I have debated over writing about this for a while, until recently when someone who was in the market for a wedding photographer asked a group of mostly wedding photographers what was involved with the cost of hiring a professional on their wedding day. I had put off doing this post mostly because I did not want it to come across as defensive, but in the end if you have never owned your own business or been involved in the art industry, you may not be aware of all that is involved with pricing and keeping your business alive. So I am just simply going to discuss what it is you are investing in on your wedding day. I am sure many people will have their opinions, which is totally cool, I’d love to hear them! I am also sure that photographers also will have some input. Some may charge a lot less and be able to, and some will charge a lot more and that is great too. But my goal here is to explain why you will see a range of photography prices out there, and what you should expect for paying more or less for your photographer of choice.
Scenerio #1- You have a friend/your friend has a friend who takes great photos and they offered to do your pictures for free or almost free.
That friend is a really great friend, and you are lucky to have them. If they are an invited guest, they are offering to give up enjoying your wedding; eating, drinking, and dancing to take photos for you, in turn saving you thousands of dollars. They will get there hours before the wedding starts, have to wear something comfy vs something hot, flats vs heels, hair up and ready to get sweaty and go hours without eating, drinking or using the bathroom.
I will be totally honest. I have the hardest time charging friends and acquaintances for my services. In my version of a perfect world I would have a never-ending source of cash and I would be that unicorn photographer that could actually take amazing photos for no money. Truly. To the point that I posted in a forum one day “Will I ever get over the feeling of dread when I respond to a friend about pricing?!”. Someone made a good point, that if I was a guest, would I give them a $2000 wedding present? No? That is what you are doing by giving away your services (READ: 40+ hours of your life, wear and tear on your insanely expensive equipment, space on your hard drives, website etc). The other issue with this is that (fortunately) this business is very word of mouth. While that is awesome if you are building a great reputation for yourself, it means that almost everyone is a friend or acquaintance who comes through your door. If you have built a business on giving away, or giving discounts on, your services you will be struggling to stay afloat, limiting you from being able to afford continuous education, upgraded equipment etc. (more on that later).
Chances are your friend who takes great photos, while their heart is in the right place, probably hasn’t considered all of the time that goes into pre-wedding planning and post wedding editing, curating, and delivering of images. Have they taken the time to visit the venue before? Do they know where the sun will be when you are doing portraits? Do they know what time you are doing portraits? Have they asked the minister about what is allowed for photography during the ceremony? Do they know what time your hair and makeup will begin, and what time your bridesmaids need to get dressed and what time you need to get dressed and if you are doing a first look have they coordinated with the two of you so you will be in the same place at the right time without seeing each other before hand? Will they put together a family formal timeline to most effectively use the small amount of time you have to do portraits to run it smoothly? Knowing your families’ names, relationships and special circumstances? Or will everyone just get in one group photo and leave it up to you to do all the thinking and directing? After your wedding, when you are so excited to see the photos and rightfully so since you just spent A LOT of money on one day and the photos are the only thing you have to show for it now, what is the guarantee you will receive any photos from your friend? And when? It is VERY overwhelming to go home with 1000+ photos and look through them all and to choose the best, and then edit them and figure out how to deliver the hundreds of photos that you will send. And chances are if this is not something they do often, procrastination may ensue. The 8 hours at your wedding are just the tip of the iceberg of hours that your friend should spend on your wedding. I have seen other photographers that have broken down the amount of time they spend with each client, and that is truly impressive to me. I don’t have the patience for that. Let’s just say it’s a lot. It may not seem like a big deal to just send an email response to an inquiry, and then on average 3 more answering questions about services provided, before you have officially decided to book, and then putting together the contract (which makes sure you get those photos in a timely manner after your wedding!) and sending that email, putting together the questionnaires, answering random phone calls/emails that come through in the meantime, communicating and coordinating with other vendors, putting together the timeline for your day, travel time to and from meetings and the wedding, shooting the wedding, uploading, editing, delivering your images, but it is. Other photographers who do have the patience to add it all up I believe average it around 40+ hours. Again- not complaining, just clarifying that it is more than the 8 hours spent on your wedding day.
I was that friend that took good photos at one time too. I believe that is how a majority of photographers get interested and involved with the industry. And while it was an honor that my friends would recommend me to other friends, that terrified me. Because truth be told, I just had a good camera and really enjoyed taking photos. Not for anyone else but for myself. And when I did take them for other people I was psyched when maybe 5-10% of the photos came out deliverable. This was ok for a little bit because no one has to see the bad photos right? You just show the good stuff. But the issue with relying on chance to get some good photos is that you lose a lot of potentially really awesome photos. And when I was shooting this way, I was…
Scenerio #2- That photographer who charges way less.
