Why Is Photography So Expensive? (The Breakdown Of What We Do)

Mohamed Nohassi

For a brand, working with a photographer is often viewed as an expensive service. With artist rates that can span anywhere from a few hundred dollars to the tens of thousands, businesses often pose the question- What is it that makes this craft such as financial investment?

While your photography rates increase with your experience and longevity in the field, a beginning photographer can still expect a decent fiscal gain when providing high quality content and experience for their clients.

Considering many clients only associate the pricing of photography with the final delivered images, it is important to realize that there are several components that factor the price of a photographer’s work. In truth, when you are paying for a photographer you must understand that the process of production occurs before, during and after the shoot has taken place.

If you’ve been wondering what the true cost of photography entails and why this service is often perceived as expensive, here are the 5 elements that add to the price of a photographer’s career.

Cost of Equipment

Working as a photographer is not cheap. In fact, a career in creative production whether through photography or videography may be two professions with the largest start up investments.

Since many creatives begin their career with the most basic and affordable equipment, it is not long before upgrading to more professional gear becomes necessary. Whether you shoot film or digital, the price for high quality cameras can start anywhere from $500 to $1,000 as a minimum. Add in lenses, filters, external flashes, carrying cases, memory cards or film and you will be racking up a long list of expenses for your gear.

A professional photographer not only has to consider the initial investment in purchasing gear, but the cost of taking care of and servicing their equipment over time. This includes, paying to have your gear cleaned, fixing parts that may become broken or even purchasing replacements due to heavy use.

In addition to these figures, we can’t forget insurance. Although photographers can shoot at their own risk, many studios require a proof of insurance before allowing a photographer to book their space. In some instances, insurance can just be for a photographer’s gear or can also cover incidents that may occur on set. Either way, the starting price for this service can range from $250 to $600 per year.

Marketing Materials

A main component of running is a business is engaging in marketing practices. As a photographer, self marketing yourself and your services is essentially the only way to land new work and clients.

When starting off, photographers can minimize their costs by sending email after email as a form of outreach. Yet, we know that this method often results in limited success. To showcase the seriousness of your creative craft, a photographer must employ several different marketing initiatives to promote and showcase their work.

This includes aspects such as:

  • Building a professional website – with personal domain and email address
  • Creating an emailer list to consistently update contacts with new work
  • Personal physical mailers to a select list of brands, editors and directors
  • Printing costs of materials
  • Gaining access to industry databases
  • Image transfer services for sending proofs to clients

Each of these tools are a part of a photographer’s marketing and business approach. Depending on the level of quality and quantity of production, utilizing such marketing initiatives can cost a photographer hundreds to thousands of dollars per year.

Usage Rights for Content

One of the main components that contributes to the high prices of photography comes from the usage rights for creating content.

When photographers are shooting images for a brand, this content will be used in a commercial manner. Whether that means the brand will use the images for social media, on their website, in direct mailers or on external advertising such as billboards and bus stops – these images will be used to encourage consumers to purchase a product or service.

Considering that in this process a photographer’s work will directly relay into sales for company, there must be a built in additive cost for the rights to usage and non-exclusive ownership of the content produced. Most photographers calculate their cost of usage into their daily rate of production. While others may have a low day rate and then offer additional usage options for a brand at varying price points.

Whichever way a photographer chooses to calculate a brand’s rights to usage, this can often be the most expensive part of using a professional photographer for a commercial project. Rightfully so, as a photographer’s images remain exclusive to them and should only be used to generate sales by a brand once a value has been agreed upon.

In simple terms, commercial shoots offer a one time fee to a photographer while they can generate costs for a brand for months to years. With this, a photographer understands the work they create is of fiscal value and seeks compensation that properly aligns with the brand’s forecasted sales.

While this is one of the largest costs for a commercial shoot, it is also one that causes the most negotiation. In some cases, a photographer may need to seek the assistance of an agent or commercial lawyer to properly communicate the costs to their client. In return, such services will take a percentage cut from the photographer.

Self Employed Taxes, Insurance and Contributions

Photographers are self employed individuals. They are not employees or often even contractors for specific clients, but instead work in a singular fashion on a project by project basis.

With this, photographers either operate under a sole proprietorship or LLC (Limited Liability Company) employment scheme. While a LLC creates a private company for your business, a sole proprietorship allows an individual to operate as a freelancer under their own name.

Creating a LLC has a start up cost that ranges around $100. While a photographer doesn’t need to file paperwork to work as a sole proprietor, both schemes require the payment of taxes through a self employed regime.

As a self employed individual, taxes are paid one time per year. While employed individuals have their taxes taken out of each pay check, photographers must put money aside each month for what they may owe during tax season.

In addition to the personal payment of taxes, photographers have zero benefits. Because they operate as self employed, they have to purchase their own health and dental care. Additionally, they have to personally contribute to social security and create their own plans for retirement.

While being self employed is a personal choice, this directly contributes to the pricing scale of a photographer’s services. A photographer may get paid thousands of dollars for one shoot, but after the costs of business, living and personal fees – they often take away much less.

Time

The final cost of hiring a photographer is time. Because professional photographers price their services as a day rate rather than hourly, the accounting for time isn’t always perfect.

For example, let’s say you hire a photographer for a day shoot. The shoot will begin at 8 a.m. and wrap at 5 p.m. and the photographer proposes a day rate of $2000. For a nine hour shoot, the photographer’s hourly price would be about $222. Yet, this day rate only accounts for the time spent shooting.

In fact, photographers often have to consider the additional time they spend on a project even if it isn’t billed to a client. For example:

  • The time spent planning the shoot in pre-production: emails sent, casting, compiling a team, creating mood boards
  • Transportation the day off – to the set and home from the set
  • Time for setting up the gear / breaking down the gear
  • Time spent culling through the images
  • Time spent sending proofs to the client
  • Receiving proofs and making adjustments
  • Discussing final notes with the client

Even with all of these aspects, there is still the need for retouching and delivering the final images. If a photographer personally retouches or uses an external source, they will often charge an additional fee to the client as this process can take hours to days depending on the workload.

As you can see, the client may only consider the day rate as it corresponds to the time spent on set, yet there are additional hours allocated to this project that are built into the photographer’s final cost. In all, a photographer’s pricing covers the pre-production, shooting and final production of a client’s content.

While photography can be viewed as an expensive service, the true costs of the industry for the photographer are evident. From cost of gear to marketing, content usage, self employment fees and the extensive dedication of time – being a photographer is truly a financial investment in the industry and profession.

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