Reviews Culture

This is kind of a taboo topic.

When I shop online the very first thing I look at are the reviews. Overtime, I've even fabricated a somewhat complex algorithm to determine if a product is worth purchasing based on them. How many reviews does it have? What's the overall number of stars? What is the content of those reviews? What is the 1 star to 5 star ratio? Etc.

It's kind of ridiculous.

But I get it. People want to buy things that other people recommend. At least, for mass produced products, I completely understand.

There are some fundamental problems with buying things this way, though. First, literally anyone can leave a review. Sometimes the review will say "verified" to imply that the person purchased the product. But from what I understand, this is easy to get past. The scary thing is, a no name brand can pay people to leave tons of 5 star reviews on a bad product and the average consumer is none the wiser. This happened to me once when I purchased a computer mouse that ended up being terrible.

I think they're called sponsored reviews.

Second, the same goes for bad reviews. Literally anyone with an internet connection can leave a bad review. A competitor. A stranger. A troll. To safeguard this, companies give business owners the ability to dispute a review but only according to their guidelinesThis means that, typically, as long as the review doesn't include hate speech, swears, or less than PG content, it stays regardless of whether or not it's real. These safeguards are essentially worthless.

The companies that host reviews want as many as possible and are very hesitant to remove them because the more reviews they have, good or bad, the more money they end up making.

I haven't dealt with this personally, but I've heard so many horror stories of businesses ruined because they couldn't get negative or fake reviews removed.

Now to be fair, some business are just bad and deserve negative reviews. That's fine. But for people like me that offers a service, it can be detrimental. You see, I don't offer a mass produced product. Every client, every wedding, every guest that I encounter at a wedding is different. Since I am not a robot, but a person offering a service, my relationships with them are equally unique. 

Since the name of my business is my real name, literally every interaction I have with anyone, casual or professional, can come back to me. Bad break up? A vindictive ex girlfriend could get all her friends to go online and leave bad reviews. (just hypothetical) My personality rubbed someone the wrong way at a wedding? They could go online and leave a bad review!

In fact, it could literally be something I said in this blog or any others that might trigger someone. It takes just minutes for them and they may enjoy the satisfaction of hurting someone, but for me it would take days if not weeks of fighting with review sites to take them down, if at all.

Thankfully, I haven't had to deal with any of this and my reviews so far have been stellar. I've been blessed with such incredibly amazing clients that absolutely astound me with their thoughtfulness and warmth. But I've also encountered people in my personal and professional life that just by nature hate everything or are just having a bad day when I crossed paths. It's just life, and it's just the way people are. We're impulsive, prone to mood swings, have emotional scars, and we're largely a product of what has happened to us.

But in the middle of all our human weaknesses, we can love, be selfless, and choose to be happy.

Let's be real. On my end, I can't really do anything about our reviews culture. All I can do is be honest and offer the best services I can with enthusiasm and sincerity. It's a good thing that I want the best for my clients, honest to God. It occurred to me the other day that I have a job where I would never want to call in sick. And just for that, I count myself blessed.

Quick Update

This year has been intense. I've been booked up for every weekend since April until mid December! So pretty much I've been eating and breathing photography.

And you know what, I love it.

I did an interview this summer and one of the questions kind of caught me off guard and I had to pause for a minute to think about it. I think it was something along the lines of, "What keeps you going?"

This is something I've been struggling with all through my career. I can't believe it's already been 10 years since I started shooting weddings! And believe me there have been times when I wanted to throw in the towel. Being a wedding photographer is about a lifestyle of extremes and sometimes it's hard to handle that.

Especially in a year like this where I have 56 weddings booked including a week in Mexico. Living in the Midwest with 3-4 months of "dead time" during the winter, that means I regularly shoot two to three weddings a weekend followed by 30-40 hours of editing per wedding. My work is with me constantly.

And that's the answer. That's the answer to the question, "What keeps you going?" It's the work. I know it's kind of circular, but the more work I have the more work I want to do. It's a deeply personal thing and that's why it's become abundantly clear to me this year how important it is to connect with my clients on that level. Because when everything is stripped away- the judgments, the business, the to do lists- it just comes down to a meaningful photograph. There's a kind of purity in that.

