I’m going to enlighten you on a topic that gets wedding photographers’ hackles up! And that is the topic of why photographers are so expensive. First off, it’s worth pointing out that this is quite a misunderstood topic. I’m going to clear up some of those misconceptions here.
When people ask why photography costs ‘so much’, I’ve never been 100% sure what the ‘so much’ is compared against. It’s entirely possible that it’s so much compared with what people are expecting. And maybe against non-wedding events such as family shoots?
Either way, most of us simply do not have a frame of reference for photography fees. It’s even harder to fathom when you consider that photographers do not have to charge for inventory or ingredients for their wedding services. Like, how do they even come up with their pricing?
Want to know the average price of wedding photography in San Francisco? Check out the full the article linked below.
On a nationwide level, the average wedding photographer charges $2,679. However, prices vary greatly according to location. For example, average prices surge to $5,120 for a city like New York.
I understand that for some couples, this may seem WAY more than they were expecting. Without having to pay much in the way of job-specific costs, it may seem extremely high. What are you even getting for that money? And why is the market rate for a simple service so high?
For a detailed deep-dive into why wedding vendors charge so much, I wrote an article about that, too.
Are you curious about whether you should negotiate with wedding photographers? Check out my dedicated article, linked below!
Let’s dive into why a wedding photographer needs to charge what they do!
What a photographer spends their time doing
A photographer may charge $500 for a single hour of work. They might be lucky to get 20 clients a year, especially for a higher price point – and that’s if you’re doing really well. Even if each client pays $4,000, you might be thinking well that’s still $80,000.
And if you’re in a cheaper area, maybe you’re at a lower price point – say $2,500. You’re servicing 32 clients per year.
Not bad in most cities. Right.
But consider this. For each hour that’s paid, a photographer will probably be working at least 8 hours that aren’t paid. The client doesn’t see what’s going on behind the scenes. In fact, we only spend 4% of our working time actually shooting – aka billable hours. (See the interactive infographic here)
That ‘$500/hour’ fee is nothing like a lawyer who is literally only doing one hour of work and scooping up that whole amount. A photographer is actually working so much more for each hour you see then snapping away.
Below, I have a list of what a photographer does! I also have a full, detailed article that goes into greater depth if you want to know how a wedding photographer actually spends a typical day:
Billable hours vs. the 10 hours of work you don’t see
- Editing raw photographs to create the final images (maybe 2 to 3 hours editing for every 1 spent shooting, but everyone’s different). This is a huge amount of time, because an 8-hour wedding can mean days of editing (fitting the task in, in between business-related tasks and new leads that we need to take care of).
- Traveling to and from jobs. It’s common to have a large radius within which we don’t charge for travel so it is normal to drive hours to and from a wedding. Here in California, I’ve had weddings that are 5.5 hours’ drive away. Sometimes a job will require a pre-visit to scope out locations.
- Having meetings, phone calls and dealing with client emails. Yes, our consultation time is free of charge to you. Weddings are high-touch and typically hundreds of emails are exchanged, not to mention texts, phone calls and meetings. Each client relationship might be active for 24 months, from answering initial questions and setting up the engagement shoot, up until after delivery of the wedding album.
- Blogging and doing social media, the latter being something we have to devote time to daily so our feeds look active and appealing when someone discovers us. If our peers are keeping up appearances on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram then so must we!
- Designing our marketing materials, logos, websites and branding. Usually we hire someone to do this, but when you’re just starting out that isn’t always an option financially.
- Doing our own SEO and making sure we’re found on organic search on every platform out there! We usually don’t have the budget to spend $1.5k/ month on outsourcing SEO work to a professional. Plus, we can do a better job ourselves, as weddings are so personal and our brand voices so unique.
- Taking care of banking, tax and accounting periodically; usually there’s something to be filed or reconciled every day and we need to generally keep on top of it. There are huge risks involved with getting this part wrong.
- Learning and researching the ever-growing kinds of software that helps us with our workflows. This is constantly evolving and requires time, energy plus trial & error to keep up to date and maintain maximum efficiency.
