Getting real about wedding photography: this job is ridiculously hard, and burn-out is real

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This used to be my passion, now it's a burden.
This used to be my passion, now it’s a burden.
I recently did something at a wedding that I hadn’t done in years — I photographed it. I tagged along as second shooter for my co-worker and awesome wedding photographer Stephanie Kaloi. And it reminded me of why I quit shooting weddings… and basically shooting anything ever.

I used to love photography. But shooting weddings pretty much killed that passion.

Wedding photography is fucking hard. I forgot how hard.

For the non-photographers out there, lemme give you an insight into the day in the life of a wedding photographer:

Let’s say an awesome engaged couple purchases your biggest wedding photography package — let’s say that’s eight hours of shooting. You’re actually going to have a 10-12 hour day the day of the wedding.

If the venue is a far away, you’ve gotta budget time to get there early lest there be traffic, or you have car trouble. I liked to get to weddings about an hour early “just in case,” but that usually meant I had to leave my house two hours early to factor in travel time.

Then there’s the eight hours that you’re on your feet, carrying heavy equipment, running back and forth between where the couple is getting ready separately, or from the ceremony to the reception site, or up and down hills between all of those spaces.

The moment you get that sweet sweet relief of being able to SIT THE FUCK DOWN and eat something, because ohmyfuckinggawd you’re starving and sick of holding your gear. The moment you bring that sweet sweet forkfull of much-needed sustenance to your mouth… the speeches start. And you’re back to work. No food for you.

Not to mention that you’re on high-alert for all those hours trying your best not to miss one single moment of the awesomeness that is offbeat weddings. Unlike most day jobs where you can afford to goof off from time to time, wedding photography does not allow for that. From family photos, to hilarious mishaps. From first looks to last dances. From detail shots, to trying to get photos of everyone in attendance… you’re ON for the whole eight hours.

Until you’re totally exhausted… just in time to drive home yourself home.

Then comes the worst moment. I hated when I was all “Wee! Wedding over and I kicked some photography ass. Mission accomplished!” And then: “Oh wait, mission not accomplished. Mission only half-way done.” Now you sit for hours in front of your computer and edit photos until you get cross-eyed.

Yup, wedding photography is fucking hard physically, but it’s also hard financially. As wedding photographer Mike Allebach explained in his post 12 things wedding photographers want to tell you, but can’t:

Most full-time wedding photographers I know carry over $15,000 worth of wedding gear and often work 60-hour weeks… Add insurance, taxes, software, advertising, albums, repair, shipping, and studio expenses, and many photographers end up making less than minimum wage for the first few years of their career.

When I realized that I was making as much money just sitting at home and editing the Offbeat Empire — Hell, I was probably making MORE money doing that, as I didn’t have to pay for all that camera gear, insurance, gas, and Mc Donald’s on the drive home to make up for the wedding meal I missed! — I decided to quit photography then and there.

Since then my back, my hands, and my eyeballs have thanked me.

This is obviously not to say that all wedding photographers would quit, will quit, or even want to quit. I’m publicly bitching about my old job because I want everyone who hires a wedding photographer to REALLY REALLY appreciate them. Because they are doing that hard-ass job — even if they may be feeling the burn out — because they’re passionate about taking photos of awesome couples in love.

THAT is the part of the job that I miss: the couples. I miss meeting fantastic people, and tearing up during their ceremonies, and falling in love with their loved ones throughout the event. I also miss how happy the photos make them, even years after the event.

But in the end, all the love and happiness wasn’t enough to keep me in the game. It wasn’t enough to make me lug all my gear until my back ached and my feet swelled. It wasn’t enough to make me still love photography after it became grueling hard work.

Photographers, let’s get real: How do you deal when you’re starting to feel the burn of career exhaustion?

Comments on Getting real about wedding photography: this job is ridiculously hard, and burn-out is real

  1. So, this is hardly the reply you were seeking but…

    One HUGE shout out to wedding photographers…for capturing all of our planning, our details, our family & friends, our vision, our love, from each moment BIG or small….ya’ll work really hard, and are honestly worth every penny and THEN some. (PS, brides…feed your photog! give them sustenance (and booze, if so inclined.) With most everything digital now, you probably don’t really even get to see our reactions when we check out the treasures you give us…but don’t ever forget what amazing gifts your talents are. THANKS TO ALL! 🙂

  2. Ah, man. This is so true. This year was the first year I started feeling this way. I had two months with 5 weddings each. I absolutely love shooting weddings but after this year I decided I had to raise my prices (which means I’ll shoot less) and hire associates so it wouldn’t happen again. I could see if I stayed that busy the next year, I might really get burned out and didn’t think that was fair to my clients or me.Also, as a tip add in your contract that you eat when the bride and groom eat. This means you usually have time to eat! And by the time everyone else is through the line you’ll be done eating and ready for those speeches!