This is another thing that you will come across. A photographer who may charge hundreds of dollars for what others charge thousands. And no matter what any seasoned, professional photographer will tell you about photography, everyone starts somewhere. And it is actually irresponsible to charge for their first wedding what someone who has been doing it for 5 years (or even 1 year!) would charge. The solution to this debate is, you should know exactly what you are getting for that very discounted price. Like I mentioned, in the beginning I relied heavily on chance for getting some photos I could be proud to share. I really did love the idea of being a photographer and was putting time and money into learning the craft and I never felt like I was overcharging for my services, I felt like they were spot on with what I was delivering, which was about half or less than half the cost of what the average professional photographer in my area was charging. I wasn’t doing it to undercut anyone or to steal clients, I was charging what I was charging because I could see the difference in quality from my images to theirs. I was learning the process of client communication and posing and knew that I was not on their level yet. I wanted to be there and worked my ass off to try and get there but, well, I just didn’t have the experience to be there yet. Also the photographer may be working another job (or 2 like I was) to support themselves being able to afford to photograph others, which is great and there is nothing wrong with hard work, but it comes down to time. If you are working 50+ hours/week, plus shooting and editing on the weekends, what time do you have to invest into educating yourself to becoming a better photographer? I’ll answer-next to none, and you get really cranky. (sorry for the things I said while I was editing at 3am)
*I have to mention here this all relates to family and portrait sessions. Once I was asked to do my first wedding, I took literally 4x what I got paid for that wedding and spent it on my little “business” (if you could even call it that at the time). I spent a weekend 5 hours away from home at a wedding photography workshop, bought a new camera and lenses, rented equipment that I couldn’t buy, and bought tons of online courses and had them streaming 24/7 on my computer, phone, anywhere and everywhere. I knew weddings were a BIG DEAL and I was in no way going to let a couple be disappointed no matter what they were paying me.
So what did that huge investment translate to? Well taking control of my photos for one thing, instead of relying on chance. Cameras really are tiny little machines. They are legit hand held computers that are extremely smart. In the beginning you can put your camera on Auto and if you are observant and have an eye for what would make a good photo you will take some decent pictures. This is essentially like using a paint by numbers for Starry Night by Van Gogh. Your painting is going to come out “pretty” right? Because technically it looks exactly like the original. But is there any personality to it? Is there anything that is “you” or unique or makes it stand out from any other copy? No, and it will obviously never be as valuable as Van Gogh’s. No offense but your mom might be the only one who even acknowledges it. Much like my mom would always tell me how beautiful my photos were even if they were of the grass. True story: she actually has a canvas of a dandelion photo I took on my iPhone hanging in their living room. That’s what moms do. But cameras, for as smart as they are can often read situations wrong. For instance, during your first dance while the lights are really dim it will decide to slow down your shutter speed to let more light into the camera instead of raise your ISO, which will make every single photo from your first dance come out blurry. Heaven forbid you are getting married inside and have hired someone who shoots in auto, every photo very well may come out blurry as your walking down the aisle, having your first kiss, walking back down the aisle. When you learn to photograph in Manual mode, you over power the camera and you decide what the settings should be for the different scenes. This is essential for nailing focus and all that, but it also gives you artistic freedom. You may look at two photos and not be able to pick out exactly what it is that you like about one more than the other, but a photographer would. Is the subject nice and sharp and in focus and everything behind them is soft and out of focus so that your eye is drawn right to the subject and what the photographer is trying to convey? Or are the cars that are way far behind the couple just as in focus, distracting you from the couple and their intimate moment? That is an example of the photographer choosing to override the camera and shoot at f/2 vs the camera wanting to shoot at f/14 since it is such a bright and sunny day. This is where my friends stop listening to me because I get too excited talking about camera stuff, so I’ll spare you, just know that it’s a thing, and what it is you like about certain photos is a decision that a knowledgeable, educated photographer made.
I mentioned a lot of things when it comes to communication and planning above, so I won’t go back into all of that, but learning all of that also comes through investing in education. And education costs money. Lots of money. No surprise, it does in any industry. Photography is constantly evolving, changing, so attending multiple workshops per year to keep up on the industry is always a plus.
