What does that sitting fee pay for?

Posted on November 1, 2011

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This is another of those blog posts aimed at what the consumer is paying when they hire a photographers on to do some work. Part of this is motivated by running into clients and potential pros who think that photographers make money like there is no end, and that we shouldn’t have any problem making a living. In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

First, photographers typically work between two and three days of the week (16 to 24 hours) of billable hours. The rest of the time is spent marketing their photography, editing images, transporting themselves to location shoots, planning, and communicating with potential clients and business associates. What does this translate to?  If we are lucky, this translates to something around $1500 per week. During the winter months, our session numbers go down so less is brought in over the colder months from the end of October to April.  Here is a calculator to give you an idea how this gets broken down at the NPPA’s website . Keep in mind that this is a simple calculator, and there is a lot more to consider when dealing with a business. If you go to the calculator, take a look at the blue “i” after the line item for a little bit of detail. On the number of “working” days, they note that very few photographers report more than 100 billable days out of the 365 days of the year.  Keep in mind that most photographers have to save money to get through the slow part of the yearly cycle to make up for the shortage they encounter. This should give you an idea of ongoing expenditures that photographers who make a living at what they do pay, and must earn to live. If realistic numbers are input, you will see that there is an annual cost of around $100,000 per year without the cost of studio space.

Next, there are overhead costs that have to be paid. All the equipment and studio space costs money. These expenses have to be paid no matter what. A typical camera costs $3,500-6,000 that we use. There are bigger and more expensive cameras, but rarely can most photographers afford them outside the main hubs of photography. Studio Lighting equipment adds another $6,000 and over depending on the equipment used in the studio. Clothing adds another $25,000 and up. Jewelry adds another few thousand dollars. If the photographer does the makeup, there is another $16,000 expense plus about $300 per month to maintain the makeup kit. There are a lots of other things in the studio including furniture, props, backgrounds, silks, etc. These add up to a lot of money, and over time maintaining them has a cost. The point in bringing these costs up is that the initial costs can easily add up to $400,000 in initial costs. Something has to pay for these expenses.

Now, when someone says that they only want the high resolution images and they want them for free, it really puts a lot of salt in the wound when looking at these kinds of expenses. Sure, they cost nothing to produce, right? You paid for them in the session fees, right? Actually, no. You didn’t. You want them so you can print them where ever you want, and at a cheaper price than what a photographer would charge. How many places do this? I don’t know of any photographer who hands their negatives or digital equivalent over to just anyone free of charge. It doesn’t happen. If it does, with these kinds of expenses, they won’t be in business very long.

Hopefully you can see where this is going. There are a lot that must get paid in a photographer’s world. The point in bringing out these expenses is so that you do understand some of what it costs for a photographer. In dealing with lawyers, plumbers, medical doctors, dentists, realtors, bankers, managers, and a multitude of others, no one seems to think it costs anything to be a photographer. There are costs. As I have stated previously, if no one wants to pay for people who are the artists and work that they do, soon no one will be able to create the images everyone wants – there is no benefit to be a photographer and other work will pay the bills. Those with the creativity and skills will disappear, and we will all be left to deal with mass produced snap shooters in the front of grocery stores or people who are only there to make a few extra dollars because the camera does everything for them. Keep this in mind the next time you look for a photographer and spend money for these services.

When we go to the supermarket, and at the front of the store, there is a photo studio that charges $2.00 for how many ever images. You may say, they can do this, so you should be able to match their price. Well, yes, and no. Yes, any photographer can match their price. But, they won’t. The reason is that they use the exact same setup for almost every one of their clients. Because of this, they can maximize the number of people who go through their business. If I were to take 15 of their clients, and compared images, you would see that they are almost identical. Take a pro photographer like myself, and 15 clients, and you would see they are completely different for each personal client. They never leave their studio with everything set up just so. Pro’s like me prefer to get out and do, or will use their studios in such a way that it isn’t a limitation. So, if we were to match their price, then shouldn’t we be matching their service and products? We probably should. But, that wasn’t why we got into this industry. Something else to note is that the person taking pictures at the front of the store is getting minimum wage, and probably won’t be able to survive living on what they make without staying at home or living with a few other people to share the bills.

You as consumers need to figure out what you want, and know that the consequences are that the real photographers out there won’t be able to survive if everyone believes that photographs aren’t worth much – that they can take some snap shots and get really good pictures with the camera set on fully automatic. You have to understand that this is a profession and job for all of us. We pay our bills from what we earn. If you want cheap images, and low cost images, then you will always get what you pay. Is this really what you want as a consumer?

Edit: One of my friends on the artistic side has indicated that I left out those that have agents and display fees for their work. These are the people who focus more on creating works of art to be sold, rather than portraiture and commercial photographic work. Frequently, there is an agent fee that is usually around 20% of gross sales. Add to this another 20% to 70% for display commissions (depending on the place displayed), plus there may be a rent fee for the space on top of the percentage that is usually a monthly fee. Because this work is usually framed, you have to add another 40% (or more) for the framing costs. It isn’t cheap being a photographer.

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