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The Overpaid Wedding Photographer – Huh?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It's a new year and a new opportunity to turn a buck while taking pictures.

You started in photography like all the rest of us: an amateur who got a kick out of using a camera somewhat more than your friends, who maybe got their kicks playing baseball, dancing, painting, shooting the rapids, shooting craps or – who knows? – studying in school.

It's not that you didn't do some of these other things; just that making photographs struck a resonating chord in you, that has kept vibrating all these years. Even holding a camera felt right and good: the heftier the camera the better. The sound of the shutter was music.

Getting stuff back from the lab was like Christmas. Nowadays, if you work digitally, the gratification of seeing an image instantaneously is wonderful.

This blend of joy and talent (it's reasonable to assume you got better at photography the more you did it) becomes even sweeter when someone else pays you to do what you love. The compensation can start out as simply as a couple of free tickets to a local stage production in return for taking publicity stills. Or possibly a modest fee for making portraits of people in your neighborhood.

But do it long enough – as my wife Judy and I have – and doing photography for money, that is, "commercial photography," can produce a good income.

For the time being, let's forget the debate about whether photography is art (it most assuredly is) and concentrate on the subject of photography as a commodity. A commodity that you are offering and selling in the marketplace.

In a market economy like ours, the market itself helps determine the price of your product. Obviously there are many other factors that can come into play. (Whether you are operating in a closed system, for example, where you are, in effect, a monopoly.) But, since that is almost unheard of in commercial photography, the fact remains: if you can get a higher price for what you are offering, it is the right price for you. In fact, it is the right price, period.

So why is it, then, that some mouthy fool from CBS MarketWatch recently pronounced wedding photography – one of the most common forms of commercial photography today – as being among the "ten most overpaid jobs in the US"?

"Photographers typically charge $2,000 to $5,000 to shoot a wedding, for what amounts to a one-day assignment plus processing time," MarketWatch personal finance editor Chris Plummer said in a recent online column. "Yet many mope through the job, bumping guests in their way without apology, with the attitude: 'I'm just doing this for the money until Time or National Geographic calls.'"

I read this petulant screed with a growing head of steam. Judy and I have been working professionally for more than 20 years. At one point in our career, we were doing 50 weddings a year, along with all our other commercial work. Today, we do about half that number, still do lots of other commercial shooting, and work on books. Wedding work is just that – work – and frankly I am glad that our wedding load is lighter. Funny how I never viewed it as a one-a-day lark to rake in easy bucks.

But Plummer had more to say.

"They [wedding photographers] must cover equipment and film-development costs. Still, many in major metropolitan areas who shoot weddings each weekend in the May-to-October marrying season pull in $100,000 for six months' work."

[Here, I'm reminded of my cousin Terry, a special ed. teacher in New Jersey. Oh, how she loves to cut people down to size when they say how they wish they could take two months off every summer. For the record: in terms of mental stress – looking after your kids all day – non-school prep work, and other unheralded and unpaid aspects of the job, elementary school teachers easily do the equivalent of a year's work, if not much more, in the ten months that school is "in." And they don't get paid nearly what they are worth.]

With regard to wedding shooters, let's recap: Plummer maintains that we sullenly work (on weekends) for six months of the year, then presumably lounge on our "winnings," vacationing in warmer climes during the colder "non-marrying season" until May arrives and brings with it a new opportunity to fleece another bunch of dewy-eyed suckers.

And for all that, he says: "...[L]et's face it: much of their work is mediocre. Have you ever really been wowed flipping the pages of a wedding album handed you by recent newlyweds? Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon they're not, but some charge fees as if they're in the same league."

Before going into my reasons for disagreeing with Chris Plummer, let me list the other nine "most overpaid" jobs on his list. For the record, we were lucky: wedding shooters came in at the bottom, number ten. In reverse order, ending with the most allegedly overpaid, were the following: 9. pilots for major airlines, 8.West Coast longshoremen, 7. airport skycaps, 6. real estate agents selling high-end homes, 5. motivational speakers and ex-politicians on the lecture circuit, 4. Orthodontists, 3. CEOs of poorly performing companies, 2. washed-up athletes in long-term contracts, 1. mutual fund managers.

I am not qualified to speak with any detail or precision about these nine other fields (neither, come to think of it, was Plummer, but that didn't stop him) so I'll let the pilots, longshoremen and orthodontists speak for themselves.

But as a photographer who shoots weddings, I do have a few things to say.

Plummer is correct about wedding photography pricing. The $2,000-$5,000 range is about right. [For the record, our average wedding runs around $3,500-$4,000.] The prices can go off the charts for some of the wedding photo "stars" like Dennis Reggie.

But pricing is about all that Plummer has right.

Shooting a wedding is a one-day job? In your dreams, Chris. What he neglects to consider (because I suspect he has no clue of what he is writing about) is that this kind of shooting is a very personal, very hands-on affair. Sure, as in any industry, there are sleazebags who will try to sell a gullible bride a wedding package she does not need, but the vast majority of people I know in this business are part artist, part journalist, part psychologist. The simple prep work beforehand can take hours. First there's the initial client meeting to show your work. Then, after you've landed the job, you literally can spend hours going over final details and lists of formal and group photographs – an exercise that can involve a healthy dose of group dynamics and inter-family tension. [I'm not even mentioning site visits to places where you have not worked before, or visits to a site to see how the light will play at a particular time of year. A pro will do this (at no charge) because he or she is, well, a pro.]

The day of the wedding is a given: a long day of hard work, usually anywhere from 5-8 hours of nearly constant, on-your-feet coverage, oftentimes with an assistant, whom you have to pay, of course.

And Plummer makes no mention at all of the post-production work, as if the wedding studio – intent, no doubt, on packing its bags for the Caribbean – simply shoots the job, takes its big check and makes a run for the border.

All those albums and custom prints and other things provided by traditional wedding studios don't happen by themselves. Every wedding album, for example, is a job of custom bookbinding, requiring a ton of prep work, all of it done by the photographer or his or her paid staff. Simply putting together a client's final order can be an adventure in cross-indexing, cataloguing and, yes, bookkeeping, none of which Plummer bothers to mention, much less consider.

As for labeling "many" wedding photographers arrogant mediocrities, deigning to shoot weddings until their journalistic or other ship comes in, "bumping guests in their way without apology..." I suspect Chris has had a run-in or two with a boorish wedding photographer and therefore feels safe in tarring all of us with this brush. What can I say? Every profession has its share of jerks. Don't you agree, Chris?

And as for someone else's wedding album rarely enthralling him, I venture to say that's understandable – it's not Plummer's wedding. Nine times out of ten, I'll bet, the bride and groom like their album just fine.

What I found ironic in Plummer's article was that he himself provided the best argument for the money we make as wedding shooters. It didn't come from him, of course, but from a compensation expert he interviewed.

"A lot of people are overpaid because there are certain things consumers just don't want screwed up," the expert said. "You wouldn't want to board a plane flown by a second-rate pilot or hire a cheap wedding photographer to record an event you hope happens once in your lifetime."

The only quibble I'd have with the above is the word "overpaid."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org/brochure.pdf



Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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