Till Camera Do Us Part

02 November 2017

The average wedding costs RM50,000, of which only 8 percent is dedicated to photography. Demand may be high but with the dawn of social media and digital technology, are wedding snaps still worth the premium price tag?

Back in the day, the wedding photographer was someone in a snazzy getup, armed with a flashy camera who lined up the families – bride’s, groom’s, then all together – and whose work concentrated in a brisk window of about half an hour.

After the cutting of the cake or the groom’s speech, the photographer’s responsibilities ended. He or she could leave well before the entertainment was over.

Photographer Syahrin Aziz started shooting weddings during the DSLR boom in the early 2000s.

The modern wedding photographer bears little resemblance to this vintage caricature. Today they work within a fast-growing, highly competitive industry. Some work like photojournalists while others choreograph scenes with the sophistication of a film director.

Syahrin Aziz, founder of The Wedding Diaries, has watched the evolution of the profession. He made his foray into the wedding photography industry in 2002, right at the beginning of the DLSR boom.

“Initially, it was just for friends but I started shooting professionally in 2003. Back then, my first gig which was for a friend earned me RM300. And, at that time, it was a lot of money,” says Syahrin.

His business expanded slowly as it gradually slid into weddings. “I didn’t know about the market but I had help from a few seasoned players. They showed me the ropes.”

But also growing from strength to strength is a much younger counterpart, 32-year-old Jane Lee. With five years of experience under her belt, she represents a younger breed of shutterbugs. Just like Syahrin, she thanks a friend for her wedding photography debut.

Jane Lee represents a younger breed of shutterbugs.

“I used to maintain an online shop. That’s how I got started with photography in the first place. A friend of mine asked me to shoot their wedding after looking at some of my product shots,” says Lee.

And then she was off. “Initially it was testing the waters. So, even the pay was really low, I needed the experience and I shot a lot. Also, I didn’t know the rules as weddings usually have a few rules, but I just went for it.”

Lee attributes her skills to the DIY culture that’s become increasingly popular thanks to the Internet. She credits YouTube for helping her get a start not only in photography but also in running her online shop, where she did everything from designing the website to copywriting.

For Syahrin, it only took him a year before he started profiting from shooting stills. “In 2003, it was an issue of supply and demand, really. Those days, it was one photographer to two or three weddings. These days, it’s about 100 photographers to ten?” he says.

Tracing his earnings, Syahrin  reveals as the market peaked between 2007 and 2009, he easily made RM5,000 per event.

 “And ‘per event’ here means, for example if you are familiar with Malay weddings, akad nikah is considered one event, and reception another event.”

Back in the day, Syahrin easily made RM5,000 for every event he shot.

But fortunes fled south as competition turned cutthroat. “These days, people are charging RM1,500 for two events,” says Syahrin, shaking his head in disapproval.

“The barrier to entry is low. All you need is a DLSR which you can get on the cheap… also many students are now good at editing, so clients don’t care much about cameras. As long as you can process those pictures, that’s all that matters,” he adds.

Despite stiff competition, the lowest Syahrin is willing to go is RM1,500 per event. “Have you followed a wedding photographer as he or she shoots? It’s not easy. A wedding photographer has to run and chase after the bride. It’s tiring and it’s not an easy job.”

Lee's shots are in tune with the demands of the "Instagram generation"

It’s a sentiment shared by Lee. With 100 weddings and counting, she has had her fair share of experiences with difficult clients.

“One of the craziest requests I had was when a client gave me a list, it was a few pages long, and she wanted me to snap every item on that list,” says Lee.

“I was the only photographer and it was not easy as I had to make sure I had every single item down pat.”

Yet her photography business still thrives. “I do 24 to 30 weddings each year, both pre-wedding and weddings, and at local and overseas destinations,” shares Lee,  who charges between RM4,000 to RM10,000.

Syahrin agrees that one can still make a living shooting weddings, but cautions that it’s tough. “You’ll have to charge very low and maybe in a week, you have to get at least three to four weddings. Many can’t deliver because they take on too much.”

These days, with increasingly fierce competition, Syahrin is forced to lower his rates.

What’s fascinating is how both use social media to get word across. Syahrin used Flickr and Facebook as it was easy to get clients when these two were still novelties. At one point, he even had to turn down some of them. “[But] after a while, the queries slowed down,” he says.

Lee has been leveraging social media from day one. Going by @janethecrazy, her MO to outdo her competition is to capture as many eyeballs as possible.

“I use Instagram a lot and it is surprisingly quite good. Also the hashtags provide free marketing,” says Lee, who also has her own website and an active Facebook page.

Lee is also more in tune with the demands of her generation, adapting to an unconventional approach to wedding photography. “These days, people are fine with [spontaneous] photos.”

Her packaging is void of the traditional photo album and hard-box casing. She wraps her photos in a mixed-media wrapping, all handmade – a hipster’s approach. Syahrin, on the other hand, still believes in offering the boxed casing and imports them from Jakarta to offset the cost.

So what does the future hold for these two? “If jobs keep coming, it shouldn’t be a problem,” says Lee. Her studio is littered with paraphernalia from foreign cities, a sign of her wanderlust.

Lee’s studio is littered with paraphernalia from her travels.

As for Syahrin, at 44 years old, he has decided to hang up his wedding photographer persona.

“You know how many weddings I have done this year? Only two. I never marketed my wedding photography services; it was all word of mouth,” he says.

But Syahrin isn’t letting this faze him, as he’s still an industry stalwart who has more than just weddings to his name. “My photos are hung in some of the rooms at the Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I have also shot Lewis Hamilton and Anna Kournikova,” he says proudly.

Currently, he’s considering venturing into a completely different field to supplement his photography.

“I am seriously thinking of opening a restaurant in the near future,” he chuckles.

By Emmanuel Surendra
Wedding photos courtesy of Jane Lee and Syahrin Aziz

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