How I got started............ one year in the making........

posted on: February 20, 2006

(this was originally posted on photo.net forums, found here: http://photo.net/wedding-photography-forum/00FLt3)
Anne Ruthmann , Feb 20, 2006; 02:33 p.m.
I've been very reflective over the last few days and I recently had someone ask me how I got started. I never thought to ask this question, but if I had considered wedding photography as a possible profession, I probably would have. From what I have seen, not many people are willing to share their beginning journeys with the general public, for whatever reason. Part of me fears that sharing my full story instead of maintaining some sort of anonymity will destroy any credibility that I have earned with other members of this forum, but it is my story for better or for worse. I have learned A LOT in the last year, and perhaps that will help to illuminate a path for someone who can't envision their own.
First off, I want to congratulate everyone on making the first step toward doing something you love. No matter how risky it may seem, life is so much more fulfilling when you are pursuing something you can give your heart and soul to. When you do things out of passion and love, the world has a funny way of supporting you and helping you succeed.
I decided to get into this because I wanted to help people, not necessarily because I thought I'd make a living out of it. The first wedding I did was for cost only. At the time I had just finished getting married and I had a great photographer who did my wedding for travel fees only. I thought, what a wonderful way to really help others out! Photography in my area starts at $2,500 for a decent photographer - and there wasn't much for people who couldn't afford that (now there's a lot!) At the time, I was still on a wedding planning message board sharing ideas and wedding advice when a girl posted about how one of her family members who had promised to photograph her wedding completely bailed out on her. I felt so bad for her, and some crazy cell in my brain decided to offer to take the place of her family member! To this point, photography had only been a hobby for me which I had developed through self-study in my free time. At the time, I only had an Olympus OM-10 manual focus, manual aperture camera that was a hand me down from an uncle. Now that I look back on this- WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS I THINKING?!
In preparation for this first wedding, I needed people to practice on, so I started paying more attention to how I would photograph my friends weddings and I offered to do engagement portraits for free just so I could practice on my friends. One of my friends showed her engagement pictures to another friend who asked if I could do pictures for her too! I said sure and just asked if she could cover the cost of film and developing- she agreed. I started giving my friends mini-albums and photo gifts from the pictures I had taken at their weddings because I couldn't really afford to give them something nice from their registry (but apparently I could afford to snap off 6 rolls of film and pay for developing!) This apparently started a little bit of a buzz about my photography. I started getting more invitations to parties and concerts and people often asked if I was going to bring my camera. I also put everything I did online, on a simple website- not because I wanted to advertise, but because I wanted friends and family to view the pictures from the events without me having to make prints for everyone. Little did I realize, I was actually advertising myself as a wedding photographer without even knowing it!!!
In preparation for the first wedding (cost only), I bought a new (but cheap) SLR film camera that had auto focus and a few zoom lenses to cover a variety of situations. I also bought a cheap prime lens for low light conditions (and because I loved the prime lenses that I already had on my OM-10). I also realized that I needed a better flash if I was going to make any kind of decent pictures in the reception hall. I studied A LOT about flash technique, which was something I hadn't studied before and determined that I needed a detachable flash that could swivel and tilt so that I could bounce the light off ceilings. I practiced a lot, but in retrospect, I should have practiced much more with the flash techniques because I still wasn't entirely comfortable with them for that first wedding.
The biggest mistake I made for the first wedding was letting the couple choose the film and processing. They chose the cheapest film (Walmart Fuji Superia- maybe expired?!) and Walmart processing. The results were horrible. The colors were off, there was dust on the prints, the negatives were overexposed, etc. I was devastated. I salvaged what I could and had them redo everything possible (which they were not happy about and thus didn't put in any effort to making things better), but there were other problems which occurred in my camera that only after the fact did I realize something went wrong and I didn't even know it. Half of the formal shots were ruined due to a syncing problem with the flash and camera (probably because the flash was not entirely compatible with the camera). In retrospect, I shouldn't have used the flash for fill because it was a beautifully overcast day and there were no harsh shadows to compensate for. 
