February 28, 2023

Robin Gillham

What Goes Into Making A High-Quality Photograph

Photo by Samuel Rios

At some point, every professional photographer has argued with a potential client about the price of their services. It can be expensive to hire a professional photographer, whether it is for the photo shoot itself or to edit hundreds of images from a wedding.

There is no doubt that photography is expensive. However, both ends of the photography process are expensive. A professional photographer doesn’t make $ 350 an hour by simply pressing the shutter button. In fact, photographers typically earn less than your hairdresser or accountant after accounting for hidden time and financial investments. A typical photographer earns approximately $40,000 a year, or as much as $20 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, when somebody uses your work without a license, they are stealing much more than a photo; they are helping themselves to the time, expertise, and equipment which helped to create the image. That’s why Pixsy was created to help photographers get paid for their work.

So then, why exactly is photography so expensive? Here’s what you are really getting when you pay for a professional photographer (and what you miss out on when you don’t).

The world of photography can be quite mysterious at times. There are no standards, which is the problem. There is no industry-wide pricing to guide new photographers. There is no certification to guarantee a certain level of quality. However, in order to clear things up and explain why high-quality photos can be so expensive, we’ve put together this guide.

The Difference Between Photography As A Hobby And Photography As A Business

Photo by Kenny Eliason

Along with the expense of the equipment, professional photographers pay the same bills as your window cleaner. Taxes and health insurance for self-employed people plus liability and gear insurance (often over $500 a year) plus utilities, including a faster than average internet speed for uploading large images online plus marketing costs.

Similarly to your tax guy, there are often “seasons” for photography. During the winter, few, if any, wedding photographers book jobs, since the warmer months are busier. A photographer’s ability to take outdoor portraits is also limited by the weather.

How does it all work? After expenses, the photographer you thought made $350/hr probably makes $20/hr.

In order to make ends meet, many photographers work multiple jobs or specialize in different types of photography, and those that don’t charge well above $ 350 per hour.

The Final Mark Of Quality

Photo by Alexander Dummer

There’s probably a chain studio within a department store where you can get photos for less than $350. There’s just one problem – The $50 studios don’t hire professional photographers, they hire salespeople with experience, and you walk in for a $50 special and walk out, spending $350 in prints and extras.

Photographers are artists. There’s a good chance they’ve spent years honing their skills. They’ve invested a lot of money in learning how to take beautiful images, so when you walk into their studio, they’ll make you feel relaxed and smile—not rush you through a session, then spend twice as long convincing you to purchase the add-ons.

What Goes Into Making A High-Quality Photograph? A Talk With Pixsy Client John Fielding

Burnham Harbour by John Fielding

The creative process is different for every photographer. The type of equipment, style, and editing can vary massively, and the amount of effort that goes into taking a spectacular shot can sometimes be sky-high. We asked Pixsy client John Fielding, an accomplished aerial photographer with years of experience, to talk us through what went into the creation and post-production of one of his high-quality aerial photographs. Let’s take a look.

What is your photography style, and how did you first get into the world of photography?

I’ve been fascinated with both photography and aviation all my life but never imagined that one day I’d be able to do both. Most of my photographs are taken from a light aircraft and occasionally a small drone.  I enjoy taking photographs of anything that interests me on the ground, and my aim is not merely to document a building or place but to produce an image with artistic merit. Over the years, I’ve built up a following on various social media platforms and love interacting with people, some of whom I now consider to be friends.  

What kind of equipment do you regularly use?

I use a Nikon D850 with a Nikkor AF-S 28-300 f3.5-5.6G ED VR lens costing about £3500.  When bouncing around, piloting a small aircraft, it isn’t sensible to be changing lenses or cameras. The 28-300 lens provides me with the ability to take both wide-angle landscapes and gets me as close to buildings as I need. The Nikon has been fabulous, but I’m ready for a change and would welcome suggestions for a camera/zoom combination that can provide me with the same range of magnification.  If the aircraft is included as part of my photography equipment, then the camera is a small fraction of the overall cost of my photography. I own a half share in an aircraft and try not to focus on its true cost as it might put me off my hobby!  If you take into account the depreciation, I’d guess it is in the region of £5000 pa.  The other major part of my equipment and the area where most of my time is spent in Photoshop, running on a 27-inch Apple Mac computer.

