Why Photographs Cost Money

Warning: This is a personal rant!

Random Person on the Internet - "$3600 for a day? Are you CRAZY"!?

Creative Professionals - "No, were not crazy, we are hard working individuals that need to be paid a fair wage - and then there is this crazy thing called economics".

You know whats I think is crazy? Paying 1.5 million dollars for a painting. Or going to Vegas and foolishly splurging 100 grand on absolutely nothing!

That's crazy!

You know what else is crazy?

  • Not realizing that a day of shooting means a month of work total - that's crazy!
  • Not paying an individual for their time - even crazier!
  • Not realizing that even breathing costs money, eventually! There is no free lunch - it costs somebody something at some point
  • Not thinking about the investment in equipment required to make a photograph 
  • Not realizing that we were not born professionals - time, energy and money went into learning the craft
  • Not realizing that some people, although try they may, can never be great at this because they were not born with that talent. (Theory vs. Instinct)
    • For instance, I will never be an NFL player. I physically don't qualify! 
  • Not realizing that we all have bills which must be paid, which requires an income
  • Not realizing that we create things which never existed before

Is it coming into focus now? It's fair to assume it is, and so I'd like to move on to the breakdown of the costs themselves to get an idea of why it costs $3600 "for a day" and how that's actually incorrect. 

*** Before I continue I want to make it absolutely clear that this article is not representative of a daily rate for CEG Photography Division or myself. Our prices are not reflected in this article what so ever and these figures should be taken as basis of the average cost of covering an event, for a full day, to a client hiring a professional photographer in Washington State. These figures are public information and can be referenced with ease.

What is a professional?

If you're a professional that means you're fully engaged (read, NOT part time) in said profession, which implies your need of professional tools in order to be efficient and dependably deliver the goods every time, on-time, rain-or-shine. 

The average cost for a professional level camera body has traditionally been nestled between the cozy figures of $7000 and $15,000 on average, depending on which format one chooses, and can skyrocket from there to nearly $100,000 for the high end stuff. Those figures do not cover anything else, for example lenses, supporting equipment, lighting, modifiers, batteries, memory cards, bags and cases for transport, metering equipment, a computer and so on. At this point we are only discussing the camera system of choice which defines the ecosystem in which the photographer will operate. Depending on the camera system one chooses, the costs of everything else varies.

Let's play pretend!

Let's hypothesize that you're a high-end professional photographer, for example, and that you decide to purchase into the Leica S medium format system (my favorite) which means you're looking at $25,000 for the body and an average of $7500 per lens. So with one lens, and the camera body you would have a great one trick pony that costs $32,500! The flexibility of such one-eyed system (pun intended) is about as flexible as a Jihadist with a suicide vest - in other words you can do one thing, and then the show is over because you're out of tricks (terrible analogy, I know, but let's move on). 

So it stands to reason that to be professional is to be flexible, and one needs access to flexibility which in turn means more lens choices. How many more? Well it depends on how many dineros you've got, or the minimum set of lenses needed for what you specialize in, or whichever is cheapest. But let's suppose you bought 3 lenses to cover your genre, so you're in at the tune of $25,000 + ($7500 x 3) = $47,500.

Photography means "painting with light", so then what do we do about lighting? Let's take a look at those costs. Because you've bought into a high end Leica medium format system, you can't exactly cheap out on the lights, after all they are pretty much the most important part of your kit. So let's suppose that you stay within that higher tier of product, and you buy into Broncolor lights (my favorite) which can cost $10,000 for a high end single light kit, but of course you need more than one. You now are the proud owner of a Leica S system with 3 beautiful Leica Summarit lenses (around $47,500 so far) and a well rounded Broncolor multi-strobe light system (around $13,000), which brings our total to about $60,500. 

Let's review!

You now own a great camera system, 3 of the best lenses humanity has ever produced, a Broncolor 3 light system with some great light modifiers, so you're all set, right? WRONG!

  • You don't have memory cards - so you cant make any photographs
  • You don't have hard drives - even if you could make photographs, you don't have where to store them
  • You don't have a computer - which means you cant really do anything with photographs you don't currently have
  • You don't have a professionally color calibrated high gamut IPS display to judge your work accurately - enough said
  • You don't have any light stands, tripods, ball heads or back-drops - which means most of your stuff is basically useless or very hard to operate!
  • You don't have a studio to put all your stuff in, so why did you buy this again?

I can go on, and on about the "death by a thousand cuts" paradigm that photography as a profession presents to its disciples in equipment or knowledge form - both upon starting and perpetually throughout the time in which they are engaged in its discipline. My point has been made quite clear and I don't need to beat a dead horse. And you know what's amusing so far? I haven't even touched 1/10th of the full argument for why it costs money to produce a photograph yet!


