Why is wedding photography so expensive?

Really terrific article by my virtual friend Booray Perry, an outstanding photographer working over in Florida, speaking to the question, “Why is wedding photography so expensive?“. If you are a bride looking to hire a photographer, I urge you to jump over to Booray’s blog and read it.

Couple points I would like to add to what Booray says.

Why is portrait photography so expensive?

First, most of what he says applies not just to wedding photographers, but to nearly all photographers who are working for money and trying to do a good job for their clients. I do more portrait photography than weddings, but the economics aren’t that different. Let’s say I charge $150 for a one-hour portrait session, which at the present time is fairly average for my fees. Here’s what I do to earn that $150….

Well, I started to itemize what was involved but it’s too depressing to show you the details. Let me summarize it this way. That one-hour portrait session probably involves at least five or six hours of work from me. That includes contact and planning before the shoot, the shoot itself (which almost never in fact lasts just one hour), and several hours afterwards processing and uploading photos. I bring thousands of dollars of equipment to that one-hour session. Afterwards I use thousands of dollars of computer equipment and software to process your files. And then there is the cost of books, training sessions, PPA and other dues, etc.

How does anybody make money in this biz?

Which raises an obvious question: How does anybody do it? Is pro photography a minimum-wage job these days?

It is for some folks. As Booray points out in his article, anybody these days can by a DSLR, toss up a web site, and solicit clients. An awful lot of photographers out there claiming to be serious, really aren’t. Turnover in the market is extraordinary. Lots of young photographers set up a web site, do a few gigs, realize they can’t hope to make money at it (or realize they’re not good enough, or it’s too stressful, or that doing it for money takes the fun out of photography) and they leave. Those of us who’ve been doing it for years—especially those of us who, for whatever reason, are not working at the high-dollar end of the market—have to compete against these folks.

I’m not sure how others do it. Me, I make it work in a number of ways. I will mention only three important points.

First, as an expert computer user, I am able to work with greater efficiency than a lot of less experienced and less tech-savvy photographers. Here, I get help from the other ways that I make money—as a software developer and as a computer journalist.

Second, I make very little money from taking the photos and hope instead to make money from prints. Now preparing image files for printing takes extra time, but I’m good at it. And I believe in prints. My own view is, if you don’t buy a good print, you don’t really have the photo. A photo on Facebook is like a drugstore snapshot on your refrigerator: a very temporary pleasure.

And third, I have a somewhat different view about professional equipment from my friend Booray. This is a controversial topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, but since I take the controversial or contrarian view, I want my essay on the subject to be as strong as I can make it and I just haven’t found the time to write it up. Short version: I use the least expensive high-end equipment available. Right now I’m shooting with Sony bodies and Sony (and Zeiss) lenses. I sacrifice a little in body build in order to stay current with the parts of camera technology that matter most, in particular, the sensor. My main camera presently (a Sony Alpha A580) lacks some features and conveniences found in more expensive camera bodies. For example, the A580 doesn’t have  a weather-sealed body. But the sensor in the A580 is terrific and allows me to compete head to head with the image quality other photographers get from more expensive cameras. (If you are a camera geek, you can see some of the info that matters to me here on the top site for camera performance metrics, DxOMark.com.) I also have insisted for years on using cameras that have image stabilization built into the body. I started with Pentax five years ago, and now I’ve switched to Sony. Both Pentax and Sony bodies are image stabilized. Now Canon and Nikon shooters can buy image stabilized lenses, but they cost much more and you have to keep paying for image stabilization over and over again. Image stabilization means that I can shoot effectively with slower shutter speeds, thus doing better in lower light, than I could without image stabilization. NOTE: This is in no way to knock Nikon or Canon! This is just my approach.

You don’t always get what you pay for—but it’s a pretty safe bet

It’s an indication of Booray’s integrity that he acknowledges briefly in his post that, while there’s often a good reason why the expensive photographers are expensive, it’s also possible—if you’re lucky—to get a bargain. Some people are cheap because they aren’t very good, don’t spend the time required to do a good job, don’t have the equipment to do a good job, don’t get the training, etc. But there are good photographers who are inexpensive for other reasons that Booray mentions (building portfolios, etc.). Almost everybody started out charging less than they were worth. I would add, with some regret, that, just as in absolutely every other field out there—law, medicine, plumbing—there are expensive vendors who, well, are better at marketing themselves than they are at providing the service they’re hired to provide.

So you have to be careful. The best way to know what your you are going to get from photographer X is by checking out X’s portfolio to see what he or she provided to his clients in the past. Challenges vary from shoot to shoot, and even the greatest photographers in the world have bad days. But as a rule, if you’ve seen a fair sampling of a potential photographer’s work from the past, you should be fairly confident that you’ll get results of similar quality from that photographer. And if that photographer seems a tad expensive compared to some others, well, keep in mind the points that Booray makes. You’re paying for a lot more than you are aware of.


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