I heard somewhere that passion is just a step or two away from insanity. I get that.

Contacting Me

If I were to pinpoint a time during the year when wedding season really kicks off, it would probably be this weekend with two weddings on Sunday (that's right, TWO) followed by a wedding or some kind of a shoot pretty much every weekend until December.

This basically means that I'm "unavailable" for three, sometimes four days out of the week. Realizing this, this blog post is meant to get ahead of a very busy schedule and address the issue of getting in touch with me.

My daily routine of replying to emails, texts, voice mails, and social media, is once in the morning and once in the evening. I try very hard to make sure I reply within 24 hours, but of course, it's not always possible.

So I just wanted to clear up and hopefully prevent any frustration that might result from a delayed response. 

First and foremost, the personal connection that I have with my clients is a priority for me. It's something that I frankly obsess over and I try to build my studio around a people centric model. This means that I don't hire anyone to handle any kind of communication. In fact, I don't even have templates for commonly asked questions. Every response that someone receives will be from me directly, one keystroke at a time.

This philosophy keeps me busier than necessary but I relish in the fact that everyone is guaranteed my personal attention to their specific questions and needs. We live in a world of robot voice menus (press one for English, two for Spanish), canned responses from overseas call centers, and worst of all, those annoying links to frequently asked questions that don't actually answer anything.

But my high standard of "customer service" comes at a cost during the weekends. So much so, that sometimes I spend all day on Monday just responding to messages. We're used to getting instant results and responses, but I suppose that this blog post is a quiet plea for everyone who tries to get in touch with me to be patient and to excuse any delays that they may experience.

Thank you!

Bridal Expo

A few weeks ago, I participated in my first bridal expo, ever. After almost 10 years as a wedding photographer, you'd think that this would be one of the first marketing avenues I'd explored but I've always pushed it aside in favor of other strategies.

But this year, I wanted to try different things in my business and when the opportunity arose, I jumped on the invitation from the Metropolis Ballroom in Arlington Heights to be one of their vendors at their boutique bridal show.

Let me tell you, vendors go ALL OUT at these things! I actually put a lot of thought into my booth and since I had no idea what I was doing I went for a more minimalist approach, just to be safe.

I learned something that day. That when it comes to presentation and spectacle, I am no Steve Jobs.

Whereas Steve Jobs' simple designs made Apple products incredibly beautiful, my booth just looked sad. I honestly felt laughably embarrassed standing in front of it and maybe even a little disrespectful towards the wonderful venue that so graciously invited me.

However! Maybe people could sense my sadness because everyone was so very nice. I got to meet and network with many vendors and couples which made me feel a lot better. In fact, I might do it again next year!

But for now, I'm going to stick to what I do best: making photographs!

Weird Things I do at Weddings

When you've been at it for a long time, like an old married couple, it's inevitable to pick up some weird habits and idiosyncrasies. Here are a few weird things that I do at weddings:

Fidget Finger
If you look at my trigger finger while shooting, you'll notice that it's constantly flicking the shutter button. It's not that I don't have control of a rogue index finger, but a habit of the past when cameras didn't have the greatest autofocus and I had to constantly make sure the focus was on point before firing off the shots.

The Death Stare
The Devil is in the details! I've made many a couple and bridal party slightly uncomfortable by staring at something with aggressive, but hilarious, intensity. In these moments, there's a million things running through my brain as I try to tune everything else out and focus on and visualize how all the details work together in the frame.

The Maniacal Laugh

Mayor Bob Terwilliger, aka Sideshow Bob from the TV show, The Simpsons. Not my work, courtesy and copyright of Fox Broadcasting Company.

