A few years ago “associate photographer” was the catch phrase within the wedding photography industry. It seemed you couldn’t be a legitimate photography studio unless you had at least one associate photographer. The concept was easy: on the days your already booked, book an associate.

Unfortunately, a simple idea turned into a complicated reality for many photographers. As I watched many studios fold their attempts at working with associates, we launched our associate label, The Collection with three amazing photographers. We immediately booked over 40 weddings, to be performed within the first year, and continued to book weddings for an even more successful second year!

This wasn’t luck or a case of being in the right place at the right time. We just chose to spend time learning, analyzing, and planning and our efforts led to a plan that succeeded from the start!

That’s why I’m excited to share some of our tips for starting and improving your associate photographer business model. Please feel free to add some of your own tips and ask questions in the comment section of this post!

Know Your Business
One of the greatest things about starting an associate company is that you’re able to profit from the ideas and plans you have implemented for your current photography business! You understand what it takes to run a successful business and can now utilize that knowledge and success to start an associate company. If you’re still in the process of understanding your current photography business, wait on implementing an associate business model!

It’s not About You
Letting your pride or ego get in the way of your associate plan will destroy it. There may be times that your associates are getting more attention and bookings than you. Do not try to take those leads or that attention for yourself!

Similarly, we found it to our advantage to create a unique name for our associate photographers instead of adding associates under our name, Dove Wedding Photography. Separating these two brands gives these photographers their own identity and ensures that neither them or their clients feel as though they are the second best.

Associate Photographer Business Model

Avoid Brand Confusion
Brand confusion is another good reason to consider keeping your associate’s identity separate from yours. If your focus is on offering a high-end product, you do not want to offer products that will hurt that image. Whitney and I market our photography to brides that are willing to spend a good amount of money on photography. When we tested the idea of having an associate under our name, potential clients always said one of two things: “If your associate only costs this much, why are you so expensive?” or “If your associate costs less than you, what’s wrong with your associate?” Once we removed this confusion and put our associate into a separate brand name, bookings increased for our associate as well as Whitney and myself. You don’t have to be a high-end photographer to offer associates, but I highly encourage you to market your associates to a different clientele to avoid confusion.

Seek Out Great People
Take your time to find the right associates! If you don’t take time, you will have a huge mess on your hands. When it comes to hiring an associate photographer, a person’s personality and dedication is far greater than how talented they are as a photographers. Photography can be taught, personality and work ethic can’t. Tips for finding the right person include:

1. Having your potential associate take a personality assessment.
2. Choosing someone that does not already own their own business
3. Considering those who already have goals and plans rather than those who are still figuring out life.
4. Choosing someone that loves your business’ goals and vision.

Associate Photographer Business Model

Learn to be a Leader
When managing a team of photographers, you must be a leader. Get started by learning about leadership in books by great authors like John Maxwell, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jim Collins (the author – yes there is more than one Jim Collins out there!). I also highly recommend Dave Ramsey who is now stepping more into the world of business leaders with excellent courses at different levels.

Create a Team Environment
Let your associates contribute to ideas and business growth, give them ownership, and raise them to be leaders! This allows you to step further away from your associate business and make it self-sufficient! On top of that, it’s way more fun to work with a team than it is to work alone.

Associate Photographer Business Model

Keep Your Costs Down
Consider modifying your current photography company’s business systems to create more cost effective and efficient systems for your associate company. You want your associate brand to offer quality, but that doesn’t mean that it has to offer the same quality as your current business. ShootQ, Pictage, Lightroom, and Apple are four great workflow tools that we use to help us cut costs and save time within our associate studio.

Keep it Legal
It’s always important to be ethical in everything you do. Cutting corners to save a few dollars now, will only prove to be messy later. Spend the money and time now to ensure that you have proper contracts with your photographers and clients. And, hire an accountant to be certain you are filing all your taxes correctly.

Final Thoughts
The work doesn’t end once you get everything started! Continually work on improving your workflows, keeping your costs down, and learning to be a leader. Always remember to treat your associates as equal to or even greater than you. Focusing on these points will ensure you have a lasting and successful relationship with your team.

Continue the conversation with Peter & Whitney Carlson in the comments section of this post!

