What are you actually paying for when you hire a wedding photographer?
You can hire someone to photograph your wedding for as little as $300 or you can spend upwards of $25,000.
What is the difference? Do you get what you pay for? My short answer: YES, most definitely, unequivocally, without a doubt, YES!
Anyone can press a shutter button on a fancy camera, right?
Yes… but not everyone can make a beautiful piece of art that will encapsulate your wedding day. Not everyone can make your experience one you will remember fondly.
In a world where wedding photography pricing varies wildly, it’s confusing to the consumer. The truth is that most people honestly cannot tell the difference between masterful photography and photography that is lacking. Without an intimate knowledge of posing, lighting, framing, compositional layering, proper exposure, connection, story-telling, emotion, post-processing, print quality, and a multitude of other varying factors, most people use only their subjective skills because they don’t have the objective skills or trained eye to properly judge a photo.
Wedding Photography Pricing: The Truth is Exposed
Armed with only a limited knowledge of great photography, couples are reduced to fixate only on price when trying to decide who will capture one of the most magical days of their glorious lives.
Here are some things to consider what you may (or may NOT) be paying for when you hire your wedding photographer.
I’m going to try and list them in order of importance to you. These are some of the not-so-obvious things you are paying for:
Because we have so much invested in our gear and it is quite literally the backbone of each and every job, insurance is a MUST. This insurance covers our equipment from theft or damage. It also protects us in the event that someone trips over our camera bag and breaks a leg during the family formals, or we lose all of our memory cards on the way home because we accidentally left them on the hood of the car. I’ve never heard of that happening; I totally just made that story up. But, that’s what the insurance is for—our clients’ protection, as well as, our own.
I know photographers who show up in blue jeans and t-shirts and still others who change into grass-stained running shoes the second the lights go down to shoot the reception. I know photographers who climb all over the venue’s furniture and trample the flower beds. I’ve witnessed photographers shout curse words and racial slurs on the dance floor thinking no one can hear them because the DJ is so loud. I’ve seen primary photographers spend nearly an hour arguing on the phone with their husbands while they leave their second shooter to singlehandedly man the reception. I know photographers who brag about elbowing the couple’s family members when they compete for images with their own DSLRs. I also know wedding photographers who shoot weddings in tuxedo jackets—even in the summer. I’ve been witness to a photographer putting down his camera to gently console a bride who wept for the father who wasn’t alive to walk her down the aisle. I’ve seen a photographer very delicately and tactfully ask a bride’s mother to please relent her need to control every aspect of the wedding for the remainder of the day because it was upsetting her client. If you want professionalism, chances are you will have to pay for it.
Just as you would expect in any other profession, you can expect to compensate a photographer for their experience. The longer a photographer has been in business, the more polished his or her craft becomes.
Equipment (and Backup Equipment)
Having equipment is just not enough. A photographer must also have backup equipment. You never know when that equipment is going to mysteriously stop working, get broke or get misplaced (all scenarios that have happened while I’ve been smack dab in the middle of shooting a wedding). But because multiple backups of everything (even light stands and reflectors) are transported to events, none of these incidents stopped me from doing my job. Most professional photographers have at least $5,000 worth of gear upwards to $50,000 (and sometimes even well beyond that).
Maintenance and Repair
All the equipment needs to be kept in proper working order. Routine cleanings and calibrations must be performed.
Image Storage and Backup
It’s not enough to just have one copy of 85,000,000 RAW images. Proper image preservation means backing up all these images on multiple drives in multiple locations. Don’t you want assurance that if you lose your album or digital images in a house fire, that your photographer can replace them?
Even photographers who are at the very top of their games will continue to seek out guidance and education from other professional photographers and educators… even photographers who have already been named Nikon© Ambassadors—one of the many preeminent accolades in the photographic community. Perpetual gains in skill and creativity have pushed the wedding photography bar to amazing new heights and this tide will only continue. In my humble opinion, any photographer who stops trying to further their knowledge in this industry should also stop serving clients. For the record, I view educational opportunities as learning from someone, in person, who has already met and/or exceeded the level I am currently at and who is viewed critically and honestly by my professional photographic peers as a master of this craft… not by mere popularity, social media presence or even gross income. These masters of the craft have attained that distinction by walking the walk, towing the line, and climbing all the required rungs on the way up. These are my teachers and the artists who are lighting my path.
Certification and Accreditation
Since there is no governmental standardization of the profession, different industry organizations have developed systems for certifying their members to be of a minimal professional standard. The top two organizations are Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and Wedding and Portrait Professionals International (WPPI). Both offer tiered levels of mastery to attain through annual image competitions. Both are very much revered in the community and it takes years to reach even the lowest level. You can rest assured that anyone who is involved in either one of these certification or accreditation processes is interested in providing a competent and mindful customer experience.
There are photographers who refuse to answer the phone after 5 p.m., on weekends or any holiday. They are afraid to create the illusion that they are available 24/7. I have the unwritten policy that if I am not eating, not sleeping, not with family, and not on the toilet or in the shower, I ANSWER MY CLIENT. Chances are, I have been paid some really good money to provide a really swell service. If that means answering a question at 10:19 p.m. on a Sunday, which also might be a holiday, I do it. It won’t kill me. AND, if it happens to start a dialogue that goes on for another 37 minutes, it’s likely I can also start a little late the next morning. I am a solopreneur.
Do you want someone who shoots 100 weddings every year?Or would you rather have someone make art of your wedding that is audacious, energized and looking forward to capturing your love story with a fresh set of eyes (and feet)? There are many wedding photographers who will shoot three, even four weddings a week… sometimes two ON THE SAME DAY!
