tipping wedding photographers - Toronto wedding photographer

Gratuitous Gratuities: Tipping Wedding Photographers

My first job was—actually, let’s not talk about my first job. My second job was working as a cashier and fry cook at McDonald’s. I was paid $6.65 per hour—the minimum wage in Saskatchewan at the time—and told that we could not accept tips no matter how much a customer insisted. An incredibly small number of customers brought it up, and fewer pushed it. Despite that, I specifically recall one customer who firmly insisted that I accept his money (it was a dime), which he offered after I made him a fresh batch of fries. After he had left, I pushed the coin over the counter and let it drop to the floor. (Our tills were counted at the end of each shift, and I didn’t want to ring up too high.) I haven’t been tipped since, and I do not accept tips as a wedding photographer. However, I was surprised by the number of my peers in the wedding industry who either expect gratuities or actively welcome them. Let’s analyse tipping wedding photographers and other wedding service providers.

Should you tip the wedding photographer? Expert advice

In his slightly dated yet very informative book, The Bride’s Guide to Wedding Photography (2004), Steve Sint writes the following on the subject of tipping wedding photographers:

Here’s the rule: you do not tip the owner of the studio, but it is appropriate—although not required—to tip the workers. For example, if you hire Smith Studios and your photographer is Mr. Smith, there is usually no need to tip him. But if you hire Smith Studios, and your photographer is Mr. Jones, then a tip for a job well done is always appreciated.

Historically, the word “tip” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness”, because the tip was given before the job started. While a tip for your photographer at the end of the day will be appreciated, it does little to gain you special treatment. On the other hand, a tip for your photographer at the beginning of the day makes him think of you more positively from the start.

I have asked dozens of colleagues about this and every one said that they tried harder to do their best when tipped up front! To make any tip even more effective, have your dad (or the best man) give the tip for you. Have them say something like, “take care of my daughter” (or from the best man, “take care of these people, they’re special to me”). This will reinforce the idea of how nice you are. Whether to tip at the beginning or end, or not at all, is your choice—you decide. But remember one thing, a tip that is too small (less than 1 percent) can be considered more an insult than a positive act of appreciation (pg. 65).

There are several problematic implications stemming from Sint’s prescription on tipping wedding photographers. The first and most obvious is that tipping at the commencement of service doesn’t actually ensure excellent service after that. In fact, it may be counterproductive because the act of giving a pre-emptive gratuity removes the incentive to perform admirably thereafter since the reward has already been bestowed.

Wedding bloggers on tipping wedding photographers

The second problem stems from the author’s “dozens” of colleagues’ shared attitude regarding tipping wedding photographers. The logical consequence of his statement is that the contracted price does not give you access to their best efforts. For that, you have to pay more—an unspoken and never agreed upon extra added to the wedding photographer’s compensation to unlock their finest abilities. This is bullshit. More concerning is that the term “colleagues” is undefined: it could either mean Sint’s own hired associates or other wedding photography studio owners. If it’s the former, then he knowingly employs or contracts work to unscrupulous wedding photographers whose primary concern is their bottom line and not their quality of work. If it’s the latter, his rule about not tipping studio owners contradicts the observed practice of his colleagues (who in turn are also unscrupulous wedding photographers more interested in free money than in providing their trusting clients with the top-notch work they have paid for).

Despite what Sint means by “colleagues”, more contemporary sources echo his original point about not tipping business owners. For instance, Martha Stewart Weddings proclaimed that, “for people who own their own businesses … tipping isn’t necessary. (…) For photographers … who do not own their own businesses, tip $30 to $50”. The Knot agrees, writing, “You’re not expected to give your shutterbugs any dough beyond their normal fees. Yet if the wedding photographer or videographer doesn’t own the studio, consider tipping each person”. Weddingbells strays from the pack and advises couples “to recognize and tip when work is done outside [the contracted] agreement or is of an unexpectedly personal or higher-than-anticipated calibre.” Event planner Rita Wong, contributing for Slice.ca, states, “Owners do not need to be tipped, but do tip their employees”, then goes on to say that, “you can tip an owner when the service exceeds expectations”, and peppers more ambiguity by adding, “Tip those who have given you exceptional service.” Toronto’s own Ten2TenPhotography writes, “Tipping your wedding photographer is optional”, and then, rightly, elaborates that there are many other gestures to express your appreciation. And finally, Offbeat Bride, after much rabble about what tips are and how they come in many different forms (Editor’s note: No they don’t. It’s not a tip if it’s not money), concludes that “tips are never expected …but are always appreciated.”

The advice provided above should be viewed with healthy scepticism for two reasons: the language is unnecessarily ambiguous, and the authors fail to explain why some wedding service providers should be tipped in the first place.

