Professional photographers looking to grow their wedding businesses would do well to follow the lead of Phillip and Eileen Blume. This husband-and-wife team has met a variety of challenges throughout their 12 years running a wedding photography studio outside of Atlanta, and thus far they’ve conquered them all. They’ve grown quickly from a struggling do-it-all vendor to a profitable boutique business.
“I was a high school teacher,” Phillip says, “and Eileen was working at Starbucks. We started up right after we got married, and quickly, within the span of about a year, we had to segue out of our jobs. It sounds like a success story, and I think at the time some of our friends were like ‘Wow!’ It looked like a big success, but behind the curtain, there was a lot of ignorance on our part. It sounds positive, but we were doing the opposite of profiting. We were basically paying to run our business. It took us about 18 months to figure out in a very dramatic way that we were failing as a business.”
They did figure out it, and, a decade later, they now teach other photographers to become more profitable with weddings and family portraiture.
The keys, Phillip says, have been diversification, quality over quantity and fundamentally reframing the vision for their business from a photo studio to a boutique that creates heirloom art.
“We were doing 20 to 30 weddings a year,” Blume says, “and I can’t even imagine how some of our friends are still pumping out 40 or more a year on their own. When I was in that place, there were a couple of embarrassing instances because I called the bride the wrong name, the name of the last bride we had the weekend before. I simply wasn’t in tune. We couldn’t be physically and mentally in tune with all of our clients’ needs, understand their family dynamics and keep up with all of that. When you cut it back, it doesn’t mean that you’re just lazy the rest of the time. It means you have opportunities to serve clients in the way that they want to be served.”
Couples In Search Of The Exceptional
Phillip and Eileen Blume provide a premium experience to couples in search of the exceptional. It shows in every aspect of their business, from how they market their offerings to the way printed products are packaged. They aim to make meaningful connections with couples and guide them through a process that results in the creation of precious family heirlooms.
“All of our wedding packages include a really nice album,” Blume says. “We had always offered them, and we thought if you just offer it to the people who want it, they’ll get it. But people need to be guided by the hand, by an expert. And so we decided we’re going to be expert at helping people understand the value of physical artwork.”
Today, it’s sales of printed photographs and albums that account for more than two-thirds of their revenue.
“We got into the world of providing physical art, and it changed our perception on everything,” Blume continues. “Because then you start to learn so much about what people are looking for in their wedding book. What are the images that matter? It just changes your whole perception of the work that you’re doing on a weekend-to-weekend basis. I think that’s a really important part of our story and how the business and the art blended together.”
Listening To And Learning From Customer Feedback
The Blumes integrate their individual photography skills seamlessly as well. Eileen prefers to handle planning, scheduling and second-shooting, while the more extroverted Phillip takes the lead on wedding day. They structure their assignments so that a single photographer could cover them—and sometimes they do—though they prefer to work as a team. They’re well-tuned to the interpersonal and emotional aspects of their own needs as well as those of their clients, and they also take a more scientific, smart business approach to ensure their offerings remain on point.
“It’s interesting how the interaction between us and our clients over a period of years really influences everything, even our style,” Blume says. “Really having ears open and listening to your customers, for us a big part of that has been making sure that we are professional in the sense that we send surveys and questionnaires to our clients—like a lot of successful businesses do. We actually get feedback we can act upon. Sometimes it just comes through asking the right questions on your contact form. Instead of just waiting for someone on their own to mention what they loved about your website, you have to ask questions like, ‘What is one of our favorite photos that you’ve seen, and what did you love about it?’ It puts your client in an introspective place to process and think about your work. That act in itself will help them appreciate your work more. It also allows them to communicate to you what they like.”
Phillip and Eileen Blume heard from customers over and over again that they most wanted pictures that don’t look posed. This led directly to changes in their approach.
