Update: you can find part two here: http://www.ianabdilla.com/blog/something-think-part-2-projection-education-professional/
Last month I celebrated the 5th year anniversary since when I decided that I will be quitting in a couple years my 9-5 job and become the “Top Wedding Photographer in Malta”. Yes I really did believe so and still I believe I can be that – If I did not still believe it, I would not still be doing this. This blog post is mainly aimed at fellow photographers and videographers (and entrepreneurs of all sorts)
These 5 years have been a real uphill struggle. Deciding to quite my job whilst barely making it through with a monthly paycheck and knowingly dive head-first into a dark and alien world to me, was not an easy thing to do! I cannot say that I came out of it at the other end unharmed – financially it has been as bad a nightmare as anyone can ever dream of and I cannot say that I did not know about this risk before plunging into it. Taking the decision 5 years ago to invest 2 year’s worth of salary into equipment – which today barely costs more than 3 months worth of salary – and keep on adding to it year after year to achieve the best quality in imagery and to allow me to do what others where not offering in Malta and only a few handful offered it – this has been a huge hurdle for me which I still can barely overcome.
Me and my wife took this decision together, knowing fully of what is to come ahead of us (well maybe not fully – We expected the market to be more informed and educated – but more on this later) with 3 kids and another soon on the way, a meager salary (just one salary – only I worked) and no money saved in the bank (or anywere else). I Worked hard – really hard to pay a Bank loan which helped me get started in this and then tripled the amount loaned in order to have the necessary hardware and backups to offer ease of mind for what I do – recording the MOST IMPORTANT MOMENTS in one’s live’s!! Nothing else remains from these special moments – Weddings, births, special occasions like Holy communions, baptisms and others, anniversaries and family reunions of families who are split allover the world but managed to finally find a date to enjoy a holiday together… So many moments which if not captured on film or digital film, no one will ever remember, and slowly after some time our brains will start to loose contact with those memories until we no longer remember.
It seems to me and a few fellow photographers and videographers who are on my same wavelength, that unfortunately many of those in this industry of turning moments into real stories for those whose’ moments belong to, seem to have forgot what we do and why we do it and just focus on the money making business – and sadly do that in the quantitatively approach – (were as many events as possible are jam packed in as little time as possible with as little effort given as possible and little to no care given to offer a real service to their clients). Personally speaking, that does not bother me at all to be honest – I am way beyond trying to compete for work – I do not want that – never wanted and never thought of getting into it. I simply fell in love with photography way back when I was an 18 year old and loved freezing moments in time and having those moments with me for ever! I loved it from the first time I saw someone use a camera creatively and I never looked back! This is what made me change direction 5 years ago and eventually jump wagon 3 years ago. I just wanted to do more of this, more of this ‘time-travel’ as some call it! It takes a lot of time and dedication to do this and to perfect your art. It is never easy and you never can say that “hey, I made it; I can settle down now”. The moment you do that you loose out on the best part of life – you stop being amused by it.
3 years ago, with the weight of a family with 3 kids, a home loan, car loan, unpaid credit cards and a business loan, I decided to call it quits with the 9-5 job and dedicate all my time to photography. I wish I could say it was the best decision I ever did, but it wasn’t, and it is not due to something I did wrong. One good thing that it did for me which I am sure of is that it strengthened my Faith in God even more than before as I have seen my family not merely “surviving” but thriving in a time where we should have filed for bankruptcy, God’s providence never ceased to impress us! This is for sure. But I am not here to talk about this today, What I am here about is to put a light on realities which in Malta are really endangering artists and entrepreneurs alike – Starting my own business has been such a turning point for me and helped me attain a higher respect for my own work, my vision and mainly more than this – a higher respect for all those souls who day after day strive to perfect their art without getting any recognition for it. It is a sad reality that the majority in Malta seem to be so keen on killing the small people who try to make a difference by offering quality over quantity. It is normal to have a big part of the crowd to just not want quality – that is a given in every circle of society on all levels, it simply does not affect me, that crowd is not my target audience – but having the majority of the ART Crowd in Malta (if there is an art crowd left to start with) just killing art for the sake of pennies, that is sad! I have seen a close friend and work colleague jumping wagon himself to pursue his Art and after a couple of years he just could not make ends meet and all this pressure hurt his relationships badly and ended up all alone until one day he called it quits and left this life for good :(
No I am not going to start pointing fingers or blaming anyone.
