Couples spend thousands on a wedding photographer for that perfect shot

September 6, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

Ed. note: This story was reported, written, and edited prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photographer Jose Villa regularly flies around the world to shoot couples’ wedding celebrations, whether it’s a castle in Tuscany, a ballroom in Malaysia, or a private estate in Napa Valley.

But he’s more than just a guy with a camera. He commands tens of thousands of dollars for his time and his talent, one so in demand that he shot Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas’ multi-day wedding in India, snapped Hailey Baldwin and Justin Bieber’s “I dos” in South Carolina, hopped in a hot air balloon above vineyards to capture a wedding guest excursion in wine country, and spent seven days covering a destination wedding in Thailand. One recent gig took place across three different locations, including a beach town in the south of France and New York City.

It may seem like a crazy cost for “the big day,” but the fact is that most wedding photography today is no longer shooting one eight-hour event at a single location. It includes everything from engagement photos and pre-wedding shoots to bridal luncheons, rehearsal dinners, portrait lounges, afterparties, and even honeymoons—then, of course, the editing of thousands of images. For luxury weddings that cost six figures—or more—there may be several days of events, and destination weddings often mean hopping on long-haul flights and posting up at five-star resorts. Villa even has a team of shooters that assist and photograph from multiple angles.

Clane Gessel specializes in fine art wedding photography.
Clane Gessel Photography

For photographers, weddings have become a very lucrative business.

“It’s not a backyard game anymore,” explains photographer Shawn Connell. “The skill of the photographer matters. Ten years ago, it used to be business people in weddings. But now it’s brilliant talent at the top of their game, with creative gear and equipment, which are pushing the definition of how to record a celebration.”

Wedding photography is practically a given for most couples, with 89% hiring a photographer, according to WeddingWire’s 2020 Newlywed Report. By comparison, 87% hire a caterer and 70% hire a florist. It’s also one of the biggest line items in terms of cost. The average couple spends $28,000 on the wedding, with $2,400 on a photographer. Those numbers, though, don’t accurately reflect a large portion of clients on the higher end of the scale, say luxury wedding photographers, who charge anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 for their services. Their clients are often spending hundreds of thousands, or even millions, on their celebration.

It has pushed wedding photographers into an elite league of their own, each carving out what specialty sets them apart. For Villa, it’s shooting film in a land of digital, and for Connell, it’s style. He forgoes posed shots in favor of a photojournalistic approach to the wedding. “It’s about moving quickly to capture portraits as the couple is moving naturally or the events unfold,” Connell says.

For Philip Van Nostrand, it’s all about his personality connecting with his clients. “Just because a photographer shows a great photo on Instagram doesn’t mean they are a great person to work with,” he says. Or, they are known for special add-ons: Gurminder Banga now sells a branded “Banga Booth” portrait studio for weddings, and Clane Gessel will book a fine art shoot, setting off to a cenote in Mexico or beaches of Kauai to capture the perfect shot.

“Wedding photography has always been the pinnacle of social photography, and it’s evolution parallels society’s evolution,” Gessel says. “Millennials and Generation Z see the value in traditions, but they are seeking curated pieces of art rather than just doing it because it’s what’s always been done.”

Beyond weddings, photographers will travel with couples for engagement shoots and on the honeymoon—for a pretty price.
Clane Gessel Photography

Part of that big shift in weddings is technology. Now that everyone has a camera in his or her pocket means that couples don’t want wedding images that a guest could take on an iPhone. If a couple is paying for a photographer, they want to see that value in the creativity, skill, and service. This hasn’t hurt photography, say photographers, who actually believe that social media has pushed them to think beyond the old school mentality. “Apps like Instagram and Pinterest have taught us what one great image at a wedding can be,” Gessel says, noting that as couples have learned to discern between a person with a camera and an artist, the demand for skilled wedding photography has skyrocketed.

One big request? His fine art shoots. Gessel, whose work has also graced the cover of National Geographic, began applying the same composition rules from his landscape photography to his wedding business. It’s so popular that couples carve out time in the itinerary to make a shoot happen, often with the help of drones. He shot a couple’s wedding in South Africa, only to meet them in Namibia the following week for a fine art shoot on their honeymoon.

Today’s wedding photographers command up to $50,000 per event.
Clane Gessel Photography

Villa started out in photography before digital became a thing. He stuck with film through it all, and now finds that couples seek him out since he continues to shoot with his 25-year-old Contax 645. (That said, he sometimes has a use for digital and since launched namesake presets that give a film look to digital images that he sells online.) He has also adapted to the growing demands of his clients, whether they want to be subject of their own styled shoot or simply geek out on photography.

“These clients really, really love photography, and even do photography as a hobby,” Villa says. “They love film so we connect on that level.” Those clients, he said, are the ones who may also have the budget for elaborate photoshoots to document their love. One recent couple hired Villa and his team, along with a stylist, designer dresses, and herd of horses, to do a couples shoot in Camargue, France, then Paris, and on to New York. “They lived this beautiful fantasy,” he adds. “It’s becoming a lot more common.”

A wedding shoot in shoot in Camargue, France.
Jose Villa

It’s not always serious photoshoots; sometimes, it’s for the guest experience. As photo booths gained popularity at receptions, Gurminder Banga stepped up that offering for his business, Banga Studios: he produces a model-esque shoot for every guest. Dubbed the Banga Booth, it’s an elaborate studio set with wind machines instead of kitschy props and a live photographer rather than a button. He calls the activation an “experiential portrait lounge,” and the photos do indeed look more glamorous than your standard booth. “It’s engaging and captivating,” Banga says. “Whether it’s a power stance or a hair flip, the idea is to capture beauty and confidence in the guest.” The Banga Booth costs around $6,000.

The requests keep growing. Van Nostrand is now being asked to photograph engagement parties, something he typically didn’t do in his previous eight years in the business. Villa has inquiries to shoot bridal luncheons, private gatherings for the wedding parties, and even facials at a spa leading up to a ceremony and reception. On Flytographer, a booking platform for local photographers around the world, you’ll find numerous profiles advertising honeymoon shoots.

“I used to shoot 60 weddings a year, be there for eight hours and you’re done,” Villa says. “Now these weddings are so over the top. We’re talking five, seven days, sometimes multiple cities. I can only focus on a good 15 [weddings].”

“It takes me a day or two to recover,” he adds with a laugh.

A happy couple crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, N.Y.
Clane Gessel Photography

The job isn’t easy. To start, carrying around two or three cameras for 12-plus hours at once is physically strenuous. Villa explains that while he may pull long hours, the real work starts after the last wedding guest leaves. He spends 60 hours, on average, editing photos for a two or three-day event. Sometimes there’s an additional 20 or 30 hours just for retouching. It’s a part of the job that clients don’t think about when they hear the price.

That’s also why it takes a few weeks for most couples to get the full wedding album. If a couple wants the images earlier, they can pay a premium as the photographer needs to hire additional editors to turn it around so quickly. Some top wedding photographers, like Connell and Gessel, have included this small perk: a teaser set of images they send to the couple within the first 24 hours.

“We can shoot portraits all day, but don’t,” Gessel says. “You’re not so much defining a moment in time as you are defining a relationship. There’s an insane amount of talent out there, and I’m pleased to see the demand grow as couples become more educated about what wedding photography can be.”

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