Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Steven and I’m a wedding photographer based out of Adelaide, Australia. I believe photography is about portraying a scene in ways that people recognize, but at the same time, have never witnessed before. Anyone can take a photo of a scene, but I want to show the world what I can create through my lens in ways that are unique and yet completely relatable to other people who have witnessed the same scene, all the while allowing my couples to act as though I’m not there just as a ‘photographer’ but rather their friend. This allows for a much more genuine set of photos for them to remember their big day!
While I make my income with wedding photography, I absolutely love landscape and travel photography too, which is the genre where I’ve won most of my awards in. It’s one aspect of my photographic style which people find a point of difference between me and my competitors.
While I’m based in South Australia, and the majority of weddings I cover are local, I simply love travel and the best thing in the world to me is having someone ask me to cover their wedding in some far-flung location like Greece or Fiji. I try to keep things simple too, offering a simple selection of physical products and services - most often just a simple USB with the edited images. The trick to booking so many weddings to do this is simply being transparent with what I offer and how much it will cost.
My average is covering around 30 weddings in a year, earring me a 6 figure turnover and has allowed me to be a full-time wedding photographer for the past 2 years. Previously I was a primary school Japanese teacher.
One of the things that stand out to my clients when comparing myself with my competitors is my ability to come across as a professional wedding attendee! I can help out with any aspect of a wedding, not just their photographer - so I’m often planning everyone's wedding for them. I also make use of some cool technology such as Virtual Reality cameras, hybrid shooting video, and photography, and course drones - and not just the aerial kind, underwater too!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After having graduated from University for the second time in 2006 with a BA in Multimedia I felt like spending some time overseas would be fun, and as I had some friends that had also done the same thing, I spent almost 3 years living in Japan teaching English at primary schools. Partly because job prospects back home weren't great in my area.
Try to use your old equipment for as long as you’re confident that it is producing your best quality work. Try to weigh up the costs and think about if a new camera or lens is really going to make your work that much better.
I'd always been artistic, trying to draw, playing with 3D rendering and whatnot from my Multimedia degree and stuff - then I realized photography is like 'cheating' at drawing, so I picked up my first camera. Japan is a beautiful country so can’t take a bad photo, and as I knew Photoshop pretty well I was able to get some sort of a following online through the social networking site DeviantArt which gave me the confidence to do it more.
I began my professional life as a bit of a ‘professional student’. I now have a Diploma in Computing & Infotech, a BA in Multimedia, a Masters in teaching, and a Cert IV in Photo Imaging. So after moving home from Japan I loved to teach, and I also loved taking photos, so I managed to use my teaching degree to make some real money while building up my photography business on the side.
It got to the point 2 years ago that I had to choose between teaching and my photography, which was a very simple choice as dealing with bridal parties are much more fun than shouting at school kids all day.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Starting as a photographer means that you’re blasted with differing opinions on what you’re doing wrong and right in regards to how you conduct yourself both behind the camera and on the business side of things. One thing I learned throughout the several years of teaching and shooting weddings on the side is that you don't have to be any good at photography to be a successful photographer.
I’m not saying I’m a bad photographer, it's just that I knew of so many competitors out there doing rather mediocre work but still somehow getting clients and earning an income from it. So I wanted to do the same. I attended business conferences, joined organizations like the Australian Institute for Professional Photography (AIPP), and drew from the experience of people who had come before me while also staying true to who I am and what I felt I would personally like from my own wedding photographer.
It’s a very solitary situation where you’re competing with the people you’re learning from in a rather cut-throat industry so I went out and created my own brand based on what I knew how to do best. I learned quickly that gaining clients is all about the ability to get your name out there.
As an introvert, it was quite tricky for me, but my method was to focus on online endeavors, I learned how to build an effective website, advertise online effectively and that sort of thing - others might advertise in magazines or create a huge network via word of mouth - it's all simply what you're best at.
Startup costs for me as a stickler for digital processes included a huge amount of redundant equipment, such as numerous camera bodies, lenses, computers, etc. I also got into a habit of backing up all files on a sophisticated network of backup equipment. It only needs one bad review to sink a business that only entertains around 30 clients a year to sink it so it’s important to treat each one as though they were yourself.
Today I sport around $20,000 worth of equipment when I travel to each wedding I go to while starting my outlay in costs actually saw me making a business loss for the first 3 years while building my business’ reputation. This was why it was great for me to have a job like teaching to support myself while starting.
Legal obligations included obtaining a local working with children certificate - which I already had as a registered teacher, the usual business registration costs and as I utilize a drone in my work I opted to train and be registered as a drone pilot with the Civil Aviation Authority of Australia.
Once I had a bit of a portfolio and a slick-looking website that can be easily found online, I’ve earned myself a fairly steady stream of clients, and from those clients come other clients based on their own personal interaction with you as their photographer.
It really isn't too much about the photo you produce, but rather the memories you create with the couple while you’re taking their photos on the biggest day of their lives. Then they see that photo and it draws them back into the moment at a later time.
