A lot of photographers have no idea what to charge. However, you should probably charge more for weddings than you think. Raising prices is always a scary thought. It always has the potential to alienate your current client base, not to mention the fact that you are probably comfortable right where you are. You may not feel like your work, your location, or your competition will allow you to charge more than you already are. First, lets take a look at some price points, so you can decide where you fit in to the grand scheme of things.
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Boutique Photographers ($10,000 to $1 Million)
These are the extremely sought after wedding photographers like Dennis Reggie, Joe Buissink, Jerry Ghionis, Yervant, David Beckstead, and the like. These photographers are charging ten, twenty, or even one hundred thousand dollars to photograph a wedding. I know for a fact, at least one of these photographers has charged over $1 Million to photograph a wedding. Despite their high prices they still turn down more clients than they get. There are probably less than fifty photographers in the world in this category.
High End Photographers ($2,000 to $5,000)
There are quite a few of us in this category. We might charge anywhere from a few thousand to ten thousand for a wedding. In any given market, there are probably several photographers in this category. They usually have a good reputation in the area, but they do not garner international attention to the extent that the Boutique photographers do.
Budget Photographers ($500 to $2,000)
This category probably makes up 85% of the wedding photographers out there. They charge anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars. The most surprising thing about this category is that they tend to book a lot of weddings, but still struggle to make ends meet.
Where do you Want to be?
Of course many of us would love to be one of the top wedding photographers in the world. That may or may not be attainable, but what most photographers can agree on is that it is not good to be in that budget category. Lets start by examining why a photographer is in the budget category.
- Lack of skill or equipment
- Belief that volume is the key to success
- Fear of losing current clients
- Fear of pricing oneself out of the market
- Lack of money for marketing
- I would never pay that much for a photographer
To really understand how to charge more, we need to exam each point closely.
Lack of skill or equipment
Lack of skill is a big deal. Lack of equipment is not. If you feel like you don’t have enough skill to compete with the top photographers in your area, you need to ask yourself if you have enough skill to be a wedding photographer at all. As for lack of equipment, that is also not an excuse. There is probably only $10,000 to $20,000 worth of equipment that you actually need to shoot a wedding. However, that is not the equipment you need to shoot a good paying wedding. You need that much equipment to shoot ANY wedding.
Belief that volume is the key to success
A lot of photographers believe that volume is the key to success. That might be true for a portrait studio, be weddings are different. First, weddings involve a lot of time before and after the wedding. An 8 hour wedding can easily result in 40 hours of work. Then look at the cost of advertising to get a wedding, and then the cost of equipment you use. If you book a wedding every weekend for a year at $1,000 each (less two weeks vacation, by the time you subtract out around $20,000 for the cost of doing business in a year, you are down to $14 per hour. Not a bad wage, but for that little money, you could get a job working for someone else and not have to worry about the risk and hassle of being self employed. Of course that is assuming you have a wedding every single weekend, which is not usually the case. If you only have 30 weddings per year, your hourly wage drops to under $5 per hour. That is less than minimum wage.
Furthermore, think about how much work it takes to find 50 wedding clients (or even 30) in a year. Most people do not have their weddings all year, and some months are a lot busier than others. Finding clients takes a lot of work and energy. If you plan on booking 50 a year, you will probably need to meet with 100. To meet with 100, you will need a marketing strategy that reaches thousands of potential customers. Does your market even have thousands of potential wedding customers? Most photographers that pursue this thinking, end up going out of business since they cannot draw enough customers to sustain this model, or they give up on photography because they realize it is more profitable and less stressful to get a minimum wage job at Walmart.
Fear of losing current clients
Fear of losing your current clients is a real concern. Typically you don’t see a lot of repeat wedding clients, but what you do see is a lot of word of mouth referrals. A common occurrence is that you photograph Cindy’s wedding for $800 last year. Afterwards you try to raise your prices to $1200. This year Cindy’s friend, Bob, is getting married and Cindy tells Bob how you photographed her wedding for only $800, but when Bob calls you and you tell them your prices are now 50% higher, Bob is upset. It doesn’t matter what tier of photography you are in, scenarios like these happen whenever you try to change your prices. One way you can smooth this over is by using referral coupons on bonuses with past clients whenever you raise your prices. That way, that can pass on a discount to their friends so they do not pay your entire price increase. This is win win for everyone. You get more money for a wedding, Bob pays a little less than full price, and Cindy was able to provide Bob with a discount.