Reliability means showing up early just to make sure everything is on schedule and that the timeline hasn’t been reworked at the last minute. Reliability means sometimes missing your daughter’s softball game to shoot a rehearsal dinner. Reliability means delivering the digital negatives to the exact terms of your written agreement. Reliability means that your client doesn’t have to second guess when or how their expectations will happen.
You are paying for a particular way of seeing things. Each artist views the world and the things in it in a different perspective. Some artists and photographers are extremely gifted in this regard.
How many couples are seeking out the photographer? In business class after business class, entrepreneurs are taught to increase prices when it seems that there is little to no resistance at the current price point. Supply and demand will have some impact on the price of your photographer.
Here are the obvious things you are paying for when hiring a wedding photographer:
Self-Employment Tax (Federal Income Tax)
Someone operating a small business can expect to pay Uncle Sam anywhere in the neighborhood of 16-35% of their gross income. Of course, this is a generalization and will vary based on each business’s own expenses, write-offs, and accountant’s creativity, but in general, this amount should be siphoned right off the top to avoid garnishments, penalties and jail time.
A smart business owner will not be working as a sole proprietor. They will have put some official business entity in place to work under be it a corporation, partnership or limited liability company.
Cost of Goods
You should be receiving more than a thumb drive or DVD of wedding images. You should be receiving some sort of printed product. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will get around to designing your own album OR that you can print the same quality of the album that your photographer can.
There’s more to running a professional business than having a Facebook presence or a pretty Instagram feed.
Advertising and Marketing
It takes money to make money. Word of mouth is a wonderful way to advertise but you still have to spend some advertising dollars if you want to the brides to know who you are.
This expense is spared by many photographers who aren’t willing to invest in rented or purchased spaces outside their homes. Most are content to meet clients at public meeting places or coffee shop chains. However, I can say that any photographer who has a business location is most likely more interested in providing a favorable client experience than maximizing his or her bottom line.
Licensed software can add up quickly and is almost just as important as the camera equipment. Any studio owner will tell you the must-have softwares are for image cataloging, photo retouching, album creation and design, accounting, client management, and project workflow.
Portrait sessions and wedding days are hectic beasts. It’s virtually impossible to do this alone. In order to continually deliver as promised and maintain good client relations, we need assistants and second shooters.
Sometimes stuff gets outsourced, either because we don’t like to do it, we don’t have time to do it, or it falls outside the scope of our expertise. This could be anything from having someone perform extensive photo retouching or making a custom painted backdrop to preparing our federal tax return.
I’ll lump all the smaller expenses here… expenses like land lines, cell phones, postage, printing paper and inks, office supplies, studio samples, and travel and entertainment, just to name a few.
Yep. We need to stay healthy too, please.
Unless you’re Yervant (undoubtedly one of the world’s most incredible wedding photographers), you can’t do this forever. A portion of each year’s commissions should be placed into some money-making market for the days when we can’t carry a camera bag anymore.
A salary is usually the last item that a small business owner allocates. This is the amount of money a photographer will use to live on—to pay for things like the mortgage, groceries, transportation, children’s college tuitions, health care, clothing, and family vacations. You know, we are just like you in this regard—we also like those little luxuries too!
My solid advice to you is that if you value photography AT ALL… if you want your children, your nieces and nephews and all the generations of your family that will follow in your genealogical footsteps to know you, and all the faces of the wonderful people you invited to your wedding… if you want witness to all the fun, happy, loving times that were had… if you want beautiful, creative, inspirational art to hang on your walls… if you want archival-quality heirloom albums to pass down…. lean toward the $25,000 photographer. You don’t necessarily have to spend that much, but definitely lean in that direction. ($25,000 will get you one of a few of the world’s very best wedding photographers who are incredibly gifted and talented in every single regard.) DO NOT choose your photographer based on price alone. DO NOT follow the advice that many of the most popular wedding planning websites and magazines tell you. They instruct unknowing brides to invest 10-12% of their wedding budget for photography. Then some even have the nerve to combine videography in that line item too. While it may be a great start if your total wedding budget is $150,000, it’s not anywhere near what will be needed for good photography if your budget is only $10,000. That’s unrealistic advice if you want really good photography. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, this is the rule.
There you have it. Wedding photography pricing has been completely exposed. You now have full knowledge of what you are (or aren’t) paying for when you hire someone to preserve one of the most cherished days of your life.
**One of the images contained in this blog post were shot while working as lead photographer for Aria Productions. The image is copyrighted but used herein with permission.
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I am San Antonio’s most unique wedding photographer. I specialize in a 10-day image delivery, same-day prints, same-day slideshows, Italian handcrafted wedding albums and I have a mobile meeting space.
I am a full-time, internationally-awarded and WPPI-C certified professional wedding and senior photographer based in South Texas near San Antonio. I offer a premier and personal service coupled with an unforgettable photography experience. I cater to clients who appreciate quality photography and help them to create family heirlooms that will last for generations.
I started Ata-Girl Photography Co., LLC in 2010. I firmly believe that the unique set of circumstances I have faced in life has prepared me to take a personal and genuine interest in my photography clients. I enjoy documenting the important milestones and captivating moments in people’s lives. I love being a part of people’s journey and consider myself privileged to document their legacies.
When I’m not photographing a wedding, family or high school senior, I love to spend my spare time hiking, camping, cycling, reading, listening to Elvis and Prince. The most important things in life are for me to see my two daughters happy and to create a family history my grandparents and grandson would be proud of!
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