Quitting The Wedding Photography Business Isn’t Easy

Insights & Thoughts May 8th 2014 12:31 PM 13 Comments

Breakups are always tough. Emotional roller coasters are a beast. When the breakup occurs between an employer and a company it’s a little less painful if you’re the dumper and you’re dumping for better opportunities. But when the company is your own, you’ve got the worst of both worlds. My company and my chosen niche (weddings) has been my baby for years. I’ve poured my heart and soul into cultivating and defining it into what it is and now it’s time to walk away. Aside from the emotional turmoil that I’m going through in this process, I’m finding out that walking away is a long, drawn out and messy business. Just like a break up. Sigh.

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[REWIND: THE BUSINESS OF PHOTOGRAPHY: BE REMARKABLE. BUILD FANS. GET CLIENTS]

It’s Definitely Not a Two Week Exit Strategy

Setting aside all the elements that brought me to this decision, walking away from the wedding photography industry isn’t as easy as a two week notice.¬†Weddings are booked far in advance. I decided last July (2013) to end my time as a primary wedding photographer, but had weddings lined up till August of this year. All that means for me is that I stopped accepting new bookings, but still have to maintain the status quo for all weddings that are already in the books.

With a year’s worth of shoots to still push through, it’s clearly not a quick exit. In the corporate world, they call the last 2 weeks of your term “short timer’s disease.” In wedding photography, there is no room for that. I committed to these couples that I would bring my A game on their wedding day and I intend to uphold that commitment. I have three more months to go and it doesn’t end there. Those last few weddings will still need weeks and months of work as we process images, design albums and deliver products.

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Staying Motivated, Head in the Game and Keeping My Mouth Shut

Usually, we wedding photographers work our butts off to fill the calendar with a continuous flow of events. That flow, aside from keeping the bank accounts balanced, also ensures that skills are maintained with constant shooting opportunities. Long breaks make my shooting wheels squeaky. The choice to stop taking weddings for the company last year meant wider breaks in between the existing bookings. To keep myself from getting rusty, I had to sign up as a second shooter or associate for other studios which was a good move for more than just this reason. The wedding industry is a small one where chatter and noise spread like wild fire and I’m not exactly the best secret keeper.

I’ve met some wonderful people whom I’ve enjoyed working with and vice versa. In a heavy referral industry, you learn to find the players that play well with others and you form and maintain relationships. I couldn’t tell any of my industry peers that I was done, I couldn’t risk the news reaching my existing brides and having them worry over my choices and how it would affect their wedding. Plus, you never want to burn bridges anyway. As it turns out, I’ve found that I really enjoy shooting weddings as a second shooter or an associate, so I’m not entirely out of the game.

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Saying “No” to Money Sucks

In the nine months since my decision, I’ve had several inquiries come in and each one has been a psychological battle to turn down. Wedding photography is easily the one photography niche where the cost is easier to justify for the client. Even though photography in general is a luxury purchase, in this category, a client could call it a ‘NEED’ rather than a ‘want.’ For that reason, profits per transaction can yield more money at a faster pace than say, the typical family portrait. But I have to remind myself of the choices I’ve made. Any bookings I decide to take on only prolong the inevitable and push my end date even farther out. Honestly, yo-yo breakups are worse than regular ones and I found this out when I twisted my arm into taking a couple more and then kicked myself later for doing it.

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Tidying Up After it’s Done

I’m nearing the end with only three months of my own weddings left in the books. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Fortunately, I’m not closing my doors to photography altogether, just the wedding arm of my business. If I were quitting photography, there would be a few more items on my to do list that would drag my exit out another year. As it stands, I can handle the extra loose ends along with my new focus … portraiture.

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Conclusion

If you’re contemplating leaving the wedding industry, I hope this provides some insight. It’s a tough call to make and nobody can tell you if you should or shouldn’t, but at least you have an idea of what you’re up against if you decide to go down this path. Getting in was hard enough, getting out is just as tough.

 

Where are you in the wedding career life cycle?

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About

Michelle is a Southern California Portrait and Wedding Photographer. When she’s not geeking out with a camera she’s nerding out in her IT world. All other moments in the day are spent with her two wonderful children and her sweet hubby

See her work on The COCO Gallery
check out her blog at frexNgrin

13 Comments

  1. Tom

    This first pic is as intriguing as it is stunning
    A quiet reflective character study that could have been found on a 500 year old pen & ink silk scroll

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  2. Christopher

    Wonderful article Michelle. Very insightful and useful for our community. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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    • Michelle Ford

      thanks chris. this is probably one of those experiences that not many people take the time to share. we’re always eager to read about how to get in, how to stay in, how to climb to the top but exit strategies are after thoughts, accidents or unhappy experiences that are hidden away like dirty laundry.