That has become my number one reason why I have become a successful wedding photographer in demand around the world.
Describe the process of launching the business.
There was never a ‘launch’ as such of the business, more a general amalgamation of all my talents leading into a more narrow focus on something that can make me money. I began my photography journey wanting to take photos of just landscapes and thinking it was a bit of a hobby - so my website back in 2011 reflected this, featuring my landscape work and other stuff that people didn't really care about. Sure I had won awards and stuff, but who really cares? What can I offer them?
It was then I realized that if I wanted to make money with what was otherwise an expensive hobby, I needed to focus on taking photos of what mattered to people, and from my experience, the main thing that people care about was themselves. Once I realized that and after my first ever wedding it occurred to me that this was a service people needed, and I was good at it!
On a side note my first wedding was ‘given’ to me by a mentor (David Evans) I had while studying. He was a photographer primarily focussed on the travel and landscape genre (like I was at the time) and he was asked to cover a wedding. He did not enjoy doing weddings so asked if I would do it, so I did for a whopping $300.
I never really looked back and started advertising on Facebook with some photos I had taken at that wedding, and drawing new clients at cheap rates. My rates started increasing to what they are now ($3,280 base) each time I was asked to cover a wedding that conflicted with another wedding I had booked.
I now have a website that generates the majority of my new clients due to it being a wealth of information on weddings, my work, and generally what I bring to a wedding as an experienced, personable photographer! It also helps new bridal couples plan their own wedding!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
What works for me in attracting new clients is maintaining what works in keeping my website on top of the Google rankings when searching for wedding photographers and related keywords. I rank in the top 5 in numerous cities across Australia, and once people visit I layout what I offer simply and transparently. People really appreciate me having my full price list available on my website for example - some competitors do not do this.
Investing in SEO, having someone else to do it for you while also learning yourself how it works is the best way to spend your advertising time and money in my experience. My background in having a degree in Multimedia and Website design helped me out with this, but keeping in touch with new developments in SEO is something that can be tricky. I actually joined Facebook groups on SEO run by people who own agencies to learn about what they are doing and what not to do.
What works is a combination of what many people give you advice about, but never one or the other you need to do everything at once.
I'm talking about:
Content - I blog once every 3 days, outsourcing this is a good way to keep on top of it. Try to keep on top of Google trends - ie once COVID lockdowns hit one of the largest terms relevant to my wedding photography was 'date ideas at home' - I get a lot of traffic from that post.
Technical SEO - This is stuff you need to learn, keyword ratios, what your competitors are doing, How Google really sees you, etc There are sites like woorank and GTmetrix to help you start, but if you really want to get into it you should use a (very complicated) tool like CORA.
Backlink - Getting relevant powerful backlinks is an art in itself, you can get lucky with some gigs on Fiverr or legit, but for the most part, they are crap. The most I've ever got out of a business coach was a recommendation of TwoBrightLights - that’s great for relevant, powerful links.
Perhaps the MOST important when it comes to links though is AUDITING your bad links through a tool like Semrush or Ahrefs there's nothing that's boosted me more up the ranks than disavowing all the bad backlinks my website has accumulated over the years it can be like magic.
As for an actual product, I found that you really need to supply what your clients expect from you, plus more. There's an old saying ‘under-promise, and over-deliver’ what your clients want.
An example of what I do in this regard is if a client only wants me to photograph their wedding for say 5 hours, I also produce a short 1-minute long short video to share on social media and also record their ceremony using Virtual reality technology free of charge. These are both things that simply require no extra effort on my part except for a bit more time editing the video, but it pays off in glowing client reviews and the ability for them to share something unique on social media.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Currently, I'm at a point in my business that I feel as though I’ve found a sweet spot in my pricing in that I can live comfortably from my income, without coming off as too cheap for what is really a luxury service. My average wedding client is currently at just over $3,100, and at around 30 weddings a year that brings me just over six figures when also factoring in any side jobs I might do like family photography, etc.
Investing in SEO, having someone else to do it for you while also learning yourself how it works is the best way to spend your advertising time and money in my experience.
Expenses come in at $40,000 so gross income is about $60,000. My largest expense category tends to be my website, but it’s also the largest portion of my advertising budget. I spent over $10,000 on my website last year intending to cut that down to about half this year due to learning about what I spent money on and understanding what I can do myself. My Facebook advertising and other such spending came in at $5,000. Stock (USBs and stuff) and printing were about $7,000, and finally, travel was about $6,000.
The way I track expenses and income is unique I feel - I tend to use an ancient software known as Microsoft Money to track every cent I spend and earn to create nifty graphs about my cash flow. Every time I use any money I put it into my database and I can separate each kind of income or expense by any kind of variable. It can be very useful in illustrating where the money is going or coming from. Also makes it easier to create attainable goals.