“They loved the authenticity,” Blume says. “That’s the word that kept coming up. And I think we have a little bit of a natural knack for having fun with our clients through sort of giving them scenarios during photo sessions, prompts to get them to laugh or to interact in some way. We really get a lot of natural emotion. On the posing side, we got out of a lot of technical posing, which we had spent a lot of time learning. But we were happy to sacrifice some of those perfect technical poses and things. We start there, getting the distracting pose elements and distracting lights and stuff under control, then go from there and make it an interactive moment.
“We call it balloon posing,” he continues. “We’ll set up a series of things to make it a good picture, but then we will go in there and surprise with a prompt or a joke or something that just makes it fall apart. People start laughing, families who are maybe just standing in the perfect way will all of a sudden tickle each other or fall to the ground or just allow that to break apart and get some real authentic emotion. That’s a big part for us. Balloon posing: You shape the balloon, then you pop it and let it explode.”
The Art Of Subtle Lighting And Understanding Light Ratios
The Blumes carry that aim into their lighting style, too. They usually use off-camera strobes but balanced with ambience for a natural look.
“It’s just filling in shadows and being subtle and understanding light ratios,” Blume says. “When you find your favorite light ratios, that can kind of define your style. Even if I would use a completely different light ratio in the studio for headshots, when it comes to weddings, I don’t try to get too creative. I know what my style is, and I try to stick to that. It creates that fresh, airy look, but it’s also really polished.”
Phillip and Eileen Blume have recently pared down their lighting equipment along with their camera and lens selections. Between them, they have three cameras—two Sony a7 IIIs and an a7R III—with just a handful of lenses. Phillip typically uses a 28mm and 85mm prime, while Eileen slots between with a 55mm. (They carry a 24-70mm f/4 zoom as a compact backup.) Strobe-wise, they use a Godox AD200 on a light stand with two speedlights on Phillip’s belt for added power as needed for on-camera fill or bounced off ceilings.
“I’m trying to preserve highlights,” Blume says. “That’s generally the way my brain works. I don’t like blown-out, lost information. Because I want it to look natural, I still want those highlights in that light that’s filtering through leaves, I still want to see the color, I still want the sky to have a degree of blue to it. And I want to see clouds that are there, so I like to preserve highlights just a little bit. Of course, as a result, unfortunately, I’m usually underexposing my subject. So I’ll come in there with the off-camera light and just shape them. I’m also still putting my light in the direction of the natural incidence of sunlight. Sometimes you can cross light, and it looks really cool, but also, the viewer looks at it and immediately thinks that doesn’t make sense. Or they don’t even know why it doesn’t make sense, they just think it looks a little artificial.”
Learning To See How Your Customers See Themselves
In the end, Blume says the technical aspects of posing and lighting, all the nuanced marketing and the entire experience, are intended to simply serve the customer’s primary need: creating priceless family heirlooms. By shooting fewer weddings, they’re able to be more present and in the moment for each one, and by delivering finished images via in-person sales sessions, they’re able to enjoy customer reactions and gain valuable insights.
“It’s funny because being able to sit with them has revealed a lot to us over the years,” Blume says. “It has changed the pictures we’re looking for. There’s a lot of pictures we used to try to create at every wedding, and maybe they will even win awards, but as you go through them with the couple and their family, they’re like, ‘Okay, move on.’ Because they’re not looking for aesthetic, artistic perfection. They’re looking for themselves. They want to see themselves in a flattering light, and they want to see represented the connections and the emotions that they have with their family.
“From a business point of view,” he continues, “we have sold $2,000 wall installments of pictures that we would have almost culled out because…they kind of fell short of our standards. But we kept them in. As long as they’re sharp, they’re in focus and there’s something there that’s valuable to your client, that means a lot to them emotionally.”
Blume says that he and his wife are so much more focused now as a result. “Making sure that we’re present,” says Blume, “that we’re not chimping and looking at the back of our cameras all the time. We want to be present so we don’t miss that glance, that look that the couple gives to one another or that half a second when the dad who never cries, his eyes start to tear up. You have to be emotionally present as a photographer, and you have to just care for your clients.”
For more information about Phillip and Eileen Blume or to see more of their work and learn about their photography workshops and e-learning options, visit theblumes.co.