Why Professional Photography is Expensive

By September 1, 2017 February 27th, 2019 No Comments

This has been a topic going around the photographer community for a while now, and a question I get asked surprisingly often from clients and potential clients, and especially new coming photographers as well. So many people aren’t educated on the realities of professional photography, which is why I’m writing this post.

I’m not writing this post to complain or be negative, or shame couples who can’t afford professional photography — I promise. I couldn’t afford professional photography for my own wedding – I get it. I’ve simply had a lot of people (and a lot of other photographers’ clients do, too) ask me why my prices are what they are, why they continually rise year after year.

I spent about 15 minutes breaking down my current investment level/expenses. My honest hope is that this information will provide valuable insight for any client’s wondering why professional photographers charge so much, and for any new-coming photographers, what to expect and some insight on the importance of scaling your prices as you grow. For photographers specifically, we’ll have a separate post on how to price yourself when you’re first starting, and how to accurately and fairly raise your prices as you grow!

So here goes:

Try to keep in mind that (most) professional photographers who have the portfolio to back it, are not trying to rip you off.

Camera Bodies – $10,000

A high quality camera costs between $1000-$5000+

We currently shoot with two Canon 5d Mark IV bodies: $3300 each before tax
and two Canon 6d bodies as our backups: $1650 each before tax

Unfortunately, cameras don’t last forever. They require annual (and sometimes much more frequent) upkeep. I once had to pay $1,500 to replace the sensor in one camera body because somehow, sand got in there and scratched it. There are so many repairs that cameras (especially at this level) seem to constantly require.

Photographers should also be calibrating their lenses to their camera at least every few months, which is also about $30 each time, per lens. Outside of regular repairs, we also need to have them cleaned as preventative maintenance, which is about $25 per body each time.

I’m sure there’s more to be added, but that’s just my immediate list for camera bodies.

Camera Lenses – $5,100

Quality lenses are a must for professionals. Adding to your lenses is also a constant battle as your style/environments change, you need updated lenses to better suit your shooting. Professional series lenses range from $600-$2,000+, easy.

We currently shoot with a combination of 4 lenses

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM: $1,300
Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM: $1,400
Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L USM: $1,000
Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8: $1,400

I’ve spent about $2,000 on non-luxury level lenses that I shot with prior to this lineup, before I could afford the luxury glass.

On my next-purchase list? I am expecting to invest another $800 in the Canon 100mm f/2.8L macro, and $2,000 on the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L II USM. That will bring my lens total up to nearly $8,000 just in glass – not to mention the lenses I have on my future radar (Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM $1,900 and the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L II $1,800– which will be a grand total of $11,600 in lenses, likely by the end of this year).

The kicker? These lenses need constant upkeep as well. They can just stop working on you entirely – This can cause you to spend a ludicrous amount of money especially when you’re shooting a wedding the following week and need that lens. There are no rental companies near me either, so that adds another element of difficulty in getting my gear repaired quickly when it has issues. Repairs can be almost as much as an entirely new lens depending on what happens. I previously had a lens where to focus motor died on me, and it cost nearly $1,000 to fix.

Computer – $5,000

Computers are where the editing magic happens. We have to invest in high-level processing, graphics cards, endless storage for the multiple terabytes of images we keep, and more.

I currently edit on a Mac Pro which cost $3,000 and the Apple 27″ Thunderbolt display which was $1,000 new (they no longer offer my model new). My mouse was $100, and I will need a new one soon as this one is getting worn out.

I also plan on adding more RAM to my Mac Pro which will be about $900 so I can edit more efficiently.

As all technology, this also requires some updating. My monitor is getting a little old and I am noticing some tired spots, so I will likely be replacing that shortly, too (probably $750 give or take).

We also invest in external storage/hard drives that we need to store all the photos safely. I currently have 8 terabytes of external hard drives which run about $100 per terabyte ($800+/-) and I’ll be needing another terabyte within the next 3 months ($100)

Software – $1,520/yr

Lightroom: $120/yr
Photoshop: $120/yr
Pixieset: $360/yr
Website Domain: $20/yr
Two Bright Lights: $300/yr
Quickbooks Online: $600/yr

Self Employment -$$$

This means we have to take care of ourselves, we have to pay for our insurances, we get no funded benefits unless we set them up ourselves (retirement, health care, etc.). Not only that, we have to pay a huge amount of tax as well (especially in California).

