Business as (un)usual: How Kelly Tunney found her ideal clientele
Growing up in Canberra, Australia, Kelly Tunney’s journey to professional wedding photography wasn’t a linear path. Canberra was, and still is in many ways, a conservative city. When Tunney graduated from photography school in her early 20s, there weren’t a lot of jobs for creatives in the area.
So she struggled a bit, bouncing in and out of professional photography until she started to pick up wedding work with some consistency around the mid 2000s. Then in 2006 Tunney recognized a hole in the market for more creative, off-script wedding photography. Figuring this was her chance, she jumped in full time.
She made portraits in locations no one else was visiting. She dialed up the innovation in her photographic techniques and image concepts. She tried new storytelling approaches and worked with clients to craft a custom narrative for each wedding. People began to notice. By 2008 she was double- and triple-booking her weekends en route to photographing more than 65 weddings a year.
The larger photographic industry began to notice as well. Tunney developed a reputation as one of Australia’s premier wedding photographers, earning distinctions such as the Australian Wedding Photographer of the Year and Creative Photographer of the Year from the Australian Institute of Professional Photography. She became a recognized speaker and photographic instructor.
Tunney has taken a step back from the breakneck pace of three-wedding weekends and now spends much of her time mentoring other photographers. In the process, she’s had a chance to reflect on how dramatically the wedding photography market has changed over the past dozen years. She routinely discusses these changes with her students and mentees, noting, however, that the principles for building a successful business remain largely the same.
When she started, Tunney quickly assessed that there weren’t a lot of Canberra photographers pushing the creative boundaries for wedding photography. However, those who were trying something different were well received. She figured that if she could challenge the norm and show something unique, she could fill a need, and her target clients would find her.
She introduced innovation in small increments. “Instead of taking on the market with this big whirlwind of creativity and overwhelming everyone with new ideas, I approached it slowly over two years, building up trust, building up a reputation, and then transitioning into doing things differently,” she explains. The key was to give people what they wanted and then work in additional touches—new locations, different backdrops, unique angles and compositions. She shot the traditional photos in front of the typical landmarks that people wanted, then took clients around the corner to scenes no one else was photographing. She displayed those different images on her website, blog, social media, and other materials to promote the kind of work she wanted to do. Over time, her ideal clientele self-selected as clients sought her out.
Finding the right clients
Success in professional photography is often a matter of finding people who will pay you to do what you do best. For Tunney, locating the right types of clients—the people who appreciate her creativity and give her the freedom to practice it—is a matter of developing a personal brand. “It’s all about how you present yourself,” she says. “It’s the language you use, the images you display, how you show yourself on social media and your website. I made a conscious decision about seven years ago to present myself in a certain way, and that has made a big difference.”
For example, Tunney eschews some of the standard professional presentation templates in favor of demonstrating her personality. She uses humor, she shares ideas, she tries to connect purposefully. If she feels an affinity toward someone, as if she might want to associate with that person outside of a professional context, then she knows it’s a client worth pursuing.
“I feel very lucky to photograph the people I photograph,” says Tunney. “However, in the beginning I didn’t know who those people were. I was out there chasing every wedding, and I would take it very personally when someone didn’t choose me. But the market is so huge, and my little piece of the pie is so small, that I have learned to be OK with that piece being filled with my people. It takes a while to figure that out, to understand that not every job is right for you. When you do, the work makes a big change for the better.”
Customizing the experience
Tunney is encouraged by the trends she’s seen changing the Australian wedding industry, particularly the move toward more individualized events stylized to the couples’ tastes and backgrounds. “Now, I feel like everything is out the window,” she says. “It’s not necessarily because people want to break new ground but because they want to celebrate their lives and what is unique about them, and incorporate those elements into their wedding photography. That’s what makes it exciting. I turn up every Saturday and find something I’ve never seen before. It’s inspiring, and it makes you want to be more creative and wild with them.”
Before every wedding, Tunney meets with the couple and discusses what makes them unique. She encourages them to think creatively. She goes through examples of things other couples have done and nudges clients to express themselves in ways that emphasizes what’s important in their lives.
“I respond better to couples that do things with a bit of purpose,” she says. “It helps when there is meaning behind what they want to do in their wedding. It comes from the heart; they’re not just stylizing their wedding because they think it will turn up in a magazine. The meaning behind it is important.”
Making it all worth it
As Tunney evolves her career, she has dedicated energy to innovating her business as much as her photography. Part of that process has involved launching a wedding photography collective, which she manages along with fellow ace wedding photographer Dan O’Day. Dubbed All Grown Up Weddings, the collective includes seven other photographers plus a four-person design team. Tunney and O’Day carefully selected the other photographers and have dedicated significant time and resources into training them. In exchange, the operation allows Tunney and O’Day to expand their reach and earn additional income as business managers and photographic agents.
All Grown Up Weddings has helped Tunney shift her schedule to a more manageable 30 weddings a year while allowing her to keep a finger on the pulse of the wedding industry through interactions with the other photographers. It’s led to a more manageable work-life balance, and also an inspiring new business model that she sees adding to her longevity in the field.
“My goal is to evolve the way a wedding studio runs,” she says. “These days, I think it can be almost anything you want. From my perspective as a wife and mother who is trying to juggle life and businesses, it can be a challenge, but it’s certainly possible. Photographers are very fortunate to be able to run businesses that they can shape to fit their lives and their inspirations. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. My message to others is to keep going. You can evolve, you can go fast or slow, take a break, but don’t give up. It’s worth it.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.