A few weeks ago, I was doing something so mundane I can’t remember what it is, and I suddenly realized, “OHMYGOD, I’ve been in business fifteen years!” It’s been such a crazy ride that I didn’t even realize it. So I put together this really long blog post (don’t pretend you don’t have time to read it while at home hiding from the Coronavirus!), along with photos throughout my career. Enjoy!
Sarah & Tim, September 13, 2014
Believe me when I say this has not been easy. Growing and maintaining a wedding photography business is extremely difficult. At my first conference, an instructor said, “Raise your hand if you’ve been in business five years. Raise your hand if you’ve been in business for ten. Most photography businesses close within the first five years. If you’ve made it to ten, you are fully established.” I feel so accomplished for hanging in there and weathering all the storms that the wedding photography industry has had over the past fifteen years.
I probably should start at the beginning. So I was born in Burlingame, California on a cold morning in September of 1975… Just kidding, I won’t put you though all of that. I like to say I caught the shutter bug when I was around eight years old. It was the 80’s, so no one was spaying and neutering their cats, which meant we ALWAYS had kittens. Mine was black with white paws, and his name was Boots. I decided Boots needed a photo shoot, so I set up a little studio. It consisted of a blue pillow case that was clipped to the couch and a ton of cotton balls because I wanted it to look like Boots was floating in the clouds. I used my mom’s nifty 110 film camera (comment below if you remember those) to take the pictures. I was always excited when my mom picked up the film, then utterly confused when my framing was TOTALLY NOT WHAT I FRAMED!
Uh…. I was eight and didn’t realize the viewfinder isn’t the lens of the camera.
My junior year of high school I started taking photography classes. One day, my teacher was looking at one of my prints and said, “You know, some of my worst students make the best photographers. You might end up being brilliant.” When he handed the print back I thought, “Ummmmmmm….. was that a compliment??” It’s true, I was really terrible, but so was everyone else in my class. We were sixteen! We didn’t have Instagram yet, what’do’ya want us to do? Come up with our own ideas?
Cortney & Craig, October 10, 2015
I spent years shooting in cemeteries to perfect my lighting, composition, and depth of field. My friends were my models, doing everything from jumping in the air to laying in the mud for me. My first year of college, I had my first commission! A hair stylist I knew asked if I could take some creative black and whites of her (my specialty) and make some prints in the darkroom in exchange for a color and cut. She and her husband LOVED the photos and my hair had never looked better. Although my Nonnie said I looked like a “Ubangi woman.” (Google it, she was racist.) It was 1993 and big hair was still in! I was rocking my perm!
After two years of college, I dropped out. I really wanted to be a professional photographer, but I was a single girl and I had no way of doing it. I needed to move out on my own, so I took a job as a secretary and instructor at a computer training center right after Microsoft Office was released for the very first time. Yeah, that’s how old I am. I used DOS, y’all! I worked in offices for years.
But I never lost my first love of photography.
Jenelle & Richard, February 20, 2016
I photographed my first wedding in 1998. I REALLY REALLY didn’t want to do it. I had no experience doing weddings, and had only photographed portraits in black and white and printed them in a darkroom. My friend had seen the prints, and decided she had to have me photograph her wedding. I said absolutely not. No. Nope. Never. She bugged me for a solid month until she wore me down. I told her I’d do it for the cost of the flash I needed (I didn’t even have a flash or know how to use it), but, “OK, fine, it’s your funeral!”
I had quite a bit of experience shooting black and white in college, so I understood light metering and composition. I bought the flash, got some color film, and practiced a little bit. I knew the wedding was going to be small and simple, at a friend’s house. I told them we had to start their portraits two hours before guests’ arrival, because I needed a lot of time. I photographed the couple in romantic poses in open shade, the safest light for a photographer. The grounds of the house were gorgeous. It was a huge place in Wycliffe, off Scenic in Modesto. We had so much to work with – gardens, steps, a deck, etc. It was easier than I thought.
Carrie & John, 1998
When they received their photos, they LOVED them. I made them a matted and framed black and white print of the photo above, so they could hang it in their home. I thought, “This could get me more business if people see the photo on their wall.” I was right. People started calling me to photograph their simple weddings at $500 per day.
I had a lot of fun doing this for people. I only shot around eight weddings in six years, and it was all for friends or friends of friends. It was a fun side job, as I worked full time in an office. At the time, an extra $500 was a LOT to me. I could barely afford to pay my bills and eat. Sometimes I had to choose between the two.
