This may be nothing new to you, but the following information might be something your mom, dad, or older relatives with opinions about who you hire might need to read. The only times a lot of people actually go to a professional photographer are when they graduate high school, get married, or have a baby (and really that should change and it would be wonderful if everyone invested in pro photos of themselves more often, but it is what it is). So a lot of times, when the wedding photographer search starts, you’re going off the advice of your parents, your friends, and random internet strangers. The thing is, depending on the age of the person giving you advice, they may not fully understand how most photographers actually do things in 2019, now that we have digital equipment rather than film (and yes some photographers do still use film, which is absolutely fine, but they will have a much different way of doing things than most digital photographers). I’m here to break down a lot of how photography has changed over the last 20 years, so show this to your uncle who was once a wedding photographer and had, your mama who had her senior photos done in the 80s or 90s. Unfortunately this contributes to a lot of bad advice exchanged and even arguments between parents and their kids about what kind of service and products are delivered.
So, I decided to dig back into my archives of old brochures and receipts from when I had to search for a wedding photographer about 15 years ago to find out how things were done back then. These figures that I’ve come up with are directly from my own personal experience in searching for, having meetings with, and ultimately hiring a wedding photographer.
Number of Photos delivered Pre-2004: 200ish, and only unedited 4×6 proofs.
Number of photos delivered in 2019: 600-1200 on average, depending on the length of the wedding and the number of photographers present, delivered digitally through a downloadable online gallery. CDs are a thing of the past, and flash drives are quickly becoming a thing of the past as well.
What factors in to the differing amounts of photos: Back in 2004, most photographers were still using film cameras and digital was in its infancy. A high-end digital camera was capable of taking a 2-5 megapixel photo (which is mediocre by today’s standards), although digital camera sensors were also nothing like what they are today (Think photos that look grainy or quickly look terrible once printed larger than 5×7). For this reason, the pros were still using film cameras. Because of the high cost of film and photo developing often amounting to $1 per photo or more, photographers only took 200 or so, and only of the most important moments, bridal portraits, and family photos. Now we take literally thousands of photos, which allows us to be more creative and try more risky shots. We toss the duplicates, the closed eyes, the weird photobombers that step into the frame, etc, but are still left with so many great shots that we are able to deliver more. Although it isn’t “free” to keep hitting our shutter button over and over (shutters do go bad and we do have to replace them and our gear in general), its wayyyyy less costly than rolls of film and developing, which is why we are able to take so many more.
Average cost to book a full service professional in 2004: $1800-$2200.
Average cost to book a full service professional in 2019: $2500-$3500.
Why the cost has gone up: So basically back in 2004, when you booked a photographer, you literally didn’t get anything other than 4×6 proofs, and only 200 of them or so (some photographers didn’t even include those!). You got zero rights to your photos in 2004. You didn’t dare even THINK of asking for the negatives, those were owned by the photographer of course! Now, in 2019, most photographers give you 3 to 6 times as many photos as they did back then, and the photographer often spends 20-40 additional hours editing the photos to customize them and get them all matched to a specific style. So you’re not getting the “negative” per-se, but you are getting the finished photos and usually the rights to print them yourselves, then taking the photographer out of the equation and eliminating any additional profit that photographers in 2004 were getting by selling reprints, wall size photos, and albums. Yes, full service pros do sell albums and prints as well, but our tech savvy clientele know that they can print photos themselves or go through consumer labs to save money, thus eliminating the profits photographers 15-20 years ago relied upon.
We also are spending WAY more time editing. In 2004, photos turned out however the film stock made them turn out. If you wanted them retouched at all, you either had to buy reprints and the photographer would then either include minor retouching as part of the service, or they would charge per photo for the retouching and the lab would take care of it for them. Photographers in 2019 are INFINITELY more hands on, delivering far more photos, but also dealing with literally a solid workweek worth of editing after the fact, whereas photographers in 2004 just sent off their film to a lab to process and got them back a week or two later.
Average cost of albums Pre-2004: $200 for an album with nothing in it. You had to buy the pages with photos inserted into them. I can’t recall the price per page, but it was usually something like $20-$50 per page or spread.
