Why are great wedding photographers so expensive?

Please note: The numbers presented here were valid at the time I wrote this but may have changed by the time you read the article.

Want the quick answer? It’s because they’re the best of the best at what they do, and that comes by way of years of study, practice, buying top of the line equipment and investing a huge segment of their own lives in the pursuit of helping other people document an incredibly important day in their lives.

“OK, I get that, but it still doesn’t explain why it has to cost so much money!”

We DO cost a lot of money! But what we take home from that big chunk of change might surprise you. The average photographer in America only charges around $2500 for a wedding. I charge around $4000 for one. Some photographers charge $10k or even $50k! But they’re a rare breed in this industry and for the purposes of this article, we’re only talking about average and slightly higher-end photographers.

So yes, that few thousand dollars seems like an awful lot of dollars. But how much of that is actually profit? (this is a section with a lot of math, and I suck at math, so I won’t fault you if you skip this section and move on to the final wrap up. Also, if I get any mathing wrong, blame Mr. Appleton, my 7th grade math teacher who made me hate math almost as much as I hated eating liver, which was a LOT.)

Let’s start by justifying that expensive rate a photographer charges. SO expensive, right? Let me help it make sense.

We’ll use me as the example. Here’s a quick breakdown of a $4000 wedding fee for a wedding I did in the bay area recently (side note: if you’re ever in the yay area, go eat at Cuban Kitchen in San Mateo. Your mouth will thank me). This breakdown will give you a good idea of what it costs me to cover a wedding out of town and what I actually earn from that fee, after all is said and done.

Starting fee paid by clients: $4000

($4500 standard fee minus $500 discount for a weekday wedding)

How much I used out of that $4000 to cover operating costs:

– $400 to hire a second photographer who kills it at trivia. Being good at trivia isn’t a requirement for my second shooters, but it sure does come in handy for those times when a wedding guest starts an impromptu trivia battle. I’m not gonna be caught out there just because I don’t know who the first astronaut to have a hit record was.

– $300 to pay an assistant to capture basic video footage. This was just a nice gift I was offering the client (they’d just passed the five year mark as my clients). Of course, if I needed to hire an actual videographer, this cost would be far higher. I generally recommend that clients hire their own videographer though, because being a one stop shop isn’t my thing.

– $150 to hire an assistant to help with lighting, equipment and time management.

– $200 gas round trip from my home to the bay area. Some might suggest flying to the bay area instead of driving but I love to drive – and if you fly, you also have to rent a vehicle once you arrive, increasing the cost and compounding the hassle. Nobody likes compounded hassle. Nobody.

– $70 for food during travel (If this seems a little low, that’s because I like to eat fastfood when I’m on the road. And when I’m home. Oh, and also most other times.)

– $150 to rent a room in a motel for a one night stay (this could be a lot higher too, but I don’t stay in fancy hotels because I’m generally just there to sleep for seven hours, shower in the morning, and then go eat more fastfood.)

– $300 gratuity from me to my team at the end of the wedding ($100 tip to each – this is in addition to any money tipped by client. And trust, my team deserves a tip, because they have to stand next to me a lot, and I’m very pretty, so it’s tough on their egos.)

What’s left = $2430

Hours worked before wedding (communicating with bride & groom, location scouting, pre-wedding prep, engagement session, humming the Imperial Death March under my breath while I peruse the two hundred engagement idea photos you sent me at 3am the night before) = 8

Hours worked on wedding day = 14 (14 loooong hours on my feet…sometimes on other people’s feet, too)

Hours worked post-wedding (editing, print ordering, uploading, finalizing with clients, singing the theme song to Greatest American Hero at the top of my lungs while I wait for your photos to export) = 12 hours

Drive time to/from wedding = 8 hours (I love to drive! The California coast is so darn pretty. But it’s still time that could be spent working, so I include it in cost.)

Total hours worked = 38 hours (this is a rough estimate, and obviously the numbers would be slightly less for a local wedding but most of my weddings are out of town, so there you go.)

$2430 divided by 38 hours worked = ~$64 an hour

So, there you have it. The big reveal is that, after that “huge” $4000 fee is paid, I’m actually only earning around $64 an hour to create one-of-a-kind images for your once-in-a-lifetime event that will outlast not only you, but likely several generations of your descendants as well. I’m expected to be on my feet for up to 15 hours on wedding day, working countless hours leading up to and after the wedding so I can deliver something incredible and unique…$64 an hour would be a great wage for most jobs! But it’s really not that much for such a high-stress, high-expectation industry where failure to perform can have devastating results for all involved.

And here’s a fun fact: even though a second shooter just has to show up and take nice pictures for ten hours, I’m barely making $25/hr more than my second shooter. Their role in the wedding is limited, but mine is complex and time consuming and extends far beyond just the wedding day. To earn that extra $20 an hour, I’m responsible for everything related to the couple before, during and after the wedding, and everything it took to market to and book that couple, and that’s on top of everything it takes to run the business itself as a sole proprietor.

But I happily take the $65 an hour because I love the hell out of what I do. You have to love this job, because, in spite of the seemingly ultra-expensive price tag of hiring a wedding photographer, it’s really not a high income industry – it can be very hard to break 6 figures a year as a wedding photographer unless you’re able to charge crazy amounts of money (remember those $10k photographers from earlier?) or if you’re photographing 36 weddings a year. I photograph 12.

But it’s not just the operating costs we lose from each wedding fee, there are also a lot of other factors that make working full time as a wedding photographer a serious challenge – the money isn’t steady like it is with a 9 to 5 job because our work isn’t year-round – wedding season is only about seven months long. The wedding industry also doesn’t offer benefits that 9 to 5 workers get from their company, like employer contributions to retirement plans, health insurance, worker’s comp, paid time off, etc – as a sole proprietor, I’m literally the company, so any of those benefits I give myself come straight out of my own pocket.

And then there’s all the miscellaneous costs that we sometimes have to deal with as photographers – the parking ticket I might get on wedding day because the vendor parking spot I was promised didn’t materialize, or the equipment I might have to rent last minute because the second shooter called two days before and said their only camera was stolen, or the wear and tear on my vehicle that comes along with serving an entire state. The percentage of the wedding fee I come home with also doesn’t factor in the thousands of hours of practice and free photoshoots and self-education I’ve gone through to get to the skill level I’m at right now. It doesn’t factor in the $15,000+ worth of equipment I bring to the wedding, or the insurance I pay for to protect that equipment from little 6 year old Jax running headlong into me at full speed and cracking my camera screen because a monster was chasing him (I spent 20 minutes trying to find the monster so I could berate him about the danger of chasing kids in crowded areas – turns out he wasn’t even real!).

If I book 12 weddings in a year, after taxes and operating costs, I’ll take home about $36,000. Not much, huh? Of course, every photographer will have a different set of circumstances, but now that you have a better idea of what it costs us to be a wedding photographer, do you still think that wedding photographers are too expensive? We’re a tough group of small business professionals who work incredibly hard to create amazing images of your big day that you will cherish for decades after every thing else has faded away. Flowers wilted and in the trash. Music echoing into silence. Flavors a distant memory. But your photographs? Still there for you, a lifetime later.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you keep this in mind when you’re booking your vendors and trying to decide if the photographer is worth that big fee!

If you enjoyed this article and want to buy me a coffee, I appreciate it, but coffee and my insides don’t get along. If you really feel the urge though, you can Venmo me a few bucks! And if you tell me your best dad joke in the notes section, I’ll spend that money on my kiddo (gotta feed his Fortnite V-bucks addiction!).

Venmo: @namuwilliams