Like many photographers, Tyrenda Pentecost first picked up a camera to make photos of her family. Her son was playing football and made the U.S. National Team, so she purchased a Canon EOS Rebel T5i (“a huge investment for my family,” she says) and had a photographer friend adjust the settings for action sports. As a result, when Pentecost’s sister asked her to photograph her family, Pentecost did so in sports mode, she recalls with a laugh. Soon, a photographer asked her to be a second shooter for a wedding, and she began devouring YouTube videos to advance her skills. She’s now in her eighth wedding season.
Over those eight years, Pentecost, who recently relocated from California to Boise, Idaho, has grappled with various challenges and learned to make her way in the wedding business. She shares her greatest lessons learned.
“I built my business backward in that I became good at photography first and then focused on business second,” says Pentecost. She struggled early on to understand profit and loss statements and business accountability. Her advice to new photographers is to learn the business side first. What can you afford? How much do you want to invest in your business each year? Does what you’re planning to charge ultimately make sense for your family? Don’t pay so much attention to other photographers’ rates—personalize your financials for you and your family’s needs.
“There are always going to be photographers who can give you feedback and tips and resources for how to be a better shooter. But not many will teach you how to become a good business owner,” she says. Those are the mentors to seek out.
She also recommends taking a business 101 class at a local college. “I went back to college this year, and I’m finishing a degree in small business,” she says. “What I have learned has actually blown my mind.” Many of the photographers who run successful businesses have a background in marketing or a business degree, she says; her education in history didn’t give her relevant foundations.
One thing she’s learned from her classes is the benefit of passive income. “It’s important to understand as photographers that there are different ways to skin a cat,” she says. Some people look down on part-time photography work, she says, but having a second passive income is a great way to allow yourself some flexibility in your photography work. She’s currently looking into passive income options, including a small business focused on luggage for the traveling wedding photographer.
Underpromise and overdeliver. Most of Pentecost’s clients come through word-of-mouth referrals. And she learned that to reap those referrals your customer service must go above and beyond. You can give clients a beautiful product, but if you don’t deliver it in a timely manner, for example, they won’t sing your praises, she says.
Her strategy for pleasing clients is to give them more than they anticipate by keeping their expectations in check. She tells clients she averages a certain number of images per hour but gives them well over that amount, including some complimentary black-and-white images. She says she’ll post the images online within two weeks then posts them in three days. She might add a video or create a reel of their wedding to share. In the past, she’s given clients a gift when they arrive at their engagement session—a custom picnic blanket with their initials or a signature lip balm (which she jokes they’ll need for the all the kissing they’ll do for the session). She mails every client a welcome gift after they’ve selected her as their photographer. This could be a gift box of coffee with mugs or other custom items from local businesses. Her budget for these gifts is $100 per client, but if they refer her one client, that’s a $5,000 job she wouldn’t have earned without the referral, she notes.
Network with wedding planners. It’s best to have at least one loyal wedding planner who will send you referrals—two or three is even better. “I have one or two really loyal wedding planners who I have consistently worked with,” she says. “They send me five or six weddings a year, and that is huge.” She cultivated those relationships by offering some complimentary services to them. For example, she proposed doing their headshots as well as photographing wedding details such as invitations and centerpieces for their portfolios. Wedding planners often complain that photographers promise to send photos of wedding decor post-event but fail to follow through, so Pentecost makes it a point to do so. “Offer them anything that is a value add,” says Pentecost, and don’t ask them for anything, especially when you’re starting out. If you offer to provide them with headshots or to photograph their invitations, meet them wherever it’s convenient for them.
Pentecost made the shift to celluloid when she realized the work she admired most from other photographers had been made on medium-format film. “It just tells a different romantic level of the story,” she says. “There is nothing like it. Digital can never emulate it.” She also likes that film encourages her to slow down with her work and stay in the moment. It’s better than digital at capturing the highlights and shadows, she says, and “You’re able to shoot in harsher sunlight and still have a pretty aesthetic.”
While she also uses a mirrorless camera setup, she loves the excitement she feels when film scans arrive in the mail. “It’s like Christmas morning,” she says. “I have to go home. I don’t care where I’m at, I will come back to look at those film scans.”
When Pentecost started out, she had a binder of poses that she screenshotted on her phone, referring to them as she posed subjects for portraits. The problem, she says, was that the images felt static. She realized that physical movement and a connection with the subjects through copious positive feedback were the keys to capturing great portraits of wedding couples.
She also learned to read clients’ energy. One of her former posing tricks was to ask the couple to put their foreheads together. “It was awkward for some and really intimate for others,” she says. She’s learned that having people move into poses works better. She’ll ask them to walk toward each other and grasp hands or walk side by side then lean into a kiss. She also makes wedding portraits in an environment away from the distractions of other people. When the bride’s mom or maid of honor is watching, the subjects get tense. “I like to control the environment, and I like to bring the energy down and help my client relax,” she says. “The less eyeballs that are on them, the more I can get out of them.”
She has some techniques to get clients moving and to trigger genuine expression. She asks one subject to dip or spin the other. During an engagement session, she asks one to give the other a piggyback ride. She asks the bride to give the groom a squeeze from behind while she makes his photograph. And then there’s her favorite: She pulls the groom aside and tells him to sneak up behind the bride while she’s making the photo and whisper something inappropriate in her ear. She can’t hear what they say, but 100% of the time it makes the bride laugh, she says. “Little cues like that evoke emotion.”
When clients relay that there will be no day-of planner at the event, Pentecost inserts herself to fill that role. She sets up an hour-long meeting with the couple to walk through the day step by step. They might have a rough timeline from the venue, but Pentecost wants to be in control of what happens between those moments. When will the bride put on her gown? When will the couple do a first look? Will they go out for sunset portraits? It’s important that she plans a more detailed timeline with clients than what the venue will provide.
“Hiring off of just an Instagram feed is dangerous, in my opinion,” says Pentecost. Photos presented on social media are just the highlights of a photographer’s work. Before a potential client selects her as their wedding photographer, Pentecost sends them one or two complete galleries of her portfolio so they can see the full range of her work and make a more informed decision. This is one way to set expectations, she says, as well as to ensure she and the couple are right for each other.
Regardless of the buzz around mirrorless cameras and iPhone technology, “There will always be clientele who want a traditional photographer to shoot their wedding,” according to Pentecost. That said, it’s important to stay current on industry trends and pivot when needed so your business doesn’t take a hit. Pentecost says she initially refused to make the transition to mirrorless cameras, but now that she has, she loves the results. “My photography became better. I became quicker and more agile in my work,” she says, and it’s easy to make color corrections in camera. Now, she can’t wait to get her next mirrorless.
When Pentecost was new to photography, she couldn’t afford a photography or business coach. “I just didn’t have the money,” she says. Resources were available on YouTube and they were great for the basics, but photographers didn’t want to show all of their cards online. Once she gained more experience, she wanted to give back to budding photographers. She offers one-on-one mentoring for photographers and, in California, hosted workshops covering marketing and branding as well as technique. Now that she’s relocated to Idaho, she’s looking to host a small-group winter workshop where photographers can spend a few nights at a cabin engaging in photography education, shooting, and chatting about their business struggles among a community of peers. “There is nothing like it happening in Idaho right now,” she says. Plus, it would allow her to be of service to colleagues. “I absolutely love helping other photographers.”
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.