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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

November 16, 2003

Wedding Photography and the "$39K Schmuck"

On November 6th, on, a reporter named Chris Plummer wrote an article that has caused a stir among professional photographers. The article purports to name the ten most overpaid jobs in the United States. The top ones are just as you'd expect: CEOs of failing companies, washed-up athletes working out the remaining years of big contracts, and mutual fund managers. Surprisingly, however, the #10 spot named, of all things, wedding photographers.

Here's the entry:

    10) Wedding photographers

    Photographers typically charge $2,000 to $5,000 to shoot a wedding, for what amounts to a one-day assignment plus initial client-meeting and processing time. Yet many mope through the job, bumping guests in their way without apology, with the attitude: "I'm just doing this for the money until Time or National Geographic calls."

    They must cover equipment and film-development costs. Still, many in major metro areas who shoot two weddings each weekend in the May-to-October season can pull in $75,000 to $100,000 for six months' work.

    Yet let's face it; much of their work is mediocre. Have you ever really been wowed flipping the pages of a wedding album handed you by recent newlyweds? Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon they're not, but some charge fees as if they're in the same league."

A lot of photographers, I'm sure, winced when they read this. As a friend who's a (very) high-paid corporate lawyer explains, the public can't afford his services — only corporations are rich enough to hire him. Lawyer jokes exist because the public deals with the bottom-feeders, almost by definition. It's not quite as bad in photography, but dealing with the public is a big negative for most pros, who prefer to deal with professional buyers — ad agencies, editors, stock houses, whatever — who know what custom photography costs and who you don't have to educate each time they hire you. The public, on the other hand, has a nearly indomitable prejudice that photography is cheap, an attitude doubtless inculcated by drugstore print prices and Wal-Mart portraits.

In 1988 I took an interesting seminar from a photographer named Karl Francetic. He said at the time that the average pro photographer in America spent 75% or more of his or her time marketing, charged a day rate of $500, worked an average of two and a half days a week, billed $75K, and kept $39K before taxes.

He called that pro "The $39K Schmuck."

The point of his seminar was, why would anybody want to do that? He (Francetic) cleared $1.6 million before taxes, running two studios round the clock shooting furniture for the furniture industry, while he himself travelled around the country doing high-dollar interior photography.

Interestingly, the reason he taught the seminars was because he had priced himself out of a lucrative segment of the market (the $500-$1000 day rate) yet got a lot of requests for that level of work. He was looking for some photographers to whom he could delegate such work in return for a cut. He thought this would be relatively easy, since he was offering, in effect, to do the hardest part of a photographer's job for him: getting the work. He was offering to help set people up in business, starting with a free portfolio review. At the time, he had been giving the seminar for two years to full houses and not one person had taken him up on his offer of a free portfolio review.

I'd be really interested to know what the figures in the first paragraph are today. I'll bet we could call PMA and find out, although I haven't done so. Pro photography took a big dive in the early '90s...lots of studios and photographers went out of business, and the ones who were left had a lot of belt-tightening to do. I really don't know what the professional situation is today.

No accident

I doubt most wedding photographers clear anything like $100K, though. Nor is there any reason to think of a wedding a "one day assignment," except perhaps if you've never done one. In fact, weddings are difficult work. The wedding photographer works like a sled-dog, is under a lot of pressure to produce, has to both educate and coddle his clients, and has to endure a certain amount of contempt from his subjects. I doubt most wedding photographers "mope" through their assignments — except perhaps the ones chosen by true cheapskates. Lots of very accomplished pros won't do weddings, and that's no accident.

Not too long after I took that seminar, I did one of the only weddings of my career, for an old friend I've known since second grade. I shot 40 rolls of film, made almost 400 workprints, and ended up with (I think) 40 or so archival black-and-white fiber prints, mounted in a handmade book with a cover of Hawaiian Koa wood. It took me a year to complete, although I admit I took my sweet time. I charged my friends a few hundred dollars for expenses, and they loved the book — every now and then I hear from them when they've gone through it again. However, I honestly don't think I could do that kind of work profitably for anything less than about $4k per wedding. Even at that I'm not sure I'd want to make a career of it. It's just too labor intensive.

PPA strikes back

Five days after the original article came out, the Professional Photographers of America struck back. Here's the press release:

So...overpaid? Ironically, it may be more true that most wedding photographers are underpaid. The reason is that most clients have no idea of the real cost of the work, and are always trying to lowball the job. And the job is difficult enough that a lot of photographers don't want the work. It's bad enough being a $39K schmuck, without having to work 50 hours a week for clients who don't really appreciate what it takes to do what you do.

— Mike Johnston

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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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