Black and white image of bride and groom standing on the lawn of The Toronto Hunt Club overlooking Lake Ontario

The Unspoken Reason Why Wedding Photography is So Expensive

A common: why is wedding photography so expensive?

One of the most common complaints about wedding photography is that it’s too expensive. I’ve seen this sentiment uttered from all corners of the web. I’ve also seen just as many photographers jump at the opportunity to defend their prices by writing articles that only an accountant could appreciate.

Three years ago, I stumbled upon one such article on Why Wedding Photographers’ Prices are “Wack”, was a public response to an anonymous woman’s frustrated Craigslist post< asking about the high cost of hiring an “exceptional, amazingly talented, fun photographer”. Wagner went into great depth breaking down her cost of doing business, deliverables, and living expenses. Her conclusion was that she doesn’t really make that much money, despite what clients may think is a high per-wedding fee.

Her article quickly gained traction and spread throughout the online photography community. Although articles about the topic existed prior to Wagner’s — including articles using similar arguments — the virality of Why Wedding Photographers’ Prices are “Wack” had a watershed effect. Since then, many wedding photographers have written the compulsory “why is wedding photography so expensive” posts. Unfortunately, this is a counterproductive and fruitless exercise that doesn’t address the issue head-on. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that someone hasn’t yet included scans of their tax returns to make a point. Prepare for some real talk.

WHY Wedding photography is SO expensive: because it’s a luxury

Safari browser screenshot of Craigslist post complaining about price of wedding photography.
Text from the original, anonymous, complaint.

In the context of this article, I’m defining luxury as something that you want or would like to have but don’t actually need. The Craigslist poster wrote, “They are ripping people off for all they have! Why when you want to get married it costs you AT LEAST 15 grand after all is said-and-done? Its such CRAP!! I love all you $ 3,000.00 photographers out there but i think your prices are WACK.” Immediately, I would like to point out that there’s a distinction between getting married and holding a wedding. Getting married is something you may need; holding a wedding is something you want. The poster is wrong when she states that getting married is expensive: relative to the price of a wedding, it’s quite affordable. For instance, if you live in Toronto and wish to marry, your total expenses would come to under $400, including the license and marriage officiant. I’m aware that the writer is from Puget Sound, but I doubt getting married in Washington is much more expensive than in Ontario. In any case, despite her choice of words, the writer was referring to holding a wedding.

Weddings are expensive because having a large catered party is a luxury. When you remove the ceremony from the rest of the day’s archetypical activities, you’re left with the greater portion of that hypothetical $15,000 bill. Your costs shouldn’t rise by much even if religious obligations require the ceremony be held at your respective house of worship. The major expenses are everything that isn’t part of the official ceremony: the venue(s), liquor and multi-course meals for guests, a multi-tiered cake, flowers, decorations, entertainment, your wardrobe, makeup and hair, accommodations, and, given the nature of this article, your desire to have a wedding photographer document the entire affair and do so with exceptional artistry.

Luxury brands do not justify their prices with complex breakdowns of their costs. For example, when someone walks into a Chanel store and considers buying a handbag, the salesperson isn’t going to relay the cost of materials, labour, freight, lease, marketing, etc., to justify the price. What they’ll do is sell the brand and its story, its exclusivity and the status it imbues, the timeless design, impeccable craftsmanship, customer service, and its ability to retain value longer than other less exclusive brands. All things considered, it would still be a frivolous purchase—because no one needs a Chanel anything, even among people who need a handbag—and most buyers of luxury goods know this. Unfortunately, when planning a wedding, some people, such as the Craigslist poster, never come to this understanding.

Consider the longevity of these expensive services. The alcohol, food, and cake get flushed down the drain (quite literally). The venue and accommodations will serve as faint backdrops to your memories. The flowers will wilt, and decorations tossed away. The entertainment will be a ringing in your ears the following morning. Your makeup will be washed away, and the hair slept on. Your wedding dress will remain, but there will never again be a practical occasion to wear it. Of all these unnecessary, impractical, and conspicuous expenses, the photo and video documents hold the most utility. Their value increases with time, having an inverse relationship to your recollection of the day.

