Photographers love to hate weddings. On one hand, wedding photography can be a nice hit of cash. On the other, wedding photography is often more work than its worth.
In this article, I will share a wedding photography business model that I have been using that has maximized my wedding profitability and allows me to blow budget vendors out of the water.
Mass Market Wedding Photography versus Luxury Wedding Photography
The largest car manufacturer in the world, Toyota, produces both a mass market brand, Toyota, and a luxury brand, Lexus. Both brands make Toyota piles of money, but they are marketed to very different groups of buyers.
If you spent your life not paying much attention to cars and someone showed you to both a Toyota Camry and a Lexus ES 350, I would suggest that you would not be able to see much of a difference between the two – except that one costs significantly more than the other.
To most brides, choosing a wedding photographer feels much the same.
So the question for me as a business owner is how can I make money selling both a mass market brand and a luxury brand? Is it even possible to be profitable at both ends of the spectrum – like Toyota is?
For the answer, I am going to look at something else that Toyota is an expert at – efficiency – more on that later.
Wedding Photography Business Models
I am not particularly fond of the mid-level wedding photography market (click here for “Why It Sucks To Be A Mid-Level Wedding Photographer”). I think if you are selling mid-level, you either don’t have enough profit margin to make money or you’re doing way too much work and not enough volume to make money.
In my article “Make Money As A High End Wedding Photographer”, we took a detailed look at a luxury wedding photography business model that is profitable.
What it comes down to is that producing a luxury product takes a lot of attention to detail – which takes a lot of time – which means you have to charge a premium rate.
For a mass market product, the goal is still to produce a good quality product, but to be much more efficient about it.
Affordable Wedding Studio
Which brings me to Affordable Wedding Studio.
The entire premise of Affordable Wedding Studio is to offer couples a choice for wedding photography that is good quality, but at a price point that is comparable to budget vendors. Its not quite what I do for luxury clients, but its as close as possible while maintaining an ultra-efficient workflow.
Every photo in this post was taken with a Nikon D800, a 24-70 f2.8 G wide angle zoom lens and an on camera flash (except for the lead photo with the wedding rings – that was actually taken with my old Canon G9 point and shoot). I was shooting in full manual with the camera and mostly TTL -1 or -2 on the strobe the whole day.
For more information on this unplugged approach to wedding photography, you might want to read “How To Photograph A Wedding With One Photographer, One Camera, One Lens and One Flash”.
Mind you, this was a gorgeous venue (McLean House at the Estates of Sunnybrook in Toronto), so a monkey with an iPhone would have come back with decent photos (whenever I think of monkeys with cameras, it’s always an iPhone…I wonder why that is…). But the point is that I think there is a discernible difference between the visual quality of photos like these and what most clients would expect from a photographer at a mass market price point.
First of all, I want to make it clear that my target market is not wedding photography bargain hunters. If someone wants a cheap car / cheap photographer they can find any old beater / hack on on Craigslist, or even better Goupon. I have zero interest in wasting my time haggling about rates.
Instead, my target market is couples who want high quality wedding photographs and are willing to pay a fair price for them – but they just don’t need all of the luxury bells and whistles.
Pretty much the same people who would go out and buy a brand new Toyota Camry (I have a VW Jetta that I bought new 8 years ago – so I include myself in this group).
Interestingly, the market segment that I am most likely to book for Affordable Wedding Studio has turned out to be mostly couples going into a second marriage, or couples getting married later in life.
These are people who are established in their careers (ie. they have savings and disposable income) and they have discerning taste and are willing to pay for a good quality product – but they usually have a smaller, more intimate and elegant wedding than the big box wedding industry events that have come to typify modern weddings. They just want simple, affordable but quality wedding photography to match.
It also happens that small weddings at upscale, visually rich venues that serve gourmet meals and craft beer are exactly the types of weddings that I most enjoy – and they are by far the easiest to photograph.
I am still working out an optimum price point for this type of mass market wedding photography in my local market.
There is a very narrow sweet spot that has to be high enough so the bargain hunters will leave you alone and also high enough that it looks like you offer a quality product.
But at the same time, I intentionally want the price to be affordable – this is after all a mass market product.
When I first launched Affordable Wedding Studio, my price point was nearly $1000 less than it is right now (for a complete booking). I was wasting my time responding to tons of bargain hunters – with no bookings to show for it. Eventually, I did get a booking – and then I raised the prices – and kept raising the prices by small increments every time I confirmed a new booking.
I don’t think I’ve hit the “affordable” ceiling yet either, which is great because every new price increase is just padding on the profit margin.