I'm not exactly sure why I do this, to be honest, or what exactly triggers it. I think it's when I'm particularly pleased with something, I burst out in this maniacal laughter that can be startling and possibly quite upsetting for those who don't know. For those that do, they get excited too! I had one bride run over to me when she saw me laughing, saying, "I know that laugh!" eager to see how the photo turned out. She was pleased :)

The Camera Flip
I'm not sure when I started to do this, but when switching from portrait to landscape, I don't take the camera away from my face. Instead, I flip it one handed for a quick transition. I think it's pretty sleek. No one's picked up on it, though, so maybe it's not as cool as I think it is.

That's about it, from what I can tell. Maybe my past clients know of others!

New Advertisement

So after nine years I thought I'd give The Knot a try! I'll be using this photo in the print magazine, so look out for the new issue in February 2017!

By the way, I really love this photo. It was taken over Lake Michigan on a foggy day. I love the gradient of the sky and water. I thought that it would be perfect for a more intimate pose and it worked beautifully!

I've taken hundred of photos of the bride and her parents but for some reason, these images from a recent wedding floored me. I love the first picture because it's the perfect symbol of a mother's sacrifice and service for her daughter. And the expression on the Dad's face in the second picture says it all: he's bursting with pride and love.

I've never been a parent but I can't imagine how emotional it is on your daughter's wedding day. From her very first steps to her walking down the aisle, from all the sleepless nights, worry, and joy- no one will love you quite like your parents.

When the Light is Too Bright

Per typical, we only had a few minutes to squeeze in a portrait session with the bride and groom before introductions so I knew I had to work quickly. Unfortunately, the sun was setting and the light was like a thousand industrial strength flashlights shining directly into our eyes after being woken up in the middle of the night.

It was actually quite magical.

I knew the shot that this setting called for and I quickly set it up and got a few frames off. Within a few minutes, the light had moved on further down the golf course and our time was up. I chose the first image in the series, the one above, and I couldn't have been more pleased with the result!

The Boutique Advantage

It's no secret that the wedding industry is incredibly saturated with an overabundance of photographers. I pray for all newlyweds out there trying to find the perfect wedding photographer for their wedding!

With every year that passes and every new camera launch, it gets easier and easier to enter into professional photography. The market is flooded with fickle new photographers looking to make a quick buck or woefully unaware of the hard work it takes to not only be successful but be competent.

Furthermore, unfortunately, often times the wedding photographers that get the most business do not necessarily produce the best work. There are other variables at play such as how much they pay for advertising, SEO, and reviews (yes, I've heard of photographers paying for fake reviews).

It's only natural, then, that the wedding photography industry evolve to a point where there are mega studios employing dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of photographers nationwide. The typical mega studio runs like a corporation: there is a department for customer service, sales, editing, managers, directors etc. The photographer only has to show up on the wedding day, shoot, and be done.

There's great value in a photography mega studio for the potential customer. They have access to the portfolios of many photographs who have presumably been screened for competence, to dedicated customer service representatives and other benefits of a multi level corporation.

It's like buying something from a big box store or online where the choices are seemingly limitless versus a specialty store. Why purchase expensive bread from a dedicated baker when it costs a fraction of the price to purchase bread from a grocery store?

But I'd like to make a case for the boutique wedding photographer. 

The boutique wedding photographer runs a much smaller operation than mega studios. They may only employ a handful of people, if any, and runs most of the business themselves. However, unlike the relationship a customer has with a mega studio, the relationship of the client with the boutique wedding photographer is much more intimate.

First, flexibility. As in the example of the bakery vs grocery store above, it can be as simple as the baker knowing your usual order or the ability to personalize your bread to your specific liking. You can't get that from a loaf in a bag that's been mass produced.

Second, integrity. I confess, when I first started my career nine years ago, I started with the mega studios. It was amazing. All I had to do was make one 10 minute phone call the week of the wedding, show up and shoot for a set number of hours, and ship/upload the photos in the next couple of days. But after a couple years of doing this kind of work I felt like I lost my artistic soul and felt it was incredibly unfair for the wonderful couples I got to shoot. As a photographer, it's imperative to me that I connect with my subject. For couples, I want to understand their unique relationship so that my photographs of them will reflect that. Shooting for the mega studios, I didn't have the opportunity to get to know my clients and I ended up producing a product, not artistic work.