    • I totally did the raise my prices thing, which worked! But then I realized that I had priced myself out of my favorite weddings to shoot. Wah wahhhhhhh.

      • Yeah, I think about that and hope that doesn’t happen! I am trying to keep my prices not too high! I love all my OBB clients and would hate to loose them… they make up most of my business and are my fave clients for sure!

  3. Great post! One thing you forgot that quickly burns people out is the negotiating- the constantly having to justify “why does it cost so much” and diplomatically answering “why is your package more than this [insert link to a “pro” video that looks like Uncle Steve shot it with a cellphone]. Constantly justifying the value of your work is really soul-draining.

    Furthermore, videographers have all the challenges above PLUS… our equipment is generally heavier than photo stuff, and we have the added challenge of working around the photographers. Though many are great and conscientious, asking us if we’ve gotten all the shots we need in a certain location before we move, managing the schedule well…. others are simply terrible- slowly meandering into our shot and then just standing there for 5 minutes while not even taking any shots, not telling us where we’re going for the next setup so we can be sure to grab the right lenses, etc.

    What we’ve done to help eliminate burnout is actually to lower the frequency of weddings. We only say yes when we really like the couple now, and we’re otherwise shooting corporate stuff. We’re basically limiting weddings to once per month max, so that they are still special for us.

    We also raised our prices. I think we’ve basically entered “high-end” market, and people have so far reacted well. People who are shopping “high-end” will not balk at the price and will understand that they are getting value out of it. Similarly, the day of the shoot, we know that we will be well-compensated, so we feel more excited about going (I know, maybe it’s bad to equate money with excitement, but hell… it’s better than trudging around with all the gear- ours is upwards of $25k in value- for minimum wage as listed above).

    And the last thing: meals. I’ve started calling the coordinators or the venue staff or even the couple in order to work this out. I make it abundantly clear that we need to eat WHEN THE FIRST GUESTS EAT. I explain that if we get served last, we’ll be running right into speeches/dancing/whatever’s next, and we won’t get to eat, and since we’re working hard all day we need to have sustenance to perform our best for the couple. People generally get it and respond well, and since I’ve started that we have had great meal service with no arguments and no asking the day of to have it hurried to us. We also bring Clif bars or other nutrition bars to eat throughout the day. Oh, and the photographers really appreciate my arranging the meals as well 🙂

    We’re planning to also write into our contracts that we need a HOT meal, since we recently were served a disgusting turkey sandwich boxed lunch.

    • I do not understand people who cheap out on the photographer’s meal- you’re already paying thousands for photos, why would you pinch pennies about food? And double-why would you risk a cranky, angry, hungry photographer? I try not to piss off anyone I’m relying on for a really important service with no do-overs, personally.

      • Totally agree! As someone who gets all-caps HANGRY if I’m on my feet with no food for a few hours, I don’t know how photographers can do it for a full day. If/when I have a wedding and hire a wedding photographer, I will make sure you are the happiest and best-fed wedding photographer ever.

        Oh, and none of this business of the bride and groom getting interrupted before they can take a bite either. Like I said, HANGRY.

    • Once in my photo career, a bride greeted us at her front door with goody bags full of bottled water, aspirin, snacks, gatorade, etc. She said to us ‘ you’re going to be with us all day and I wouldn’t want you to get too hungry or cranky.” The main photog and I were flabbergasted at the sweet gesture.

      Best. Bride. Ever.

    • Wait — are you telling me some couple fed you something different than what they fed their guests?? I don’t know jack about wedding protocol but I kinda thought the rule was to feed the photographers as a guest. At least that’s all I’ve ever seen.

      • i dont think so- or not in my experience? i work in food, and we always, always, always had “vendor” meals to make in addition to the wedding banquet/service. and they were always of the “disgusting turkey sandwich” variety, ha…

  4. Honestly, the thing that keeps me from burning out is that about 70% of my clients are from Offbeat Bride. Their weddings are more colorful, full of creativity and while they dig my style and book me because of what I’ve done in the past, they also are usually up for anything new I’ve dreamed up that I want to try. I sometimes shoot three weddings in 72 hours, (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and there’s no way I could do it if my couples weren’t awesome people who have awesome family and friends.

