The world of photography has exploded in the last decade. High quality digital cameras are affordable for the general public. With the digital medium, we can now take 1,000 photos of something instead of just a few dozen. Facebook, Instagram, and Snap chat have normalized the practice of taking and sharing photos of the most mundane things.
These developments have also radically changed the face of professional photography. What makes a professional photographer anymore? Why do they vary so much in price? I hear these questions and many more directed towards photographers on a daily basis. I hope that this post can help answer some of those questions.
"Why does XYZ Photography charge $50 and ABC Photography charges $500 for the same thing?"
Here's my short answer: It's almost never the same thing.
But I'll elaborate.
There are MANY reasons why a photographer charges what they charge. Let's go over the big ones.
If you find a photographer who charges a very low amount, I'd be willing to bet it's not a real job for them. It's a hobby. They either do it because they'd like a little extra spending money, or maybe because they're just dipping their feet in the water and trying to see if they can make a real business out of it. If it IS their full-time, self-supporting job, then they are working like a DOG for way less than minimum wage. And in 2 years, I can almost guarantee they'll either have quit or drastically raised their prices.
The other thing to note about the photographers in this price range is that they are almost always inexperienced. Either because they just started doing it or because they don't do it often enough to have a lot of practice. And photography, just like any skill, only improves with practice. So while you may get lucky and find a really good photographer for cheap, the vast majority of the time, you get what you pay for.
Let's leave the super cheap photographers behind and move on to the ones who range from average prices to much higher. Why so much variation still? Again, many answers to this, but let's go back to experience. The longer a photographer is in business, the higher their prices will go. Typically. And this is how it SHOULD be. Every year in business makes them a better photographer, and their prices should rise with the quality of their work. So while it's not a universal truth, if Photographer "A" charges 3 times as much as Photographer "B", Photographer "A" has probably been in the industry longer.
How about overhead? This is a huge one. Some photographers have no studio at all. Others may have a luxurious studio space downtown that costs them $2,500 a month. Then you may have a photographer who has top-of-the-notch equipment with the bills to match. While others may still be shooting with an entry-level camera. How about employees? They obviously raise your overhead too.
And then, of course, you have the photographer's salary. Some photographers can get to the end of the year and have made ZERO net profit, but it's no big deal because their spouse makes enough to support them. On the flip side, another photographer may be a single parent who has to financially support their entire household.
These variations of prices between photographers and the subsequent questions that arise from clients have made many professional photographers undervalue themselves. They see another photographer charging half of what they do, and they think, "Well, their work is as good as mine, and some of my clients are complaining that my prices are too high, so I'll just lower them." And then, guess what? They can't pay their bills.
What's the difference between "professional" prints and the ones I can buy myself?
You can actually find a lot of information on this topic if you just search online, but I'll summarize the main points.
Quality & Consistency
The quality truly is better with professional labs. Some "consumer" labs have better quality than others, but none of them are as good as a professional lab. First off, Professional labs ask the photographer to color-calibrate their computer to the lab's standards. In other words, the image we see on our computer looks exactly the same as the image that the lab prints. I'm sure many of you have had issues with this when printing photos yourselves. You get the print and think, "That doesn't look like my photo!" That's because consumer printers don't have the same calibration standards. And even if the colors are right, the contrast in the photos can often be way off. If you want to see an example of this, there's a good article done by a photographer here: http://www.amandajacksonphoto.com/2014/01/13/pro-prints-vs-drugstore-prints-it-does-matter/
Another huge note about quality is the sharpness of the photo. I've got comparisons in my studio if you ever want to see them, but the sharpness ranges wildly between consumer labs, and none of them are as good as the prints from my professional lab.
One last thing to note with me personally, is that any print I order for a client that's an 8x10 or larger, I get matted onto a 3mm thick mat board. This means that the photo isn't going to warp when you frame it, and obviously it's much more durable.
This brings me to another frequent question...
Why do professional prints cost so much?
