I remember planning my own wedding with my mom nine years ago and thinking that everything with the word “wedding” was automatically a thousand dollars more expensive. Cupcakes that could be bought at the store automatically became worth triple the amount when used for a wedding. My parents graciously paid for my wedding so I didn’t think about it too much (thanks is an understatement, Mom and Dad:), but I do remember the sticker shock of the whole experience. Nine years later here I am charging people for wedding photography, and I know so many people must be wondering where in the world these numbers come from. I know the single biggest factor in determining if I can buy a good or service is the price, so it’s helpful to know why something costs a certain amount. Hence this post! I hope this sheds some light as to where wedding photography pricing comes from, and gives other photographers an idea on where to begin in thinking about pricing structures. I should also note how amazingly helpful this FREE pricing guide by photographer Stacy Reeves was in helping me determine pricing.
1. The Experience
My husband and I have an ongoing list of why shopping at Publix is, to quote their slogan, “a pleasure.” We add to the list after every good experience there. It’s light and bright when you walk in, everything seems clean, the aisles are wider than other stores, and there is almost always someone waiting near a register asking if you are ready to check out. Sure we spend more there than we do at Walmart, but we leave in better mood and are increasingly appreciative of their help bringing groceries to the car when trying to tackle two boys and get them into their car seats. Don’t get me wrong, we shop at Walmart, too. But we have another list we add to when going there. To put it nicely we have come to expect a not so pleasant shopping experience at Walmart. I expect to wait in long lines, and I don’t expect the finest produce or the best customer service. Of course there are exceptions to that (I have met very kind cashiers before at Walmart) but I don’t go there expecting that. All of this is reflected in the pricing at these two stores. I know that at Publix I am paying for the wider aisles and better customer service. I am paying for the brighter lights and well-designed layout, and in the end I think the overall experience makes shopping less of a dread and more enjoyable. Most of my groceries are the same at both Walmart and Publix (i.e. eggs, bread, cereals, etc) but the experience is totally different.
The same is true with a photography business. It is the experience that you are paying for, and that is so much of what determines the price. Usually the better the website, blog, or client galleries, the higher the price you will be paying for the photography. All of this is part of the experience that a photographer offers. Just like Publix has better lighting and friendlier cashiers (probably because they are paid a little better than Walmart!) you can expect a better experience of photography when paying more. You can expect more professional equipment, more attention to detail, greater customer service, and hopefully an experience that makes your day better or puts you in a better mood having met him or her. Every part of an experience has to be paid for (either in time or services provided). I remember being in the hospital after the birth of my first child and the nurse told me I could take home the fan I asked for in my hospital room. I was so excited to get a free fan! That’s when my husband reminded me that there was no free fan but that was part of my $2,000+ visit to labor and delivery. So any part of a business that you are able to enjoy is part of the experience and is somehow worked into the price of the good or service. It’s at this point we make value decisions, and these are different for every person. There are things I don’t place a high value on (like jewelry) and I would never spend more than $30 on it. My mom would be appalled that I wrote that! The same is true for photography- everyone has a different view of the value of it and therein lies the reason some may choose a $5,000 photographer and others ask a family member to take pictures for them.
2. Professional Equipment
When I first got into photography I just couldn’t believe people would pay me to photograph them. I love taking pictures, and it was just my time, right? Then I realized that low lighting situations (like weddings) meant I needed a camera that could still capture images without a lot of light. Slowly, after making mistakes, I purchased more professional equipment to help me better meet the needs of a bride and groom. I would invest in camera lenses, back-up camera bodies should something happen to my main camera, flashes and external lighting to help capture those reception moments that would be too dark to see without them. Part of wedding photography pricing is the level of professional equipment that has been invested in, so the more professional the gear, the higher the price. For example, most professional lenses for Canon camera bodies are priced around $1,500 – $2,000. Yikes! And you definitely want to have back-up gear should anything happen to your main camera during the wedding ceremony, so all of this adds up. On a side note, if you are a photographer trying to start your business but not having the right gear is holding you back, then I definitely recommend renting photo equipment! I have loved using BorrowLenses and it has helped me decided if I really needed or wanted an item before paying thousands of dollars for it. Another great local option is Aperturent.com, based in Atlanta. Here’s a little self-portrait I took using AlienBees B1600 strobe and off-camera flash. My husband finds me practicing with lighting late at night and probably sees flashes of light in his sleep!