Can you talk us briefly through the process that went into taking the photo in question?

The above image was taken 1000 feet above the north Norfolk coast at Burnham Harbour in 2018.  This coastline is one of my favorite areas to photograph and is a 30-minute flight from my home airfield in south Norfolk. Before each flight, I plot a series of ‘waypoints’ onto my flight navigation software and plan a route that minimizes the time between these points of interest. A flight along the north Norfolk coast and back to my home airfield will involve around two hours of flying which, if you include the fixed and variable costs of aircraft operation, would be approximately £250. Each flight also involves an hour preparing the aircraft and another hour putting it away.  The actual technique of taking worthwhile photographs whilst safely piloting an aircraft would need a small book to describe.  

What is your post-production process?

This image is relatively straightforward and would have taken about ten minutes to optimize in Photoshop. Many of my shots involve buildings and structures, which frequently require adjustment in Photoshop to make them look ‘normal.’  Within the frame, there are half a dozen white boats that are reflecting the sun. Without post-production, these would be overexposed and their details lost. To counter this, I import two exposure variations of the same RAW image into Photoshop: one exposure for the general background and one darker exposure for the boats.  The general exposure image is layered on top of the darker exposure so that I can brush away the top (overexposed) areas to reveal the layer beneath, suitably exposed for the boats.  This is less of a problem in the summer months but involves more work in the winter when the sun is low and bounces too strongly from some vertical surfaces.  

How does aerial photography differ from standard photography?

On a photographic flight, I remain at a relatively low altitude, often at around a thousand feet. This enables me to spot things that I otherwise would have missed, had I been much higher. The law in the UK states that I must be a straight line distance of 500 feet from people, vehicles, vessels, and structures.  Obviously, the primary objective is to fly in a manner that is both safe and legal, and there is a fair bit of learning in order to do this effectively.  The art is to position yourself to make the best use of the available light and to capture the subject from its optimum angle and distance, essentially the same as any other type of photography.

Photography Gear Is Expensive

Photo by Jakob Owens

One important thing to remember is that; professional photography equipment is extremely expensive. Let’s take lifestyle portraits as an example of a genre of photography that requires the least amount of equipment to see how much the average photographer could spend to create high-quality portraits.


A professional-grade DSLR camera, such as the Nikon D7200, costs at least $1,000. There is usually a second camera body in the bag of every photographer in case of an emergency. In addition, those two $1,000 cameras will probably be replaced after about three years since technology becomes outdated pretty quickly.

Amounts between $1,000 and $2,000


It costs at least $ 350 for a basic lens without zoom on a camera. Those D7200 are compatible with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, which costs $220. Since that only allows one view, most photographers will either have several prime lenses costing $250-$1,000 or two zoom lenses covering a range of perspectives costing over $2,000 each. There will be a need to replace cheaper lenses often, whereas pricier lenses should last longer than camera bodies.

Amounts between $ 350 and $1,000


A camera flash will cost at least $300 (as the Nikon SB-700 does), and most professional photographers will own more than one.

Over $300


There are also smaller, often overlooked expenses to consider. Camera bags (around $200) and memory cards ($25-$50) will add a few hundred dollars, as will filters (anywhere from $30 for a Hoya Polarizer to $320 for a Lee Filters kit).

Amounts between $300 and $600

Editing Equipment

Photo editing isn’t cheap either. In order to keep skin tones from becoming odd colors, professional photographers need high-end displays that display images as they will be printed. In addition to their cameras, most photographers have about $2,000 in computer equipment (including external hard drives to back up their photos). Also, consider the $10/month subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom.

Approximately $2,000 or more

Other Costs

4,000 – $6,000 is a pretty low estimate, but it’s still a lot of money. Unlike professional sports photography cameras, like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, lifestyle portrait photographers don’t require cameras with the same level of speed.

It’s easy to think that wedding photography is marked up just because it’s wedding photography, but different types of photography require different gear.