    To keep from burning out from the fact that I’m really in demand, I’ve had to raise my prices. I figured out that when all was said and done, I made $11 an hour in 2011.

    Of course, my increased prices mean I’m less accessible to offbeat couples, unfortunately, which is why I run at least four sales a year which are promoted here AND offer 10% off the rest of the time to OBB readers.

    My challenge lately, though, is not wanting to oversaturate this market and devalue my brand by constantly offering discounts. So it’s a constant state of trying to balance being accessible to offbeat brides so I don’t burn out, since offbeat weddings sustain me, versus raising my prices so I don’t burn out, because for $11 an hour I could work just about anywhere else and have a personal life on the weekends.

    As Morgan said, justifying the cost of your work is really the most soul-draining part, far more exhausting to me than the physical demands of working 12 hour days on my feet schlepping gear. But I also find analyzing the whole situation mentally draining, so I just think, “Fuck it, there’s going to a full size replica TARDIS at my next wedding, let’s DO this! Woo hoo!” and I let the rush of my passion for photography and love of offbeat couples take over and carry me through.

    • I read this a “full size TARDIS replica pinata”, and I was going to tell you to invite me along to carry stuff

      • Ha! This offbeat couple is so awesome that they probably would welcome you and while they would be up for some kind of piñata, the bride’s dad is making the TARDIS so we probably shouldn’t fill it with candy and hit it with baseball bats… BUT!! This couple was all for an underwater engagement session since the bride is a mermaid cosplayer, so you never know….

        ::::startles googling “papier-mache sonic screwdriver”::::

  5. Amen. And you know, the thing that, for me, contributes the most to burn out and that makes the most difference in terms of how much energy I can bring to the work is one thing: how appreciative my clients are when they see their photos.

    The vast majority of couples don’t even bother to email the photographer after seeing their wedding photos. I used to think it was just me, but it turns out this is the norm. After spending 70 hours putting my heart and soul and artistic passion into creating fabulous photos for my couple, the thing I the most want is an email saying, “Yay! Thank you. We love them!” (or at least, “yay, thank you, we GOT them.”)

    For couples who remember to express appreciation for the work involved, I always go the extra mile. 🙂

    • A few months ago, I got an email from a bride thanking me AGAIN for their photos. Their wedding was three years ago!!! It meant so much to me to get that and to know that I’m *still* making people happy with their wedding pics. And also… nailed it! 😉

    • My boss has been in the business for 20 years or so, and he claims that it wasn’t always that way. He’s got clients from YEARS ago that still have a relationship with the studio- they have us do they’re babies’ pictures, or family pictures,or even just pimp us out to friends and family- and call to say hi and let us know that so and so should be calling this week. Nowadays, they just want the disc

    • I invited our photographer to our one year anniversary party where we had slide shows of the photos on our monitors in the background. He seemed thrilled by that and pointed them out to his date. I don’t know if I ever, specifically thought to thank him, but hopefully that accomplished the same thing.

  6. Wow… thanks for this post. It’s a job that rarely is given it’s due, and you hear complaints about pricing that devalue the work over and over. Thanks for letting people know we’re not out to rob them. It’s hard and expensive to do this job!

    • Absolutely! I’m glad I got the opportunity to be reminded again about how much wedding photographers bust ass. The peeps need to know!!! 😉

  7. I’m an event film maker April-November, and work at a TV station October-May. What keeps my wedding industry colleagues going is the fact that they have an off-season. I do not have that luxury– By the time I shoot my last wedding of the season, I’m knee deep in production for the station. My seasons overlap & working a 6am-3am is not uncommon (but the TV station that I work at is at a ski resort– first tracks totally makes the 16+ hour days worth it!)

    The thing that keeps me from burnout: I fucking love what I do, & I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I am my own boss. I have creative freedom over what I produce. The biggest thing that keeps me from burnout though, is the ability to tell a couple when I don’t think that we’re a good match. To understand that not everybody is going to love your style and to have the balls to tell them has been the best thing that I can do for myself. By getting to know each couple before a contract is signed, I become the friend that films their wedding. The best perk about being a “friend?” You are treated like one. If I ever am treated like the hired help in an interview, I save myself the stress and trouble and opt out. I’ve never had hurt feelings about it either– the couples genuinely appreciate my honesty and referrals.
    My favorite part of my job: Seeing my amazing couples at other weddings, getting beers with them after their honeymoon, receiving photos of their newborns, and legitimately becoming their friends. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

