Shooting a destination wedding sounds like a ton of fun, especially if you like traveling. But it also sounds complicated. Shooting a wedding requires equipment and shooting overseas requires even more. The destination itself will need to be researched. And who will take care of travel expenses? Before you can decide what to charge your client, you will need to know what expenses you will incur.
How do photographers handle the expenses of destination weddings? Before meeting the client, a destination photographer must decide how travel expenses will be calculated and who will pay what. If this is your first destination shoot, discounts can win over a client. In addition, a first-time destination photographer needs to invest time in creating a portfolio that will convince clients they will not be disappointed.
Photographing a wedding can be stressful enough but traveling to a new destination will add another layer of stress to the job. There are many things to consider, and finances are probably at the top of the list. To make you feel more confident with the money side of destination weddings, let's walk through the process. It’s a little complicated, but nothing you can’t handle. Let’s get started.
Do You Really Want to Do This?
Travel. Exotic locations. Some place new. These sound like excellent reasons to add destination photography to your portfolio. But do you want to do this in the first place? There are some disadvantages you might not have considered.
It will cost more than a local shoot. Even if the couple foots the bill for travel and lodging (which is unlikely if this is your first time), you will sustain additional expenses. For example, to scout a location, you might need to arrive early. Often you will do that on your own dime. Meals are going to be an additional expense to consider.
This won’t be a simple matter of having to pay for lunch between a morning and afternoon shoot—you will be paying for every meal. The IRS has capped those deductions at $63 per day for U.S. travel and $68 for international. Maybe you will be able to eat less, but then there’s the time and hassle of keeping up with those expenses.
- It will cost you time. Even if the couple plans to spring for your travel and hotel, you will still lose time that you could otherwise be using. Count on a lost day for travel each way. Add the time you will need to plan the trip. If you arrive a day or two beforehand to scout the location and plan the shoot, that’s additional time away from your business.
- You won’t always be in a glamorous location. Sooner or later, you will find a couple that wants to get married in a location that isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Or, the first couple wants to get married in a place you know won’t be to your liking. To get the experience you need, you will still be tempted to take the gig.
- This can’t be stressed enough—you are traveling to the destination to photograph a wedding. It’s not a vacation—unless you’re willing to spring for the extra money, it’s a vacation cost. After a while, you might begin to ask yourself if the extra hassle of shooting weddings at exotic location where you won’t have time to enjoy yourself is worth it.
- Carrying your gear is a pain. Even traveling across town for a wedding shoot can be a pain when it comes to gear. Carrying my gear isn't too bad. At my day job, I usually help our hired photographer out by helping to carry his gear. Otherwise he would have to make like 4 trips—and this is local! Cameras, lights, lenses, and miscellaneous items will need to come along. And to be on the safe side, back-up equipment goes into the trunk. Traveling on planes these days is already a pain. Traveling anyplace that requires plane travel will be even more of one.
If you’re still determined to move forward, here’s what you will need to think about before you meet with any client:
“The average budget for a destination wedding is $28,000.”Source: tripsavvy.com
First Things First—Planning Your Fee
Before you meet with a client, you must have a plan for how you structure your fees. If you don’t, your client will begin to doubt your ability to pull off the wedding to a destination you have never been. Why is that?
Simple. Even if it’s not one of the first questions they ask, it is foremost on their mind—how much extra will this cost? After all, it’s one of the first questions you asked yourself, if not the first.
And it’s not an easy question to answer, so you must do your homework. The times that you’ve had someone do work for, say fixing something around the house, and you had no idea what it would cost were stressful. Even a ballpark estimate is better than “We’re not sure yet.”
There are two approaches to take when thinking about your fees—flat or itemized. Here’s an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
|Advantage||A flat rate makes billing easier for the client. You tell the client how much travel will cost them, and that is one less thing they have to worry about.||The couple knows exactly what the charges will go toward, which can go a long way to helping them understand your fees.|
|Disadvantage||If the rate is higher than the client expects, you will face questions about how the rate was determined. This will lead to extra scrutiny, especially if you have little experience.||The couple might get frustrated looking at the minutia of all the expenses. Selecting a photographer is only one of many choices they will have to make.|
Let’s talk a little more about each kind.
Flat Rate Fee
In a way, this can be the scariest one. You will first have to calculate all your expenses and then provide your potential clients with your travel fee.
As a first timer, you will have already spent countless hours thinking about how to create a portfolio that shows off your work. You will have done some advance research on the area where they want to travel. When you sit down with the couple, you don’t want to appear worried or nervous about the fee you’re going to ask for.
That’s why even with a flat rate fee, you need to plan out your expenses so that you know what fee to charge. It’s possible that the client will find your fee reasonable. Perhaps this would be a good time to follow the advice of professional wedding photographer, Jay P. Morgan, who says:
“The first person who says the price usually loses.”Source: The Slanted Lens
Consider then, bringing up the question first by asking them how much they had budgeted for the travel portion. They may not have thought the specific cost, but all you want from them is a rough estimate. Maybe they will surprise you. If you can get them to cough up an estimate, then you can immediately evaluate if or how it will be possible for you to meet their budget.
