PetaPixel

From Hot Type to Bottom Feeders: Adapt or Die as a Wedding Photographer

press

Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, my great grandfather started a printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, which, for many, many years was one of the finest and most successful letterpress shops in that city. Nearly every male descendant of Charles Jefferson Armor, including my great uncle, my grandfather, and my father, worked there for most if not all of their lives.

I recall with great fondness the occasional Saturday mornings when I would accompany my dad into work, stopping first at the Horn and Hardart automat at 8th and Market St. for cream donuts and hot chocolate. Incidentally, and an interesting tangent to my story here, H&H (as it was known for nearly a century) closed its doors in Philly forever in the late 70‘s. It was another victim of the fast food craze being led by more ubiquitous, lower cost chains like McDonald’s, whose shiny new franchise quickly occupied the automat’s former space at 8th and Market.

After breakfast we’d walk the several bustling Center City blocks to a tall brick building at 10th and Race. Painted on the wall seven floors overhead, a bold sign proudly proclaimed my family’s name “Lyon and Armor, Inc., Printers and Publishers” to the city skyline.

I always marveled at the full suit of armor that greeted visitors to the firm’s front office on the sixth floor. It was fake, of course, but for some reason my great uncle felt the need to put evidence of his Anglo-Saxon heritage right up front (as if his name, C. Wesley Armor wasn’t enough of a tipoff). The warren of offices and low partitions — refined, businesslike but maybe a little dated for the swinging sixties — would make a postmodern design-obsessed retrophile froth at the mouth with its bent maple and frosted glass art deco-ness.

My dad’s small office was in the front, but for me, the action was always out back on the shop floor. That’s where my grandfather would be working behind his steaming, clanking Linotype typesetting machine.

linotype

From across the vast room I’d see him sitting there typing away contentedly, pipe in mouth, transcribing copy from a sheet of paper into the huge greasy contraption that looked like a prop from the movie Brazil (but without the ductwork). He’d look up from his work, smile and shout “hello, kiddo!”, and in the time it took me to make my way past the presses and the composing tables he had punched out a thin slug of hot lead type that read “John Randall Armor” backwards on its narrow edge.

Some of my most cherished possessions are a Parker fountain pen blackened by his permanently ink-stained fingers, along with a few beautiful books with endplate inscriptions reading “Linotype Composition by the Master Printer John Pharo Armor”.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Lyon and Armor was in trouble back then. Technology was changing the printing business in profound ways, first with the advent of offset presses, then with early computer technology in the form of photo typesetting. These cost-cutting and time-saving innovations were driving prices down and competition up.

Faced with the overwhelming challenge of converting what had for over half a century been a mature and static infrastructure into a more modern facility, my grandfather and great uncle cashed out and reluctantly sold the business in 1971.

Under new ownership, Lyon and Armor, Inc. moved from downtown Philly to a nondescript industrial park in the northern suburbs. With the sale went the good name of the business in the person of my father, Charles Winston Armor. As the only Armor remaining in what quickly became just another small print shop trying to compete in a rapidly changing industry, the pressure of maintaining the family name and reputation in a business that could no longer afford to care much about either took its toll on him, and he died a very young man at 50 in 1980. The mostly abandoned building with its fading sign at 10th and Race survived into the early nineties, when it was demolished without ceremony after a fire.

It took many years, but technology killed the printing industry’s traditional business model as dead as fast food chains killed H&H, while at the same time spawning entirely new ones. Cheap, high quality print-on-demand products like the Moo cards and Blurb books on the desk in front of me as I write this are but two examples of what grew from that revolution.

moocards

I remember a conversation I had with my dad toward the end of his life. I was maybe 17 or 18, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my own, and he said to me “whatever you do, don’t go into printing”.

And yet I somehow soon found my way into the periphery of his world. In 1987, I took a part-time job as a production artist with the art and design supply retailer Charrette while I was trying to get a freelance photography business off the ground. It was a fortuitous gig that would eventually lead to me running their in-house photography studio for almost 5 years. It would also allow me to participate first hand in the desktop publishing revolution that pushed our drawing boards, parallel rules, X-acto knives, stat cameras and photo typesetting system into the dumpster, replaced by shiny new beige Macintosh SE30 computers running Aldus Pagemaker on 7” monochrome displays.

