Introducing Photographer-less Wedding/Event Photography

Introducing Photographer-less Wedding/Event Photography

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A change has come to wedding photography, perhaps even more drastic than the change from medium format to SLR. More drastic than the change from formal photography to photojournalism. More drastic than the change from film to digital. This change has to do with photography that doesn’t even require a photographer.

But take heart, and don’t pack up those high-speed 16GB CF cards, or close up your “professional” photography department, just yet. The change actually amounts more to an addition than a replacement.

Photo booths will be as popular as bands and DJs at weddings within five or ten years, predicts Photographer Troy Bakewell: “I would not be surprised if eight or nine out of ten brides have one at their wedding.”

The booths do triple duty, providing entertainment and an activity for the guests, but the photos are a great favor for the guests to take home with them, notes wedding planner Angie Swits of By Your Side Wedding.

Party Booths

Bakewell had been shooting weddings for ten years when, a couple of years ago, one of his clients mentioned that the wedding he was hired to shoot would also have a photo booth there. “What a dumb thing that is,” thought Bakewell, founder and owner of Minneapolis’ Camelot Weddings. Seeing the old, beat-up 50’s-era vending machine, which kicked out grainy black-and-whites photo strips, didn’t help change his opinion much, either.

Yet once he saw it in action Bakewell was sold: “There was hardly anybody on the dance floor, because everybody was at the photo booth. I said, ‘This is the greatest idea ever – but why does it have to be so ugly?’”

“The wedding was at a golf club, the room was decorated, it looked beautiful, and here was this eye sore of a photo booth, he recalls. “This bride spent a lot of money decorating the reception halls, and it’s got to be a beautiful day.”

He went back to Camelot and set out to design his own booth. By the following wedding season Bakewell had patented a collapsible steel-tubed frame completely covered in understated black-fabric curtains – larger than traditional vending machines, and packed with the latest digital equipment – which he rented out for weddings, private parties, and other events. Thus was born Party Booths, the photo booth arm of Camelot. Like the booths of old, guests walk into a Party Booth and pull the curtain closed. They sit on the bench and are greeted by instructions to push a button, which activates the booth to shoot a series of photos. Guests then exit the booth and await their pictures, while the next guests go in to have their photos taken.

But not only does a Party Booth booth look vastly different from its vintage predecessors, its inner workings are another breed as well. There is no silver nitrate reversal paper. There are no tanks of developer, bleach, toner, clearing solution, or fixer. All this is replaced by a laptop computer with custom software, a Canon G1 digital camera, and a studio light and softbox. Instead of a strip of photos automatically dropping from a slot in the booth, the photos – 4 of them, along with a personalized message, on a 4×6 – are printed by a digital photo printer on a table outside the booth. The images – which are saved to the laptop’s hard drive – are later archived to CD and posted online, from where prints and enlargements can be ordered.

The booths of yore are integral units meant to remain in one piece, and can weigh upwards of 900 pounds. They generally require two people and a truck to move them. On the other hand, notes Bakewell, “a key component of the Party Booth is that it breaks down – you can throw a couple of bags into the back of a Honda Civic and transport it.” As such, it can also be brought to places where others can’t – such as up stairways and down narrow hallways. It can even be checked as luggage on an airplane.

Party Booths’ Business Model

Initially, the idea was for the photo booth rental to be “just one more product that fits together with what we were offering – a new service,” Bakewell says. Camelot Weddings’ main business has always been photojournalistic wedding photography, with videography and DJ services as ancillary offerings. More than half of Camelot’s weddings book more than one service.

But the photo booth rental end of Camelot’s business is coming on strong, Bakewell says, and the Party Booths are being booked independently of Camelot’s other services – even photography.

In fact, beginning with Party Booths’ first weddings in April 2006 the company began getting requests from out-of-town guests: “I want this at my wedding.” They would ask, “Will you travel?”

Always the entrepreneur, Bakewell took the idea and ran with it. “We started having more and more people ask us about that,” he recalls. “That’s how we got the idea to market it on a national basis.”

Camelot filed paperwork to franchise the business, allowing independent individuals and businesses nationally to be responsible for marketing, booking, and operating the booths. Yet the process became bogged down in red tape (“We’re still waiting on government regulations,” Bakewell laments), and requests for Party Booths were still coming in from around the country, so they changed tacks. “Franchising is all on hold,” he says. “Our new business model is to have agents and booths based in major cities.”

As of September, there are Party Booths representatives in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. (the latter being “our base for the entire East Coast”) in addition to Minneapolis. Bakewell anticipates that “six months from now we should (also) have agents in San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Orlando. Those are the initial cities that we’re putting reps in.”

Once those agents are in place – with representative on the ground promoting the Party Booths, meeting with brides, wedding planners, and venue operators, and helping to penetrate the market – “I think what’s going to happen is that it’s going to explode nationwide,” Bakewell predicts.

In anticipation, he’s having about 250 new booths manufactured, adding to the 30 or so that he himself so far built for the company.

The Market

Several national companies rent vintage photo booths which they will transport to, set up at, and operate in cities around the country. Many – including Paul Kadillak, president of Photoworks Interactive, which rents and sells both vintage and retro digital photo booths nationally – consider these to be the only “real” photo booths, pointing to the nostalgia and mystery that they invoke. Anything else, he thinks, is a prom photo.

There are also companies – and individual photographers – around the country who will set up digital photo booths which are in many ways similar to Party Booths’ booths.

In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul there is a “pretty robust market for photo booths,” notes Bryan Smith, who founded Mobile Photo Booth at around the same time as Party Booths was born. The company has two digital booths – one, basically a white box like a traditional booth, the other a 6’x12’ enclosed trailer.

Traveling Photobooth – also founded a couple of years ago – rents out stainless steel digital booths, designed from the ground up by an architect and a commercial photographer. Bride Sue Zvers, who rented one for her wedding, describes them as “modern retro.” Another company, Photobooth Entertainment, rents out modern digital vending machines.

These four Twin Cities-based companies were each inspired by Photobooth Memories, a company that got its start when owner Todd Ericson (a modern photo booth legend) brought his penny arcade photo booth vending machine to a friend’s daughter’s wedding. The father of bride “couldn’t understand why, if you have a photographer you’d want a photo booth,” and tried to nix the idea, recalls Ericson. Overruled by his wife and daughter, the booth arrived, and within 15 minutes there were about 75 guests lined up to use it.

Several years later, Ericson rented the booth out to another wedding. Troy Bakewell was the photographer …and so it goes. yy

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