Essay: The Tech Boom
Fair warning... this is a big fat block of text with exactly zero pretty photos that will be very boring to you unless you're either a photographer or a client shopping for a wedding photographer. But even if you aren't, it might pay to learn more about this "tech boom" that has made its way to the wedding industry.
Photographers, you may have already seen this in other areas. Companies like Gigsy, Thumbtack, Weddingwire, and many others, all use business models that create revenue by charging vendors for access to clients. Wait, isn't that just called lead generation? What's wrong with that? Nothing, except this new platform of lead generation is, forgive the pun, misleading. It goes like this: a photographer makes a profile with their business info, uploads some sample work, and highlights one or several specialties. The photog is then prompted when a prospective client posts a job opportunity that includes his or her specialty, as long as it falls within your geographic area.
The photographer has to act fast-- as soon as a job is posted, only five bids can be sent. Oh. I should mention, each bid will cost that vendor in "credits". I think it came out to something like $1.15 per credit in the case of Thumbtack but correct me if I'm wrong. The larger the client's budget, the more credits it cost the photographer to bid. (To Thumbtack: I'd be happy to speak to your legal team if you want to reach out and clarify what a shitshow I believe you've created).
At first, we all thought this would be a great way to make some side cash and diversify our photography portfolios a little bit. Inevitably, however, a reverse darwinism began to manifest. Or perhaps I just recognized it over a short amount of time and it was there all along. The vendor sites were so oversaturated with photographers, videographers, DJ's, and florists all looking to make a quick buck that every fruitless bid drove their starting rates further down, and many clients' expectations followed suit. For many vendors, it was just a race to the bottom until they realized that their estimates were simply unsustainable. Someone out there would offer to do the work for an impractically lower price, and win the bid.
And what happened? In the rush to be one of the first five to have their bid submitted, photographers were forgoing attention to detail. Writing estimates is time consuming and more photographers were throwing out their bottom dollar from the very beginning just to win one bid, expecting the details to be hashed out later. Even then, the vendor may realize they've grossly underbid the job and they have to reject it. Some found themselves operating at a loss-- justifying the steep discounts they provided under the illusion that they'd earn repeat business, receive a great review (and thus win more bids), or they were simply in too deep to back out.
And if they do back out, the client simply goes back to the board and begins the cycle anew-- another five photographers rush to bid, each bid costing several credits, and still no guarantee of anyone getting work. For all I know, some of those jobs could have been fake. If I were to give companies like Thumbtack the benefit of the doubt, I'd say one of their biggest issues was allowing anyone to walk right in and ask for bids without proving they had actual work in store. I wonder how many vendors were just trolled into a drawn out quote process until they gave up? I wonder if some photographers did their own "market research" to find out how their competition bids on work? Dedicated sites that seek to expose certain bidding platforms show a lot of people who have been burned, and these are just the ones who spoke out.
On top of that, far too many prospective clients were actually "window shopping", especially wedding clients. It's frustrating, unfair and misleading. Anyway, I know Thumbtack is still around, but they're only thriving off new photographers who don't know better. The new shooters go through the same thing we did, learn their lesson and eventually ditch it. Thumbtack profits from the unrealistic expectations of both inexperienced photographers and inexperienced clients. If it existed in a bubble, away from my share of the industry, I'd say live and let live.
But the Tech Boom is getting worse.
Case in point is the surge of "Studios" over the last few years. Sometimes they're called "collectives" (eyeroll) but they are actually neither. Here is what the client sees:
- A national brand.
- Operates on a snazzy web platform with no physical studio.
- Very aggressive marketing, prompting often for contact info.
- A vast network of photographers in your area. Sometimes several dozen.
- Low pricing for substantially more products compared to independent professionals.
- Geographically ambiguous/unspecific. I.E. "In your area"
- Thousands of reviews on vendor networks like weddingwire.com
Wow! All of that sounds great! At first... but doesn't it seem a little odd that a national network of wedding photographers would receive the "couple's choice" award? The couple can only rate the photographer that actually photographed their wedding. And that rating goes to the "studio". No mention of any actual photographer. It's almost like there's fine print in the client contract that says they can't write negative reviews. (Yes, that's legal).
