Dear Photographer, Why Do You Charge So Much?

Every post is more interesting with a photo.  So here's my gorgeous husband last month while we were location scouting.

Every post is more interesting with a photo. So here’s my gorgeous husband last month while we were location scouting.

I’m sure this is a question many people have when looking for a photographer. In fact, before I started photography, I wondered the same thing: WHY do they charge so much, when all they’re doing is clicking a button for a few hours? Well, there’s quite a bit more to it than that, so I’m going to try to break things down and make sense of all of it.

Lets start with the chain studios:

I know most people of my generation are familiar with the department store studio packages- “GREAT DEAL! $30 for 60 prints!” I remember my mom dragging us to those ALL THE TIME when we were kids. But have you noticed the difference between those photos and photos taken by a real professional photographer? I’d hope so. Because those department store photography outfits have a few secrets the average person might not think too far into. First of all, many chain studios hire “photographers” who have never used a camera other than a point-and-shoot. This means that “photographer” knows nothing of how the three key factors in camera settings relate to each other (or for that matter, WHAT the three key factors even are), or why they’re necessary. They’re simply shown where the button is, taught a few basic poses, and learn how to set up those amazingly cheesy backdrops that have likely been around since your parents were your age. Need a pile of teddy bears to pose with? They know how to do that too! But that’s about as far as their education goes. The “technician” (i.e. REAL photographer who knows how to use a camera) comes in before each session and “calibrates” the camera. So then your “photographer” simply has to put you into the frame, pose you in the same way millions of others have been posed, and push the button. Do this a few times within your allotted 15 minute appointment, and you’re set! You walk away with about 10 different poses, only one or two of which you can actually order prints of in that AWESOME $30 deal. They usher in the next victim, rinse, and repeat. The result: Properly exposed, non blurry photos. That’s about it though. No creativity, no variety. The poses are less-than-flattering and the backdrop isn’t doing you any favors either. You could easily swap your photos for any other persons’ because they’re all the SAME other than the person in them. And your “photographer” is getting paid an hourly rate of at least minimum wage. Not too bad for just clicking a button all day.

So I hope that clears up a bit of why chain portrait studios are so cheap in price… because they’re CHEAP in quality. Not an ounce of artistic ability went into them, therefore they come out uniform, every time.

Moving on to the topic of wedding photography….

I’m sure anyone who’s been married has requested a quote on photography packages. Depending on who you asked, you’ve probably gotten a range of answers, from $50 (YIKES! RUN if your wedding photographer quotes this low) to upwards of a few thousand dollars. WHY such a wide range, and why do they get so expensive?

The answer is actually pretty in-depth, depending on a number of different factors. So, we’ll start with one scenario and move on to a few others. Say, you’re browsing Craigslist and you see a post that says “WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER- YOU’LL NEVER FIND A PHOTOGRAPHER SO CHEAP!”. You click the link. You see no example of the photographers’ work but they’ve got a GREAT price, so you contact them and book your date. When the day comes, Photographer shows up with a halfway decent looking camera… at least I’d hope. Really. If he/she shows up with a point-and-shoot, you probably would have been better off allowing your guests to handle your wedding photography and saved your money altogether. Sure, the ultimate result of your photos will not depend solely on the quality of camera used and instead on the person using it, but it SURE helps to have a bit of control over settings.. anyway. Back to the point. Photographer shows up with a decent looking camera, so you’re feeling pretty good about things. No paperwork to sign, no annoying contract to interrupt your busy day or cause you to have to schedule an inconvenient consultation beforehand, everything’s going pretty easily. Your wedding day comes and goes, and one of two things happen:

First, your photographer may rush off to his or her car after all is said and done, quickly burn off all of your images and hand you a disc. Done. You open the files later that night, and you’re horrified. Half of them are blurry, most are under/over exposed, and that once-in-a-lifetime kiss that seals the deal on your new life together? The focus was on the audience in the foreground, so the kiss is completely blurred out. Not to mention, stress has caused your face to break out in the most inconvenient of times, and that breakout is irrevocably captured for you to remember for the rest of your life. The one chance you had to beautifully capture your day has been ruined, all because you didn’t know anything about your photographer before hiring him or her for your wedding.

Second outcome: You finish up with festivities, and your photographer approaches you to let you know he or she will get in touch once your photos are ready. Sound good? Better keep holding your breath. You get your photos back, and they’re edited alright, but they’re so over-saturated you think you might go blind. Also, the outside of the photo is so vignetted that it might as well be framed already, but not in a visually appealing way. And your favorite shot was pretty decent, except for the cheesy little love quote written in illegible font that takes up half of the frame. You ask the photographer about the original images, and he or she says “sorry… I had to edit the original photo, so the original images don’t exist anymore”. Your beautiful wedding memories have been turned into garish images you wouldn’t feel comfortable showing to anyone. AND YOU PAID FOR THOSE.