Tipping wedding photographers: optional vs “optional” vs optional ;-)

Using terms such as “isn’t necessary”, “not expected”, “optional”, and “never expected …but” leaves too much room for interpretation, especially through the lens of North American cultural norms where guilt and the feeling of being judged can influence not only how much one tips but whether they do. While stating that tipping is optional is an obvious truth, it’s also a window into the receiver’s preference on the matter: they would prefer being tipped. Couples that are sincerely considering this advice may reach the reasonable conclusion that because a service provider prefers a tip, they would also give preferential treatment to couples that tip them, regardless of whether this is true. The ambiguity of an optional tip is an awful dilemma to impose on clients, especially on their wedding day, which everyone agrees is a stressful occasion.

The articles cited above are rich resources for information regarding whom to tip and how much, yet they all fail to propose a justification for why tipping wedding service providers is a social practice that exists. The most convincing explanation for tipping that I’ve come across is from psychologist Ernest Dichter, who told a reporter in the 1960s, “It is embarrassing to have another person wait on you. […] The need to pay, psychologically, for the guilt involved in the unequal relationship is so strong that very few are able to ignore it.” (The context of the quote pertains to waiters and servers; since the wedding industry employs them in droves. And since the systemic reasons for tipping servers are well-established, I won’t go into detail as to why it’s appropriate to tip them.) This leaves everyone else virtually unaccounted for. So without justification, let alone a compelling one, the default course of action for a rational client is not to tip.

Except for wedding venues such as places of worship or reception halls, most wedding service providers are either small businesses or self-employed—this is especially true of wedding photographers. Assuming the market will bear it, owners can set their prices as they see fit in three configurations: appropriate to the level of service provided, below it, or above it. Wedding service providers who welcome or encourage tips are either a) asking for free money (and hoping their clients have a healthy fear of social disapproval); b) undercharging their clients for a stated level of service (and hoping to recover it through tips); or c) the worst case scenario: undercharging their clients for a stated level of service (and not delivering on that level of service unless their compensation is recovered through tips). If a wedding photographer (or wedding planner, wedding singer, DJ, florist, baker, decorator, etc.) believes that tips compose a necessary and substantial part of their business income, then they’re in dire need of reevaluating their business model. Clients shouldn’t have to subsidise wedding service providers that don’t charge realistic prices up front.

Tipping service providers may also be justified as a cultural norm or social obligation especially in the United States and Canada where it is used to supplement insufficient wages. Wedding photographers and other wedding service providers don’t carry such burdens. While it may be standard practice to tip at weddings, that in itself cannot be a reason for doing so. In fact, it’s a logical fallacy known as the appeal to tradition or antiquity: “Traditions are often passed from generation to generation with no other explanation besides, “this is the way it has always been done”—which is not a reason, it is an absence of a reason.”

Let’s assume you’re convinced and you’re loathing the thought of tipping wedding photographers because it’s an ambiguously optional guilt trip that subsidises a bad business model and exploits people’s sense of tradition but … you’re otherwise happy with her excellent effort throughout the day and want to give her a gratuity as a sign of appreciation. What then? Firstly, wedding photographers should always provide their clients with superior service and outstanding performance at the contracted price. Secondly, wedding photography is work and, like many other occupations, it has the potential to be thankless. But that’s alright, because, ultimately, we work for money, not for gratitude, appreciation, and the warm fuzzies. However, if a wedding photographer acts outside the scope of their contracted service and doesn’t charge you extra, it’s because they’re generous, and generosity requires no monetary compensation. Providing a gratuity reduces the interaction into a financial exchange and cheapens the act, undermining the sincerity of the gesture (“Were they expecting money the whole time?”). For example, let’s assume that a wedding photographer voluntarily stayed an extra hour and continued photographing the event because they were having a great time, and the couple thanked them with a gratuity. Unless that gratuity equals or exceeds the wedding photographer’s regular hourly rate, i.e., what they would’ve charged if an extension had been requested, the couple is inadvertently expressing that the photographer’s time is worth less than they’ve paid for earlier. As with the McDonald’s customer who gave me a dime as a tip, when the monetary gesture is far below the actual price of the effort, it’s insulting. It places a burden on the receiver to accept because successfully refusing the gratuity insults the giver. The system is rigged by too many deep-seated social obligations.

An awesome alternative to tipping wedding photographers (and wedding service providers)

So what should you do instead of tipping your wedding photographer? Express your gratitude with a word of thanks, whether the work was good, great, or exceptional. It lets us know that we’re succeeding in our chosen path. To express gratefulness for work that you’re incredibly delighted by, considering writing a glowing recommendation of your wedding photographer on Facebook, Yelp, and Google. Not only is this better than tipping for your bottom line, but it’s also better for your wedding photographer’s. Instead of receiving a $100, $200, $300 tip, your wedding photographer receives a positive review that could influence the hiring decision of many future clients. It’s the ultimate way of saying thanks.


I do not accept tips (and there’s no good reason for tipping wedding photographers and most other wedding service providers). To show your sincere appreciation for my work, consider writing a wedding photography review on Google, Yelp, or Facebook.

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