Let me start by explaining my motivation for writing about this topic. As a wedding photographer myself, it would be easy for people to expect me to have some underlying agenda when talking about what photographers get paid. I hope that it becomes obvious from my words below that I am not trying to vent about a lack of appreciation or understanding or anything like that. In fact, I think that our clients and many others very much appreciate the value of the work we do. My true motivation is that I think this is a valid question and I’d love for more people to understand the answer. Personally, I really wish someone had helped me understand the value of good wedding photography before my own wedding. I truly understand where people are coming from when they’re shocked at what photography can cost, because I’ve been there myself.
I remember having a conversation with my wife, Kelsey, shortly after we had launched our wedding photography business about how we never wanted to become those “elitist” photographers. You know, the ones who were good and knew it and whose base package cost more than any “frugal” couple would want to spend. We like frugal people. We didn’t want to rule their weddings out. So we made a plan to always keep at least one very affordable wedding photography package… say, less than $1000. Well, today our base package for wedding photography is more than twice that amount. So what gives? Why is it that good photography always seems to require a big budget?
If your perception of photographers is that they’re raking in the dough, taking home thousands of dollars for every day or two of work, making something like $400 an hour, you’re not alone. It’s a common perception. After all, we’re used to the idea of being paid hourly. We know that only so many hours can be spent at a single wedding. And we all have cameras and know how to push the button and take a picture. So when you see the photographer’s price list, showing numbers like $3000, $4000, $6000… it’s only natural to look at her in disbelief and assume she’s either some kind of scam artist or just full of herself… right?
There are many reasons why good photography costs what it does. I’m going to talk about three of those reasons, beginning with perhaps the most eye-opening of all:
It’s not just one day of work. When you’re observing your photographer, you’re observing him at his “shooting” job. This person also has a job as an editor and as a business manager. These other two jobs take up a great deal more of your photographer’s time than the actual capturing of photographs and he needs to be paid for all three jobs, not just one. If he’s not personally doing all three, he’s paying someone to do the other jobs. Every photographer’s workflow is different, but on average, it’s probably safe to say that for every day your photographer spends at his shooting job, he is also liable for about 6 days at his other two jobs. Suddenly, the “one day of work” turns out to be more like 7.
My father was around once while I was editing a wedding. I was in the middle of merging 3 nearly identical photos of a large family in order to produce a single image that showed everyone looking at the camera, with their eyes open, and that did not feature a kid trying to be funny by holding his hand in front of his crotch. He stared in wonder and asked if I have to spend that much time on every group portrait. I laughed. ”Yeah, pretty often. I had to do the same thing with our own family portrait from this Spring too.” ”No kidding,” my dad answered. ”Do your clients realize you do this?” ”Well, probably not. Most probably just see the end product with all smiling faces and wonder how they were all able to look composed at the same moment.”
There’s a second misconception about photographers that compounds the first one, and that’s the notion that photographers keep all (or nearly all) of what they charge. In fact, according to Professional Photographers of America, the most successful photography studios allocate 25-35% of their gross income to cost of sales (their actual costs for prints, albums, assistants, packaging, etc.) 30-40% to operating expenses (advertising, equipment, studio space, utilities, supplies, etc.) and about 35% to take-home pay. That’s the best-performing studios in the country. Most photographers only take home 20-25%. But for now, we’ll assume the best.
So let’s say you hire a photographer for a standard 8-hour wedding package with a total investment of $3000. That translates to about 56 hours of work for the photographer and, at best, $1050 of take-home pay, or $18.75 per hour. Better than burger-flipping pay, but not exactly 400 an hour. And remember, we’re still talking about the most successful photographers. During our first and second years of full-time photography, we made $2 per hour and our business took a loss.
Our experience as a new studio wasn’t uncommon. Many new photographers will often operate with low rates for a couple years, or however long it takes for them to realize that their business has been dead from the beginning. There comes a point in all of our careers when we have to decide to feed our families. At that point, the wedding day package for $1000 will disappear from the price list, guaranteed.
The third big reason that good photography costs what it does is that it’s worth it. A lot of people don’t realize this – or maybe don’t want to realize it – until it’s too late. I was one of them. Kelsey and I got married right before we got serious about photography. We wanted to save money, so we hired a photographer that we didn’t know much about for one of her smaller packages for the ceremony and asked a friend to photograph the reception for free. We got some traditional group portraits and photos of the ceremony from our photographer and some snapshots of the reception from our friend. That’s what we chose to pay for… and for what we paid for, they both did a good job and we are grateful. But today, I have only one regret from our wedding day: not investing more in our wedding photography. We didn’t have a big budget. We did what we could to make it work. But now the day is over. We had sweet locations. The day was gorgeous. We got ready beforehand in a beautiful, rustic setting. We put a ton of work into choreographing our first dance, which we performed in our beautiful, but dark, reception hall. Kelsey cried most of the evening because of the love she witnessed among her friends and family. Much of that exists now only in our memory. It could have all been captured so beautifully.
There are photographers out there who are so much bigger than the photos they take. They’re friendly and organized, and because they’re spending the entire day with you, they help you feel calm and stress-free throughout your day. They take care of all the details before the wedding, so when the big day arrives, you’re already confident that they’ll take care of you. They have equipment that can handle every situation, backups for their equipment, and years of experience to know how to use it. They know exactly what to anticipate so that they can make the day flow smoothly. They make it fun, they don’t get in the way, and in the end, they deliver beautiful pieces of art to commemorate your wedding – something that will last much longer than the day itself. They love their work and it shows not only in their images, but also in the experience they give you all the way through. This is why good wedding photography costs what it does. And why, to many many happy married couples, it’s more than worth it.