Why Are Professional Photographers So Expensive?
July 22, 2010 by Loren Scott
I will begin this blog entry with a story that I have heard told with many different subtle variations, but the point is always the same. So, here it is:One day, the famous artist Pablo Picasso was sitting at a table outside a Paris cafe. A woman recognized him and asked if he would draw something for her on a napkin. He complied, doodling as only he could. After he quickly finished he requested the French equivalent of $5,000. Shocked, the woman protested, “But, it only took you two minutes!” To which Picasso smiled and replied, “No Madam, it took me my whole life.”The point there is that while the woman simply expected to pay the cost of the napkin, the ink, and a mere two minutes of someone’s time, she instead should have expected to pay the true value of the end product — in this case, an actual piece of art — which was clearly much, much higher. The same principle applies to a photographic print of an image created by a photographic artist. The end product is also a work of art that has a value far higher than the cost of the paper it was printed on.I have had some discussions lately about the cost of quality professional wedding photography with several of my friends as well as with several different potential wedding clients on shoestring budgets. Part of our discussions involved why I charge the seemingly high rates that I charge for my work.In my specific case, I am definitely not the cheapest “professional” wedding and portrait photographer in my area. I put the wordprofessional in quotes because too many people these days buy a low end digital SLR camera with a cheap lens or two, order some business cards, and toss up a web site, and call themselves “professional”. To someone such as myself who shot his first weddings (on film) way back in 1982, and who makes 100% of my money with my cameras these days, I may have a biased opinion of what really counts as a true professional photographer.Anyway… so as I was preparing to write a blog entry to hopefully educate those who were interested on why real “professional” photography costs what it does, I did a Google search to see what others had already written on the topic — to ensure that I didn’t miss any key points. Well, I found another blog post, written last year by another real professional photographer (Shawn Richter from Caught on Film Photography), the content of his blog entry said exactly what I wanted to say. It has been very well received by the photography community, and was published in the December 2009 edition of Professional Photographer Magazine.With Shawn’s gracious permission, I have reprinted his content below. Enjoy!——In this digital age where everyone has cameras, scanners, and home “photo printers,” we hear this all the time: How do professional (or personal) photographers charge $X for an 8×10 when they cost just $1.50 at the drugstore? Simply put, the customer is not just paying for the actual photograph; they’re paying for time and expertise.THE AVERAGE ONE-HOUR PORTRAIT SESSIONFirst, let’s look at the actual work involved:
- Travel to the session
- Setup, preparation, talking to the client, etc.
- Shoot the photos
- Travel from the session
- Load images onto a computer
- Back up the files on an external drive
- 2 – 4 hours of Adobe® Photoshop® time, including cropping, contrast, color, sharpening, and backing up edited photographs. Proof photos are also ordered.
- 2 – 3 hours to talk to the client, answer questions, receive order and payment, order their prints, receive and verify prints, package prints, schedule shipment, and ship.
- Possibly meet clients at the studio to review photos and place order. Meeting and travel time average 2 hours.You can see how a one-hour session easily turns into an eight-hour day or more from start to finish. So when you see a personal photographer charging a $200 session fee for a one-hour photo shoot, the client is NOT paying them $200 per hour.THE EIGHT-HOUR WEDDINGA wedding photographer typically meets with the bride and groom several times before and after the wedding. And it’s not uncommon to end up with 1,000 – 2,000 photos, much more than a portrait session. Many photographers spend 40-60 hours working on one eight-hour wedding if you look at the time that is truly involved. Again, when a wedding photographer charges $4,000 for eight hours of coverage, clients are NOT paying them $500 an hour!(Don’t forget that the photographer runs the wedding day to some extent. A comfortable, confident wedding photographer can make a wedding day go more smoothly.)THE EXPERTISE AND COST OF DOING BUSINESSShooting professional photography is a skill acquired through years of experience. Even though a DSLR now costs under $1,000, taking professional portraits involves much more than a nice camera.Most personal photographers take years to go from buying their first camera to making money with photography. In addition to learning how to use the camera, there is a mountain of other equipment and software programs used to edit and print photographs, run a website, etc. And don’t forget backdrops, props, rent, utilities, insurance, etc!In addition to the financial investment, photographers actually have to have people skills to make subjects comfortable in front of the camera. Posing people to look their best is a skill by itself. You could argue that posing is a more important skill than actually knowing how to use the camera. A poorly exposed photo can be saved, but a badly posed photo cannot.THE CHAIN STORE PHOTO STUDIOChain stores do have their place. For a very cheap price you can run in, shoot some quick photos, and be done with it. But you get what you pay for.Consider the time and effort that a personal photographer puts into photographs, compared to a chain store. Store sessions last just a few minutes, while a personal photographer takes the time to get to know the people, makes them comfortable, makes them laugh. If a baby is crying at a chain store, they often don’t have the time (or the patience) to wait because everyone is in a hurry.The truth is that many chain store studios lose money. In fact, Wal-Mart closed 500 of their portrait studios in 2007 because of the financial drain. What the chain stores bank on is a client coming in for quick, cheap photos…and while there, spending $200 on other items. They are there to get you in the door.THE REAL DEALProfessional, personal photographers are just that—professionals. No different than a mechanic, dentist, doctor, or electrician. But a personal photographer often becomes a friend, someone who documents a family for generations with professional, personal photographs of cherished memories.Maybe we need to help clients look at it this way: A pair of scissors costs $1.50 at the drugstore. Still, most people will gladly pay a lot more to hire a professional hair dresser to cut their hair.The added attention and quality that a personal photographer gives is worth every penny.