January 18, 2020
I’m Laura Kelly, and I’ve been a wedding photographer for 9 years. Well, actually nine seasons, eight years. I always think of my life in seasons because that’s how when I first started my business, I jumped right into it on a wedding season. I started in June and I was up in shooting weddings that July and August. It all happened really quickly. But yeah, I’ve been doing it for nine years. I love it. When I first started, I was kind of accepting any and all work at one point, as do most photographers when they start. And then, I decided to specialize and I decided to rebrand myself as a “boutique wedding photographer”. I don’t use that term as much anymore, but back in 2013 that was like the word. Meaning that you had a good experience as well as a good piece of art. But then at the same time, I also rebranded as the photographer for happy people. That was probably the most pivotal decision in my business that got me to be the photographer that I am today. It’s that decision to know exactly what type of clientele I wanted to work with, exactly what type of experience I wanted to have and who I wanted my business to be about.
What’s cool is that over those years, I’ve been able to turn my brides in “micro celebs”, in a way. Even if their wedding was five years ago, I still get texts from them saying, like, “Somebody on the street just passed by and was like, ‘You’re a Laura Kelly bride.'” They still get known and that kind of thing in this weird little micro industry.
About two years ago, I decided that I wanted to have some sort of an outlet to be able to share what I had learned in the course of developing my photography business, but as it related to more industries and more fields than just photography specifically. I decided to start a podcast. The podcast was going to be my journey of discovering how the skills that I had learned can actually be transferred to a lot of other businesses. Through that process of just sharing my story and sharing the things that I had learned, giving marketing tips, giving advice for having an awesome client experience, giving advice on raising a family and having a marriage and breaking up with your best friend if you need to, and all the crazy topics that I’ve talked about on the podcast.. in the course of that, I realized that I do have a passion for helping other entrepreneurs get the business of their dreams and really make that happen. Then, it led me to my work, which is more recent as a business coach. I kind of do all of those things.
Well, when I was new, there’s not a ton of thought that goes into the how and the why. You just go to your first shoot and then somebody asks, “Can you do a baptism or a graduation?” and you go, “Sure, I can do that, I guess”. And then, you do it and you go, “I’m never going to do this again because that was the worst”. You go through those stages of your business in the early days and you realize what you do love and what you don’t. But eventually you start to get feedback from your clients. I remember the first time I got feedback from someone saying, “Wow, you were a not only an amazing photographer and we’re so happy with our collection of photos, but we’re so thrilled with the way that you were able to enter into our celebration, the energy that you were able to pour into our day, how you were able to keep us organized, how you were able to deal with my mom, how you were able to do all of these things”. When you start getting feedback like that, you realize, “Okay, that’s special”.
That’s what I always tell my clients as well. When you’re looking for what makes you special, you need to be searching for that feedback. You need to be looking at what people tell you again and again and again. When you start hearing the same thing over and over, that’s what’s so special about your business and that’s when you need to then get on the top of a roof and with a megaphone, announce what it is that makes you special.
I think a lot of people are receiving feedback and they’re getting incredible advice at what makes them unique, what makes their business really successful.. but maybe their businesses would actually be a little bit more fast paced, they’d be a little bit closer to where they want to be, if they said that out loud. That’s tricky, because you don’t want to come off as like, “Hey, I’m amazing”. But that’s your job when you’re trying to grow your business.
Over time, the client experience really changed. It developed. At the beginning, I was not what I would call running the show. Now, I run the show. And that running of the show is not just on the wedding day, it’s from the beginning. It’s the fact that when my clients sit down with me for a consult (and again, for my very first consult, did I run the show? No, because I was like, ‘Please, hire me.’), I was just waiting for them to ask questions so that I could answer. Now, when I sit down with a client, I’m welcoming them into my space versus us meeting at a coffee shop or a third party’s place. But I’ve done consults where I meet them in their living room and that very much felt like I couldn’t run the show. Now, all of my consults are in my home, so I’m welcoming clients into my space and they get the sense that I’m running that show very early on.
