So you want to get some family pictures done. You do a quick google search for photographers in your area, you ask your friends for recommendations and your favorite peeps over on Main Line Parent’s Facebook board. Shopping for a photographer can yield vastly different options: the look, editing style, the emotions evoked and then there is–price. I have seen the topic of price discussed and even heard grumbles of confusion as the wide ranges you find. Since this is my profession I will do my best, in my humble opinion, to explain the differences in your options.
There are several types of photographers one has to choose from.
1-Department store portrait studio: Any child from the 80’s remembers getting dressed up in their Sunday best and heading over to Sears for their annual portraits. Department store studios are a great option because they deal in volume and can afford to offer cheap prices known as “loss leaders.” They have a steady flow of people in and out and are therefore capable of offering a great coupon deal or groupon to get you in the door. The hope is you will buy the $9.95 package from the coupon and add on and spend more. The photographers you hire there are generally staffed by the store and given minimal training on the equipment. They are usually not passionate about what they are doing; therefore, it is not the custom and intimate session you would have with a private photographer or boutique studio.
2-The hobbyist or a photographer who is “portfolio building”: With the ability to buy good, even great, equipment at places such as Best Buy and Costco a lot of people jump into photography this way. This is how I got my start on a Nikon D40. I spent a full year just shooting my brand new baby girl, my neighbors and their children trying to understand and learn my equipment and what makes or breaks a good photo. For a full year I never charged a dime even though I filed for a business licensce and called myself a professional. Once I did start charging, my prices were much lower than they are now. But the quality of my work and my equipment has evolved thus resulting in raising my prices.
But why do you have to raise your prices you ask? One word. Investment.
I have invested in better equipment and editing software. Did you know the average photographer has approximately $10,000 in equipment if not more depending on their specialty. One of my favorite lenses cost $2100. If you are a wedding photographer you can’t just have one main camera body, you really need two so you have a backup.
I have also invested in education to learn the best techniques for producing beautiful, quality portraits.
I have invested in marketing and advertising. When I first started my business I marketed solely on Facebook. Now I have a website, a web host and seo to understand and pay for. Oh, and there are taxes to be considered, prop costs, business insurance……the list goes on.
A “newbie” does not come out of the gate with that elaborate list of equipment and generally doesn’t start off as a business filed with the state paying taxes.
Lastly, I have invested time. Many, many hours studying, reading, practicing and of course doing paid for shoots for clients. The shooting is just a small fraction of my time. The editing, email and phone communication, education, website maintenance, blogging (so you will actually find me when you google), marketing and advertising, it all adds up. For many photographers this can be part-time pay with overtime hours.
Here’s a glimpse at my photography journey.
3-Experienced pro-photographer: As I mentioned above, this photographer has invested a good deal in their business and therefore warrants higher prices. After all, as a business owner, if you want to pay your mortgage and put food on your table you simply can’t live by charging $100 for all images on a CD. The math just does not add up. You will pay more for an expericed pro photographer but the setup/lighting/editing/quality should be perfect whether you want to print a 5×7 or a 30×40 canvas. Lighting is probably the biggest advantage you will have with an expericed photographer versus someone who is portfolio building or learning. I have had clients come to me that had been disappointed in hiring someone because the images were grainy or dark or just not what they expected or envisioned. Finding light and the right background and scenery takes a great eye to ensure you will look your best all while trying to keep it fun for the kiddos (and the hubby’s) And, oh by the way, be funny and entertaining to get those natural reactions and have your camera settings set perfectly for each changing situation. Phew!! I’m exhausted thinking about all the hats you must wear as a photographer!! 🙂 I would have to say lighting is probably the trickiest thing to master especially with on location photographers who have to act quickly once they see their surroundings. But when you hire an experienced photographer they have done hundreds if not thousands of sessions and know all the tricks in the book.
4-The retail boutique studio: This is a boutique experience you are paying for. Does Louis Vuitton need to charge $2000 for a purse that a lower end store can make and sell for less? Does a Lexus have that vastly different engineering than a Toyota? Not really. It’s a brand, a status but also damn good quality. And with a boutique studio, you can be 100% certain you are purchasing amazing handcrafted quality artwork. Of course, the expenses I outlined above with an individual experienced photographer can be tripled and then some with a studio and therefore if they want to make a profit and pay their staff, their prices must reflect that. The experience will likely be amazing for it.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on digital files/negatives and their pricing. People often comment they are expensive….why? Why….because once you purchase the digital files the sale will ultimately end there. In the “old days” the photographer held on to the negative and you ordered your large wall portraits, small desk prints, wallets and you went about your way. I don’t blame any customer for wanting the digital images, not one bit. But the price needs to reflect the ultimate sale we need to stay afloat. Standing on my soap box, please if you buy the digital images, print them. Print a copy or two of each. Frame them, put them in a great photo box or album, but don’t leave them sit on a CD. Are floppy discs around anymore? Do we listen to cassette tapes or even 8 tracks (showing my age here!) Nope. The cd or thumb drive you buy today will be outdated and likely corrupt in a few years. It’s the nature of the digital beast. There was a great article written recently about the “forgotten century” because we will have lived our lives without having printed much because it’s all out in cyberspace. Check out the article here.
In the end, I would say when shopping for a photographer review their portfolio/website/facebook galleries. Do the images speak to you? Bring a smile to your face? A tear to your eye? If you say yes, yes, yes….hire that person! When people contact me for session details and pricing they often will comment: “I love your work….I love your style…… that setup was amazing. ” Every photographer is different and unique, it’s art. We value our art and are deeply passionate about our style. Many have also told me I have a great eye. I do believe that is something you just have. Often times, you can’t learn that much like singing. You can teach me to sing all you want, but I’ll never sound like Taylor Swift. 🙂
So the next time you go to print an 8×10 from your local pharmacy and it’s $2 and your favorite photographer wants to charge $40, you can now have that “a-ha” moment. You get it. It all makes sense. You are paying for SO MUCH MORE than ink on paper.
Stay tuned for follow up articles on similar topics. This was fun to write!