Why do professional photographers charge so much?

Allen Mowery
February 19, 2011

Mark-3097I bet many of you have heard a quote along this line before, usually followed by “Target only charges (insanely low amount) for a portrait.” I tell those clients to go to Target to have their portraits taken and come back to me when they aren’t happy with them. Other people ask, why I charge so much for an 8×10 print if they can get it at Costco for $2.

The answers to all these questions are simple. Target and other stores side-sell the portraits, which means that they sell them at a very low price, expecting that you will purchase other stuff in the store while you’re there. Despite that, Walmart closed about 200 in store photo studios last year, simply because it wasn’t profitable enough to an extent where they even lost money despite the customers buying other stuff.

When you buy a print from me, you not only pay what the print itself costs, but also the work I put into each print. While I charge fairly reasonable rates for the actual sitting, I have to calculate post-production costs into the print. That means for me that I have to deliver outstanding results every time, or else I will lose money, because the customer does not want to buy the prints.

After an average session, I have between 100-500 images to work with. Downloading takes about 30 minutes. After they have been downloaded, they need to be backed up, which takes another 30 minutes. Then I spend 1-2 hours to get the images ready for presentation. That includes reviewing, sorting, batching, converting, etc. and finally uploading them to a website or burn them on a CD. That’s quite a few hours of work. Once the customer orders a print, I will be working on that particular print, which can take anywhere from 5-20 minutes (note: we are not talking about magazine retouching here). Afterwards, the print has to be ordered and once the print comes in, the quality has to be assured and then the print has to be sent to the customer. Quite a bunch of work to only charge $2 for. To that calculation, we can also add equipment cost, but I think charging $15 for the sessions and $2 for a print already seems outrageous enough.

According to the 2006 Studio Benchmark Survey, a small or home studio should markup each print by a factor of 2.9 of the actual production cost. A large studio should markup each print by a factor of 4.0. We are far away from anything even close to that. Currently, the market is over-saturated with photographers, hence the customer is profiting from low prices for a quality service, despite the common misconception that photographers are overcharging.

Someone once told me that anyone could be a photographer and that she could have her brother take pictures of her with a throwaway camera. I recommended she buy him a camera and a pair of scissors so he could also do her hair while he is at it.

I have not invested thousands of dollars in equipment and years of practice along with creative effort in order to compete with someone’s brother or Target. If someone wants to go there, it’s fine with me, but my customers choose me for the consistent quality of work that I provide and are glad to pay a premium for this kind of service.

Sven Bannuscher, owner and lead photographer for Imaginis Photography, began his professional career in Europe before moving to Bethesda, MD. With his work published in DC newspapers and national publications, he focuses on portrait, wedding, and commercial photography.

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