If you've ever negotiated your salary at a traditional job interview, you'll notice some similarities here.
Calculating a Flat Rate for Travel
Instead of calculating the rate for every single trip, create a series of standard packages, such as the North American Package, the European Package, and the Caribbean Package. Although there might be some fluctuations between travel to Germany versus Spain, if you set a rate that is somewhere in the middle, you should come out ahead. In addition, make sure you calculate your rates based on the high season travel costs!
If you plan these packages in advance, then you will be able to provide a travel quote no matter where the couple plan to wed.
Itemized Rate Fee
Hopefully, you’re going to look at all your expenses in detail anyway, especially if this is your first time. You want to think through all the expenses you are likely to incur so that you will either break even or turn a profit.
I’ll go over the specifics later but itemize as though you are planning to make money from this trip. But until you have a portfolio of destination weddings, plan to offer a discount. You can show your strengths in other ways, but view your first destination wedding is an investment.
After you itemize all your expenses, don’t hand potential clients a list containing all your expenses. That’s more info than they want. Categorize your expenses into simple categories—travel, lodging, and food, for example.
There are two potential pitfalls with this approach. First, they might question individual expenditures. Folks don’t always have reasonable expectations of how much things cost. Let’s say for food you quote $300 for three days of travel. They are just as likely to think that you should be able to eat for $50 a day.
The last thing you want is to have your clients think you are nickel and diming them.
Advice for Maximizing Success
Most of the work (research) will need to be done before the discussion.
- Itemize the expenses as though you are planning to make a profit.
- Try to get an idea of what your clients think it will cost.
- Present your flat rate fee.
- If their expectations are close to yours, think through your itemized list to decide what you will give them in return for giving you the opportunity to build your business.
Please note that I'm not advising you to work for free. Do not devalue your photography chops by saying you will work for free if they will pay for your travel. If you’re going to work for free, then do it for your best friend’s wedding. If the only way you will get the job is to offer something for free, make it the travel.
Reasons to Charge a Reduced Travel Fee
Besides the fact that you don’t have a lot of experience, there are some other reasons to reduce your rate:
- You have wanted to take a trip to the location.
- It’s a place that is on your bucket list.
- You really want to shoot there. If you have always wanted to shoot in the Pacific Northwest, and your clients want to get married near Mount Rainier, this would be a perfect opportunity to build your portfolio.
“340,000 destination weddings take place each year.”Source: tripsavvy.com
Expenses You Should Plan For
- Drive time/Mileage costs
- Toll costs (and admission, if applicable). TollGuru is a nice tool for doing so.
- Hotel stay (will vary depending on whether there will be shooting sessions the day before or the day after)
- Rental car
- Specialized travel gear for your gear
Who Should Pay for the Travel?
Some couples will want to pay for your travel. With a few exceptions, experienced destination photographers recommend that you pay your own way. Natalie Jackson of Four Corners Photography writes:
“I don’t accept client-booked travel except in very rare circumstances. In order to make sure I arrive on time and have secure lodging, it’s all in my name, on my card.”
Dawn Piebenga of dawnphoto.com gives this example:
“I prefer to book my own flights instead of my client booking it for me. That way I have full control over changes. For example, I had a shoot booked in Arizona, then later got booked for a job in Minnesota immediately after. Instead of returning home, to Oregon, I was able to change my flight and go straight to Minnesota from Arizona. Having full control over my flights keeps things simple.”
When to Collect Travel Fee Payments
You have probably already decided to take a loss on your travel since you want to establish yourself. Having done so, it is reasonable to ask for payments to be made before you leave.
For one thing, it establishes your credibility as a professional. An airline isn’t going to let you pay after you get off the plane. Why should you do differently? Secondly, you will need to make reservations and pay for transportation before you leave.
I learned this the hard way when offering freelance building PCs. I used to order the parts, put everything together, test, do all the documentation and resource collection, and then deliver and bill the client. I did this for a while and then changed the order of operations. It only took me getting burned by one client to get payment upfront from then on. This was a $1,500 lesson learned, not including the loss of time and opportunity to serve other clients.
It's not unreasonable to ask for payment upfront. In the very least, a deposit or percentage to be paid before committing. Make sure that you have specific dates in the contract your clients will sign for them to pay for your travel.
Tools That Can Help You Budget
If you don’t have software that will help you run your photography business, this would be a good time to start. I've compiled a list of products for you to investigate. Pricing depends on what tier you want and is liable to change, but these are arranged by price, with the most expensive software at the bottom of the table.
Without knowing your particular situation, it’s difficult to pick the best one. If you already have a website, then a product that focuses on the money side of things might be good enough for you. If you are looking for a way to integrate your portfolio, then investigate the products that provide those particular services.
It’s best to pick a product that integrates with budgeting software such as Quickbooks. Software that plays nice with others is always a good thing. That way while you are creating your budget, you can let Quickbooks create the categories and help you keep track of your costs, even if you plan to charge a flat fee.
