Photo: Olli Henze via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Every professional photographer has at some point has heard at least one of these responses to their price list:
- You charge how much?!?
- What exactly do I get for that?
- I can get an 8×10 at Walmart for $1.50!
- But you just push a button all day!
Yes, photography is expensive. But, photography is expensive on both ends. Professional photographers don’t really earn $250 an hour for pushing a button. And when you factor in the hidden time and monetary investments, most photographers don’t earn much more than your hairdresser or accountant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most earn between $31,710 and $40,280 annually, or $15.24 to $19.37 an hour.
So then, why 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).
Photography Sessions Are Filled with “Hidden Hours.”
When a photographer charges $250 for a one-hour session, they’re not charging $250 an hour. At the very minimum, professional photographers typically spend at least three times that on a session.
While the client may only see the photographer for an hour, there was likely:
Over an hour of planning the shoot + time traveling to the shoot + half an hour to set up the equipment + the actual hour at the shoot + time traveling back + about an hour to load and choose the best images + another two hours minimum to edit the images + an hour to load the images online + an hour to order and deliver the prints.
That one hour session? The photographer probably spent a full eight hour day on.
That $250 session, then, becomes roughly $30 an hour, not including expenses.
How much do you pay your hairdresser? Tax guy? Mechanic? It feels easier to justify those expenses because you can see how much work went into the project firsthand. But, when you hire a professional photographer, you only see a small amount of what it actually took to produce those final images.
Photography Gear Is Expensive.
Because of the hidden hours, what seems like $250 an hour is actually only about $30, right? Not so fast.
Photography equipment is downright expensive. For example, let’s take the typical costs for one of the genres of photography that requires the least amount of gear: lifestyle portraits.
The camera costs at least $1,000 for a professional-grade DSLR, like the Nikon D7200. Most photographers have a second camera body in case of emergencies. Oh, and those two $1,000 cameras will likely be replaced after about three years, because like any technology, they become outdated pretty quickly.
= >$1,000 – $2,000
The camera lens at a minimum costs $250 for a basic lens without zoom. A 50mm f/1.8 is a good portrait lens—the option compatible with that D7200 is $220. That just allows one perspective, however, so most photographers will have either several prime lenses costing $250-$1,000 or two zoom lenses covering a range of perspectives costing over $2,000 each. The cheaper lenses will need to be replaced often, while the pricier lenses will thankfully outlast those camera bodies.
= >$250 – $1,000
The camera flash will cost at least $300 (like the Nikon SB-700), and most professional photographers will have more than one.
The smaller, often overlooked expenses add up too. Memory cards ($25-$50), filters (anywhere from $30 for a Hoya Polarizer yjhuto $320 for Lee Filters kit) and a camera bag (around $200) will add a few hundred dollars—and that’s at the very minimum.
= > $300 – $600
Editing photos isn’t cheap either. To keep skin tones from becoming odd colors, professional photographers need a high-end display that will show the image just like it will print out. Most photographers have about $2,000 in computer equipment (including external hard drives to back up those photos), and like cameras, they have to be replaced every few years. Oh, and factor in the $10/month subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom.
= > $2,000
That’s a lot of dough—but $4,000 – $6,000 is also a pretty low estimate. Lifestyle portrait photographers don’t need the speed of say, professional sports photography cameras that cost $6,000 just for the body, like the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
While it’s easy to think that wedding photography is marked up just because it’s wedding photography, different types of photography require different gear (and different time commitments).
Wedding photographers often invest in more gear so they can shoot in any conditions—can you imagine the photographer packing up because they didn’t have the gear to shoot a dimly lit church? The lenses that handle the limited lighting of churches and receptions while still offering zoom flexibility are at least $2,000. Many wedding photographers hire (i.e. pay for) an assistant and/or a second shooter to ensure all those moments are captured.
Professional photographers that don’t work on-site will be paying for another big expense: a studio. The cost of renting or buying a studio space varies based on geographic location—but it’s a safe bet that you can factor in at least a few hundred dollars a month for just the space, and at least a thousand for lights. That’s not including the backdrop stand, multiple backdrop options ($50-$200 each), backdrop floors ($100+), and of course, props.
