In the past couple of weeks since David Jay released his “The System – A 10 Step Guide to Starting Your Photography Business,” the wedding photography world has been abuzz with opinions, for better or worse, of this latest informational guide for new photographers. If you’ve managed to stay out of the fray, consider your time more productively spent.
Though I’ve been aware of the fact that heated discussions have been taking place, I’ve done my best to keep out of them. Instead, I wanted the opportunity to review The System without being influenced by all the clamor and vitriol that’s sure to fly anytime something controversial heats up on the internet. My goal here is to review this guide with as an unbiased eye as possible.
Before we get started, you might be asking “Why bother?” To answer, I’ll share with you my experience at the most recent WPPI convention in Las Vegas. There I met so many new photographers. People who’d been in business for less than a year in some cases, not aware which are the best business credit cards even… What struck me is how much they revered the “rockstars” in the business. More than a few came up to me the day after meeting me and apologized for not knowing immediately who I was and not acting deferentially. (Like I care. I’m usually in search of the bar at these things.)
My point is that there are many, many new photographers who genuinely revere, admire and believe the high-profile voices in this industry. If they say something, their word is as good as gold. To borrow from an old ad slogan, when David Jay speaks, people listen. The question is: Should you?
Who is David Jay?
For those not familiar with David Jay, he’s a former photographer from Santa Barbara who achieved some acclaim shooting weddings in the mid-2000’s. His real claim to fame, in my mind, is that he’s made a small fortune selling products to photographers, starting with his Show It! web slide show software. (Disclosure: I own this product.) His company now offers a small range of photographic software products – from websites to online file sharing.
In reviewing The System, I think it’s important to understand its author and his motivations. First, by his own admission, Jay ceased photographing weddings in 2008. He is no longer a professional photographer. Instead, he’s the owner and CEO of a software company that sells products to photographers. Yet, the irony here is that he’s still viewed – and presents himself – as a compatriot to photographers. I often find it ironic how people who are successful for their ability to sell stuff to photographers are lauded and continue to teach based upon their photographic skills.
Simply put, his admirable skill set lies in starting, running and marketing a software company – not necessarily as a successful photographer. This is an important point to consider as one contemplates the relevance of his photography advice.
Easy to Raise Rates in Boom Years
One of the illustrations in his The System is how his rates rapidly increased during his five year run as a photographer. Now, for those of you who weren’t around from 2002 to 2007, Jay’s years in business, let me just tell you that this time period was the golden era for wedding photography in Southern California. Competition was lower and the money was good. Wedding photographers’ rates in general matched those of housing prices during that time – they went straight up.
In the years since, unfortunately, rates have headed right back down. Personally, I’d be impressed if Jay’s rate increase had taken place during the huge downturn that we’ve had in Southern California. In his aforementioned rates illustration, he states “2008 – Jasmine Star kicked me out of the industry.” I would venture to guess that in reality a) the business got a lot tougher and b) he was making gobs of money with his software company so there was really no need to shoot weddings anymore. Let’s just be honest here.
I also bring this point up because Jay makes it look easy to just raise your rates to rock star levels in a matter of a few short years. Sadly, given that we’re only now emerging ever-so-slowly from the worst economic conditions since the great depression, that’s really not possible for the overwhelming majority of photographers. To hold yourself to unrealistic goals is a recipe for frustration and even failure. For Jay to put this out there as a model to be emulated is simply not fair to his audience.
Having said all that, let’s dig into my review:
The Like Button
Despite what the detractors of The System may have to say, there is some good info in its pages. I can’t agree more with “Friends are the Foundation of Your Business.” His 6th Step on Marketing and Branding, though a bit shallow, has some interesting insights. Jay’s idea of the importance of a video of the photographer on the website runs counter to most of our expectations – but may well be worth considering.
Step 7 is as good a one-page primer on preparing for shooting a wedding as I’ve read. In particular, his emphasis on good communication and the importance of having a written contract is especially on target. (There’s an offer to receive his free contract, however when I signed up I merely received a promise for free stuff in the future. So much for good communication.)