——Loren here again… To add to what Shawn wrote, in our studio’s specific case, our rates are not only based on the value of me. That is, my own level of experience in photography (both formally-trained in school, and also from shooting hundreds of actual weddings). But, additionally, our rates are also based on the level of experience that my wife Rachel brings to the table. She is areal formally-trained, professional graphic artist. She even has a Bachelor’s Degree that says so! A good majority of photographers (pros and amateurs alike) do their own Photoshop retouching of the images. (Well… actually, many of the cheaper photographers don’t do any retouching.) In our case, when you hire our studio, you are not just getting a formally-schooled photographer in me, but also getting a formally-schooled graphic artist in Rachel. Kind of a two-for-one deal.Often times, when a bride-to-be is shopping for the right wedding photographer for her, the first inclination is to ask for pricing and what she’ll receive (in time and products) for that price. In short, she is looking to do an “apples to apples” comparison of photographers. This type of commodity-based comparison shopping may work well if you are truly comparing something that is identical, such as a book. If the same exact book is $10 at Amazon.com but costs $15 at Barnes & Noble, the choice is clear. With photography, not so much.With photography, you may be able to objectively compare the time allotted and perhaps the products received (assuming you can guarantee the exact same quality of prints and exact same album vendor). However, you cannot objectively compare the photographers themselves. You can only subjectively compare them. For example:
- Which photographer has the style you prefer? Photographers may share a similar style but, as with snowflakes, no two photographers are exactly the same. One might be a traditionalist that prefers to stop the action of an event to pose each shot, while the other might have a more modern photojournalistic and candid style. Which is best? That is subjective, based solely on what you prefer.
- If one photographer is a part-timer with a day job, and the other is a full-time professional photographer, is one “better” than the other? Simply being full-time does not necessarily guarantee talent, and being part-time does not necessarily rule out talent. It is subjective. Being a part-timer may mean that the other “day job” will slow down their ability to edit your images or design your album as quickly as the full-timer. But, maybe not. It is subjective.
- Which photographer does the best Photoshop retouching (or has the best dedicated graphic artist to handle that specialty for them)? Again, that is subjective. What type of retouching do you like? Do you want to look like yourself (but better), or do you want to look like a mannequin?
- Which photographer do you want to spend your whole wedding day with? Your wedding photographer is really one of the few wedding vendors (along with, perhaps, your wedding coordinator) that will be with you from the time you are getting your hair and make-up done until the end of the reception. So, if you pick someone just because they are cheaper than the next guy, even though their personality and yours do not really gel, you may be in for a long day. Forget the “because they are cheaper” part for a second. Even if they are the most expensive photographer and have awesome work, if they are not the type of personality that you’d want to just hang out with as friends, then you probably should keep looking.In short, when you hire a photographer, you are selecting them, more than you are selecting the paper their photographs are printed on (you trust them to take care of that), or the quality of the final album (you trust them to make it everything you dreamed of), and so on.While you may be able to commoditize the physical items within a wedding photography package, the value of the photographer themselves (their skill level, personality, sense of how and when to click the shutter, and so on), is not a commodity. It is a set of unique traits amongst all photographers with values that are completely subjective.Ultimately, the laws of supply and demand also come into play. If a photographer finds themselves in high demand, the price will go up, because people are subjectively deciding that the photographer (not all of the material stuff) is worth it. Conversely, when a photographer is getting very few bookings, their price (as well as their own perceived value) can plummet. Therefore, most low-cost photographers are not in high-demand. If they were, they wouldn’t be low-cost photographers anymore. Trust me.The last point I’d like to make is one that I really think sums it all up, as far as wedding photography budgeting goes… Do youreally want the lowest bidder photographing something as critical as your wedding day?During his retirement speech as a U.S. Senator, former astronaut John Glenn said this:I guess the question I’m asked the most often is: “When you were sitting in that capsule listening to the count-down, how did you feel?” Well, the answer to that one is easy. I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of two million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”I believe the same philosophy should be applied to historical photographic moments. A portrait session can be reshot if an inexperienced and low-cost photographer happens to mess up the taking of the photographs. A wedding cannot be reshot. Your photographer has only one chance to get it right. While I realize that budgets can sometimes be tight in this economy, every effort should be made to minimize the chance for disaster when it comes to your choice of wedding photographers.