Cheap Vendors Aren’t Killing the Industry. You Are Killing Yourselves.

I have 11 years in as a wedding photographer. Before that (and for some time during), I was a graphic designer. These are two industries which are full of independent contractors.

They are also two industries full of people who charge ridiculously little for their services.

Maybe some of these people charging low rates are new, maybe they lack confidence, maybe they just think low prices will get them more work. I can’t say. What I do know is that those who charge reasonable rates will lament that these people are killing the industry.

No they aren’t. They are killing themselves, because low prices are a race to the bottom. And if you are one of those charging ridiculously low prices, this article is specifically for you. Read on.

THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM

Since I’m a wedding photographer, I’m going to focus on that.

Not that long ago, the ridiculously low-ball price for photographing a wedding was $500 – within the range or less than what many professionals charge for a senior photo session.

As mind boggling as that low price was, now I’m seeing a trend in the $200 range. And I can tell you exactly why that is happening. But first… some math.

$200. That’s the new low standard. So let’s say I’m one of those people raising my hand eagerly, offering to photograph weddings for $200.

On average, I’m going to show up to a wedding around 11am. This may be earlier or later depending on the coverage my clients want. But 11am is a good average. I’m generally there until sometime between 9 and 10pm, but for now we’ll just call it 9pm.

That’s 10 hours of my time. Maybe I’m only actually actively photographing for 7 or 8 of those hours, given travel between venues, dinner hour, waiting for things to start, etc., but it’s still 10 hours of my time.

$200 divided by 10 is $20 an hour. Not a bad hourly wage.

But I probably had at least one meeting with the client that lasted about an hour. Maybe two meetings, but let’s be generous and call it one. We are up to 11 hours of time, which brings me down to $18.18 per hour. One meeting cost me almost $2 an hour.

I get home and I download all of my photos. That’s another hour (maybe it only took 15 minutes, but it’s standard practice to bill in one-hour increments, so we’ll factor our time that way, too). Now we’re down to $16.67 per hour.

An average number of photos taken at a wedding is probably around 100 photos per hour. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on what’s going on. But I know that I’m probably going to come home with about 800 photos, give or take.

Of the photos I took, I need to separate out (cull) the keepers from the rejects. I purchased specific software to do this. It’s incredibly efficient. I can go through those 800 photos in about a half hour. If you don’t have the budget to purchase a similar tool, it may take you far longer. Maybe you do this during your editing process (an extremely inefficient way to work). But let’s go with my time, 30 minutes, which adds another full hour of billable time.

We are up to 13 hours of work for this client, which means my wage is now $15.38 per hour. That’s not terrible. Yet.

Once I’ve finished culling, let’s say I’ve reduced my keepers down to 500. Because I really, really wanted people to hire me, I promised to also “professionally edit” every single photo I deliver for that $200.

Even though I’m working on every single photo, some take me longer while others require hardly any work, so we’ll say I manage to average about two minutes per photo.  That’s 1000 minutes of my time, or about 16.67 hours. Oops, that’s 17 hours – remember, we’re billing in one-hour increments.

Plus our previous 13 hours, this brings us up to 30 hours for this one client. And this isn’t counting any other time we’ve spent (things like replying to e-mails, preparing the images for delivery to the client, etc., but we’ll ignore those for now).

I charged the client $200 for 30 hours of work. This breaks my time down to $6.67 per hour. That’s not even minimum wage.

“But wait,” you say. “I’m new,” you say. “I’ll raise my rates when I have experience,” you say.

Here’s the thing. The reason I’m now seeing so many people offering to photograph weddings for $200 is because several years ago people were offering to photograph them for $500. And like I said before, low-ball pricing is always a race to the bottom.

If this trend continues, as it always does, I shudder to think of what will happen a few years from now when $100 or $50 become the new entry-level standard.

The average cost of wedding photography is $2000 to $4000, but this ultra low pricing isn’t hurting those of us in that range nearly as much as it’s hurting everyone charging those low prices.

THE SHACKLE OF CHEAP

There are groups on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet for people getting married. They can post ideas, sell their decorations after their own wedding, and ask for recommendations for vendors.