- Advertising and marketing – whatever prospecting for new clients might involve. This might be exhibiting at wedding fairs, advertising on Facebook, running an ad in the local newspaper or joining a wedding directory. The bigger directories charge $4,000+ a year for a prime listing in competitive areas. So our presence on each marketing channel needs to be carefully monitored and leads nurtured.
- Continuing our education through learning, training and undertaking personal projects to keep our skills sharp.
- Trying to get our work published on wedding websites to add prestige and social proof. These relationships take time and effort and many attempts for each successful publication.
- Cultivating relationships with other wedding vendors and photographers. Colleagues are just as important to us, except that we have to make time when we’re not being paid in order to be part of any kind of network and to have ‘industry friends’.
What wedding photographers’ income has to cover
Even if you figure that, hey it’s not so bad. You work more hours but even if you’re working ten times more than the hours you’re being paid, that’s still $50 an hour.
Alright, maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but consider how far that money has to stretch. The amount we gross doesn’t go into our back pocket, far from it. Much of this applies to other types of freelancers and small businesses too, but here’s what we wedding photographers have to pay for:
- Health insurance which runs hundreds of dollars a month in California. If you’re the family breadwinner then good luck to you.
- Our own camera gear and computer gear. My gear cost around $12,000 but it’s not uncommon to have more than twice that amount. Depreciation is around 10% each year.
- Insurance for said gear plus professional liability insurance of up to $2m, required by many venues.
- Reinvestment into the business. The money that we receive from clients doesn’t just go straight into our back pockets. Usually there is so much that goes back into the business especially in the first 5 to 10 years, and it’s normal not to take a draw at all the first year or two.
- Software licenses which are more expensive now than ever because everything’s increasingly cloud-based so requires a subscription. This includes software for image editing, accounting, websites and hosting, client relationship management, terabytes of cloud file storage for raw photo files, client galleries, website hosting, digital signing, online client galleries, Pinterest scheduling, SERP tracking, keyword research, video editing, mailing list management, invoicing and payment portals… the list goes on.
- Transportation – your own reliable car is essential as weddings might be hundreds of miles away especially in a state like California.
- Pay for our own workshops, conferences and personal projects.
- No paid vacation or sick time. You don’t work, you don’t get paid.
- No federally required or paid leave.
- Pay 100% of our self-employment tax.
- Income tax in general is so high! When we make $100, $30 we don’t even see, it goes straight into a savings account ready for quarterly taxes.
- We have to pay 100% of the cost of our retirement plans. There is no-one to match our payments.
- We have to earn our raises, and some years’ bookings can be very low. (Hello, 2020!)
- Speaking of which, we have to weather the storms of those crazy years when our incomes take a dip. For a huge number of photography studios, 2020 will be their last year.
- The unpredictability factor and the seasonality of weddings. The majority of weddings in Northern California take place between April and November. In colder or crazy hot climates, the season is much shorter.
- Additional costs from working from home – e.g heating, cooking, air conditioning.
- Legal costs of having a professional take care of our contracts so we know we’re protected. No, we don’t just download a free sample contract from the internet.
- Paying for an accountant / tax adviser to look regularly at our books.
- Education! While there are no formal qualifications, experience is essential and training comes in the form of paying your dues to established photographers. A strong working knowledge of how a camera works is a given. Getting to know how to work at a wedding, dealing with clients and guests, what to do and not to do, understanding how a business works beneath the hood, takes time and can only be learned on the job.
- The cost associated with the risks of getting taken to court in the case of a disgruntled client. Being a sole prop as most wedding photographers are means that we could be taken for everything we’ve got if we’re sued. Emotions run high at weddings!
I take a ‘draw’ from my business bank account every month. That’s my salary and it’s the same every month until I’ve earned a raise (or even have to take a cut like I did during the sh!tshow that is 2020). That’s right, business owners have paydays that they have to wait for, just like regular employees.
Meaning that of that $80,000, when you take out all costs, you’re left with less than half of that in your pocket. 30% is taken out for taxes, so $24,000. You’re spending maybe another $20,000 on standard business costs (including staffing & outsourcing), reinvestment and equipment. So when you look at what’s left… let’s just say it’s very sad.
