A sane person's guide on how much to spend on wedding photography

Most people hire a wedding photographer only once in a lifetime. Figuring out how much to spend while still receiving quality photography can make you want to shred a yard of organza with your teeth.

Bear with me. This is doable.

Here's the first problem. Most information about wedding photography cost is based on averages.  The average couple spends about $2,500 on their photography, or about 10 to 20 percent of their wedding budget. That can either sound low, about right, or delusional, depending on your point of view. 

According to Cost of Wedding, the average wedding in the United States comes in at $26,720. However, 40 percent of couples spend less than $10,000.

Now let's add the New York factor. Weddings here average about $40,000 (100 to 200 guests). Photo and video is over $5,000.

What if your total wedding budget is only $5,000? Does this mean you spend $500 on wedding photography? And if so, who does weddings photos for $500? (Answers: Not necessarily. And, sadly, almost no one competent).

Before you stone your photographer, be aware that the venue is by far the big ticket item regardless of where you live. Find an affordable venue and you can hire three photographers. Or one extremely good one. 

Let's ditch the percentages and the averages. What this really comes down to is you. Here are three questions you can ask yourself to help you figure out the right amount for you to spend on your photography. And guess what? For a change, the first question is NOT what is your budget.

HOW MUCH DO YOU CARE?

Yes, how much do you actually care about your wedding photography? Sure, your budget matters, but it's not the decider. Every wedding is like an apple pie. Some people get a big apple pie - in other words a generous budget. Some get a little apple pie. (And believe me, everybody's pie feels little to them.) But what you do have control over is how the pie is sliced. People who care about their photography will allot a bigger slice of the pie to their photography. People who don't care that much will just be looking for the cheapest deal, regardless of their budget. 

I've seen brides spend more on a photo booth than on their wedding photos. I've had other brides spend as much on their photography as they did on their venue. In the first case, the couple took a little slice out of their big pie for photography. In the second case the couple took a big slice out of their little pie. In the end, the small budget wedding couple paid twice as much for their photography as the large budget couple.  Both had beautiful weddings. Both were happy. (Only one got good photos, but I'll let you figure out who that was.) My general rule of thumb is that if you spend more on your dress than on your photography, you're probably not super into your wedding photography.

Almost every couple is at least a little bit interested in their photography. But some people can't tell a good photo from a bad one or a great photo from an average one. If you can't tell the difference, why pay for it? For me, it would be like buying a Bose system when I think my car radio puts out pretty good sound. A nice sound system is a waste on me. I can't hear it.

I could try to explain all the reasons why photography is more important than the myriad other things you can put money into for a wedding and that a good photographer can make a budget venue and a budget dress look like something from Once Wed, but it's OK. It's your wedding and your cash. Drop it on prime rib and favors if you want. Or save it. 

WHAT IS YOUR BUDGET?

So, let's assume that you are a couple who does care about your photography and is not necessarily shopping purely on price. What kind of pie slice are we looking at for good photos? Below is a simple breakdown of what various starting prices will get you in the New York area. A starting price is generally the photographer's least expensive package. It has fewer hours of coverage (usually somewhere between 6 and 8) and  does not include any prints or an album.

$4,000 and up - For this amount you can usually hire someone highly skilled and experienced, possibly even a true artist with photography. Others at this level include photographers with exceptional customer relation skills or top-notch marketing. 

$2,000-$3,000 - This is the middle market in wedding photography. The majority of photographers are at this level. This group includes everything from so-so to skilled. Generally speaking you can expect to find competent photographers who can execute the job professionally and have backup equipment and editing software. Lots of choices here.

$1,000-$2,000 - This niche is home to dilettantes, newbies and cheeseballs. And some real talent. Generally as you drop below $2,000, you will find a lot of cheesy photography, poor lighting, limited experience and uneven editing. You can also find a few really good up and comers in this level. Photographers generally start out low with their pricing and gradually raise their rates as their bookings increase. You might catch someone on their way up. But this type of photographer is hard to find.

Below $1,000 - The scary zone. There are good photographers even here but the risks are higher. Plenty of photographers will charge $1,000 and up after shooting only one wedding. Photography skills (including wedding photography) take years to develop. The less you are paying for your photography, the more you need to do your due diligence. Ask to see a whole wedding gallery (or several), not just a few portfolio shots. Even so called 'cheap' photography is expensive. So don't drop $900 without thought just because you actually have $900. Spending $2,000 on good photos is stressful. Spending $900 on bad ones is just sad. 

Now to our third question:

HOW MUCH DO YOU CARE?  

Yes, that was question number 1, but it applies again here. You may be thinking, 'I love good photography, but there's no way I can spend $3,000 on a photographer.' That may be true. Or not. People put money into the things they value. There may be something else you value more. Maybe it's a fabulous dress. Maybe it's videography over photography. Maybe it's having 300 guests at a catering hall. (It's well known that the quickest way to save money on your wedding is to drop guests.) If you didn't spend on those things, you could have the photography of your dreams.  It's your choice. But knowing that you chose to value something else over photography will free your mind of a lot of frustration and stress.

Now, there are cases when a wedding budget is truly tiny. And the couple truly loves photography. If this is you, your best best is to hire a photographer you love but for fewer hours. (Personally I offer a number of options in this category to serve couples just like you.) Then give a friend with a DSLR $50 to buy a flash and shoot your reception. The reception photos might be terrible but that's better than all of your wedding photos being terrible. 

Your second option is to find someone who is still up and coming and is still shooting under the market price for their talent. How can you recognize who is inexpensive and talented versus who is inexpensive and terrible? That will be the subject of a future blog post.