Why Are Professional Photographers So Expensive?

As a working photographer for so many years, I have had my fair share of uninspiring questions like “Why are you so expensive?”, and many of its other variants. The person asking these questions is basically asking how do we justify asking for the amount that we’re charging for in exchange for our services. After so many years, I had more or less shrugged it aside, and didn’t even bother to dignify it with an answer… Until recently.

The infographic below has been circling around the social media recently, and had inspired me to try to put an answer to the age-old question, of why professional photographers are so expensive. I don’t know who the original creator of the infographic is, but if anybody know, please inform me, so that I can give credit where credit is due.


Of course, the original message was from the perspective of a designer, any kind of designer. Well, photographers also fall under the umbrella of the term designer too, since photographers “design” the images that will eventually be captured and used for artistic and creative downstream work, no? So how do photographers stack up in this situation?

expensive photographer

Photographer Vs. Designer (Any Type Of Designer)

To reiterate, a photographer would have spent :-

  • 4 to 5 years to complete studies (same as above);
  • RM20K to RM60K on studies (same as above);
  • RM5K to RM10K on computer (same as above);
  • Countless sleepless nights to complete project (same as above);
  • RM5K to RM20K on cameras, lenses, accessories, etc.;
  • RM10K to RM50K on lights, stands, backdrops, props, etc.

No, I’m not trying to justify that photographers enjoy the right to charge more just because they spent more than any other kind of designers. I just want to point out that a photographer would have to spend way much more money upfront, before he or she can even start accepting jobs.

People Skills?… What People Skills?

Unlike most other types of designers, most of whom would probably get to work in the relative privacy of their own studio or cubicle, photographers are expected to work with people, e.g. stylists, art directors, prop masters, models, wardrobe masters, make-up artists, account people, and (gasp!) clients, on the set of the shoot.

We’re all well aware of how eccentric artistic people can get when actually dealing with living, breathing, human beings, right? Throw in some last minute changes, sprinkle generous amounts of client comments, and promises made by account people who knows next to nothing about what the job at hand is all about. This is a recipe for a volcano on the verge of eruption.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt after all these years, it’s that technical skills are easy to master, but people skills are a whole different ball game altogether.

There Are Photographers, And Then There Are Photographers

While you can almost say that every designer is a professional in his or her own field, you can’t say that about a photographer. What I mean here is that there actually are people taking up photography as a hobby. Granted, it’s an expensive hobby, but that’s a story for another time.

What I’m trying to point out here is that there are “professional” photographers, and then there are “amateur” photographers. No, I’m not referring to their skill level here. “Professional” photographers are photographers who make a living shooting photos. It’s a job to them. Just as there are bankers, making a living managing your money, and florists, making a living selling flower arrangements, these photographers make a living by selling their services to their clients.

“Amateur” photographers, on the other hand, are mainly people who don’t make a living selling their services. This is not to say that their skill isn’t up to the standard of the professionals, but only that they earn their living doing something else. Photography is probably just a hobby to them.

So then, what’s the problem?…

The “problem” here, is that many people tend to think that all photographers are the same. Comments like “Hey, you should be happy that I’m paying you to practise your hobby by shooting for me” rings familiar to all professional photographers.

Models Vs. Photographers – Who Pays Whom?

Models and photographers have always had this love-hate relationship since time immemorial. While it’s unfair to pass judgement with a blanket statement like this, it is actually quite true for the majority of those in the modelling industry… Especially those who’re still pretty new in the industry.

You see, models need photographers to shoot them, and photographers need models for them to shoot. So herein lies the chicken-and-egg situation. Does the model pay the photographer to shoot him or her, or does the photographer pay the model for him or her to shoot in the first place?

First off, I consider both photographers and models as people in the artistic profession. And for those in this profession, the goal is always to find a balance between getting hired because people know them, and getting people to know them so that they can get hired. Models need exposure, so that enough people know them, thus they can put a price tag on their modelling services. Photographers also need the exposure of their works too, so that potential clients know the quality of their work, and thus put a price tag to it.

