Wedding and nature photographer Scott Bourneis is changing the industry landscape
If you’ve never heard of Scott Bourne, prepare to meet the future of wedding photography. Something old, something new, he’s faintly blue from the glow of web servers he manages in his clock tower studio high above downtown Tacoma, Wash.
Over the next few months, the fine-art landscape photographer and former Internet radio entrepreneur is launching nearly 200 wedding web sites, one in every major U.S. city. He boasts that he’s the most expensive wedding photographer in Washington state, and wherever you are, he’s coming to your town.
If wedding photography in the 1990s was the era of photojournalism scrapbooks characterized by Gary Fong’s "Storybook Weddings," the year 2000 marks the dawn of multimedia wedding producers like Citizen Bourne.
Working more like movie directors, these New Age artists are no longer content to hustle their Hasselblads down the aisles every Saturday afternoon. They’re arriving with teams of film and digital video photographers, producing personal movies, CD-ROM picture stories, computer screen savers, and anything else that their net-savvy customers can conceive of.
"The brides that come through my studio today are much more sophisticated than they were, say, 20 years ago," says Bourne. "They’ve grown up on the Internet, video, CD. They have a higher expectation for multimedia and, of course, new media. So we’re doing digital video that looks as good as anything you could have seen on TV five years ago."
Bourne says he’s ramping up his multimedia offerings for two reasons. "We did 28 weddings in 1999, and almost every one of them had a videographer. Why should I wave goodbye to that revenue? That’s number one. There is a lot of money being lost if we don’t get that business. Number two, no offense to most videographers, but the pure videographers are typically tech guys. They’re into the gadgets and the wires, and they don’t know crap about photography. They don’t know how to use light. They’re subject-oriented.
"We’re doing things involving composition and light. And we’re tired of having videographers walk through our shot. We’re tired of having them step on a wire and unplug the light bank that’s a hundred yards from me and my fill flash isn’t working and I can’t tell and all my shots are underexposed. I’m tired of that. So 90 percent of the reason I’m doing it is just to keep them out of the way. The other 10 percent is I don’t mind capturing another $100,000 in revenue."
High end is more than high res
Bourne is no digital dabbler, having been featured in Wired magazine as early as March 1996 after creating one of the Internet’s first online radio stations. He sold Netradio, then created one of the web’s first photo galleries, www.f64.com. "At that time the two most searched-for phrases on the web were sex and Star Trek. I opened the gallery with Leonard Nimoy’s nudes. We got a million hits an hour. It just fried us."
By October 1997, Bourne had moved from Minneapolis to Tacoma and set up shop in the shambles left behind by a glass-roofed restaurant that had gone out of business. Naturally, he found the space while searching the Internet from his Minnesota studio. With his marketing skills and growing bankroll, he remade the space into a premier portrait studio that now is the first stop for any bride he photographs.
"With all of our wedding packages, we do a bridal portrait in this studio," Bourne says. "It’s mandatory, and that usually takes a lot of pressure off for the formal portrait, because usually they’re getting married at the First Church of Ugly." From what he calls the Camera Room, Bourne’s subjects get a stunning view of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, blocked only by the system of canvas pull-string baffles he runs across the glass roof and walls.
"We can control the amount of light by opening these banners," he says. "On a typical cloudy Tacoma day at 10 a.m., it’s f/5.6 at 1/60 of a second in here." Those views come through a Hasselblad 503cw, and occasional use of his Canon EOS-3 system.
Bourne displays a range of work in the studio, from family portraits to black-and-white panoramas featured in his current landscape photography show Tranquil Washington, which he shot with Hasselblad’s new Xpan camera. Both a location and wedding photographer, he showed in 15 galleries nationwide in 1999 and booked a half-million dollars from print sales of his previous Slot Canyons show alone. Still, he’s quick to point out that his landscape and location photography is still his second love.
"The fine-art work actually started as just a way to sell the wedding photography," he says. "It was a marketing decision. I figured if I got known as a fine-art photographer first, then I could charge more for weddings."
That gamble appears to be paying off. As his business expands, he’s added a second photographer and hand-coloring artist, Karen Wolfe, and a digital specialist, Jason Betz, a University of Missouri photojournalism grad whom Bourne calls a "26-year-old wunderkind."
