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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