Want to Be a Wedding Photographer? First, Take a Hard Look at the Numbers

In 2009, more than 2.1 million weddings were celebrated in the United States. Wedding photography and videography are a $3.77 billion business.

Sounds promising — particularly for newspaper and stock shooters who have seen their livelihoods wither. But is shooting weddings the right business for you?

Let’s take a hard look.

Dollars and Sense

First, the numbers. What can you make shooting weddings?

According to The Wedding Report (TWR), the average amount spent on weddings hit a peak of $28,732 in 2007 and dropped 24 percent in 2008 to $21,814. In 2008, 50 percent of brides spent less than $14,352 for their entire wedding. In 2009, the average amount spent dropped another 10.2 percent to $19,581.

In the first half of 2010, the average cost of a wedding increased 21.9 percent — from $19,581 to $23,867. However, spending is not expected to return to pre-recession levels before 2013.

TWR’s Paul Pannone says, “Brides are re-directing dollars to necessities rather than splurging.”

Veteran photographer Christopher Castaneda says middle market rates for photographing a wedding range from $1,300 to $3,500. The deliverables included for these prices vary widely. The average bride currently spends $1,754 for wedding photography.

$23,000 Per Year?

Looking at the average wedding photography rate and assuming the photographer is able to shoot 40 weddings per year, a solo photographer can expect to gross $70,160 annually.

That sounds OK — but what are you really netting?

According to the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) benchmark guidelines for home businesses, about two-thirds of gross revenues will be eaten up in General Expenses and Cost of Sales.

At 33 percent, the net annual photographer’s compensation plus profit from doing 40 weddings would be a little over $23,000 before taxes.

For wedding photography to be profitable, the photographer must be able to command fees that are significantly higher than the current average.

Digital Challenges

In the good old days of film, photographers would often make $1,000 to $3,000 and more selling prints to the bride, family and friends after the wedding. Now the standard practice is to include the digital files in the wedding package, so there tend to be no print orders.

It is sometimes possible to get $1,000 to $2,000 for extra album pages and parents’ albums, but that has become a hard sell. Such pages must be pre-designed to convince the customer to buy them; all the work involved in making these extra sales must be done on speculation.

It is also easy now for anyone with a little computer knowledge to produce a remembrance book using Shutterfly and Snapfish. Such books will not be as fancy as the traditional wedding album, but how often does anyone look at an album anyway?

And of course, the professional photographer is faced with the proliferation of amateurs with DSLR cameras. If a friend of the bride has had a bad experience with a “professional” photographer, or just wants to save money, the bride may simply decide to have a friend or relative take the needed pictures and dispense with the cost of a pro entirely.

A Week (and Weekend’s) Work

One aspect of wedding work that makes life difficult is that all the shooting occurs on the weekends. This can be an advantage if shooting weddings is a supplement to other work, but can be very disruptive to a family lifestyle if such work is a major source of income.

It is usually difficult to shoot more than one wedding per weekend. Shooting 40 weddings a year is a rate that is very difficult for most photographers to achieve.

Another factor to consider is the post-production work, which is done by the photographer and not outsourced in most cases. Most photographers find they spend between two and four days in pre- and post-production for every day spent shooting.

While a wedding job can become a week’s work, brides never seem to see it that way.

Spending Is Down — and Will Stay That Way

Wedding Industry Survey Network (WISN) results show that times have changed — perhaps forever.

Spending on weddings is not expected to return to pre-recession levels until at least 2013. Respondents agree that the pendulum will probably swing back when the economy does, but they also admit that due to the cultural changes taking place, the wedding business may never come back to what it was prior to 2008.

WISN’s Christine Boulton says:

The days of free spending are over and wedding vendors are going to have to up their game and provide exemplary quality and service. Customers are no longer going to accept second best; their expectations are going to continue to rise. The only thing vendors are going to be able to do to hedge is become more proficient at their craft and face the consumer with total honesty and transparency.

Something Old, Something New

An interesting new study by WE TV Network’s Wedding Report suggests older, more established businesses are finding it harder than those just starting out to accept the changes in the wedding business.

According to preliminary findings, 47 percent of vendors in business for fewer than five years said that business had been “good” the past six months. The longer respondents have been in the business, the smaller the percentage of those who are positive about the business.

Only 32 percent of those in business for 20 or more years described the last six months as good.

Established businesses may be weighted down by higher costs. They may also have higher expectations based on previous experience. These expectations may relate to what they hoped to achieve and where they expected to be at this particular stage of their careers.

Those just getting started may have fewer and lower expectations and goals. Finally, those just starting in the business may be more receptive to new technology and marketing methods than established business owners.

The Facebook Factor

Most photographers agree that the toughest part of the wedding photography business is marketing — standing out in the crowd and getting bookings. And perhaps newer photographers have an advantage here with the rise of search engine optimization (SEO) and social networks like Facebook as marketing tools.

