How This Dad Quit His Day Job to Start His Wedding Photography Business
It was a blistering, cold morning in 2014 when Zac Surant and I hopped in a rented GMC Acadia SUV to drive six hours to cover the Chicago Auto Show for a digital marketing agency we worked for. Surant took the pictures, and I wrote social media posts.
It’s fair to say Surant and I were not fulfilling our deepest passions in 2014. I was itching to break out as a freelancer and publish my own novel (I’m halfway there), and Surant was sitting on an up-and-coming photography business. But because he needed the steady paycheck, Surant was never really all-in.
But in 2018, Surant’s wedding photography business, which he shares with his brother-in-law, has become so successful that Surant says, at times, it’s “almost too much.” Here’s how he got there.
Picking Up His First Camera
For as successful a photographer as Surant, 30, is in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, he hasn’t been doing it as long as you might think.
“Photography just kind of fell into my lap,” he explains. “Chris Malmstrom, my partner/brother-in-law, threw a camera in my hands in 2009, and I did what I always did — pretended I knew what I was doing until I actually figured it out.”
So, with no training under his belt but a unique eye and an ambition that defines Surant, he decided to team up with Malmstrom and shoot weddings together as a side hustle.
Forming Green Couch Photography
By 2012, Surant had learned a lot more about photography — and about running a business. Still, he and his wife had a daughter (they now have three children), so Surant sought out a day job in marketing.
That meant long nights and weekends working on his company with Malmstrom, which they rebranded and called Green Couch Photography.
Why Green Couch?
“OK, so I used to own this gnarly-looking consignment-store gem of a green couch,” Surant says. “We played with so many ideas [for a name]. Nothing stuck. But in our delirium, we joked about the idea of calling ourselves Green Couch Photography. We chuckled, said a few more names and finally came back to Green Couch.
“It is a statement about who we are as a company,” Surant says. “Our skills behind the camera are probably just as quality as the next team. But it’s the personality behind a team that would be so ridiculous that they would call themselves Green Couch Photography that draws in our ideal couples.
“I doodled a little picture of a couch on a napkin with a Sharpie. And that became our logo. We went all-in with it.”
Going All-In on Wedding Photography
But Surant truly went all-in when he mustered the courage to leave behind his beloved day job (and me) and put 100% of his time into Green Couch in 2014.
“I had two kids at home and was spending just as much on their child care as I was earning. My wife had a steady job as a nurse, and it just seemed like a logical move that I stay at home and build the business.”
But quitting his day job didn’t mean sleeping in and eating cereal on his gnarly green couch. “I had to hustle to get the business moving,” Surant tells me. “I mean, many years of just wondering what in the world I was doing. I would take other successful photographers out and spent what little money I had to try and second shoot with them, or just simply ask for advice.
“Meanwhile, if there was a couple at a coffee shop and she had an engagement ring on, I would very casually strike up a conversation and eventually slip that I’m a wedding photographer in there. Sometimes that actually worked. Like maybe twice.
“Eventually, Chris and I started to find our groove,” Surant says. “We established a unique brand and a voice that seemed to click with our target market. Green Couch Photography was born.”
And since then? Surant and his brother-in-law have shot more than 200 weddings, have sold templates for contracts and general communications and have begun to build the bones of a wedding coaching business for brides and photographers. They stay so busy that they are even planning to hire associate photographers this year.
Surant’s Best Advice for Aspiring Photographers
For everyone out there with an iPhone 8 thinking you can take beautiful pictures of your cousin’s wedding while guzzling down free shots of Fireball, think again. Being a wedding photographer is no walk down the aisle.
Surant’s work as a wedding photographer starts months before the actual wedding, lasts way longer than an eight-hour workday on the date of the wedding and continues days after the cake has been cut and the drunk uncles have been crammed into Ubers.
Think you can handle the chaos? Here are Surant’s best tips for becoming a successful photographer.