When you are shooting these once in a life time events, you do not have the luxury as a photographer to call for a rescheduling of the event in case your equipment fails on the day or in case you fall sick or you loose the photos later on! This is something which can be fixed in commercial photography in general (not always but usually there are workarounds). But it is not so for event photography. Clients expect that their photos are delivered. I have kept this at the back of my mind at every stage in my path… I knew that I cannot get into wedding and event photography using the toy cameras I had, I knew I could not possible deliver images with just one PC to depend on, I knew that I simply could not depend on cracked software as as soon as software starts to mess up, I will stop delivering images on time. In my previous work I took care of IT systems of the company and have had enough experience with technology to know what technology is worth – it is worthless – a little humidity and it shorts, a little over voltage from the mains supply and it burns through your precious electronics, a failed motherboard and you have to pray you manage to find an exact replica to substitute it without having to re-install everything fro scratch…how many times I heard of failed hardrives?! How many times I heard of people asking me if I am able to recover the PC without having to re-install all the software as it is all cracked and they are not sure if they can find it again?! well enough for that – I assume you got the point. Technology sucks!! full-stop!! and you have to be smart enough to be prepared for it – BACKUPS BACKUPS BACKUPS! not just data backups but tool backups so as soon as your main tool fails, you can simply get the backup tool and keep on going as if nothing happened and if it is a life dependent tool, make sure you have a 3rd backup as well, you know the saying goes: “when shit hits the Fan…” I have been there and seen others find themselves there – some of us managed to come out of it unharmed others failed and still have a hard time to get back and still others failed miserably and never anyone heard again from them.
So back to point – If you are to shoot weddings and events, you MUST be prepared to cover your ass in case of failures; and If you are looking to book anyone to cover your event, you have to make sure that who you are engaging has what it takes to deliver your images. I can honestly tell you that even though I work with two (2) Professional cameras all the time in my hands, I found myself many times wishing I had the third one immediately on me and not in the bag! I have been in situations where things just break, broken buttons on one camera, memory card slots giving errors on the second camera and a screen not working more than working all at the same time. I had drinks poured allover my camera, I have had lenses dropped 4 times in 5 years and had to resort to the backup lenses more than once, I had camera bag belts break, memory cards just failing completely, SSD Drives just dying and being given 4-figure quotes to recover data from the SSD, I have had lenses hit sharp/hard surfaces on the front element lens either while juggling through a quick wedding event or wedding guests just smash into them. Things just happen – and least when you expect them. and the list is longer than this. Which means – unless you are prepared for it, you are simply waiting for the bad things to happen – I have seen many times photographers and videographers work with just 1 camera and a wide zoom lens and maybe a 50mm prime or a long lens. that’s all they had in their bags and at home they only have 1 copy of the images on 1 hard drive. How can this be? I only managed to find 2 reasons for this – either they are still young and have not had experience with failed technology or simply they cannot afford more than that.
Both answers are sad. If it is the first one, then I only hope that they do get to realize the risk they are running which could seriously financially ruin them if the clients ever get to take them to court plus being of such disservice to the clients and to the industry in general! If it is the second one, then I empathize with them but still do remind them to be aware that my answer to the first possibility just above, does apply to them as well!
To offer a consistent series of work of good – astounding quality of work while simply using ambient light and be right at the heart of the action to narrate the story right as it happens – it requires big Balls, Big pockets and LOTS of TIME. Things which seem that nowadays no one is paying enough attention to! Which brings us to the First Point I want to raise today!!