Photographer Neil Colton says there is no silver bullet to wedding photographer marketing, but he gets a significant number of bookings through Facebook and Facebook referrals. According to TWR, there is a 25 percent chance that brides on Facebook will purchase from a photographer they follow.

In addition, Colton gets results from Google searches, both organic and pay-per-click (he started an Adwords campaign two months ago and has booked one wedding from it so far), as well as direct and vendor referrals.

Concludes Colton:

With so many wedding photographers entering the market every day, it’s important to have a diverse marketing strategy to compete successfully.

21 Responses to “Want to Be a Wedding Photographer? First, Take a Hard Look at the Numbers”

  1. Excellent read. So true about the "newer photographers have an advantage."

  2. All those average numbers and statistics are only to be considered seriously if you are planning to become a totally AVERAGE wedding photographer. If this is really what you want then my honest advice to you is: don't. I firmly believe wedding photography is a form of art. If you want to look at the cold statistics and treat it as JUST your business - what's the point? Your exceptional, one of a kind approach to photography, personal and unique point of view should be what separates you from the rest. Granted, to a lot of brides out there it won't matter as they are typical "price shoppers" but many will appreciate your true artisitic soul and artistic approach. If you are able to produce exceptional images you can charge more and brides to whom photography is really important will be willing to comission you more than all those national averages say they would.

    Re: friends photographig weddings - this is such a rediculous idea. Does owning a paint brush automatically make me a professional painter?! All a friend with a camera is capable of doing is @#%[email protected] it up! What about knowledge of light, color balance, composition, anticipation of the moment? To be a DECENT wedding photographer you need to be a photojournalist, sports photographer, fashion photographer, product photographer and portrait photographer all in one. Add artistic pre-visualization and skillful technical execution. Not to mention thousands of dollars invested in a proper equipment. A friend with a camera can't do that. Dear brides - you are not SAVING anything by entrusting your wedding photography to a friend with a camera - you are making a huge mistake but you will only know it when it's too late!

  3. There is reason that so many photographers find marketing to be the toughest part of the photography business: They are relying on marketing for something that it is not meant to do. Standing out from the crowd is not the roll of marketing- it is the roll of strategy; Stated another way, it is not enough to tell everyone how different you are- you need to make the strategic decisions that actually make your business different. The photographers who have found their niche, and have put everything they've got into serving that niche better than anyone else,amazingly find that marketing isn't that tough, because what they are saying is true.

  4. I've had second shooters photograph a handful of weddings with me, and then go out and immediately start their own business and fill their schedule.

    How do they do it?

    The successful newbies have a lot of friends and huge social networks. The photographers are social, they're likable, and they connect easily with people.

    My successful former second shooters are also women, and they focus on shooting emotional imagery with feeling. Technical perfection is less of a priority. Their attitude is that the technical side will improve with time and practice - while they're billing clients $5K a day.

    Is it right? Is it wrong? I don't judge. It's up for the consumer to determine who is successful in the marketplace.

    And the photographers I'm writing about have tons of postivie reviews on their social networks and wedding review sites.

  5. Great post, Jim. Very informative look at the current state of the industry.

    While some of the information rings true for me and my business: brides are spending less on their weddings overall - specifically on big ticket items such as venue & catering; their seems to be a bigger push for DIY decorations & floral arrangements; & they're not ordering nearly as many albums/products...

    Other downsides mentioned have not effected me, and in fact are heading in the opposite direction: I just raised my base price 50%; I am booking 2011 much faster than I booked 2010...

    It would be very interesting to see a region by region breakdown of these numbers & trends (West-coast, South-West, Midwest, South, East-coast, etc), as I'm sure there are some major differences across the country.


  6. As someone new to the world of small business, I'm curious to see how the cost of doing business winds up being 2/3rds of the total gross. I understand gear needs to be purchased, insurance paid for, marketing and advertising done, vehicles and mileage included, but I still can't get the yearly expenses to come out that high. I'n not denying that this might be true given my inexperience, but I just don't see it.

    Also, what cultural changes are leading to permanent drops in wedding spending? I'd like to learn more about this.

  7. I agree. You really need to be a good and to be marketing to the carriage trade to be successful at wedding photography. If you are a photographer who deals with the middle class, which most wedding photographers are, your dead meat now. GWC (Guy or Girl With Camera) shoot and burners have pretty much destroyed that segment.

  8. around here, the smaller the town, the smaller the willingness to spend big. A lot of photographers have called it quits, a lot have abandoned the wedding market, but a lot of locals have gone and had weddings at the beach in Florida, or the Caribbean because the local reception market was so over the top in terms of prices. Add to that the marital age population decline around here, and you can see why the wedding world ain't what she used to be.
    But I can say this: I saw a lot fewer people talk "art" than talked "prices". Mr Mielcarek's world notwithstanding, we ARE competing with Uncle Charlie's digital camera, and that does make it much harder than it used to be. I know light, Uncle Charlie doesn't, but it doesn't matter: Uncle Charlie has eyes and can see where it's going wrong. And most people, in the end, simply want to see themselves, however complicated they may be, in the one photo they put up on the wall in the hall...