1. Weddings Are Where the Money Is
“I did the whole senior photo, family shoot, etc., thing. They were honestly just too boring, yet overly time-consuming,” Surant says as I try not to remind him that he once did a family shoot for me. “Weddings are the fastest way to be in the black and take a profit.”
2. Balance Skills and Customer Service
Surant and his partner, Malmstrom, believe that what makes Green Couch Photography one of the most successful businesses in the area is the balance they have struck together. Surant, who has always been one of the most personable guys I know, focuses on customer service — and that’s more than just smiling and being polite.
“My brides become my No. 1 priority. I become the jack of all trades on the wedding day. I do everything for her,” Surant says.
“Meanwhile, Chris is a master with a camera in his hands. It just makes sense to him. I have no issue saying he’s the better photographer, and that’s what makes us a solid team. Both of us need to perform at peak status in order for GCP [Green Couch Photography] to work. And that’s what we try to market to our brides. We bring far more to the table than an artistic eye.”
3. Photography Isn’t Just Seeing — It’s Listening, Too
“Realize your skill as a wedding photographer has very little to do with taking pretty photos,” Surant says. “Learn how to listen. Watch everybody. Pay attention to how they respond to one another. You will learn how to make people comfortable around you. There are seemingly few experiences more fear-inducing than someone sticking a giant camera in your face and quietly taking pictures of your PDA in front of your friends and family.”
Surant adds, “Become the bride’s greatest advocate. On the wedding day, she is always right. Even if she is wrong. I promise when the bride is happy, every other person around is happy. And when everyone is happy, the pretty pictures become much easier to come by.”
Surant’s method works. His inbox is full of messages from appreciative brides, and some of his favorite reviews are posted on his website.
A recent bride, Rachel A., describes her experience working with Surant’s company, “Zac and Chris were so much more than just wedding photographers… It went far beyond picking yet another perfect location. They fixed my hair and makeup, put my shoes on and even bustled my wedding dress. When I thought I was going to melt in 85-degree weather, they fanned me and fetched me some water. When I was getting overwhelmed by everyone, they took me into my own room and sat with me even if it meant kicking other people out. My favorite thing about them was how lighthearted they made it.”
The Ups and Downs of Being a Photographer
Surant says he loves his job as a wedding photographer. He gets to make brides happy on their most important day, he gets to help his wife support their three children and he doesn’t have to answer to a boss.
But being a photographer, especially a wedding photographer, can be challenging. His weekends are almost always compromised, and while Surant says he books all his open slots and makes enough to help support his family, he never plans to get rich off the business. His biggest challenge? He always has to be positive even when he feels the opposite.
“The dirty truth about starting a business, and keeping it alive, is that it takes every bit of you from yourself. You essentially become the face, the voice, the number, the everything, that the client sees. So when a bride is having a panic attack three months before her wedding about which chicken marsala tastes better, she tends to contact me to talk her down.”
That’s not always easy. Surant tells me about times he has battled debilitating depression, but he still had to put on that smile for the bride. No matter what might be tearing him down in his personal life, he has to shove that aside to be a foundation for the bride.
“I can’t take a sick day. I can’t show my disgust for some displays of wealth. My opinions, beliefs and comfort go out the window when I’m talking to anyone involved with the wedding. I am a commodity on the wedding checklist. Yet I still pour every bit of empathy and care into the wedding experience.”
So why does he do it?
“The greatest reward, besides a generous tip, is when the bride, mom, groom, guest or whoever pulls me aside and says how important a role we played. A recent bride, almost in tears, hugged me and said she didn’t think she could have made it through the day without me. She said it was because I was much more than a wedding photographer; I was like her newest best friend.”
Surant’s ability to have such an impact on so many people’s best day of their lives is the biggest motivation he says he could ask for.
And if you’re interested in becoming a wedding photographer, be prepared for hard work, long days, some fake smiles and maybe, every now and then, a slice of cake.
Timothy Moore is an editor and freelance writer living in Germantown, Ohio. When he was a brooding 15-year-old, he posted black-and-white pictures of a lawn chair to MySpace and called himself a photographer. He still stands by those photos.