Other things went wrong with the wedding itself which upset the bride- like her crinoline which she picked up at the last minute didn't fit, her location was rained out and her guests weren't aware of a backup plan, so the ceremony went from being a nice location along a river to a VFW hall in front of a fireplace with cheap paper decorations. The bride was pissed and depressed and I had no idea how to help. Being a recent bride, I understood her devastation and I offered to restage her vows at the original location on a better day. I watched the clouds all day long and when it stopped raining for just a bit, I found a great place outdoors to have some pretty formals done. I assured her that no one would be able to tell from my shallow DoF and excellent background framing that the pretty location was actually a trailer park. Sure enough, unless you were there, no one would be able to tell from the pictures that it was anything other than a pretty park. She never did take me up on the offer to restage her vows.
I did the best that I could with that wedding. I did it for free. Things happened to me that could have happened to anyone who wasn't a professional. It was a HUGE learning experience. If I had thought that I wanted to make a career out of wedding photography, I would have sought out a photographer to assist before attempting to do a wedding on my own. That would have been so much smarter, and so much less pressure than trying to figure out everything without having any prior experiences or mentors to learn from! I used the internet photography forums to help me out as much as they could. I was a lurker for a long time, absorbing every bit of information before asking redundant and simple questions that no one wanted to answer. Despite my utter devastation with this first experience, I found some personal satisfaction in being able to help someone who wasn't going to have anyone dedicated to capturing her special wedding memories if I hadn't stepped in. (In retrospect, I'm sure her family would have captured enough of the important stuff, but probably not the other candid stuff that I love.)
Remember the friend of a friend who paid the costs for her engagement pictures? Apparently she liked her engagement pictures so much that she cancelled her professional photographer (who she must not have liked to begin with) and wanted to hire me for her June 2005 wedding. She had seen some of the other wedding pictures I had taken for friends online and felt comfortable that I would do the job the way she wanted. She stressed that she wanted to PAY me, not just cover my costs, so I thought $800 was a fair deal because it was half of what the cheapest photographer charged and would help me put money toward better equipment or more chances to practice. There really wasn't too much rationale behind and figure, and now I'm realizing the effects of that.
In preparation for this second wedding, my first PAID wedding, I did a LOT more practicing. Now I knew what it was that I didn't know! I knew how important good film and good processing were, so I started practicing with better films and I tried every developer I could find to look for the best processing for her wedding images. The films impressed me, ultimately the processing did not. I found that simple mistakes like dust on the negatives happened no matter where I went! How could professional labs let this stuff slip by?! It was a pain to correct these simple mistakes over and over again on my images. It was a drain on my gas tank. I decided that I needed to have more control over the quality and production, so I went into debt to buy a great digital camera- a 20D. At the time it was the only product between a consumer $700 DSLR and a $5,000 ProDSLR. I also knew that I needed the best flash I could get, so I went into more debt and bought a 580EX. These investments eventually made me decide that I should probably try to help a few more people out with their weddings for an affordable price so that I could pay off the equipment.
Going digital did a LOT to help my photography. I got instant feedback, practiced as much as I wanted (especially with flash technique), and was able to have control over the processing with no waiting for a developer or traveling back and forth between a lab. I had to buy an external hard drive in order to handle the huge files that I was adding to my computer, but it was all worth it. I also wanted to try out one of the online professional labs who hosted pictures for guests to view, so I shopped around to everyone that I could find. I learned that some of them just host the images for you and send you emails with orders. Some of them let you set your own prices and give you templates to customize. Some of them are full service labs that handle everything for you and also let you customize everything you need to. After signing up and inquiring with each service, they started sending me specials that would entice me to sign up with their service. Most of them had monthly or annual fees, but I figured I could cancel if I wasn't making enough money to support the costs. I ended up signing up with PICTage on a deal I couldn't refuse. I also liked that they sent me print samples for free and they took care of all the online fulfillment. The prints were beautiful, and the quality was the highest I had seen from any lab. Once I created an account with them, I was terrified that they were going to give me free advertising on the weddingchannel.com! I wasn't ready to go PRO! I didn't have a logo! I didn't even have a business name! I had to make one up, and fast!