  9. Great post, thanks for the info. Over here in the UK things are similar. The middle ground is destroyed by wanna-be's and desperate established pros. We've got Fellows of the big associations, previous photographers of the year at national level turning out for £1250 with an album (that's $1500), unbelievable! Luckily there are still clients outcries who know what they like, love what we do and are willing to pay a premium for it. We are fielding more enquiries than last year but conversion rate is down, purely on price mostly (we are currently the most expensive photographers we know in our region).
    Re marketing: those who have been in the game a while all know that apart from a handful of referals each year, ALL photographers start with a clean slate each year. Brides don't look for wedding photographers before they are brides to be, most of them approach the task of booking a photographer with no knowledge of the Market place or what the going rate is. If they decide that's it's only a few hours work they set a price in their heads and that's it. The absolute worst thing you can do as an established photographer is lower your prices. You have nowhere to go from there and you get the sort of client who has no resection for what you do. It's no fun working for an unappreciative client because nothing you do will be enough and you get treated badly. We put our prices up this year and whilst number of bookings are down, turnover will be the same as last year with the upside of a bigger profit margin. Be different and distinctive in your Market, have confidence in what you do and up your game in service and marketing.

  10. I've seen plenty of changes to the world of professional photography in the 35 years that I've been making a 'living' at it. Some years were better than others. I think that the trend information presented here is pretty accurate, and reflects reality. I personally will photograph about 90 weddings this year. This represents about 1/4 of the weddings we'll do this season. I've also been self-employed as a studio owner and worked as a contractor for other studios. I think that the trend does not bode well for the 'lone wolf' studio - especially if you are actually paying for a studio and not simply working out of your kitchen. If David is operating an actual storefront, I'd be surprised if he didn't see the ratio described being the norm. Our studio spends a LOT of money on marketing; we actually increased business during the downturn and even though the dollar amount per wedding went down somewhat, we had increase in the number of weddings booked. It's been my belief that we (photographers) are our own worst enemy: things like just giving a disc of images away - we will not give out images until agreed conditions are met. It's insane to give your images away. Our commerce site brings sales in every single day, including days we're closed. Yes, it has a price, but people DO use it. Ian's remark is true also, your location/market will influence many practices, but it is up to you to stand firm on some policies - in the 'old days' there used to be one local photog, now there are plenty of the 'advanced amatur' photogs in the neighborhood competing for those dollars. We're in a huge market, but to reach out and get customers from a 50+ mile radius - that costs money.

    We are committed to taking more and more market share, and we're adapting in every way possible to fine tune our marketing and sales to increase business. Maybe it's a good idea to remind folks that we don't make a living taking photos, we make a living selling photos.

  11. Got to agree with many of the points above - I find it very difficult to take on more than 10 weddings a year due to disruption to family life and getting that all important balance right. Great article!

  12. Its always been a ruff business and now that the "magic" of film is gone more and more are picking up digital cameras with previews on the back and calling themselves professionals. now more then ever its important to educate the client and make sure they understand what the are paying for in a real professional.

  13. I'm not what I'd call a professional yet, but whenever someone asks me about becoming a wedding photographer, or a photgrapher in general, I tell them to go to business school and learn about marketing.

  14. The reality is this. 99% of the public have no visual literacy, you could direct them to the Magnum website and they would think it's a bore but if you show them photos of flowers and beaches they will think that it's "awesome".

    Rarely (ok never) have they stepped in an commercial art gallery and do not know a well composed image from a crap one. Those are the facts, there may be a very small niche that does, but most just have no idea. It will defalte you every time if you do actually have talent and they book the crappo photog down the street cause they are cheaper, offer too much and have a grotesque, over the top "wedding photographer" personality.

    As a result they choose a photographer on price, how much they get and do i like this person and can i see them at my wedding. Getting a great, natural shooter is way down the list or not very important. I.E. If a person has no experience with wine, how do they know the good from the bad, simple, they don't.

    You must remember, what photographers think are great images and what couples think are great images is very different. Decisive moments may flick our switch but the public just want pretty photos of themselves in front of sunsets - that constitutes a great photo to them, not great composition or anything like that - as sad as it may be. The lower you set the bar for your photography, in term of shooting complex in camera images, the happier you will be at weddings.

    Be aware, the better you are as a photographer, i.e. the more natural ability you have to shoot a complex visual images in camera the more you will struggle with weddings, for the simple reason that the public will just pass over these images and just go for the cheesy stuff - EVERY TIME. They just dont see decisive moments, or care - they want sugary weddings photos. It really is that cut & dry.

