It’s becoming a popular thing for brides and grooms to both search for and ask in forums and groups; everyone wants a reasonably priced wedding photographer.  But what does it mean for a photographer to be “reasonably priced”?  Does it mean that the photographer needs to be under $2,000?  Under $2,500? Under $3,000? Offer albums and second shooters for that amount, too?  There is no definition of a “reasonably priced” wedding photographer.  In fact, I’ve written about how affordable wedding photography is a truly subjective term.

Let’s get a few things straight here.

  • I drive a Yaris – not a Ferrari.
  • I live in a small stacked townhouse that is barely big enough for my family; we don’t even have the luxury of having a yard for our kid to play in.
  • I have a reasonable savings account for the future, but I’m not sitting on piles of cash that I’ve scrooged away.
  • I live comfortably, but I don’t live a life of luxury and truthfully, there are times when money can get a bit tighter than I’d like.
  • Oh… and my full day wedding package, with digital images, is around $3,600 (at the time of writing this article).
knox college wedding photos 743 - Competing with the "Reasonably priced" wedding photographers
Liberty Grand wedding photos by Toronto wedding photographer Ten·2·Ten Photography ©2015

 

So if I’m just making a comfortable living with charging $3,600 for a package, how the hell is someone who offers the same type of coverage as me (possibly throwing in an album or a second shooter, too!) for $2,500 (or less!) surviving?  Is their spouse paying the majority of the bills?  Are they not actually sustaining their share of the cost of living?  Are they living in their parent’s basement still?  Are they doing everything as cash deals and not paying taxes?  Are they not investing back into their business at all?  Are they not paying for business insurance?  Seriously – what freaking corners are these people cutting?  I’m sure some people have some unique circumstances but it sure seems like a lot of people are able to have a really low cost of living or cost of doing business and it has be quite baffled.

The funny thing is…. I dropped my cojones once and PM’d a friend who (in a referral group) said they could accommodate 8 hours of coverage for $1,000.  I asked them if they would kindly share their business model with me because I’m genuinely curious and that I’m seeing so many people offer such low-ball quotes that I’m starting to think I’m doing something wrong.  They weren’t a new photographer – they’ve been around for YEARS and are quite talented.

I got the best answer from them.

Wanna know what it was?

They unfriended me.

Oh, don’t worry, they still respond to the inquiries I post in referral group though!

People used to ask “how do I compete with someone who works for half the price” and the answer used to be “they aren’t your ideal clients”.  Hell, even I’ve blogged about it before.  The industry is changing, though.  These permanently-low-budget vendors are starting to sway our ideal clients.  (EDIT: At least, from a few things I’ve seen myself and the stories my colleagues and peers share, this certainly seems to be happening.)  There are so many of them now that potential clients are no longer thinking of them as the “cheap outlier” and aren’t automatically dismissing them.  It’s human nature to gravitate towards a deal.  I mean, if you dangle a carrot in front of a dog long enough, he will eventually eat it despite preferring meat…right?.  A variety of permanently-low-budget vendors have been present in the industry long enough now that they are starting to sway what our previously “ideal” clients see as normal prices.

So what do we do?  As business owners, the numbers that these low budget vendors are selling themselves for just don’t make sense – not with normal costs of doing business or living.  Even if you want to make minimum wage (which is not a living wage), you have to charge at least $2,000 for a wedding that is only 1 photographer and only digital images and the very newest talent in the industry.  We’re talking have only shot 1-2 weddings level of “new”.  We’re talking “my backup gear is a 9 year old Canon Rebel” kind of new.  There’s nothing wrong with being cheap for your first few weddings – you have to get your foot in the door somehow – but STAYING cheap is lowering the bar for the industry as a whole.

This is what we do:

First – educate clients.  Say what needs to be said to help them make informed decisions, not what is “socially acceptable” to say.

