Faster Horses

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When we were asked to photograph Joanna and Michael’s wedding, it was at least partly on the basis of photographs we had already produced in other situations. From the outset though, Joanna and Michael made it clear that they weren’t looking for “Wedding” photographs produced to a formula. Aside from the fairly obvious family groupings – which took about 15 minutes! – they trusted us to simply photograph their wedding, their real wedding as it was, seen in our way.

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There is a quote often, and wrongly, attributed to Henry Ford (American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company). “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This remark has often been cited to support the idea that consumers don’t really drive innovation by asking for more or better products, but that the drive comes from the producers. This could be an interesting point of view (if it were true) but it’s just patronising and ultimately wrong-headed.

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The implication was that Henry Ford thought he knew best, that his developments in terms of his products, better served his customers. It seemed that he saw little value in listening to customer responses and ideas, preferring to believe that “The public wants what the public gets”. While the Ford Motor company was and remains a significant presence in the car industry it seems fairly apparent that customer expectations and desires play a more significant role in the direction of development than Mr Ford might have acknowledged.

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Congratulations, by the way, if you’re still reading, no doubt wondering when if indeed ever, we’re going to get to the photography bit. Well, here it is. Wedding photography is often a bit like the whole “faster horses” idea. Our clients book us on the basis of what we have previously produced. The pictures they’ve already seen. Our job is to understand that. From the outset, there is an expectation that things will look a certain way and perform the same functions. That’s the horses bit. Meet the expectations that people have, which they have made based on past evidence, first.

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So, that’s the job then? Produce “Wedding Photography” on demand, on tap? Give people what they’ve already seen? No, the real job is to deliver what the client did not expect or imagine. Remember their expectations are based on past – and as importantly – detached experience of other people’s weddings.  The tricky thing is, that we can’t control the situations we are working in. We don’t get to choose the time, the date, the venue, the people, the weather or indeed, anything else.

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We have to deal with each situation as it unfolds in front of us. No rehearsal, and no second-take. The pictures we’ve made in the past only existed in that moment, that specific and unrepeatable combination of light, time, composition, point-of-view, lens selection and a dozen other factors.

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Maybe that’s why so much wedding photography looks so similar. The pressure to do what has already been done leads to formulaic and predictable cliches. It’s safer to fall back on repetition. No surprises, everyone gets pretty much what they expected. In that respect, Henry Ford did have a point, but only up to a point. The Ford Motor Company undoubtedly revolutionised mass transportation.  The ‘Model T’ went far beyond customer expectations, yes, it was much more than a faster horse. Innovation usually comes from the supply side.

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But times change. Customers and consumers routinely expect more of us. Sometimes that ‘more’ is hard to define or articulate, but we have to acknowledge and respond to the demand nonetheless. Ford responded slowly and late to consumer demands, (You might think of his other, accurately attributed remark that the Model T was “available in any colour you like, so long as it’s black”) and in doing so, saw Ford’s market share in the U.S. fall from around 65% in 1921 to around 15% in 1927.

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Absolutes don’t always work. Expertise and professional experience have a part to play in the development of most businesses. Clients may not entirely understand exactly what it is that they do want. We’re in this business because we enjoy being creative. That means we attract clients who trust our creativity and want to give us the space to come up with something new and unexpected (not just faster horses) at each and every event (be it a wedding, christening, anniversary, festival, reunion or whatever)

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Joanna & Michael never asked us for a faster horse. Instead they trusted us to bring our experience and ideas to their wedding and to make the particular and specific photographs that reflected their wedding.

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Responsiveness, trust and a willingness to listen, on both sides, is part of the process.

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