This is a great question and one that I’ve been trying to find a simple answer to for many years. Recently I stumbled over a fellow documentary photographer’s blog post and his answer was so great I wanted to share it. This is the reason why family photography is so expensive. It is wonderfully written by the talented Thomas of Day In Life Storytelling Photography. You can find a link to the exact article here, and his home page here. Note: All photographs in post are the work of Thomas or Мария Струтинская.
Some time ago I created a survey. I sent it to my previous clients, my friends, I posted it on my social media platforms and even handed out printed fliers, with a link to to the survey, to people in the real world. The survey is still live, and I always appreciate if someone can spend a few minutes to answer a few questions.
One of the survey questions is “What may hold you back from having a photo session, that is designed to capture the real moments and dynamic of your family?” and as expected one of the most common answers was – Price
So why is photography so expensive in the age when we all carry high-resolution cameras in our pockets?
Google it, and you will find almost 10 million hits most of which narrow it down to just two things; Cost and Time. Sometimes experience comes into play, but mostly you just find breakdowns of camera prices, lens prices, and studio overheads. Let’s quickly go through them just to make sure that we are covering everything.
Cameras are expensive. Lenses are expensive and my laptop and speed lights and memory cards, lens filters and Photoshop and website hosting and proofing sites and sample products and a car and insurance, shipping costs and all the office expenses and overheads. Plus all the workshops, classes and equipment maintenance costs and … the list goes on and on. And that’s just the tools of the trade. Then there is advertising and taxes. Also, the photographer needs to pay themselves a wage to cover food, clothing, rent and all of life’s other necessities. This does all add up to a significant amount of money which is required before the session could even start.
2-hour session actually includes; consultation, booking time, pre-session prep time, travel time TO the session, prep time at client’s home, the session itself, travel time FROM the session, downloading several gigabytes of images from camera to PC, backing up, editing, gallery preparation, ordering session, product design, sorting and ordering products, delivery, plus the additional time spent on phone calls and email and so on. What looks like a two-hour job is actually more likely a twenty-hour job.
Then there is the experience and skill which I think stands aside from the hard costs of running a business. We can’t put the finger on it, but we know that without it all the gear and time spent on the session will mean nothing. Of course you can take pictures yourself, but are you sure that they will convey the moments and emotions the same way as the ones made by a professional will? Can you, not only capture the aesthetic but also the feeling of the moment?
Recently, a photographer Мария Струтинская uploaded some photos showing the differences between ordinary people and professional photographers. What may look like a block of flats with a couple of trees next to it to an ordinary person, is a mysterious forest to a photographer.
Fabulous voiceover actor goes into the booth and nails a commercial in five minutes. When the client balked at his fee saying, “But it only took you five minutes.” the actor replied, “No, it took me 20 years. You only saw the last five minutes.”
A giant ship engine failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since forever. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. A week later, the owners received a bill for ten thousand dollars. “What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemized bill.” The man sent a bill that read:
Tapping with a hammer – $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap – $ 9,998.00
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him. “It’s you — Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist.” So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art. “It’s perfect!” she gushed. “You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?” “Five thousand dollars,” the artist replied. “B-b-but, what?” the woman sputtered. “How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!”
To which Picasso responded, “Madame, it took me my entire life.”
All of those are all very valid points. ( I especially like the anecdotes ) But I don’t think they really answer the question. This is because the question is wrong.
Due to all of the reasons listed above, photographers need to charge a certain amount of money in order to run their business. There is nothing they can do about it. However, when we ask why a photography service is so expensive, we don’t want to know the business side of it. As a client, I don’t really want to know what goes into running a car mechanics or the running costs of a restaurant. I don’t care. The real question that we are asking, the question which is hiding in the shadow of the “Why does it cost so much?”, is:
Why do I have to pay so much money?
And the simple answer is – you don’t. Professional photography is a luxury product. Just like a Louis Vuitton handbag, organic tomatoes from a famous market, a new IPhone or even a Starbucks coffee. No one ever really needs a Louis Vuitton anything – even among people who need a handbag. We can always get our coffee from places other than Starbucks (whatever happened to carrying a Thermos flask?!). Only a few people genuinely need a professional photography service, most of us can go through life without ever needing a photographer ( well, there is this dreaded ID photo that we all need and hate ). If you think about it, you don’t even need a photographer on your wedding day. You will still get married. But in 20 years your memories from that important day will have become really fuzzy, and when your daughter asks about how you looked at your wedding, the only thing you will be able to do is to vaguely describe it to her. This is what you are really paying for – your memories. The possibility to go back in time.
Here we have reached what I think is the most important aspect of photography and the real reason why you may want to hire a professional photographer.
We spend money on the things that hold value for us. Everyday luxuries. New tech gadgets that help us during the day, the holiday trip that we dreamed of, that Starbucks coffee every morning on the way to work to keep us sane. Cigarettes to keep us centered, a weekly dinner with friends that we can’t image life without, getting your nails and hair done, new back patio furniture, endless amount of toys for our kids because you can’t just say “no” all the time and so on. Remember the band which plays in the local pub on the weekends? They are coming over in an old car worth 400 euros but bring with them musical equipment worth thousands. The car is old because they don’t care about cars. But they care about music. We all value some things more than others. It’s about choosing what is important to us enough to spend money on And your memories are one of these most important things. In fact, when people are asked which items they would save from a house fire, a box of old family photographs is always in the top three answers. It’s interesting that when in a panic mode we would grab photos rather than valuable jewelry. This impulse to save our recorded memories is a powerful force which tells us much about the role of photography in our lives.
The value of family photography goes beyond the price, and it increases with time. I would go as far as saying that the pictures of my family and from my childhood, are THE MOST valuable non-living things in my house. Nothing else even comes close
These are pictures of my kids and my only living Grandmother that I took this summer. As hard as it is to admit, I took these pictures because I’m scared that it was my last chance to do it. We live really far away, and we don’t have many occasions to visit. My grandfather passed away a few year ago and even though my Grandma is doing relatively ok at the moment, I still feel that we only have a few more occasions to see her, if we are lucky, before my kids and I will only have pictures of her.
These images and memories that photographs hold are priceless. Just like the ones that I have of my kids growing up, eating pancakes for breakfast and jumping into puddles on the way from school. Snuggles and made-up stories in the dark, the never-ending mess in the kid’s room, the way they look like when they sleep. Those typical ordinary days that we usually take for granted. I want to save them all. I want to be able to remember them exactly as they were. Imperfect and messy yet amazing. I want to be able to sit on the sofa with my grandkids one day, looking through an album and show them what a little devil their father once was. I don’t want to just tell them, I want to show them.
So why is family photography so expensive? Because the costs of creating amazing pictures are really high. But why would you want to pay that kind of money for it? Because the costs of not doing it are even greater.