Just the other day I saw a post on one of these groups that went something like this: “Help! A few months ago I saw someone advertising $200 wedding photography, but can’t remember who it was!”

Within minutes there were replies, not from photographers jumping at the chance to sell themselves short, but from people recommending the $200 photographers that they had hired or who they know.

But recommendations are good, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Think very carefully about what just happened. This was not someone looking for beautiful wedding photography. This was someone looking for CHEAP wedding photography. And all of the recommendations that poured in were not for someone who did great work, but were for someone who was CHEAP.

These photographers were not advertising themselves. Other people had committed them to mind as CHEAP photographers, and were recommending them as CHEAP photographers.

I feel absolutely confident in saying that there isn’t a single person out there who has done, is doing, or wants to get into wedding photography who aspires to the goal of having the word CHEAP be the first thing people think of about their services.

But once that brand is applied, it’s very difficult to break free of it.

IF YOU VALUE YOURSELF, THEY WILL COME

For someone new to the industry, it really isn’t realistic for them to be within the $2000-$4000 range if they just don’t have the experience to back it up. Even the very top, most expensive wedding photographers in the world didn’t start that way.

I’m not one of the most expensive. Even so, my most popular package is about $3000. When I started out, after learning the ropes with second shooting weddings, I shot my first solo wedding for $1200. I was nervous as hell to charge even that much (and looking back at the photos now, I can’t believe I got away with it). But I also knew that I wanted to start out at a rate that meant I’d be mostly taken seriously.

Every time I have raised my prices, even to this day, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. I question what I’m doing constantly. Yet I know that as my expenses rise, also so must my pricing.

But the thing is, getting from $1200 to $3000 is a lot less steep of a hill to climb than starting out at $200.

If you don’t want to be the first person people think to recommend when someone asks for a CHEAP photographer, then build your business accordingly. If you don’t think you’re good enough to charge reasonable fees, then get good enough. Myself and other professionals are always looking for second shooters. And guess what? You can earn just as much from a second shooter gig AND gain experience at the same time.

The bottom line is, if you don’t put enough value in your own work, no one else will.

And if you’re under-charging, the quickest way for you to shake being known as the cheapest photographer in town is for someone else to come in and undercut your low-ball prices.

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The Flaky Photographer

Sample wedding image from an article about how to hire a professional wedding photographer.

Pam and Brian, 2009
Denver, Colorado
A shot from the early years of Studio Orange

(Or how to hire a professional wedding photographer…)

I photographed my first wedding in 2007.

At that time, stories of photographers who canceled or otherwise flaked out on a clients were rare. They were the hushed whispers of legend. Campfire tales and ghost stories. I have a friend who heard from a friend kind of stuff.

The mere thought of a photographer backing out of a contract was, frankly, inconceivable.

Today? Such a thing is not just commonplace, but nearly an epidemic. As I write this, I have been contacted just this year alone by a number of panicked couples. They thought they hired a “professional” photographer. Someone they could trust. But that “professional” has canceled on them. Either by giving notice, or simply dropping off the face of the Earth.

Why is this a thing? One word…

Saturation.

Wedding photography looks like such an easy and fun career. You show up on someone’s best day ever. You take a bunch of awesome photos. You become an Instagram rock star. So believe me, I get the appeal.

All you need is a camera.

Some days it feels like I know more people calling themselves wedding photographers than not. And unfortunately, a lot of people jumping into this industry wind up in way over their heads.

This problem is most prevalent at the lower price end of wedding photography, where it hurts the people with the tightest budgets.

I do not envy the task of a couple looking to hire a photographer these days.

Now, before I go any further, I want to stress that the point of this blog post is not to bag on lower cost photographers. A lot of the people in the lower tier pricing are merely inexperienced. Their pricing reflects that, as it should. I get it. I was there when I started out, too. And there are plenty of wedding photographers early in their careers who take this job seriously. They work with contracts, and wouldn’t dream of cancelling on a client.