Like the printing industry before it, technology killed both the process and the business model of traditional commercial design and pre-press production, this time seemingly overnight. The woman who used to run Charrette’s photo typesetting system reluctantly adapted to the boxy little Mac computers while teaching the rest of us some of the finer points of typography. Suddenly we were all designers, production artists and typesetters, and all of our work improved as a result of the new tools and integrated skillsets. Those who ignored the sea change soon became none of the above.

I went through the same change yet again less than a decade later, as traditional photography began its own inevitable shift toward digital. Those who didn’t change with it saw their businesses and relevance decline, slowly at first, but unsustainably at last. And now, everybody (and I mean everybody) is a photographer, and all of our work has the potential to be better than we ever could have imagined. The fact that surprisingly little of it ever does rise to meet that potential has nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with the belief that technology alone makes our work better.

photographers

All of that is meant to present my bona fides as someone conversant with the concept of change in my professional specialty. And all of that now brings me to my point.

In this past Sunday’s New York Times Style section, an article entitled For Photographers, Competition Gets Fierce caught my eye. The main thrust of the story describes the struggle many established photographers are having trying to compete with the growing numbers of newcomers and part-time “mamarazzis” charging $1000 or less to shoot a wedding, delivering nothing more than a disc of digital files and a handshake to the happy couple at the end of their big day. In many markets, this is already destroying the traditional studio’s business and profit model of selling high-markup items like prints and albums after the shoot itself. Needless to say, established wedding photographers are pissed.

The article closes with one of them describing how, instead of staying pissed, he decided to adjust to the evolving nature of the business and his clients’ expectations by closing his large studio and moving to a warmer climate with its longer shooting season. Understanding that $1000 for less than a day’s work is not exactly chump change for a one-man business with little overhead, he seems to have happily found a way to make it work. I can only assume that this photographer shoots other types of work to supplement his wedding income — even a wedding a week is only $52 grand a year, before taxes.

The argument against what many consider “bottom feeders” like these tends to be couched in terms of “quality”, “artistry”, and “service”. Many photographers invested in the overhead of studio space and staff (and maybe even fueled by just a touch of ego) say that their clients expect more from them (and are willing to pay for it) than the folks who hire the lowballers.

And that may be true, for now.

Look — the only thing that doesn’t change is change, and change these days is forging ahead at a pace that is almost incomprehensible. New technology always drives prices down and competition up, and the creative destruction it causes always results in fertile new ground for those with brains and balls.

The technology and tools are changing, but so are our clients — yes, even wedding clients. As it becomes easier and easier to learn more and more about photography along with just about everything else, not only are professional photographers taking it all in, so are their wedding clients and guests. They own the same gear and software, frequent the same websites, study the same tutorials, follow and sometimes even set the same trends, and may even occasionally take the same classes and workshops that we do.

weddingguest

The digitalization and democratization of information since the mid-90s has brought change to every aspect of photography, and professionals who have stared that change in the face without at least considering its implications to their businesses have done so at great peril. Just the aesthetic and immediacy of cellphone cameras and Instagram filters alone have become the new standard of coolness and creativity for many, and no amount of professional spin will convince certain young, hip clients who may know as much (if not more) about Photoshop than we do that our years of experience, training and business investment justify our high price tag.

“Good enough” has become good enough, as we all have suspected for some time. But what some often fail to acknowledge is that nowadays good enough can be pretty damn good, and in many ways is better than its ever been.

So where does that leave today’s wedding photographer, or any commercial photographer for that matter? What’s the solution?

While I don’t profess to have a definitive answer, I do suspect that it comes down to an ongoing focus on innovation, adaptation and reevaluation, which is how healthy and forward thinking businesses and individuals have always responded in times of upheaval and opportunity. It’s the solution that my grandfather and great uncle were either unwilling or unable to accept and implement in my family’s printing business. It’s even the solution that wedding photographers have turned to in the past.

oldschool

When I shot weddings in the early 80s, I worked for a studio that practiced what was at the time a pretty typical approach to the business. While we didn’t bend our brides into 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses, we did stress a certain formality to weddings and portraiture while being mindful of so called “contemporary” trends, just like most other successful studios of the day did. We were trying to appeal to both our young couples as well as their parents, who were usually the ones, historically, paying the bill.

