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Of Weddings, Craigslist, & The Numbers

Richard Charpentier Notes from Rich, The Business of Photography Leave a Comment

The other week as I pondered reaching a broader market it was suggested that I try giving a post on Craigslist a chance.  While I wasn’t super keen on the idea (folks usually go there to bargain shop or read creepy personals) I decided to pop on to the site and see what the photographers advertising had to offer…….  ugh.

Before I get into what I found I think it would be of use to talk about weddings and what goes into them, at least what goes into them when I’m working them.

Our last big wedding

The last big wedding we did was epic.  The bride and groom loved their images, their friends and family did too.  And amazingly enough it took the couple months to provide me with their final selections because they liked what we sent them so much.  What went into the production?  Here’s the short list:

  • 20 hours of prep for the wedding.  This included the initial interview with the bride, then later the groom (he was out of the country for a while).  Dozens of e-mails about the locations, changing locations, and finalizing the locations.  Walking through each location at the time of day we’d be shooting to get lighting ideas.  A final walk through of 4 locations the day before the wedding.
  • 12 hour shooting on the day of the wedding.  My team and I actually assembled at 8:30 in the morning, and we finally parted company at 11:30 p.m.
  • One lighting assistant, and one second shooter who also helped with lighting when needed.
  • Well over 20 hours of sorting, selecting, and post processing after the wedding.  4 locations were broken up into distinct selection and editing days.
  • Creating a web gallery, wedding book, DVD slideshow.
  • Additional correspondence and selection with the bride and groom since the shoot and waiting on their selections.

Okay, so there’s that.  My personal time invested?  Over 52 hours for a one day shoot.  The time invested was worth it, and the couple will have images that will last a lifetime.

Now, before we jump into Craigslist let’s just talk about the wedding day.  See, most folks see a wedding photographer’s price tag and their minds step out.  $5,000 for a day?!?  You’ve got to be $%#@@%’ing me!  Man, wedding photographers make bank!  Right, I mean that is how people react.  But let’s stop a sec.  In yesterday’s post I promised some examples, and we’re gonna do it right now.  $5,000 is not my wedding price by the way…..for the moment.

Let’s pretend there’s no up front work, or post processing work.  Let’s pretend that my staff and I work 40 hours a week at $25 per hour.  The wedding day we shot for more than 12 hours.  That’s 3 people at $25 per hour each……..  Hrrrrm, numbers…..carry the 2……[X’X]^-1 X’Y…….

3 people for 12 hours at $25 per hour each equals $900.00 for the day.  So, if we pretended to be low level engineers billing at $25 per hour for the day the shoot itself would be nearly $1000.00.  My lighting assistant makes $25 per hour (really), my second shooter makes more.  I pay them that out of my fee.

We’re not talking prints, books, CD’s or anything else so far, just billable hours on the wedding day only.

Okay, on to what I found on the “C List.”

You charge what for a wedding????

Before posting to Craigslist I decided to see what other “studios” were charging.  Of course, many of these studios aren’t legit businesses.  No tax ID’s, just give you a disc, etc.  While searching through I found the “most expensive” photographers posting on the list and went into shock.  Complete shock.  Remember my 12 hour day example above (you should, you just read it).  Well these folks offer a 12 hour day, prints, book, CD (with copyright release), and more all for $800.  So, they offer:

  • 12 hours of shoot time with 2 photographers.  In our $25 per hour example that would be $600.
  • $100 in print credits.
  • A wedding book ($50 their cost I’d say).
  • Portrait print on canvas ($200 value at least).
  • Post production on a ton of photos.
  • Handing over a CD of all the images.
  • Multiple locations covered.

Now, let’s ponder these numbers.  Basically what we’ve listed above goes over $800 in value if they’re paid $25 per hour.  What’s not getting covered?  Well, they’re offering many retouched prints.  That’s a few hours of work even if they’re doing shoddy work.  Now they’re making less than $25 per hour.  What about upfront work?  Did they take some time to meet the couple?  How about walking through the locations prior to the wedding?  Gas money to travel between all the locations?  Nah, none of that is factored.

In the end, even if they skimped on their edits and didn’t do any prep work I’ve worked through their whole package.  When it’s all said and done for the whole event I’m putting this photog couple at about $6.75 per hour.  I believe you can do better than that at McDonalds.

No equipment replacement costs have been factored into this.  Travel time, gas, wear and tear on a vehicle……not in the equation.  4-6 hours of editing (if they’re doing a super poor job), or maybe 15-20 hours of selection and editing (if they’re a little diligent and care about handing over a quality product)…….that lowers their hourly rate even further.   Bottom line, doing a wedding a weekend 52 weeks a year leaves these folks in the poor house unable to pay themselves a living wage, cover expenses, and eventually buy new equipment.

So, why would you do that?

And more importantly, how do I compete with that?

Real numbers

Alright, lets say the folks above do everything I do.  They really put the time in.  What do we have?

  • 20 hours of prep work.  Pretend world of $25 per hour gets you $500.00
  • 12 hours for 3 people day of the wedding.  That’s 36 hours.  $900.00
  • 20 hours (that’s a lowball, I spend more time than that) on selection, post production, client review, book assembly, DVD creation, etc.  If we go with 20 hours that’s another $500.00
  • Book cost, print costs, canvas costs, etc.  Plus some markup cause I gotta cover my overhead, equipment etc.  Let’s not add this in, we’ll just know about it.

So, what are we at?  $1900 in labor time @ $25 per hour.  We haven’t factored our prints, travel, gear, or anything else. Those prints, books, DVDs all have costs as they’re physical products.

Can you see now why real studios out there charge what they charge for a wedding.  It’s not just the wedding day.  It’s the upfront work and the post work.  You’re not just getting a 12 hour day.  You’re also getting another 40 hour week.  And while your photographer is working on that stuff (if they’re diligent), they’re not making new photos with other clients or working with anyone else.  Your wedding is their 40 hour work week.  Starting to make sense.

And that was the good example

The rest of the portrait and wedding photographers listed for a lot less than this particular group.  So you can go even cheaper.  But honestly, what do you think you’re really getting for it?  I mean seriously, anyone willing to pay themselves less than a high school senior makes at a fast food restaurant…….are you really expecting quality?

In the end, this is the marketplace many photographers find themselves in.  And they cannot compete with these price models, because these models don’t work.  Education, conferences, day classes, subscriptions to industry media…….I’ve spent tens of thousands over the years on all of these to step up my game.  The $50 for a DVD photographer can’t afford any of that, so do you think they’re going to bring an “A” game to your shoot?

Value your work

For those in the industry or wanting to get into the industry reading this……  You need to learn how to value your work.  Not only are the low ball prices hurting the folks doing it (they can’t and wont make a living), they’re setting the bar low for the rest of us.  I can’t tell you how often I’m told I’m really expensive by clients, and how often seasoned pros tell me I could charge a lot more for the quality I do.

In the end, prices here are going up.  Running all these numbers and knowing my full costs (second shooter costs more than lighting assistant, quality prints cost, and so on), I know I’m not paying myself nearly enough.  So, one of yesterday’s points to bring in more revenue (charge more) is valid and on the schedule of changes.

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