But they tend to be mingled with those who view their agreements with couples as optional. As something to uphold if it’s convenient, to walk away from when it’s not. Those struggling to be taken seriously are trying to shove their way through a crowd of those treating wedding photography more like a lucrative hobby than a serious business endeavor.

I’m sure that almost all of the people who cancel on their clients had the best intentions. They entered into their agreements gung ho and ready to go. But best intentions don’t really count for much when two months before a wedding a panicked couple has to scramble to find a replacement photographer.

And none are available.

The thing is, there’s a side to wedding photography that isn’t so readily apparent. This business isn’t always conducive to a normal social life. We work the days our friends and families normally have off from regular work hours. Being hired to shoot weddings means I’ve missed birthday parties, family reunions, the weddings of my own friends.

Sure, some types of photo sessions, like engagement or portrait shoots, can be flexible if necessary. But a wedding date is all but chiseled in stone.

The years I’ve been in business, the idea of missing a wedding has never crossed my mind. I’ve sucked down DayQuil and shot through a flu. I’ve inhaled pain pills on the final day of Friday-Saturday-Sunday marathon of weddings. There is no such thing as a “sick day” for an event that cannot be rescheduled. I’m not a superman for doing this. I’m not asking for a pat on the back. And I know of many other professional wedding photographers who have sacrificed or worked through just as much.

Because this is our job.

I do understand how difficult, even frustrating it can be when a best friend calls to announce their wedding on a date already booked. Even so, I have zero sympathy if the response is to bail on a contract with a client. When money has exchanged hands, there is an obligation to follow through. This is the commitment we make. As far as I’m concerned, when my clients sign a contract and give me a deposit, they own me on that day.

I’ll have to be in a hospital bed before I’d miss it.

And when you are spending your money, be it $500 or $5000 on a wedding photographer, it is not unreasonable for you to expect that level of commitment.

So how do you hire a professional wedding photographer? How do you protect yourself from The Flaky Photographer?

Read on…

 

Sample wedding image from an article about how to hire a professional wedding photographer.

Marissa and Ryan, 2017
Roca, Nebraska
A recent Studio Orange wedding

Red Flag Number one:

Make sure your photographer has contract. This is the big one. If there’s no contract, RUN! I don’t care how much you like their photos. I don’t care how much they are within your budget. I don’t care how much you like THEM. A lack of contract is an irrefutable deal breaker.

Also, make sure their contract actually says what happens if they have to cancel on you. I mean, even I can’t guarantee that I won’t get hit by a bus. At the very least, the contract should agree to refund your money. Or make sure to provide (at no cost to you) a replacement photographer.

Finally, ask them if they’ve ever had to cancel on a client before. If the answer is yes, what was the reason and how did they handled it?

Red Flag Number two:

Ask how long they’ve been doing wedding photography professionally. At the lower price points they probably haven’t been doing it very long. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker. Ask if they plan to make this their full time job, or if it’s just a side thing. There’s no right or wrong answer.

Really you want to make sure they seem passionate and serious, regardless. If they seem a little too casual about the job, maybe you should walk away.

Red Flag Number three:

Find out if they are willing to let you speak with past clients. Again, if you’re considering someone fairly new, this might be tricky. There simply may not be many past clients for you to talk to. But if you can talk to at least one, it will help give you the peace of mind that they actually have followed through with a contract before.

If they seem hesitant about this, it should be a huge red flag.

Red Flag Number four:

Talk to your other vendors (reception space, DJ, etc.). Ask if they have heard of the photographer or ever worked with them. If you are going with outside help to plan and coordinate your wedding, such as a company like Event Design, they can be an excellent resource for steering you toward a reliable photographer (as well as other vendors).

Other vendors not having worked with your photographer might not be a big deal. Being unwilling to talk about them or saying negative things could signal a problem.

Red Flag Number five:

If you feel uneasy about the photographer at all, don’t be afraid to walk away. It doesn’t matter if the price is right. It doesn’t matter if the photos are great. If your gut tells you they might be flaky, then trust it. It’s better to locate another photographer, rather than go with someone you’re uneasy about. As long as you’re planning far enough from your date, you’ll have plenty of options. But if you get left hanging out to dry close to your date? That’s when it’ll be tough to find a replacement.