And then there is the equipment. First of all, no matter who you are hiring for however much, you should ensure they have a back up camera. It does not have to be as good or the same as the camera they intend to use, but it should be a camera that will shoot in Manual mode and they are able to use interchangeable lenses with. Even if it is not as new of a camera that they shoot mainly with, it should allow them to deliver the kind of photos you are used to seeing in their portfolio just in case. And a photographer should not be remotely offended by you asking if they have 2 cameras. For as much as we love to say that “you can never redo your wedding photography, so choose the right photographer!” that photographer knows they can never redo your wedding photography. So choose the right photographer. So what does our equipment cost? On a wedding day I bring: (links provided so you can double check)
2 Nikon D750’s– Currently $1500 each, but were $2000 when I purchased, so $4000.00
Nikon 70-200 2.8 lens– $2800.00
Nikon 85mm 1.4 lens- $1600.00
Nikon 85mm 2.8 tilt-shift lens- $2000.00
Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens– $217.00
Sigma 35mm 1.4 art lens- $900.00
Sigma 24-70 2.8mm lens- $900.00
Nikon 105mm macro lens- $900.00
2 Cheetah light stands– $240.00
and then hundreds more in smaller accessories and batteries, memory cards, back up batteries, light modifiers, etc etc etc. All together when I walk into your wedding I have at LEAST $15,000 worth of equipment in my hands. (Holy crap that’s a lot… I’ve never done the math before!) That is just what is with me, never mind the computers, subscriptions to online delivery systems, websites, online storage space, hard drives, business license, taxes, insurances, (one for me one for my equipment), credit card fees, and so on and so on. Keep in mind if another photographer charges twice what I do, chances are they probably have twice the equipment, and twice the experience that I do. Since this is about what to expect for what you pay, not necessarily how expensive of a business to be in; that is your answer. If a photographer is charging $500 for a wedding, chances are they probably did not spend, amongst other things:
$11,191 on equipment, $2,411.81 on advertising, $5,794.70 on memberships and education, $5,226.54 on products, $1,600.09 on shipping and supplies, $2,850.62 on travel, just last year alone like I did, just to name a few. And believe me, that will translate into your photographs. That was money that I paid out of my pocket to better myself for my clients. No one tells you you have to spend x amount to be considered “professional”. If you are on more of a budget for all of your wedding, and do find the price of the average wedding photographer to be more than you can afford, there is nothing wrong with having to find someone is just getting their feet wet in the industry, or is trying to build their portfolio. Just be sure to be clear on what to expect. Do they have a website, not just a Facebook page? Are their correspondences professional and timely? Do they charge tax and are they insured and a legit business? Do they have a contract which addresses what you will receive and when? All of this will protect you, and them.
I think the reason that this is constantly a topic of discussion is that photography is the one thing that does not give you instant gratification. Having me there on your wedding day does not impress your guests like the extra couple hundred you’ll spend on custom linens vs white on the tables. You don’t get your photos as they’re being taken like you see the extra apps that you paid for coming out of the kitchen, I don’t pretty up your venue like the bistro lights you squeezed into the budget, so it may seem negotiable. Like with everything in life, we value and want to pay for tangible things, and until after the wedding, when you have your album, photography is not tangible. But where it gets frustrating is that unlike the 4 tier cake that you really wanted, or the fancier tent or heavier stock you might want to choose on your wedding invites, your wedding photos (and video if you have a videographer) is the only thing you have to look back on for the rest of your life. You may choose to keep your dress, and the top tier from your wedding cake, but are you going to take that out to show your friends and family when they come over? Are your children going to look at your cake and laugh about what mom and dad looked like 30 years ago? To me that is what makes photography priceless.
I like to compare photography (all photography- portraits, wedding, landscape) to going out to eat. Because I love them both equally. But also because they follow the same business model. When you go out to eat, lets say you get a burger for $15. Technically those ingredients probably cost the restaurant what maybe $8? Bread, meat, fries. You are not paying for the burger, you are paying for the dish it came on, the server who brought it to you, the uniform they’re wearing, the electricity in the restaurant, the equipment that was used to cook it, the chef that prepared it, the delivery fees from the company that delivered the meat and soooo onnnnn. Could you go to Wendy’s and get a burger and fries for $4? Sure. Is it the same as the 8 oz farm fresh meal you take your time to eat and enjoy with good company? No, you probably ate it in your car and had enough money to also stop at Taco Bell (don’t judge) but you get the point. Ya but a $15 burger is different than a $3000 photographer. True. But how many times do you pay a markup on your meals out vs how many times do you pay for a professional photographer? Personally I go out to eat at least twice a week.
So I hope this has shed some light on why photography prices are what they are. I hope this has also given anyone who does not have the budget to hire a professional some ideas on how to ensure you will still get beautiful photos. Oh and that first wedding I ever shot? I am still very proud of those images, and when I went back to that venue for a wedding last month was pumped to see they used a lot of my images from that wedding in their advertisements and signage.