When wedding photographers choose to acknowledge the question with detailed cost breakdowns, they put themselves and the profession as a whole at a disadvantage. Defending your rates in such a manner is an implicit acknowledgement that they are indeed unreasonably high and, worse, that your abilities don’t speak for themselves. Wedding photography is a luxury service, and there is absolutely no imperative for you to provide customers with an audit. Such an analysis may also put you at a disadvantage with clients who question your margins (since those who do only care about the bottom line anyway), and your perfectly legitimate reasons can be misinterpreted as excuses.

I would like to make a proposal to my fellow wedding photographers: Stop justifying why wedding photography is so expensive using cost breakdowns. It cheapens your work. Treat wedding photography as the desired luxury service that it is, not the basic necessity that budget hunting couples wish it to be. Good wedding photography is a luxury service for a luxury occasion that commands luxury prices. As the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”

16 comments

  1. Brian Powell says:

    Well it’s been 5 years since I wrote that breakdown of the costs behind shooting weddings, and nowadays I totally agree with you :) However, I think those writeups are still very useful for beginning photographers and some clients as well.

    Or should I just delete it already? I hesitate to do that because it’s still driving a lot of eyes to my site ;)

    Cheers,

    • marmo7ade says:

      So do you buy 2 new camera bodies for every wedding you shoot? You buy 5 premium lenses for every wedding? That would be kind of ridiculous. Obviously you don’t. Your claims are dishonest. The cost of shooting one wedding is not contingent on the total cost of the equipment that you reuse to shoot many, many weddings. It would be as if a pizzeria claimed the cost of producing 1 pizza is $10,000 because that’s how much a deck oven costs. Pretentious.

      • legalnola says:

        The professionals I’m friends with, I’m just an enthusiast with an expensive camera, do actually have to buy new lenses probably once every year or two. Lenses, you see, actually have mileage, they’re only good for so many pictures and then the parts start failing (many thousands, but those add up quickly with a typical wedding for one camera being around 1,000 pictures taken). They also have to replace flashes, radio transmitters, umbrella’s that get start cracking from too much use and so look “shabby” even if they still work (you can’t bring shabby equipment to a nice wedding). So on top of the hourly rates for shooting the pictures and at least double shooting time for editing, they also need to put money away, not profit, to replace equipment. A Canon L lens costs about $1,500 on average, and can be around $2,000 for the nicer ones, not even getting into the big telephotos. So it’s not pretentious. And you’r also wrong about the whole “$10,000” cost being incorrect. A photographer starts out of the gate $10,000 in the hole, and has to catch up to that – just because you were paid $3,000 for a wedding doesn’t mean you only have $7,000 to go; your time is worth something, and something has to pay the rent, groceries and other bills, too. Saving up that extra money to pay yourself back that $10,000 could take many months before you actually start to see any profit, and than bam, year mark, your money-maker 70-200, 2.8 fails, $2,200 in the hole (before sales tax) again.

        Your assumptions are incorrect, the original post is absolutely correct – his only failing is he didn’t go into even more details about the problems.

        • I disagree about lenses. A well-maintained lens can last decades. It’s the body that has an expiration date, especially the focal-plane shutter, which wears out. Then, depending on how frequently it used (which is frequently for weddings) the buttons stop working predictably. My first digital SLR was a Canon 30D that I bought in 2006. I gave it to my grandpa in 2009, and even then, it’s shutter had started to stick and the shutter release stopped reacting to 100% of presses. All of the lenses I still have from that period are still functionally the same and work well.

      • Brian Powell says:

        What’s pretentious is your attempt at logic.

        By your reasoning, I would be claiming to charge $30,000 for each wedding — since that’s the total cost of my equipment nowadays. But I’m not. I’m about 10% of that. I’ve shot 103 weddings now, so if you do even the most basic of math, you can see how 30,000 / 103 is about $300.