So how does this all add up?

Maybe unsatisfactory answers to any one of the above might not be a strong enough red flag against the wedding photographer you want ot hire. (Except the no contract — if they don’t have a contract, don’t even think about it). But if several or all of these add up? It’s really not worth it for you to risk it. As I’ve said above, and I can’t stress it enough, this is a saturated market. As long as you’re planning ahead, you will be able to find plenty of photographers to choose from.

Look, if you’re reading this, I’m not going to lie. I hope you’re considering Studio Orange to photograph your wedding. But even if I’m way out of your budget, I don’t want to see you get burned by someone you put your trust in. Your big day is too important for that.

In conclusion, would say that most of us photographers are generally and genuinely honest and enthusiastic. Most of us are professional. But there are some who seem to be causing some real problems for couples, and they give the rest of us a bad name in the process. Some diligence on your part will help to keep you safe. It will give you a much better chance of making sure the memories of your wedding are preserved.

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Why I Don’t Base Wedding Photo Packages on Hours

Kim-Joe-Wedding-6

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED! Lincoln, Nebraska.

Some things are inevitable: The sun will rise in the morning. Someone, right now, is offended about something on Facebook. Every guest to my house will get a German Shepherd nose in an inappropriate spot.

And…every few weeks a wedding photographer will post a question in a group about what everyone’s policy is on the number of hours they give couples on the wedding day.

For some reason, the topic of hours is incredibly vexing among wedding photography professionals. It’s a topic that will generate dozens of conflicting answers. All day. 6 hours. 10 hours.

The fact is, there’s no one answer. No right answer. But I do understand the pressing need to ask this question.

When we love our jobs, we want to do the most for our couples that we can. However, being mindful of the actual time we spend photographing is critical to developing and sustaining a successful business.

Everyone new to wedding photography finds themselves stuck with trying to juggle the right number of hours, with the fee they need to charge, with the number of photos they’ll need to prepare for delivery.

Believe me. I’ve been there.

To make matters more complicated, the hours a couple hires a photographer for isn’t exactly a cut and dried concept. Yet it’s often one of the first questions I’m asked.

The thing is, it’s not like I show up on the wedding day and start a stopwatch. I’ve never heard of a credible wedding photographer who does that. Yet it’s a common practice to state a given number of hours in a package.

Where things are confusing is that I think many of us mean slightly different things when we talk about how long we will be at the wedding.

I’m not constantly pressing the shutter button from the instant I show up. As much of a marathon any given wedding generally is, there is some down time. And this is what makes the “how many hours” question tricky – both among us photographers when building our photo packages, and with our couples when we discuss those packages with them.

My first several years as a wedding photographer, I used to tell my couples that they would get about 8 hours of shooting time with my most popular photo package, the Tangerine. But then I would explain I don’t count the down time. So if I arrive, say, around 11:00 am for some of the getting ready photos, then I will be done for the day around 9:00 pm or so (give or take, depending on the timeline for the day).

Another photographer might simply tell his or her couples that they’ll be with them for 10 hours.

Yet we both pretty much mean the same thing.

Which is why I’ve never been satisfied with the hours question or how to answer it. And maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like my couples care less about the specific number of hours, and more about the coverage of the events of the day that are important to them. (And couples reading this: if I’m wrong, chime in!)

So several years ago, I abandoned talking about hours at all in my packages.

Instead, I build my wedding photography packages around the events of the day.

Getting Ready. Family Photos. Ceremony. Reception. You get the idea.

I feel as though this better represents what my couples want and expect from me. It isn’t about worrying about a specific number of hours. It’s about capturing the important memories of the day.

Thanks for reading. If you’re a wedding photographer and decide to adopt my philosophy for describing coverage, drop a comment and let me know how it goes.

And now enjoy some photos of a super awesome couple: Kim and Joe!

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Lincoln Nebraska Wedding Photography: Kim and Joe

Kim and Joe GET MARRIED!
Lincoln, Nebraska

Posted in Random Thoughts, Tips, Weddings | Leave a comment