You have to spend money on catering because you have to feed people. And it makes sense to buy the best catering you can afford so that you feed your attendees well and leave a great impression. But after the event is over, the food is eaten, the balloons are popped, the bottles are emptied, and the DJ has packed up to spin again another day, what remains?
What are you left with to show the world how great an event you hosted? The photos.
What will you have to promote yourself or your organization or generate new business with? The photos.
What will you have to remind you in ten years about the great time you had or the great work you did today? The photos.
I know I'm biased as a photographer, but I don't think it's in any way a stretch to say that your event photographer is the only vendor who will deliver a product that will continue to deliver value long after the event is over. Years after your event is over, you will still have those photos and they will continue to grow in value over time. It makes sense to pay someone who really knows what they're doing to create those images for you. And, as is the case in any profession, the people who really know what they're doing charge accordingly. That old saying about "good, fast, cheap...choose any two" applies.
Let's talk about why professional photographers charge what they charge
First and foremost, it's about skill. A professional photographer has spent years developing their skills. This comes from countless hours of study AND practice. Professional photographers don't just pull out their camera when there's something they need to shoot. Professional photographers spend a lot of time practicing in order to develop, maintain, and advance their proficiency. Why is this important to you? Because photographers who shoot for practice on their own time are not getting practice while covering your event. They already know what they're doing before they walk through the door. They're not trying to figure out how their camera works on your dime. A professional photographer brings years of problem-solving experience to the engagement. A professional photographer will find a way to create the images you hired them to create, regardless of any challenges they may need to surmount to do so.
Reliability / Consistency
You already know what you're going to get when you hire a professional photographer because they have a portfolio of images on their website that allow you to see their style and know exactly what to expect from them. When you see multiple images of multiple events and you see a consistent style, you can be confident in knowing what the images from your event will look like if you choose to hire that photographer.
Shooting is only the first half of creating an image. Processing (editing) the images is the second half. A professional photographer knows how to edit their work. Not every image is a great image. And certainly, not every image is a keeper. Professional photographers understand this and the first step in their editing process is to delete all the bad photos. What's a bad photo? All those photos where someone is caught with an awkward or unflattering expression on their face. Or photos that are out of focus. Or all the multiple shots taken of a group to make sure there's one with everyone's eyes open. Professional photographers create all those bad shots, just like everyone else. The difference is the first thing a professional does is delete them when they start their editing process. A professional photographer has a discerning eye and high standards for their work and will not deliver bad images that you'll have to sort through.
A professional photographer will overshoot to ensure that they create the images they were commissioned to create, but they delete those excess images prior to delivery. You don't have to worry about receiving a gallery full of five, ten, fifteen variations of the same photos from a professional photographer.
The shots that professional photographers do not create and therefore don't have to worry about deleting are shots of people eating. Professional photographers know that eating is not a flattering look on anyone, so they don't shoot photos of people eating.
Half Day or Full Day Billing
A professional photographer has to charge for either half a day (5 hours) or a full day (10 hours). If you have a one-hour event, you still pay for half a day because covering that one-hour event removes a half day of billable time from the photographer's schedule. This is because the photographer can't schedule him or herself for any other jobs in that half of the day. If an event is from 9am to 10am, for example, that effectively blocks out the whole first half of the day. If someone wanted the photographer to be somewhere at 11:30 or 12, a "supposed to end at 10am" event does not leave sufficient time for the photographer to be confident that they can show up 30-45 minutes early to the 11:30 or 12 event. There could be a traffic problem or any number of delays in getting from the first event to the second. A professional photographer won't take chances on cutting it close to stack multiple clients, so they will charge for either a half day or a full day.
The total time it actually takes to cover your event
Travel to and from the walk-through of the venue (if necessary)
Travel to and from the event
The actual event
Processing the images following the event (generally an hour of processing per hour of event coverage)
All this adds up to a whole lot of time.
They are running a business and running a business is expensive
Full-time professional photographers are running a business and therefore incur expenses in the delivery of their services.