Third, quality. This is the big one. Not having met or gotten to know the wedding photographer beforehand, the client has no idea what to expect. You see, unlike a product that has been mass produced by a corporate system, the boutique wedding photographer is motivated to produce the best quality of work possible due a combination of having far less volume and the ability to listen to the client's specific requests. A personal connection between the wedding photographer and the client goes a really long way.

And that's the photographer I want to be. I want to be your personal wedding photographer. I want to know and understand the unique connection that you have with each other and capture it for years to come.

Stop Defending Wedding Photography Pricing

Before any wedding photographers reading this post jumps down my throat, I want to remind them that I am also a wedding photographer and to read all the way through until the end because I do offer a way better alternative.

The most common argument that I see for wedding photographers defending their pricing is the following:

I [the wedding photographer] am justified in charging what seems to be a high fee for my services because my professional equipment costs a lot of money, I have to pay for professional association fees, insurance, employees, continuing education and other business related expenses.

Some take it even further to include living expenses such as car payment, rent, child care etc. I'm not going to point fingers because wedding photographers have notoriously large egos and they may come after me if I start listing links. A simple Google search will bring up an abundance of examples.

But by the logic above, the cheeseburger I buy at McDonald's for a dollar and some change is grossly under priced and its real worth is untold thousands

Let's break down the argument using the same logic that wedding photographers use for a typical hamburger franchise:

Equipment fees: thousands of dollars
Employees: $9/hour
Training: hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars
Franchising fees: thousands of dollars
Other expenses such as napkins, fire extinguishers etc.
Total price of cheeseburger: Thousands and thousands of dollars.

You see my point.

I think it can be exceedingly damaging for wedding photographers to defend their pricing by basing it on the cost of doing business. I would never tell my clients how much it costs to run my business as justification for the prices I charge. They'd think I'm either nuts, an idiot, an amateur, or all three.

Instead, it's much more beneficial to both the industry and the wedding photographer to base pricing on value. For example:

Your faucet is leaking. You don't know how to fix it so you call the plumber. The plumber tightens a bolt and fixes it in five minutes flat. The plumber charges you $20. Do you get upset because all he did was tighten a bolt and it only took him five minutes? Of course not. Because you're paying for his expertise and the convenience of not learning everything there is to know about fixing faucets or getting your hands dirty.

Another example: you go to the emergency room because your ears hurt. The doctor looks into your ears and says you have too much ear wax and flushes them out for you. He charges you $400. Do you get upset because all he did was squirt warm water in your ears to get rid of ear wax? Of course not. Because it's the middle of the night and you were at home with your ears hurting and you had no idea why and thought you were going deaf or possibly a brain tumor so you got in your car and drove to the ER at 2 in the morning. 

That totally wasn't a personal experience, by the way.

(yes it was)

But my point is, pricing is not based on the cost of doing business, but rather the perceived market value of the products and services the business offers.

Think of everything the wedding photographer actually does:

  • Shoot a variety of subjects in a wide variety of conditions
  • Shoot all styles of photography including products, landscape, portraits, journalistic, etc all under time constraints and pressure from the venue, family, client etc while maintaining a professional and courteous demeanor
  • Culling, editing, and proofing
  • Album design
  • Dealing with emergencies
  • Planning and logistics
  • The invaluable convenience and trust of having a professional take your photos
  • The ability to capture split second photos made possible by years of experience
  • Instinct that developed over untold thousands of hours of shooting in all kinds of situations
  • A once in a lifetime event (hopefully)
  • Expertise in all areas of photography including lighting, cameras and lenses know how, mixed lighting, how to make water look silky or how to blur out the background etc.

Not to mention the impossible to quantify items such as talent, personality, years of unique experiences, ability to lead and make decisions, the wear and tear of shooting multiple weddings every weekend etc etc the list goes on and on.

That's what the the client is paying for.

And you'd rather base your pricing on how much it costs to be a wedding photographer? Doesn't that seem really cheap to you? I'll stick with the incredible value that a wedding photographer provides.