Don’t be afraid to say: If your photographer is working for miniscule amounts of money, you have to understand that there is a certain amount of risk associated with working with someone like that.  Are they paying insurance?  Do they have up-to-date and well maintained gear?  Are they actually editing all the photos and giving each photo their attention or are they skipping a thorough editing process in order to save time?  Are they going to work themselves into exhaustion because they’re working 80-100 hours a week just to pay the bills?  Will the quality of their work suffer due to their exhaustion?  Will their turnaround time be immensely long due to their excessive workload?  Are they making enough money that their business will still be operational come your wedding day.

We need to be more willing to say these things.  It’s their wedding day.  It’s a non-repeatable event.  We, as experienced business people, know what kind of dangerous corners can get cut in order to accommodate lower budgets.

It’s not badmouthing.

It’s not being disrespectful.

It’s speaking truthfully about the risks associated with questionably low budget vendors.


The second thing we need to do is a wee bit, uh…. controversial?  But after months and months of reflecting on this topic, it’s the conclusion I’ve come to.


Second
 – we need to stop putting our “cheap” referrals out there for this SLB (super low budget) vendors to gain from.

Guys, gals… we’re part of what is creating this problem.  When we get an inquiry for a lower budget wedding (or a mediocre budget but when unreasonable expectations for what that price should include) we have a bad habbit of throwing that referral into a referral group and BOOM… 20+ people say they can “make it work”.

If these low budget vendors had to actually advertise for business then they’d have to put that money into advertising and would have no choice but to raise their prices to something normal.  Instead, they are grabbing up every single low budget inquiry that we’re spoon-feeding to them.

WE are the ones keeping this super low budget vendors in business.

WE are the ones that are giving them leads through referral groups.

WE are the ones who, by referring out these really low budget inquiries, are saying to our client “You bet your ass that there’s people out there that can do it for half my price!  here, let me curate a freaking list of them for you.”

and then WE turn around and say “Ugh, there’s so many low budget vendors now that my clients are choosing them even though they told me that they have the budget for me.  What’s going on?!?”

Is it ethical for us to refer out these questionably low budget weddings when we know that we’re likely sending the client in the direction of poor quality and cut corners and to people who are operating businesses in a non-sustainable way for the industry?

I’ll leave that discussion for another blog post and I’ll let you chew the fat on that idea for now.

 

But to answer the original question, how does one compete with “reasonably priced” wedding photographers?  Well… aside from educating your clients and hoping they hear the message, we can’t.  My fear is that we’re going to go through a cycle; probably 8 or 10 years long.  In this cycle, brides and groom will hire the “cheap” wedding photographers and there’s going to be a really good number of them who have downright shitty experiences.  They tell their friends to not make the same mistakes and eventually, after that message is out there long enough, people will circle back to understanding that you get what you pay for.

 

EDIT:  Thanks for the great feedback; this article has generated a LOT of conversation and most of it has been overwhelmingly positive.  Unfortunately a lot of the conversation is now missing the point and I’d like to clarify the main point of this article.  Yes, really low cost photographers exist.  Yes, some of them cut a lot of corners to get there.  If YOU are bothered by lower budget vendors getting your client instead of you, YOU can do something about it and that includes YOU not feeding the issue if YOU don’t believe they should be there.  If you’re happy with having vendors of all budgets in the industry then that’s great! While my personal opinion is that there are some people out there offering so, so, SO much for so little that I genuinely wonder how they operate and turn a profit for as long as they have, there’s also the right photographer for the right person out there.  It really sucks that some of the clients we meet with end up booking with substantially lower budget vendors but… if you’re bothered by these low budget vendors then you need to think about what you can do (and not just blame their existence).  This article was written because of the variety of conversations I saw going on between my peers across a variety of different forums.  People who were having a difficult time coping with competing with low budget vendors; yet I’d see these same people turn around and put their “$1,000 full day wedding” referral into a group.  I thought the combination of actions and reactions was really intriguing so I wrote about it and threw in my perspective.  Does it mean I’m losing business to these photographers?  No.  If you’re not affected by this issue, that’s amazing.  I’m not really, I only get the occasional price-match request, but I see some of my friends really struggling and I started this conversation to let them know that they are not alone, others feel that way, others see a change in trends and there ARE ways to push through but that they also need to be aware of how their own actions impact their industry.