Mark and I married in 2003, and he helped me to continue doing weddings. He was able to support me emotionally and financially when I was ready to go for it. He bought me gear and encouraged me. In 2005, when I saw things picking up, I knew I had to make this an official business, and Dawn Kelly Photography was born. Mark created my first web site ever, and we were off to the races.
Kaitlyn & Julian, October 14, 2017
Things were rocking and rolling, and I was booking up, slowly raising prices year by year. I even pimped myself out by the hour for couples who couldn’t afford a photographer and just wanted nice ceremony photos and portraits. My first year in business, I charged an average of $600 for a wedding and did sixteen weddings. In 2006, I was charging around $1000 for a full wedding, and $300 per hour for tiny weddings where I was hired for an hour or two. I did over twenty weddings. In 2007, I was charging an average of $1200 for a full wedding, still doing hourly gigs. I did over twenty weddings that year too.
During this time in my business, I got intense pressure from everyone I knew in the photography industry to give up shooting film and start shooting digital. When I say intense pressure, I mean bullying. I was being constantly pushed and barraged with comments about how film is going to be obsolete and digital was better than film. I was told I would fail and lose my business. I had local competitors telling brides that film is “dangerous.” (For a long time, I was losing a lot of jobs to digital shooters.) It was coming from EVERYWHERE. I refused, determined to protect my art form.
I did break down and buy a digital SLR, and I used it at receptions. But the time it took to cull and edit those images was miserable and I hated it. Eventually I went back to using 100% film. I’m still the only photographer in five counties that shoots 100% film. Jokes on them, because film has been trending for the past six+ years. I’m very sought after because I’m the only photographer who has this much experience shooting film.
Kayla & Robert, October 20, 2018
Then the housing crisis of 2008 happened, and my business rapidly slowed to eleven weddings that year and to six weddings the next. I worked my ass off to recover, but in 2010, I only did fourteen.
It was time to rebrand.
I worked hard over the next few years to build my business back up, and it was an uphill battle. First of all, I still wasn’t that good at it. I was still learning. When I have to look back at my work from 2010, I cringe and die inside. “What was I doing???” is all I can think. My first few years in business (2005 – 2008), my work was TERRIBLE, but all my clients loved their photos and were thrilled with my customer service. Throughout the life of my business, I’ve always put customer service first, and THAT is what helped me grow. Not my work, but my testimonials and the huge amount of referrals because people loved working with me so much.
Stephanie & Michael, July 6, 2019
When it came time to rebrand again a few years later, I made a huge jump in pricing. This alienated my current client base, and all their referrals couldn’t afford me. But I knew I couldn’t grow a business charging $1,200 for six hours of coverage. My expenses were rising as I was becoming more and more professional, buying better gear and selling high quality albums and prints. I wanted to build a luxury brand that was relatable. My pricing was around $2,000.
The following years involved going to a lot of conferences and binging on CreativeLive’s online classes. When I started my business, I didn’t have those resources. I never worked under another photographer, so I didn’t have someone to teach me how to do this right. I got into blogging and marketing, while working on my craft and keeping up supreme customer service. The jobs started coming in, but it would never be like it was pre-2008 again. The landscape of this country had changed, affecting the Millennial generation, who watched their parents lose their homes in the housing crisis. Couples were interviewing upwards of 40 photographers, and generally going for the cheapest person they could find that would do an adequate job. They were hoarding their money. I couldn’t charge less because of the cost of film. Full weddings continued to dwindle for me.
By the time 2016 rolled around, I knew my business had to once again adapt or die.
Michelle & Brett, September 17, 2016
In September of 2016, I photographed my first Yosemite elopement. The couple is from Sacramento, and they just happened to hire me because they loved my work. I negotiated a three-hour package for them. As Mark and I were standing on Cathedral Beach, waiting for the guests to arrive, I did a 360, looking at all the majestic beauty. I thought, “I should do this. I should make a business of Yosemite elopements. Why not, I grew up here and I know the park!”
It started with taking couples I knew up there for mock wedding photos. I needed photos for my blog, web site, and social media. Once I felt I had enough photos, I played with various ways to create an elopement guide. Elopements were becoming HUGELY popular, and I knew I had to strike when the iron was hot. Eventually, I had a simple elopement guide and two packages – one for three hours and one for four. The bookings started to come in slowly but surely. People were attracted to my pricing, which was pretty low because I was entering new territory I didn’t have experience in. More so, they were attracted to my knowledge of the park, my help with planning the day, and my collective testimonials.