During the COVID crisis, I have branched out into more domestic work, such as family photography and newborn work which I know can be quite lucrative when selling physical products as opposed to USBs, but I’ve begun at the beginning again charging next to nothing to gain the experience and build a portfolio, along with social media content. I can see in the future me spending much more time and effort getting this side of my business becoming more profitable.
The goal shortly is to extend my income to the point where I can support my family without having my wife also work. This goal isn't too far off, and as I expand this new side of my business I feel as though she will be helping out with the running of the business far more.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When starting a business, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of spending so much money on equipment or things you think are cool but don't really need it. I’ve learned that if I can do the job with what I have, there’s no real need to upgrade unless you feel as though an increase in pricing justified the purchase.
For example, I began my wedding photography with a Nikon D80 - an entry-level DSLR camera that I took some nice shots on, but it was slow and its resolution wasn’t as much as I’d like due to some edits requiring cropping to make for a better composition, so I upgraded to a D700 to do a better job, and increased my pricing to compensate.
I’d love to go out and buy a medium format camera kit worth north of $20,000, and as a gear head it’s awfully tempting sometimes just to go out and buy it, but it’s simply not a tool that’s needed to do a better job than what I’m already doing. To accommodate such a purchase, I’d have to market the use of such a camera that's super different from everyone else and educate why it’s such a good thing when it’s not really something that people care too much about unless you’re also a photographer.
In the same vein, don't overspend in advertising until you have the cash flow to support it. I spent so much in my first 5 years that I either lost or barely made a profit at all. I was just lucky I had my job as a teacher to finance any mistakes I made.
I made the mistake early on in learning what works in SEO to trust cheap SEO providers, they messed up my website more than helping, so the best thing I ever did was learn about what SEO actually is and did the majority of it myself while outsourcing the boring bits.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As a photographer there are plenty of tools to choose from to edit your photos and plenty of people will swear up and down their way is the best. The way I use may not be the best but it simply works for me, so here's what I use.
When editing a wedding or chunk of photos, I like to use the Adobe suite - but NOT Lightroom. Just never learned how to use it and frankly don’t see the need to. I tend to use Adobe Bridge to cull unwanted frames, then open photos into Photoshop and edit each photo individually. For a full wedding of 2,500-3,000 photos, this process may take a few days to a week.
Video editing I use Adobe Premier and possibly stock footage/effects I find on Themeforest. Royalty-Free Music I use a Soundstripe subscription.
I use a small supplier on Aliexpressto purchase custom USB keys and Momento Pro to produce custom made USB boxes to give the final product to my clients. Then I also use Seldexalbums to produce high-end albums using the Pixellusoftware.
For bookkeeping, I use Microsoft Money to produce automated reports and insights into cash flow. It’s a very old software now, but it’s free! Still available for download on the Microsoft website and is surprisingly powerful for producing graphs, tables, and indicating trends. You can even set it up to be a simple CRM.
For social media management, I use Heropost, and my website is hosted by Digital Pacific using WordPress. I’ve set up my website to automatically post everything I stick up on there to my social media, including every photo being automatically pinned to Pinterest, all my blog posts to my GMB, and scheduling months’ worth of blog posts.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Being a member of the Australian Institute for Professional Photography (AIPP) since the time I was studying, I have learned from association with some of the best photographers in Australia exactly what makes a ‘good’ image. I’ve used my membership to gain access to industry awards, even winning a few and gaining confidence in my ability as a photographer.
One thing I have learned through awards is that outside of other photographers, nobody really cares too much that you’ve won them. They are nice to mention occasionally, but it’s really your business understanding that gets you, clients.
I’ve had a few business coaches over the years, Mark Rosetto is a very turned on individual that has lived his life as a professional photographer and is now spending his life building other people’s businesses. He is a really passionate and worthwhile resource to tap if you can afford him.
When thinking about individuals that have really influenced how I do business though, Taylor Jackson is another photographer business coach who is primarily focussed on modern wedding photography. I mention modern as he advocates for a very streamlined service to clients, avoiding the extra work such as album design or print creation which other business coaches try to push you towards.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
For new photographers out there, starting up, joining an institute or group of like-minded professionals is the best thing you can do. Draw off their experience and learn what they have done, then improve on it in your own way.
Entering awards, and winning them can build confidence and are cool to show off as social cred, but don’t think just because you have a trophy people will throw money at you. Focus more on what makes a business work and your clients as opposed to how awesome you are. A client really doesn't care about that, what they do care about is what you can do for them.
Try to use your old equipment for as long as you’re confident that it is producing your best quality work. Try to weigh up the costs and think about if a new camera or lens is really going to make your work that much better. So many new photographers spend so much time and money obsessing over new gear that they simply cannot sustain their business for much longer than a year or two.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I don't really like to outsource anything I do as a sole trader except ‘fluff articles’ for my blog, and a bit of mundane SEO work.
My photographic work is what puts money in my bank account and trusting someone else with the final product really doesn't sit right with me.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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