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