Many wedding photographers invest in more gear so they can shoot in any conditions-can you imagine the photographer packing up because they didn’t have the equipment for a dimly lit church? In churches and receptions, lenses that provide zoom flexibility while handling the limited lighting are at least $2,000. In order to ensure all those moments are captured, many wedding photographers hire an assistant and/or a second photographer.

In addition to working on-site, professional photographers will have to pay for a studio. Depending on where you live, you can expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars a month for the studio space, and at least a thousand dollars for the lights. Additionally, props and backdrop stand ($50-200 each), backdrop floors ($100+), and multiple backdrop options ($50-200 each) must be purchased.

In most cases, professional photographers spend half their income on studio expenses and keeping their gear current, or a quarter if they work on-site.

Professional Photographs Take Time To Create

Photo by Luke Porter

If a photographer charges $350 for a one-hour session, they aren’t charging $350 per hour. Typically, professional photographers spend at least three times that amount on a session. The client may only see the photographer for an hour, but there is likely to be:

A typical shoot takes over an hour to plan, including travel to the location, plus half an hour to set up equipment and an hour at the location, then a time traveling back and about an hour to select and load the best images. Afterwards, a photographer could take two hours minimum to edit the images and then an hour to upload them to the website, and an hour to order and deliver the prints.

In that case, a $350 session becomes about $30 an hour, not including expenses.

You may pay your window cleaner less than $350 an hour and be satisfied with the result. Because you can see how much work went into the project, it feels easier to justify those expenses. However, when you hire a professional photographer, you only see a small part of the process.

Photographers Are Not All The Same

It’s important to understand that a casual snapshot is much different from a professional image. With a photographer, you’re getting an artist who knows how to light, pose, and set up a shot. As a result of the photograph being taken with a professional camera and not your smartphone camera, you are able to reprint it onto a large canvas. Due to the fact that you hired an artist, you’ll actually want to do it.

Photographs taken by a professional wedding photographer are just as beautiful as the memories you have of that special day. The pictures you end up with are dark and blurry when you just let guests take them. If you’re starting from scratch, hiring a new photographer can save you some money. If you’re considering hiring a new photographer, look at their samples carefully to make sure you won’t regret your decision.

The images created by professional product photographers increase sales without requiring any additional changes. Professional photographs are especially important when consumers are buying something online they cannot touch. Without a professional, you get images that are flawed, and you lose sales.

Is There A Reason Why Photographers Charge So Much For Prints?

Photo by Soragrit Wongsa

Quality of Printing

The quality of a print has the greatest impact on its price. Photographers usually have access to professional printers, so they can offer a higher quality print than what you can find on the high street. Because photography is not regulated, I say probably. The term photographer does not require any specific qualifications or standards. If you ask the photographer where their photographs are printed, you can get an idea of the quality.

There are several factors that contribute to the quality of a professional print, including:

  • Colors the printer can print – a professional printer can print more colors than an average printer, resulting in a more accurate reproduction of your photograph.
  • Inks and papers used. You will be able to tell how long your print will last and how true the colours will remain to the original print by these factors. Yellowing and cracking of paper are signs of poor-quality prints.
  • Professional prints differ as well. Digital printing will be used for some prints, while inkjet printing for others (Giclee). In each of these printing processes, different papers are available, and the choice of paper can have an impact on the presentation of the photograph.
  • Experience, expertise, and skill of a photographer are valuable

Another difference between printing your own photographs and hiring a photographer is that you’re paying for their expertise and skill.

When you buy a painting, the cost is a reflection of the artist’s skill and expertise. When you purchase a print from a photographer, the cost reflects the photographer’s expertise and time.

Photographers usually print a photograph after the photo shoot by following these steps:

  • Edit, retouch, and color correct it
  • To avoid visible dust, blemishes, or other details when the photograph is enlarged, resize it to the final print size.
  • Print it either at a professional lab or on a professional printer yourself.
  • As a result, your print will be unique, a one-of-a-kind piece of art, and this will be reflected in the price.

Robin Gillham

Robin is a resident case manager at Pixsy, working directly with our creators and photographers to help them enforce their rights. Robin is a hobby photographer with a keen interest in time-lapse.

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