I told myself I would never write a post like this. I refused to try to justify why good work deserves its price. But recently I have found myself needing a kind way to share with potential clients just how much goes into the professional photographs I produce for them. I get the question, “Why is photography so expensive?” and “How can it possibly cost that much?” all the time. If not directly, then in attitude. I’ve had fathers of brides stare at me angrily throughout entire consultations and not say a single word. I’ve had mothers of brides cry when I refused to give them a begged-for discount. I’ve had people just laugh and never call back. I’ve seen and heard it all. And I’m not complaining. I get it. When what seems to be nothing more than a “disc of snapshots” is attached to a four or five-digit price tag, it’s hard to not think you’re being taken for a ride.
This post is intended to relieve some of that confusion and offer real facts to help quell the sticker-shock fury, not only for those looking to hire a wedding vendor in the near future, but for amateur photographers hoping to some day own and operate their own photography business.
From a strictly tangible, monetary standpoint, below is a partial list of what it costs me to create professional photographs. These expenses reflect my business (and spending weaknesses), so they may look quite different from the next business owner or photographer. The equipment costs are cumulative from the time of opening of my business and the other expenses are an average based on my last three years. Some categories have been combined for the sake of brevity. As I mature in my operations management, I am learning to trim my expenses and thus leave a bit more to take home at the end of the day.
-$30-40k worth of camera equipment + backups
-$1,450/year equipment maintenance and repair
-$15k worth of computer equipment and software
-$5k/year on phone, internet, websites, domains and archiving services
-$1,200/year liability and equipment insurances
-$3-5k/year marketing, advertising and branding
-$3-6k/year traveling to and from sessions and weddings
-$1k/year accountant and bank fees
-$600/year attorney fees/contract management
-$250/year continuing education
-$400/year office supplies and tools
-$500/year in postage, packaging and delivery
-$1,800/year work clothing and travel meals
-$250/year vendor shooting fees
-$4,000/year subcontracted wedding assistants
-Uncle Sam’s generous slice via self-employment tax
The above costs are expenses. That means that just to break even, I have to make that much money. That doesn’t account for the fact that if I just broke even, I wouldn’t get a salary. I’d be working for free. Zero dollars per hour. Forget trying to build up any kind of savings, investments or retirement. And, just to be totally transparent, I am blessed to have a husband who provides health and dental insurance for both of us. I will let you use your imagination regarding how much my expenses would increase if I had to finance a private insurance plan.
*A quick side note: Some of these expenses could be decreased, recouped or even eliminated if I:
1) Stop giving clients discs of high-resolution photos, which currently come with every wedding and every portrait session, and instead made clients buy individual high-priced prints from their online galleries, and/or
2) Stopped shooting “real life, documentary-style images,” opened a studio and shot primarily on backdrops with stationary lighting. I would not have to drive or transport and set up my gear for each session. I would not have to spend time deciding on different locations for each client or worry about rain and I could shoot any time of the day or night, and/or
3) Stopped spending so much time with my wedding clients up-front, discovering their personal goals and desires for their wedding.
But these are three things that I am determined to keep away from my business. And so, those expenses must remain. And then, there’s this:
Notice back up at the top that I used the word, “make”. The above expenses are what it costs to make photographs, not “take.” Produce. Not, “capture.” These traditionally-used, passive verbs subtly imply that photographers don’t actually do a whole lot. They just see something pretty, press a button and put it on Facebook. And, ta-daaa, that’s it! And you’re right, if that’s all it is, then it shouldn’t cost so much. But in addition to the above tangible expenses, there’s a lot that goes into creating professional photographs that don’t actually have numerical values attached, yet it still costs me… it costs me time away from my husband, time away from my home, friends and family, relaxing, sleeping, going to the movies or getting the laundry done. You know, just living. And so these costs must be limited by attaching to each a monetary value and spreading it out over all the services and products I offer:
-Time prepping and packing gear before each session
-Drive time to and from session
-Time actually shooting
-Time downloading, editing, exporting, posting and backing up photos
-Time promoting and maintaining business social media sites
-Time spent maintaining website and blog and refining search engine optimization
-Time communicating with clients via phone and email
-Time in consultation meetings with clients
-Time spent bookkeeping
-Time spent working with my accountant, attorney and insurance company
-Time cleaning, maintaining and repairing my camera and computer equipment
-Time spent networking with wedding vendors and local small businesses
-Time spent reading educational materials, training, practicing and refining my skills
-Time designing albums and marketing materials
-Time packaging and sending finished products to clients
Next is the most contentious part. The part that makes a lot of folks cringe…. profit. Regardless of what political or social beliefs you hold, the fact is that there is no such thing as a successful business that makes zero profit. Now, I’m not referring to not-for-profits, government agencies, charities or 501(c)(3)s. Some of these are absolutely wonderful and they have a significant place in our economy and society. But that’s not what this business is. Expenses + time + salary = a surviving business, NOT a growing business and definitely not a lasting business. Profit allows businesses to be innovative, to grow, expand, change, offer new and better products at lower prices (and therefore healthy competition), invest in the future of their industry and new technologies, support charities and up-and-coming entrepreneurs they believe in. Profit is a good thing. And it’s an essential aspect of every sustainable business. A simple but helpful illustration of profit is that of an apple tree. The tree needs earth, water, oxygen and sunshine to mature. It grows to maturity, and by all intents and purposes, it can be called “an apple tree” at that point. But it only produces fruit when it has an abundance of resources. Otherwise, it’s really just surviving, isn’t serving a purpose and in reality, is in danger of being cut down and replaced by a producing tree. So, even though it is still called “an apple tree” without fruit, it will mature and then die without ever having reproduced all it worked for. No new growth, no contribution, no innovation. It is similar with a business. And in fact, if you want to get really deep, it’s the same with people too. The kinds of people I admire are those who are so fulfilled in their own lives that they have the resources and energy and willingness to turn around and give back to the people around them. That’s why Elizabeth Davis Photography is proudly a for-profit business.
And then, last but definitely not least, there’s Experience. Experience represents all the years and energy it has taken (and is still taking) to learn how to relate with my clients and their kids in a way that helps me to produce natural, fun, energetic photographs of them. Only one in every twenty or more clients arrives to their session “camera-ready”, or rather, “camera-comfortable.” One. In twenty or more. Almost every single client confides, nervously, right before we start shooting, “I really hate being in front of the camera.” As a professional, I have to help most clients be comfortable, coach them, prep them, make them laugh, distract them, encourage them and know when to put the camera down when they need a break so that they can take the time they need to relax and be themselves… These skills took years of practice and proactive self-educating. And it’s one of the best things I can offer to my clients… trust and peace of mind that even if they don’t feel pretty or cool at that moment, or if every little thing that can possibly go wrong on a wedding day DOES go wrong, that they’ve hired a professional who is going to get the shot. No matter what. And that, along with expenses, salary, the investment of time and profit for a vibrant future is what makes hiring a professional costly. And, in my opinion, totally worth it. :)
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it even a little helpful. :) I welcome any thoughts, questions, shaking of angry fists or comments that you have!
Category: Wedding Photography, Family Photography