Most photographers have been there at some point in their career – wedding photography.
Some of us move on to other things, like commercial photography. Some actually enjoy wedding photography and make a career out of it.
But too many photographers are lured into wedding photography under the illusion of quick money, only to get stuck in the evil clutches of the mid-level wedding photography market forever (or until they give up and find a real job).
Lets be honest here. Wedding photography can be fun with the right clients – but it is always a colossal amount of hard work.
And life as a mid-level wedding photographer sucks.
In this article I am going to share the wedding photography business plan that is followed by the overwhelming majority of wedding photographers on the planet – and why it is not a sustainable way to make a living.
Who Is A Mid-Level Wedding Photographer?
There are a few factors that define a mid-level wedding photographer:
As the label would suggest, mid-level wedding photographers charge somewhere in the middle of the wedding photography spectrum.
The total amount will vary depending on the market the photographer is working in, but I would loosely define “mid-level” as billing $2,000 to $4,000 per wedding – which in the US corresponds roughly to the national average amount couples reported spending on their wedding photographer in 2013.
Mid-level wedding photographers are extraordinarily talented.
They are not Uncle Bob or the Mom-With-a-Camera snapping five thousand wedding photos in program auto.
Similarly, they are not “natural light” photographers. Mid-level wedding photographers know how to light and will create stunning wedding photos for their clients in any situation.
Finally, mid-level wedding photographers have a pretty three package system that is based on the level of photography coverage a bride and groom would like.
They will also have an online gallery for their clients and offer an array of prints, photo books, canvas gallery wraps etc. Nobody ever buys albums or canvases from them since once their clients wedding photos are shared on Facebook all interest in print products is lost, but a mid-level wedding photographer will never give up trying to sell them anyway.
Mid-level wedding photographers will also make a show about not giving their clients the RAW files, but at the first hint of questioning from a bride, they will crack and give everything away for free.
For more information on the career path that most wedding photographers take, take a look at “How To Become A Wedding Photographer in 10 Easy Steps – Photographers Hate This”.
Mid-Level Wedding Photography Competition
If you just read through my definition of who is a mid-level wedding photographer and you’re thinking about the wedding photography market where you live – you might be saying – OK – if I scratch a few of the budget photographers off the list, and take a couple of the luxury high end wedding photographers off the list – that leaves everyone else!
Which is exactly the point – if you are a mid-level wedding photographer, practically every other wedding photographer in your area is your direct competition.
The Mid-Level Wedding Photography Business Plan
Now that we have defined who falls into the category of a mid-level wedding photographer and who the competition is – lets take a look at a typical mid-level wedding photography business plan.
Lets say that a mid-level wedding photographer bills their clients on average a total of $1,500 for photographing their wedding day and then another $1,000 in sundry sales such as selling the RAW files and maybe a cheap photo book.
So, that is an average of $2,500 per wedding for coverage by a single photographer – the same as the US average amount spent on wedding photography in 2013. Sounds pretty good so far right?
Now, lets break that $2,500 down into an hourly wage.
Of course, the actual amount of time involved will vary for every photographer, but I think that this is an accurate representation of a typical mid-level wedding photography workflow:
Initial Email Correspondence: 1h. Initial Meeting: 1h travel + 1h meeting = 2h. Followup Email Correspondence: 0.5h.
That is 3.5h so far. Of course I don’t book every single wedding inquiry – my personal booking rate is about 1 in 4 once I meet with a client, so for every wedding I book, I invest about 14 hours in initial consultation time.
Lets, continue now that we have a wedding booked, there are a few more preparations we have to make adding another 6.5 hours.
Wedding Checklist Correspondence: 1h. Location Scouting: 1h travel + 1h scouting = 2h. Final Confirmations and Wedding Day Scheduling: 0.5h. Cleaning Gear, Checking Gear & Charging Batteries: 2h. Packing Gear: 1h.
Finally, on the day of the wedding, here is a detailed breakdown of a typical day of wedding photography starting at about 9:00am and ending around 12:00am the next day – or about 15 hours of straight work.
Travel to Photograph Bride Preparing: 0.5h. Arrive, Introductions, Drink Mimosas with Bridesmaids, Unpack Gear: 0.5h. Photograph Flowers, Dress, Shoes, Details: 0.5h. Photograph Bride: 1h. Photograph Bridesmaids & Bride: 0.5h. Photograph Bride With Parents, Family Dog etc.: 0.5h. Travel to Church: 0.5h. Photograph Groom & Groomsmen: 0.5h. Photograph Wedding Ceremony: 1h. Wait Around For Post-Ceremony Chaos to End: 0.5h. Photograph Old People With Bride & Groom: 0.5h. Photograph Family With Bride & Groom: 0.5h. Photograph Wedding Party with Bride & Groom: 0.5h. Photograph Bride & Groom: 0.5h. Photograph Empty Reception Hall: 0.25h. Photograph Entrance: 0.25h. Photograph Speeches During Dinner: 2h. Photograph First Dances: 0.25h. Photograph Reception Party: 0.25h. Photograph Rings 0.25h. Wait Around for Bouquet Toss and Garter: 2h. Photograph Bouquet Toss and Garter: 0.25h. Say Good Bye to Drunk Guests and Leave: 0.25h. Travel Home: 0.5h. Download Memory Cards: 0.75h.