Because of the fact that you didn’t sign a contract and you didn’t check into your photographer’s business ethics, you’re pretty much up a creek. You didn’t PAY him or her enough to even make taking the job seriously worthwhile, so the job wasn’t taken seriously. Would you take your job seriously if you were getting paid somewhere between $1-$6 an hour? Probably not, because you’d never make a living off of that. McDonalds pays more than that. But those are actual, real numbers depending on whether your photographer also retouches your images. If you pay your photographer $50 for 8 hours of coverage, without retouching the photographer is receiving no more than $6ish an hour. If your photographer DOES retouch the images, you’re paying them closer to $1 an hour. And if that’s the case, SHAME ON YOU FOR TAKING ADVANTAGE OF SOMEONE’S VALUABLE TIME. And shame on them for leading you to believe they’re legit. Chances are, this type of photographer is only doing gigs to make up for the few thousand dollars spent on that fancy schmancy camera that he or she only knows how to use in auto mode. I’ve heard other pros refer to this type of photographer as a “fauxtographer” or “weekend warrior”. NOT that every photographer only working on the weekends to supplement a full-time job fits into this category.. no way. One of my dearest friends runs a photography business while also working full-time as a nurse. She does a beautiful job, and has more actual experience than I do. Her images are full of life and love, and she knows her camera better than to keep it on auto.. but this is because she took the time to get to know her camera, did her homework, and found out the way to shoot based on the look she’s going for, not just “what the camera thinks is right”. I’ve mentioned her before, I’m sure- Katie Landes Photography. You’ll actually see some of that pretty face of hers in a week or so when I blog about our wonderful photography adventure on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. And believe me- she’s just as sweet as she is pretty.

But, what DOES a higher-priced professional photographer actually DO..
…and why are they charging me $100 an hour??

So lets move to a different scenario. You’re looking for a photographer, and you do a Google search or look around on Facebook for someone local. You find a website or profile with GORGEOUS, dreamy images. The couples in the photos look amazing. You can see the excitement so clearly that you almost feel like you were there. You immediately fall in love, and contact them for a quote. You’ll generally receive a pricing list with a few different options ranging from basic bare bones to elaborate packages including luxury items.. but lets say you wanna stick with basic. You’re hoping for coverage for the whole day (at least 8 hours, although usually closer to 10 or 12 when you factor in getting ready through the last lingering guests partying at the reception), around 200 edited images on a disc or flash drive. Chances are, you’ll still want to order some prints after the fact (and HOPEFULLY you’ll do the smart thing and order them from a professional printer rather than a department store photo processing center… my goodness I cringe when I hear “so, I can take these to Walgreens and get them developed?” Yes…. if you only want to be able to look back on beautiful images of your wedding for the next 10 years or so… because they’ll lose quality after that. Then what will you show your children? Grandchildren? A washed out, faded stack of photos. END RANT) so a lot of photographers offering print orders will often include $XX credit toward prints. In the end, you might get a quote something to the effect of $800. WAIT. $800??? WHY SO MUCH?! Lets break your wedding day down monetarily, based on these factors:

Your photographer spends 8 (or 10 or 12) hours shooting your wedding. That’s $100 an hour! Nope. Because your photographer also has to drive to and from your location. Say they live 30 minutes away. Since they’ll be driving a full hour to your location, that’s an extra hour of work-related time. Okay, so you’re only paying them $89 an hour. Still pretty steep… but what about the money they’ve had to pay to fill up their gas tank to GET to your location? These aren’t neglegible numbers. In fact, most photographers charge somewhere around 50-55 cents on the mile outside of a certain perameter, and that likely isn’t even going to cover what they’re paying for that gas. So lets drop the $ per hour down to $80, even though this factor is actually not time-related.. it’s still your responsibility to cover the cost. $80 per hour still isn’t accurate by any means. Although you only SAW your photographer for 8 (or 10 or 12) hours, he or she is doing the majority of the work outside of your eye. Editing is BY FAR the most time consuming part of any given photography assignment. First, your photographer has to sort through generally upwards of 1000 photos to make certain the ones he or she selects are properly exposed, not blurry, are composed properly, and no one is blinking, sneezing, making a weird face, etc. Once those are narrowed down, they have to check for duplicates- who wants two or three photos that are basically the same? And there will be duplicates especially of larger groups of people, since your photographer wants to be certain there’s at least one where no one is making a weird face. So sorting by itself can take a few hours to do, especially if they’re using a setup like I am, which doesn’t look to kindly on viewing images shot in RAW format. So say they take just an hour to sort. We’re down to roughly $70 per hour, and we’re just starting the editing. Now, there are some variables that factor into how long post-processing will take. Most photographers use Photoshop. Many use Lightroom either solely or in addition to Photoshop. Because I’m a brokey-pants, I don’t own Photoshop yet, and I’ve found Lightroom to be an exceptional tool, regardless of the fact that it’s not nearly as versatile as Photoshop. I don’t use other people’s actions, and I don’t go for the extreme photo manipulating, so Lightroom is 99% satisfactory for my personal photography style (although you better bet once I can, I’m snagging that baby up. I’ve learned small amounts of Photoshop from my dad, but I’m dying to dive further into it on my own. Little hint: youtube videos can teach you ANYTHING.)