Around that same time, perhaps as a response to the yuppie phenomenon of couples marrying later after becoming successful enough to call their own shots and pay for their own weddings, some innovative photographers starting practicing what came to be called the “photojournalistic” style. By hanging back and shooting a lot of film with small cameras, they sold themselves as being uniquely suited to capture the day faithfully without interference or manipulation, and for a while, they were.

Those savvy and conspicuously consumptive couples loved the freshness, individuality and authenticity of the look so much that eventually, that new approach became the new normal. Photographers who stuck to their traditional guns found themselves with fewer and fewer targets to aim at.

The new style became so popular that couples took it a step further by distributing cheap disposable cameras to their guests in order to collect a fuller, more spontaneous record of their wedding to supplement what their paid professional shooter could provide.

guest

Some photographers responded to what they perceived as a threat to their role with exclusivity clauses in their contracts attempting to prohibit guests from photographing certain aspects of the celebrations, a bad move that usually resulted in a collective “Oh yeah? F**k you!” response. But other photographers sensed an opportunity with this early version of crowdsourcing, and began providing (selling) those same sometimes branded disposable cameras to their clients and including a selection of their guests’ photos in new, expanded (thus more expensive and profitable) albums and multimedia presentations.

The business has evolved continuously since that time, with every hot new look, gimmick or turnkey solution that vendors, gurus and other industry trendsetters at Las Vegas trade shows can peddle. With photojournalistic coverage giving up some ground in recent years to “fashion” styles, noir portraiture, retro and vintage obsessions and the like, surely a return to 1950’s Monte Zucker PPA-approved pretzel poses can’t be far behind, something maybe even more easily enabled by a $9.99 puppet-warp-inspired iPhone app!

While in the background, waiting to pounce like thugs in the dark, there lurk the bottom feeders. They’re making their mark by somehow making it work, $1000 wedding at a time. They come and they go, but their numbers are trending upward, as are the couples willing to hire them.

How you respond and adapt to that trend is up to you, but respond and adapt you must. Because just like the expensive shooters, a lot of them suck, most of them are carbon copies of each other, some of them are surprisingly good, and a few may even be great. Just like the expensive shooters, they are participating in a free market system that champions the hallowed codependency of a willing buyer and a willing seller. God bless them if they can do it, and god help any professional who believes there’s a reason why they shouldn’t be able to.

“Grow or die” was the mantra that I and many of my colleagues kept repeating to ourselves as we struggled to respond to the cascading revolutions that have happened during my 30-some years in this crazy, wonderful industry. I suggest with all sincerity and humility that it should be yours as well.


About the author: Randall Armor is the Director of the Professional Photography Certificate Program at Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts. For more information, visit his website at armorfoto.com. This article originally appeared here.


Image credits: Linotype by ninastoessinger, Moo cards by kennymatic, Everyone wanna shoot by NeoXerxes, wth! (read the description) by imagesbyk2 Photography, Waiting for the bride’s entrance by Joybot, PA1990.13.309, Studio portrait of bride and groom, Albuquerque by ABQ MUSEUM PHOTOARCHIVES, Day 67 by squeezeomatic


 
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=27400106 David A. Smith

    As a wedding photographer, I agree with your sentiment. I used to get upset about the glut of low-end vendors in the field, but now I don’t let it bother me. I know the marketplace changes, and those who adapt + provide quality work/service will be able to exist and prosper.

  • Oliver

    Great wel written piece, loved it

  • Chris Scuffins

    Great post. For an industry that is based on the permanent and ever lasting record of the happiest day in someone’s life, there is a whole load of depressing, negative whinging about the poor state of the industry. Perhaps if more wedding photographers spent more time focusing on the love and happiness between people then bitching about bottom feeders, then maybe they would have that unique selling point that would bring them to the top of their field. Just saying.