Sleep….. (No charge)
Culling Bad Photos: 2h. Edit 10 Picks and Export for Sharing With Bride & Groom on Facebook: 2h. Unpack and Put Away Gear: 1h. Invoicing and Accounting: 1h. Follow Up Correspondence: 0.5h. Social Media: 1.5h. Editing Proofs: 500 deliverable photos x 1 minute average / proof = 8h.
At this point, we just spend another 16 hours after the wedding proofing and finishing up the work from our day of wedding photography. The client has their proofs and its time to sell them an album, prints, canvases or some other sundry sales.
For the sake of an example, I’m going to assume that we sell them a very low cost photo album with 40 images and the RAW files, adding another 14.5 hours to our wedding photography workflow.
Sales Correspondence: 1h. Sales Meeting: 1h. Save RAW Photo Files to Shared Folder 0.5h. Edit Photobook Images: 40 photos x 12 minutes average / photo = 8h. Photobook Layout: 3h. Ordering Photobook: 0.5h. Invoicing & Accounting: 0.5h
So if you’ve been keeping track, that is a total of around 66 hours of work to earn $2,500 – or roughly $40 per hour.
Depending on your social outlook and where you live, $40 per hour may or may not be a decent wage – but unfortunately, its only half of the story.
Where The Mid-Level Wedding Photography Business Plan Fails
If you were a salaried employee earning $40 per hour, you’d be bringing in about 80k per year. But as an independent business, just because you are billing an average of $40 per hour for a wedding doesn’t actually mean that you are earning $40 per hour.
In reality, you are only earning a fraction of that $40 per hour.
First of all, you will never book a wedding every single Saturday of the year. Plus, if you are spending somewhere around 60 hours plus, per wedding – there is no way you could keep up that pace on a weekly basis anyway.
Lets say that you book 24 weddings per year – or roughly 2 per month. For most full time wedding photographers I know, 24 weddings in a year is a pretty successful year.
That will leave you with a gross income of $60,000 from wedding photography per year.
But again, that is the gross income for your business – not your individual take-home net income.
To get your take-home net income, we have to subtract the business overhead required to run a wedding photography business.
In my previous article “How Much Should Photographers Charge Per Hour”, we took a look at overhead, retirement savings and the cost of benefits for a typical home based photography business.
Using the example from that article, we can expect to put aside about $1,150 per month in overhead costs, $750 per month in retirement savings and $1,200 per month for benefits (health insurance, disability insurance etc.).
So, that all ads up to $3,100 per month or $37,200 per year that it costs to operate a wedding photography business.
Leaving us with a net take-home pay of just $22,800.
If you will remember, to earn that $22,800 we had to photograph 24 weddings working an average of 66h per wedding – which leaves us with a net hourly rate of about $14 per hour for our wedding photography.
The Mid-Level Wedding Photography Bottom Line
The point that I wanted to make in this article is not that you cannot make money or a decent living as a mid-level wedding photographer.
Because you can.
If you can fine tune your workflow to be more efficient, or find ways to charge just a little more money here and there, or augment your income with lifestyle and family portraiture – you can certainly make a living as a wedding photographer.
But what I wanted to highlight is that it is an extremely tough and competitive career path to follow on a daily basis – which is why so many mid-level wedding photographers burn out after just a few years of struggling to make ends meet with their wedding photography business.
It should also be obvious that wedding photography is not the cash cow that it may seem like at first – and a bride and groom that spend an average amount on wedding photography are actually getting a pretty amazing deal.
It might be tough love, but unless your wedding photography business is generating enough income to sustain your lifestyle, there is no point being in business.
How To Make Money As A Wedding Photographer
We will look at two alternate wedding photography business plans in future articles, but for now I’d like to leave you with three keys to making money as a wedding photographer:
1. Produce amazing wedding photography.
You’re already in direct competition with almost every other wedding photographer in your town – your work better be outstanding.
2. Streamline your wedding photography workflow.
The less time you spend per wedding, the more money you make per hour and the more time you have to make more money doing something else. Do everything possible to minimize your time per wedding.
3. Charge more money.
You can charge more money by either raising your rates, or you can eliminate items that cost you time or money from your wedding packages.
Do You Have A Successful Wedding Photography Business Plan?
Let us know what you think about our wedding photography business plan.
How is my estimation of the time it takes to photograph an average wedding?
Does life as a mid-level wedding photographer suck?
Leave a comment below and let us know!