Though our wedding photography business has always been a boutique studio, over the last two years, we made a decision to build and develop associate photographers. We looked at this as a market opportunity as we continued to grow our business – especially in our home market. We wanted to offer a service line that would be accessible to more clients, while adding to our bottom line as a business.
Since this is such a common subject of discussion, I thought it might be helpful to break down some of the important questions we had to answer when diving into this new area of business. Here are a few of the steps we took as we learned the best way to bring on Associate photographers.
1. Will your associates operate under your brand, or a separate brand?
This is one of the most common questions – whether you should market your associate photography services under a separate brand, or as an extension of your current photography brand. The reality is that there are benefits to both, and the answer depends on a lot of things.
The real question you should be asking is who the target client is for your Associate level services, and how are they different than your current clients? If you’re trying to target a completely different type of client (and I mean beyond just price), then it might definitely make sense to segment your branding more specifically.
We choose to leverage the recognition and reputation of our Signature brand, and use our Associate brand to keep more weddings in-house, that we were previously referring out based on price. We focus our website on our Signature clients, but make it easy for potential clients to see that we offer two levels of service.
What you ultimately decide depends on how you want to target your market. Either way can work when done intentionally, and done well. The choice you make determines how you approach your marketing, and how you service your clients.
2. Do you have the infrastructure set up to handle additional work?
One of the limiting factors of most photography businesses is that you can only be in one place at a time. This provides a level of control over your time and workflow. Adding Associate photographers who are shooting additional – and sometimes concurrent – weddings, can add a significant burden on your systems. For example:
– Do you have a CRM (client relationship management) tool that allows you to schedule, manage and track the additional clients – and the work that comes with them?
– Do you have a workflow system that can handle the additional image editing associated with the extra weddings?
– Do you have a proofing and ordering system that scales with your additional weddings? Are you capable of handling the additional product orders and delivery?
For our studio, we take advantage of some of the great resources available to ease our workflow load. We use ShootQ for managing our clients and keeping track of where we’re at with each. We outsource our Associate weddings for color correction and processing to minimize the additional burden on our workflow. And we use Pictage for online proofing – which allows scalable sales without us having to do anything but upload the event.
3. Does your value proposition and price make sense?
One of the hardest things for any business is to balance the value to the client with the price charged to be profitable. This is certainly true when trying to decide where to position your Associates, and what to charge. It is important to be sure your price and value proposition (what’s in it for the clients) is different enough from your Signature services, or else clients are confused.
For example, is the difference primarily about price? This tells the client that an Associate is probably less skilled, experienced, or qualified than the primary photographer. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly is important to acknowledge and understand the message we are communicating to our clients.
It’s also important to really understand your costs associated with a new service line. What do you need to charge to be profitable? What are your costs of goods? What are your additional fixed expenses? Knowing these answers allows you to figure out a price that makes sense for your business, and your market.
4. Are you equipped to manage and develop a staff of photographers?
Sometimes I have a hard time keeping myself on task – so the idea of managing other creative types can be daunting. There are any number of issues that a business faces when adding “people.” There are really two different models of Associate Branding, and either can work – depending on your business situation.
First, you can hire photographers as employees. Doing this allows you much more control over their work, but it also creates certain obligations on the part of the employer. Hiring employees can be beneficial, especially if you are looking to add a high volume of associate weddings.
Hiring your associates as employees also allows you more control over the client experience, the process, and the actual work the photographers produce. On the other hand, the additional work associated with managing employees can be a burden if your volume is lower.
The second option is to essentially farm out the work to independent contractors. Using contractors is what most business probably prefer because it’s “easier.” There’s less paperwork, no withholding, no benefits, and no regular payroll. You hire someone for a shoot and pay them when they’re done. Seems simple, right?
The downside to using contractors, is that you loose a lot of control over the work they produce, because independent contractors are just that – independent. They work for themselves. It’s also important to be sure to be clear about the ownership of images – and licensing for commercial use in your business.
Regardless of how you choose to set it up, you can easily see that you’re looking at employment and legal issues that most photographers are unexperienced with. It’s probably wise to consider working with an attorney that can help you understand your obligations and responsibilities in either situation.
The final issue with bringing on associates is whether your ready to really “manage” someone who is working on your behalf. Your associate is the public face of your company when they shoot for you. If they are great – you look great. If they are terrible – you look terrible.
You have to be willing to devote significant time to training, developing, and educating your associates, and you have to be able to hold them accountable. If you can’t do that, you’re asking for a disaster for both your associates, your clients, and your business. A good rule is to hire slowly and fire quickly.
5. Finding the right fit.
When initially looking for associate photographers, I was concerned with three things: character, competency, and chemistry.
First, I needed to know that the person I was inviting in to my business was someone of good character. I wanted someone I knew would do the right thing for the business and for the clients. I wanted to know beyond question that I could trust them.
Second, I needed to know that they were competent. I was willing to work with someone to learn our approach to weddings, and I was willing to help train and develop their skills, but there was a basic level of technical competency that needed to be there, or it wasn’t going to be worth our time. I wasn’t looking to teach someone to be a photographer – they needed to at least understand how work their camera, and to make photographs under various circumstances.
Finally, I needed for my associates to have a good chemistry – both with me, AND with our ideal clients. Even the most trusted, most incredible photographer is a bad fit if there isn’t a level of connection both with me and my business – and with the target client we’re booking.
Our current associates shot with me as a second shooter for at least a full wedding season before we felt they were ready to shoot on our behalf. I recommend you consider the same strategy of bringing someone on board and developing them yourself. By having them work closely beside you for a significant period of time, you help to educate and train them to operate the same way you do.
By taking our time, we were able to do this the right way, and we’ve had great success with our associate photographers. It’s helped us expand our business, increase our revenue, and it’s helped us to provide a place to further develop incredible photographers.
Written by Jason Aten
Jason Aten is a Michigan based wedding photographer. After a career in marketing and sales management for a Fortune 100 company, Jason became relentlessly drawn to the ability to impact people’s lives through photography. So in 2001 he quit his job to start his own photography business. Jason applies his previous marketing and sales experience to his photography business and now takes the time to educate others with his “Starting Out Right”one-day intensives and resource guides. You can find more posts like this on the Starting Out Right blog.