So does the model pay the photographer, or does the photographer pay the model?… Hmmm…

My Services Are Expensive Because I Use Expensive Equipment

As mentioned earlier, photographic equipment don’t come cheap. And especially so when it comes to studio facility. So some photographers justify their expensive charges with equally expensive equipment. However, this is no guarantee of quality.

Besides, a rich kid with a big-fat allowance could probably afford to purchase more expensive equipment than a true-blue working photographer could afford to invest in. To the rich kid, photography is probably just a hobby, but definitely not the case to the guy who earns a living shooting photos.

But as a general guideline, you do need a certain standard of equipment (with a certain standard of cost) to be able to do the kind of work that you’ve set out to do in the first place. So while you technically can do professional photographic work with your camera equipped smartphone, there’s a finite limit to how much you can accomplish with it.

Can You Give Me A Quotation For Your Work?

Never, never, never blindly give out a blanket quotation to anybody who ask you to. Not unless you know exactly what’s required of you, the amount of work to be done, and the exact deliverable the client wants. And even then, try to ensure that you at least have that job secured, before you hand out any quotations.

There are weasels who go out collecting quotations with no intention of giving the job to you in the first place. The biggest culprits are large corporations, where their “standard practice” is to compare three quotations, before awarding the job to the lowest offer. These weasels probably have already decided whom they want to award the job to, but they can’t do that without justifying that their pre-selected vendor has the lowest price. So try not to be played for a fool.

As for me, I’d rather stick to just verbal quotations for the casual enquiries. I’m not going to commit anything on paper until and unless I know for sure that I’m the one who’s gonna be awarded the job eventually. So when I issue any paper-work out, it’s gonna be a quotation-cum-invoice. And I don’t start work until I receive at least a partial payment. But if you have a choice, ask for full payment upfront.

But Tom, Dick or Harry Charges Less Than You Do For The Same Work

Believe me, I get this a lot. There are “clients” who have only one thing on their agenda – to get the cheapest deal in town. They probably don’t care if they don’t get good quality finished products. Or worse, they intend to use that excuse to haggle the price at a later stage, when you’ve already delivered your part, and can’t back off anymore.

Logically speaking, if they want to pay lower than what was quoted to them, then you’d be thinking of doing less work, or deliver a lower quality finished product to them. But when you do that, then they’ll say that your work isn’t up to your usual “standard”; which is pretty ironic, since the price agreed upon earlier (reluctantly, if at all), isn’t anywhere near “standard”.

Can it get any worse?… You bet it can…

The worst case scenario is that they’ll probably say that you’re not who you advertise yourself to be, and that they’ll spread how bad your service and finished products are, essentially ruining your business reputation.

The best case scenario (which isn’t any much better actually) is that they’ll gladly accept your deliverables, and then recommend you to their friends for the price that they paid you, essentially driving down your price for all of your future works.

Yes, it’s a pretty under-handed tactic. And they’re only opening themselves up for attack; intellectually as well as physically. No, I don’t personally condone violence. But if you asked me, I’d tell them “You asked for it!”

I Want To Hire You, But At The Other Guy’s Price

This is yet another typical day for a typical working photographer. They know the quality of your work, and they like it. But they’re too cheap to pay your asking price. So they try to play the game of “I’m on your side, but I’m still answerable to a higher authority” with you. They indicate to you that they want to award you the job, and will do everything they can to make sure that you secure the job. The only “problem” is that you’re not the lowest offer in town, and they can only award the job to the lowest offer, effectively squeezing your asking price.

“Mr. Client, if you want to hire me because you appreciate my track record, integrity and reputation, then pay me my asking price. If you can’t afford my asking price, or are too cheap to pay my asking price, then please go ahead and hire the other guy. Which one of us do you want to engage to do your job? Please make up your mind.”

Can You Use Cheaper Equipment For My Shoot?

Yes, photographic equipment don’t come cheap. Therefore, it’s inevitable that you’re gonna charge a pretty penny for your services if you’re gonna be using your whole suite of cameras, lenses, lights, stands, props, backdrops, etc.

