We’ve finally “made it.”
Okay, not really. But we had an experience a few years ago that I debated about sharing, but in the end decided that it might be helpful and encouraging for my friends. This isn’t a look-at-us sort of post, but more of a what-we-wish-we-had-known-earlier sort of post.
When I (Jeff) was first starting out, I sat down to write some lofty business goals and came away with a pretty good list (I say “I” because when The Youngrens started it was actually Jeff Youngren Photography, and Erin’s only role was listening to my crazy stories and wiggling her way into being an assistant from time-to-time. I’m glad times have changed).
One of the goals – which at the time was completely serious – makes me laugh when I think about it now.
I wrote down that I would know that I had “made it” as a wedding photographer when I was able to photograph a wedding of more than 200 people at the Hotel Del Coronado with the ceremony on the Windsor Lawn and the reception in the Crown Room at the same location. The Hotel Del is an iconic fixture in San Diego and hosts all kinds of weddings – from casual intimate affairs on the beach to modest weddings in the gardens to grand over-the-top events with atmospheric budgets. Lots of people shoot at the Hotel Del, but those high-end weddings with big commissions generally take place on the Windsor Lawn and the Crown Room, so it was this specific combination that would mean that I would be able to plant my flag firmly and proudly in the ground, having made it in the world of wedding photography.
I’m sure there is a similar high-end venue in most cities where everybody longs to book a wedding. Where all of the top vendors in the area regularly make an appearance, casually dropping the coordinator’s name while sipping scotch and smoking cigars in the hotel lounge, sharing war tales of the countless weddings they’ve worked there. You know that once you shoot at that venue, you’ll earn your spot in the “big time club”, no longer peering in from the outside windows but donning your very own smoking jacket to saddle up next to the ‘pros’ at the mahogany bar.
In September of 2011, we shot that wedding.
I had completely forgotten about this until Erin and I were walking into the Hotel Del to photograph the ceremony rehearsal. I stopped dead in the parking lot, staring up at the famous red spires of the turn of the century hotel, and shared this with her. She laughed for the same reasons I laughed. WOW. How the scale of success has changed for me. I’m not saying that shooting there was a let down because it wasn’t – hooooo boy, it wasn’t! This was quite literally one of our favorite weddings of all time because of the couple, their friends, and their families (to save you the digging, here’s a link).
We laughed because it’s just so funny what I perceived as a newcomer to be the measure of success in the wedding photography industry. I thought it was about the contents of the photography package, the status of the location, the size of the invoice, and the prestige of the vendor list. That once we had that perfect combination, we would have made it.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. And that makes me so happy.
How could I have known that the factors that I attributed to “making it” would be so short sighted? Success is not a profit margin, a vendor list, a venue, or even a six-figure income. It’s all about the couple and your art. Period. End-of-story.
For us, success is when you connect with a couple on such a deep level that serving them through photography is as natural as friendship. When the connection is so strong that you’re moved to tears as the bride walks down the aisle to marry her groom under an oak tree in a park on a warm summer’s day. That’s when you’ve made it.
It’s when you get a call from the mother of the bride that says that she’s tried ten times to write a thank you letter but keeps bursting into tears and just had to call to thank you for capturing the love that her daughter and her son-in-law share. That’s when you’ve made it.
It’s when when all the bridesmaids have walked down the aisle, and you’re left with the bride, her dad, and your camera as they share those last few moments of thick quietness before he walks her down the aisle and gives her away. And you are able to see and capture that thick quietness in a simple, breathtaking photograph. That’s when you’ve made it.
It’s about that moment when you’re minutes away from the First Look and you get the chance to prepare a groom to experience the love of their life. It’s when you get to tell them to be still, and that it’s not going to be about photographs – it’s going to be about them seeing one another for the first time. That’s when you’ve made it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you have this lofty goal of what it’s like to “make it” in this industry, change your goal. Or at least revisit it. Make sure it’s based more on the ways you can bless your couples, make their lives better, and thrive in your art as opposed to perceived or actual status.
That’s where the win is.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that in spite of any business success we might experience (or may appear to have experienced), the thing that keeps me going and excited and makes me want to do this as long as I possibly can is when I have the chance to love a client with everything I’ve got and they receive that and let me into the moments that make up their lives. That’s what keeps me going.
Now go and make it. I know you can. I’ve got a hunch that maybe you already have…