A couple months ago an aspiring professional photographer who I’ve been mentoring sent me some exciting news.
She was asked by a friend of a friend to photograph her upcoming wedding. She felt her skills and experience were appropriate and she had Assisted and worked as a Second Photographer for a few pros; enough that she had some appreciation of some of the “adventures” that a photographer can encounter during a wedding day. My friend was rightfully thrilled at the opportunity to practice her new skills and earn some money doing it as well. A first job offer is worth celebrating!
“I spoke to the bride and she’s really sweet,” she said ” They are paying for their wedding themselves and they really can’t afford thousands of dollars for photography, but they can pay me $1,000. They need 10 hours of coverage and engagement pictures done. I really understand where she’s coming from – $1,000 is a lot of money and that’s all she has for wedding photography and she had to pay $5,500 for the wedding venue, all paid up front and the cake is going to cost almost $2,000. They’re getting married really quickly before he has to go across the country for a new job, and they already have a 2 year old. They both work full time jobs on shifts…” she said breathlessly.
This is the point where my head might have hit the desk. Hard.
I completely understand the urgency a new photographer feels to get a job, any job, in order to feed their drive to learn and do more. I understand because that urgency never really goes away. Not completely, even if you’re a photographer rock star - it’s a fact of life for any freelance creative. You always need to work on generating work for yourself.
I also understand that sometimes couples really can’t afford the average cost of photography in Maryland. $3,500 is a lot of money for a many people. (So too is $2,000 for a cake that won’t last past the next day!) I also understand that many couples have no idea how to create a budget or how to allocate the funds they do have for their wedding day. Often the most important things are left last in the budget and planning process.
I’m very sympathetic to any couple who is struggling to start a life together and pay for the costs of a wedding – as are all photographers and wedding vendors I have encountered. That’s why most of us offer smaller packages of services so couples can have high quality work on a smaller budget. The key is though, a professional can’t offer $6,000 worth of services for $1,000. We can’t be a professional if we offer our work below what it costs to perform that work.
My friend’s thought was that since she wasn’t yet a professional, so she could do the work for the price her friend stated. She might not have the best quality images, she said, but she could give them images that were better than nothing and besides, $1,000 sounds like a lot of money and she’d be helping a really sweet couple while making a little money for herself….
I get this. I totally get this.
So I helped my friend work through the accounting and the numbers to see if she really would be making a little money for herself. Here’s what we came up with:
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S BASIC COSTS OF DOING BUSINESS
A photographer can count on taking approximately 40% right off the top right away for taxes. Not declaring the income on your taxes is not an option if you want to be in business any time soon.
So from our $1,000 fee we’re left with $600. But there are other costs to be considered as well. Insurance is a big one. Most venues in DC, Maryland and Virginia will require you to show proof of insurance upfront before allowing you to work in the venue. I have always been asked to show coverage of at least $2 million, but I have heard that some venues will request $1 million in liability coverage. The costs last season for insurance to cover you while you work was a one time cost of $625 or an annual cost of $1,825.
Then you need a contract between you and your couple. A contract written by you will not cover you properly if the worst were to happen. You can expect to pay between $350 and $3,000 to have a legally sound contract written up by a lawyer.
But what about a location to photograph the couple’s engagement pictures? Most parks, all monuments, all national park land and many private estates in this area all charge a permit fee to a photographer for photographing a couple on their land (we are a business making money off their property after all). In the DC metro area that costs for permit fees range from $125 to $550, depending on where you go. So let’s assume this couple wants to go to a section of national park land and we’ll use the regular permit fee of $250 for our cost break down here.
We’ll have to add in the costs of gas and parking during the engagement portrait session and the wedding (especially if you have multiple locations for the wedding). You’ll need a couple meals while you’re working this 12 hour day (because you can’t put a brown bag lunch in the venue’s fridge and you can’t work hard for 12 hours without eating). So let’s say $50 for that (although I haven’t had a wedding with expenses that low in years). Then you need to deliver the images to your couple somehow – the simplest way would be on a USB drive which will cost you at least $35.
So for her, for this particular job her expenses would have been: $1795 as a minimum. She would have been paid just $1,000.
~ $400 taxes
~ $350 contract writing
~ $250 permit fee
~ $85 cheapest low quality wedding album possible
~$50 parking and meals
~ $35 low end USB Drive for delivery
This is by no means what all photographer’s expenses are, some are slightly less, but most incur much more. Most professionals have two or three times this amount just as their basic overhead expenses, before even making a salary or paying their staff. (So please don’t use this post as an example of why you should only pay X amount for the services you want!)
This list of expenses doesn’t take into account receiving any pay for the week of work required to do this job (can you work at your job for a week, for free?) What do you make in your job for a week of work? Should the take-home pay of a photographer you hire for the most important day in your life be less than what you take home each week?
So what did I advise my aspiring professional photographer friend who was considering the $1,000 wedding job?
“If you know the couple well enough that you would gift them with a $795 gift, then by all means, take the job.”
Update to the story: The aspiring photographer didn’t take the job. The photographer the couple ended up hiring charged $2,670.