Fear of pricing oneself out of the market
This is a concern, but it is not as big as people would expect. First, as long as there is someone in your market more expensive than you, you know that your market will bare it. Second, even if you become the most expensive photographer in your market, this is not such a bad thing. After all, wouldn’t you rather be have a reputation as an “expensive” photographer as opposed to a “cheap” photographer? In some cases, you may need to expand your market. Do you think the boutique photographers charging $25,000 for a wedding only work in a 50 mile radius of their homes? Of course not. They travel all over the world to photograph, and they market internationally. So if you only market in a specific city, you might want to consider marketing to a slightly larger audience.
Lack of money for marketing
This is another very real concern. The key to solving this is to set goals and have a plan. For instance, your main goal might be to raise your prices to $5,000 per wedding. But in order to do that you are going to need some mini goals such as advertising in higher end publications, getting your images published on blogs and websites, building a Facebook page, etc.. Then you need to look at what small benchmarks you will need. For instance, it might cost $6,000 to run a years worth of ads in a particular publication. So one of your goals is to save $6,000. In order to do that you might have to set a another goal to save $500 per month to run an ad next year. To create a Facebook page, you might need to read a book or two on social network marketing. For getting images published you might have to dedicate an hour or two each week to sending images off to magazines. Setting realistic goals, and then determine the steps needed to attain them is one of the best ways to stay focused.
I would never pay that much for a photographer
A lot of time it is mind boggling to hear what other people pay for certain things. How could someone spend $80,000 on a car, or $500 on a fancy dinner. Normal people just don’t do that, do they?
Well, no they don’t, but there are plenty of people out there who aren’t normal. A lot of times we base our prices based on what we personally can or would pay, ignoring what the market can actually afford. Famed wedding photographer Dennis Reggie said, “Don’t price yourself on what you can afford. It was years before I could afford myself!” Go back and read that sentence again and really think about it. Are you basing your prices based on what you, as someone who is just starting a business, can afford? Do you think Lexus builds cars based on what the average Lexus employee can afford?
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Instant Photographer: Just add water
The reality of being a budget wedding photographer is that it is actually more difficult than you think. Most of your competition is in this category. Also, the couples who choose budget photographers are considering price first and foremost when they shop for a photographer. The only way you can differentiate yourself from your competition is by being cheaper. There are so many budget photographer each offering to shoot a wedding for less than the photographer down the road, it eventually turns in to a race to the bottom with each person trying to price cheaper than the last.
I noticed this about ten years ago when the digital revolution started. While there have always been budget photographers, the cost of film, processing, and creating proofs created a bottom line and leveled the playing field. The difficulties in working with film, producing portfolios, and advertising further prevented anyone from being too cheap. Today, you can create a free website, purchase a $500 digital camera, and you own a wedding photographer business. This has created a bottom line that is so low, that people jump into the budget category with the idea that they will make up for their low prices on volume. However, as I pointed out earlier this is ineffective in the long term.
What to do
Over the long term, a budget photography business is just not sustainable. You need to think about where to set your prices so that your business is sustainable. You need to have money left over to attend conferences held by organizations like the Wedding and Portrait Photographers International, and Professional Photographers of America, as well as workshops from other wedding photographers. Failure to allow yourself to grow is a disservice to your clients. You can’t work 50 weekends per year and not have it effect your family and personal life. If you try to live off of a volume model, in the long run it will hurt your personal life.
To get out of that rut, you need to set goals. Start with the main goal, and then look at the smaller goals that will help you get there. Then break down those into what you can do each month. Big change does not occur overnight. It takes time, planning, and patience.
I shot my first few weddings back in 2001 for only $300. I was so cheap, I won every client I pitched. I also thought I needed to take every job that came along. Looking back, I realized just how patient my wife, Carin, was with me. When she had weekends off of work, I was out shooting weddings. I really wish I had done fewer of them back then, but at $300 each I had to take every wedding that came along.
These days I only win half of the clients I pitch. But the ones that I do win, never complain about my prices. They are happy with my style, and they understand that I take my duty to them very seriously. Now that I am charging a fairly reasonable rate, I have ample time off to spend with my family. We get to have our lives back.