EMOTION Wedding Photography upends Australia business model with consumer-driven approach

In the transition from analog to the digital age, media-driven markets like photography experienced intense and rapid business-model changes. When the film-based business deteriorated, the barrier to entry lowered for photographers of all skill levels. What was not anticipated, however, was the change in behavior by brides, who are the primary customers of wedding photography. Brides are choosing, in greater numbers, to prefer social sharing and casual snaps over fashion-driven photo sessions and high-end photo albums.

This changing market reality led to the launch of EMOTION Wedding Photography by industry veterans Michael Warshall, Vittorio Natoli and Peter Meyers. This digital-first operation is built around the belief the customer – in this case, brides – would prefer to hire a photographer with immediate access to images, as well as the understanding there are photographers willing to be paid a flat rate to photograph a wedding.

(This is not to say the company launch hasn’t been met with controversy. Australian’s leading photo business site, Inside Imaging, has covered the story, featuring feedback from pro photographers who think EMOTION’s pricing strategy is bad for the market as well as responses from the people involved.)

The Dead Pixels Society talked with Warshall about his career and what led him to come out of semi-retirement to launch EMOTION Wedding Photography.

Michael Warshall should have known he wasn’t the retirement type. After more than 40 years as a photography industry entrepreneur, shooting more than 3,500 weddings as well as running one of the world’s top-quality digital printing labs, he retired in 2017.

“I’m not cut out for semi-retirement,” he says. “There’s only so much gardening and whiskey drinking you can do. I started talking to some friends about disruption and four months later, we launched our new product which is disrupting the traditional wedding market.”

That new service, EMOTION Wedding Photography is a continuation of Warshall’s continuing quest to innovate and to disrupt markets.

“It’s what I’m about,” he explains. “I’ve disrupted printing in Australia; Nulab was the first to digital in the 1990s. The first to provide a digital workflow in the pro market and the first to transition from silver-halide to digital, with the HP Indigo.

“I’m not afraid of disruption. It drives me. It’s either innovate or die. If you think it’s all good, that means there’s someone moving a lot faster than you and you’ll get left behind.”

Michael Warshall, chairman, EMOTION wedding photography: “It’s either innovate or die.”

The son of immigrants, Warshall started as a chemist who was soon taking photos at a nightclub where his band played. In those days, club photographers took photos of patrons, then made black-and-white prints in a makeshift darkroom. Soon, he took the profession seriously, going to college photography courses where the processing side of the business made sense.

Warshall’s burgeoning wedding photography business soon meant he began to process his own work, including putting in a color lab in the early 1970s. In time, other photographers began to send him processing work.

“Before I knew it, I had a lab,” he said. “After I finished the photography course, but didn’t really know a lot about the business. I took my first trip to the United States and tracked down photographers like Monte Zucker and went to Winona. That changed my whole life.”

Warshall imported to Australia then-new marketing techniques like telemarketing and direct mail, which helped the business flourish to become Australia’s largest pro lab.

As the digital transition came in the 1990s, Warshall says more trips to the United States, visiting businesses like Miller’s Professional Imaging, were where he learned about a new digital workflow system from Ray Hicks called ProShots. At the time, digital cameras were prohibitively expensive, so an analog-to-digital system was groundbreaking.

Nulab began printing digitally with Kodak Pegasus printers and was among the first to move from traditional film output to digital output. Eventually, an HP Indigo 5500 was used to print photobooks and, over several years, Warshall consulted with HP to help develop new inks for seven-color presses surpassing silver-halide quality. His chemistry background, coupled with knowledge of photography, contributed.

Soon after this innovation happened, and Nulab was winning top printing industry awards, the opportunity came to sell the business. But, after 11 months of semi-retirement, Warshall began to look at a way back in.

Addressing the market challenge

Over 45 years, the photo industry changed a lot, not just in technology, but in the customer, as well. Demographic changes and customers expectations are radically different than they were just 10 years ago.

“The photography business and photo printing are still a challenged industry,” explains Warshall.  “There are new customers who are looking for a different solution than is offered by professional photographers. There are about 118,000 weddings a year in Australia and only 5-6% go to the professional high-end photographer.”

[bctt tweet=”All of my life, I’ve learned one thing: Who is the customer and what do they want? – Michael Warshall, EMOTION Wedding Photography” username=”DeadPixelsSocty”]

Today’s millennial brides are not using professional photographers in the quantities of the past; Warshall saw the challenge, then, as bringing professional services to those brides at a price they would be willing to pay.

Vittorio Natoli, CEO, EMOTION wedding photography

“All of my life, I’ve learned one thing: Who is the customer and what do they want? Give them what they want, and in turn, they will give you money. It’s not what I want, it’s what they want.”

