Decoding and Evaluating a Wedding Photographer’s Fee, Part I: What’s Stated in The Package

03 | 08 | 2011

I’ve always had a distaste for the term “day rate” when it comes to wedding photography.  Not only does it woefully misrepresent what we do, I think it actually devalues it.  So, in the interest of helping you guys evaluate wedding photographer package rates (at the time of year when everybody seems to be looking), I thought we should discuss here what actually goes into a package rate or fee.  Forgive me the long post.  I think this is worthwhile information.

Here, we’ll discuss what’s in a wedding photographer’s package that’s stated or listed (tomorrow, in Part II, we’ll talk about what’s in a photographer’s fee that’s not stated).  Stated items are the services listed and the tangible goods (photographic prints and products) that are included in a package.  I’m breaking them down into their most probable parts.

1. Wedding Day Photographic Coverage

Packages or photographer’s fees will likely vary by hour, but may alternately be a flat rate.  You may have the option to add time or additional photographers to your package.  But basic coverage may be for one photographer or two, or for a photographer and an assistant. A second photographer takes photographs at a wedding, of course, but a photographer’s assistant generally does not take photographs.  A photographer’s assistant usually is someone who helps carry bags and equipment.  So: don’t confuse a two person team for a two photographer team.

Having two photographers is definitely better than one, but it’s also more costly.  A skilled artist needs to be hired, and more people shooting (or more hours of shooting, regardless of the number of photographers) adds up to additional expense, both in hard costs and in your photographer’s time on the back end, too.   These expenses may be a separate line item on the contract or invoice or your photographer may include the expenses in the base rate.  Either way, the price will reflect the expenses incurred by the photography studio.

2. Proofing

Proofing is the way you take in all the images from your wedding.  In this film-plus-digital age, proofs may be online in a private password-protected gallery or they may be physical proof prints, or your photographer may do a combination of both for proofing.  Both methods have their advantages and their limitations, and we use both methods in our studio.  All our clients get an online gallery and some amount of proofs.  Some of our clients elect to get all their proofs.

Online digital proofing is quick and the images can usually be very well organized, so it’s easy to find something specific when you’re looking for it.  It’s also easier for you to access images from a number of locations and to share the photos with friends and family.  Unfortunately, computer screens vary dramatically from monitor to monitor, so there’s no way, with online proofing, for your photographer to know if you’re looking at really accurate color.  (I mean: assume you’re not!).

Physical proof prints fix that problem easily— you can look at the image exactly as it’ll print because you’re looking at the print!  Really big events are cumbersome to look at online and understand their full scope, but physical proofs fix that, too.  And side by side comparisons are a snap when you can hold one photo up next to another.  Physical proof prints can get disorganized pretty quickly, though, if you’re not careful, and sorting through piles of photographs looking for a specific image can become tiresome.

Laying out albums can work well physically with proof prints or digitally with software, but some people, myself included, are more tactile and the physical prints do seem to help with the task.

3. Prints

Some photographers may include prints or print credits as part of their basic package. You don’t really have a photograph until you have a print of an image (right?! Your grannies and your grandchildren aren’t going to care about a disc of images. That’s just the shoebox-under-the-bed v. 2.0.  Out of sight = out of mind).  So even a small print credit is a big plus, and an added value.

4. Albums

A finished wedding album may or may not be included.  Be sure to ask if the credit is for a specific album or if it’s a general credit.   Consider the value of the album, and also ask what the costs may be for upgrading or changing your album.  You may change your mind about which album you want as you go through the planning process for your wedding, or after the wedding.

Not all albums are created equally, so be sure you’re comparing like-to-like with albums.  Beware the cheap, cheaply-made album and photo books on the market these days.  We use only high-quality artisan-crafted albums in our studio, and we work exclusively with local album companies, so that we can collaborate with them face-to-face. The really good photographers are in the business of making heirlooms and we all take that duty very seriously.

Note that a lot of photographers discount the albums and products inside of a package, as a buying incentive.  This is similar to the concept of the baker’s dozen, where you buy twelve bagels and your baker throws in a thirteenth.  This adds value.  And because of your total investment, your photographer can offer the album (or photographic coverage or prints or whatever) at a discounted rate as opposed to purchasing that same album or product or service on its own (a la carte).

5. Disc of Images / License to Use Images / Negatives

A photographer makes her living on the creation and use of images she creates.   A basic wedding photography package may or may not include image-use privileges.  People always used to talk about getting “the negatives,” but now “negatives” has become a generic term to mean a license to print or otherwise use the images. It’s good to inquire what image use rights, if any, are allowed as part of your package.

If rights to the images are included or are for sale, they are probably personal or family-use only rights (like: you can’t sell the images or use them for commercial purposes).  We retain full rights to our images, unless someone, usually a celebrity, does a very expensive, and almost always otherwise unnecessary, image buyout. (The image buyout removes our right to make money from prints and other duplication of the images.)

So when you look at a photographer’s fee, try to look at it holistically.  Get a feel for what’s included and for the caliber of what’s included—and I mean that all around.  It’s easy to get trapped in the shopping mode (“what do I get?!) without thinking about album-to-album or photographer-to-photographer comparisons.  A high quality album and fewer hours of photography from a fantastic photography studio might be a far better investment than unlimited coverage and three albums from another studio.

It’s just as easy to get trapped in the bottom-line-only mentality (“what’s the fee?) without regarding what’s actually included in the fee.  Some photography studios try to size up everything they think you need to make the investment worthwhile (so there aren’t hidden costs for you later).  Others offer a low fee, but then everything else is a la carte, and that might or might not cost you more in the end.  Most photographers fall somewhere in between.

It’s good to assess what you think you’ll want to have as your keepsakes early in the planning process.  Even if you don’t make the whole investment at once and even if you change your mind, at least you’ll be a smarter, savvier commissioner of wedding photography.*

Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part II.  We’ll discuss what goes into a wedding photographer’s fee that’s intangible, a very real part of what you’re paying for … though it never makes it onto a package price list or a contract.

photo: Gia Canali, from this adorable wedding

*Ultimately, I think you should hire someone whose work makes your heart go pitter-pat.  But that’s another story altogether.  We’re assuming you’ve found one and we want you to be savvy about sizing up the fees.