  • gmphotos

    I see the attitude out there as “good enough is good enough”, but I do not see the photography imporving overall. If anything, it is getting worse and unsuspecting wedding clients have created a market where their photography has become just a commodity. There are too many want-to-be, non-talented photographers out there who willfully take on the delicate event of a wedding and who have no business being there. Just because someone has a camera, that does not make them a photographer. I have a pencil, but I am not an accountant. Even with software, I am still not a replacement for a good accountant. It is unfortuante that a narrow minded and unsophisticated market is hiring these “photographer-wanna-bes” with no talent, all based on price, and they will get crappy images in the end. I do not mind it so much in the portrait arena because you can always retake a portrait. But a wedding happens just once, in real time, and you have to be skilled to capture it properly. Like so many other easy technologies that have been brought to the masses, this trend will go on, then people will finally start demanding quality images and then prices will rise again along with educated demand for good images. At least I hope. Mediocrity is not what we want.

  • 3ric15

    Linotype machines are so cool, I’ve seen one running in real life and even have my own matrix from those machines.

  • KLC

    I think there is an additional force here beyond changing technology. Our culture has become increasingly casual and less formal. 50 years ago a wedding was seen as a formal public event with formal photographic rituals accompanying it. That formality is gone and so the formal photographic demands are gone too.

  • Jeff

    No talent want-to-be photogs serve a purpose. I have said this before and I will say it again. Not everyone needs a BMW. Some of us are happy driving a Toyota. Likewise, not all of us need a fancy photo package. I am a photographer and I get the importance of high quality photos, but the idea that a wedding is a delicate event which one needs to spend several thousand on is nothing more than marketing hype. My wedding budget is a mere 2000. If I spend 1000 on a photog and 1000 on food I have nothing left for anything else. And for my photog to eat up half my budget is stupid.

    Quite frankly wedding photos are over hyped as well. Beyond one or two wedding photos, who looks at them? I’d rather save my money on my photog and have it in my savings account for when I retire. The $1000 I save on a photog turns into over $10,000 (after inflation) if properly invested by the time I am 60.

  • Peter

    Exactly. I’ve been saying this for a while now. The reason the customer is always right is because they have the money. If many of them, if not most, feel like they can get a good cost / quality (value) and spend less then thats a market expensive wedding photographers can’t just wish away.

    If, as a wedding photographer in this example, wants to deliver a ‘quality experience’ etc. then that is all well and good. But as soon as they want to make money, then its the customer that dictates the terms.

    And its unfortunate, but no amount of wanting to be exclusive and being pissed at ‘bottom feeders’, will change reality. I’m a stickler for tradition but adapt and change is what will save the industry.

  • Mansgame

    Nice piece. I think a lot of photographers, especially wedding photographers have a highly exaggerated view of the importance of their profession.

  • http://twitter.com/sidceaser Sid Ceaser

    Lots of people I know don’t have a lot of money to put towards wedding photography, or lots to put towards a wedding period. I’ve never understood why someone would spend what is basically a fantastic down payment on a home on a day of excess. I once attended a wedding that almost went three days. Unnecessary. I don’t shoot weddings, but I did agree to help someone that played live music at my wedding. His budget can’t afford him to go with the wedding photographers I recommended to him so I’m stepping in to help out. He’ll get good photographs, and I’ll get to shoot a wedding in my style and still pocket some income from it. People who shoot weddings for 5k or 10k or 20k shouldn’t be worrying about the people shooting 1k or lower because they aren’t in the same price market. People who can only afford $600 certainly are not going to be eyeballing wedding photographers that charge 6 or 10 times that amount. Let all the people swimming in the sub 1k market fight each other out. If you used to shoot weddings for 5 or 7 or 8k and you are complaining about or somehow loosing work to sub 1K shooters it might be time to step back and evaluate the quality of your work. I’m guessing wedding shooters pricing themselves at 1k are not going to be the main problem.

    I price my services at a specific starting point to avoid all the window shoppers looking for lowest price.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1045513599 SymbolPhoto Boston

    I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. I find it most interesting that so many folks think it’s a quick buck. My mantra has been and always will be “If you shoot weddings for money only, you won’t last long.”

