Is the industry as a whole in the midst or on the fore-front of a major change? Are we are seeing an entirely new generation of photographers begin to take hold and shape the standards for all of us as wedding photographers, or are we seeing a bigger shift where the lifespan at “the top” is one that is impossible to maintain?
In the past 5 to 10 years, we have seen a sweeping change in the big names of wedding photography. Jose Villa has solidified himself at or near the top–depending on whom you ask–and others like KT Merry and Erich McVey have had meteoric rises while all being around for 8 or less years, and with their prominence only being approximately 2 to 3 years. So, are we seeing the old guard move out and new generation take over? Or are the whispers of the “5 year rule” taking hold; that a wedding photographer really only has 5 years of true success before the public forgets about them and moves on to the next new shiny thing. Has our media-saturated society made it impossible for a wedding photographer to stay in the forefront of our minds for longer than a few short years?
In many local markets, mine included, we see photographers who rise to become one of the go-to wedding photographers at a pace that seems very quick to those on the outside. But, if you pay attention long enough, you will see that the majority of the collective that makes up your market’s “go-to’s” will fade from prominence after a few years.
That isn’t to say that everyone that explodes on the scene and books 50-5k weddings every year suddenly drops off the face of the earth and shutters, but it is to stay that after 5 years or so you will notice a downward trend for many. Newer shinier things get the market’s attention and the cycle continues. Don’t let this depress you though, or think that fighting to be the guy or the girl in your market is all for naught. The key, in my opinion is to do as a shark does, and keep moving in order to stay alive. Don’t get settled in to your comfort zone, or your price point, keeping swimming even if upstream.
The difference between the photographer who charges 10k per wedding and the one that charges 30k (minus few rare exceptions) is the wrapping not the package, and many of these top dollar photographers are alarmingly young. Consider, that we are all brands at the end of the day; our imagery, our website, our presence in the industry are all a part of our brand, but who we are, what we look like, and our personal image are also a big part of our brand perception. So is there an age time-table? It is possible that someone who looks older isn’t seen so readily as being at the forefront or top of the industry? It is also possible that simply being older means one is less likely to continue to evolve with the industry.
To circle back to the title of this article, is the industry changing? Yes! It is changing; it is always changing. It was different 5 years ago and it will be different 5 years from now. I think a big part of what allows a wedding photographer to continue rising and maintaining stature is the willingness to grow. We all spend our young professional careers being uncomfortable, not knowing everything we need to know and not 100% confident in whatever field we take on. As time goes on we make more money, receive promotions, and likely become very comfortable. Someone who was worked in an office and risen to a high position later in life is comfortable, they have lived through the sports adage of “be comfortable being uncomfortable” and no longer want or need to do things differently. They are set in their ways and being the boss means that is just fine.
But in a career like wedding photography many find themselves reaching the “top” or reaching their goals of success by doing things a certain way. They get really good shooting a certain way, people love their work, they make lots of money, and then they sit later in their careers, complacent as bookings decline, and they forget that 20 years ago they were uncomfortable, hungry, and very willing to learn new things. The commonality we see with older photographers who fade off is the mentality that, “I’ve done it this way for 20 years, I’m very good, I don’t need to change just because all of a sudden…”
The perception of the grumpy old wedding photographer who is out of touch with modern trends is real. Something that is very interesting to me is, as we move forward through the next generation, will gender have an affect on this perception of being old and out of touch. I can tell you from my own bias and experience, that I would assume an old guy to be more likely out of touch with trends but and older women to be experienced and more likely in-tune with the times.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe it is because we all run into these “old guys” and there quite frankly aren’t many “old ladies” in our field. It’s a new frontier in a sense, the wedding photography industry was (and worse for the ware for it) dominated by males 30 and 40 years ago. So most of the photographers who have 40 years behind them shooting weddings happen to be men. Being set in your ways, being comfortable with the things that have led to success and not being willing to start fresh is not gender specific, but certainly something many would associated more commonly with the “old guys”.
The question remains, does simply looking older, even by a few years, have a negative impact on brand perception? If it does, then does being an older male versus the older female have the same negative impact? Time will tell. None of us can control getting older, but we can control our willingness to be comfortable being uncomfortable; to be lifelong learners. I recently made the change from purely digital to medium format film because I know that for me to consistently shoot the weddings that I want to shoot, I need to master it, but if I want to climb to shooting the biggest weddings in the world and then continue to do so in my 50’s, 60’s, and beyond, I need to keep my finger on the pulse of the industry and be ready at any time to evolve and start over. We all do, because it is evolving and quickly.
About the Author
Lance Nicoll is a Wedding Photographer currently living, teaching, and shooting in New Orleans, LA. He graduated with a degree in fine arts from Tulane University and a masters in graphic design from Savannah College of Art and Design. He currently teaches Photography and Visual Arts at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, LA. He also enjoys shooting games for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans.
CREDITS: Photographs by Lance Nicoll are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.