What I most liked about The System was his reading list. Books like Anatomy of Buzz and The Emyth Revisited (Written by Michael Gerber not Emanual Rosen as noted in The System) are definite-must reads for any small businessperson. There’s other books in there as well that I’m going to put on my reading list. Knowledge from a wide range of sources is always a great idea.
The best that I can say about The System is that it reminded me of attending a WPPI talk – a lot of fluff with the occasional helpful nugget of information that (hopefully) makes the time invested worthwhile. I think the greatest strength of The System is that it speaks to new photographers on their terms. It’s far too easy to forget the many challenges, big and small, that beginners face. While some of the tips shared seemed trite to me, they may be welcome by you if you’re just trying to wrap your head around all the technology and processes necessary to make this business work. Kudos to David Jay for reaching out.
I’ll start my criticism by skipping to the last page. There Jay states “Thank You: The System is So Much Bigger Than Me.” Actually, I’m sad to report that it’s not and that’s really the downfall of this whole document. It’s main goal is not to benefit photographers or the industry, it’s to sell more stuff for David Jay’s company. In so doing, it does a huge disservice to photographers and the industry that Jay hypocritically purports to serve.
Mind you, I don’t fault Jay for trying to promote his products. I do fault him however for doing so at the expense of the people he’s claiming to help. The most egregious example of this is his Step Nine where he admonishes “Clients Want You, Not Your Prints.” His message is to forget about delivering any product such as prints or albums, just “Shoot and Share” digital files – using his Pass website that he’s happy to sell you.
The problem with this “Shoot and Share” ethos is that it doesn’t translate to a profitable business model. Just making it easy for clients to access digital files without some way to charge for it is only profitable for the guy selling you the means to do the sharing – that person being David Jay.
No Need to Throw the Baby Out
In reality, the selling of physical products such as albums and prints is still highly profitable and typically generates about 1/3 of the overall billings for most profitable studios. There is no need to give up selling product and, to anyone starting in the business, this is an area where you can make a significant profit. Many clients still want albums and whatnot. Indeed, the revenue from selling products generally makes the difference between a full-time career that pays well and one that’s forever on the edge of being profitable. For Jay to try to convince photographers otherwise is shameful in my opinion.
Besides, what does David Jay know about being a wedding photographer these days? By his own admission, he hasn’t been in the business for five years now. When you’re in the software business, the answer to every problem lies in… more software.
There’s plenty more self-serving advice as well in the The System. For example, when it comes to websites Jay advises “Don’t waste your money on a template.” Really? Someone starting out should just run out and purchase a David Jay Show It custom web site for $1,500 (conveniently advertised on the next page). It’s okay to beg and borrow the very gear necessary to shoot the wedding, but buy a perfectly usable and good looking template that can cost as little as $100 is a waste of money? I don’t think I’m being too cynical to say that if David Jay were selling camera gear, he’d be shoveling you his latest Mark V camera instead.
The quote that’s really raised the hackles of many within the industry is his advice to “Spray and Pray” when it comes to photographing a wedding. Because this point has already been debated and berated up and down, I won’t comment further other than it’s emblematic of what appears to be his real goal with The System. That being to get as many new photographers into the market as possible so that he can sell them (you) stuff. Whether they (you) are successful or not doesn’t really seem to be as much a concern as the mere fact that you buy his stuff.
I could continue to pick out flaws with The System, but my point here is to provide a useful review not grind on Jay. (I’ll just add that I wish he’d left Mother Theresa and Jesus out of this profiteering venture.) Overall, I view The System as a darn shame. David Jay has a huge pull in the industry – at last count The System had 3,000 Facebook Likes. Clearly his ideas of sharing and openness resonate with many. It’s unfortunate that much of the content is self-serving and not helpful to creating a sustainable wedding photography business.
To those of you in his target market – starting out and looking for advice and direction – my advice is take everything in The System with a grain of salt. Learn what you can, but don’t take any of it at face value. Sure it would be great if one could follow David Jay down the rosy path to a profitable business. Just keep in mind that anyone who offers you a shortcut to success is just trying to sell you something.
In the end, The System – and David Jay – is just trying to sell you something.