Why Does Custom Photography Cost More
Costs of running a business + experience and knowledge
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The digital revolution has brought amazing flexibility and ability to control various factors during the image taking and making process. Photographers, the hobbyist, the professional, the amateur all benefit from this ability to manipulate pixels. However, with flexibility comes a price. Digital camera equipment is still considerably more expensive when you factor in its’ lifespan, the need for additional resources for processing those images, the time it takes to get a usable image and the effort that goes into creating a work of photographic art. We all know that you can go to the local Walgreen’s and pay a $1.99 for a print – as a client you may wonder why you may pay upwards of $50, $70, $90 for a custom photography print. Photographers hear this statement every once in awhile:
“How in the world can you charge $60 for an 8×10 if it costs me less than $2 to print at x store?”
The truth of the matter is the answer to this question is multifaceted. Much of the cost of a photographic print produced by a professional photographer has a lot to do with the time, equipment costs, artistic vision and reputation of the photographer not to mention expertise and the usual costs of running a legitimate business. The cost of TIME Approaching it from a time standpoint, let’s imagine that you have hired a photographer who has work that you love. This photographer is traveling an hour to your destination to photograph your session. Here is an example of a time break down:
booking time: 30 minutes to one hour (client contact time + paperwork)
pre-session prep time (30 mins – 1 hour, includes equipment and back up equipment checks + vehicle checks)
one hour travel time TO session
15-30 minutes prep time at client’s home
90 minutes-2 hours with client photographing subject
one hour travel time FROM session
30-45 minutes uploading time from digital cards from camera to computer
30-45 minutes time spent backing up the original images
2-5 hours editing time to present you with a diverse gallery of edited images
1 hour prep time getting ready for ordering
2-3 hours time with client for ordering images
1 hour sorting through and checking order
30 minutes-1 hour prep time for delivery
30 minutes-1 hour getting order shipped
any additional phone time or time needed for add on ordering, shipment issues, quality issues
In this example, the time spent per client can range from just under 13 hours to 19 hours – dependent on the photographer’s level of service. This is time dedicated only to ONE session. When the photographer charges $150-$300 for the photo shoot (aka SESSION FEE) you are not just paying for the two hours of session time, you are paying the photographer for 12-19 hours complete time for your session.
The COSTS of Maintaining a Custom Photography Business:
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Regarding equipment costs, a good quality professional camera with a selection of good optical quality lenses and digital storage mediums and computer set up can run from $10,000-$30,000 costs dependent on the photographer. Even though you can purchase a really good quality digital SLR for about $2100 there are still other costs related to photography. A good lens for portrait photography can run from $900 to $2500. A dependable computer system with software loaded for business and creative usage can run $2500 to $8000 dependent on the photographer. Then come lab costs for specialty products. A good photographer knows their professional lab is an integral part of their success. These labs often cost more and offer a range of products that allows the custom photographer to continually offer new, innovative products for the discerning client.
Discussion on other costs of running a photography business could take awhile so we’ll skip many of the intricate details. An overview: the costs of running the business, taxes, studio rental/mortgage if the photographer has ownership of a dedicated studio, vehicular costs, costs of advertising/marketing, costs of sample pieces that the photographer will likely bring to your session, etc.
APPLES to ORANGES to BANANAS: Often times clients will mention to their photographer that X studio in the mall/department store only charges $19.99 for an 8×10 “sheet” or they may mention other things related to discount photography chains. The fact is those discount chains make their money on volume, not on customized 1:1 service. In February 2007 a company who has leased photography retail space in a rather well known discount retailer closed down 500 of their portrait studios across the nation. The reason it happened is simple, you cannot make money on 99¢ “professional” prints if you do not sell enough of them. Interestingly enough – those same studios that offer the loss leader packages often charge much much more for their a la carte pricing vs. many custom photographers (as high as $40-50 for an 8×10).
A little history – the whole reason the big department stores began offering portrait services in the first place was to get you, the savvy consumer, in through their door so that you could spend more money with them in other departments. Your “PORTRAITS” are considered the “loss leader”. Your portraits that are meant to symbolize a once-in-a-lifetime stage in your child’s life are part of what a store considers a way to get you in there door to spend more money on goods that you might not really want or need but because you’re there “anyway” you buy.
Also keep in mind that when you go to a chain studio, as a consumer, you don’t have the benefit of 1:1 attention for 2 hours at your home where your child is allowed to explore, play and be comfortable in their home environment, nor do you get the experience that many custom photographers are known for as well as the lovely captures of natural expressions. You simply get a bare bones, “SAY CHEESE” experience.
