Why professional photography isn’t cheap

maine commercial photographer

There’s a question I hear more than almost any other, in a few variations:  why do photographers charge so much?

The implied statement is that photography, and professional photographers, are prohibitively expensive.

It’s easy to dismiss the questioner as being cheap, and unwilling to see the value in professional photography.   Instead, I think it indicates a lack of clarity around what photography costs and the reasoning behind it.   In other words, it’s a very appropriate question to ask.   Photographers are sometimes their own worst enemy when it comes to pricing their photography, and it’s no surprise that to the casual outside observer it looks like voodoo trickery.

Being a professional photographer is expensive.  It costs money to pay for equipment, insurance, professional fees and development, marketing and everything else that goes into a photo business.  When they hire assistants, producers and others to help those contractors are getting paid out of pocket, up front.  Things add up, quickly.

When you figure in all of the costs and divide that number by the number of full days per year that a professional photographer might expect to actually create images for clients, you get the Cost of Doing Business (COBD) number. For example, if a photographer has total costs and expenses of $60,000 per year and plans to photograph 60 days per year, their CODB would be $1000 per shooting day, on average.   This is their nut—the number they must make each day they shoot in order to break even. Anything less, and they are losing money.

Photographers who charge less than their COBD fall into one of three categories:  1) They don’t know their ‘numbers’, 2) They are purposefully (strategically) low-balling to get the work or 3) They don’t rely on photography as the main source of their income and livelihood.

Photographers in the former two categories need to adjust their approach if they want to stay in business long-term.

At the same time, images have never been cheaper. There is a glut of relatively high-quality stock imagery on the market, available for free or close to free (and I’m not counting the photos that are ‘borrowed’ and illegally used, a common practice).

For sake of discussion, I’m leaving out the discussion of stock photography.   I’m writing primarily about “custom photography”—that is, when a photographer is hired to create specific, high-quality images of for a brand or company that are completely unique and exist nowhere else.

In a world of endless choice and imitation, ‘unique’ takes effort. ‘Unique’ has value. Effort plus value equals fair compensation. Clients can expect to pay a higher fee—higher, at least, when compared to the almost-free price of images freely available on the internet—because you’re getting so much more. It’s not necessarily expensive….it’s comparatively expensive.

So there are two things, really, that clients are paying for when they purchase ‘custom’ photography.  One is the creativity, experience, vision and effort of the photographer. Let’s call this the ‘service’ component. The second is the value that they get out of the images they receive—i.e.,what they actually use the images for, whether it’s advertising, general marketing on a company website, printed brochures or to hang on public display.  These are all different uses, spelled out with a license agreement, and come with different price points. Let’s call this factor, ‘value’. The more value you need (the more the images are going to be used), the higher the price.

Photographers are all different.  Some will package both their service and the usage together, while others will line-item every single use.  Whichever way they choose to do it, it should make sense and fill two needs: their need to charge enough to keep their business going and the client’s need to get the best quality for the best possible price.   In most cases, quality comes with a price, but also with the peace of mind in knowing your work is being handled by a pro.

The good news is that, in this world of endless choice, there is a photographer—and a quality—to match every budget.