Liability Insurance
Equipment Insurance (which doesn’t cover all claims)
CA State Tax
Federal Tax
Workers Compensation for my employee
Salary for my employee
CPA fees

For easy reference, gives me a loose estimate for reference with our household income, location, and married, filing jointly, an estimated tax burden of $28,924 for this year. That’s the estimated amount we’ll be paying in the next two months. Our CPA is amazing so she’ll probably cut that in half (at least) so there’s that, but, it’s still a scary number.

Education – $1,800/yr

We are constantly trying to get better, improve our workflow, marketing, and more.

I invest in a wide array of workshops, seminars, and digital courses to better my business, workflow, and client experience. In 2017 I spent around $1,800 on digital workshops alone.

Other -$??/yr 

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful husband and second company that specializes in making businesses successful. Since it’s my company too, I don’t have to pay the standard rates aside from our employee’s time. However, most photographers update their brands at least once a year ($1,000 for a professional graphic designer to deliver an updated brand), and their websites at least once a year as well ($1,500-$5,000+ for a custom website) not to mention the ongoing SEO maintenance ($500/mo for a medium level competitive strategy)

I also operate 75% out of our studio in Monterey which is probably about $500/mo for the portion of our office that I use to conduct business. Not to mention internet ($250/mo for the speeds I need and because Comcast robs you), I am lucky enough to not pay for power because our building is solar, but previously we spent about $150+ a month on power bills. I itemize about $100/mo worth of my phone bill to work time and client communication, the rest of our bill goes into personal expenses.

And then there are the other, smaller, misc expenses that seem to constantly need added to/replaced/updated:

Camera Bags (I get a new one probably every 6-8 months because they get worn in): $150+
Business Cards: $100/yr
SD/CF cards (high speed only): $100+/ea (I currently have 14 cards and get a new one every month or two as they need replaced often for reliability)
Lens Caps (always losing these): $10/ea
Tripods/monopods: $150+
Flashes: $350+
Batteries for the flashes: $10+
Extra Batteries for Camera Bodies: $50+
Gas: $?

As much as we would love to simply pick up our camera and take beautiful photos for wildly affordable rates, we simply can’t after we invest a certain amount of time and money into our business. None of this even takes into account the endless hours upon hours we spend uploading, culling, importing, editing, exporting, then uploading and sending your galleries. The photographers who offer albums spend an insane amount of hours painstakingly designing and perfecting the albums as well, not to mention the out of pocket cost they require.

I am sure I have missed hundreds (possibly thousands?) of annual expenses and random costs that sneak up on nearly all small business owners. But this list should give a great perspective on why photographers charge what we do, and why we are so personally invested in our business.

I hope I can speak on behalf of all professional photographers when I say, we are not trying to rip anybody off. We simply have a lot of overhead and costs associated with this profession and unfortunately a love for an industry doesn’t make those costs disappear. We probably aren’t even making nearly as much as you think!

I absolutely love and cherish every moment of this career. By no means do I want anyone to think for a single minute that I am complaining – I simply hope to share some insight into a relatively quiet topic within this industry for both clients and incoming photographers alike. I simply want to share how much work goes into this – and not even the financial work, but the fact I, like many others, pour my heart and soul into every image and every client relationship I develop.

Also, huge PSA:

It’s OKAY if we are outside of your budget. One of the most beautiful things about this industry is that there are so many amazing creatives out there who fit every level of budget and style preference. We spend a lot of time reading and responding to every single inquiry we have, so please don’t disappear after we’ve taken the time to respond, even if you’re not booking with us for any reason. The courtesy of a response is so appreciated and allows us to 100% free up the inquired upon date for other couples.

If you can’t work with us for a financial reason but love and respect our work, you’d be surprised at how many photographers (myself included) are more than willing to work something out in terms of a middle ground where everyone can be happy and get what they need and want!

In the same breath, please also be aware that if you are prepared to book with us, you need to ensure you get your date reserved quickly, as most peak wedding season Saturdays get booked very quickly. If you inquire about a date then don’t finalize your booking, it’s very likely another couple will book your date & you’ll be left searching for another photographer. We completely understand that wedding planning is insanely chaotic and time consuming at times, just be sure you don’t leave us completely in the dark if you want to work with us!

To sum this up, I really want to thank @dawn_photo, @chamberlee.lenette, and @shleeeeeeeeee for sharing some of this amazingly helpful information. They are also amazing creative professionals and do wonderful work, so you should check them out!

If you’ve read all of this, you are awesome. Again, I hope none of this comes across as complaining, whining or anything of the like. My hope is that this is an informative, insightful bit of information that doesn’t get shared (in my opinion) enough, and this is all information that was unavailable to me until spending  6+ years in the industry and learning it the hard way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below!

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