Equipment: Professional photographers use professional-grade equipment and they know how to use it properly. Professional equipment allows a skilled photographer to handle any lighting scenario your event will present. The lenses that allows a photographer to shoot in dimly lit venues without popping a flash are expensive (and heavy). The camera bodies that provide two memory card slots are also expensive. Why are two memory card slots important? Because they allow the photographer to store each image twice: once on each card. That way, if a memory card goes bad, which does happen rarely, the other memory card has everything on it and you don't have to worry about the possibility of having an unpleasant conversation with your photographer in the days following your event. These are just a couple of examples. There are many more reasons why professional photographers are using very expensive equipment and must charge accordingly. Additionally, a professional photographer will bring more than one camera so they can continue to work, even in the event of a major equipment failure.
Equipment insurance: All that expensive gear has to be insured.
Advertising expenses: Professional photographers have to spend money to reach new clients and grow their business, just like any other business. Advertising is not cheap and it is a recurring cost.
Their website: A professional photographer maintains a website that they have to pay for.
Image delivery service: A professional photographer will deliver your images using a gallery service designed specifically for that purpose. Such a gallery service will allow you to share photos to social media, order prints and retouches, hide certain photos if you want to share the gallery, but leave a few photos hidden...all kinds of photography-specific functionality that is not available via Dropbox or similar file-sharing services. A proper image delivery service will also provide branding opportunities for sponsors, so you can negotiate sponsorships to cover your photography costs.
Liability insurance: A professional photographer has liability insurance. This is important, but far too often overlooked when choosing a photographer. Insurance is one of those things that's not important, until it is. What happens when someone trips over your photographer's camera bag and gets injured? Hiring that $200 photographer who doesn't even know that liability insurance for photographers is a thing just got real expensive. EVENT PLANNERS, are you asking your photographers to provide proof of insurance before bringing them into the venues where you host your events?
Professional education: Professional photographers are in a perpetual learning industry. We have to keep educating ourselves and you can only go so far with YouTube. Workshops, seminars, and online training courses all cost money.
Professional association memberships: These associations are where professional photographers network to advance their practice of the craft of photography.
Taxes and business licensing: Full-time photographers have to pay taxes on their income, just like everybody else. A large chunk of what a professional photographer is charging you is going to the IRS, the state, and the local municipality.
General business expenses: Phone, Internet, computers, office furniture, printers, paper and toner, etc. A photography business is a business with all the standard business expenses.
Health insurance: No explanation necessary.
Mortgage/rent, groceries, utilities, car expenses, childcare costs...everything that your salary has to pay for, a full-time professional photographer has to pay for with their photography income. The difference for a professional photographer is that he or she will not have a paid assignment every day or even most days. There is no check every two weeks. The income that a full-time professional photographer generates has to finance a complete lifestyle, just like the income from your job does.
Discretionary income: After all the bills are paid, the photographer needs to have some money left to grab a burger or go see a movie with, just like everyone else.
Profit for the business: After everything listed above is covered, including the photographer's salary, the business still needs to generate at least a small profit. The whole point of starting a business is to solve a problem profitably. Otherwise, you have a business that generates a loss each year and you eventually go out of business.
For photographers looking for a complete list of expenses to account for, check out Best Business Practices for Photographers.
I know this was a long post, but hopefully it shed some light on why you got a quote from one photographer for three thousand dollars and you got a quote from another one for around two or three hundred. If you engage a photographer running a real photography business and not a side hustle, you have to expect to pay what it costs them to run a profitable business.
So before you engage a professional photographer, figure out whether you're a price shopper or a value shopper. Price is what you are looking to pay. Value is what you are looking to get. Are you just looking for basic documentation of your event so you can have some fun photos to share? If so, then it's safe to shop for a photographer based on price and you don't need to try to hire a professional.
But if you have a specific vision in mind for the photos from your event, or you intend to use them for things like fundraising, recruiting, or promoting yourself or your business, then you should be shopping based on the value proposition of hiring a professional photographer. If you can't afford the photographer you want, try to get a photography sponsor. What is a professional photographer worth if they create images that bring you more business or help you raise funds that exceed the costs of their services? Hiring a professional can be legitimately considered an investment.
[RELATED: 6 Tips for Choosing an Event Photographer]