Written by Peter Carlson

Photographer Peter CarlsonPeter Carlson’s outgoing, laid back, quirky personality is the main reason both brides and photographers love working with him. Through photography, he and his wife Whitney focus on the unique personalities of every couple as well as the joy and happy emotions that are felt on each wedding day. Photographers find their classes fun, inspirational, and easy to implement.

20 Comments

  • Tim Halberg says:

    spot on.

    I’ve watched similarly as others have attempted associates only to find out its more work than it’s worth for most people.

    We had the same mistake trying to do it under our own brand, and finally switched to having a separate brand where our photographers stand on their own, and we went from not booking our associates to booking just the second we launched the new site.

    I think one important thing is to keep in mind that you must market the separate studio, and often times it’s different marketing than you’re already doing for your own work.

  • Tim,

    You are so correct! The hardest part was launching the new marketing. That part was like starting a new business. But once launched, it was far easier to start our associate label than start our business.

    The key to not get too busy with your associate model is to create a plan that has great worklflow in all areas. The other key is to staff it with a great team. This takes more time to find than the actual planning does. We actually work far less now that we have our associate company.

    I left town for the entire month of June. Only answered a few emails while I was gone and everything was running properly when I returned. How crazy is it to do that in the middle of wedding season?!

    I still have weeks that poop hits the fan and I need to step in to help fix it, but overall I now work about 25 hours a week even though my two brands have about 300% more clients than we did 2 years ago when I was working about 50+ hours a week.

  • James says:

    Peter — interesting read – thanks for sharing! — I see that you have your associates handle their own sales meetings. — While I think that is best, I currently have a system where I handle all sales meetings for associates – The benefit to them being all they really have to do is show up, shoot an event and submit the images — I handle all post production, album production, etc. – Plus, I am much more versed in the entire post production process as well as how albums work, etc. – where as my associates have full time jobs of their own, and do not want to have to handle sales meetings on weekday evenings.

    any thoughts you can share on this issue?

    I really cant thank you enough for posting this as this is one key area I’ve been giving a ton of thought to and as it seems like it is the best possibility for me to grow the business in, I’m really anxious about stepping up the associate side of my business!

    a million other questions swimming around in my head — but I’ll just ask this one for now!

    Thanks,

    James

  • James,

    I have no doubt that you are able to sell better and edit better than anyone who works with you. This is what makes letting go of these areas to others so hard. However, in my mind, the point of having others work alongside you is to free up your time to grow your business. If I was busy editing every day and attending every meeting, I would never have time to work on my business. Furthermore I would eventually burn out.

    Step one for Whitney and I was to delegate work so that we could free up more of our time and work semi-normal hours.
    Step two was to bring on additional photographers to pick up bookings in a market that we learned very well but ended up leaving to be within a higher priced market.
    Step three is the current step to find more ways we an work even less while increasing revenue.

    It kind of sounds like you are using associates so that you can have multiple bookings in the same weekend. If you have a workflow to keep up with that on your own, than great. However, this raises a red flag to me and sounds as if you could be heading down a path that will make you exhausted.

    Feel free to ask your other questions. I would love to help!

  • Carly Street says:

    This is great info, thanks so much for sharing. Question- say a bride contacts you for a date you’re already booked, so you want to offer her one of your associates. Do you try to schedule a consultation w/ the bride so she can meet the associate photog, or do you hand over her contact info to your associate & they deal w/ the bride & try to schedule a consultation? I know there are some brides who will book without meeting the photographer in person, but most of them want to meet first. One more question- do your associate photogs have sample albums of their work at your studio? Thanks again for all the info & taking the time to answer all these questions!
    ~Carly

  • Peter- I WISH I had read this article about two months ago! It’s amazing how much extra work we created for ourselves that we never anticipated. Thanks so much for hammering this home for me and it was great meeting you guys at Inspire Boston last year!

  • Carly:
    1) I always prefer to not have to hold a consultation, but that is rarely the outcome. If I am already booked, I will refer my associates along with some other photographers. As we offer a higher end product than our associates, they may not be interested in my associates so I want to let them know of some other photographers in the area like Phindy or McLellan Style. If they are interested in meeting with my associates, I set them up with The Collection’s studio manager.

    2) We do have some sample books for our associates that we take to bridal shows. I don’t believe in having many sample albums. They should be to show off the product more than the work. iPads and slideshows are best to show off current work in my opinion. This way you can keep it current.