  8. While I currently only shoot a couple of weddings a year, I can totally see where you’re coming from. I don’t do photography full time (yet), which means I’m working a full time job and spending my free time shooting and editing. I shoot a lot of family sessions, which I love, but sometimes it can get….tiring. Especially when you have families with a bunch of little kids where you have to take 30 photos of the same pose just to get the kids looking at the camera in one…and then you have to edit all those photos down. And especially when you have a bunch of families in one weekend with no time to edit over the weekend so then you’re spending your lunch break and hours after work everyday editing….and editing…..and editing. So, to prevent burnout, and to preserve my passion for photography, I try to plan one shoot each month JUST. FOR. ME. I find models who are actually interested in modeling (and not just there because their wife or mom made them be), pick a theme that I want to shoot (last months was a vintage theme, this month’s was Gothic Romance), gather props, tell the models what style I want them to dress in, and spend 2-3 hours shooting. I then have as much time as I want to edit them (I don’t have clients anxiously waiting, “Are they done yet? Do you have our photos??” Just models who get a disc of their images afterwards, but I try not to put a time guarantee on them.) That allows me to express my creativity and produce the images that I want to take, not just what the client wants.

  9. We loved our wedding photographer so much that we hired her to take newborn baby photos of our son and planned more shoots throughout the year with her.
    We hope we showed our appreciation enough by leaving great reviews on wedding websites, bigging her up on offbeat bride and tagging her in Facebook photos with comments on how wonderful her photography was.

    • I’m not emotionally spent yet – but i’ve had hard entrepreneurial days like anyone else starting a business. Physically I’m feeling it though – I’ve realized that I can’t show up to a wedding without literally training my body for it beforehand. You’re right: an 8 hour wedding is actually closer to a 12 hour wedding including travel and prep. This very week I’m investing in smooshy awesome running shoes (maybe in bright orange) and I re-started a yoga and walking regimen. A (good) wedding photographer is mix of the creative director, camera-woman, street photographer and documentarian. The skill-set you need to do this well is incredible. It’s too hard to do that consistently and not prepare physically for it. I also hired an assistant to help me carry gear for weddings that have a lot of ground to cover and part of our agreement is that he literally reminds me to drink water. I want this to be sustainable because I love shooting weddings so much. We’ll see if it can be. Until then, at least I’ll have new rad shoes?

      The food thing is a huge issue with me. It’s in my contract that I get fed or I’ll need to leave to find food. You would remember to feed your dog, but not one of the most important vendors on your wedding day? I come from a family where food is a big deal – cooking it and sharing it to show love. The first (and only) time a client didn’t feed me after 7 hours of shooting, I almost cried. The head cook took pity on me and made me a plate of vegetables. But this and almost everything else is about communication and boundaries.

  10. Thank you for this. I’m shooting my first wedding this weekend as a second shooter. Until I picked up a camera I never realized how difficult a job it is. Between this and advice from another former photographer I am learning to set clear boundaries. 🙂

  11. Amen. In addition to the 12-14-16 hour days, being ON all day is so draining. We have to bear witness and diffuse all sorts of arguments, tears, tensions, and angry step parents- and we have to do it all with a happy face.
    We give up weekends and sometimes holidays. Oh, and that BBQ this weekend? can’t go I’ve got a wedding. The one and only Halloween party I was invited to? can’t go I’ve got a wedding. Mom’s birthday falls on a Saturday? Can’t come over for cake I’ve got a wedding.. ad nauseum. Our studio has had a New Years Eve wedding the last 3 years in a row. THAT’s certainly not where I’d like to be when I’m ringing in the new year.

    I’ve vented to my boss on more than one occasion about how inconsiderate and selfish it is for people to have weddings on holidays. Think of how many people don’t get to celebrate with their own friends and family because the caterer, waitstaff, Maitre D, bridal attendant, photographer, videographer, florist, officiant, DJ/band, etc. has been contracted to work on the 4th of July. I know that many catering halls will give discounts for non peak days, but I just think its not nice. /End Angry rant

    Nice people do make it worth it, but they are becoming few and far between

    • This! I used to work in a casino and I couldn’t believe the amount of believe who came in on holidays, meaning that not only did we all work but MORE of us were scheduled to work than usual and less people able to be at home with their families. When we got married, I made damn sure it wasn’t on a holiday or even a weekend close to a holiday. You have all goddamned year, 365 days, it’s okay to be a little thoughtful to those you are asking to perform/setup/work at your wedding.

  12. Its really hard work but still we can make smile on person face, so its a good hard work.

  13. It’s the harsh but true reality, and someone had to put it out there for all those budding photographers who think it is an easy weekend job! Thanks for your honesty.

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