Cue the tiny violins.
It’s incredibly hard to turn a profit as a wedding photographer
It takes a huge amount of time, skill, financial cost, risk and a little sprinkling of luck to make it as a wedding photographer full time (or even as a viable side hustle). Making money in wedding photography is hard.
When I was starting out I was giving shoots away for free, at a steep discount, half price or just trying at market rate. Whatever I tried, no dice. There are so many wedding photographers out there. It barely mattered how good the work was or how cheap the price (even free). There is so much for clients to choose from.
There are 3,000 photographers in my area on Yelp alone. How many others are just on Craigslist and Facebook, operating as an unlicensed, uninsured side-hustle? Maybe we aren’t exactly similar, but we’re all competing for a slice of the pie. And that pie is only so big. Such is the nature of running a local business.
It’s hard in this business to break even. It’s hard to stay in business. Some sobering statistics from Digital Photography School:
In the 1st year, 60% of photographers give up their business. Of that remaining 40%, another 25% will fail within the 2nd year. The ones that make it are the remaining 15% who endure through the 3rd year. That’s a staggering 85% turnover rate.Christina N Dickson, So You Want to Enter the Photography Business?
Want to love on your wedding photographer? Here are 17 things you can do to be an epic wedding photography client!
Scaling up doesn’t lead to effortless profit increases
Some photography businesses scale up in order to increase their profits. However, this also brings huge risks. Entrusting the biggest day of someone’s life to an independent contractor (because virtually no photography business can afford staff photographers employed full-time) is incredibly risky. What if they don’t show up? Get a better offer? Book their own client?
Plus, it is still only the business owner and maybe a small admin team, that has to deal with all the actual business and client management side of things. That means still the business owner commits to:
- Being on call 24/7 to respond to client inquiries the minute they hit the inbox with a personal, not automated, message.
- Doing meetings and phone calls evenings and weekends when clients are not at work.
- Dealing with the turnover of independent contractors and their training, image review and scrambling to find someone if they fail to show up to a wedding.
Either way, it’s fraught with risk, pressure and high stakes. And still there is a huge amount we give up in order to take on these liabilities – our summer months, every Saturday in summer in a good season, plus those evenings and weekends to talk to clients.
To scale up in wedding photography means taking on so-called ‘associate photographers’. To find out more about that and exactly what it means, check out the dedicated article linked below:
We charge what we need to so we can actually stay in business
With each and every booking we get, we are very grateful and passionate about serving our customers right. Most photographers that actually depend on that money – and are in it for the long haul – will give you an out-of-this-world service and amazing value. That’s simply what it takes to compete in this saturated market.
Cheap photographers out there – do they disprove everything I just said? No! And you can find out exactly why here:
Are we raking it in? No. Do we do what we do because we’re absolutely obsessed with capturing the stories of those wonderful, special couples who trust us enough to document their special day? Do we LOVE photography? YES! That’s why we do it…
For many of us, this will never be a route to riches. But this career makes us happy. Being a business owner makes us happy. Not having a boss and being able to work in our pajamas and get wedding cake and steak dinners every Saturday, makes us happy.
Sure, maybe some wedding photographers will tell me I have this completely wrong and they are hundred-thousandaires at least once over, but I doubt it. We could have been richer working in a cubicle getting paid sick leave, great benefits and free granola. This is just a funner ride. I don’t even like granola.
Are you planning a wedding and overwhelmed with all the info out there? Check out my ultimate list of wedding planning resources linked below to help you every aspect of planning your wedding!
You’ll be able to check out articles on subjects that you didn’t know about before and get a head start on optimizing your wedding photography experience and investment : )
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Thanks, this explanation and breakdown is really helpful. I balked the first time I saw what Southern California folks are charging but this helps put it in context. (Also as a marketing manager, major props to your SEO and online marketing efforts. )
Thanks Caitlin! I really appreciate that. Yes, the SoCal market is similar to here, but even harder as there is more competition and the average wedding photographer charges less than we charge up here. Thanks for the kind words. Content marketing is my #1 passion : ) 🥰 I’m glad that came across!
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