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Thursday, November 02, 2006

On the Road

This is the story of Ken from Color Dots, a wedding photographer who has recently started his professional journey. His journey is both familiar and inspiring and certainly worth a read for photographers planning on going full time.

Let me start of with a little history about myself. I was in the civil service and drawing safe and stable income when I first joined the workforce. During the couple of years I was in the service, I made very good progress which was enviable amongst my peers.

However, it became quickly apparent that I was unhappy with the satisfaction my job could give me, and was truly distressed by the fact that this could be what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. Since then, I spent a considerable amount of time understanding what I want; what moves me; what sustains me. By some twist of fate, while I was researching on photography for my own wedding, I was intrigued, inspired and touched by what wedding photographers can do. The beauty of what they can create. The power of photography. How this power can be used to create the most special gift. The greatest gift of all – the gift of love; which can be immortalized through photography. It wasn’t just photography, but wedding photography.

For a few years while still holding on to my job in civil service, fuelled by my new-found passion, I began my “education” in photography. There were some extremely nice working photographers who took me with them during their shoots and gave me tips and pointers on wedding photography. At the same time, I studied intently the style of wedding photography overseas, which is considerably different from our local flavour.

After a few assignments, I took the “leap of faith” (as many seniors have put it) and resigned from the civil service and plunged blindly into full-time wedding photography. That was despite warnings from my seniors and mentors. Not to mention stiff opposition from my wife and family. I was bringing in stable income, making very good career advancements, and venturing in to a literally unknown ground, bearing risks that would not just affect me, but my family as well. But the push from doing what I dislike, and the lure of my ignited passion in wedding photography was too great.

At the end of the leap of faith wasn’t a pot of gold. I fell flat in my face in muddy waters. My very first realization is that there are an immeasurable number of photographers who are willing to shoot weddings for very low rates, which is despite the high cost of providing the service. This is also despite the fact that the general standard of service offered by this group of photographers is pretty high, and I’m not just talking about photography standards alone.

I got a sizeable number of enquiries for my services. Most of the time, if not all the time, the couple would express how much they like my work. Out of these times, most of the time, if not all the time, the meeting will end with them telling me how another photographer can produce the same amount of tangible deliverables at a lower price. That was despite the fact that with the price I was initially willing to accept, I could only survive. But not recoup any of my investment dollars at all. And have no other dollars for any future reinvestments, such as replacement equipment. Plus, any financial setbacks would kill me. Something was terribly wrong.

I was fortunate enough to get to know Gilbert Chua of 9 Frames, who gave me pointers on the business aspect of photography. The importance of careful cost analysis and realistic pricing. After doing careful calculations, I realized I had to charge almost twice as much as I was charging in order to just break even. I could hardly get clients who were willing pay for my current rate at that time. There was no way I could ever find any client clients at all, once I doubled my rates. The advice that followed got stuck in my head and it still rings pretty often, even until now – “If this is the amount I have to charge in order to survive, and I can’t get clients who can pay this amount, by logical deduction, I better have an exit path ready”. That was my very first decent pay check; and it came from a generous fellow photographer. A reality check. (And yes, I know Singaporeans spell it as “cheque”, and please pardon the cheesy pun.)

As a new full-time photographer, I was immensely concerned about the next booking. I was constantly checking on the email and looking at my mobile phone. Constantly means every other minute. I was constantly worried about reaching out to clients; finding clients who were willing to pay for my services. I had to resist the temptation of lowering my prices, just so that I could find clients. To be really honest, I gave in to that temptation at some point, but could not find one single client, even at a ridiculous rate. I decided not to waste my time with price competition. Even if I did find my clients, I would fold up my business anyway, given that for each shoot, I actually make losses.

Between then and now, I re-looked at my portfolio, my website, pricing and other details to my business model that are detrimental to the growth of my company. I suspect there’s no ending to these … stuff that I had to do. It sounds very… unromantic, in the world of wedding photography. It was what I had to do before I could straighten out my start out path so that I can get the journey ahead of my wedding photography career right. Getting these issues out of the way would also allow me to focus better during each shoot, so that I could deliver only the best to my clients. I am still examining the fundamental issues that affect my business model, and straighten things out as I go along. At the same time, I’m still doing what I used to do – checking out the works of other photographers. The inspiration that spurs me to produce photographs that are as powerful as those keeps my fire burning, and it gives me the strength to do what it takes to get there.

Ken Teo


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