The True Cost of Photography

Are you looking for a photographer and wondering why it costs so much? Or why some photographers only charge a little bit? Well let me elaborate our prices for you! Because it can be complicated.

If someone is charging a lot less than other photographers, there’s about a 99.999% chance you’re looking at an amateur or a hobbyist. Some of these have good cameras or some skill, so their portfolio might look decent. Odds are, they have a lower success rate of images per shoot than a trained professional. The worst ones are the amateur’s who think they’re professional. Those are some murky waters!

Now let’s assume you’ve found a reputable, professional photographer and you’re thinking to yourself, “What!? They’re charging me an arm and a leg! And for what? A few 8×10’s and a couple hours?”
Well, let’s look at what goes into all that!
The camera. Professional photographers will always be using a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera. Now, there are okay cameras for a few hundred bucks. But what’s standard in the photography industry are higher quality cameras such as a Canon 5D, which go for around $3,500 each. And that’s just the body of the camera, no lenses. I don’t know about you, but that’s about the cost of my first car.

Lenses. Again, there are lenses out there for even $100 or less. But did you know that those lenses give really low-quality images? The lens actually matters more than the camera for quality of the final image. It’s the glass. Cheap lenses use low quality glass, or (I shudder to think) plastic! A good lens that a real pro will use are usually between $1,000 and $2,000. Though some specialty lenses go well over $10,000 each. And photographers need a variety of lenses depending on what they’re photographing. After all, you can’t photograph architecture with the same lens you use for portraiture!

Computer. Like it or not, it’s the age of digital photography! As with cameras and lenses, you can get a computer for pretty cheap. Just go to Best Buy and pick one up for $200, right? Wrong. Now, it IS a myth that artists all use Apple computers, but it’s not a myth that professionals use expensive computers. Personally, I used a gaming PC (exclusively for photography, I’m very bad at video games) until I graduated from college. Now I work with both Mac and PC’s regularly. Professional image editing software doesn’t treat computer systems well. It’s heavy, takes a lot of space, and uses a TON of processing power. Now, some photographers are tech-savvy enough to be able to upgrade or build their own computers, but that’s pretty rare. Most people have to pay $1,000 – $3,000 for a computer that won’t constantly crash while doing professional-grade editing.

Software. Nope, it’s not free. Adobe Photoshop has dominated the market for professionals. We pay anywhere from $30 – $70 per month for a subscription to the software, which is the only way to have the latest versions nowadays. That’s up to $840 every year. And yes that’s for the plan that will give us access to all the apps, but a lot of us like to create our own marketing materials as well, or have dual-specialties.

Education. You didn’t think I’d leave this out, did you? A degree in photography is not always essential, but it is exceptionally valuable and many photographers hold at least an undergraduate degree. Having multiple professionals, experts in the field of photography, teach you the tips, tricks, and skills they’ve used successfully for years, gives photographers a huge advantage and allows them to do their work in a way that won’t raise any eyebrows. The cost? $50,000 – $150,000. And that’s for an undergraduate degree alone.

Lighting equipment. Aside from landscape photographers, pretty much every photographer needs at least decent quality lights. But not just lights. We need speedlights, wireless triggers, reflectors, stands, flags, gels, soft boxes, grids, snoots, umbrellas, sandbags, extension cords, battery packs, and more! To put this in perspective, a single light can cost over $1,000 and a stand for that light can cost $150. Yes there are cheap versions of both, but the cheap stands will fall apart and the cheap lights won’t last much more than a year and aren’t very bright. A photographer will usually have at least 4 lights. Now, all this equipment, going at a professional grade, costs around $5,000 – $15,000.

Photography Studio. This one is actually optional. Many photographers don’t own their own studios. Most find it more cost-effective to rent a studio when they need it, since many clients like being photographed in an environment. Or even just to purchase some backdrops and a stand for them. If they do have a studio, well you have to remember they’re paying of anywhere from $1,000 – $5,000 every month, plus the cost of internet, a security system, electricity, and water. If they opt for the backdrops and stand, That could be about $1,000 for the total cost, since the stands go for about $75 – $300 and single-color paper backdrops average $70 per roll (usually have to be cut after each shoot since you can’t clean them) and about $200 for good-quality vinyl backdrops of a scene or texture, and it’s pretty bad to only have one if you’re a professional who offers this service.

Marketing Materials. These are highly flexible in pricing. Some are reoccurring, some are one-time fees. So let’s go over some of these costs:

Website. This is the photographers’ main source of clients. So it has to look good! We need to catch your eye with our work, and it can’t look like it was made in 2006. If it’s not mobile-friendly, that cuts out 20% of web traffic or more. Do you hire a professional web-designer? Do you use a template? Do you code the website yourself? Where do you host your website? You don’t want a site like “” so you have to pay for the domain name, well that’s between $100 – $250 per year. A professional web designer is going to charge you around $1,000 if they’re good, templates are cheaper, but then you have to search for one that fits your branding and IF you find a good one, it could be up to $250. That’s everything that goes through the mind of a professional photographer for the website alone.

Business Cards. Again, very flexible! They could use VistaPrint, a website known for low-cost business cards (among other things), or go a little higher-end. Here’s where the trouble comes in. Everyone knows that “you get what you pay for,” so VistaPrint does lack some quality, but the photographer can afford more. So the question comes down to Quality vs. Quantity. Other websites, such as Moo, cost more, but their cards are very nice. Here’s where quality plays its roll. Sure, you can get your cheap business cards in bulk, but will people keep them? Remember them? Use them to call you? End up in the trash at the end of the day? With higher quality cards, people keep them. Even if they have no need for that service, a cool business card is a cool business card. Textures, reflective foils, die-cut, even transparent plastic and more! These are the cards people will keep and, ultimately, call for business. For perspective, our last purchase of 500 transparent business cards cost $300. We still get calls and inquiries from people who kept those cards over 3 years ago.

So lets add all that up. We’ll add it up for something middle-of-the-road.

Camera: $3,500

Lenses: $5,000

Computer: $1,000

Software: $70/month = $840/year

Education: $110,000

Lighting: $10,000

Studio: $2,000/month = $24,000/year

Lighting: $8,000

Marketing: $800

So with those costs, plus a full year of the two recurring costs, we get $163,140.

That price is variable, but pretty average. Also, that doesn’t include the price they need to live. Their own rent/mortgage, utilities, food, etc. And pretty much no one has that kind of money up front, so many photographers are in debt.

Now, without education, that still adds up to $53,140, and that’s a considerable amount! Of course uneducated photographs may deliver lower quality images or have lower prices, but that’s the trade-off. Remember, you’re getting what you pay for!

So when you pay to have a professional photographer take your picture, you’re not just paying for a couple 8×10’s and a few hours. You’re paying for everything that made that photographer able to create the images that made you want them in the first place! They’re not asking you to bail them out of debt, they’re making a living.


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