Oh, yeah. Not only refreshing.. you’re exhausted! You’re a bride who’s been dealing with difficult emails back and forth with people. Some businesses aren’t even messaging you back. You’re dealing with all sorts of vendors and when you meet them, you’re disappointed with what they offer or you’re disappointed that it’s not a personality match. And then, you meet someone that you can finally relax around and you don’t have to be asking the questions, and you feel that you’re at home and that this person is going to be in charge for you. That feeling of having somebody else run the show.. I know for sure that all of my brides and my clients are just so excited that they have one really easy wedding vendor. My goal is to set them up with other really easy wedding vendors.
A lot of the people that I know are going to be a part of this series, so I was excited to hear about who else was going to be involved because I feel like it’s a big part of my job too, to help steer them to other vendors who are going to treat them the same.
Every single time I get a question from a client, I now need to figure out a way that that question doesn’t need to be asked again. When you repeat that process again and again, what you’ve ultimately done is created a bunch of resources that are really easy for that client to use. It ties into exactly what I was saying before about running the show. When you make someone feel like you’re running that show, it’s largely because you have so many resources that they take advantage of.
For example, if I were to get an email from a client that says, “Hey, what should we be wearing for our engagement?”, I know that when I’m answering that I’m going to take a couple extra minutes to answer that question in a really thorough way, then take that information and put it onto a blog post. I think a lot of people are doing that.. but here’s where they stop. This is where I would go even one step further. Instead of just creating that blog post that has that resource for them, I would then set up an email that’s going to go out to every single client who hasn’t yet done their engagement session and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’ve created a resource for you about what to wear for your session. Take a look at it. If there’s a piece missing, if there are any other questions you still have, I’d love to know about them so I can add that resource and make it even better for the clients in the future.” It’s about taking it that one step further. I think a lot of people think, “Oh, well, I have an answer for any question that gets asked.” I prefer, “Let’s set these clients up so that they don’t even have any questions.”
When you’re a bride who has an engagement session next week, there’s a part of you that wonders if you’re photographer even knows. To get that email from them saying, like, “Hey, I’m looking forward to your session next week”, you’re like, “Wow, I’m important. She’s excited to work with me.” It just changes the tone. That kind of process gets repeated all the way, including our timeline discussion. I used to meet with clients in person to discuss our timeline. Once I had a family, once I had kids, it was the kind of thing that having those extra 22 appointments in the year just wasn’t going to work anymore, so they became phone calls. Now, I have a podcast resource for them, all about starting their draft with their timeline. They use that podcast resource to create that draft before we have our call.
There’s not just one story that comes to mind. There’s a lot, but I have a paragraph on my website that’s called “More than wedding photography”. It appears on my info page, because I think it’s important when they see my price — which is higher for my demographic and higher comparatively for the industry — I think it’s important to let them know that what’s in that package is not just the things listed (i.e. an engagement session, your collection of digital images, your album, etc.). I think it’s important for them to also understand that if you need someone to kick your mom out of the room because she’s being annoying, I’ll be the one to get her out. Or if there’s an awkward conversation that you want to have, I will have it on your behalf. There’s a testimonial on my site that says, “You literally removed a bobby pin from your own hair and put it into mine.” And she’s like, “That’s just one of the ways that you were so ready to be a helpful person for me.” That is the smallest example of a larger picture. The bigger picture is me being the person who will actually get in there and help you do up your dress. Or if I hear mumblings from the bride about how she hates this one orange flower in her bouquet, I’ll be like, “Do you want me to cut it out for you?” You’d be surprised how many brides are so scared to touch their bouquet because they’re like, “Whoa, I don’t know how to do this.” Because I’ve seen hundreds of bouquets, I’m like, “I’m going to yank this flower.” And they’re like, “Would you? Oh, my God. That would be incredible.” And I’m like, “Perfect. Let’s get it out of here.”