REPUTATION/EXPERTISE of the PHOTOGRAPHER: There is an old story about a ship that cost a company millions of dollars. Something went wrong in the engine room and the ship was stuck in dock. They called various “experts” who spent weeks trying to fix the issue to no avail and at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Finally a older gentleman was called in who simply brought in his small tool bag and a hammer. He set about pinging on various parts of the vast engine with his hammer, finally settling on one area. He spent a few minutes pinging in that area, took out a few tools and fixed whatever what was wrong. After a few moments the man straightened up, looked at the captain and instructed him to “start her up.” The captain disbelievingly went to get the engines started while the man sat in the engine room listening as the engine roared to life. The man tipped his hat as he exited the ship to the staff who sat dumbfounded because they had seen all the experts come on board for days with their expensive equipment only to have the ship not fixed. This man did it in a few minutes with a few pings of his hammer!
A few days passed and the man sent the shipping company a bill for $10,000. The accounting department contacted him immediately. Why all the rumors mentioned that this man had only spent “a few minutes” fixing the ship “with his hammer and a few other random tools”. When questioned about why his bill was for $10,000 – did he accidentally leave an extra zero on the bill? The man confidently responded: “In fact the time was worth the $1,000. The other $9,000 was for the years of experience and the ability to discern the issue as quickly as possible for the company.”
Now I’m not saying that photographers fix large ships but being in demand, being well known for quality work, having a good reputation often costs time on the photographer’s part (years of practice, study, experience, etc). A photographer’s expertise comes at a cost, their time learning their craft and learning the intricacies of lighting and the commitment put forth on their end to create a persona about their business that oozes professionalism. A great number of photographers go a very long time from the time that they purchase their first good camera to making money at the business of photography. Many photographers, when first starting out, rush in thinking that the business will be easily profitable in no time, how expensive could it be to get a camera and use it to create their dream? These photographers often undervalue what they do because they have the realization that they do not have experience or expertise but are very adept at pushing the shutter on the camera. Many times these casual “professionals” neglect to factor in the cost of business, the cost of equipment, software, back ups, etc.. When you hire a photographer of sound reputation, you are hiring an expert, one that knows that they must always reinvest in their business to create the reputation of being top notch. To create good work a photographer possesses not only sound knowledge in the technical and creative aspects of photography but also good, reliable equipment and back up equipment.
The photographer who desires to be known as better/best/unparalelled reputation-wise knows that the most important thing they can do for their business is reliability and dependability. This is how reputations get built. Good work often is a wonderful side product of building that good reputation.
I hope this (lengthy) article helps shed some light on WHY a custom photographer is a better choice for your family’s memories. The photographs that are produced as a result of the professionalism and dedication that your photographer has will be cherished for a lifetime (or more) and great thought and consideration should be placed into hiring who is right for your family’s most precious investment.
content is inspired by discussions with other photographers, my own personal experiences and outline based on an article by San Diego Photographers Caught On Film Photography
All Photographers Are Not Professional Photographers
What makes a professional photographer?
A professional photographer is a skilled photographer that has dedicated their professional working life to partnering with you to create beautiful images of you, your children, your family.
Professional photographers not only know their equipment and know it well, they are also legitimate business owners who:
pay for their equipment and software with money they earn by providing this service
support their families with money they earn providing professional photography services
Professional photographers do not need to “portfolio build”, they already have a portfolio. Professional photographers do not work for free: they understand that they provide a valuable service. Professional photographers are much like professionals of other occupations, they have overhead and create photography not out of just love but out of a dedication to providing families with lifelong memories.
Some photographers participate in industry wide certification programs (i.e. Certified Professional Photographer), competition (competing nationally and internationally against other photographers), teaching/mentoring other photographers, writing about photography and reviewing equipment for trade publications, will mentor local photographers to achieve high quality photography as the norm within their area, work within the trade organizations to help maintain and/or create a sustainable profession where all learn and grow, etc. A true professional photographer will have a large display of work available to look through on their website, will have a client list and should be willing to provide references, should be able to provide you with consistent and beautiful images and will partner with you to create images that you will be happy with for years to come. A true professional photographer is not only a skilled artisan but also a business person like any other professional you may know.
How do you know if the photographer you’re looking to hire is not a true professional?
By definition a professional is someone who is paid money to provide a service. However the topic of professional photography is muddied by the fact that dSLR cameras have become common place and there is an all too irresistible urge to call ones’ self a professional photographer.
Muddying the waters even further: there is no board certification for photographers (like there is for other professional service providers such as hairdressers, aestheticians, etc). There is no one standard that dictates who is or who isn’t a professional photographer.
