How to charge for photography services

joker heath
If you’re good at something NEVER do it for free!

This read is for the wedding photographer and brides looking for wedding photographers. I’m a Chicago photographer and I have some info for you all. To quote Heath Ledger’s Joker, “If you’re good at something never do it for free.” I want to reach out and hopefully instill some confidence in those of you trying to make some money in doing what you love. I also want to help brides looking for a wedding photography. For the rest of you, you’ll find this interesting.

Being a wedding photographer is a lot of work especially if you own your own studio. You place ads, maybe attend events, spend money on marketing, build the website, order business cards, do your taxes, buy gear, meet with potential clients and wonder why they don’t book you (after they said they loved your work and pricing), spend 12 hours on your feet, half the time melting outside in the summer, dealing with many people who you never met (some are drunk) and the list goes on and on.

rotter photography chicago
Wedding photograph by your’s truly

I’ve been a photographer for 25 years, starting as a little kid. Let me preface this writing with this: there are photographers and there are PHOTOGRAPHERS. Art is Art but if you’re paying someone to photograph your wedding, don’t you think they should know how to work a camera? Setting a camera to full auto doesn’t qualify. Your client / bride winds up with a shaded face and blown out backgrounds (very bright backgrounds.)

I shot both photos and video for my studio, SAR studios, now Rotter studios, since 1999. It was hard to think I could make money doing something I loved. Weddings weren’t my first choice. I would much rather shoot art or bands performing live. Weddings ARE art though. Photographing what others can’t see is all around you. It’s all art. That’s what an artist does. You see what other people can’t and you document it. For the most part it was a lot of fun and rarely did I have an issue except for that one time a groomsman drank way too much and never followed instructions. There was also that other time a fight almost broke out because some family members, who refused to let the bride marry the groom, showed up at the wedding. The bride cried in the back room while the groom went to deal with the chaos. I stayed with her, along with her bridesmaids, and consoled her until the smoke cleared. I felt bad for them. They were a really nice couple.

cropped-canon-5d-mkii-chicago-videoAs a photographer at weddings, you are the one they come to for answers. You are the director on the set. It’s just the way it is. You don’t take a break. You’re moving constantly all day long for hours. Packing up your gear, driving there and arriving early, setting up, roaming and photographing, packing up, driving home, etc. The day is very long and tiring. You’re also carrying around 20+ pounds of gear on your back and holding a camera that feels like it weighs a ton after a couple hours.

When the day is done, you’re not. You have many photos to edit. I averaged about 2,000 per wedding and didn’t get rid of many. Although they looked great, I edited each one to make them look as best I could.

What do you charge? Wedding photography pricing is all over the map from $500 a day to $4,000 or more. I’m sorry, I can’t see $4,000 for wedding photos. No one is that good and I have seen hundreds of photographers. I’ll be honest with you, if digital photography didn’t exist, neither would most “photographers.” Most people buy cameras and set to full auto and call themselves wedding photographers. If we were back in the days of film, they wouldn’t be doing what they are trying to do. I started with film a long time ago and good photographers knew how to use their gear…they had to. There was no screen to look at on the back of a camera. There was no cheating.

I met a photographer once while shooting video at a wedding. They charged $3,000. I asked about his gear and he wasn’t too sure. He had no flash at all. I asked what lenses he used. He used the cheap stock lens that came in the box. I asked what ISO he usually shoots at….he had no idea what I was talking about. $3,000. That burned me. What burned me more is the bride had no idea. How would she? It’s unfair.

I hope brides find this blog post and take it to heart. Check out my blog on wedding planning tips for the wedding couple. I now write what I have witnessed. Hopefully it will help a lot of you out. I don’t mean to slam other photographers, but seriously, if your mechanic is rebuilding your car’s transmission, do you think he should be reading the manual while he does it?

I thought I would undercut “competition” and charge less to get clients. That got me nothing but tire kickers. I didn’t set my prices too high figuring no one would hire me because I wasn’t a huge name. Let me tell you, those huge name studios are garbage. I say this because I know. I have spoken to brides who were very upset going with huge name photography studios. I also have friends who worked in huge studios as editors and it was terrible working conditions. Big wedding photography studios do what they can to get your non-refundable deposit and then you’re just another number. Wedding couples also don’t get to pick their photographer most of the time. They just show up. This one wedding I was at had the overweight Italian with chest hair sticking out of his half buttoned-down shirt. Yes, he had the fake gold chains as well. Don’t hate because I said Italian. I am Italian, and that’s what he was….exaggerating the role. I was embarrassed for them. He also didn’t know much about photography. The studio was Fred Fox studios in Chicago. Oh no, I said the name. Whatever.

lamborghini at wedding
Lamborghini at wedding in Chicago

When you’re a small studio, some people will want to take advantage of you. I had this young couple once, giving the sob story of how they couldn’t afford much since they spent their parent’s money on the pricey reception hall downtown in Chicago. That’s not my problem. Maybe spend less? I’m working to support my family. Why should I take the hit? Some people think you just should. Well, I felt bad and gave them a huge discount, even though I was already low in price. My cousin was photographing with me at this time too. We went on this job together. Arriving at the church for reception was awesome. A huge cathedral! 500 guests! The reception hall was really expensive with ferraris and lamborghinis parked in the lot. They had no money. I felt bad for them. That was one of the turning points for me.

In the beginning, I never turned down a gig, thinking it would lead to more gigs. That rarely happened. What happened is we worked all day, I spent a week editing photos, and made just enough for that month’s marketing in Chicago magazines ($500 a month.) I always paid my 2 other photographers before I got paid. I worked for free 90% of the time. That was my fault. I just couldn’t up the price. Couples didn’t inquire that much if you were a small no name studio. They went with the big names because that’s what they knew. There are SO MANY little studios that are GREAT. How do you know which ones to pick? You don’t. That’s why the default is a big studio.

I hope someone out there, be it a bride to be, or a photographer has found this helpful in some way. As for me, I stopped advertising my services around 2012. With more and more people buying digital cameras and offering services for cheap, it was too much. All my weekends were spent working on the business, with M-F being my full time job.

rotter photography chicago 35
Chicago photography by Steve Rotter.

I still take photos or video if someone finds me but I no longer advertise. I played that game for 12 years and always broke even. I now put my creative efforts into my YouTube channels and a couple other online avenues to make money to supplement income….and I’m making more doing it than I ever did with weddings. I work from home on my schedule. That is how I went about charging for photography.

All the websites I spent hours building are gone and have been condensed into this one site you are on now.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoy what I do here, consider following my blog for more thoughts. Check out my blog on wedding planning in Chicago.