Shooting weddings can get to the best of us. Maybe it's when we were waiting for all of the family members to come together to take a big family photo in the middle of a wedding reception. Perhaps it was one of those moments when your bride turned against you. Or maybe, the lifestyle of a wedding photographer just became too much. Whatever it is, I think all wedding photographers have had frustrating times in their career.
For Moshe Zusman, a portrait, fashion, and headshot photographer in Washington, D.C., this realization came around the time that he had his first-born son. At the time, he was a wedding photographer, shooting 40+ high-end weddings a year and second shooting as well.
Two months before Noah was born, I was living on top of the world: running a successful photography business in metro Washington, D.C., about to become a dad, and working harder than I ever had before to get ready for it. I had doubled my prices and doubled my bookings every year for the past few years in order to get my wedding photography business to where I wanted it to be. The first few years of being a family of three were life-altering, but not in the way that most people describe. Sure, your Lexus is now a baby-mobile, and there are those sleepless nights too. But the biggest change is the rest of your life. Weddings suddenly occupied a bigger part of my life than just another Saturday night. The truth was that I was in denial about the fact that I even enjoyed shooting them anymore. I was beyond ready for a change.
I was getting that undeniable urge that my life needed an all-in moment to make a better life for my family and me. That’s when I decided it was my photography that needed to change. I had built this wedding photography business from scratch after moving to the US from Israel, but now I had my wife and son hiding in a closet while I was trying to meet with clients. Noah was only just learning to walk, but I knew I never wanted to miss his baseball games. Aside from the burnout of shooting weddings, this just wasn't the lifestyle that I wanted anymore. I wanted to be able to call out sick and have it not warrant being sued over. I wanted to be able to be there when my kid was sick and have it be just a matter of rescheduling some clients for another day and not missing the most important day of someone's life.
The idea of breaking into a new genre was, truthfully, terrifying for Moshe. It wasn't just him that he could fail anymore; it was his family too. He was determined and knew that shooting in the studio would allow him to create his own weekday schedule. That's when he started moving into fashion, portraits, and headshots.
If I were to talk to someone jumping into this new genre of photography, I would tell them to treat building this new business like pulling off a Band-Aid. First, get your portfolio together, learning what you need to about studio photography. Unlike wedding photography, you don't need to spend time second-shooting and doing styled shoots because you can practice headshots a lot more easily than you can practice weddings. You really only need about 12 images, maybe 20, in order to create a full headshot portfolio. I called my friends, family and even past brides to come in and let me experiment with their headshots, all in one day, creating a portfolio that I would be able to use on my website to sell my new services.
From there, Moshe created a pricing, scheduling, and workflow structure that would be seamless and very hands-off. He changed the look of his studio to be fashion-based instead of wedding =-based and started building his business from there.
I used Squarespace to design my website, because it was fast, easy, and I was already using it for my wedding photography. I got a separate URL, headshotdc.com, used only for headshots. I’ve created such a streamlined system that it takes me only an hour of time from the time the client looks at my website and decides to book me until I photograph them and deliver their final headshot. I'm making about $500 an hour this way, which is way better than photographing weddings. Wedding require a total of 40 to 50 hours a wedding client from start to finish. I also limit my bookings to a month or two out, eliminating that daunting feeling of being committed to where you’ll be on Labor Day in two years.
Moving to studio photography is one of the best things that Moshe did not only for his business but for his life as well. If you have the chance to get to hear him speak at places like B&H, Photo Plus Expo, or Headshot Bootcamp, you'll hear more about his story and the details on how he gets clients to book, pay, and show up without having to send out a single e-mail. When they come in for a basic headshot, he typically spends 10 to 15 minutes with them as they select their final images right there on the spot, and send them out to his retoucher who has the images delivered in 24 to 48 hours. That's it. No more culling through hundreds of images or waiting 4-8 weeks to deliver proofs back to a client. And definitely no more chasing clients down for album choices years after their wedding has passed.
Do I really hate weddings? No. Of course not. In fact, I still do a few a year and have recently rediscovered the fun of second shooting, which is how I got started. But they’re by far one of the hardest, most physically and mentally challenging genres of photography out there, and they demand too much of my most precious asset: time. Now, I spend most of my time photographing headshots for politicians, business people, yogis, and health professionals in the D.C. area, as well as Maryland and D.C. pageant contestants. I get to spend more time being creative on each individual picture, and that inspires and pushes me to be a more fine-tuned photographer.