In essence: it is all too easy to buy a camera, hang a shingle, open up a Facebook business page and start charging for photography services. In fact it is so common that it’s become an issue amongst true professional photographers, many of whom are going out of business because of an onslaught of hobbyist photographers who think that turning into a wanna-be professional photographer is easy. They do so without understanding what being a professional photographer entails.
Many of those that hang their shingle do so without acquiring a whole lot of knowledge, knowledge that is both business &/or photographic. These new “pros” are often called “fauxtographers” or MWACs (mom with a camera), DWAC (dad with a camera), Debbie Digitals (a not so complimentary term), etc.
Truly my purpose isn’t to bash/name call a particular group of non professionals because I do respect all business owners and we all start somewhere however there does need to be a distinction of uneducated photographers who have taken down the business of photography a notch or two. I will simply refer to those non professionals as hobbyist-wannabe-pros.
I have a really good camera. Doesn't just having a camera create a photographer?
No. Having a camera, fancy dSLR (digital single lens reflex camera) or otherwise, does not a professional photographer make. It makes that photographer a camera owner. Professional photographers not only know how to press a button they know their equipment backwards, forwards and upside down, they spend a lot of time educating themselves about the craft of photography, they spend a lot of time behind the scenes running their business(es), and much much more.
Many of the best professional photographers take time to continue their education via other photographer run workshops, lectures and attending photography conventions as well as entering image competitions and such.
There is a HUGE difference between a pro and a hobbyist photographer. Hobbyist photographers enjoy shooting and may have a great handle on their equipment however photography as a hobby is VERY expensive and the expenses add up quickly, hobbyists quickly learn there is a big difference between maintaining a professional photography business vs. shooting from time to time.
A hobbyist-wannabe-pro may have the following distinctive qualities within their work/within their business models:
lack of consistent work (poor exposure, poor handle on contrast, lack of retouch work on photos, etc). In essence there is a lack of technical knowledge/proficiency with the equipment being used.
portfolio filled with many images of the same subject(s)
all inclusive pricing for low cost (i.e.: $200 for a CD of all images)
poor customer skills, lack of know how in dealing with clients of any age (especially with children). You can see this in a portfolio when you view the images and note that there is poor eye contact, lack of enthusiastic or engaging expressions
a noticeable lack of posing and/or awkward pose captures: sometimes the photographer will state that they prefer “unposed captures” which can be code for “I don’t know how to pose people”. This isn’t always the case, many photojournalistic style professional photographers also use this terminology but there is a distinctive difference when you view the portfolio of a pro who specializes in this style of photography vs. someone who lacks the proper knowledge
may state on their site that other “professional photographers” charge too much, that they aren’t going to “gouge” you in their pricing. That’s usually a sure sign of a photographer who doesn’t understand business, why they are pricing in the manner that they are pricing and is quick to insult a true pro to make their work look more appealing (nevermind that they likely will not be in business in a year or two)
does not have access to professional level product offerings for their clients: may use Shutterfly for albums, WalMart for canvas wraps, etc. These are not considered professional quality end products, some of these have a reputation for poor lab chemical calibration resulting in images that can fade and often do not represent colors accurately to begin with
general overall lack of professionalism: excuse making, whining about personal matter on their business page (Facebook) or blog, etc.. It’s one thing to have a family emergency or trying personal times, we all have those moments, but there truly are examples of photographers out there that are distinctly unprofessional. Let’s face it you’re paying for a service well done, so while you may have to cut a business owner some slack because they have a death in the family, as you should, multiple excuses and exclamations of “I wasn’t in the mood to edit your session today” won’t hold a lot of water and are hallmarks of unprofessionalism.
a lot of stylized sessions featured on their site: we all love a nicely stylized session but as a photographer I assure you it is rare and few and far between where a client wants me to drag out the picket fence, lemonade stand and dress the kids up in the latest shabby chic wear to pout and pretend they’re pouring lemonade at sunset in a ravine covered in bluebell flowers. If you see more than several of these sessions on a photographer’s site you need to ask questions about those specific blog or Facebook entries (i.e. were these images done for a client or for personal work, did a client request those sessions, did you trial a new set out that you’ll be offering clients, etc). Stylized sessions CAN BE beautiful and well planned out but the truth is most hard working professionals work with clients to create images of their families as the best representation of who they really are and rarely, if ever, create these highly stylized sessions. I love a good stylized session for my personal work with my kids and I’ll occasionally share those images publicly but the best policy is to be upfront about it. A lot of newer photographers like the look of these, because stylized sessions can hide a multitude of photographic flaws (you’re too distracted by the prettiness of the set up to notice the poor focus and the even poorer exposure and color rendition). The rule is DON’T AVOID the photographer who showcases these sessions but ask questions about these sessions.