Megan & David, September 11, 2017
Right away I noticed that it was drastically different than shooting traditional weddings. My clients were more laid-back and easy to work with. I didn’t have bridal party fighting or refusing to cooperate. Guests weren’t falling down drunk. My back and legs didn’t hurt as much because I wasn’t standing on cement for six hours strait. And I had soooo much more time to do portraits. I immediately fell in love with Yosemite elopements, and I knew that’s what I wanted to pour my heart and soul into. I worked tirelessly at trying new techniques, new spots, new poses, new lighting… You get the point. I went to work like a warrior learning to be the best Yosemite wedding photographer I could be.
All my brides were asking about flowers, officiants, as well as hair and makeup artists. Having the marketing experience I did, I knew that all I had to do was give the people what they want. I became the only Yosemite photographer will all-inclusive packages, which included officiant, flowers, and my planning services. Slowly, as I became more experienced, I raised prices. Eventually we added hair and makeup artists and videographers to the team. The elopement guide is still a living document, constantly being updated with not only photos, but park information that is very valuable to couples who aren’t familiar with Yosemite. The testimonials were rolling in and my new @yosemiteweddingphotos page on Instagram was taking off.
Rebekah & Samuel, September 26, 2018
2018 was a blessing and a curse. It was incredible to work with couples from around the country and around the world (Australia, Canada, Japan, etc). I booked so many jobs that I could barely keep up physically. My assistant at the time was zero help, more interested in chatting with tourists or knitting under a tree while I was getting my own gear and placing the bride’s dress myself. I had to replace her with a good assistant. I had to drastically raise prices so I could slow the inquiries. I was getting up to 30 a month.
Even though I was so busy I was sick, I still thoroughly enjoyed working in Yosemite. I spent two years tweaking my elopement guide, photos, vendor team, staff, planning, and customer service, until I had the perfect well-oiled machine. The most valuable thing I did was ask my clients questions and listened to their answers. I changed things based on THEIR needs and desires. I did everything I could to learn about the ins and outs of Yosemite’s rules, guidelines, and paperwork. We made sure to stay out of restricted areas, and I never put our clients on cliffs or other dangerous spots “for the Insta.” This wasn’t about me and how I could show off. This was about creating the most streamlined, simple, comfortable, and fun experience for the clients, then delivering photos that they love and cherish.
Mariko & Jesse, May 13, 2019
2019 was incredible! My Yosemite team of vendors is amazing. It took me a year of firing and adding vendors to get the perfect dream team. Once again, all our clients were happy and praised us in their testimonials. It was the perfect amount of work for me, and I was able to continue to grow my business at a steady rate. My 2020 spring was booked up by October, full of amazing couples from around the country and around the world.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the entire world, and everything is changing once again.
Currently, I’m busy rescheduling my spring couples, making room for them in the fall. Every one of my couples has been amazing through this, understanding, and flexible. But what does the economic downturn and hard financial times we are expecting changing wedding photography? In so many ways, we as wedding professionals have to reexamine our businesses and what we are doing for our clients. It’s time to adapt or die, once again. I know we’ll have a huge influx of elopements next spring, as 2020 couples whose weddings were cancelled will need an alternate way to get married and have beautiful photos. I’m so glad I made the change from large weddings to strictly elopements and intimate weddings.
Jamie & Neil, October 17, 2019
The next step in my business is to get into education. I want to start teaching CreativeLive classes. When I first started watching this valuable educational platform, I thought, “How do I get to teach on this? When will I get to be an educator?” Well, it’s finally time! I have fifteen years of experience and a lot of public speaking training. I’m planning on writing a book for photographers and teaching workshops at conferences as well. I’ll never stop shooting elopements and weddings, but next year will look very different.
I’ll also be taking on mentoring students. I’ve always loved to help others. That’s been the core of the “why” in my business. This is a great way to make a living, but the money doesn’t compare to the happiness I bring people when I deliver their wedding photos. I want to help families preserve their precious memories so generations to come can enjoy them forever.
After this kind of success, it’s time to pay it forward. I want to help photographers and other small businesses build successful brands.
Kelly & Scott, December 6, 2019
Thank you! Thank you for supporting me in this journey. Without YOU, I wouldn’t have this experience and this business. You are so valuable to me, whether you’re a client, family, friend, or just someone who likes to read my blog. I promise I won’t let you down. I promise to keep learning and growing.
If you’d like to know more about my business, check out the About Me page on the web site.