  • Eric:

    Glad it helped! I hope you and Amber a doing well and we will get to see you sometime in the near future. Our first baby is due the week of this years Inspire. So, sadly we are not making plans to attend. We had such a blast last year!

  • We are thinking of starting to have associates, I totally see how important in having two different brands now. But do you run both brands out of the same studio space, and does that confuse clients…Also, are they independent contractors..

  • Phil,

    Sorry for taking so long to reply. I did not realize you posted until I revisited this post today.

    Currently we do run both businesses out of the same office. However, our next step is to change that. We are looking for a more creative way to meet with clients and present our personal company Dove Wedding Photography. The Collection will stay at the current office.

    What I do now to avoid confusion, is when a potential Dove client comes to the office, we pull down the few signs we have up that say “The Collection”. We leave the Dove signs up when a potential Collection client comes to visit as they either think The Collection is sharing the space or they get excited when they find out that The Collection is owned by Dove, as Dove is still more known than The Collection.

    Each photographer has their own slideshow to project on the large screen TV in the client room. So, the work being shown is featuring that photographer.

    Currently, all three of our associate photographers are employees. I could write a long article about why I prefer to work with employees over freelance contractors. Bottom line is it gives me more commitment from the photographer, it reduces my costs, and it keeps me safe with the IRS.

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    Our studio will shortly be taking on associates, and I’m having trouble deciding what to do on the payment front. Our associates will only be shooting, so an hourly rate immediately seems to make sense. However, I don’t believe that there’s a “going rate” for associates in my area, and it’s tricky putting a value on the shooting portion of a job, versus the editing, album design, etc.

    Care to share some of your thoughts on this topic?

    Thanks again!

  • […] me we all need to work with a team at some level. If you had the chance to read my last post: Things to Know Before You Go with Associates, you have gotten a look at the associate photographer part of my team. Not only do I have three […]

  • do you have your associates sign a non-compete contract? several years ago, i took on an associate who said they were not interested in having their own business. after she learned what she needed, she quit and began her own business—-just down the road. she said i was an ‘inspiration’. ticks me off that i was taken advantage of someone i trusted and i dont want that to happen again. however, i would like to branch my business out with more phographers.

  • Andrew,

    I always think of payment as a trade. That’s essentially what it is. How valuable is an associate photographer to you? How much are you willing to pay for one? At the same time, the associate is going to be thinking, “how valuable is my time and my skill? How much do I want to work for?”

    Examples: Say you look at your budget and find for you to profit you can not afford to pay more than $20 an hour, but the photographer you are considering does not want to work for less than $50 per hour. This trade won’t work. You would loose money doing it or the photographer would resent working for far less than he/she wants. Either way, they relationship would end quickly.

    Now say you find a photographer you really like that finds $10 per hour to be a great amount of payment for a photography job. You can totally afford this and the photographer is happy to get what they want. Now you have money left over in your budget to continually give raises!

    When it comes to negotiating rates, the general rule is to get the other person to list a price first. That way you know what they would be happy getting! typically they will quote higher than they actually think they will get. So, if you can give them what they ask for, they are actually getting more than they were expecting!

    Hopefully this has helped some.

  • Sharlene,

    I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve heard from mine that the big secret is non-competes don’t typically hold up in court. They are more about clarity and intimidation.

    My advice is be very careful with who you hire. Don’t hire anyone to just fill a role. Make sure, as best as you can, that the person is nearly perfect to work with you. When we are looking for a new photographer, it typically takes a year of searching. We never put out a “cattle call” we always approach those we think would be a good match for us. A big key: we rarely look to other wedding photographers. All three of our photographers never photographed a wedding before working for us.

    Once you have that person, do whatever you can to keep a good relationship with them. Free lunches and staff parties go a loooooooong way! Hanging out as friends and being an open ear also builds up your relationship making it hard for them to leave you. Also, make things easy for them. Our photographers don’t want to start their own business because they see how much work it is to own one. They love that they get to shoot and go home!

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  • […] me we all need to work with a team at some level. If you had the chance to read my last post: Things to Know Before You Go with Associates, you have gotten a look at the associate photographer part of my team. Not only do I have three […]

  • Shelby says:

    How do you handle product sales? Do you take a percentage of the prints or album sales the associate gets from one of their weddings?

  • […] that building a studio team would be essential to both my success AND my happiness. Today, I have three associate photographers who work in my office, helping me manage my […]

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