If you're like me, and how I was 6 years ago, burnt out and ready to spend more time living than working, then I highly recommend taking a look into headshot photography. Start out like I mentioned, pull it off like a Band-Aid, build a website, and start marketing, perhaps even as fast as 48 hours, like I teach at Headshot Bootcamp. Grow your new business while stepping back from your other. Maybe you'll love it, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll decide you still want to shoot weddings and do headshots on the side, or maybe you'll change your life altogether. The best thing about being a photographer is we aren’t stuck doing something we no longer find joy doing. We have the freedom to explore any genre we'd like and mold our lives how we please.
Moshe first fell in love with photography while shooting weddings in Israel. Shortly after moving to the U.S., he established himself as a world-renowned photographer specializing in weddings, events, headshots, portraits, and fashion photography. Now with over a decade of photography experience, Moshe is recognized for his innovative use of lighting and color and a uniquely confident style. His work has earned him countless accolades, including recognition in local and national media outlets. He currently shoots with a Canon 5DS, typically the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II or Canon 85mm f/1.2L II in studio, Profoto D1s and Profoto Light Shapers, Savage Universal Backdrops and Tether Tools. For a longer list of more specific gear used, click here.
Moshe is also a leader in the industry, teaching the art and business of photography to thousands of photographers and speaking at events including WPPI, PDN PhotoPlus, ShutterFest, and intimate workshops like Headshot Bootcamp. Moshe is dedicated to client experience, quality craftsmanship, and creating a beautiful final product that both he and his clients are proud of. But most importantly, he is known for his fierce love for his family, friends, and spending time with both.
Do you have a link to his wedding work? His website is mostly baby/family photography.
In the past my website was all about weddings in different categories of the wedding but now it's just one gallery.
This is pretty much exactly what I want to be doing, but for some reason have been scared to make the jump and pursue headshots and studio portraits specifically. Any advice on how you started marketing and building a client base?
Thanks Andrew! I totally understand. For about 2-3 years I've been in denial about it and kept telling myself "I still love it" but really what I was doing is justifying the paycheck. I DO love it, but don't want to feel like I have to do it 14 hours on a Saturday.
My advice is, build a portfolio (friends, family, neighbors) and start marketing a dedicated website for it. Use social media to market the site and BOOM - that's how I got started. within less than 2 years this new business completely replaced my wedding income and even doubled it while having a reduction of 90% in my cost of doing business and overhead.
I hope this helps!
If you were doubling your wedding income, what were you charging for weddings when you transitioned into full time headshots?
Really interesting article, but the part that caught my eye was that the images were sent off to a retoucher. This had me curious because personally I would have difficulty letting go of my shots for someone else to edit. The site that was linked seemed a bit amateurish on some photos, although admittedly some were well done. But then I saw this image (used to promote the service!). That's just incredibly poor editing. I'd be extremely upset if I paid for someone to do that to my shot!
I thought that too when I saw the 1st image on the landing page. I skin we horribly retouched. Looks like they are hit or miss
agreed! I use that service for VERY specific images that require a very specific kind of work, basic at most part. I also have an in-house retoucher for everything else. The idea of the cheap retouching job is the fast turnaround and low overhead for the majority of the "fixes" images need.
At $2.50 an image they're likely automating the process, so you get what you pay for.
I'm just blown away by how someone charges 2.50 for retouching. I'm just assuming they slap on a Frequency seperation layer, blurring the bottom layer - and in 1 min its finished. Because spending any more time than 1-5 min per image and you are just losing money.
I feel as though its anything but professional - but again, you get what you pay for and if you like blurry untextured skin then giver' bud.
Or by someone in India where $2.50/hr is a good wage. I will agree though, that the editing is really poor.
This was a nice writeup. I'm also in headshots and need to figure out ways to promote that specific end of the business while I still perform family portrait sessions. Eventually that genre will get phased out into something more creative and premium, but headshots will remain my day-in-day-out genre. Love the headshot website too -- never seriously thought of using video in that manner on the homepage!
I have seen the one with the wings some years ago in the VW advertising for the Super Bowl. Photo from Guido Karp. At least angel was not sitting on the sofa...
I like how there are commenters on this thread that are stuck on the retouching aspect instead of congratulating and supporting a fellow photographer on landing his leap...
Cheers to everyone.
Well Moshe, now we feel really privileged to have worked with you on one of the few weddings you still do, lol!
I´m in the exact same situation but only with a almost three years old son.
I love wedding photography but I´m totaly afraid of how time consuming it is especially when you consider no free weekend during summer and autumn.
I started with headshots but in my area it was not working well, so I got more and more into wedding photography. Now featured by the most renowned venues in the area my wedding business is exploding.
Maybe I will try again more headshot work in off-season.
I developed an interest in photography while retouching the images of our clients from https://ephotovn.com/photo-retouching/ . Sometimes I get frustrated and think photography isn't really for me, but I guess that's just normal to feel that way, don't you think?.