Reality strikes back!

The reality is that most photographers don't spend quite that much on their equipment. Although the average investment is around the $15,000 mark for the basic camera and a couple of lenses, with that figure we don't even begin to cover everything needed to make a photograph from end to end. Although you will find many photographers with the high-end equipment class I've stated above, here is a more realistic, budget minded yet still professional "average" which you will find most often among professional photographers. (WARNING! Not cheap)

  • Average Professional Camera System Cost - $13,000 (including lenses)
    • Camera Body - $7000
    • 2 Prime Lenses - $3500
    • 70-200 F2.8 Zoom - $2500
  • Memory Cards - $400
  • Average Lighting Setup Cost - $5000
  • Supporting Equipment Cost - $2500
  • Computer & High Gamut Display - $3500
  • Transportation and Bag Equipment - $900
  • Storage System Cost - $1500
  • Professional Photo Printer - $700

Did I mention that the above figures don't actually include the tax and potential shipping? These figures merely put a dent in the DCOBD (Daily Cost of Doing Business)!

DCODB is the figure that takes into account the actual costs of being in business. This is the figure that one must bring in for every working day to just break even - no money is being made here! 

What kind of stuff does DCODB involve? Let's take a look at a few examples!

  • Taxes paid to uncle SAM for photographing the client
  • Cost of purchasing the equipment which is listed above
  • Costs of health insurance and health care
  • Professional dues which keep a professional current and relevant
  • Business cards, brochures, website and all promotional content which makes a photographer visible
  • A studio space - which is leased, usually
  • Utilities consumed for studio and post-production work
  • Equipment insurance for those rainy days
  • Advertising fees to get the brand out there
  • A means of transportation, which means a CAR!
  • Maintenance for the equipment used, which breaks sometimes and needs service or repairs now and again
  • Camera upgrades every 3 years on average to "stay current" (yeah, that camera cost listed above revolves every few years, repeatedly).
  • Salary of photographer - Needed to feed his family, pay rent, pay utilities, have a vacation once in a blue moon because he's a human being - and you know...enjoy their life.
    (this is a cost to business, and is therefore a part of DCODB)

Notice how none of these examples are personal stuff and is all tied to the cost of operating a business. None of these are costs which one pays with the salary of being a worker at their own company, which they haven't received yet because they haven't been hired just yet - were still buying our equipment and investing in our business thus far. Just making sure we're on the same page! So far in this article you've made exactly zero dollars, and depending on which system you choose you could be in as far as $60,000 +! 

Time! - The most expensive commodity in the universe

Great, so back to hypothetical land.  You now have a very solid kit, a place to put it in and we've figured out your business costs. Fantastic! But we still don't understand the idea of "time", because we haven't discussed it yet. You see, an hour of my time is not the same as an hour of your time. You're the hypothetical super duper, high end, great photographer with very high end Leica equipment and 5 people wishing to book you all at the same time. So your perceived value is higher than mine, and your demand is higher also which auto-magically drives your fee up due to the laws of supply & demand. And if I were your client, and I were to hire you as a super-duper photographer, your time is more valuable and therefore more expensive than mine as a client. I wouldn't be hiring you because of your equipment, because I wouldn't know how to use it as a client. Nor am I hiring you for the photographs you have already taken of someone else. I am reserving a part of  your time, which includes your super-duperness and your expensive equipment  to make a photograph of me. And I'm doing this because I love your work, you are talented at what you do, it clearly took you years to get here and I want you to do your magic with my image. And so it stands to reason that I am actually paying you for your time, which comes with allot of other goodies and hopefully a few fantastic photographs which will exist far longer than I. 

How much do I need to pay?

The cost to you as a client is a combination of several parameters, and the formula is quite simple:


DCODB + Deliverables + Markup = Fee

Business Cost + Product Cost + Company Profit = Listed Price


And if you're "one of those" which is wondering why there is a "company profit" or "markup" listed in the fee formula, you're a lost human being, and there is nothing we can help you with - seriously. If you don't realize that a company must be profitable to stay in business, then I'm frankly shocked you've been able to concentrate this far into the article!

For the rest of you wonderfully common sense filled individuals, which I pray is "most", the recipe should be clear now. We now have a breakdown of what makes that "$3600" price tag and a concise explination of why you as a client hire a professional photographer like myself.


Until next time,

Daniel Curtean
Photographer @ CEG

Daniel CurteanComment