First published in August 2007.
Ian Howell has a broad outlook on many aspects of professional photography, especially wedding and portraiture. Currently the president of the Victorian division of the AIPP, he runs a successful studio himself and, having business qualifications, also consults with photographers in Australia and overseas.
It was while consulting with a number of American wedding photographers recently that he began to question the ‘conventional' wedding package we offer in Australia.
Simply speaking, Australian wedding photographers offer their services for a relatively low fee, trusting that the quality of their photography will be so good that the bride and groom will double their order when making up their album. However, when you take the price of the album out of the basic fee, what we're really doing is giving our photography away for nothing. I'll let Ian explain.
"I was impressed with the way many American's priced their wedding photography, especially the fact that they charge more up front than we do.
"Of course, America also has a stronger culture of photography than we do. Generally speaking, Americans seem to value photography more than Australians and they love to have special events and milestones in their lives recorded, so that helps raise prices.
"However, they are going to be in a better position than us when the competitive edge created by digital technologies starts to eat into the pricing structure. As more wedding photographers enter the market with new digital SLRs, they are undercutting the established photographers to get a share of the market, but at least the starting point is a lot higher in the USA.
"As more and more newbies enter the market and the undercutting grows, there is a real danger many Australian photographers will not survive."
Ian says that the starting point for a wedding package is around $1000 higher in America than in Australia, and this isn't an exchange rate difference.
"When you consider that American wages are some 30 percent lower, as is their cost of living, it's interesting to note that the cost of photography is often 30 percent higher.
"In Australia, our approach is to compete for the job based on price and then rely on our ability to upsell our clients later on, rather than being prepared to charge up front for what we believe our photography is worth.
"This is a dangerous approach because as we compete more aggressively with each other, there's a risk that we will take all the profit out of photography for the majority of studios, so that no matter how well we up-sell after the wedding, we will never get what we need."
Ian produced a series of extensive budget sheets which calculated the real costs of producing a wedding album. Wedding photography is far more than the four to ten hours you might spend on the day shooting the loving couple. He estimates between 25 and 60 hours are spent in total, including interviews, travel, file downloading and preparation, album design, post-production, album assembly and delivery.
Assuming a six hour coverage, Ian estimated the cost of time to be around $2250 (charging six hours of photography at $150 an hour and all the other labour at $60 an hour), plus the album and prints will cost around $1100. Add in the costs of running your studio and putting money aside for equipment and retirement and an ‘average' studio needs to generate a minimum income of around $5000 per wedding.
So why are we offering to photograph a wedding for so much less, with no requirement to spend more? Continued Ian: "The basic wedding package in Australia includes a five to six hour coverage, a set of proofs and a 24-side 10x10-inch album. Our average starting price is $2800 whereas if you cost out the amount of time needed to shoot the wedding and produce the album, we should be charging closer to $4900.
"In other words, we have to up sell our clients around 20 sides in the album just to get to where we should have been in the first place."
Many wedding photographers feel a great sense of satisfaction when their clients buy an extra twenty sides, thinking this is all profit, whereas from Ian's perspective this is really just covering your time and materials. You need to sell more than this if you wish to make a profit.
So how do we charge more for our weddings when the rest of the market is locked in price wars around the $2000 - $3000 level?
"I think it's the photographers who attend the bridal fairs who will have to take a lead because they see the largest number of clients. Unless they change their pricing structures it will be very hard for the rest of us.
"My view is that most Australians are happy to pay $1500 to $3000 for their wedding photography, but they don't really think too much about what they are actually getting for their money. Another solution maybe for us to provide a wedding package that is only worth this much so we don't have to rely on upselling.
"For instance, if your package included the coverage, proofs, a DVD and no album, then a fee of under $3000 is probably okay, but if the couple also want an album then you'd need to add $2000." On this basis, says Ian, photographers are putting a value on their photography and a separate value on the album.
"I found a lot of photographers charging $2900 for a wedding coverage in America, but for this they provided a six hour coverage and a set of 6x4-inch prints. If you wanted an album, the coverage jumped up to $4900.
"However, the Australian public hasn't had a love affair with 6x4-inch prints, but there is a growing market for DVDs, so I can see photographers charging for their time and a DVD for $1200 to $1400. I think the majority of weddings will end up in this price range, after which the couple can buy a further range of services which are possibly provided by album manufacturers or other contractors.
"Published in a recent Rangefinder magazine (the magazine for members of the US-based WPPI), was a suggestion that one way to increase your business was to advertise making albums from other photographers' files. This seems to be an incredible indictment that this is all we can do to increase our business, but unfortunately it is the direction in which much of the industry is heading."
So, can we change the market's direction?
