Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pricing Photographic Services

I am sure that every serious amateur has considered going “pro” at some point. This has become more common with the advent of affordable digital cameras with modest price tags that are capable of producing professional quality results. I freely admit that I have often said that “Education is my wife, but photography is my mistress”. And truthfully, when I leave my “wife” (retire), my mistress and I will run off into the sunset together, spending countless hours in unbelievable bliss. However, turning “pro” implies that I will start charging for my work, a convenient way of offsetting the costs of new equipment. But before I start working on an appropriate price structure, I must examine how I want to price my services and match them with the market I wish to penetrate. I must also consider the level of compensation for the number of hours involved, and any other expenses incurred during the shoot.

For most people, the first time we encounter a photographer is in elementary school, and the last encounter is at a wedding (usually yours), and with almost no contact in between.  The unfortunate result is that most people believe that all photographs are priced in “photo packages” like 2 5X7 inch prints with a dozen wallets thrown in. And about twenty years later, when people start shopping for a wedding photographer, the package mindset frames the entire price to product discussion, since the bride and groom often base their decisions on how many photos will be in the album. In both cases, the first impulse may well be to take the total cost of the package and divide it by the number of pages in the album. I guarantee that if you take that approach, you will be amazed by how expensive each page becomes. While this approach to pricing may seem appropriate in our consumer-driven society, it does not accurately reflect the true cost and the intrinsic value of the end product.

Post Production: Let’s examine the pricing process and work backwards, starting with the album and ending with the services required to produce it. Chronologically, album production has many stages, the first of which is the editing. This is a process where all the stakeholders have some input on the final selection, the theme of the album, and the cover material. These decisions don’t just happen. The selection meeting may take an entire hour, and must rightfully be included in the total price. Next, there is the album design. This is the arrangement of the photos, selection of complementary backgrounds, and a sense for creating a pleasing graphic arrangement that is both visually appealing and presented in a logical sequence.  And even with the availability of some very specialized album creation programs, the process could take many, many hours. Once this is finished, another appointment is scheduled to get final approval of the album design. Once written approval is obtain, the actual production of the album can begin.  As a rough estimate, 2 hours of consultation, 8 hours of computer time, for at total of 10 hours of post production. This is a very conservative estimate, by the way. Since the actual cost of the album will vary, I’m leaving it out of the equation.

Remember that up to this point, we haven’t mentioned photography at all. All this happens after the wedding and is commonly referred to as “post production”. Successful management of post production is not about skills with a camera. It takes a well developed sense of aesthetics and superior computer skills to create an album look that reflects the mood of the wedding.

The Equipment: The actual photography during the wedding is highly visible, but also misunderstood. Before we get to the specifics, let’s start to look at what is required to properly document the event. First, let’s look at the equipment. A professional photographer must use equipment that is reliable, durable, and expensive. Even if the equipment is rented, the cost can be surprisingly high. For a wedding, I would bring the following: a Nikon D3, 3 zoom lenses (17-35 2.8, 20-70 2.8, and a 80-200 2.8), 2 Nikon SB-900 speedlights , 2 Spare camera batteries, Nikon D90Backup camera (w/ lens)  for a total of  $371 per day. For a two day event, you must double the cost. Incidentals such as single-use batteries and memory cards are not included. These prices were based on an on-line check of day-rates at Calumet.

The Wedding: Next comes photographic time on location. For a fully covered wedding, the day starts the moment make-up touches the bride’s face. In the wedding I will be photographing, this starts at 9:00 am in Burlingame. After both the hair and make-up are done, I’ll return with the bride to Half Moon Bay where the event is scheduled to start on 3:00 pm. I don’t believe I’ll be finished until 10:00 that evening. Dinner? Drinks? Afternoon Tea?  Forget it. I’ll be too busy photographing the bride. Any time away from the party will spent working with the bride and groom, trying to produce some show-stopping images with sunsets and seagulls, flowing veils, or romantic moments on the beach. Maybe I’ll get an hour or two when I’m off duty, you say. Off duty? That’s when you start to backup up your images. So far, I count 11 hours of my undivided attention dedicated to the lucky couple. This doesn't take into account the file uploads, backups, mass edits, and the final design of the album.

The Total: I’m sure I haven’t thought of every possible expense. However, an incomplete tally of the time and costs total $371 for equipment rental and 21 hours for photographing the event and the subsequent post production.

In short, both the photographer and the client need to understand that making a photograph involves far more than just the time behind the camera. As a photographer, keep track of your true costs including time and expenses. I am sure that you’ll find it to much higher that you thought. Knowing all of the facts can help both the client and the photographer better understand the true costs of photography.

Addendum: October 3, 2011: Since I originally posted this article, I've had some interesting discussions with several photographers whose situation is similar to my own. Any photographer who is contemplating turning pro must consider how his or her work stacks up against other photographers who are competing for the same market share. It's not enough to have a cool camera and an impressive lens. It's all about the images, the presentation, and on-time delivery. It's called customer service, and includes all aspects of the assignment, camera related or not. Just being there is not enough!