Average cost of albums in 2019: $500-$3000 Holy s(&^ right?! Well, hold on there. Remember how I said in 2004 you only got the album itself and no photos? Yup. Back then you had to print all the photos that went in it, so you got charged just as much back then after you got everything printed out and put in. Now the difference is that albums have the photos printed right onto the pages. We also have way more options for albums now, with many different page types, paper types, printing techniques, cover types, etc. Our albums are NOTHING like those cheap Snapfish albums with lackluster printing and cheap binding/covers that will inevitably fall apart quickly. We sell heirloom quality investment pieces. The decision to by an album is yours and yours alone, and again, in 2019 you can absolutely go at that yourself, since you have personal printing rights to your photos, in most cases. We just don’t recommend going that route because it too often becomes that task that just never gets done, especially when most people don’t have the expensive design software or access to the professional album companies.
Average cost of prints Pre-2004 vs 2019: Oh friend, this is where things have REALLY changed. I think I paid like $300 in 2004 (oye.. I’m aging myself here) for 2 boxes of wallets, a couple 8x10s, and a 5×7. Photographers are going to be all over the place with this one and what they charge for reprints, but ultimately most people know they can shop around for prints so I personally don’t mark them up in the way people used to. Because photographers don’t spend as much time in face-to-face consults and meetings with clients now, people like me just sell through our online galleries where you do all of the selection process on your own and order directly from our professional lab partner. This cuts out a lot of the time we spend with that, so on the one hand we are not spending as much time in meetings and putting together orders, but on the other hand its also eliminating a lot of profits that photographers pre-2004 were making off print sales. I personally do not mark up my prints very much at all, because you do have print rights, and are free to take them elsewhere. I still want you to go through me though, as I can vouch for the reliability and consistency of my favorite pro lab, whereas you never know what you will get when you go it on your own.
Anyway, long story short, most photographers now are not relying on print sales to profit, and are letting people handle that themselves, since its so much easier now and more accessible to everyone.
Print packages Pre-2004 vs 2019: I don’t actually know of any photographers any more that offer print packages with a pre-determined number of prints that are included in the price at booking. Now what some do is offer a “print credit”, where they occasionally do a promotion to include credit for prints up to a certain dollar amount. This leaves it open to you to decide what you want to order later. Some do this and some don’t, mainly because a lot of people are ordering prints now themselves. A lot of people don’t even order prints because everyone is going digital now for everything (but don’t get me going on not printing your photos, because its unwise as digital photos can and do eventually wind up getting lost or file formats change or something makes it so they are useless in the future, whereas a print lasts a lifetime).
Time spent at the actual wedding Pre-2004 vs 2019: Photographers in 2004 tended to lean a little more toward offering specific wedding services, rather than hourly packages (although hourly packages were starting to become a “thing” too). So back then, you could buy portrait coverage only, portrait + ceremony, or something to that effect. Some photographers just had a very specific way of doing things, and would take photos of very specific moments and then put their camera down the rest of the day (remember, they were shooting film, not digital, and couldn’t just photograph like crazy all day). Now, most photographers offer 6, 8, 10, and 12 hour packages with various offerings. What each photographer offers in the way of how much they actually photograph will vary, but, in general, most will take a lot more photos overall, for whatever amount of time they are there. Much of the time the reception wasn’t covered, other than the first dance between the bride and groom, the cake cutting, and the bouquet/garter toss, because those were considered the key moments.
Travel/Reach Pre-2004 vs 2019: Photographers generally tended to stick to one specific area before 2004. Internet searching wasn’t quite as abundant, so a lot of people would just go to the local bridal shows and look in the phone book and just start calling local people. So, the guy that did your senior photos would often wind up being your wedding photographer, because he was “the guy” in town that everyone knew to call when they needed photos. Today its a VASTLY different world for marketing our services as pretty much everyone searches for their photographer on the internet and most photographers are willing to travel literally hours away to do weddings. So, no longer are you getting the local guy, you are choosing from an endless array of options. What I’m finding now is that people are searching for a very specific type of photographer, not a generalist. Bare minimum people want someone who specializes in weddings, or even more specifically their type of wedding (outdoor, indoor, church, brewery, warehouse, industrial, ballroom, lakeside, etc). So, if your photographer lives 2-3 hours away from your wedding ceremony site, this is nothing unusual, especially if your wedding is in Northern Michigan where the major cities are further apart and people are holding destination weddings. The beauty of this is that the competition drives creativity and technique, and because there is such a vast assortment of styles to choose from, you really can pick a photographer that you love, and not something standard. BTW there is no “standard” anymore, simply because everyone does everything so differently!
