I’ve been wanting to write about how I found my niche in this industry, and how you can find yours, for a long time. This series will be four parts long: Part 1 – Preface to finding your niche || Part 2 – Why specialize? || Part 3 – How I found my niche || Part 4 – Finding yours!
I guess I want to start this week by saying that my niche is not necessarily your niche. Maybe it is – that’s fine. But this isn’t a series on “how to be an elopement photographer.” It’s a series on how to figure out what your unique specialty as a photographer is/will be. Afterall, there aren’t that many places in the world you can actually make a career focusing solely on elopements. NYC, Las Vegas, probably San Francisco… maybe Paris? But my guess is that if you live in Oklahoma City or Charleston, West Virginia… it’s going to be difficult to make a career of just shooting elopements, as there probably isn’t a high enough volume of them to sustain a whole business. So your niche will have to be specific to your market.
With that said, let’s talk about how I found my niche as an elopement photographer. It’s a pretty short story, but one I’ve never really gone into detail about on here, and I figured it was high time.
When I started this business, officially, in 2009 I wanted to be a family photographer. Weddings scared me to death – weddings are a one shot deal and if you mess something up, there are no do-overs. That is terrifying to someone just starting out in this industry. (And it should be terrifying. I think fear makes one work harder to get things right. I still get nervous before every single wedding.) At the time, I was still working full time at a preschool, and I basically had a built in client base of families. I figured it was what I was meant to do – all the pieces came together so easily.
When I wasn’t photographing families, I was making my friends who were a part of a couple and their coupled friends – basically anyone in my orbit – model for my portfolio. And I discovered that I loved working with couples. Slowly I started to realize that I really wanted to photograph engagements and couples portraits, but I had absolutely no idea how to find those people. Families were easy – I walked into work and there were hundreds of them, and they liked me and were willing to give me a chance. But where was I going to find couples?
I started marketing myself as an engagement photographer on my old blog and website, and THAT is a very tough niche to crack. Because most people have their engagement photographs taken by their wedding photographer, and I still wasn’t sold on being a wedding photographer. Slowly I started getting a few engagements here and there, and I started getting more and more curious about weddings. Eventually I worked up the courage to second shoot, and that’s when I finally decided to give weddings a try. A couple who had hired me just to do their engagement photographs contacted me out of the blue one day and asked if there was any way I’d be willing to shoot their wedding. Their original photographer backed out, and they knew I didn’t have a lot of experience, but they loved their engagement photographs and wanted to give me a shot. I cannot tell you what that meant to me – that this couple was willing to take a chance on someone with zero lead shooter experience. It was everything and it completely launched my career.
So now I was a wedding photographer. A real one. I started advertising on A Practical Wedding, started getting referrals from past clients. It was a lot of effort to book each and every wedding, but I could see it eventually paying off. And this is what I saw in front of me for the next ten to twenty years. Sure – working weekends wasn’t the greatest thing in the world. I missed out on things from time to time, and I missed my husband like crazy. But I was finally creatively fulfilled and that was a big deal to me. Because if you’re not shooting something you LOVE, it’s just like any other job – it’s a chore.
Out of the blue one day, a girl contacted me about shooting her City Hall elopement. How interesting, I thought. I didn’t really realize that was a thing. I’d only ever known one person who eloped – a former boss who married his mail order bride (no joke), as soon as she arrived in the US – so to say I didn’t have a great perception of what an elopement was would be an understatement. That girl did not end up hiring me, as a photographer wasn’t really in their budget afterall, but it got me thinking about elopements. I started researching them – they were mostly weekdays and a vast majority took place at City Hall. And apparently New York City was basically the center of the universe for elopements. People traveled from all over the world to marry here. I had no idea! And the big thing that I noticed is that nobody was really taking full advantage of that niche.
Yes, at the time there were a few people specializing in elopements and City Hall weddings, but nobody was photographing them to their true potential. Nobody was photographing elopements the way you would photograph a full on wedding. And that’s where I saw an opening for myself. What if someone started photographing elopements as though they were just like big weddings – the getting ready, maybe a first look, details, acting as a photojournalist while in City Hall, portraits all over the city afterward, and not just in front of the cheesy City Hall mural. I thought a lot about how I would approach it, but first, I needed to actually photograph one. So I had a contest, and I gave away a free City Hall elopement package. I didn’t want to sit around waiting for someone else to come along and inquire – who knows how long that would have taken. So I just made it happen. And it was so amazing! It was all of the fun of a big wedding and none of the stress.
I didn’t plan on giving up the big weddings, because I could not foresee a time when just shooting elopements would pay the bills. But it would be my little side specialty, and I planned on owning it. And slowly my calendar started filling up with elopements. It was just this extra income for me – especially in the off-season when there weren’t any big weddings to shoot. I became completely obsessed. It was a zillion times easier to book elopements – do you have any idea how many people elope in New York City everyday?! TONS!
In February 2011 I signed up for a mentoring session with Justin & Mary. I had this great little thing going with elopements, but I needed help booking big weddings. I wanted to take my business to a new level. One of the first things Mary said to me that day – and I’ll never forget it, ever – was, “So, weddings are the thing, huh? You’re totally sure about that?” I nodded and said yes without thinking twice, and we went through the mentoring session focusing on big weddings and some ideas for taking my business to the next level. I had a two hour train ride home from their house that day, and Mary’s question kept echoing in my head – “Are weddings the thing? Are they?”
By the time my train pulled into Grand Central Station, I had come to the realization that they weren’t. This amazing thing, this thing I was so successful at was staring me in the face – elopements. Why did I not think I could make that into a career? I could! I absolutely could. I laughed to myself, I spent two hours with Justin & Mary talking about big weddings, and it was all great advice, but the best thing they said to me was just a simple question. A simple question that changed my life – and my business – forever.
I didn’t want to work weekends anymore, I didn’t want to shoot for twelve to fourteen hours at a time; I wanted to simplify. To boil down a wedding into its most basic form. It was so obvious – I was struggling with big weddings because my heart wasn’t in it, and I didn’t know what kind of wedding photographer I wanted to be. I made a decision to stop booking big weddings. I’d give myself six months, and if I couldn’t find a way to sustain myself just on elopements, I could always go back. I ratcheted my elopement marketing into high gear, did elopement specific advertising on A Practical Wedding, and worked on my SEO like a crazy woman. It worked. It all worked.
And here I am, with my happy little niche and a Monday to Friday wedding photography career – something totally unthinkable to me three years ago. It is amazing how many elopement photographers in New York City have sprung up in the last couple years. It’s definitely a growing niche, but there is more than enough business for everyone, I think.
Next week we’ll talk about how you can find the thing that makes you unique as a photographer, and I’d really encourage you to think outside of the box. Start thinking about the specific parts of a wedding that bring you joy, or the specific types of portraits you enjoy shooting. Or maybe it’s not people you really love photographing at all – maybe it’s something else entirely. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to help you figure it out.