I remember being so anxious my first few weddings because I just wasn’t confident I could get the formal portraits of the family. I wasn’t sure if my flash would be powerful enough in a dark church or if I could get everyone in focus, and thankfully so many people were willing to take a chance on me and help me grow. And I am still learning each wedding how to do something differently and hopefully better. Part of wedding photography pricing is the level of expertise a photographer brings to the table. When you look at the list of top 10 wedding photographers in the world, you can bet they are charging a lot more based on their level of expertise in the field. When you first begin shooting weddings there is so much to learn and so many mistakes to be made, and that is why most of us didn’t charge very much for our time or talent because we weren’t sure that the end result would be worth it! But since my first few weddings I have spent countless hours reading photography books, taking courses taught by some of the best photographers in the business (thanks to AMAZING classes offered through CreativeLive), hours spent in Lightroom and Photoshop learning to edit, and studying images to find out what manual settings produce the best pictures. I have so much to learn, and I can honestly say that after each wedding I realize something new I’d like to change or learn or do differently. That is part of a photographer’s expertise, and all of that is reflected to some degree in their pricing. If you are a bride on a really tight budget, you can find someone who is just starting their photography business and needing more experience to build their portfolio for a great deal. He or she won’t have the expertise to confidently charge more at this point but could still do a great job.
4. A Photographer’s Time
I began wedding photography in 2010, going from 8 weddings to 17 weddings to 33 weddings last year. And I’ve loved it. But slowly I realized that it was taking a huge toll on my family, being gone most Saturdays, editing until after midnight most nights. One day after being in tears over the amount of work I had, my husband helped me think through all my job responsibilities in running a photography business. He had me write down all my tasks to actually see what I was spending my time doing, and here is what I came up with:
(by the way I used an app called Idea Sketch on my Ipad for this- it’s great for diagram people like me:). After I finished this I saw why I felt so overwhelmed with job! I realized the 80/20 business rule definitely applies- photographers spend about 20% of their time actually shooting and 80% of their time on business related tasks and post-production (culling, editing, exporting images, posting to the internet, burning discs or uploading online). I would have friends tell me how awesome it must be to photograph weddings because I just had to work on Saturday and then I was done… except that is so so far from true! The 10 hour wedding day was the least of my work, and writing it all down helped me see that. I do LOVE this job so this isn’t a complaint about work but rather a realization of the time commitment needed per wedding. The other part of my personal time equation is that I have 2 small children that I love more than I can express. I realized that my time has become more valuable since starting a family because it is time away from them. There is not only an emotional cost to time away from children but a practical dollar cost of childcare (and any mom knows a babysitter averages from $8-$12 an hour, so much better than my $4 an hour babysitting jobs growing up!). If I didn’t have children I could afford to get paid a lot less for photography, but since I have a family to care for my hours away from them are gold. I know the photography industry is flooded with photographers at various price points, and I think this is great and only makes people work harder to be better. And because there are so many photographers, I can confidently recommend other wedding photographers to a bride and groom that don’t specifically want me to shoot their wedding. If a couple is just looking for someone with good camera knowledge and not particularly wanting my style or philosophy or services, then I should probably recommend another person so that I can be with my kiddos who need me specifically. I read in a really good parenting book about a man who worked faithfully for a business for over 20 years, and yet when he died of a heart attack, his job in the company was filled within two days of his death. His company didn’t miss a beat after he died, and his legacy wasn’t particularly noticeable in the company. But to his wife and children his death left a gapping hole that could never be filled. The writer talked about what this meant for him as a dad- realizing that his role in his family is not easily replaceable. I am replaceable as a wedding photographer, but to my husband and kids I am not. So I need to price my services in such a way that people will value my time and really want me to be there on their wedding day and not just a warm body, because otherwise this warm body needs to be home with these nuggets…
Hopefully this sheds some light on wedding photography pricing, or gives help to other photographers in figuring out freelance work. It can be such a tricky area to navigate and has led to so many insecurities in me, so I know how much I appreciate other photographers’ honesty and transparency in the pricing process.
-Kaitie, kaitie bryant photography
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