Why Custom photography costs more than a chain store session

Breakdown of session cost

I am a professional photographer. I am not your everyday, run of the mill, lets pose everyone I see this way only because that’s what my boss at this giant studio chain tells me to, kind of photographer. I am a photographer that specializes in custom photography. Therefore, my session fee’s are higher than the local studio chain. My print prices slightly higher because I order my prints from a professional lab in which my monitor is calibrated to their printer. Although that may be jibberish to you, just know that the color you see on my monitor is the color that will be printed at the lab. There won’t be any green or orange tone people or weird color casts in your photos (unless I specifically put them there of course). I am going to give you a one of a kind session that you and your family can cherish for generations to come and I also offer unique products, such as an iPhone cases with your favorite picture on it.

I make a lot of money doing this. Wait! What? I wish!! The fact is I am only one person. I am the one responsible for the expense of all of my equipment, paying sales tax, paying federal tax, shooting your session, editing your session, ordering prints/products for your session, and everything else that comes along with owning a business.

So the next time you think a professional photographer is rich (and there are some that are), I want you to think about this mathematical breakdown of a session fee for a normal session. Note that this is just an average and does not include any prints or products that may be bought from the session. Every shoot is different, and I am not including ALL expenses, after all do you want to read an article or a book?

Breakdown of session costThe breakdown of a session

                  • 1 hour session, 3 hours of editing and uploading to your gallery, my blog, and facebook, 30 min consultation before the shoot, 30 min travel time to and from the session for a total of 1 hour travel time, 30 min to upload and place your order with the lab, 1 hour reveal (going over final images with you) and usually 1 hour of correspondence (emails, phone calls, etc…). That is a total of 8 hours for 1 session (and sometimes it’s even more).
                  • Now lets say I charge $150/session (just picking a number off the top of my head here) where sales tax is already included and this does NOT include any prints, products, or digital images. It’s strictly just the session fee. So thus far that equals out to $18.75/hr (not bad at all) BEFORE taxes.
                  • Now I must take a 35% of that session fee to hand over to uncle sam at the end of the year and to the state of Texas to pay sales tax. Since I don’t charge the sales tax to you, it has to come out of the session fee. So now I am at $13.13/hr
                  • But wait I also have overhead expenses (cost of running my own office and business, cost of training seminars, courses, and licenses, not to mention the cost of liability insurance) which gets another 25% of that session fee. So, now that brings my hourly rate to $7.50 / hr.
                  • Oh but wait, I need equipment to do the custom session, such as camera lenses (yes they wear out), backdrops, props, etc… So I put 10% of each session fee away, so I can make sure I always have the latest trends and equipment to give you the best session possible! So now I am at $5.63 / hr.
                  • I would like to retire someday, good thing my employer has an awesome 401K. Oh wait, I own my own business. I am the employer! Yep I put 20% into that puppy! So now that brings my hourly rate to $1.88 / hr!

What’s my real profit?
So out of every $150 session fee, I would only make $15.04 in profit or in other-words $1.88/hr for 8 hours of work or in relation to a 40 hour work week, I would take home only $75.20 for the entire week. That’s barely enough to fill my tank up with gas! Could you imagine going to work every day for 8 hours and at  the end of the week your paycheck is only $75.20? My daughter makes more per week working part time after school! This is why it’s so important to buy your custom portraits from your session! It helps to add to our retirement fund and helps puts food on the table! And while yes I have to take the same %’s out of all the portraits I sell, it does help the bottom line.

But, I love my job, and am thankful I get to do something I love so much!  So the next time you go to book a custom photographer and gawk at the session fee price, just remember the above! At the end of the day, most of us make less than minimum wage and we provide far better service and customization than those big chain studios you see in the Malls and in stores. When’s the last time they went to your favorite park to shoot your family portraits? Probably NEVER, because that is not what they do!

Ok I get the session fee, but I can buy an 8×10 from the local big box store lab for $1.50, why are your print prices so high?
Again, time goes in to making sure that my monitor is always calibrated to the professional lab I use. In addition to that, my lab only uses high quality paper and ink that will allow your prints and products to out last anything printed out by big box stores. In addition to that, their printers can be calibrated differently from store to store, so you never know what kind of outcome your picture might encounter. It may look ok at one big box store, but at another it may have a reddish tone to it, and another you may have heads cropped off. Cropped? Well that’s an entirely different article in itself. Just know that that those stores don’t re-size and re-align the images before printing them on the size of print you want. They literally just cut off areas of the photo to make it fit. This is just yet another reason you will want to order prints and products from your photographer. In addition to that, all the percentages I listed above all come out of each portrait I sell.

Well so and so only charges $65 a session and that includes a session cd with print rights.
More than likely they are in their portfolio building stage (they are new to this or are updating their portfolio), which is fine. Someone who charges only $65 a session (and is not building their portfolio) will not be in business very long and/or is operating their business illegally. Ask them for a copy of their business license and sales tax ID number for the State. Either way, if this is all that they charge (and again it’s not because they are portfolio building), it should immediately raise a red flag. Take a look at my breakdown again of a session. Now break it down only using $65, that equals out to $0.81 an hour with only a $6.50 profit from each session and they will more than likely loose the chance to make any money off of prints because they just handed you a CD with high resolution images so you can print them yourself! Now this of course is assuming that they are a legitimate business and pay their taxes (hey you work and pay taxes, why should photographers get off scott free). And of course they may not even spend any time editing your photos at all. So I guess if I wanted to grab my camera real quick, snap some photos, burn them to a disk, and give uncle sam the middle finger, well I guess I could make some extra cash, although it still wouldn’t be all that much. Then again, I am a PROFESSIONAL photographer! I pay my taxes, I have a business license, business insurance, and I have a sales tax id number! Just remember, you get what you pay for!

Conclusion
While I understand that prices are different all across the nation, the fact of the matter is, most custom professional photographers don’t make it rich doing this, but we are able to support our family. We do it because we love what we do and love the art. Yes photography is an art form. Most of us will never make it rich, but most of us do end up being able to quit our day jobs and make this an added source of income to our spouses (or as a sole income if we are really lucky and have awesome clients who buy lots of prints from their sessions and recommend our awesome work to others, hint hint).

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