  • Kyle

    I like this. I’m currently working on a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, but I earn some extra money by shooting for a local newspaper and a friend of mine and I shoot the occasional wedding. I am a sub 1K shooter (for now) and I have to fight off the “real photographers” telling me how photographers like me are destroying the photography market. But every couple I shoot for are among those that have a very limited amount of money to spend on a wedding, so I have not stolen one client away from any of the other photographers in my area that charge 8-10K per wedding. And no, I don’t show up with a rebel and a kit lens, I proudly shoot with canon EOS 1-series bodies (saving now for a dx one day), all L lenses (save a 50 1.4), canon flashes, pocket wizards, and lowepro bags full of gear. All couples that have hired me have been thrilled with the images that I provide them with, and some that have used more expensive photographers have even preferred my work over theirs.

  • James

    I just attended a 100K wedding with three photographers. Your penny pinching ways are offensive to me. If you’re a cheap douche, just say so and dispense with the lame rationalizations of why your life choices left you with little choice but to spend a maximum of 2K on your wedding.

  • Andres Trujillo

    While I understand the logic put forward by you and Peter, here’s a secret though, the day, pictures, event, etc ain’t for you. You may not see why it is neccesary, you may not see the logic behind it, you may not understand it… but the bride sure as hell does

  • http://twitter.com/sidceaser Sid Ceaser

    This is a terrible response.

  • Ingemar Smith

    You’re one of the few in here talking sense. This is what I want Petapixel to do a piece on.

    Marriage doesn’t mean the same thing anymore therefore, WEDDINGS DON’T MEAN THE SAME THING. The declining value of ‘the big day’, more than technological advance and accessibility to cameras, is why good enough has become good enough.

    Whatever you feel about the institution of marriage personally, as a society, it is less important and thus the weddings are of far less pomp and circumstance. Particularly for working people. The leisure class will still splurge because splurging is what being the leisure class is all about.

    But working class and middle income people are increasingly opting for the $1,000 (or less) photographer. There is no turning back.

  • Ingemar Smith

    People do 99% of things ‘based on price’. Why not the choosing of wedding photographers? Maybe your gripe should be with all the ‘good’ wedding photographers who price themselves out of the range of 90% of the population.

  • Scott M.

    I too remember when the “Mac” put most of us paste-up artists out of business. I remember the talented photographer who shot the meticulously arranged electrical components we made the catelogs forin our small ad agency. It all ended one day in the early 90′s. I went into typesetting after that and watched it go from $200 an hour to buying a Mac and paying a typist $5 an hour. Finally I went from graphic arts to fine arts and the change suited me. Old fashioned, handmade craftsmanship still works in some areas of fine art. Especially painting. Photography is something I love to play with and use in my art but I would be too scared to make a living with it. I admire those that can.

  • JohnnyLA

    I see that you are in the “not adapting to change” dept.

    People have to understand in that this is not going away. I know handfuls of friends and friends of friends who would refuse to get a wedding photog over the $1k price-point. They are perfectly fine with “good enough” because “good enough” is pretty damn good now. 15 years ago when there was a high barrier on entry with the cost of film, a separate esoteric class of people who hold greedily their photography in sacred books, and the un-friendliness of even the simplest of film cameras, “real” photographers had a grip on the market but photography is now everywhere, user-friendly, cheap, and instant.

    The whole populace, I think, integrate photos into everything now. Isn’t there some creative way to tap into that hunger for imagery and provide a unique service somehow? Of course! You just have to find new revenue streams and be adaptable and creative besides being a good photographer.

    Everyone knows that this is not just in photography. It’s EVERYWHERE. Music, art, video games, novel writing, cooking, you name it. We all have to adapt and change quicker than anyone in the history of the world.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    “Stolen a client”? There’s no such thing. This is capitalism. If you provide what the couple wants at a price they like they they’re yours, and the onus is on you to provide what you contracted to do. If the 8-10k shooters can’t adapt, tough luck. No industry is immune to change and none has a divine right to exist, as monks who copied books by hand on vellum found out about 500 years ago.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    What a bunch of crap. The couple — also known as the “customer” — is the arbiter of “good enough”, not the photog.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    This

  • tom

    i use to shoot weddings and i hated every minute of it. But the one thing i noticed is how the couple would spend a fortune on the cake, the caterer and the dj and then balk at the price for photography. In actuality no one is going to remember what the food was like or how the wedding cake tasted. You have to sell the value of the images over everything else they are spending money on. Photographers have sold themselves down the river.

  • Sarge912

    yup, Love it, ‘grow or die.”