Understanding photo prices – Part II – from the buyer’s point of view.

Yesterday I went on a small tirade about photo pricing and not being offered nearly enough from the photographer’s perspective. The photo market is definitely in the buyer’s favor and there are not many signs that it will ever turn around.

There was an interesting comment left asking why portrait print prices were so high. In this case, the photo buyer, thinks that photography is priced too high and is curious as to why prices are like they are. Understanding pricing isn’t only important for the photographer, but the buyer as well, so we will introduce the unexpected “Part II” of this post. Thanks to Julie for the idea!

Portrait pricing and editorial/commercial pricing are completely different beasts when it comes to pricing. Generally the portrait portrait photographer’s expense base is higher, but they charge less per person. This seems odd, but they do more “sittings” than editorial/commercial photographers will do. I take that back. A photographer shooting newspaper assignments will typically shoot the most, but they get paid the least per assignment.

For the moment, lets focus on the portrait photographer (this includes, weddings, bridals, seniors, babies, etc.).

Most of these photographers use a pricing model of a Sitting Fee and then Print costs. Sitting fees can range anywhere from $50 to $500 depending on the photographer. Print costs however are pretty consistent between photographers. There will be some variance. An 8×10 will typically run between $20 and $30 for most shops with a very common price being $25 for an 8×10 sheet.

Most of you know you can go to Walmart and have an 8×10 printed for $2. Why should you have to play 10 to 15 times as much?

This is going to be like a magician telling the secrets to his tricks. Many pro-photographers have long hidden their costs so they don’t have to explain these crazy markups. In particular after having plunked down $200 for a sitting fee, $25 for an 8×10 seems like highway robbery. I like to describe this as the “Three Tee’s – Time, Talent and Taxes”.

In reality, a portrait photographer appears to be making money hand over fist, but they are not. There is a large “Cost of Doing Business (COB)” involved. First, they have a studio in most cases. The rent alone will run $1000 or more a month. Add in utilities, insurance, loan payments on expensive equipment ($2000 per lens, $3000 per camera body, $2000-$3000 in lighting), any employees, and other expenses have to be paid for if you are shooting or not. Once a photographer knows his COB, then she can figure out how many sittings (or weddings) per month they will have and hopefully the sitting fee offsets these costs. Even photographers who shoot on location have similar expenses to be maintained.

It also takes time beyond the 2 hours you got for the $200 to manage your sitting. A photographer cannot shoot 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, so the $200 for the sitting has to cover a lot of time not shooting. There is the time involved in booking your session, working on advertising and such just to get you as a client. Once booked, there is the photography time. After that, there is the post production time, which can be considerable, the post-session meeting to proof the photos, the time to photoshop the final products, get them to the lab, get them back to you and then spend time with the accounting. For a typical 8 hour wedding, the photographer will spend 50 hours of time.

The combination of the sitting fees plus print sales less COB is the amount of money the photographer has left to pay his salary. Considering that the photographer cannot shoot all the time that $200 has to go along way. But to keep this simple, lets assume the sitting fees offset the COB and the photographer’s take home pay comes from the print sales.

Lets break down that $25 for the 8×10. No self-respecting pro photographer is going to sell you prints from Walmart (okay I’ve done it in a pinch when I hit a deadline and the pro-lab messed something up and I have to get it reprinted in a hurry). Their lab price for an 8×10 will be between $4 and $8 per 8×10 sheet (2 5×7’s, 8 wallets, etc.). The pro-lab may have to ship the prints which will most likely go priority. So if you only order one 8×10, thats going to add another $5 to the cost. That $25 8×10 now has a physical cost of $9-$13. If the photographer has to ship the print to you, that adds another $5 (up to $14-$18).

At this point the photographer has $10 that he can put in the bank towards his salary.

Guess what. The Tax-man says “Not so fast”. A small business organized as a sole-proprietorship (which many photographers do) have to pay out 50% in taxes. Thats right, half. There is the Federal Income Tax, State Income Tax and this “small business tax” which goes to cover Social Security and Medicare that you normally have deducted from your pay check. The rates for a small business owner are much higher than for an employee.

Out of that $25 you are being charged, the photographer gets to pocket about $5 to pay his living expenses.

Talent. Why did you hire a professional photographer to shoot your portraits? A photographer needs to be paid for his skills and vision.

Time. You can see above, that its not just 2 hours that your $200 sitting fee is going for. If it takes 8 hours per 2 hour sitting, $200 means the photographer is making $25 an hour and with the expenses involved that may end up being closer to minimum wage. The photographer has to build his time into the equation.

Taxes suck.

Oh and you are the only one the photographer will be able to sell these photos to…

If you are trying to make a living, you can’t sell 8×10’s for $5. Because of this, you will find fewer and fewer people using photography as their primary income and more and more people doing it part time or as a secondary income.

Time, talent and sadly taxes.

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6 Comments

  1. Aug 23rd 4:09pm

    A great read. Thanks for posting a simple and easy way to communicate the actual costs involved for photographers. Hopefully, this is eye-opening for many! Nice job!

  2. Aug 23rd 9:22pm

    Excellent break-down! And this doesn’t even mention the fact that even if they only order one 8×10 – we can’t order one 8×10. (Or even one 8×10 and one 5×7.) Our labs have minimums so unless we combine orders, one 8×10 would have all or more of any potential profit eaten by the surcharge for not meeting the lab’s minimum.

  3. Aug 24th 12:29pm

    Excellent post! Very thorough. I hope many read this and take note.

  4. Aug 24th 3:59pm

    Thanks for posting this. I wish more people understood this.

  5. Aug 24th 11:21pm

    Great post! This all seems to be things that the public don’t realise – it costs a lot of money to run a business! I also don’t know a single photographer that enjoys quoting or setting their prices, it’s not a fun task for us either. Thanks for writting this…

  6. Sep 7th 4:21pm

    i think i will be referring clients to this blogpost. thanks so much for taking the time to share your insight and knowledge!

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