(The following is excerpted from the new book The Successful Wedding Photographer, by the editors of Photopreneur.)
The problem with pricing wedding photography is that there is no single average price for a wedding shoot because there is no single average wedding shoot.
Just as there is no standard rate for a car — old wrecks cost $500; new Ferraris a lot more — so wedding photographers with lots of experience, awards and big name recognition will be able to charge above average rates, while new photographers with no reputation, an empty schedule and no marketing budget will be willing to accept lower amounts.
And that’s without factoring in the different packages that photographers can offer clients, or the effect that location has on prices. A new Ford might cost the same in New York as it costs in Miami, but wedding photographers, whose expenses are more closely linked to the real cost of living, will generally charge different amounts in each region.
From $1,000 to $20,000 and Beyond
Coming up with the right price list for a photography business is far from straightforward. According to a survey of more than 21,000 new brides by leading wedding Web site TheKnot.com in 2009, the mean amount spent by U.S. couples on their wedding photographer was $2,444.
Another rough guide suggests that a budget wedding photography job might cost $1,000 or less, and a moderate wedding shoot from $1,000 to $3,000. Upscale photographers might be able to receive $3,000 to $5,000, and luxury wedding photographers can get away with charging anything from $5,000 upwards. Some photographers have boasted of landing jobs that pay $10,000 or even $20,000.
But these kinds of figures mask huge differences in regions and requirements. The same survey, for example, found that the average wedding budget in Arkansas is just $15,073. In New York City, couples expect to spend an impressive $56,999.
Two Approaches to Price-Setting
Photographers generally use a couple of different approaches when they try to set prices. The first is the strategy used by Conrad Erb: they start low to reflect low expenses, expectations and experience, then raise prices once it becomes clear that customers are willing to pay more and that those low fees are actually hindering business growth.
The alternative is to look at what other photographers in that location are charging, calculate an average and pitch prices in the middle of that range.
This is the approach taken by Teri Bloom who, despite experience that includes photographs on the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Time Magazine, keeps her prices “middle of the road.”
In part, she says, that’s because wedding photography is competitive and even well-off clients are price conscious; money spent on a photographer is money not spent on the catering, the flowers or the honeymoon.
But a mid-range price also helps to ensure a steady flow of work rather than well-paid but sporadic shoots — and the anxiety that comes between them — and room to move up should schedules fill.
Not every photographer would agree with Bloom’s preference to shoot lots of mid-range jobs rather than wait for occasional high-end weddings — they might prefer to use that time between jobs to shoot other types of photography or work on personal projects. They ignore the mid-range prices and aim straight for the upmarket weddings in the hope of earning more for each shoot.
Going Upmarket vs. Overpricing
But the work has to be of high enough quality to match the high pricing, and according to Bloom, in practice high-end fees often reflect an aspect of the photographer that has nothing to do with the way their pictures look.
I find some photographers start to get an attitude about themselves. Very often, their pricing is more about their ego than about the quality of their work. Buyer beware, pricing doesn’t have a thing to do with talent or experience!
Overpricing is a mistake that’s as easy to understand as underpricing. It takes a certain level of confidence to believe that you can capture the most important day in a couple’s life, and it’s tempting to look at a set of attractive pictures and believe that they’re better than average.
And if they’re better than average, the photographer who took them should be able to charge higher prices than average, too.
But even Denis Reggie, the founder of wedding photojournalism and a photographer whose client list has included John Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, as well as Alan Greenspan, Ted Turner, Paula Abdul and a host of other celebrities, offers prices that start below $5,000.
That may be a higher price than average, but the client list, experience and Reggie’s own place in the development of wedding photography all go a long way towards justifying it.
To charge high-end prices, a wedding photographer needs to have a tangible reason. For Reggie, it’s a long celebrity client list that helps to deliver trust: if Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were willing to hire him, then he must be good enough to justify the price.
For other photographers, it might be the market. A photographer with a studio in Beverly Hills or New York will be able to find more clients willing to pay higher fees than a photographer working in an area with low incomes.
It Takes More Than Talent
Rarely, though, can the quality of the images alone help to justify high prices — if only because clients aren’t always capable of seeing the differences between good wedding photos and the very best wedding photos.
Clients aren’t photographic connoisseurs. They just want to make sure that they hire a photographer who delivers beautiful pictures that remind them of their wedding day.
Good photography is always going to be vital for the success of a photographer’s career, but it must earn the photographer a reputation before the prices can start to rise. It’s not a good idea to rely on the wedding couple’s ability to spot a rare photographic talent as a way of persuading them to pay rare prices.
Personality can be as important an element in choosing a photographer as talent. Clients want photographers who are easy to work with and who won’t get in the way of the day’s proceedings. If they’re also fun and bring energy to the wedding, so much the better.
None of these caveats mean that you shouldn’t aspire to charge a premium for your wedding photography. But you’ll need to offer more than just great photos to justify your prices and win the jobs.
Tomorrow: Creating wedding photography packages