There are so many articles on the web going into the details, the cost of running a photography business, breakdowns of the time it takes to create photos for a client. But every single business out there has expenses. One would assume that people in the same industry would have similar expenditures, which means they should charge similar prices, right? But in fact, there is such a huge difference in pricing within photography that many people are simply shocked to find out what photos might cost.
But while all photographers might seem alike, behind the scenes, things can be very very different. There is a formula of sorts that applies. It explains why some photographers charge more (sometimes a lot more) than others, without the needless breakdown of technical details nobody needs to know or care about.
Time + Quality + Skill = PRICE
No matter what product or service you’re looking at, the formula above should hold true - I say should because I’m certainly no economist, historian, or pricing expert, but I do have living and business experience, so there’s that. There are some photographers that charge $500 for 100 images and some that charge $5,000 for 1.. Why? Read on!
When comparing two very similar items, the pricing could be wildly different. But prices aren’t made out of thin air. They’re not based on whims - they are based on very concrete expenses.. and things like time, quality, and skills that are required to make them. For some reason, professional photography falls into this weird area where nobody knows WHY the prices are what they are. Photographers don’t sell tangible products (at least not in the way we’re used to), they sell their services and their talents, which makes judging whether the pricing is FAIR very difficult.
Photographers put time into each session. Now, it might be just the time they spend at the session itself, with a little bit for planning, copying photos unto a drive or website, and sending them along. This rightfully costs fairly little and is usually what hobbyist and starting photographers do within their process. Now, there is nothing wrong with this! In fact, many professional photographers start out as hobbyists, charging nothing or close to nothing to photograph their friends and colleagues.
And as a photographer gains more experience and expertise, things start to change. More time is spent on editing the photographs - going through and selecting only the best most flattering images, color-correcting, cropping, processing for the best look, and even spending time retouching in Photoshop.
More time is spent preparing for the session - whether that’s location scouting, helping the client select clothing, finding out exact client needs in terms of product and final results, and walking them through all the details of the process.
And after the session, an in-person ordering appointment will help clients select their best images, but only if that time is spent with them.
A starting-out photographer might spend 2-3 hours per client.. while some of the top professionals will spend 20-30 hours on each “session” (famously Annie Leibovitz would spend an entire weekend with her client just to get ONE photo). So, wouldn’t it make sense that someone who’s spending 10x more time on something would have to charge 10x more?
Now, quality can apply to both the quality of the photography (more on that below) and the quality of the printed products that the photographer is selling in the end. For our purposes, however, we will focus on the latter.
There are three levels of quality when it comes to printing. Consumer printing (that’s when you get quick photos from the Kodak kiosk at Target or Walgreens), professional printing (quality prints that are sold to photographers by professional photo labs), and museum-grade printing (which is offered by a handful of companies and as top-tier products by professional labs).
And to most people, all three options will look fairly similar.
But that is also the reason why you’re hiring a professional. The photographer, ideally, is trained in knowing the differences in printing and can provide the kind of product that will not only last much longer than consumer-grade prints, but will also have correct color rendering and is free of the acids that destroy printed materials.
Museum and conservation-grade prints cost more, usually 25x what high-quality professional prints cost. They require specific inks, paper, and handling. And that means that the photographer who offers high quality products will have to charge more to cover that cost.. and it also usually means that that photographer cares a lot more about their products. They want you to have the very best, because otherwise, what’s the point, right?
*Tip: Does the photographer talk about their products? If the focus is on digital files only, then you’ll be stuck doing most of the work (and using consumer-level printing for your images).
Every photographer is creating a certain level of work. It can be at the very beginner level, or at a professional expert level.. the problem is, most people have trouble spotting the difference. They can tell that someone’s photos might be better, but aren’t sure WHY.
In fact, top photographers spend a considerable amount of time learning, practicing, and trying to improve their craft. They care about their work and strive to be better, every single day. And because they’ve put so much time into learning and becoming experts, they usually charge more for their time.
And it’s not just knowing how to use the camera. It’s also knowing about lighting (whether it’s recognizing where the good light is or creating light with specific equipment), posing, color, styling, and most of all, how to work with people (and in my case, children). All of those skills come together and make taking photographs seem effortless. Which is why it’s so confusing. People who are truly skilled in their craft make it look easy, so we look at them and ask, why are they charging so much? It only took you a minute! And hopefully you now know why.
*Tip: How do you spot a photographer who’s good at their craft? Look at the sharpness of images (this is often hardest to nail down) and consistency (Instagram or Blog will give you a good sense of their work). It’s easy to select the best 20 photos for a website portfolio and look impressive online, so be sure to go beyond the obvious to get a better sense of their abilities.
Based on your personal experience in the past, a photographer’s price might seem outrageous, fair, or cheap. If you’re used to paying .10cents for a print, paying $100 or $1000 for the “same thing” might seem absolutely insane. But the fact is, it’s not the same. It’s like comparing a designer purse to a grocery bag - one is hand crafted by a skilled professional from high-end materials and meant to last a lifetime, while the other.. well.. isn’t. The pricing formula above is why some cars cost $30,000 and some are $100,000. It’s why some t-shirts cost $10, and others retail for $100 or more. There is variation in every product category, so why would photography be any different?
I hope you found this post helpful in understanding why some photographers charge more than others. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to ask a question or leave a comment below to let me know what you thought!