"We have a history in Australia of negative reporting on wedding photography , particularly by the bridal magazines and the daily press. They seem happy to write glowing reports about dresses costing thousands of dollars, but in the next paragraph talk about how to get your wedding photography as cheap as possible. We have to convince bridal magazine editors that it does them no good to be knocking photography and for them to recognise the total amount of work that goes into our final product.
"I think it would be great to write about the comparative long-term value of a wedding dress compared to a photography album for a similar investment..." But then I think even Ian would agree that this is a male, beancounter perspective which will have little sway with a bride!
"I see more and more people who are prepared to pay for a professional to take the photos, but once they have the photos, what happens to the images after that is not so important. As long as they have the photos on a DVD, they are happy.
"As an industry, we need to cater for these clients and charge $1700 to $2500 to do it, but that's going to be hard if we're already charging this amount and including an album as well.
"Have a look at the amount of leather in an album cover. It's the size of half a leather coat that would cost you $600, so the album cover has to be worth $300. Then we're telling the couple that each album side is $120, so once you deduct these costs from our wedding packages, how much are you actually charging for your photography?
"The problem I see is when our clients stop buying albums, where do we start our pricing? Will it be under $1000 for a full day's work because if there's no album to sell at the end of the day, then we have created an artificially low price with no option to upsell our services. My fear is we will become an industry of part-timers because you can't shoot 50 weddings a year for $1000 and stay in business.
"I look at those who are just shooting for 6x4s or a DVD and most of them are extremely lazy photographers. When you shoot this way, you don't have to worry about what you shoot, just make sure you give your clients lots of photos. Even when they hand over 500 to 600 prints, it's really only 130 shots repeated four or five times each with the only variation being the bride's expression.
"The real test of this type of photography is trying to design a 50 sided album. It just can't be done as the variety of images needed for a larger album simply does not exist from these types of coverages.
"However, the clients don't care or, perhaps more correctly, don't realize what they are getting is sub-standard. And then the quality of the photography deteriorates further when the prints are made from a cheap minilab or department store.
"Eventually this approach has to have an impact on our professionalism. Unless you're an artist who can charge a higher price to a small number of clients who is willing to pay, the future is looking difficult."
Photographers around Australia, both wedding and portraiture, are already experiencing clients who only want DVDs, so how do you charge these clients and how does it compare with what you're charging for prints and albums?
Ian suggests having another look at your price list and the products or packages you offer. Australian photographers tend to charge from $1,200 up to $7,000 for their wedding coverages, whereas the Americans charge from $2,200 up to $25,000. Unless we offer our clients some luxury options, then how are they to know they are available? And having some luxury options can make our middle-priced packages appear more affordable.
"Look at the range of cars Mercedes sells. Their most common models sell for around $100k, but there is always a $350k model sitting nearby in the showroom and every now and then someone buys it. I think the same can happen in photography, but if you're going to have a highly priced package, then you need to be sure you're giving them value for money. Ian's $13k package includes a pre-engagement portrait, photography of the wedding rehearsal, a 14-hour coverage on the day, a 50-side album, two smaller parent albums, two 16x20" framed prints delivered on the night of the reception, a 20x30" canvas and a DVD. No one may ever book it, but it certainly makes his $5,000 package look cheap.
Ian made one final observation - and to my mind the most important. He explained how an American photographer sold himself to potential clients. Rather than focusing on the products and his price list, this photographer focused on his skills as a photographer.
"Many photographers show their clients highly-priced wedding albums as examples of what they can buy. In comparison, an American photographer I met leaves his display albums and prices lists out of sight at the beginning of the interview session, instead showing and talking about a dozen matted 16x20 inch prints which he has taken.
"His approach is to demonstrate what he does as an artist and how he captures the wedding day. Before showing a print, he tells the couple the story behind the photograph, such as the wedding where the priest was 83 years of age. The photographer was certain the priest would fall asleep and sure enough, towards the end of the Communion the priest nodded off. When the burser woke him up, the priest stood up and began a funeral service...
"After the story, the photographer then shows the couple a photograph of the priest asleep in the church.
"The next story is how the father of the groom had always promised to share a cigar with his son on his wedding day, but had died 18 months before the wedding. The next photograph is revealed to show the groom smoking a cigar.
"The difference in this approach to selling yourself as a photographer is that it shows how you relate to the bride and groom on a personal level, and how you're sensitive to their situation.
"When you tell stories like these, suddenly you're not selling them a six hour coverage or a 20-side wedding album, you're offering them something that their children and grand-children can relive for years to come."
Ian says that when he tried this approach himself, it was amazing how well it worked and how good it made him feel. "I felt like a photographer for the first time in my life because, rather than selling an album, I was selling the emotion of what I do as a photographer and the importance of my role at the wedding. The album had become incidental to what I do.
"I want people to book me because I'm a photographer, not because I offer more album pages or a cheaper price. I think most of us should be selling the importance of the day being photographed first, and then the product at the end."