ceremony, the Bridal couple is off to the reception.

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