And indecently, I am nearly at the US average amount spent on wedding photography in 2013 – in other words, mid-range price marketed as the affordable option.
In order to keep the prices affordable and maximize the profit margin, I have designed the entire business model around efficiency.
Besides using minimal gear and a single photographer, the biggest two efficiencies I have found are minimizing my in person contact time with clients and giving away the full resolution photo files and the RAW files (don’t choke on your coffee – I will explain).
The Affordable Wedding Studio website is modeled after Web 2.0 companies that pull all the stops to entice browsers to make their purchase right there and then.
It feels weird loading the site with testimonials, but this is a proven Web 2.0 marketing strategy – and it works.
Offering a double money back guarantee is another proven Web 2.0 marketing strategy.
Marketing research shows that offering a better than money back guarantee takes away a potential buyer’s reservations about trusting a particular service. The buyer sees purchasing the product as risk free to them. Incidentally, the same research also shows that buyers rarely make a claim on better than money back guarantees. In my case, no one has ever made a claim on my double money back guarantee.
I also offer a pretty good incentive for potential clients to book through the website.
This saves me from wasting a significant amount of time needlessly meeting with potential clients in person. I am actually kind of amazed that people do place a non-refundable down payment and reserve their date online without any personal contact with me – but they do and it is fantastic!
Occasionally, we exchange a few emails or talk on the phone – but I have yet to meet in person with a client who booked Affordable Wedding Studio.
You might also notice that the online booking incentive is a credit towards physical products – not a straight discount. This is important. Never, ever offer discounts. To a client, if you are willing to work at a discount, then you are not worth your stated rates and they will expect a discount on everything.
There are two other advantages to offing a credit towards physical products.
First is that many clients never get around to claiming their credit. They already have all their photos on their computer – so why would they? That means that credit cost me nothing.
Secondly, if they do cash in their credit, the credit is designed to not cover the full cost of the items they want – so I still end up making money even if it is at a discounted rate.
Finally, there is providing clients with full resolution edited photo files and the RAW files. I know this is wrong. No self respecting photographer wants to do it.
But the truth is that this is what brides think they want.
To me, this is more advertising than anything.
If a bride goes to 10 photographers and 9 hum and haw over the high-res files and I come along an say “yes – of course you get the high-res files, and the RAW files, and a video slideshow, and a set of photos specially prepared for Facebook…” guess who they are going to book with?
I know that I am leaving money on the table, but to be honest – I love being able to wash my hands of a wedding after its done instead of stressing over up-selling albums and prints long after the wedding is over.
It also saves a ton of time because I no longer feel responsible to pester clients to choose photos and order products.
Before we discuss the economics of Affordable Wedding Studio, it might be beneficial to review my thoughts on how much photographers should charger per hour and the mid-level and luxury wedding photography business models.
Based on my pricing model, I would like clients to book the base wedding photography package ($1079) and the bride preparing ($290).
I really really don’t want to stay for the reception, so I have priced that quite high – so if I do get booked for the reception, it is worth my time.
I do like doing engagement portraits, but again they are a big time drain with limited return – so they are also priced to make them worth my time.
So lets use the base wedding photography package plus the bride preparing for $1,369.
From the 20 hours I estimate most mid-level photographers spend chasing clients and corresponding before the wedding, I estimate I spend about 3. Most of that is wasted by sending inquiry emails back to bargain hunters – I am still testing different ways getting this down to 1 hour or less.
For just the bride preparing, the ceremony and photos afterwards – including prepping my gear and travel time, I spend around 6 hours.
For a high end wedding I would spend somewhere around 16 hours culling photos, editing, creating a slideshow video, posting photos to social media and book keeping – but for Affordable Wedding Studio I have streamlined that workflow down to about 5 hours.
So all in, I am spending about 14 hours per wedding, which leaves me with an average hourly rate of roughly $100 per hour – or a little better than double the rate that I used to make with a typical mid-level wedding photography business model – and roughly equivalent to the hourly rate that I earn shooting $10k weddings.
Time is Money – Never Forget It
Obviously this type of business plan will vary depending on your local market and your personal photography workflow – but I think the point that I wanted to make is that wedding photography can be affordable to clients and profitable for photographers.
But the key is to have a viable business plan so that you know you will be successful – because your profit margin is just money divided by time.
If you want to increase that ratio – you either have to charge more money or spend less time. So if you want to be profitable in the mass market economy, it is your efficiency that will define your success.
Can You Be Successful As An Affordable Wedding Photographer?
What do you think of the affordable wedding photography business plan?
Can you make money selling a mass market wedding photography product?
Leave a comment below and let us know!