why pay for a photographer?

You may be looking for a photographer because your wedding is coming up and you want to capture the moments. Maybe you’re celebrating the addition of a new family member with some baby portraits. Perhaps you haven’t had a family photo done in years and want to get one before it’s too late. Or maybe you just want some pictures of you and your best friend, Fido.


new jersey, new york, wedding, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

Unfortunately, unless he’s a dedicated portrait photographer who just happens to have a day job, the answer is probably no. Without years of experience working with people and the unique family dynamics they invariably bring with them, without intimately knowing lighting (natural and artificial), without being well-versed in the million unknown variables that always seem to pop up when they are least expected or wanted, your uncle (or the college grad who’s Craigslist ad you were considering) will not be able to capture the moment consistently and creatively. They might do a good job, but just as likely they could botch the whole thing. It could go either way.

You get what you pay for. Literally. Do you know anybody who paid $14,000 for a brand new Mercedes? Ever go to a gourmet restaurant and find a $10 steak on the menu? Of course you haven’t. The quality of the parts and the craftsmanship that went into the design and manufacture of a Mercedes demand a higher price tag than a Hyundai. The quality of the ingredients, and the skill and time put into the creation of your filet mignon dictate the cost of your meal. This is why McDonald’s has a dollar menu. And this is why Uncle Whatsisface will shoot your wedding for free.

Now, if you’ve just graduated college yourself and plan on holding your wedding ceremony in the backyard because you are po’, then by all means call your uncle up. Tell him you’d love to have him shoot the wedding as a gift. He’ll be happy because he doesn’t have to pay for a wedding present and you’ll be happy because you have someone shoot for free. It’s a win-win situation. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if money is an issue. There’s no shame in being broke. Read no further.

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I’m writing assuming you have some money you want to invest in quality portraiture and are unsure of how to decide what’s worth paying for or why it’s worth what the photographer says it is. I’ll start with a story.

Pablo Picasso was sitting outside a cafe having tea when a woman approached him.

“It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! You must do my portrait!” she insisted.

Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single stroke of his pencil to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

“It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You captured my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Amazing! Thank you so much! How much do I owe you?”

“Three thousand dollars,” the great artist replied.

“What?!!!?” the woman stammered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”

Picasso looked at her and flatly responded, “No Señora, you are wrong. That portrait took me my entire life to create.”

While the story may or may not have actually happened, it’s point is clear. Though it appeared only to take a second, it actually took Picasso an entire lifetime of dedicated work to get to the point where he was capable of drawing a woman’s portrait in a single stroke. This holds true for any skilled craftsman, artist, scholar, technician and just about anything else you can think of. It looks easy for Kobe Bryant to drive the ball through the opposing teams defenses and into the net. So easy in fact, that we might be fooled into thinking we could accomplish the same task if we wanted. But reality speaks otherwise.

greek orthodox, the foundry, long island city, wedding, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.com

Photography is equal parts technical expertise, creative vision and the almost intangible ability to press the shutter at the precise second those phantoms we call “moments” present themselves that they may be forever captured. Buying a $5000 Canon and taking a weekend class on wedding photography can’t teach you that. The only thing that can is experience. The more the better. Yes, a pro-level camera is definitely preferable. I use Nikon D800 and D4 cameras and professional lenses. I also am constantly educating myself.  These things are good. But they are no match for the 20+ years I’ve been snapping photos, the 5 years I’ve been shooting weddings and the countless days and weeks I’ve devoted to study and practice. In fact, I’ll take a pocket sized point-and-shoot camera and shoot your wedding before I will recommend you hire someone with little or no experience and $10,000 worth of new gear. I’ll gladly go up against that person, and I can almost guarantee you I’ll get better results.

It takes experience to know when and when not to use your flash in favor of natural light. It takes experience to know how to use that flash when it’s needed. It takes experience to know when to make your presence known as the bride is getting ready and when it’s appropriate to blend into the scenery. It takes experience to know how to deal with a temperamental relative or an unhealthy family dynamic and still get great portraits. Experience is what enables a good photographer to recognize the moment, creatively compose the frame and then press the shutter, all in a split second. And how are you supposed to know what to do when the wedding coordinator hasn’t properly informed you of the schedule or if your camera suddenly starts misbehaving during a key moment? Experience. That’s what you’re paying for.

Obviously one needs to be prudent with one’s money. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But consider for a moment what the photos are for and what they will mean to you in the future. A wedding is a joyful, once in a lifetime thing for those of us who are lucky enough to have one. Your baby is only 1 month old one time. Your family reunion might not happen again, and if it does, there’s no guarantee everybody will be there. Now consider how you might feel if the photographer you hired, through lack of experience, doesn’t do a great job.

Plake wedding, Travers Island, New Rochelle, New York, NJohnston Photography

A photographer’s job is tremendous. If they are any good, the job starts way before you think it should and it ends way after you’d expect it to. When I’m contracted to photograph a wedding, I spend time thinking about the best way to give my clients what they want based on my conversations with them. I’ll go to the venue with them so that I can be sure I know the lay of the land and to get ideas about how to proceed creatively. I’m always happy to answer calls and emails to address questions or concerns that may come up. The day before their wedding, I  prep my gear, clean my lenses and camera, charge my batteries and make sure my kit has everything I need to do the job. The wedding hasn’t even happened yet and I’ve already invested a significant amount of my time and energy in the process.

