You probably own a digital camera of some type. The most popular ones these days are point and shoot digital cameras, averaging in the $150-200 range. You probably snap some pictures with it from time to time, download them to your computer, and print them out as 4×6 glossy prints at Walgreens for fifty cents apiece. So you might have a degree of sticker shock when you take a look at the pricing of Professional Photographers, and wonder why it costs so much. I mean after all, you could take the family to the local Sears Portrait Studio and come out with a stack of pictures for a hundred bucks or so. Why in the world is it going to cost you many hundreds or even thousands of dollars to have a session with a Professional Photographer and get some pictures on the wall?
Professional Photographers are not chain stores. They are individual people/familes/couples who decided to pursue their art and start up a business. Each one is unique and has their own way of doing things and their own pricing. But some universal truths apply to all Professional Photographers.
1. We are businesses. That means that all money you pay your Professional Photographer doesn’t just leave your checkbook and fly directly into his or her pocket. We have taxes to pay, equipment to buy, payroll, perhaps studio overhead - a LARGE portion of the prices that we charge for our work goes toward business expenses. In fact, an in-depth survey by the PPA (Professional Photographers Of America) found that the most profitable home-based studios took home just 32% of their sales as profit, and retail based studios had an even lower profit rate of 28%. And that’s the *most* profitable businesses.
Let’s say that the ‘average’ Professional Photographer falls short of the most profitable businesses by about 20%, so the ‘average’ home-based Professional Photographer is taking home about 26% of sales. In simple terms, that means that if you spent $1000 with your photographer for the session and your print choices, just $260 of the money you paid him ends up in his pocket. The rest goes to all the other expenses involved in running the business.
2. We have a specific skill. If you are a chef at a restaurant, I respect that you have more skills and experience in cooking than I do. I can ask you what type of pans you like to use, and I can go out and buy the same kind of pans, and it doesn’t mean I will create a delicious complicated 7 course meal tonight. If you are a hairdresser, I respect that you have more skills and experience with cutting hair than I do. I can ask you what brand of scissors rocks your world, and I can go out and buy the same pair, but that doesn’t mean you should let me cut your hair.
Just because everyone can purchase a camera at a big box store doesn’t mean that photography is easy. It’s not. Like any other skill, it takes time, practice, experience – and a dose of talent doesn’t hurt either! The chef who has proven that he can cook incredible meals every night for ten years in a row probably commands more per plate at his restaurant – his expertise means that he doesn’t flip burgers for minimum wage. The same principle applies. You trust professionals to cut your hair, operate on your gallbladder, and do your taxes – and it costs many times more to pay them to do it than it would cost to do it yourself (and I’m pretty sure you can’t operate on your own gallbladder no matter what!) You’re paying for the talent and skills that person has honed. It costs more. Most things that are worth having do.
3. We’re not getting our prints from Walgreens. Professional Photographers tend to be extremely picky about the product that they put in clients hands. It’s a reflection of their work, and it has to look fantastic. All products come from labs and vendors that cater specifically to Professional Photographers. The prints, canvases, frames, and other products we deliver to our clients are a higher quality than what is available to the general public – and it should be no surprise that they cost more too. Is it worth it? Here’s a test for you – do you have any pictures of yourself or your family from say 20-30 years ago that were made at a chain portrait studio in a mall or superstore? Take a look at them. How do they look? Probably green, orange, or otherwise discolored, and likely faded. Do you know why? Because those portrait studios print on crappy paper. Using crappy ink and crappy printing processes. Professional labs produce high-quality prints that will stand the test of time, and that’s what Professional Photographers sell to you. I’ll say it again: It costs more. Most things that are worth having do.
4. Professional Photography is a very time intensive business. For every client that I work with, I spend time on: a phone consultation to determine their needs, doing paperwork to track the client and their session, driving to the session, shooting the session, driving home, downloading the images and choosing which ones I’ll show the client, processing those images, creating a slideshow and online shopping cart for them, an in-person sales appointment, designing custom items, ordering their products, unpacking and inspecting the prints when they arrive, packaging up the order, and either shipping or delivering the order. If a photographer has staff, that’s great, they don’t do all of those tasks – but they have to pay someone else to do them.
In an informal survey amongst Professional Photographer friends, we estimate it takes between 6-10 hours of time for ONE session with ONE client. Which means that maybe we can only handle 4-5 clients a week and give them the top-notch customer service we pride ourselves on. What if a Professional Photographer only charged what the chain studios do, and each of those clients could get everything their hearts desired for $200? So the photographer would bring in $1000 for those five clients. Going back to the previous formula, remember that only 26% might end up in the Professional Photographer’s pocket - $260 take home pay for that week of work. That, my friends, comes out to $6.50 an hour – or less than minimum wage.
5. Professional Photography is an experience. Been to the doctor lately? They have about 7 minutes set aside per patient these days. You might not even be able to adequately explain your symptoms to your doctor before the clock winds down. Got a newborn? Want pictures of that newborn? Well, babies fuss and cry and poop and need breaks to eat. Those things all take time. You don’t want the HMO version of a portrait session. You don’t want to feel rushed, worried that your baby will cry during your alloted 15 minutes and the pictures will be awful because THE CLOCK IS TICKING. Professional Photographers know that the best portraits are created when everyone is relaxed and unrushed. Many Professional Photographers that I know set aside up to an hour and a half for each session – more for newborns. We’ve got time, so don’t be stressed. There is no need to tell the kids that Santa won’t come if they don’t behave RIGHT NOW. After the session, you may be treated to an online slideshow, a personal ordering appointment, home delivery of your order, or many other perks. We want you to have a wonderful experience with your portraits. We want your kids to think it was fun. We want everyone to enjoy the entire experience, which is why we allot a nice chunk of time especially for you. The results will speak for themselves. I’m going to have to say it one more time: This costs more. Most things that are worth having do.
6. Professional Photography is a matter of priorities. I want to tell you a story that many Professional Photographers will be able to relate to. A client came into my studio to order her prints. She parked her very expensive SUV in front of my studio. She wore designer shoes, and carried a top-dollar handbag. She apologized for being late, she was waiting for the contractors who were building their new deck – they had enlarged the plans for the deck because her husband’s bonus check ended up being much higher than expected. She then proceeded to complain about the pricing of every.single.item on my price list. She was in a huff about an item that she wanted to give as a gift, but it cost $100 and she ‘just can’t afford that!’
Of course she can afford it. That’s obvious. It’s not about what she can afford, it’s about what she values. She loved my work, but she didn’t VALUE it. It can be a real challenge for Professional Photographers to find clients who value our artistry and understand that our pricing is not arbitrary – and certainly not designed to rip them off. Most Professional Photographers I know agonize over pricing, wanting to be profitable but concerned about scaring off clients.
Certainly, not every client is as well-off as the one I mentioned in that story. In fact, I have been fortunate to have clients that believe enough in what I offer that they save up to come to me. It’s important to these clients to have artistic, thoughtfully created images of their children, and they truly value the experience and products that a Professional Photographer can provide for them. It’s a joy and an honor to have a client think so highly of what I do.
For many families, spending $1000 or $2000 every year or two on portraits is definitely an investment. Professional Photographers do understand that. And we believe it is a worthwhile investment in your family. Between lattes, video games, and countless other ‘small purchases’, most families fritter away far more than that $1000 or $2000 each year on intangibles. Investing in high quality portraits that will be part of your family’s legacy is within reach for many families if they value Professional Photography and make it a priority.