Understanding custom photography

A wonderful article by a superb photographer and mentor, Jennifer Dell…

what does it take to operate a valued photography business

by Jennifer Dell

creating value with your clients by Jennifer Dell

I see the issue of value and photography come up quite often with photographer friends and on the CM photography forum. A photographer gets an email in response to their pricing either before or after a session and the client is asking for a discount or to barter for services already rendered. Sometimes the prospective client demands to know why their pricing is set at a certain price point which often leaves us feeling deflated and undervalued. I mean, don’t our friends, family and clients know how much we pour our heart and soul into each photograph we make, or better yet, don’t they understand what it took to get to this point – all the seminars, workshops, classes and years of practice and skill building? There really isn’t an easy answer to this as so many factors come into play honestly. Over the years as photography has become more popular and even more accessible to start a career in there has been a slow devaluing of the business of photography and sometimes even the craft. Can’t anyone just pick up a fancy camera, slide the button to auto and snap away to create professional images? Well, not exactly and that is why custom photography is often an investment. It is about so much more than just a piece of paper or a digital file for facebook.

Photographers quite literally stop time with each and every shutter release. The images we make are unique and it’s our vision, it’s the way we saw that moment and chose to record it. This takes knowledge, practice and experience to know just when and how to capture these moments; how to compose them, how to light them and how to extract natural reactions and emotion. Oftentimes we spend thousands learning and continuing our education as well as attending conventions to be kept up to date on the latest photographic trends and styles. The piece of paper is nothing without our conceived vision printed on it. There is value in that. To prove this point I decided to take my husband (who begrudgingly agreed to my experiment) out with my camera, a D700, and a 50mm 1.4g lens. We went to the same location and used the same models, our kids.

I set him up in manual mode first:

sustaining a successful photography business by Jennifer Dell

Then in aperture priority:

business tips by Jennifer Dell

Then I let him edit his images:

creating value in your photography business by Jennifer Dell

Here were my results and my edits. It does take knowledge and education to be able to make a good photograph.

how to run a successful photography business by Jennifer Dell

how much time does each photo session take by Jennifer Dell

photography business tutorial by Jennifer Dell

how to run a photography business by Jennifer Dell

Also, running a successful photography business is just like any other business and it takes a lot of hard work. This work is not done in that one or two hour session but it is actually started well before with the planning and extends past the session with editing and order preparations. For example, on average I invest about 16 hours per client on a full session. Here is a rough breakdown of what is involved:

  • Email correspondence and phone calls: 30min -1hr
  • In person consultation: 1 hr
  • Entering clients information into my studio management software and gathering documents such as contracts: 30min
  • Prepping for the session: 30min
  • Travel time for the session: 30min-2hrs round trip
  • Shooting: 2 hrs
  • Uploading and culling the images: 1 hr
  • Backing up the photographs both online and to an external drive: 30min
  • Editing the images that were chosen: 3-4 hours
  • Prepping the images/slideshow for presentation: 30min -1 hr
  • Meeting with clients to view images and consult with : 1 hr
  • Prepping the images to be uploaded to online gallery for family/friends: 30min
  • Designing an album: 2-3 hours
  • Ordering prints/albums/canvases: 1 hr
  • Receiving and Packaging orders: 30min

This is a total of 15-19.5 hours per client. All of this time is incorporated into our session costs and products that we create. Therefore, we have to charge to cover our time as well as cost of goods and the equipment which leads me to the next point of discussion – equipment.

Most photographers are gadget geeks and technology enthusiasts. We love to have the best equipment and need to replace or upgrade our gear every few years in order to keep up with technology and to use the latest features. Often our cameras alone range between $3,000 and $6,000 and while they are digital, they depreciate with each release of the shutter. Professional lenses typically start around $1000 and go up quite high and photographers tend to carry quite a few (I myself have five professional lenses) in order to capture a variety of images. That is just for a natural light photographer.  When we talk about studio photography you have to factor in the costs for artificial lighting and backdrops plus some. Then we have computers that start in the thousands and that doesn’t include the RAM upgrades to run the software like Photoshop and Lightroom (which also are quite pricey and updated every other year or two) and external hard drives plus maintenance. This is not a cheap profession or business to be in and unfortunately, if we do not take these expenses into consideration we cannot continue to stay up to date with the technology or if a piece of gear meets an untimely and unfortunate death we will not be able to replace it.

These are just a some of our expenses as we still have to cover things like color calibration tools, websites and marketing or advertising and even sample products. So as you see, the value of photography really is about so much more than just a piece of paper.  There is a lot of thought that goes into this business and the craft and our policies and pricing are a reflection of that. The photographs that you receive from a professional photography session are heirlooms and are worth their weight in gold – how else will you remember your sweet baby’s toothless grin when he looks up at you? To me, memories like this are irreplaceable and when trusted to a professional are always in good hands and worth the investment. To my fellow photographers, to have others value you, remember that you need to value yourself and your skills as well. Running a legitimate business and pricing and setting policies accordingly is a big part of perceived value. But that’s a entirely different topic for a whole other blog post!

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