New pricing model for wedding photographers

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The world of the digital photography business continues to change.  Now, anyone with a high-quality camera can offer brides and grooms wedding photography for a low rate — or free.

While free is tough to compete with, it also means some things will not change easily. As long as free and cheap is an option, we will continue to hear stories from disappointed brides who left their big day in the hands of a friend with a camera.

But, if we change the standard business model, more photographers will be able to compete and make a better living.  The bottom line is this: If you are a wedding photographer who shoots an average 25 weddings a year, who charges $500 per wedding and throws in the picture disc, you will not make more than $12,500 a year.  Even photographing 50 weddings, at the same rate, does not add up to an impressive income.

I find it amazing that some photographers who charge $2,000 to $3,000 a wedding and offer so much in their packages aren’t making a quality living, either. In some cases, photographers are hardly clearing $1,000 profit or a reasonable rate for all the time they dedicate to each wedding.

There always will be high-end photographers who network in the right communities, produce incredible images and develop excellent reputations who will command top dollar for their services. I would not recommend changing the model that works for them.

But, for the freshly minted photographer with a shiny, new Nikon D300 in hand — allow me to share a few thoughts.

One of the quickest paths to the land of disappointment and having to get a real job again is to compete on price. In an age when just about anyone can take an in-focus, reasonably composed and well-exposed photograph, you need to offer more.  If you can do that, your services will be worth more than a few hundred dollars. Each image should hold a special value to the bride and groom.

Occasionally, I write about per-image pricing, especially when it involves commercial work.  But, I have also experimented with per-image pricing in wedding photography. Traditionally, wedding photographers use a per-image pricing system for reprint orders from proof books. Unfortunately, unscrupulous people began scanning the proofs and keeping them as their final images, leaving the photographer with little reward for her hard work. Due to advances in digital photographic technology many people don’t put as much value on photography as they once did. Wedding parties still want someone dedicated to capturing their big day, but don’t think they want to spend a lot of money. Also, they want control of the image files.

The practice of placing disposable cameras at each table with the hope that guests will capture memories of  the reception generally produces either pranks and drunken funny faces or  nothing as the camera often goes home with one of the guests as a door prize.

My solution? A hybrid option.  The bride and groom hire a professional photographer to create images of their wedding day.   They only pay for the images they want.  No or low risk.

This system works for me because I have confidence that the bride and groom will see additional value in the images I’ve produced when compared with the ones taken by family and friends.

I usually don’t request a deposit. But, if my business was focused on wedding photography I would require one to save the date.  The non-refundable deposit would be considered a credit toward the purchase of wedding image files.

* Web sites like PhotoShelter make it easy to display images in a gallery format with full e-commerce solutions: selling and the delivery of the customized image files is easier than ever. The bride and groom can select images to download for personal use. Specialty products and prints are available to order and they don’t have to contact the photographer directly.  I’ve also seen new Web applications that let the couple design online their entire traditional wedding album.

One thing is certain, photographers are required to spend more time on the post-production of digital photographs  than they did developing film. Spending time dealing with reprints, products and logistics can really cut down on the profitability of wedding photography.

Here is an example of a wedding I recently photographed:

It was the wedding of a close friend.  I offered the couple $10 per downloaded image. They did have the option to order reprints online.  Since anyone can scan an image, the smallest size I offered was a 4×6 for $10.

I worked for five hours covering the wedding and reception. It took another three hours to process the images after the wedding. I had the images uploaded and ready for purchase within six days.  Three weeks later,  I received a deposit in my account for $1,150 for the 115 images they purchased.

I’m not sure if I would have charged my friends $1,150 for a five-hour event.  But, they were happy with the images and had the money available. I’ve found that if people like the work you do, they will find a way to purchase as many images as possible.

Photographers must test their market.  Every photographer has a different workflow. She should consider the average number of images created, percentage purchased, expenses and target income when making adjustments in the per-image pricing structure.

It is important to learn how to sell your system as a low-risk solution, but not as a low-cost or cheap solution. It’s also important to qualify (screen) your prospects to make sure they have the means to purchase the images you create.

Once, I did find myself with a very low return on my time. I can’t complain; this is the system I signed up for. If I’m going to offer low-risk, per-image solutions and I don’t qualify the wedding couple as a good candidate or offer high quality images – I  lose.

Financial success in the photography business is not about how much the package costs, but the net profit. The name of the game is to offer a low-risk alternative to the friend with a camera while still earning enough profit to make a living.

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