“The leading destinations for out-of-town weddings are Las Vegas, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and the Bahamas.”Source: tripsavvy.com
Don’t Forget the Basics
Focusing so much on the costs of the travel can cause you to forget the basics of negotiating a price. What is your pricing strategy? Are you using an a la carte system, where you start with a basic package and “upsell.” You start simple, make sure you have an easy upgrade system, and show them what you want to sell.
When you determine the price for the photography side, remember to consider:
- How many hours you’re going to spend shooting.
- The amount of time you’re going to spend sorting through the pictures.
- Are you going to stay with your typical package—whether it be digital or prints—or change it?
And remember that you are running a business. If you haven’t done so, determine your DCOBD, or Daily Cost of Doing Business. Do this by calculating all your expenses for the year and dividing by the number of days you will work.
Then when you calculate how much to charge, use the following formula:
Production Costs +
Mark Up =
If you have already done all these things, great! If not, you might want to step back and make sure you are paying yourself enough to stay in business.
Building a Portfolio Will Cost You Time
Another up-front expense you will encounter is building a portfolio. This is going to be extra difficult if you have never shot a destination wedding. So what should you do?
- Don’t misrepresent yourself. If you have never traveled overseas or across the country, be honest.
- Study photoshoots of other photographers. Look for pictures that you can replicate where you live. Maybe you can’t get to Greece, but you know of an amphitheater you can drive to. Take your camera and a couple of friends and take pictures. As you look at pictures taken in different locations, you will begin to note that many of the pictures could have been taken in hundreds of locations.
- Have those photos available on your website and in your portfolio that you show the potential clients. Be honest—these are pictures you have taken in the local area. Sell them on the fact that you can find interesting places where they live.
- Have a variety of different styles—traditional, photojournalistic, artistic, classic—and make that the focus of your talks. Take their mind off the fact that you haven’t done a destination wedding and focus it on what they want.
Every destination wedding you do afterward will provide you pictures from your trips, but you will need to invest time up-front to convince the couple you have the chops to make their wedding day look magical.
Meeting With Clients Is Not Optional
If you have listed your business on one of the many websites, such as findaphotographer.com, you might get a local job without having to meet a client in person. This can be a timesaver, as going to see a client to discuss a job is not billable.
If you have a client who wants to have a destination wedding, there is no way the client will arrange that over the phone, through e-mail, or Skype. Whether you go visit them or they visit you depends on what kind of studio you have.
Prepare yourself for a longer meeting than normal. Planning a destination wedding requires significant planning. You will want to ask potential clients a host of questions, including:
- Do you have a theme for your wedding?
- Have you already selected the place—resort, hotel, cruise?
- What do you already know about the location?
- What do you expect from me on the wedding day?
- Are you planning any special activities you would photograph?
- Will you be using a wedding planner?
- What style of pictures do you want?
- How did you hear about me?
- Tell me a little about yourselves?
All of these questions are important, but the one you need to make sure you ask is the last one. The photographer Hunter Harrison advises:
“Ask them How did you meet? Or really any question that gives you context on the couple. The answer may help you to think of creative ways to serve the client.”Source: photoshelter.com
“According to 2017 statistics released by The Knot, 20% of all weddings in the US are destination weddings and 49% of those take place more than 200 miles from home.”Source: catersource.com
Side note: The Knot is a great website. My friend used this cool website to schedule parts of his wedding.
Consider Offering a Destination Wedding at Your Location
Customers who are budget conscious are likely to find a photographer at the destination where the ceremony will take place. Consider this avenue as a way to gain experience as a destination photographer except you are photographing the couple in the area that you live. Consider the following if you plan to use this option:
- Use tools that are destination friendly. Use online software that will let your client video chat, sign contracts, pay invoices, and receive invoices.
- Tie your sales message to the region. Your website, blog posts (you do have a blog, right?), photo galleries, and other content should show off what makes your area special. Have pictures of both landmarks that clients would know about and those hidden treasures that local residents show off.
- Be the host. Make sure they know that they can depend on you to help them when they arrive and while they are there. Have a goodie bag with destination-themed gifts when you meet them. Ask if they need recommendations for anything. Offer to make local arrangements. Tell them how to avoid traffic. Think of them as guests, and yourself as the ambassador to your area.
Here are a few things destination photographers wish they had known when they first started:
- Use a credit card affiliated with an airline for business purchases. As long as you pay the balance every month, those miles can add up.
- Arrive at least two days before the wedding, especially if you will have to adjust to time differences. You don’t want to be off your game on the wedding day.
- Stay as close to the location of the wedding as you can afford. The day’s going to be long. Being able to head “home” quickly at the end of the shoot is worth a few extra bucks.
- Call a taxi. Let someone who knows the roads drive. You will have plenty to be stressed about. Traffic is not something to add to the list.
If you have gotten this far reading nearly 4,000 words, then you know you want to do this. Will a destination wedding be a vacation? No, it’s work. Will you lose money on your first one? Maybe.
Remember that you are investing in your career, and that will require risk. Will you help a couple to remember the magic of this special day? If you can do that, and you want to travel, then what are you waiting for?