Photo editing in 2004 vs 2019: I could literally write another blog on this topic alone due to the confusion on what is included and what isn’t included. Back in 2004, photographers didn’t really do anything to their photos unless you purchased additional prints from them. Once you agreed to getting something printed, they then had the photo retouched to look its best. This included everything from removing stray hairs to eliminating and smoothing out acne. Everything additional was an additional expense because it was sent to a lab to be done, so the photographer knew they would have to profit from print sales to cover it. 2019 is a little different, but confusion over the subject seems to be abundant. In 2019 most photographers use presets (for anyone who doesn’t know, its a one click thing that changes the overall look of your photos so that they all fit into a cohesive style). A preset isn’t a one-click and all done though. Usually a photographer either creates their own presets or they buy them. Then after applying the preset to their photos, they still have to go through each photo and tweak them up a bit to ensure that the colors look the way they like them to look, the exposure looks good, and the framing looks good (so some might need a little cropping or rotating). All of this is part of the process that can take up to a full workweek. That is NOT including extensive editing like removing stray hairs, acne, glasses glare, and literally reshaping people. I get asked at every wedding I attend if I can just “fix” things or add things in to photos. Yes, I can have a lot of fancy things done to a photo, just as any photographer can, but it is still an extensive extra process that we have to charge for to make it worth our time put into it. So that part of it hasn’t really changed. So yes, both back then and now we have to charge for retouching as it does take either significantly more time to do, or we have to send it out to a service to do it (which then we have to pay).
Turnaround time Pre-2004 vs 2019: Film photographers prior to 2004 would just send their photos to a lab and then get them back a week or two later. Then you would have an appointment to go in and look at the proofs and make your selections as to what you want to get reprinted and what you wanted to have put in an album. A separate order was then placed at that time, often costing hundreds or even thousands more, so that you could get large photos for your walls and heirloom albums.
In 2019, though, turnaround time is typically longer. If the photographer is doing their own editing, delivery times of 6-8 weeks or more are considered standard and not at all uncommon. Quicker turnaround times often mean the photographer is outsourcing the editing to another company, although the photographer still has to take the time to look through everything and still make some final changes. Its either that or they have no work/life balance at home, and are at a very high risk of burning out and shutting down. Spring and early summer usually have the fastest delivery times, while autumn is notoriously extremely busy and has the longest delivery times. We have a much more intensive process now than just taking rolls of film to a lab.
Posing Pre-2004 vs 2019: This is something that will continually evolve and change. The “traditional” way of doing weddings that was prevalent before the digital era was to pose everyone perfectly, use light meters and off camera lighting, and do all of posed photos in one spot (so if you got married in a church, it was the altar). The camera was set on a tripod and you had to get it right the first time (both the photographer and the people having their photo taken). Certain poses were super reliable so there wasn’t really creativity and flexibility going into it. Your photographer would work with you for as long as it took to get you into the perfect poses and this process generally took a while. Looking at a group of 30 people took both a photographer and usually an assistant nitpicking about hand placement, hip angles, chin angles, etc on every single person to try to get it right. Again, this took a LOT of time and usually resulted in a stiff and uncomfortable looking photo. Today, photography has moved into a much more loose and casual direction. Poses are more free-flowing and “unposed”, where the photographer guides the couple into more genuine interactions like laughter, walking poses, cuddling, etc. The trade off is that sometimes the lighting isn’t dead on perfect, and maybe an arm could have been somewhere else that would make the photo more technically perfect, but the expression was the end goal and a photo was created to show connection and emotion more than a perfect silhouette. Photographers are still working their butts off to keep things looking as good as possible, but we have a lot more freedom to play around and use movement, since we can take more risks with digital. Most of us still take some traditional photos, but it is definitely not the focus for most. Most of my clients actually ask me to keep things loose and fun and not pose people. This is what they want. I actually show some more dramatic and posed photos in my portfolio because it is something that I offer that is a little different, but it represents a small portion of the day and is just for the display type photos that my couples put on their walls. However, they are sharing all the fun and candid ones on social media the most. My most treasured family photos are not the stiff posed ones, but the fun moments I had with my family. That is what people are wanting to remember.
Timeline Planning: “First Looks” are a big thing now. More and more couples are foregoing the tradition of having the groom see the bride for the first time as she walks down the aisle. This typically allows for a lot more time for photos prior to the wedding so that everyone can relax immediately following the wedding and actually enjoy the cocktail hour with the rest of the guests. This means a lot of the family might have to be at the wedding early to get photos taken beforehand, but again, thats less to worry about after the wedding is over and everyone wants to socialize.
I hope this gives everyone out there a better idea of what modern wedding photography is like. If you have any questions or anything to add, please drop a comment to let us know!