Here's what most people don't realize. These national studios are not studios. Just like Yelp does not own restaurants and Fandango does not own theaters. They're tech companies. They're virtual networks... operated by corporations who have built online platforms for "connecting" brides with vendors. They're not even experts, even though they may have paid a famous wedding planner for the use of his or her name. Cough.
For a prospective wedding client, these websites will prompt for an e-mail or registration several times in a single visit, and use any information obtained to aggressively pursue a booking-- something an independent photographer has neither the time or will to do. This would be fine if there were enough of a market share these days, but increasingly, boutique photographers are finding it more and more difficult to compete with these companies. I mean there are a lot of weddings to go around. Unfortunately, independent photographers feel the pressure more each year, as another hundred people join the fray, as portfolio plagiarism runs rampant, and now-- tech companies are cashing in.
Photographers, you may have already seen a tech boom of sorts in other areas. Companies like Gigsy, Thumbtack, Weddingwire, all make money their from vendors rather than clients. It goes like this: a photographer makes a profile, uploads some sample work, and highlights one or several specialties. The photog is then prompted when a prospective client posts a job opportunity that includes your specialty, as long as it falls within your geographic area. He or she must act fast-- as soon as a job offer appears, only five bids can be sent. Oh. I should mention, each bid will cost the photographer "credits". I think it came out to something like $1.15 per credit. The larger the client's budget, the more credits it cost the photographer to bid.
At first, we all thought this would be a great way to make some side cash and diversify our photography portfolios a little bit. Inevitably, however, a reverse darwinism appeared to manifest. The vendor sites were so oversaturated with photographers looking to make a quick dollar that every bid drove the market rate down, and many clients' expectations followed suit.
And what happened? In the rush to be one of the first five to have their bid submitted, photographers were forgoing any attention to detail. Writing estimates is time consuming and more photographers were throwing out their bottom dollar just to win the bid, then hoping to figure out the details after. Even then, the photographer may realize they've grossly underbid the assignment and they have to reject the job. The client goes back to the board and the cycle starts over-- another five photographers rush to bid-- each bid costing several credits worth $1.15 each, and no guarantee of anyone actually getting work. For all anyone knows, some of those jobs could be outright fake. If I were to give Thumbtack the benefit of the doubt, I'd say one of their biggest issues was allowing anyone to walk right in and ask for bids without proving they had actual work in store. Far, far too many were simply "window shopping". It's frustrating, unfair and misleading. Anyway, I know Thumbtack is still around, but they're only thriving off new photographers who don't know better. The new shooters go through the same thing we did, learn their lesson and eventually ditch it. Thumbtack profits from the unrealistic expectations of both inexperienced photographers and inexperienced clients. If it existed in a bubble, away from my share of the industry, I'd say live and let live.
But the Tech Boom just got worse.
Trust me. I really want to just go ahead and list all of the "studios" I'm talking about, but if they check all of the boxes in that first list, you can identify them pretty easily on your own. So I can't name names, but I can tell you what they have in common from a photographer's perspective. The bold are statements of fact, the italics are my observations.
- They advertise job ads on Indeed, Monster and Craigslist and offer $50-75/hour pay rates. The application process is automated, just like applying to a mailroom job. Some ask for portfolios, and some don't.
- Photographers must sign a contract that makes growing their own business very difficult. A shooter can only communicate by phone with a bride, and cannot give out any contact cards during any studio-booked assignment. All inquiries must be directed to the studio.
- Photographers are expected to give their availability dates up to two years in advance. It's rare, but there are some photographers who book weddings 2 years in advance. Posting all available weekends for 24 months is not only unfair to the photographer but simply absurd.
- Photographers must agree to accept any booking if their date was available. There is no client review process. There is no meet-and-greet. If a couple wants to book you, they get you and that's that.
