An examination of photography pricing

I am constantly browsing photography forums and photographer pages to keep on top of trends and one question I routinely see asked is: why is professional photography, especially wedding photography, so expensive?  I have to admit, when my fiance and I were looking at photographers for our own wedding, we had a bit of sticker shock as well.  We had budgeted for things we knew were going to be expensive (the venue, food, dress, etc.) but were completely naive when it came to the cost of professional photography.  Because I have now experienced wedding photography from both sides of the lens, I thought I would give an honest and thorough break-down of what you’re really paying for. Before I get too in-depth, I want to say that this is certainly not meant to offend anyone.  I realize that weddings are expensive and few of us have the luxury of an unlimited budget.  This is a significant investment and part of the reason I want to break it down is so that you don’t feel like you’re getting taken advantage of financially.

There is a popular Craiglist ad that is frequently re-posted wherein a woman is upset and says “I’m paying you for eight hours of work, so if you charge me $3,000, you’re making $375 an hour, right?”  Wrong.  For illustrative purposes, I’m going to use my own Aspen wedding package: 8 hours for $2100.  That may look like $262.50/hour, but it’s not.

Keep in mind, for many photographers (myself included) this is our full-time job.  We are not just photographers, but small business owners as well.  Assuming your photographer is running this as a legitimate business and not simply getting paid under the table, we immediately have to pay state and federal taxes.  This can be complicated to calculate, but an average of 20% is reasonable.  So that $2100 immediately becomes $1680 or $210/hr.

Except a wedding job involves way more than just the time spent shooting.  At least for me, a general rule of thumb is about four hours of sorting, editing, and uploading for every one hour of shooting.  Now we’re at 40 hours, or a typical work week.  Add to that a complimentary one-hour engagement session, at least one hour of email/phone/in-person correspondence and planning, and an average of two hours transportation (half an hour each way to the engagement and wedding locations).  All said, a full day of wedding photography is usually about 44 hours of work, which is still $38.13/hour.  That’s a pretty great hourly rate to make!  Unfortunately, that doesn’t factor in all the costs associated with actually running a business. Those costs fall into three categories:

Things that an employer would normally cover: health/dental/vision insurance, retirement benefits, promotional materials (business cards, pens, etc.), on-the-job training such as seminars or classes, general office supplies, and computer maintenance.

Business expenses: business license and registration, website hosting and maintenance, ample hosting space for client galleries, DVDs or thumb drives to send final images, professional association fees, and marketing (advertising, wedding expos, and freelance sites such as Thumbtack).

Equipment expenses: Cameras, lenses, and lighting (includes upgrading to newer equipment and paying for maintenance on existing pieces to ensure they’re always running smoothly), insurance to cover all that equipment in case I fall in a river or one of your guests dances a little too enthusiastically, computer software (Lightroom and Photoshop are absolutely necessary), decent computer equipment to run these complex programs, wear and tear/ gas for the personal vehicle I take to each job or consultation, and both cloud and external storage systems so I have your images stored in at least three different places.  If the worst happens and your house catches on fire five years after your wedding, I will still have your pictures for you.

The cost for all of these expenses is split amongst every client.  And if you’re looking at the pricing table and wondering why the hourly rate is more expensive for weddings than portrait sessions, the reasons are twofold: one, a portrait session typically yields 10-12 edited photos per hour, while a wedding generates much more.  Second, a staged one-hour shoot is much easier (both technically and physically) than a full day event where you are constantly on your feet and trying to capture fleeting moments in perpetually changing settings and lighting.

This isn’t meant to sound like a complaint.  I love what I do and I have put a lot of thought into what I can charge to make things easier for my clients while still being able to pay myself a salary.  I hope this (admittedly lengthy) explanation will help to understand that legitimate professional photographers aren’t just trying to make a quick buck or manipulate your emotional attachment to the day.  I know it’s still a considerable amount of money to spend, but I honestly feel that it’s worth the investment.  You may spend thousands of dollars on food that is quickly eaten or a dress that gets worn once, but the one tangible thing you will pass down for generations… the purchase that will always bring you back to that day… the thing you will be able to share with friends and family who are unable to join you…is your photography.  I am deeply appreciative of each and every client who feels I am worth the investment.