Know Your Cost To Do Business
How is it possible to be running a business without knowing your costs. I believe the fact is that in Malta, very few of the photographers declare their taxes and even fewer know how much it costs for them to do business. I know for fact that for some it is totally untenable and they are not making any profits because I know how much it costs to shoot weddings – I have tried to go around it for 5 years and no matter how I do it I could not justify selling weddings under 1400 euros without compromising on safety, redundancy or service! It’s a straight Fact – for us photographers (and each and every other entrepreneur) who for real intend to offer a service to their clients need to have tools, time and training, and more importantly, need to have backup of tools and for some a backup of the backup does come in handy too! this costs money – a real Lot of Money – As for tools, my records show that I have purchased over 41,000 euros in equipment – and this equipment devalues at a really high rate – most of it at 25-30% of it’s value is lost each year, and a few of the items if kept in good condition can retain a better value by loosing 20% each year – which means that in 5 years time it is only worth 18-30% of it’s original value if not 0% in case of a total loss by accident, theft or whatever – yes I know there is insurance – I will come to that soon enough.
So what are your costs? start listing them down – you would be surprised how long and expensive it gets! Below is my own list of costs – starting on the Top section, which shows the equipment I own on the first 2 columns from the left and how much it sells at it’s end of Life in the third column (2-7 years from purchase date depending on what is the item) and in the right most column what is it’s actual depreciation cost each year once you factor in it’s sale price at end of life as well. Then in the second group below, I listed the yearly running cost including utilities, insurance costs, fuel, car expenses and depreciation, all the Software licenses, adverts, Web hosting, telephone and internet bills, Constant upgrading of samples and constant training. By the way, gifts are a small print box I always wanted to offer my clients at their anniversary or with the actual wedding images but never managed to find budget for it but I listed it none the less to show what t needs to run a business. Yeah true, a few things can be cut down like adverts and backups but hey, I am obsessed with backups – I run a 24TB Raid server over 9 drives and another 2 Raid 10 in the main PC and 3 further external Hard disks which have a constant backup of all the work and online cloud backup of all the RAW files for 1 year from the wedding (11 TB of that). Not to mention that once work is ready I backup everything to Tape Drives.
A little note on Insurance – So many photographers I meet are operating without insurance – not simply with no equipment Insurance but No Insurance whatsoever… There are 3 main insurance covers which come into play for us Photographers –
First – Electronic Equipment Insurance Policy or an All Risks Insurance Policy on your valuable equipment.
Why? what if your house get broken into and your precious gear gets stolen? it already happened in Malta for a fellow photographer. What if you accidentally drop a lens or a camera while on duty? what if an electric surcharge fries your precious PC’s and Data?
Second – Public Liability Insurace Policy
Why? what if you accidentally hit a sculpture costing tens of thousands of euros? or you inadvertently cause an accident which costs thousands – what if you accidentally hurt someone and thenyou get sued 100,000 euros? Be safe! In many locations abroad, they do not allow for photoshoots to be done unless photographer owns a Public Liability Cover.
Third – Professional Indemnity
Why? WHat if you do not show up to a wedding due to an unforseen accident or you dying? what if you loose all your data? What if following this unforseen accident the clients sue you and you have to pay till the last penny for the whole wedding? It is not something new, it has happened in the past and even in the last couple years were photographers ended bankrupt to pay for such a claim. Be Safe!
Know Your Time
That is an actual Financial Cost. Now on to Time- everyone has his own speed and flavor of editing tools which require different time spans. But a person working on his own, with real world time frames (40 hour weeks, 24 day paid leave, 26 day paid sick leave and paid public holidays) can only manage so much. After 150 weddings shot, I can assure you I have a good picture of how much time it takes to cover a wedding – maltese weddings rarely if ever span just 8 hours, a common time span would be 10-12 hours for us photographers and videographers. Over and above these 10-12 hours ( and mind you, I had my 14 hour long weddings too) you have at least 1-2 hours preparing for the wedding – charging batteries, cleaning lenses, checking that everything works and setting up the bags; you have as well 1 -2 hours travelling on the day; more – you have 2 hours early in the morning 2/3/4am dumping all the images on the PC and doing backups of the images. Then the following day, you have an hour to create the first run preview gallery/slideshow and upload it. Within a few days you need 2-3 hours to go through the images and select a few and edit them to create the teaser gallery for clients and their friends/family to see and also for your own promotion – this