        And yes, you do have to consider equipment overhead for each shoot/wedding because gear has to be repaired, replaced, and upgraded every few years. Lenses might last longer, but I am paying $350 for a lens repair right now. Not frequent, but it’s one more thing that adds to the overhead of being a full time photographer. Read the rest of my original post, and you’ll see all the inherent costs that influence the rates. And that’s only part of the rate; it’s not the entire premise.

        Comparing weddings to pizza delivery isn’t helping your argument either, but yes in fact a small percentage of the cost of your pizza will pay for the oven, pay for a new/repaired oven, pay for the electricity to run the oven, etc.

        Next time you want to wallow around the internet and call people names, try to get your facts straight first. I mean, have you seen the car I drive?! A 2002 Kia Rio and a used 2006 Sportage. I have a family of four and work my ### off to earn my rates, This is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

          • Brian Powell says:

            I have no problem with valid questions, but I take offense at uninformed and unjust attacks on my integrity. Maybe you should reread the comment I replied to?

            I’m calm, unsubscribing from this waste of time, and locking up that old blog post.

            Enjoy ;)

      • Matt Palmer says:

        You take your gear maintenance costs on average per year. How often you replace bodies and lenses, and average that out per year. And then it can be part of your costing for that year.

        No one is making the claim you replace everything per wedding… You certainly do experience and accelerate wear and tear of equipment and a natural obsoletion of equipment that should be budgeted for however.

        Either way this seems irrelevant given that this post calls for NOT making a price break down of a luxury product.

        I also think that comparing wedding photographer prices is a silly exercise because it is NOT a like for like service. Two photographers at the same wedding will have entirely different approaches and will create entirely different work. Regardless of pricing or package.

  2. Amy Corrigan says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write this. It is much appreciated. I think breaking down the costs if a great thing for photographers to help other photographers (otherwise, we would continue to make pennies per wedding, as I have done) and quite possibly in a closed private group of sorts. And I agree about wedding photography being a luxury. Anyone can take photos for you on your wedding day, but if you want a wedding photographer, it IS a luxury service we provide. Just as someone can bring in Popeye’s catering at the church hall OR they can hire a caterer to provide a sit-down meal. You can make your own bouquets from Hobby Lobby OR you can hire a florist to custom design all your gorgeous flora & fauna for the day. The list goes on: a playlist vs a dj or band; put your hair in a ponytail vs stylist; dress off the rack vs a custom made; a Snapfish book vs a custom album… I think that kind of shows the vast differences in choices people have and what they put their value in. Thanks again for writing your thoughts and for everyone else who has shared. Enjoy today!

  3. I so much agree with you! There is no point is justifying your prices and writing all those breakdown sheets. Just tell me what business would do you? Doctor’s office? Retail store? Are you serious? Nobody will. If the client wants your product and your service, s/he should pay your price. Period. It is a market. If they shop for prices they sure find somebody cheap. You get what you pay for. Great article.

  4. point says:

    For everything in life: It costs what it costs. I’m cheap too but, with stuff like photography and design, you get what you pay for and, what the market will pay. But most brides and grooms are young and, maybe poor or with college debt. The paying parents of either are also, typically, just a few years from retiring and picky on spending. All those are valid reasons for scrutiny. But, the author is RIGHT. Professional wedding photography is a luxury. It is a one time event that never is to be repeated.
    More couples and families should spend far, far less on all the rest, have smaller and simpler weddings, and go with the photographer whose work they like best. One day or 50+ years after the wedding (if the marriage holds), only the memories and images remain!

  5. Christian Aragon says:

    Too many people these days don’t understand the word “luxury” as it should be applied and by all applicable definitions, but they understand how their daily, weekly and monthly lives are run by budgets.

    I totally agree that wedding photography is a luxury just as is the rest of the wedding event in part and in its entirety. That is something which should be conveyed. I’ve always broken it as such:

    “After the wedding, after all the activities of the reception; after the guests have gone home and the honeymoon is over, the greatest proof of that day’s existence will be the photography. Without the photography you may as well have eloped in secrecy. How much are those captured memories worth to you, your family, and your friends?”

    The point is to explain “luxury” without saying the word “luxury.” Too many people just don’t get it.

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