    You could get James Nachtwey to shoot a wedding, he does amazing images, complex, simple, stunning and they would hate it, they just would not see 'why" the images are great. Get a cheesemiester to shoot it and they will love it, i promise you.

    the types of photographers you admire affect things - if you think yervant is a god then you will like weddings, if you lean towards an alex webb, joel meyerowitz then weddings will be harder for you. You have higher ideals and wedding is all about lower the bar, shooting cheese and loving schmaltz.

    The less natural talent you have, the better you will be at weddings. Remember this.

  15. Great post my friend! Amazing stats and actually sort of a bummer that sooo many photographers struggle just to make a below average income. There is hope though! Learn how to operate a business well and you can do and charge much more and make a good and even great living doing this. It is hard, but separating photography from business and realizing that they have nothing in common is the first step to success. Once you can create an amazing interaction between your client and your business (not your imagery and technical skills), then clients will pay what you ask and what you are ultimately worth to do the job. My wife and I were fortunate to learn this early on and really focused on our business, and have been making an incredible living and having tons of fun ever since. Where you will be in five years is dependent on two things; the people you meet and the books you read. The average millionaire reads a business book a month, so if you start acting like successful people do, then you will follow suite. Hang in there everyone!

  16. Stop trolling for seminar business. And 'the people you meet and the books you read' is a stolen line from someone else.

  17. 2012 was my last year as a wedding photographer. For me, the work was not creatively rewarding. There is also a real threat of burnout from this type of work.

    The growing number of amateurs and non-professionals entering the wedding market (and all retail photography markets) makes it a very competitive business. But it also provides a way to earn income for those with average photography skills and little, if any, professional training.

    Hone your marketing and sales skills and you can do reasonably well as a wedding photographer, with simply average photography skills.

  18. I agree with a lot of points above but have to disagree with 1. How did you come up with that 2/3 of the income going to expenses? I am a videographer and I net over 3/4 of my income. Could you provide more facts?

  19. I hear it all the time - £1000.00 (I live in UK) for a days work, that's amazing!

    Then I explain...

    £200.00 VAT, £250.00 for album, business costs per wedding £100.00, other expenses £50.00. Leaves £400.00. 2 of us in business - leave £200.00 each. Have to pay income tax and national insurance (That's for NHS etc) expenses on this. Leaves me with about £125.00 per wedding. That's a full 12 hour day, 8 hour edit and 4 hour album design. That works out at about £5.20 per hour which is below the minimum wage in this country.

    Prices MUST be around this cost as that's the going rate for wedding photography in Liverpool including album - Even Kodak photographer of the Year in UK lives here and charges around this price!

    There is very little money in wedding photography any more. Everyone wants everything for nothing now. The sheer number of photographers, lack of weddings and relatives photographing weddings had forced the prices down dramatically.

    Sure there are the odd few photographers who charge the earth, but they may only do a handful of weddings per year. It is now impossible to create a living soley out of being a wedding phoographer. I have photographed over 700 weddings in the last 9 years and I'm slwoly but surely scaling it down and returning to psychiatric nursing like I used to do.

  20. While there are a few useful facts contained here I liken this to my final semester in college when our instructor went around the room and asked each of us what our goals were after graduation. I remember I said so proudly and confidently that I wanted to own a business to which her reply was a smug laugh and lecture. It was only a few months later that I had started my business and ran it successfully for the next 13 years. Anyone can try to smash your dreams, but only if you let them.
    If this is something you truly want to do, then go for it! We've just read some great success stories and if you love what you do, the money will follow. Don't let the 'teacher' smash your hope and dreams.

    Best wishes!

  21. Hello,
    Back in 1999 I earned an Associates in Photography specializing in portraiture. I sure wish I had went into medical imaging. Oh well, maybe I still can. I was convinced by the school that I'd have a wonderfully profitable career. The only work I found that was halfway decent was working for an established H.S. portrait company (who not surprisingly lost his in-the-school yearbook business to life touch) that same year he closed his doors. I looked for work, but nothing was available except for the following who I did work for: Sears, J.C. Pennies (life touch ) and Olan Mills. I was hired in as the Manager of the Olan Mills but they too closed their doors. Abandoning working for peanuts for these clowns I started working at a bank and tried my hand at Weddings as a self employed. I had images on my website that would have done well at PPA I'm sure and rave reviews written by my old Olan Mills customers. I did about 12 weddings the second year. When I sat down and did my calculations I made about $600 for all that work. I earned about $1 per hour. I tell anybody thinking about going to college to go for something that A. There are jobs waiting for your when you get out and B. the starting rate for the job is good. Other than that I'd advise to do photography as a hobby. I wish I would have kept it a hobby for myself. Thanks.

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