Why Does Custom Photography Cost So Much? Part I – The Time

    I know that many people (including myself, before I started treating my photography as a business and started investing in it) wonder, “Why does custom photography cost so much?”  “Why can I go to Sears, pay no session fee and get free sheets, but it costs me hundreds of dollars to go to xxx?” “Why would I pay $40 for a print that I can print myself for $1.99 at Walgreens?”

    I’ve been wrestling with my response to these kinds of questions.  How do I justify my pricing?  Should I?  I have also researched, started, stopped, changed, and researched some more my own pricing.  I’ve watched photographers change their pricing, change their packages, add this, delete that, and I’ve watched, trying to get a feel for what kind of pricing is enough to make my work worth my time (and hopefully make some sort of profit) without being so expensive that no one will visit me (because more than anything I love taking pictures!)  I won’t lie, it has been tough.  I’ve gone back and forth, run various promotions, and have spent many nights tossing and turning trying to come up with the “right” answer.  And the truth is, there probably isn’t a “right” answer.  For me I know it’s somewhere in between, because if I was on the other side, I’d want the disc.  But I also want my clients to get their portraits on lab-quality paper and not print them at a local retail store so they can really realize the beauty a professional lab brings.

    I’ve seen photographers that charge $50 for a session fee, I’ve seen those that charge thousands.  It depends on their location, their quality, demand for their services, their marketing, and how they end up making their money in the end.  Some charge a small session fee with huge minimum print orders, and they make their money that way.  Some charge higher session fees and give away all the photos on CD.  There is no wrong or right, only what works for the individual photographer. 

    I guess what it comes down to, in my opinion, is what I feel I offer, how I am different from your typical chain or mall photographers, and the investment that I make in my business to benefit my clients.  I can always take pictures, but what time am I willing to invest in my business and what do I need to charge to make it worthwhile for me?  How do I compete in my local market?  I believe I have an excellent reputation and I know I take good pictures.  So why is it so expensive, you ask?  Or maybe you are in the minority who doesn’t think that:)

    Well, let’s start from a time standpoint.  My sessions are normally 45-90 minutes.  Based on a session fee of xx dollars, that might look like a winning proposition in my favor to someone evaluating my pricing.  But do they realize the other time that goes into their session and their photos?

    • Time spent researching, choosing, purchasing supplies and props
    • Time spent prepping for their session
    • Travel time, if on location
    • The actual session itself
    • The post-session production**
    • Setting up a gallery to review
    • Taking orders
    • Preparing files for CD, if applicable
    • Preparing items for shipment and/or pickup
    • Etc, etc, etc.

    **Post-session editing takes up most of my time.   This is where I take good photos and make them great.  This is where at least 80% of my time is spent, sometimes up to a full day on one session.  Sorting through photos, choosing the best, editing, cropping, adding effects, removing flaws, correcting color tone, whitening teeth, removing stray hairs and lint off clothes, boogies off kid’s faces, putting out a sneak peek, offering alternate versions such as black and white, sepia, etc…. the perfectionist in me gets completely consumed by this part of the process.  But I honestly feel that is what produces the art-quality photographs that I offer.  Let me just add, the last time I went to a mall photographer I ordered $300 in prints and asked that one blemish on my face that happened to be there at the time, and was rather predominant, be edited out.  They assured me that the lab would take care of it.  I got my prints, and the blemish was there – and I didn’t want to show my prints of myself because of it. :(  I can honestly say my clients would NEVER have to worry about that!

    As for the session itself, I try – really try – to keep my sessions to my advertised time period (ie 45-60 minutes).  But the reality is, kids need a break, babies need a bottle, and sometimes the kids just need some time to get to know me before they get comfortable.  I do what it takes to create a session where everyone is comfortable and yes, even enjoys themselves if you can imagine that.  I think we all know that the discount stores don’t invest any more than the 20-30 minutes you are herded in and out of their studio.  Does that make a difference?  You bet.  Ask anyone who has had a session with me 😉

    As you can see, I invest a significant amount of time, care and passion into each session.  I would say an average of 8-10 hours, start to finish, in each session I do.  And I don’t see any way to cut corners there, either… that is what makes my work what it is.  That is what makes my portraits something you can proudly hang on your wall at a huge size, instead of filing them away on your computer.  So when you look at a session fee of $xxx, and look at the time spent, well, that’s just my time.   But there’s much, much more that goes into a successful photography business.

    Stay tuned for Part II where we look at some of the necessary items a custom photographer needs to have to deliver quality products and how that factors into the pricing.


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