"We have virtually every software product you can buy that’s related to graphics," Bourne says. "One of the big sellers for brides is our wedding screen savers. We sold screen savers to 22 weddings this year. A $179 add-on. It’s from pictures we’ve already scanned, so it’s not really any extra work for us. For the screen saver, we pick the 10 images we like. They don’t get to choose. It’s a WindowsTM executable file. You just double–click on it, and it installs. You don’t have to know anything about computers. And the brides comment that they just love coming back to lunch and seeing their wedding flash before them. It gives us one more leg up on saying we’re cool, we’re digital, we’re the future. And we have a link back to our website. We’re pretty good marketers."
And what if the bride wants more than 10 photos on her computer? No problem. "A CD-ROM of the whole wedding is like $3000," says Bourne.
Clicking into customers
Bourne gets the majority of his business from his website, a trend he’s escalating by launching sites in nearly 200 cities this year. Hosted on Sun Sparc Ultras at the Minnesota Super Computing Center, Bourne’s wedding sites, www.seattlebride.com, www.tacomabride.com, www.houstonbride.com, and dozens of others, will be created with ColdFusion, a database backend, and offer city-by-city customization with C++ and Perl. This is not your average Front Page website.
One might ask why Bourne is pushing web advertising in dozens of cities. Can he really offer services across the country? To that, he shrugs, "You know what? Cameras travel."
While Bourne tackles new technologies with zeal, he’s equally impressed with finding bargains. For instance, when customers asked for prints on canvas, he researched the market and found that a $1,500 Epson 3000 printer would allow him to print on canvas without any darkroom process. Now he scans film with his Polaroid SprintScan, simply feeds acid-free canvas sheets into the Epson printer, and then frame-stretches the gorgeous prints in a traditional manner. The resulting images last 75 years, and the profit margins are equally spectacular, he says.
"All brides want something that nobody else has. Their whole trip is, ‘I want to be somebody special.’ So the challenge to a wedding photographer is, you know, ‘I’ve done this 600 times, how do I make it special?
"We’ve done it by bringing in digital quite a bit. But we don’t do digital capture. We still do traditional capture, and probably will for a long time. We do the real traditional Monty Zucker and Clay Blackmore studio portraiture so Mom’s happy. The screen savers are what the brides want. We use digital for marketing, for output, for creating new products like websites and CD-ROMS with slide shows on them."
No tricks of the trade
Bourne is passionate and even charming when talking about the care he puts into preparation for the actual wedding day. He gleefully unfolds a fishing-tackle box he brings to all nuptials. "It’s got everything a bride might need. We’ve had to sew two or three dresses onto girls. We’ve got panty hose, garters. This is the difference between being involved in, and committed to, the wedding.
"I could just say, ‘Hey, man, that’s not my job, I just take pictures. But when you’re going to pay me $9500 bucks, you don’t want to hear, "That’s not my job.’ That’s why I bring extra batteries, extra lights. I even bring extra pants, in case I split mine.
"This is all a mindset with me. I take really seriously the fact that these people’s memories are in my hands. We don’t play there. That’s a real big deal. If I screw up, it’s screwed up. We can’t redo it. We take all these extraordinary steps to make sure we’re protecting their memories."
As for photography itself, Bourne says he’s often asked for tricks of the trade, and says there aren’t any.
"They all want to know how I charge what I charge, like it’s some big secret. Or what camera I use, as if once they bought that camera, that would do it. Now, the camera manufacturers don’t want to hear this, but I’ve got news for you. There’s no secret film. There’s no secret lab. And there’s no secret lens that I get to buy that no one else can buy that makes my stuff special.
"I don’t think much about my competition. I try to focus on what I do. We don’t really talk about competitors. There were 52,000 wedding licenses granted in Pierce and King counties last year. I want no more than 50 weddings. That’s one tenth of 1 percent. There’s plenty to go around."
Quality has a price
As the phone rings for the fourth time during his early December interview, Bourne checks the time on his Rolex Submariner wristwatch. Like his Rolex, he says, "Everything we sell is guaranteed for life. The albums are book-bound with acid-free paper. Because I don’t want the Timex client, I want the Rolex client. I’d rather do one wedding with a $5,400 average than 10 weddings with a $500 average.
