I feel compelled to write this article for both photographers and their clients. I think there is far too little communication, transparency, and education in the photography space, and I want to do my part to try and change that. So let’s dive in and discuss the 4 reasons why your photographer probably can’t pay their bills. And then we'll talk about the solutions.
1. Assigned Value & Swinging Cats
If someone decided to become a medical doctor and went through the grueling steps of college, graduate school, residency, and licensing requirements, would we expect them to open their new clinic and say "$10 cash for all treatments!"? Of course not. And the reason behind that is the investment they've made to get to that point. An investment in both time and money.
On the flip side, what do you need to be able to call yourself a “professional photographer” nowadays? Pretty much just a camera and a computer. Outside of having to register your business with the state, (which many photographers don’t do), there are no licenses, degrees, or experience requirements to call yourself a professional photographer. And with the advent of digital photography, the amount of technical knowledge needed to operate a camera and produce a few good photos has plummeted.
With such a low barrier of entry, we've gotten two outcomes. The first is a decrease in a professional photographer's assigned value. I don't just mean the value assigned to us by the general public. I also mean the value we've subconsciously assigned to ourselves as photographers.
The second outcome is that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a photographer anymore. And with an increase in supply often comes a decrease in price. No matter how cheap you are, someone is always willing to do it for cheaper. But why is that? This is a service industry, and it’s not like the cost of living is getting any lower, so why are people racing to the bottom in photography? Let’s discuss that as we move on to reason #2.
2. Math is hard.
I’d be willing to bet that your photographer didn’t go to business school. I’d also be willing to bet that they did very little market research on the photography industry before they dove in. I think many people who got into photography initially thought, “If I charge $100 for a 1-hour family session, I’ll be making $100 an hour! That’s awesome!” Let’s talk about that. Based on the polling of professional photographers, what percent of the time do you think photographers spend actually taking photos? When I polled the photographers on my site, the average was 8.5%. In other larger polls, the number was 4%. The rest of the time is spent with editing, marketing, bookkeeping, client communications, etc.
How about salary? After covering overhead costs and paying their taxes, what percent of gross profit do you think the average photographer takes home? Based on my polling, the most common answer is 30%, which is in line with other larger polls. So let’s do a couple quick scenarios. I won’t get too deep into the weeds with the math, but if you’re a math geek and want to check my work, you can find it at the end. Bryan is a wedding photographer. He wants to work 40 hours per week and have 2 weeks of vacation each year. His wedding day package covers 8 hours of shooting time. He spends 7% of his time taking photos and gets to keep 30% of his gross profit. He needs to take home $30,000 to support himself. For Bryan to take home $30,000, he must charge $5,714 per wedding. (I’ll include the math at the bottom for those who don’t believe me.) Let’s do another scenario. Susy is a family photographer and spends 1 hour shooting each session. Using the same numbers as Bryan, Susy must charge $714 per family session in order to take home $30,000. (If you'd like a more nuanced calculation of your session capacity and estimated rate you should charge, use this calculator.) Yes, I know that not all photographers will fit this rule. Some will spend more time taking photos, and others will manage to keep more of their gross profit. On the flip side, some photographers have a much higher overhead and keep less than 30%. And I'm sure you know that $30,000 is not nearly enough to support many households around the country. What if Bryan is a single dad with 2 kids living in California?
I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of photographers didn’t do this math before they started their business. And even if they did, many of them would have set their prices lower. Why? Let’s move to reason #3.
3. A Lack of Self Confidence & an Abundance of Shame
The portrait photography world is dominated by women. And although there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, women are more prone to self-esteem & shame issues. How do these apply to their business?
a.) They don’t believe they’re “worth” the prices they need to charge, so they charge less.
b.) They “don’t need the money” because their spouse (or their other job) makes enough to support them, so they charge less. By doing so, they disrespect their own time and talent, and, unfortunately, the time and talent of all photographers.
c.) Photographers who aren’t charging profitable rates are embarrassed to share their shockingly low salaries with others, so the new photographers never learn that those prices won’t produce a live-able wage.
d.) Criticism from the public (or other photographers) about their prices leads a photographer to be ashamed and lower their rates.
Up until now, we haven’t spoken much about the role that the public plays in this problem. So let’s move on to our final reason that your photographer probably can't pay their bills.
4. Arms & Legs
When there’s an abundance of a “product”, people naturally look for a bargain. Some photographers, (because of all the reasons we discussed above), will give that bargain. When that happens enough, the public begins to think that all photographers should be at that bargain rate and that anyone else charging more than that is a scam artist. Which means that even the photographers charging profitable rates often can’t pay their bills because the public thinks they’re “too expensive” and doesn’t go to them. When you see posts on social media saying, “I’m looking for a reasonable wedding photographer” or “I need a newborn photographer who won’t charge an arm and a leg”, that person is almost always looking for a photographer who can’t pay their bills. And that’s likely not the poster’s fault. They’ve come to believe that they know what a “reasonable” price for photography is. And that, my friend, is on us as photographers. WE have created this situation. And while we can do a lot to get ourselves out of it, we may need a little help from our clients.
So without further ado, let’s move on to the 3 solutions.
Solution #1 - For the Photographers: Invest in yourself. Crunch your numbers. Charge accordingly.
If you haven't invested a large amount of time and/or money in learning the science, art, and business of photography, do this first. Educate, educate, educate, and then practice, practice, practice. This investment of time and money will automatically change your perception of the value of your skills.
Once you have a consistent portfolio and know the actual amount of time and money running this business will take, it's Go Time. You now know what you need to charge and why you need to charge it. There’s no shame in supporting your family. Let me say that again. THERE'S NO SHAME IN SUPPORTING YOUR FAMILY, AND YOU SHOULD NEVER LET ANYONE MAKE YOU FEEL THAT WAY. If, however, you crunch the numbers and simply can't bring yourself to charge those rates, then professional photography probably isn't for you. You deserve to be valued for your time and talent, so finding a different career path where you don't have to set your own salary is likely a better option.
Solution #2 - For the Clients: Support photographers with profitable rates
I know that not every family has a $700+ family photo budget. Some of that is because of personal priorities and some is simply a money constraint issue. But if you DO prioritize photography and you CAN pay a profitable rate, please support the photographers who charge that rate. Or if you love your current photographer who’s cheaper, encourage her to raise her prices, and tell her she’s worth it! <3 If you'd like help finding a profitable photographer in the US, you can search for one on our site.
Solution #3 - For Everyone: Spread the word
I believe that photographers need to hear this information just as much as their clients. So if you learned something today that you think is worth sharing, please do! <3
Thank you so much for your time & attention. I know both are very hard to come by nowadays.
For my fellow math nerds or the non-believers, you can find the math below for the examples from my article. Please plug in your own numbers to see what you come up with. Keep in mind that this formula assumes you've got every available session opening filled for the year and that from your salary, you'll potentially have to cover health insurance, retirement savings, etc. Bryan: 40hrs per week * 0.07 = 2.8 hours per week taking photos * 50 weeks = 140 total hours of shooting each year. 140 hours/8 hours of wedding coverage per wedding = 17.5 weddings per year $30,000 = 0.30 * 17.5 * (X) X = $5,714.29
Susy: 40hrs per week * 0.07 = 2.8 hours per week taking photos * 50 weeks = 140 total hours of shooting each year 140 hours/1 hour of shooting for each family session = 140 family sessions per year $30,000 = 0.30 * 140 * (X)
X = $714.29