During the event I work tirelessly to get all manner of photos, classic posed shots, candid shots and small things like flowers and details. If possible, I tactfully try and create relationships with guests so that my presence is a fluid, natural part of the event. I try at every turn to take a creative and fresh look at things so that hopefully the photos they get will be different than any other wedding collection they’ve seen before. I want them to feel as if they own original pieces of art and not just pictures. It doesn’t always work out that way. There’s always a dozen of unforeseen things that get in my way to upset the balance. That’s the nature of a live event. But it’s always my objective.

brooklyn, prominade, manhattan, bridge, new york, skyline wedding, photo, portrait, njohnston photography, www.njohnstonphotography.comThen, when I get home late that night, I begin the arduous task of post production. I sit down at the computer and import the photos, being careful to back them up as I do. At this point the job is less than half over. Over the next week I sift through the captured images. I’ve shot as many as 2,500 photos in one wedding. The client gets 400-500 depending on the contract. That means there’s as many as 2,100 that need to be weeded out. It takes a full day or more just to figure out which ones are the best and which ones the client will never see. I’ll frequently take 5 photos in succession. But only one of the 5 is the best. The others, as good as they may be, are not. I look at them over and over again to figure out what’s my keeper and what isn’t. Then, after all the sorting is done, it’s time to sit down and work. Color and exposure adjustments, cropping and creative treatment. Every single image I deliver to my clients has been painstakingly edited in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Every last one. That takes time. And experience.

If you do choose to have your uncle shoot your wedding, be sure to find out if he intends to edit them or if he’s planning on giving you all the files to sort through. It’s a lot of work, and again, it takes experience to do a good job. If the company offering you a free hat with your prints is so cheap, it stands to reason they are cutting corners somewhere. Probably in post production.

The same goes for all jobs to a lesser degree. The workflow and intent are identical, but if it’s a maternity portrait session it’s on a much smaller scale. Click the photo below to be taken to a wedding gallery I shot. It will give you an idea of the scope of a wedding. Ironically, this one was easy because they were personal friends and I was a guest at the wedding. The photography was my gift to them. What a gift! It would’ve cost them about $4000.

shakespeare garden, vassar college, poughkeepsie, new york, wedding, photograph, njohnston photography, nathaniel johnston, photographer, www.njohnstonphotography.com

The last thing to consider is that not only am I a member of the PPA and NPS, I carry over $1 million in insurance. Thank God I’ve never had to use it, but you need to know it’s there in case something happens. All this means I care and am heavily invested in what I do. I’m sure Uncle Whatsisface cares too, but if he inadvertently drops your rings down a sewer grate trying to get a cool photo of them, you better hope he has enough money in his savings account to reimburse you for them.

So yes, spend your money wisely. Don’t pay for things you don’t really want or need. Maybe you could do without a wedding album designed and produced by the photographer. Maybe you don’t really want an extra change of clothes and 10 extra prints for your senior portrait. These are all things, if your photographer is reasonable, you may be able negotiate. But do ask yourself why you want the photos and what they will mean to you and your family in 20 years. What story they will tell. Because that’s what they will ultimately become. Your story. And it’s up to you how it’s told.

If you found this article informative, you might be interested reading one of these related articles:

The right photographer
What is wedding photography?

14 Comments Add yours

  1. jonsar says:

    Very well said.


  2. Erin says:

    Your post was well written and informative. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I think that many people don’t understand the value of photography. They don’t understand the costs involved. There is a huge misconception that photographers are just rolling in money because they show up, take a few photos, and give them a CD (so easy, right?). And they question why a CD costs them $1000 when they can buy blank CD’s at Staples for a buck. People just don’t understand the time and expense that is incurred by the photographer.

    I appreciate that you also mentioned that there is nothing wrong with hiring a photographer on the cheap, if they really can’t afford a great photographer. As you said, there’s nothing wrong with being broke. Not everyone can afford a great photographer. Not everyone can afford to drink Starbucks every day either. So, you can either switch to McDonald’s coffee or you can save up and buy Starbucks once a week.


  3. This could not be more insightful. I will be sharing this helpful blog to spread the enlightenment 🙂 Wedding Photography is not something you pick up in a weekend. Bride and grooms should research their needs and budget and figure out which wedding photographer could fit the style of their wedding… and their wallet!


  4. thepkphotographs says:

    This is a great post illustrating both when and why it’s important to hire a professional photographer, and giving us a glimpse into why professional photography seems so darn expensive!


    1. nwjohnston says:

      The funny thing is, photography doesn’t seem expensive after you hire someone who makes a mess of things. I’ve never once heard someone say they wish they’d spent less on photography, but I have heard people lament they didn’t pay more for a professional.


  5. Great advice on when you’re considering a wedding or event photographer!


    1. nwjohnston says:

      Thank you! I think it’s really important that people be aware of where their money is (and is not) going.


  6. Carrie says:

    Great and much needed post on why investing in photography is worth it!


  7. Daniel says:

    Thank you for writing this post on why paying for a photographer is a good idea. Everything in this article should be such valuable information to brides looking to hire a wedding photographer for their big day!


  8. Such a great blog about why you should hire a professional photographer for everything from weddings to portraits to family photos! With the multitude of images being created by non-professionals, more people don’t understand how much actually goes in to all those images they LOVE on pinterest.


  9. Great informative article on how to pick the right photographer. Another point worth noting: professional photographers are professionals, and like other professions, they deserve the right to make a living wage that is enough to support themselves. Photography is more than clicking a shutter, it’s knowing when to click, how to position your subject in relationship to the light source, and how to compose the shot–those are skills only professionals have.


Thanks for commenting! Check out more weddings, portraits and photos on my website NJohnston Photography.

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