Professional Portraits "Too Expensive"

I have to admit it - I'm kinda annoyed watching a trend of people that want professional portraits of their family done, but are not willing to pay for it, citing it as "too expensive."

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I totally get that we've been in the midst of a horrendous recession, so we're all trying to save where we can. But you have to understand that especially when it comes to photography, you get what you pay for. To expand on a thought that Lizzie Kimball just tweeted me, there are so many people out there that want a BMW on a Kia budget.

There is a sharp rise of folks who get a digital SLR for Christmas and take a few great shots and decide they could make money as a photographer. "It seems so easy," they say. "More power to you," I say. So they do a few sessions for free to very cheap to help "build their portfolio." On top of that, they give away the farm by giving away a CD with full rights to the image. A few years later, they are still struggling to get their business off the ground and wonder why.

The truth is, most professional photographers don't charge near enough to be paid a fair wage for the hours they put in, when you factor in time spent marketing, editing, shooting, and selling. There is a common misconception out there that the price of professional photography is mostly profit.

I recently joined the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) so that I could take advantage of the education they provide toward becoming a certified professional photographer. I read my welcome packet cover to cover the first night I had it. When I was finished, I was shocked.

Let me back up for a minute here.

Prior to my career in photography, I worked in the packaging industry, selling boxes, tape, bags, you name it. I made a pretty healthy living, got paid to travel and got to meet wonderful clients. Plus, being the geek that I am, spent a fair portion of my days in a real-life episode of "How It's Made," which I loved. But my photography hobby kept tugging at my heart strings, so I decided to learn more about the business.

I talked to many successful photographers who we're being paid to shoot weddings, travel to cool places, and got a significant amount of "down time" - I was mesmerized. I imagined these folks we're bringing home six figures easily. I wanted to do that - to get paid to do something I love. So I quit my job and took a much lower paying (without benefits) gig as a banquet manager at a country club so that I could get into the right networks of people and find clients (which is where I met the awesome clients in the photo above). I wasn't looking to make six figures, but to make enough to make it a full-time gig was what I wanted.

I shot my first paid wedding that summer for a whopping $300. Even my mentor at the time laughed and said I got hosed (I'm sure those of you in the industry are laughing now too). I made the same mistake that the aforementioned aspiring professionals made: I undervalued myself to get business, rather than going about it the right way and apprenticing with an established photographer and making it about providing more than just affordable work.

In the five years since that time, I have been constantly re-evaluating if I am charging the right amount of money for my service. I've looked for the right balance between having a ridiculously expensive hobby and charging enough to make a living so I can make the switch to full-time.

I am going to pick on a friend a little bit here. This whole post was spawned from this comment, posted by one of my sweet high school friends on Facebook. She said:

"Wow newborn professional photography sessions are EXPENSIVE!!! Hello, we are having a baby, we don't have any money!Craziness!!"

Which prompted a bunch of suggestions, recommendations, and comments about knowing photographers who would do it for free or "cheap." I cringed.

First of all, I TOTALLY understand where her comment came from. When I was expecting my first child, I watched my nice nest egg slowly dwindle away, a few hundred dollars at a time. When you get married, you watch a large chunk of change disappear relatively quickly- it's like ripping a band-aid off. With kids, it feels like there's always something - clothes, toys, booster chairs, snacks, sittersthe list goes on.

But why would anyone consider having such precious moments entrusted to someone that undervalues their work so much that they don't want to be fairly compensated for it? These are your family heirlooms! It is worth it to spend the time to find the right photographer for you and your budget . I'll save the "How to Find the Right Photographer for you" talk for another post, but I suggest that you give it the same effort you would in finding a family physician - ask for referrals, interview a few, pick the one that fits you best. It's not a matter of health, sure, but it's also not something you can get back. Your newborn is only such for a few weeks and before you know it, they are off to kindergarten.

Back to the being shocked after reading the PPA business guide. One of the pieces of information in it was the minimum "benchmarks" that they have set forth to help photographers know if they are operating profitably and at what point they should go full time. This was the shocking part - a full time photographer hitting the benchmark is earning an income of $35-40,000 a year.

Wait. WHAT? I was making well over that selling plastic bags!

Granted, that is the low end, but when we sell you that beautiful $900 wall collage, we are happy to be getting paid for the 20-30 hours we put into marketing, shooting, editing, creating it. In the end, we are all in this profession because we love it enough to work 80+ hours a week. I'm going to be bold enough to say that the majority of the pros out there aren't in this business to get ridiculously wealthy; it's a benefit that is earned from years of hard work.

So what are you getting when you decide to pay a professional to shoot your family portraits?

Expertise - As professional photographers, we commit to constant growth and learning within an ever-changing medium. That wedding I shot, just five years ago? 11 rolls of FILM. Film, people. Which I had to have extensive knowledge on what I was doing because there was no way I was going to "burn" more than a few of my 396 exposures taking mediocre shots. I didn't just wake up with it, I had to go to school for it.

With the conversion to digital, I have had to learn how to modify my camera settings to achieve the look I want, and how to convert those images out of the camera into something that you can put up on your wall at 30x40 if you choose to do so. Heather Lilly has a GREAT series that she's started on this subject. I encourage you to follow along.

Presentation - This year, I went to a paperless studio. My calendar, contracts, accounting and sales are done online. All of these are services that I pay for so that I can offer you a convenient and efficient means of doing business with me. It costs more to have those perks.

Quality - I spend a lot of time trying out new vendors and new products, looking for the best quality items to offer my clients when it comes to prints, photo books and custom designed albums. It makes a huge difference, trust me. If you spent good money to have professional portraits taken, why would you want to have them printed on an ink jet printer at a big box store photo lab? It is worth it to pay for good, archival quality products.

In the end, I truly believe that every family should make an annual photography budget, work with a professional photographer that fits in that budget, and create family heirlooms that can be enjoyed for generations. Your children and grandchildren will thank you.

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Posted in Photograph Post Date 01/02/2017


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