has to be done within the week after the wedding. Next comes what is called “culling” the images – I Shoot a lot – 3000-6000 images per wedding on my own! it takes me roughly 3 hours to go through all these images and select the champion images to edit. Editing takes me 16-24 hours depending on the lighting conditions I had when I was shooting! (sometimes it takes me more and sometimes less). After this you have to export all the images, and start uploading the final images in their new galleries on the clients gallery web service – another hour. So just this we are already 36-48 hours worth of work! This is not counting the 3 or 4 meetings you tend to have with clients from first meeting to discuss quote, second meeting for booking, 3rd meeting at 1 month before the wedding and 4th meeting to deliver finished product. This does not even include all the time spent meeting prospective clients – I roughly have to meet 5 clients for one of them to book. This does not include all the time needed to answer emails, send quotes and tend to requests from clients or prospective clients – I roughly calculate that out of every 20 quotes only one books! I know that I spend 1-2 hours daily answering emails on average (monday to sunday) which means another 14 hours worth of work. All this does not even include the time spent doing accounts, sending invoices, inputting costs, casing suppliers, chasing insurance chasing repairs and time spent promoting yourself in the form of adverts or keeping your facebook page, instagram and pinterest busy (yes this post took me a lot of time to write). Blogging weddings is a real time consuming recreation – the last few weddings I posted (the full length blog posts which take you 3 hours to go through properly) took me on average 10 hours each to prepare – do you remember what we agreed before on? – technology sucks!! –
We have some numbers in our hands now – Excluding weddings, we spend 10-14 hours weekly answering emails, 2 hours weekly meeting clients, at least 2 hours weekly doing office work and 1 hour daily on average spent creating promotion/advertising = 15-20 hours weekly doing other things unrelated to photography as such – this means that you are only left with 20-25 hours weekly for shooting and editing weddings. This means that after removing 24 days of paid leave and maybe a week of sick leave and 12 out of the 16 public holidays which we have (which usually not all of them happen on a weekday) it means that you are left with 44 working weeks. I spend at least 40 hours yearly on training and sometimes even double that due to time spent to try new tricks and learn the art of business… so reduce a further 2 weeks of training – 42 weeks is what we are left with! now 42 weeks X 20 hours (what is left after all the office related work) = 840 hours which if you divide by the average time spent on weddings (42hours) you end up with 20 realistic weddings – now let us go to the bottom of the scale and assume that weddings do only take 36 hours – which still leaves us at 23 weddings… this means that realistically while working on a full tie basis you can only take on 23 Maximum weddings each year. Now let us move on to the next step:
So now you know that realistically you can only shoot 23 weddings and you also know that you have 19,000euros yearly as overheads – a simple division tells you that the first 823 euros of each wedding is going to cover costs and we are not even counting VAT or Taxes or Social Security Payments – Maybe if you are a bit easier on costs you can get by 15,0000 euros and thus you lower this overhead down to 650euros per wedding. Now answer this – How do you expect to pay for your salary if you charge 450euros for a wedding? or 800 euros? or even 1000 euros? check this out – so you know that you only can do 23 weddings per year – this means that each wedding is taking you 80 hours (including all the time spent in the office answering emails, travelling, meeting prospective clients and facebooking ect) so maybe you are happy with little, but to be your own boss, invest so much money and time and risking it all to go down the drain for nothing more than 2-3 eur an hour which you are currently getting when you sell at 1000 euro is not a wise business decision!! I constantly meet newcomers and even professionals telling me, hey I cannot complain, I made 500/600/800/1000euro in a day while my friends need 2/3/4 weeks to earn so much!!! that is untrue, you did not earn that much money in 1 day, it took you 2 weeks if you are quick and 3 weeks if you are more meticulous.
This means that if Like me you have been doing more than 25-30 weddings a year, this means that you have been working more than 40 hour weeks and still are under-paid by a lot since usually overtime is paid at 1:1.5 rates and sometimes on feasts/public holidays it is even 1:2 rates and even some companies pay more if you work over the weekend (and you know that we work on EVERY Public Holiday and EVERY Weekend and still charge the same as if it were a week-day wedding!!
So, Final Point – Know Your Cost To Do Business – Know Your Time – add to that your preferred salary and like that you have good indication of where your pricing should be!! This should help you realize if you are in fact making any profit or not! Knowing this will help you better adjust your sails to make it worthwhile all the stress and pain and have happy returns from this adventure!!
P.S. I will write more on other subjects in the coming days/weeks so stay tuned!!