AND WHOA. Wrangling in. I honestly think that weird jump off-topic warrents a new paragraph, just to give us a little break to focus. So back to it. $70 per hour. Post-processing times. Variables based on process used. Lets go. I usually take anywhere from a week to two weeks, depending on if it’s a 1-2 hour session or wedding day. Of course, I currently keep myself to 1-2 sessions per week, and only one if it’s a wedding, so with busier photographers, it’ll very likely take a lot longer. If I’m editing a session with around 200 original photos and settling on no more than 100 of them, I’ll likely only spend about an hour or two a day editing, equaling around 5-6 hours. Remember- running a business involves a LOT more than just shooting and editing:) I also have to break to post my first edits to my clients (I hate waiting on sneak peaks, so I hate making people wait too!) check emails and messages, work on scheduling, respond to inquiries, scout locations, go to meetings, and a lot more legal and businessy things that are too boring to even type out. Basically, I don’t get to just push a button all day. ANYWAY. Back to the point. For a wedding with around 1000 original images and settling on roughly 200 of them, I’ll take around 20 hours start to finish (most of this could be avoided if I were working with more updated equipment, but again.. the brokey-pants thing.. I’m working up to it:) So now we’re down to about $38 per hour.

So wait. Almost $40 an hour still sounds like a lot to pay.. But that’s not really the end. Sure, it’s the end of the shooting and editing and.. well finishing the images, but then there’s putting your collection together for the viewing session (AH! I forgot one thing at the beginning.. the time and/or gas spent on your booking/consultation session, or if it was a phone call, the minutes/time spent on that), then the time/gas spent to meet you for the viewing session, time spent discussing print orders, or even if you’re getting no prints, time spent putting your selections onto a disc or flash drive, presenting further options to order through the photographer, packaging your items, paying off the EXTRAORDINARY prices of equipment (a good quality camera will run you over $1,000… and the lenses are the expensive part, often equaling or costing more than the camera, per lens), equipment repairs and replacements, and of course factoring in details my little brain doesn’t feel like going into- things like electricity used to operate, license fees, taxes, insurance, business consulting fees, and so on- even though they don’t directly pertain to your session, they are still considered overhead to run the business catering to your session, and that’s just how businesses run. After all is said and done, the photographer is left with generally a little less than minimum wage to a liveable amount, depending on how their business runs. I remember reading a blog post somewhere where a photographer broke down exactly how much he or she (I can’t remember) was PERSONALLY making based on prices, overhead costs to run business, and the amount of clients they took in. That person ended up making around $6 per hour.. and all of those business expenses paid out don’t cover his or her own personal cost of living. I do remember them stating that they didn’t do it for the money, they did it because they were passionate about it. This is exactly true, at least in my experience. Right now during my startup, I’m basically pouring everything I make right back into the business. But to me, it’s worth it because I’m watching something grow right in front of my eyes- and it’s something I’m head-over-heels in love with. When it comes to spending money, I basically see dollar signs floating away every time I have to pay bills or get groceries, or do things that grown ups do.. but because of the fact that I love what I do so much, instead of seeing my hard-earned cash disappear, I instead see it transform into something wonderful- a way for me to eventually make money and help support my family by doing something I love to do rather than what I HAVE to do (of course, I still HAVE to do it, even when I don’t feel like it, but it’s more rewarding:) I think these are probably the reasons any other photographer does what he or she does too.

Anyway. I hope that extremely long book of a breakdown (really, I need to learn how to not be wordy) helped clear up some questions on photography prices. While photography may SEEM expensive when you take a short glance at the most obvious numbers, once you dive a little deeper, you’ll find that as long as they’re running their business in the most professional way they can, they’re really not making that much. When it comes to photography, you truly will get what you pay for. And for the biggest day of your life -or even just your yearly family photos or your engagement photos, since these are also fleeting days- isn’t it worth it to know you’ll be getting the best you can so you can look back those physical memories that are just as beautiful as the ones in your head?

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