Why is Professional Photography so Expensive? | Tips and Tricks

As a professional photographer, some of the most common questions I get from the community surrounds the price tag on photography services and prints. Just for a few minutes, I ask you to consider the view from behind the lens. Yes, you experience is 100% my priority but for a just a few moments, let’s change hats. Take in the experience from from the vantage point of professional photographer.

Let’s look at the numbers… What does a professional photographer actually make?

Family Photographer Dallas Photographer M3 CreativeThat prospective client calls or walks into the studio to inquire about a photography session. They are excited. You are excited. You go over your session fee and the questions (understandably) begin.

You charge how much??
What do I get for that?
But, all you do is stand there and push a button!
Why can’t I just have it printed at WalMart for $1?
Why can’t I edit them myself?

So, let’s get right to the point… Yes, photography is expensive. But, photography is expensive for the photographer too. Photographers don’t really earn $250 an hour for pushing a button. And when you factor in all the hidden time and monetary investments (that you don’t see as a consumer), most photographers don’t earn much more than your hairdresser or a restaurant employee. In fact, just doing a little research with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we discover that most photographers only earn between $36,850 and $43,990 annually (statistics for the state of Texas as of May 2016). Translated to hourly and assuming photographers only work 40 hours each week (you’ll see why that isn’t the case in a minute) that means your favorite shutter bug is only making between $17.72 to $21.15 an hour. Now that is definitely not the $250/hr most people think the photographer makes.

So, what exactly are you really getting when you hire that professional photographer?


A Portrait Session – The Photographer’s Experience

So you hire a photographer for an hour photo session and pay their session fee of $250. Think you just paid them $250/hr? Not at all… and here’s why.

Your photographer doesn’t stop working after that 1 hour session is over. In fact, she is probably going to spend closer to 3-8 hours on your portrait session. But, where does all that extra time come into play? Let’s add it up.


(1 hour) Over an hour of planning the shoot
(30min) Time traveling to the shoot (my average travel time is 30 minutes one direction)
(30min) Setting up all equipment
(1 hour) The actual hour at the shoot
(30min) Time traveling back from the shoot
(1 hour) Upload and choose the best images
(2 hour) Edit the images – this is a minimum
(1 hour) Photo reveal appointment
(1 hour) Load the images online and prepare digital files for print
(1 hour) Order and deliver the prints and products.

Add them all up… that one hour session just turned into 9.5 hours! That$250?… closer to $26/hour. And, that doesn’t even cover any of the photographer’s expenses.

How much do you pay your hairdresser? Tax guy? Mechanic? It feels easier to justify those expenses, because you can see how much work went into the project firsthand. But, when you hire a professional photographer, you only see a small amount of what it actually took to produce those final images.

The Gear… Yep, That’s Expensive Too!

We’ve just seen how what started out as $250 quickly became $26/hr. But, let’s be honest… that isn’t really what your photographer makes.

We all know that photography equipment is expensive. But, do you realize how much equipment it takes to run a professional photography business? Let’s look at the bare minimum,

The camera body alone costs at least $1,500 for a professional-grade DSLR. For example, an entry level professional camera like the Nikon D750 goes for about $1800. Most photographers have a second camera body in case of emergencies. Oh, and those two $1,500 cameras will likely be replaced after about three years, because like any technology, they become outdated pretty quickly. A perfect examples of this is the just released Nikon D850 which currently holds a $3300 price tag.

So, right away, at the most economic starting point, the photographer has invested at minimum $1500-$3000 in camera body equipment.

That camera body means nothing without a lens. For that D750 we mentioned earlier, a great starting lens for a portrait photographer is our good friend the 50mm. The least expensive 50mm lens compatible to our D750 currently has a price tag of $220 (and that isn’t even the best one). And, let’s be honest, a professional photographer doesn’t own just one and more than likely even uses more than one at that one hour session you’ve booked. Having a single lens like the 50mm limits the photographer to that one perspective. It is not uncommon for photographers to have either several prime lenses costing $250-$1,000, or two zoom lenses covering a range of perspectives costing over $2,000 each. The cheaper lenses need to be replaced often, while the pricier lenses will (thankfully) outlast those camera bodies.

Now, considering what types of lenses most photographers carry, that photographer has now invested at minimum another $2220-$6000 just on lenses.


What About Lighting Equipment?

We can’t forget to talk about lighting equipment. Now many photographers will do everything they can to use natural light, but even in those situations, we need tools and equipment to make sure that natural light hits (or doesn’t hit) our subject in the perfect place. A good camera flash carries a price tag starting around $300. Not to mention the stands and reflector kits. You may even find your photographer uses other lighting techniques including soft boxes and umbrellas which can start at a minimum of $450 for the box, light, and stand.

Lighting equipment can put the photographer out another $300-$3000 in equipment costs.

The Other Stuff…

Of course, there are the small items that are often overlooked but they all add up very quickly. Memory cards ($25-$50each) filters ($30-$300), camera bag (starting around $200). They all add up to hundreds of dollars and need to be replaced just like the rest of the equipment.

At minimum, the photographer adds an additional $300-$600 in miscellaneous equipment needs. There’s close to $3000 in computer equipment.


For sample purposes, I’ve included a view of the photographer’s on location portrait session experience, but consider this… If a photographer goes through all of this for a portrait session, just imagine how much work goes into a wedding.

Wedding photographers often invest in more gear so they can shoot in any conditions — can you imagine the photographer packing up because they didn’t have the gear to shoot a dimly lit church? The lenses that handle the limited lighting of churches and receptions while still offering zoom flexibility are at least $2,000. Many wedding photographers hire (i.e. pay for) an assistant and/or a second shooter to ensure all those moments are captured.

Or how about the photographer who has a set studio location?

Photographers that don’t work on-site will be paying for another big expense: a studio. The cost of renting or buying a studio space varies based on geographic location—but it’s a safe bet that you can factor in at least a few hundred dollars a month for just the space, and at least a thousand for lights. That’s not including the backdrop stand, multiple backdrop options ($50-$200 each), backdrop floors ($100+), and of course, props.

When all the equipment gets added up, the typical photographer puts about half of their income back into equipment costs and repairs so that takes that hourly wage down again from $26/hr to $13/hr! A far cry from the $250 we started with.

Small Business Expenses

Don’t forget… that photographer is running a small business. And, that comes with all the expenses involved including insurance for the gear, liability insurance, our own health insurance, sales tax, self-employed income tax, and so much more. Just like that hair stylist or your accountant, we have to take care of all the business related expenses.

Photography also has seasons meaning we don’t always have work all year round. There’s specific wedding seasons…. Ideal times for outdoor portraits due to weather constraints… in other words, one month we are booked solid and other months we wish we had work.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line? The photographer that you thought was making $250/hour, after expenses probably makes closer $15/hour. That’s less than many entry level office positions! So, the next time you book with a professional photographer, consider all the work you don’t see that goes into the piece of art hanging on your wall or proudly displayed in that custom photo album created by your photographer.

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