The whole discussion of making photography into a true profession like law or nursing might be missing the obvious solution. I think what's needed is simply an Angie's-List-style clearinghouse for reviews and ratings. I've approached Angie's List with the idea but they were not interested.
This would only be for photographers doing business with the public. Professional buyers have their own means of vetting if they themselves are professional. Experienced repeat buyers doing business-as-usual aren't really the problem; the problem is matching up expectations on both the buyer and seller sides in transactions between photographers and people (the public) who only seldomly buy photography, and don't know what it costs, don't know how to choose a provider, and don't know about the potential pitfalls including scams or the cost of incompetence or failure on the part of the photographer.
Such a clearinghouse could provide a wealth of detail about photographers for consumers, but it could also easily serve to educate consumers about what's possible and what various things ought to cost. When I researched this years ago, it wasn't just customers who had problems with bad photographers; it was also photographers who had problems with bad customers.
My idea would be to establish tiers for various levels of cost/professionalism, and create standards for what services each tier provides for the cost range and how much experience they need to bring to the job.
This might also eventually serve to guide practitioners as to what's expected of them in order to move up in the market. (For example, maybe one capability offered by the top tier might be a willingness and ability to travel internationally; an individual practitioner might not have considered such a service, but if it were part of moving up to the highest tier, then he or she might then consider it.)
Weddings are not as small a thing as many people here seem to think they are. For many people, a big wedding is a big deal—one of the top five or ten most expensive things they'll ever buy in their lives. Some weddings can be more expensive than a new car or any single vacation. And the circumstances for most people are not replicable; when you have dozens or hundreds of friends and loved ones coming from all points of the compass for the big day, there is no possibility of a re-shoot if you choose the wrong photographer or the photographer has a breakdown and can't provide what was promised.
I could do a cracking good job of setting up such a service from the conceptual and leadership side, but I lack the software know-how to implement it and the business skills to market it and keep it healthy. If I were young right now, instead of looking at retirement age hull-down on the horizon and headed my way, I would find two partners and go into business. We would revolutionize the wedding and portrait photography business and make modest fortunes, I'm almost certain. (Ah, another road not taken. There sure are a lot of those at my age.)
Someday, somebody will do this, and make it work, and make a lot of money. I hope they do it right for all concerned.
[UPDATE: Some of the early comments are still railing against "certification" programs. Evidently I didn't make it clear that I'm suggesting this instead of any professional licensing or certification, making the latter unnecessary. Sorry for the lack of clarity. —MJ]
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Featured Comments from:
Speed: "Mike wrote, 'I've approached Angie's List with the idea but they were not interested.' Apparently they've since become interested."
Mike replies: Hmm. Apologies for the mild paranoia and possible hubris, but this has happened to me rather a lot—I pitch an idea to a company, they say no thank you, then some time afterwards they implement that very idea. My past experience predicts that if I went to the company and said, hey, this was my idea, they would a) claim never to have heard of me, b) claim to not have any record of my proposal (even when I supply copies), and c) reply that it was total coincidence that they happen to be doing just what I proposed. Which I suppose could be true, but probably not every single time this happens. I once pitched three separate ideas to a company, and they claimed no interest, yet by the end of 14 months they had implemented all three ideas, in different areas of their product lines. Seems a bit much to believe that that was mere coincidence.
On the other hand, my ideas were responsible for several photographic products, including a camera variant, and none of them turned out to be moneymakers.
The lesson seems clear—I should stop doing that kind of thing!
Wes: "No one will ever convince me weddings aren't a big deal. I worked as a photographer for a number of years and refused to shoot any weddings; even for friends and family. Messing up a wedding isn't the same as messing up a commercial shoot. Most of the latter could be redone. I knew I couldn't handle the pressure of weddings so I never shot one. Secondly: I was married six years ago and we spent a significant sum on photography and video. My mother-in-law was dying of cancer and we knew we had to hire someone with years of experience with weddings because we only had one chance. And it was money well spent. She died four months later and those images and videos are our most prized possessions. I know not everyone feels they way we do about our wedding photos. And that's a shame."
Tom Kwas replies to Wes: "Weddings are certainly a big deal for the participants, especially as it's a once in a lifetime event (hopefully) that you want to capture for posterity. It takes the ability to deliver photographs of a fairly creative nature, under an ever-changing set of 'inputs'...
"Let's not claim that it can be more disastrous than a commercial or advertising shoot. Photographing for a client last minute, mostly due to their malfeasance, with no chance for re-shoots, to fit a $50,000–$75,000 ad 'hole' that's being held open in a high-end magazine, while you're out of pocket thousands for premium stylists, techs, etc. is just a whole other 'thing.' If you blow the photography at a wedding, your client's still alive, and they still got married, although they might have had a $20,000 wedding with no successful pictures. If you blow a last minute high-end advertising photo shoot, your client is going to be out that $50–75k for a magazine running a white space (for which your client will never use you again and badmouth you to more premium clients), and you're going to be out thousands for freelance personnel that you're never going to get paid to reimburse!
"I was working for a wedding place in high-school and college, and I realized fairly shortly into the process that I was never going to get into that end of the business, but it was because I realized I had an amateur for a client, not because I didn't think I could do it or it had a high level of stress. What you realize is that you've spent your beginning career studying beautiful photography, and 90% of the time, you now have a client you're trying to please who wouldn't know a good pic if it bit them! Now that is a formula for failure!"
Mike adds: Yeah, how many times have you heard someone say they want to 'fire the client'?
Patrick Perez: "When we got married last year my fiance put me in charge of selecting the photographer. We considered several and settled on our choice. We budgeted 20% of our total wedding budget for the photographer (but no photographs) and I felt a bit bad when we were negotiating because as I explained to him, it wasn't that I considered his pricing too high, recognizing that talent and experience merit what in hourly labor terms is lots of money; but we only had a set amount to spend. We ended up getting the price point of one 'package,' but with two extra hours. I firmly believe the fact that we were appreciative of his rate schedule being appropriate, and the fact that it was a Friday wedding, leaving him available for Saturday and Sunday weddings, helped us negotiate.
"We just celebrated our first anniversary two days ago, and I gave my wife the wedding album we couldn't afford last year. $500, and it looks great. I regret nothing!
"I can't recommend Gabriel Van Whye highly enough. He had the experience we lacked, and frankly was as key as our wedding coordinator in making the day a success. He's done more weddings than the coordinator, so that only makes sense."