Photography Rates Demystified

As a freelancer, I get a lot of inquiries about my rates for specific projects and, often, people have no basis for comparison or any idea what to expect.  I wanted to create a post to help people make some sense of the rates and what you’re getting for the fees.  (Adorama, one of the larger photo gear stores, sponsors a video series and there’s one episode in particular that also addresses the issue, so I’m going to borrow some terminology from them.  You can check out their video at: http://youtu.be/nDVTO7QDHgs.

A lot of photographers are freelancers/self-employed, so there’s often the expectation that prices should be significantly lower, just based on that fact alone.  There’s the misconception that by being a freelancer there is no daily cost of doing business or traditional business overhead, but that’s not the way it is.  There are still a lot of costs associated with doing business as a freelancer and, as with all other forms of business, the cost of doing business is spread across the various products sold.  Take for instance a gallon of milk.  You’re not paying for just the milk, but rather the costs of raising the cow, feeding the cow, veterinary expenses, milking equipment, pasteurization and homogenization, storage, cost of the jug, cost to put the milk in the jug, transportation, the store’s profit margin to cover things like lights, advertising, employee paychecks, the farmer’s time, etc.  And, that’s just your one  gallon of milk.

Photography is just like any other business.  Photographers offer goods and services and carry all necessary costs to bring said goods and services to market.  We have the photo gear (and upgrades as necessary), time invested in our education, money invested in our past and ongoing education, insurance, website costs (design, domain registration, hosting), marketing costs (those lists you might find us on generally are not free, for example), computer hardware and software (and upgrades as necessary), legal and accounting fees, self-employment taxes, our own salaries, wages/salaries for assistants and additional photographers, studio fees, electricity, internet service, mobile phone, general office supplies, transportation expenses, time spent in planning meetings with prospective clients, time spent in follow-up meetings, time spent photographing, time spent editing, time spent on delivery, printing expenses, etc.  As you can see, the numbers start adding up very quickly, even for a freelancer or someone operating a very small business from home.  Now, take it outside the home and you have additional expenses such as leasing a gallery/studio/office space.

Most of the questions I field are from potential wedding clients, so I’ll use wedding photography as the key example:

A very basic industry standard kit for photographing a wedding (just dealing with cameras, batteries, lenses, flashes, media cards) runs, at minimum, $4-6,000.  That’s decent gear, but nowhere near top of the line.  Top of the line will run $30,000+ (my preferred wedding kit would be 3 Nikon D3s bodies at about $5500/each plus a 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70 f/2.8, 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, 3-5 Nikon SB-800 or SB-900 flashes, backup 24-70 f/2.8, backup 70-200 f/2.8, specialty lenses, tripods, light stands, umbrellas/softboxes, PocketWizard wireless flash triggers, 100+gb of media cards, etc.).  It costs a significant amount of money to have the right gear for the job and, unlike going to most other jobs, our equipment is not provided for us – we have to bring it ourselves.  Even the rental fee on that $30k+ kit would be $1-2,000 per day, plus the insurance to cover it in case of catastrophic loss.

Let us focus for a minute on the different levels of photographers.  First, you have the students/new photographers.  Then you have the ones slightly above newbs followed by the mid-level and high-end.

If a student or new photographer is properly equipped, but is in dire need of building their portfolio, you’ll pay less and expect the shoot to go long and probably not give you what you want.  In this case, you should be paying them AT LEAST the cost of them showing up plus some money for their time.  Average cost of wear and tear on equipment alone for a wedding is probably going to be in the ballpark of $150 for them.  They’ll probably have 3-10 hours into preparing for the wedding, an average of 10 hours shoot time, and an average of 30-80 hours of edit time.  So, even if you pay them approximately $10/hour for unskilled/untested work (determined by a very simple cost of living standard – basically what someone who’s been working at Wal-Mart for a year or two would be making), which is reasonable, plus their equipment costs, you should be paying these new photographers, on average, about $600-1150.  That’s for a STUDENT and not even taking into account the full range of their expenses (computer, software, cost of the discs and delivery of images, transportation expenses, possible wardrobe needs, etc.).

Now, when you jump up to that level just above the students, the people with a few jobs under their belts, but still not very experienced, you need to take into account their upgraded equipment, greater experience, demonstration of proficiency through display of a portfolio (online or in print, portfolios still cost time and money to assemble).  Maybe pay them 1.5x the actual wage of the student, but then more for their additional business expenses.  Even these entry-level pros have expenses such as insurance, accounting, legal fees, etc., websites, etc.  So, for this same 10 hour wedding, you’re probably talking more in the $2,000-3,000 range (again, based on cost of living standards in your area, and along the lines of a low-level manager’s wage).

When you get into the mid-level pros, it’s more difficult to throw out specifics, but these are the people who will have been photographing professionally for greater than two years at the entry-level range, and have more/better equipment, better artistic eye, the experience to address more issues as they arise, etc.  For the same 10 hour wedding, these are the people you should be paying $3-15,000 (potentially more in your market).  Their cost of doing business is going to be significantly higher than the student’s, but so is their experience.

The high-end pros are the über elite, maybe in the top 10-20 photographers in the world and, if you know who they are, you probably don’t need any help figuring out budgets and you probably don’t care how much they cost.  They’re the ones who charge whatever they want for that same 10 hour wedding … $20,000, $50,000, $100,000.

Choosing a level of photographer to hire can be tricky.

If you’re extremely budget conscious, going with a student can help you stay within your budget, but the trade-off is in the quality.  These are typically the photographers who will deliver maybe a few decent shots and a whole lot of bad ones.  Again, you’re paying for inexperienced, unskilled labor.

If you know you’re on a tight budget, but want to ensure you get a greater percentage of at least usable (don’t count on anything exceptional) shots, go with the entry-level pro.  They’ll document the day, but you might get some shots you only keep because they’re the only ones they have of something.

After that, it becomes a matter of your tastes and budget.  If you want exceptional photographs in a particular style, seek out that photographer and be willing to pay for them.  If you’re OK with maybe a few exceptional photos and a solid range of decent ones, you’ll pay less.  Their ratios of exceptional/usable/garbage (yes, we all have garbage shots no matter what – that’s why a sports shooter will do thousands of frames in a match and you’ll see five) becomes much more favorable typically based on how much you spend (if they’ve priced themselves fairly) and the only problem you might have is having too many good/great photos instead of not enough.

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