Shifting Focus: Is It Time To Quit Photography?
By Kyle Wilson
Whether shooting intimate weddings or taking people on landscape photo tours in the Faroe Islands and Nordic countries, professional photographer Chris Zielecki does it all with a sense of adventure. Based in Hamburg, Germany, he and Kyle found time to chat about Chris’ unique perspective and the many avenues of his photography business.
KW: You're a wedding photographer, but I just found out you were in software engineering for a while. How long ago was that? What was that transition like?
CZ: The transition was honestly not too bad. I've been a full-time professional for six or seven years, and about that timeframe part-time before that, so it wasn't just like jumping in the cold. I restarted with my honeymoon. I was just traveling again, and I bought the average entrance camera, and it started from there.
KW:. Do you struggle balancing working versus just wanting to make stuff? I'm going through that right now, so that's why I'm asking.
CZ:Yeah, I started this business out of passion, but then the business part took over. I love to take pictures, and I love to be creative. But in our industry, a lot of photographers are just good artists and not good business people. And so the business part definitely took over since I'm full-time self-employed. I do creative projects for myself in the off season mostly.
KW: I have been trying to rethink what it is about the personal work that I make that I don't like. And it's that I try to give myself too many photos to work through. I think I try to walk away with a hundred images to edit and deliver like I do any other shoot. What’s your take on that?
CZ: If it's a creative project, I limit the amount I will shoot. I'm going to cull it down and deliver something like 100, maybe. But you can choose three from that.
KW: So are weddings your primary source?
CZ: I'm originally from travel and landscape. That was the stuff I did before I slid into wedding photography. Recently, I saw that I'm too long in the wedding photography bubble. I want to get back to when I was a landscape photographer shooting weddings because it was so much fun. I didn't know any trends. I just did what I loved. I want to get back more into that at the moment.
KW: What does that look like tangibly? Is there a different approach to your clients or to the work that you show?
CZ: Kind of both. I'm trying to transfer more into elopement because it fits into landscape and fits to being introverted, so I'm changing things on my website. It's a lot about copywriting and creating specific price lists for elopements and stuff. At the moment, it's a transformation.
KW: I slowly started navigating towards elopement and couples that cared more about the people at their day than the stuff. That will usually limit the size of the wedding itself and start to put me in better venues and geographical locations that I want to be. But focusing on just elopements is a hard space to carve your space out of.
CZ: It doesn't matter which market you are in; it's always saturated. If I had listened to other photographers before going into wedding photography, I wouldn't have done it. I live in Hamburg, and we have about two and a half million people here. Every weekend, I see weddings without photographers and weddings with photographers who do the very basic stuff. So I don't think the market is saturated.
KW: Is a lot of your stuff in your local Hamburg driving radius, or do you travel out for things?
CZ: I don't market myself as a destination photographer. A lot of stuff is in Hamburg and the northern Germany area. But I also shot in California and the Netherlands and did stuff in Iceland and Sweden. I love the northern countries a lot, but I don't market for it.
KW: It's so great that you can have that business within a drivable distance and still come home to home.
CZ: Destination wedding is always the dream thing you can do as a photographer, but I have friends who really struggled during the pandemic because there was no flight, no entering another country or leaving. In Germany, it was okay for photographers. Since photography is not really close encounters, you can do shoots outside with two people. You didn't have huge weddings.
KW: It pivoted a lot of weddings. People went, okay, we don't need to invite everyone we know to this wedding. Maybe we invite the eight people we actually care about. So, it forcibly changed the wedding mindset for the better.
CZ: I think so as well. This season is kind of strange. Prices are going up, and we have an energy crisis. I heard from a lot of couples that the locations don't put out prices until three months before the wedding day. So you have to reserve them two years in advance, but you don't know the final price until three months before. They have a range, but they say they can't estimate it because of energy prices.
KW: Have you felt that you were able to raise your prices?
CZ: I did raise prices over the last few years. I had discussions with a photographer friend about that during the pandemic because we had a lot of photographers lowering prices or lowering the deposit. This was not good because we always forget that we are normally not our clients. Our clients are in a full-time job doing something else. They couldn't spend money on restaurants, vacations and stuff like that. So in the first pandemic year, I sold my biggest package a lot because people had money, and they said, okay, we can't invite like 100 people. We can only invite like 50, but we want to have a really good party, and we're spending it on that and on a good photographer.
KW: What else do you have going on?
CZ: I’m also going on adventures. I was in Svalbard and had two encounters with polar bears, very far away because it was much safer, from a snowmobile. I'm doing workshops. I also started to do landscape photo tours.
KW: Is that for people leaning on your expertise, or are you teaching people how to properly think through a landscape photo series or everything in between?
CZ: I did the landscape stuff for myself. I love to travel, especially in Scandinavian countries. I just love the solitude and the landscape and the mood. But whenever I posted something from my trips, someone would pop up saying, oh, you're so lucky to go there; I would love to go there as well. The only thing I did to go there was book a flight, the first night in a hotel, and the car for one or two weeks, and the rest will figure itself out. So I thought, why am I not taking people with me?
KW: How many people are you taking? Is it a big crew, or is it usually just a couple of people?
CZ: Just a couple of people because it's good to keep them in one car. You don't have to organize a second driver. You can coordinate more and adjust the tour to the specific needs of the people.
KW: How long are these? Is it a few days together?
CZ: It’s around a week, like five fixed days.
KW: I have to assume you're making cool connections to these people while you're teaching them.
CZ: Totally. They come back home with a lot of good pictures of them in landscapes.
KW: Do they know there will be some photos of them too?
CZ: They don't expect it, but they have no choice. When I was on the Faroe Islands in October last year, I extended it for a week just for private relaxation and going around and exploring new areas for the tour. I was at a random cliff somewhere and there was this couple who also hiked there and they asked me if I could take a picture of them. I did, and it turned out they got engaged a week before in Scotland. Then we did a short session, and then I had one more day before my flight took off, and I had no plan for that day. And I texted them, Hey, do you want to have engagement photos taken? Because I would love to shoot a couple here; they were totally in, and it was really good.
KW: How great for them that they got to run into you in the middle of a mountain. They don’t even know it, but they got a great deal.
CZ: They asked me if I could shoot the wedding, and it's this year in Australia. I said, yeah, I can do that. But flights are expensive. It takes me like two days to get to you. But I can also recommend a local Australian photographer to you.
KW: Your unique perspective and that you can take wedding or landscape work and have shifted that into so many business and personal life adventures for yourself is unique. I haven't met anyone else who does that. I really appreciate our time today.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Check out “The Photographer’s Problem: A Narrative Podcast” streaming now on YouTube or Spotify for the full, unedited interview and more inspiring stories and an immersive look into the intricate world of photography.