Surprisingly, the main answer isn't, "Because it costs us way more to print with a professional lab." Until you get to the ridiculously high-end products, (Hand-made by a Himalayan monk using oils from a 100-year-old flower and splashed with holy water - I'm obviously exaggerating), many of the professional lab products don't cost a ton more than the prices you'd find on your own. The cost of personalized packaging and shipping can add up a bit for us, but that being said, if you're buying an 8x10 from a photographer for $50, it probably cost them between $8-15.
So why the huge mark-up? My first justification may not hit home with some of you, but here it is: Photography is an ART. That print is a piece of art. Would you expect to buy a beautifully painted piece of artwork for about the same cost that the artist spent on the supplies? Of course not. And while one photograph certainly doesn't take the same amount of time to produce as a painting, it's still a piece of art that was created by the skilled eye of an artist.
Not convinced yet? How about this. Follow my math. Let's say you paid a photographer $50 for a family session and then spent $150 on prints that cost the photographer $75. They've now made $125 on your session. The average portrait photographer has between 2-8 sessions a week, depending on the season. If you carry that through, let's say they have 240 sessions for the year. After you take away a reasonable 35% overhead, that comes to a NET profit of $19,500 a year. Not exactly raking in the dough.
So since it's harder to make a profit on prints...
Why can't my photographer just give me all the digitals and let me print them myself?
In reality, at this point in time, most photographers (myself included), WILL sell you their digital files. But there is a TON of dissension in the photography world about this. Many photographers still refuse to sell digitals, or they sell them at incredibly high prices to encourage buying prints instead.
I'd like to think I've answered this question to some degree with my answer to Question #2. Doesn't it make sense that photographers who have worked very hard to create your images don't want to see their artwork printed by a lab that won't correctly represent the finished product?
The second reason is this: Some photographers view selling a digital file as the same thing as selling a negative from a roll of film. Which would obviously be MUCH more expensive than simply buying a print from that negative.
My final reason is, in my mind, the most important one. Give 100 people the digitals from their session and in 6 months, how many of them will have actually printed those images? In my experience, probably less than 20. And from this side of the fence, let me just say that that HURTS. And if I can help avoid that situation by getting some good quality prints made for you right away, I will.
I know a million people who claim to be photographers. What actually makes someone a "professional"?
While technically anyone with a camera can hang their shingle as a "professional photographer", I'd like to give you a list of things that I use to determine if someone has truly earned the right to be considered a professional.
This doesn't have to mean a formal education. With access to thousands of books, YouTube videos, seminars/workshops, an so on, it's possible to learn virtually everything you need to know about the technical side of photography. But this knowledge is HUGELY important. I'll be out at a park and see a "professional" photographer taking photos of a child, and they'll be following almost none of the basic rules of portrait photography. I can also look at the work of a photographer and see how these rules have been broken. Now granted, I understand that the vast majority of the public doesn't currently have the ability to critique like this, but you can look for some basic red flags:
Are there harsh shadows on the subject?
Do the skin tones seem "off" from real life?
Are the photos not consistently sharp?
2. Artistic ability
If you took 100 people and sent them to "photography school" to teach them all the technical aspects of photography, maybe 15 would have the ability to create consistently beautiful portraits. And the reason for that is artistic ability. Some people have it and some don't.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice
Like I mentioned before, the more you photograph, the better you become. So given that you already have the knowledge and artistic ability to take a good photo, what you need now is practice. And in my opinion, you shouldn't "hang your shingle" until you've practiced enough to develop...
If you look through a photographers portfolio, and the quality of work varies significantly from one photo to the next, that tells you that they haven't had enough practice or education to become consistent. I don't know about you, but if I'm paying a photographer hundreds of dollars for portraits, I don't want to get an album of 30 images where 5 of them are awesome and the other 25 are "meh".
If you've stuck with me for this whole blog post, I'm impressed! I could go on and on forever about these topics, so I apologize for being long-winded. I hope I've helped you understand my world a little bit better. I always welcome questions and feedback, so feel free to post something!
Until next time. :)