Remember- this was only 8 months ago! I put together a contract from different contracts that photographers had given me when I was wedding planning, and the rest is history. Since then, I have been overwhelmed with inquiries, and while I really love wedding photography, I never had a chance to sit down and make a business plan for myself. Things just kind of spiraled out of control and I felt trapped into offering these really low prices because I just viewed it as a hobby and desire to help people. People have since dragged me up and down the wall about raising my prices, so I finally did this year, but still not enough to make other photographers happy- just enough to help out brides in need and book last minute weddings when other photographers cancel on brides. Some of the best weddings have come from people who had someone cancel on them! Oddly enough. :-)
After June of 2005, I had 9 more brides book my services for that same year. Before I had even photographed their weddings, they were referring me all over the place. This year I have 16 weddings booked (just about every Saturday during prime season), and I would have a LOT more if I were taking weddings after mid-August (fall is so popular here). I'm still picking up last minute gigs and helping people out when they are in a bind. Most people are pleasantly suprised when they see their pictures. They never expected a back up plan would produce such nice results. I recently had a bride plan her whole wedding around my availability, and my sister is having her wedding on a Sunday so I can attend. This is just crazy to me, I've only been doing this for 8 months! I'm not famous!
My husband is now looking for jobs out of state. He works in education, so I knew that if he got a job, we'd have to move at the end of August. Luckily I knew far enough in advance that I was able to avoid taking any work for the fall and my last wedding job will be finished with enough time for me to collect my senses and move to a new location. This move has been a blessing in disguise. Even if we do not move out of the area, I will now have time to re-think my photography as a business, and not just something that helps other people out. I will be able to put better boundaries on myself and what I can handle, and I will be able to take a better look at my work and its true worth. 
I got into this to help people out, but eventually I just became taken advantage of because I was so inexpensive. Some of my brides value me and some just booked me for the price. I want to have personal connections with all of my brides and I want all of them to choose me because of ME, not because of my price. I still want to help people out who can't afford much, but that will be something I'm going to have to negotiate within my overall plan.
In a few days we will know about my husbands job and what the future holds. It may not give us a definite answer about moving, but it will definitely give us a better sense of what direction our lives will be taking us in the year ahead. My degree is in Music Education and I plan on looking for a full time public school teaching position in the fall. Wherever I end up, wedding photography will remain something that I do out of passion when I'm not teaching. I do not take the craft lightly, and I highly respect people who make their living from pursuing their passion. I will never stop learning about photography and how to better my technical savvy and creative eye because there is still so much that I can learn. I will be submitting my first set of photos for contest in a few days. Whether or not I win, I'm putting myself and my art out there for all to judge as a learning experience and an opportunity to grow. I am grateful that I can have these opportunities in my life, and the freedom to pursue them.
So.... that may be sooo much more than you wanted to know, but I hope that it gives you a picture of my journey and how I got from point A to where I am now. If I were to start all over from a professional angle.. I would definitely find someone to be my mentor. Photo.net, Craigslist.com, other photography forums, or just local pros - these are all places to start and to put yourself out there. You may start by simply assisting and just observing instead of shooting yourself- but there is so much to be learned from that. I wish I had that opportunity- I almost had it and turned down a paying job for the chance, but the photographer cancelled on me. I learned on my own in spite of not getting the help I would have benefitted from. Joining professional organizations like the PPA, WPPI, and others will help you find the resources and make the connections you need to help yourself professionally. First and foremost- don't let anyone break your spirit, no matter how hard they try.
All the best, Anne
PS. If you actually read all of this... you MUST be passionate about photography!! Now get out there and do something with it!

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