Warshall and his partners, Vittorio Natoli and Peter Meyers, surveyed hundreds of brides to find out what they wanted from a wedding photographer.

“What [the surveys] showed us when they book a wedding, the brides want the photographer come to the wedding, photograph it, have a good time, and turn over the digital files so the bride could share them on social media.”

This belief was reinforced by Warshall’s own lab experience, where he saw Nulab’s major studio customers’ business declining over time.

“Yes there are 5-6% that will go to a photographer, perceive the value and spend thousands of dollars,” he says. “But the majority [of clients] can’t tell the difference between good photography and regular photography, predominantly because of smartphones.”

Through his experience marketing high-quality photobooks through Nushots, a direct-to-consumer side business of the professional-orientated Nulab, Warshall knew there were thousands of brides in Australia who had unprinted digital files. Nushots conducted a marketing campaign through Facebook offering to make design albums/photobooks from these brides’ files. Several dozen brides took them up on the offer, showing Warshall there was interest in this service; the average book sale was $950. Considering the wholesale price Nulab would provide a professional photographer for an album was $500, there was a tremendous opportunity there, he thought.

A fundamental shift

As mentioned above, the digital revolution lowered the barrier to entry for photographers. Quality alone was not the differentiator in the marketplace, as convenience and price became equally important.

“There’s been a fundamental shift from the photography by a real professional, as we know them, to those who are not,” says Warshall. “In other words, the definition of ‘professional’ has changed.”

Peter Meyers, executive officer, EMOTION wedding photography

He notes today’s Millennial brides are very savvy and know the value of a photo album: “One bride said, ‘If I would have gone to a real professional, this album would have cost me $4,000.’ So she was educated on the market. She just didn’t see the value in paying that price.”

A great many of the new era of weekend photographers don’t like doing post production or marketing; they got into the business because they enjoy wedding photography. EMOTION Wedding Photography is designed to connect those wedding photographers with brides in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Customers can choose a portrait-only package or high-cost package including a 50-page lay flat book with 200 images.

“The bride wants high-quality photography and wants the files to share the next morning on social media,” says Warshall. “An album is worth $500. If I sell that album to photographers for $500, and he wants to sell it for $3-$4,000 – and that model is broken – why not sell it directly to the bride for $500? That’s what we are doing. The new generation of photographers doesn’t even want to sell albums. They don’t want to spend the time.”

The EMOTION model

“This is a fintech model, driven by an app,” explains Warshall. “The photographer has the app, and when they want to work, they put in the areas they want to cover. The bride sending a notification saying which are the three most-suitable photographers, and pick the one they want. The photographer is notified, and they give the details.

“The photographer turns up, photographs the wedding and, on the ride home, uploads the pictures to a web server. That’s it. They don’t do anything else.”

The photographer is paid a flat fee, regardless of the wedding length. EMOTION photographers are vetted by the company, and many of them are accomplished, certified photographers.

“In Australia, the average wedding is six hours long,” says Warshall. “There’s a big trend to having smaller weddings; the church weddings are dying. People are getting married in registry offices, in vineyards, in restaurants, and so on, these only run for three hours. The photographer gets $600, regardless if it’s a three-hour job, a one-hour job or maximum of an eight-hour job. It’s on average $100 an hour.”

The images show up in the app the next day, and the bride can share them and do whatever they want with them. High-res versions are kept on servers indefinitely, and the customer can download them whenever they wish.

After the event, EMOTION can continue to market directly to brides within the app. For example, if they didn’t order an album with their initial booking, the album could be ordered later. EMOTION is currently setting up its own production facility.

Not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from the traditional wedding photography industry.

“A lot of people here are negative but people from around the world are saying this is amazing,” says Warshall. “I am betting this is what the customers want. EMOTION exists to provide much-needed modern-day solutions for today’s couples who understand the need for professional photography. They want it fast, they want it quick and they want it at a price they are prepared to pay. If you don’t give it to them, they are not going to come to you. The customer is fully aware of what we do, so the magic of professional photography has disappeared from the mass market.

“Photographers need to understand what the new generation of Millennials wants,” he explains. “They don’t want what we traditionally made. About 5% of them do, and if you can get a $5-$10,000 wedding out of it, photographers should continue getting them. In Australia, that’s 8,000 weddings between all the good photographers.”

For Warshall, digital technology has meant the recognition reaching the mass market means knowing the customer, what they will pay and what features they desire. There are many types of markets, and EMOTION Wedding Photography is designed to reach the largest segment.

“Ferraris and Lamborghinis are still sold in small numbers,” he notes. “I want to sell Volkswagens and Toyotas.”