"We do one wedding a weekend here. We don’t do Friday night and then Saturday because we’d be beat. We take five people to every wedding and we do one wedding per weekend, and that’s it. We charge enough money to do the job, and we have fun. We get creative. I have bookings into 2002, but I’m not booked solid. We have 23 bookings next year, and if that’s all we did next year, we’d make a half million dollars, and that’s fine with me. We won’t do more than 50 ever, because I need two weeks off."
Not surprisingly, Bourne’s average customer is a white-collar worker, upper middle class and affluent. Recent weddings were for an architect, a marketing director for Starbucks, a product developer for Visio, a programmer at Microsoft, and a professor of economics at a university. "It tends to lean more towards Internet-like people," he says. "But we have done a guy who’s a manager of a Jack in the Box."
While Bourne focuses on wedding photography, his goal, he says, is to get a customer for life. "We’re trying to build a relationship with somebody, so that they come to do their portraits with their kids. Our average portrait package is $1,809 per person. In one way, the wedding is just a loss leader. At $1,809 a kid every year, a four-person family makes me $7,500 bucks a year. Start doing the math. If I have 20 of those clients, that’s a nice little side business. Everything I do here works on a pretty simple scale. I don’t need to hit homeruns. For the price I’m charging, I just need to bunt, get a little wood on the ball. Ten people at $9,500 here, 20 people at $1,800 there. It all starts to add up.
"But photography is not the kind of business for anybody to get rich. Let’s face it. The highest-paid photographer gets up there somewhere around where he can see the bottom rung of most other professions’ pay scales."
It’s a profession
Measuring up to other professions is something new for many photographers, who, as Bourne says, are used to "selling square inches of paper." Moving away from that business model is one of the goals of the newly founded Washington Professional Photographers Association. As the impetus behind and first president of the new organization, Bourne says the WPPA, on the web at www.wppa.net, was founded in response to "some real holes in the way present organizations were doing things.
"The WPPA is doing things that are a little more marketing-oriented. We are trying to create more industry awareness outside the community of photographers. We want to do more awareness of what it’s like going to J.C. Penney’s versus coming here, where you bring your kid and I spend a day with him. I don’t put him up on some steel thing that makes him look like he’s at the doctor’s. We’re trying to elevate the whole industry to the professional level. Does your attorney charge by the square inch, or your accountant? So why do we sell by the square inch when we sell an 8-by-10 verses a 5- by-7? I charge for my time, just like my attorney, my doctor and my accountant. We’re professional services people. We should charge by the hour. I charge $175 an hour. It gets you nothing except me.
"When people call up and ask how much is an 8-by-10, I tell them, I tell them, "I am the most expensive photographer in Washington. Would you like to continue talking?" I try to gear everything, from my advertising to the physical presentation of my studio, to start sending the signals early that I am not going to be cheap. But it’s not just because I am greedy. It’s because all the stuff I do is of top quality. These computers cost money. This studio costs money. Being able to print on canvas and watercolor paper, and hand-coloring, and using only real leather in my albums and real wood in my frames — those are quality issues.
"People will run down to the frame store and pay $500 for a 16-by-20 custom frame, and want to argue with me about paying $229 for the print. Well, how is the frame worth more than the print? It’s a piece of wood. This is me. This is my creative thought, my ability to interact with the client, my years of experience, my investment in equipment, my use of film and filters. How’s that not worth at least what the piece of wood is worth?"
Mountains to climb
In the coming months, the WPPA will focus on tools, techniques, marketing methods and consumer education, and will sponsor print competitions where the public can view and purchase the works.
Bourne himself may start merging his landscape and wedding work, offering location wedding photography in far-flung locales. He’s working with a tour guide who takes people to remote parts of Alaska for weddings, and with cruise lines to do similar adventure weddings on location in Hawaii.
"We’re looking to create whole new genres for the person who’s got a whole lot of money," Bourne says. "For the guy who says, "What’s the $25,000 package?", we want to be ready for that guy. There’s no price that’s too high. There’s only the wrong client. Joan Rivers spent a million and a half on her daughter’s wedding. I think that’s crazy, but I wouldn’t mind being in on it.
"There are people that can write a million-dollar check without asking their wife," Bourne says with a smile.
"They’ve got the money to spend, and they want to spend it. And I’m here to help them. You want to get married on Mount Rainier? I climbed Mount Rainier. I’m ready for you."