Many photographers come to this industry from a love of capturing photos. Perhaps it’s that you fell head-over-heels in love with weddings after the experience of your own wedding. Maybe you started out taking photos of your family or pets, and progressed to portraits, and then weddings felt like a natural next step. However you found your way to this kind of work, it can be a little overwhelming to get started. It’s easy to feel spread thin, trying to figure out how to set yourself up for success. Most photographers are passionate about the creative work they do with awesome people, but less dazzled by spreadsheets, management, and the behind-the-scenes aspects of running a business. Many aren’t really prepared for the reality that when it comes to your time, the overwhelming majority of it will be spent on the latter. Communication, advertising, marketing, HR, coordination, customer service, contract preparation, accounting… these are going to take up the bulk of your world.
While it can be a little unexciting to talk about these aspects that structure your business, it sure can help to get you off to the right start. So I wanted to give you a quick lowdown on some of the ways I keep our business running, keep it organized, and keep our clients prepared.
What’s your number one most valuable tool long term?
Start using a CRM (aka Customer Relationship Manager). Basically an online system that allows you to manage your business. I use Pixifi and love it because it’s so flexible and comprehensive (and because their customer service in adding customer requests has been incredible), but there are a bunch of options out there that may suit different people. Just to be clear so there are no misunderstandings, in some other industries they use the term CRM to represent client marketing and promotional communications, but within the photography sphere we generally all agree it means business management software. Essentially, it’s a database where I manage my inquiries, client database, workflows & checklists, staff, contracting, invoicing and payments, etc. It’s what helps me ensure we’re on top of things, that nobody slips through the cracks, and that our clients are well-cared for.
When is the right time to shift to a CRM?
Well if you’re tracking all your clients in spreadsheets or documents (or dare I mention post-it notes), eventually you’re likely to hit a point where you start losing track in some way, where it starts feeling like too much of a juggle to keep track. Or maybe, you have need of certain features that would help streamline your life, such as contracting, invoicing, and workflows. Perhaps you just want to simplify by not using a variety of different services when you could amalgamate them in one.
So the secret is just using smart technology? Are there any non-tech solutions to running your business?
I’m clearly a lover of technology, as you can tell by my CRM description! But every so often I lean into an anolog system that just feels right. For me, that’s my gear checklist. I have a literal printed paper list of all my gear, my essential items, basically everything I’ve previously posted about here. I physically check each item off it. Once upon a time, in my wedding biz youth, I shot a wedding without a camera strap. Yes, as a dual-camera shooter. That was quite an interesting (read: uncomfortable) day. The next day, the checklist was born, as I wasn’t about to make that mistake again, nor leave out any other essential item. Anything you’d take for granted as a given, I actually put on the checklist, so no accidents ever happen again. Basically, running a business is just learning a series of lessons and making changes to ensure they don’t happen again (honestly, that’s exactly how my contracts have evolved, too).
Team cheat sheets can help
I send my second shooters a ‘cheat sheet’ of wedding details a week before every wedding. Back in my second-shooting days, it was extremely rare to be provided with much information about what I could expect at a wedding. As someone that loves feeling prepared, I really disliked showing up and having everything be a surprise. My team are dear friends and I value them immensely—I want to ensure they feel equipped, and that we’re on the same page for serving our clients to the best of our ability. So my seconds get a couple of things.
First, a shortlist email of basics. I include names, a link to their session, our timing for arrival/start/finish, addresses, timelines, worksheets, guest count, basic timing plans, ceremony details, and notes on our general plan and any particulars to expect. If particularly elaborate we may chat on the phone in advance. In addition to those basics, I also provide full worksheets along with more elaborate plans, just in case their personality type calls for being well-versed on all the details. These are both linked in an email as well as printed out for them to carry on the day. More than once, my second has been able to pull out their print-outs to answer a guest’s question about the timeline. It’s worth the prep. Helping your second shooters approach the day in the way that works best for them can be a helpful way for you to ensure it’s a flawless experience with a team built on trust.
