Going Pro: The Wedding Option

Posted on 9/15/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Many who got into the photography business by shooting stock are finding that relying on stock income alone is insufficient and increasingly unpredictable. In looking for other ways to earn money using their photographic skills, some are exploring the wedding business.

The worldwide gross revenue generated from stock images is about $1.45 billion annually. In the United States alone, wedding photography (and video) is a $3.77 billion business annually. There were 2,152,000 weddings in the U.S. in 2009, but that number is declining and is not expected to return to 2009 levels until late 2014 or 2015.

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.

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 becomes 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.

According to The Wedding Report (TWR), the average amount spent on weddings hit a peak of $28,732 in 2007 and dropped 24% in 2008 to $21,814. In 2008, 50% of brides spent less than $14,352 for their entire wedding. In 2009, the average amount spent dropped another 10.2% to $19,581. In the first half of 2010, the average cost of a wedding increased 21.9% from $19,581 to $23,867. TWR’s Paul Pannone says, “brides are re-directing dollars to necessities rather than splurging.” Spending is not expected to return to the pre-recession 2008 levels before 2013.

Judging by the combination of average wedding photography rate, PPA cost-of-doing-business numbers and a maximum total of 40 weddings per year, a solo photographer can expect to make 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.
The professional photographer is not only faced with challenging economic time, but the proliferation of amateurs with professional DSLR cameras. If a friend of the bride has had a bad experience with a “professional” photographer, or just in an effort to save money, the bride may simply decide to have a friend or relative take the needed pictures and ignore the cost of a pro entirely. 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?

Weekend 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. At an average of $1,754 per wedding that would be a gross of $70,160. 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. Thus at 33%, the net annual photographer’s compensation plus profit from doing 40 weddings would be a little over $23,000 before taxes.

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. Matt Mindham points out that “The most valuable asset your business has is your time. Digital workflow is a real drain on many people's time when it really doesn't need to be. I use Lightroom or Adobe ACR and would be surprised if more than 1 in 10 of my images actually make it into Photoshop proper for serious work. When that happens, there's rarely more than a couple of minutes work to be done. My golden rule is 'If it needs 5 minutes or more—it's a cr@p image and should be binned'.”

While a wedding job can become a week’s work, brides never see it that way. Thus, for wedding photography to be profitable, the photographer must be able to command fees that are significantly higher than the average currently being paid.

Wedding Industry Survey Network (WISN) results show that times have changed—forever. Spending is not expected to return to pre-recession levels before 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.”

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 businesses. According to preliminary findings, 47% of vendors who have been in business for less than five years believe business had been “good” in the last six months. The longer respondents have been in the business, the smaller the percentage of those who are positive about the business and only 32% of those in business for 20 or more years describe 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 streamlined methods of operation than established business owners.

The Wedding Report survey also provides some interesting insights into what brides seek. In addition to all the standard wedding party and family poses, 57% of brides say they want some black and white shots. The next categories of greatest importance are a pre-wedding shoot, reception prints and a candid style. Only about a third of brides are interested in an engagement session and 1 in 5 want a wedding movie. Only 17% are interested in shots that are photojournalism or documentary style.


The longer a wedding vendor has been in the business, the less positive his opinion about the industry’s current conditions, says a WE TV report.
Most photographers believe the toughest part of the wedding photography business is making brides aware of the photographer’s availability to shoot their wedding. Castaneda says, “in general, it is word of mouth. There are many Web sites where photographers can advertise, like OneWed, WeddingPhotoUSA, Google AdWords, and Facebook.” The Knot is another major bridal Web site, but many photographers say that for the price it charges for ads, it is not very effective.

It is important to build relationships with other wedding suppliers like caterers, jewelers, churches, etc., in the hopes they will have the opportunity to recommend you.

Community groups like the Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Club, Lion’s Club and other local networking group can also be helpful in making the public aware of your services.

Neil Colton says there is no silver bullet, but he gets wedding bookings through Facebook and Facebook referrals. (According to TWR, there is a 25% chance that brides on Facebook will purchase from a photographer they follow.) In addition, Neil gets results from, Google searches, both organic and targeted (he started an Adwords campaign 2 months ago and booked one wedding from it, so far), as well as direct and vendor referrals. “With soooo many wedding photographers entering the market every day, I think it’s important to have a diverse marketing strategy to compete successfully,” he said.

“My next effort will be to get published again. It’s hard work (lots of online ‘legwork’), but it yields great results adds another layer of credibility to your work. I'm fairly new at wedding photography, so each year I look at what is working and what isn't, then make adjustments. My next major adjustment will be to separate my Web site content into two separate, but connected, sites. Brides like to see wedding content and portrait people like portrait content. They can co-exist, but I'm convinced that separate sites are better for targeting markets,” Neil continued.

The "Going Pro" series
Photography as a Career
The Print Market
The Internet Market
Image Oversupply
Demand by the Numbers
Of Doom and Gloom: Accepting Averages
Rise of the Amateur
The Freelance Challenge
Are Great Images Enough?
Selling Fine Art
The Wedding Option
Top Pros Stop Shooting
Pros Stop Shooting: Point/Counterpoint

Copyright © 2010 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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