“But my job doesn’t require such a high-tech set up. Can you charge a lower price if you just come over and use my camera instead?”

Of course you can… Just like how you can hire a 5-Star Michelin chef to cater for your house warming party, but not to bring all of his high-tech (i.e. expensive) kitchenware along with him, so that he can charge you a lower price. After all, he can have full-excess to your own kitchen and pantry to perform his magic, right?… Duh!…

You’ll Get Plenty Of Exposure If You Accept My Job

Business, by definition, is a profit-based activity. If you’re running a photography business, then you’re doing it because you want to make a profit out of your photographic activities. Otherwise, it’ll be called charity, not business. So unless the job in discussion is a charitable cause that you want to contribute to, you always charge the amount that you deem suitable in exchange for the job done.

The “exposure” part is utter nonsense if you ask me. Of course, there is a working arrangement, known by the abbreviation TFP, where no money is paid nor received by either party for the job done. Traditionally, it used to stand for Time For Print. These days, people in the industry also call it Trade For Print, Trade For Photos, etc.

This is a pretty complex arrangement, traditionally between photographers and models, as mentioned above. It will take up way too much time and space to discuss in this article. I’ll expand on this one in a later article.

You Were Recommended By XYZ. Can You Give Me A Discount?

Of course I can… Listen, if you pay me the full price upfront, you can then request for a refund on the discount from XYZ later, okay?… *grin*

If anybody recommends me, It is because they are happy with the quality of my service and my deliverables. I never have, and I never will, tell my existing clients to give out “discount password”, so that people they recommend to me will pay me less than what they paid me in the first place. This whole scenario just doesn’t even seem logical at all.

Give Me A Discount Because I Intend To Be A Returning Client

This is like, wow!… You walk up to the International Olympic Council, and demand for a gold medal for the 100m sprint in the next Olympic Games, because you “intend” to win it.

If I’m gonna be giving a discount for returning clients, it’s because they returned to me for subsequent business transactions. How on earth would I know whether you’ll eventually return or not? And even if you do, as the name suggest, it’s a discount for returning clients, not clients who intend to return.

And if you sense that they’re pulling a fast one on you (believe me, you can somehow feel it), then you can also tell them that you’ll give them a 50% discount on-the-spot, if they pay 300% of the quoted price upfront, with the balance 250% to be credited as cash rebate over the next ten transactions.

And please feel free to rub it in by telling them that this is a limited time offer, valid only if they pay up the full amount before the end of the week!…

You’re Overcharging For Such A Simple Job

Sigh!… If this is such a simple job, as you mentioned, then why even bother trying to engage me to do it in the first place? Don’t they know that their action of coming to you in the first place already betrayed their statement that it’s a simple job?

So whenever I come across any comment like this, I’d simply smile at them and reply “Thank you very much for your enquiry, and have a good day.”

My Cousin Joe Can Probably Do What You Do

Same situation as above, I’d smile at them and reply “Thank you very much for your enquiry, and May The Force Be With Cousin Joe.”

Of course, there is a remote possibility that Cousin Joe might actually be a professional photographer too. In which case, Cousin Joe would most probably tell the guy to take a hike. You don’t need to be so polite with family members, right?… *wink*

Conclusion – Are Professional Photographers Really That Expensive?

I know I share the same sentiment with other fellow professional photographers, when I say that what professionals charge is reasonable. It’s not to say that they’re not expensive, but you really get what you pay for.

If guaranteed success is important to you, then there’s no substitute for historical track record of quality works delivered to previous clients, referable working experience in any particular specialty niche of photography, business integrity, and the reputation of the photographer. And this guarantee comes with a price… Not an expensive price, but a reasonable one.

But if guaranteed success isn’t that important to you, well, there’s always Cousin Joe…

3 Replies to “Why Are Professional Photographers So Expensive?”

  1. Pingback: Models Vs. Photographers, Who Pays Whom? - Solarex Imaging

  2. Pingback: Designer Vs. Design Entrepreneur - Solarex Imaging

  3. Pingback: Clients That Pay You With "Exposure"? - Solarex Imaging

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