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  3. Nick

    Good luck, Michelle.

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  4. Matthew Saville

    That poll at the end says it all, to me. Most everybody right now is still at the very beginning of their career. Or at least the ones who are bothering to go online and read articles. I wonder if we got 1,000 photographers to answer the poll, would the %’s stay the same? Maybe not.

    Either way, I think every wedding photographer needs to have an “end game”. While many, many blue collar and white collar jobs leave employees working until they’re 65 or even 70+, and still barely able to retire, …do you think you could photograph 20-30 weddings in one year, when you’re 65? How about 75?

    Better get an exit strategy…
    =Matt=

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    • Michelle Ford

      not just that matt! i’ve watched brides in a way.. inadvertently discriminate against older photographers. brides are typically in their 20s and 30s and they need to feel connected to their photographer and in today’s market that is easily attainable. the funny thing is that some of them don’t realize i’m old enough to be their mother!

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  5. Giules

    Great article, Michelle. And quite timely as well. I actually do regular run-of-the-mill wedding photography under a separate business name and documentary wedding photography under my own name. I’m shutting down (or phasing out rather) the non-documentary work so I selected “I’m on my way out” from the poll.

    This is timely because I actually made this decision last night and by coincidence you’ve written about it. Some of my mistakes might be a lesson for some people. I’m used to doing around 40+ weddings a year with the ever present desire to ‘do less for more pay’ as we often try.

    The thing is it’s slow. You have to pay the bills somehow and you make an attempt to strike a balance between not taking on too much work and keeping a roof over your head. As a result I’ve become burned out and the non-docu stuff, the albums, the little frills and extras were never for me. I always wanted to just focus on the pictures and my interpretation of the day.

    In some ways it’s scary but it’s also a huge relief. Even though I’m not completely exiting, I will be going down to maybe 5/6 a year, thankfully I’m starting other businesses to feed my gear addiction.

    Overall your conclusion was spot on, and it’s a nice article to see considering the subject rarely comes up. We’re most often talking about ramping up and staying in the game.

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    • Michelle Ford

      guiles, i’m so glad my timing was spot on for you and your situation. closure totally feels good doesn’t it? it’s always the himmin and hawwin before the decision that causes the most angst. in the end, nobody takes care of you better than yourself and so you do what you must to survive. glad your gear addiction has another solution in the works. best of luck!

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  6. Martine Brucheau

    Michelle Congratulations on your choice. Obviously you are well connected with your inner self and know that this is what you want. I am a commercial wedding photographer/fashion photographer and have always had a plan. I have a team of 3 other shooters younger than me by either 10-20 years and videographers in that same range. I do this because I never get burned out and it allows me the necessary breaks i need when i feel tired or just need to revamp my craft and work on that editing stuff if you know what I mean. :)

    I don’t see myself retiring anytime soon and I believe one of the ways photographers can retire is by understand fin ace and budget. Many don’t know how to put away their funds and invest in outside stocks or such. This is important, because if not done, you risk your entire life making a great income but nothing to show for it in the end. Thanks for your article Michelle

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    • Michelle Ford

      martine, in a way you’ve provided yourself with an excellent exit strategy. you’ve maintained a business that can exist with or without your direct shooting contribution. that’s perfect for the photographer that wants to stay in the game. you’re right, the constant grind puts a toll on our creative juices. it’s been true for all my career choices. the added challenge of budget and financing just makes it worse. i know many photographers that spun their wheels to get to the top but never even made it close to the crest and already had to give up. even they would feel the burden of the wedding industry exit. everything is a risk. but better to risk then never to have tried at all i’m sure you would agree.

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  7. Matthew Saville

    One thing that it looks like everybody was afraid to ask about is, the elephant in the room: WHY did you decide to quit, and what are you going to do instead that is so much better?

    In this industry, people either seem to make it, and rave about their fantastic career, or they don’t make it, and they quietly disappear… In other words, if they’re quitting it’s because they never got anywhere in the first place. They either failed miserably, or simply decided they couldn’t hack it.

    It seems to me that you have neither of those reasons to quit. Your studio was highly successful, or at least successful enough to pay the bills and provide that “dream career” that most new wedding photogs glamorize in their minds. Getting paid to do something you love can’t be all that bad, right?

    I don’t ask this question expecting an answer, actually, but it’s food for thought for new wedding photographers out there. Those who might be just barely getting into “the industry”, and wondering how they’re going to make a living. If someone this gifted, skilled, and experienced decides to, well, bail out, …then you might want to think twice about how much you lust after “making the switch” from part-time to full-time.

    Because in all honesty, there’s a very good chance that part-time careers will be where a very significant chunk of the photo industry is headed, in my opinion…

    =Matt=

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