No wedding is complete without the wedding photographer. Memories of the big day can last a lifetime, but photographs, passed down through the generations, help those memories live forever. Those with photographic skills and tools know that a wedding photography business can be as lucrative as it is fulfilling.
The key word, of course, is business. Photography is a common hobby, and the practice of photographing weddings often starts as favor that a good photographer can grant to friends and family. But between the time and energy expended at the wedding; the effort needed to edit, retouch, upload, or develop the photos; and the hours spent planning, traveling, and otherwise preparing for the wedding (as well as engagement or anniversary events), hobbyists quickly recognize that photography can be as much of a job as anything else.
That’s the conclusion Rosy Gaytan, a Dallas-based wedding photographer, came after she began her career photographing newborn babies. Her move into snapping weddings eventually led her to a full-time focus on matrimony.
Armed with her first camera—a basic one with a crop sensor and kit lenses that she values at about $600—Gaytan started down the path of photographing for friends and family, though she began her career with newborns rather than newlyweds.
“I eventually got into weddings because a friend of mine asked me to ‘second shoot’ with her,” says Gaytan. “I’d never considered doing weddings before, and I was intimidated at first. I thought ‘Gosh, you only get one shot at this, and if you mess it up you can get sued.’ But I went and I loved it. And after finding out how much my friend made from that job, I decided maybe I was in the wrong area of the business. Newborns are a lot of work.”
It wasn’t as simple as diving right into wedding photography, though. Gaytan learned the ins and outs of the trade by staying on as a second shooter for the next few months.
“I got a lot of experience from it, though I was a cheap second shooter,” Gaytan says.
A wedding photographer can’t get away with using a smartphone as their camera. In fact, not even the basic kit Gaytan started off with would make the cut.
“I started off my wedding business with a Nikon D3100 and a prime lens of 1.8,” says Gaytan. “If I had known then what I knew now, I wouldn’t even have bought the kit lenses I started with. It’s good to invest in a better lens.”
Gaytan also invested in a tripod, but admits she doesn’t use it enough to call it a necessary expense. What she does recommend, however, is a flash and diffuser for the flash—about a $400 investment—as well as a ton of SD or CF memory cards, which can vary in price depending on the brand and memory size.
As her business grew, Gaytan was able to upgrade to the tools she uses today, which includes a variety of lenses for different occasions and settings.
“I made enough money to buy a Nikon D810 and upgraded my lens to a Sigma 1.4, my go-to at receptions. I also own other lenses, like the Tamron 70-200 (for wedding ceremonies) and the Nikon 85 1.4 lens (good for portraits and engagement sessions). Good lenses are usually ones that can go down to apertures of 1.8, 1.4 or 1.2, depending on whether you own a Nikon or Canon,” she says.
There are also the tools used after the ceremony, like Photoshop for photo editing and USB drives to store photos for the clients.
“People came to me enough when I was photographing in my spare time that I thought, maybe I can make this a business,” says Gaytan. “So I went on a Tuesday to go talk to a CPA and asked her ‘How do I go about starting a business?’”
Gaytan’s CPA told her she needed her D.B.A.—or a “doing business as,” which is required by some states when the company operates under a different title than their legal and registered name—and a self-permit. The CPA completed this process for Gaytan for $75, and also advised her to get a business checking account.
“I picked my name—Alba Rose Photography—and it was available. You’re just registering and making yourself accountable, so I pay sales tax every quarter for that name,” Gaytan says.
Gaytan also recommends getting insured, especially if you start with newborns like she did.
“Lots of photographers I know didn’t start with insurance until they were more established, but I wanted to be insured and not have to worry about getting sued in case something goes wrong: to have peace of mind,” she says. “So I bought business insurance. Right now I pay $575 for the year through Nationwide—I could probably get cheaper but it’s a plan I’m happy with.
“I still need it for weddings, because certain venues require that you have insurance, and I have to add that venue to my policy that day. It’s good to have it in case they ask, because you don’t want to be that photographer that got turned away because of no insurance.”
Then there are the everyday responsibilities and costs of operating a one-person business. Gaytan, like many wedding photographers, does everything herself, from bookkeeping to website design.
“I use 17hats to keep everything in one place. It tracks my needs, my emails, my calendar for the week and month and year, my credit cards, contracts, invoices, and keeps everything in one place—which is very convenient,” says Gaytan. She adds that she got the app on a Black Friday deal, paying $200 for two years, and that it’s helpful for any kind of one-person business.
“I made it myself,” she says when asked about her website. She recommends ProPhoto, which she noticed a lot of top photographers use to make a professional looking portfolio and entrance page. The premium themes from ProPhoto, which she then customizes, help draw customers in, she says.
“Without the themes, it would have been a very boring site—like a blank page,” she says. “I usually hear ‘I love your website’ from new customers, which tells me it’s doing something.”
Remember: there are costs to hosting a website, as well as the galleries for client photos. Consider services like BlueHost, SquareSpace, or Weebly for your site, and Zenfolio or Pixieset for client galleries.
When it comes to ratcheting up the scale of the company from friends and family to a full-blown business—complete with clients you have no prior connection with—you’ll need to advertise in order to reach a new audience.
“I booked my first wedding for $600, and I got a ton of referrals from that one wedding alone,” Gaytan says. “But now my business mostly comes from advertising. Last year I started marketing myself in The Knot, which is very popular. It seemed like a big investment, but in the first month with The Knot I booked 50% of the weddings I have for this year.”
With most outlets—including The Knot—you can choose to sign a contract with an early-out clause in case you aren’t getting enough inquiries to justify the cost. Depending on your fee, just one wedding a month through a magazine ad can pay for itself.
Gaytan has slowly upped her prices since she struck out on her own, and building her portfolio has allowed her to set a range that she feels comfortable charging for her services and skills. She provides different packages for different budgets as well, which typically go as low as $2,800 and as high as $5,500, though there are smaller packages for fewer hours or if a second shooter isn’t needed. Larger packages might include upgrades like an heirloom album, a bridal session, and extended hours.
“I moved to my current pricing model about 6 months ago. It’s based on my cost of goods, how long it takes to edit, my driving time… I include everything that’s needed for me to shoot one-way,” says Gaytan.
“For most of my clients, I give them a free engagement session, so I calculate the time it takes me to edit the whole gallery of their engagement.”
When it comes to setting prices, you might want to take Gaytan’s advice and market yourself for the brides that you want, rather than just the ones you think you can book.
“The brides I’ve been booking lately are really my ideal brides: they’re not looking at price, they’re looking at quality. And, ultimately, what business owner doesn’t want that?” she says.
There are intangibles that each individual photographer needs to cover when starting their own wedding photography business. They have to develop their own style, learn how to deal with different variables at every shoot—the lighting, personalities, and demands—and figure out what kind of brides and weddings they want to shoot. But some parts of the business are the same no matter what kind of photographer you are: you need to have the right tools, some business savvy, and a willingness to let your craft speak for itself.
If you’re a romantic at heart—and a good photographer!—consider lending your skills to capturing that “first look” between the bride and groom. Just don’t get too teary-eyed to shoot.