Brides often will need validation in some way. They need to be told certain things that they’re unsure about. They need you to tell them certain things so that they can feel really calm. They need a person who’s going to be running those family photos so that it’s not awkward that they don’t want the girl who’s not married to their brother to be in the shots. You need a person who is going to be running the show. There are a lot of really important dynamics, and if you screw up those dynamics, those are stories that are going to be told forever. If you accidentally piss off your sister-in-law (who’s just dating your brother and you don’t actually like her), that’s going to come up again and again as a memory of your wedding. I just want my girls to have the most incredible memories of their weddings. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that.
Right away, I think we need to establish that not everyone’s going to get a good photographer, and that’s totally fine. That might not be your priority. If that’s not your priority, then hire a student, or get someone who’s newer. Even if you’re on the lower end of that bracket, get someone who’s really excited about the opportunity of working with you. I would put way more stock in a photographer who was really new and had really low prices because they were emerging and they’re trying hard versus someone who has been around for a while, but they’re not great so they’re affordable. If you are comparing two people and one of them has a lot of proof that they’ve been able to produce this mediocre product for years and the other has nothing to show you, but they’re hungry for it and you meet them and you’ve connected with them, pick the second person.
I was that person. I’m self-taught. The last photography training that I took was in high school and it was taught by the gym teacher. That was my last photography training.
In 2011, I was that girl who was hungry. I was that girl who was charging $800 for 14-hour coverage and I worked the shit out of it. It was incredible and because I was trying to emerge for my own career, I worked that much harder than someone who was maybe charging a similar price point that doesn’t love it.
Now, as you move up into the higher price points, my advice is to look for consistency. Iff you look for a photographer that’s proven consistency to you, you are putting a faith in them to deliver the same product that you think you’re going to get and have them actually return that product to you at the end. If you see a photographer and sometimes they post photos that have green tones in them, sometimes they post photos that are more like vintage sepia vibes… if you are never really sure what the next photo they’re going to post is or if you see a shot and you don’t know it’s theirs, that’s a red flag. The thing I hear again and again is someone will be like, “I saw this photo on my explore page, I knew it was yours.” Because it is all about consistency.
Oh, another fatal mistake is when brides go to something like a wedding show, and they make the mistake of thinking that the photographers who are there or the videographers who are there are an accurate reflection of what’s available in the marketplace. If you step into a place like a wedding show and you take the five, six, 10 photographers that are there and you consider this as doing your “due diligence” in the industry of what’s available to you, you’re missing a big chunk of the picture.
I’ve had a higher rate of clients this year come to me and say, “We’ve placed a deposit with somebody else and we’ve realized that we’re unhappy with our decision and we’re going to be eating that cost. Now, we’re going to be booking with you because we thought we had done our research because we looked at who was available at the show and there was nobody in the higher bracket at the show.” You can look for DJs at wedding shows, you can look for dresses at wedding shows, but I wouldn’t go and think that you’ve done your due diligence on any other categories.
It is two totally different things to have beautiful photos that you can then look back on your day and think like, “Well, this day wasn’t perfect, but the photos are.” That’s never my goal. My goal is to have photos that are reflective of how fun it actually was to be there. That’s why my job has never been only about taking the incredible photos. It’s about what was everyone’s mood and vibe when we were shooting wedding party photos.
Trust me, to be able to get a client say that one of their favourite parts of the day was when we were shooting family photos.. I’m like, “Oh, my God. I’ve worked a miracle.” Because that can be a moment where it’s really stressful. They can be painful, especially when you hate your sister-in-law and she’s trying to be in every photo. But when we can manage those situations and we can have fun in that, then when they look back at their family photos, they’re not thinking about how they were yelling at their dad five seconds before it was taken. I never want that photo to be a mask of a shitty experience.