- Photographers must pay $500 to the studio if they turn down a booking. This is something I'm sure many brides have never considered, but if a photographer getting paid $50/hour to shoot your wedding is able to book a $3500 wedding for the same date-- on their own, then the fee to cancel might be worth it. And, having never met the photographer, how would you know if the original shooter didn't just send someone else? How would the studio know? Hell, there might be photographers out there booking 4 weddings every weekend and sending total strangers to shoot your wedding. The studio has never met your shooter and neither have you.
- Photographers must provide a second shooter, and if they can't, the studio will pair them with one, even if they have never met before. First of all, working with a secondary shooter is a very special relationship. They have to be able to predict one another's next move, anticipate overlap, and provide unique angles that aren't just two of everything. That would be impossible to guarantee if two photographers had just met for the first time *at your wedding*.
- The photographer is not paid up front for any type of deposit for dates booked. The reason photographers require a deposit is to give you a guarantee that they will not book anything else on your date, and to cover expenses associated with reserving that date. Without some kind of financial transaction to cover this, the photographer is only bound by their word, and it's MUCH more difficult to enforce or collect damages if they are a no-show. Studios have a contract with you and a separate contract for their shooter. You can bet they'll be covering themselves, but will they cover you? It's in the fine print.
- The photographer is expected to deliver 100 "usable" photos per hour booked. I was able to convince one of the recruiters to send me a gallery of what they considered an ideal wedding collection. I'm just gonna give you my opinion here... the photos were shit. And that's what happens when someone books an 8 hour wedding package and they're told to expect at least 800 images. 800 images. That's ridiculous.
- The photographer does no post-production work whatsoever. All of their images are handed over, and sent off to a fab-lab where the images are batch processed and spit out for final delivery. Just... no. NO.
Honestly, for me, I know a lot of shooters shop out their post-production work to labs. Some labs actually work very closely with the photographer to make sure the image quality and final result is in line with that specific shooter's style. I have nothing against that and frankly, it's idea because the shooter can spend more time shooting and not behind a laptop.
But you're not getting that with a national "studio". The only way for them to profit is by shipping out these images to a lab somewhere across the world, paying someone you've never met $20 per day, to retouch photos by a photographer they've never met. OOF. It's kind of like finding out the organic soy milk you've been drinking is actually just powdered milk and water being mixed in an abandoned warehouse. Not cool.
Now, you might be asking why I'm bothering to write all this. As of now I get about 1500 visits per month, and they're mostly for blogs that I write about individuals. So it's not really me they're interested in, but the people I feature. And that's exactly what I want! I love featuring people because that's why I got into photography in the first place. I am just a not-always-humble messenger.
I wrote this for two reasons. One, I get the satisfaction of helping my fellow independent shooters by educating clients who might otherwise go in the direction of a "national studio". I do have very good friends who rely on wedding photography as their sole source of income. It pains me to see their industry being infiltrated by tech start-ups. I am not a full-time wedding photographer. For me, one wedding per month is perfect. Partly because it gives me much more time to focus on each client, and partly because I shoot in multiple industries-- and if I only did weddings, I would just burn out. I like variety. So no, this isn't some marketing gimmick. It's a tale of caution.
The other reason is because over the last month, I've been pursued relentlessly by one of these studios. Every day for 21 days straight I would receive an e-mail at 5:30 AM asking me to review and sign their photographer's agreement. I certainly reviewed it, but obviously never signed. I also dug a little deeper. I found four "national studios" and three share the same address in the midwest. They all pay the same rate. They all have the same contracts. They all advertise as wedding experts with a network of top photographers and vendors.
They are not photographers. They are not even wedding experts. There are no studios. They're a tech company with a fantastic marketing department and relentless sales people, and they've figured out the formula for easy success. It'd be one thing if they were profiting from the sales on those bookings. I mean that's how capitalism works. The problem is their business model only works by taking advantage of photographers who are either struggling, inexperienced, or simply don't know better. I'll have none of it, and neither should you.
I've been shooting since 2005. This was taken while I was an intern with the Ladybacks at the University of Arkansas. I started from scratch with my business, and I continue to work hard every day doing what I love. I find new reasons to love my job all the time, which is why it's so important that I share what I've learned with you-- my readers, clients and colleagues.