It’s not uncommon for professional photographers to spend half their income on studio expenses and keeping their gear up to date, or a quarter for on-site photographers.
Which brings that $30 an hour from the $250 session down to about $15 or $20.
Photography Is a Small Business.
Besides the expense of actual photography equipment, professional photographers are paying for the same bills that your hairdresser and tax guy pay.
Self-employed taxes and health insurance + liability and gear insurance (often over $500 a year) + utilities—including a faster-than-average internet speed for uploading large image files online + marketing expenses.
Oh, and like your tax guy, there are often “seasons” for photography. Wedding photographers are busiest during the warmer months, and often book very few, if any, jobs during the winter. Outdoor portrait photographers are also limited by the weather.
The bottom line? The photographer that you thought was making $250/an hour, after expenses probably makes $15/hour.
Many photographers work multiple jobs or work in different genres of photography to make ends meet, and the ones that don’t are charging well above that $250 for a one-hour session.
Photography Is More Than Just Pushing a Button.
Sure, you can probably get photos for under that $250 by walking into a chain studio, often located inside a department store. But here’s the thing—I’ve seen the help wanted ads for these types of businesses, and they say no photography experience necessary. What were they looking for in their applications? Marketing experience.
These $50 studios don’t hire professional photographers, they hire people with sales experience and you walk in the door for a $50 special and walk out spending $250 in prints and extras with an up-sell.
When you hire a photographer, you hire an artist. Chances are, they’ve spent years perfecting their craft. They’ve invested a lot of money in learning how to take beautiful images, and when you walk in their studio, they’re going to put time and effort into helping you relax and smile—not rushing you through a session and then spending twice as much time convincing you to buy the add-ons.
What Happens When You Don’t Hire Professional Photographers?
I believe that everyone should take photos, whether it’s of their own kids growing up or the places they travel too. But, there’s a big difference between a casual snapshot and a professional image.
When you hire a professional photographer, you’re getting an artist who knows just how to light the shot, how to pose, how to set up the photo. You’re getting a photograph that, because it was taken with a professional camera and not your smartphone camera, can be reprinted onto a large canvas. And because you hired an artist, you’ll actually want to.
When you hire a professional wedding photographer, you get images that are just as beautiful as the memories you have of that day. When you just let guests take pictures, you end up with dark and blurry photos. I once had a client that decided at the last minute to just let a friend take her images—and she was making selfie facies in her bridal portrait. Everyone starts somewhere, and hiring a new photographer is a good way to save some cash, but be sure to really look at that photographer’s samples, so you don’t end up regretting your choice of photographer.
When you hire a professional product photographer, you get high-end images that will often increase your sales with no other changes. Especially for consumers buying something online that they can’t touch, professional photographs go a long way. When you don’t hire a professional, you get images that are obviously DIY, and you loose sales.
When you hire a professional portrait photographer, you get images that make you feel confident about yourself. When you go to a walk-in chain store instead, you feel rushed and often leave paying more with an upsell anyways.
When you hire a professional real estate photographer, you get photos that bring buyers through the doors. When you use smartphone snapshots for online listings, you get less traffic and often even a lower selling price.
Photography is expensive—but so is not hiring a professional.
I get it, when you are paying for caterers and bands and flowers, it’s hard to see that wedding photography price sheet. But you know what I still have left from my wedding day? My photos and my wedding ring (oh, and my husband). My dress is collecting dust in a closet somewhere and I have a small shadow box of the dried bouquet and an invitation.
Good photography is expensive—but it’s expensive on both sides. Professional photographers spend thousands on gear and expenses, often sacrifice their weekends and spend many more hours than the time you actually see them shooting. It’s easy to look at a photography price spec sheet and picture photographers around the world tucking themselves in at night to Egyptian cotton sheets inside large mansions. But, in reality, much of that cost is going towards expenses (and they’re probably staying up editing those photos anyway).
Post by Hillary K. Grigonis, a Michigan-based lifestyle photographer. When she’s not taking pictures, she’s writing (about taking pictures).