Preparing your second-shooters
Booking seconds could be its own article entirely, but in addition to extremely carefully vetting and booking your team roster (yes, you should be seeing several full galleries of theirs and ideally just them alone, not mixed with a different second’s work; yes you should be meeting in advance and discussing your approach and priorities and how they’re comfortable working, setting expectations) there are a few smart business practices to follow to make sure your day stays as stress-free as feasible. One trick I like is to remind your second to sync in advance to time.gov and then it’s one less thing to fuss with on the day, and save you time. I highly recommend you bring cards to have your second shoot on. Some photographers just have their seconds shoot on their own (ie the second’s own) cards and then have to back up cards onsite at the end of the night, but it’s such a tedious pain at the end of the night. I do let my seconds back up on their own SDs if they wish but I give them my CFs so at the end of the night I can just take them and go. No muss, no fuss, and no time wasted.
To ensure my clients stay stress-free on their special day, and feel both organized and taken care of, my most valuable asset is a worksheet check-in at the two-months-out mark. It’s close enough to the wedding that most decisions have been pretty nailed down, but far enough out that there’s still some wiggle room for us to give feedback and request changes. This is the point at which we often learn about issues with their timeline, about changes they’ve made to the original plan, or issues we should be aware of. It’s also an opportunity to get to know them and their priorities. Think of your questionnaires as a resource that allows you to have all the information you need, so you won’t need to bug your clients with even one question on the big day.
What questions do you ask?
I send these out to gather all the essential information that I need (such as addresses, contact info, scope of plans, etc) as well as impactful details (such as family situations we should be sensitive to, priority decor or DIYs, vendor lists, etc). Most good CRMs offer questionnaires as a feature. I also send a separate sheet for family portrait group lists and then we do some back-and-forth work. Honestly, the family groupings are probably the most valuable part of the worksheets. I ask clients to fill them out within two weeks, but give them up to a month. At that point, I review the content and hop on the phone with the clients if I have any questions or if I have feedback on timeline changes or other issues I’d advise to change.
Timelines and Group Lists
I used to anxiously await last-minute timelines from a couple or their planners. Often these were messy, overly long, or confusing. Sometimes all three. No more! If you can accommodate the extra work it takes (and it do be like that), I have found it’s well worth it to make your own photo timeline. I swear by a single-page timeline: I need to be able to look at it all at once, no flipping through 10 pages of irrelevant caterer information to find the important info to me. I’m generally working on this as soon as I’ve had a couple complete their worksheets, so this is usually ready to share with a couple about 6 weeks in advance of a wedding. 90% of the time, their planner won’t have a shareable timeline yet at that point, so I’ve found that by building my own (in cooperation with my couple), it prevents issues. I use Google Docs to build timelines since they are cooperative docs you can send to your clients to have them revise and update right into them.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received a timeline two days before a wedding full of surprise issues, so this is a preventative measure where instead of being stuck with problems, you ward off the pitfalls by directly providing the planner with your timeline needs *before* they’ve built theirs. Plus, many planners just don’t factor certain photo-related things into their timeline, like if the venue is huge and we’ll need extra time just to walk through it for couple portraits, or that having a huge wedding party doubles the amount of time needed for those portraits.
I’ll also do a second page which is the family groups list. The couple fills one of these out in my worksheets, but then I take that content and reorganize it for the most efficient flow, distribute it so it’s also a single-pager, for a smarter and more efficient use of time. This allows the clients to also make edits/updates right into the doc (as we all know the final week before the wedding there are often guest changes). Often we see a lot of redundancy, or clients have unrealistic hopes for how much time it can take, so revising this list can make a huge impact on the wedding day. It also protects you so you have a paper trail of communications and approved changes by your clients.
Any final hot tips or things to keep in mind?
Lean into that CRM and the amazing things it can do. Workflows are the best thing ever. Being able to create invoices and contracts is great, but what’s even better is automation. Being able to send invoice reminders, have vendor lists auto-populate events, add staff to events, and track your financials? This will make the difference in keeping your business in order, and ensuring your clients feel prepared and have their expectations set. Clients often thank me for the simple, smooth, and modern experience they have in signing documents, paying invoices, and answering worksheets. But be careful—don’t ask more from your clients than they can comfortably give when fielding all sorts of other wedding prep stuff. Keep it simple and straightforward. Part of the reason I schedule the worksheets well in advance is that the final month of wedding prep for them will be so frenzied and busy. If you can get most of the bureaucratic stuff out of the way with clients well before they hit that stressed-out stretch, it’ll help ensure they look back on their experience with you as helpful, anxiety-reducing, and stabilizing.