I recently got an email from a client and it made me realize that a lot of people (both consumers and those thinking about getting into photography) don’t really understand everything that is involved in running a photography business. Unfortunately, shoot and burn photographers have conditioned clients to expect a disc of images with their session. However, that business model isn’t for everyone, especially those who are focused on running a long-term successful portrait photography business. So, I thought this would be a good opportunity to educate people on everything that is involved with running a legal, legitimate photography business and why my pet photography business is structured the way that it is since it is a question I am asked often, especially by new photographers in the industry.
The email I received said simply this:
So for the $200 we really only get to view the photo gallery and if we want any sort of print it has to be ordered through you? Just curious because our engagement/wedding photos we got digital rights to in order to order prints and use as gifts.
It would have been really easy for me to go on the defensive here, but I realized that this was actually a very legitimate question. I guess what it boils down to is that every photographer runs their business differently and there’s no right or wrong way to do it (unless you aren’t doing it legally… then that IS wrong). There are plenty of ways to cut costs within your business plan and, realistically, that’s the only way that some photographers can stay in business because they charge such low prices for their services. I’m not here to judge photographers who are running a high-volume shoot and burn business because that is certainly one way to do it. Some people love the rush of shooting all the time and just handing their clients a disc of images after the session. It’s a very cut + dry business plan that many photographers (and clients) love, so kudos to them for making it work! But it’s important to remember that just because some photographers run their business like that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it and it certainly doesn’t mean that every photographer is going to be willing to hand over a disc of images for cheap.
Generally speaking, a professional photographer has a ton of expenses associated with running a legitimate business that most people don’t realize. I mean, even I had no idea before I started my photography business! The costs of running a small business really do add up and that is why a professional custom photographer who is doing things legally has to charge more for their services than those who are not.
There is a misconception out there that professional photographers are mega rich and they lead a rock star life. Trust me, we’re not and we don’t. Personally, I’m living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to make ends meet. I am always worried about money because it’s just so inconsistent and you never know when the next job will come along. Even the most successful photographers have plenty of business expenses, taxes, and bills to pay at the end of the day. The money a client pays for the session and prints is definitely not all profit. So let’s begin with the start-up expenses you incur when you first start your business. I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the big ones I can remember.
To start a photography business, there are a ton of expenses that are associated with getting your photography business off the ground. Those include:
- Business License – registering as a Sole Proprietor, LLC, Corporation, etc. usually has a licensing fee of $100+; some states (like South Carolina) require business licenses in every city or county you conduct business in. That’s an additional $50-100+ per location, which really adds up!
- Insurance – one year’s worth of property + liability insurance will run anywhere between $400-600+
- Website – if you opt for a template website, the cost can run anywhere between $100-300; if you opt for a custom designed website, it can cost anywhere between $500-2000+
- Blog – a ProPhoto blog template costs $280 for the basic setup; a custom blog template or custom blog design can run anywhere between $100-1000+
- Hosting + Domain for Website – domains cost roughly $20/year and hosting runs around $110/year
- Sales Tax License – retail licenses can cost anywhere between $50-100+
- Gear – you will need a primary camera body, a backup camera body, 2-3 professional quality lenses, a reliable gear bag, cleaning equipment, flashes, media cards, batteries, lighting equipment, studio equipment, props… this stuff really adds up and can easily total between $1000-5000+ when you’re just starting out and can build to over $10,000 over the years
- Computer – you will need a dedicated business computer that is fast enough to run editing software; this can cost upwards of $1500
- Editing Software – Adobe Photoshop Lightroom costs $150 and Adobe Photoshop costs $700 to give you a starting point for the two most popular programs; and of course, Adobe comes out with an upgrade to Lightroom + Photoshop every two years or so, so you are continuously investing in the latest + greatest software every 2 years (give or take)
- Data Storage – external storage, a RAID system, and/or cloud storage for digital file backup can cost anywhere from $250-2000+ and this is an ongoing expense that all photographers must invest in every year to ensure that their clients’ images are safely backed up in case of a hard drive failure
- Legal + Financial Help – you will need a lawyer to help draft your contracts + a CPA to file your taxes, unless you’re lucky enough to know someone that will do this for free. This can cost anywhere between $400-700+ per professional
- Logo/Branding – basic logos and branding can be done cheaply or for free if you do it yourself; custom logo design and branding starts around $1000+. It is always recommended to invest in professional branding to help make your business feel more professional + legitimate
- Marketing Collateral – business cards, post cards, referral cards, flyers, etc. can start around $200+ when you’re just starting out
- Marketing Expenses – paying for online or print ads can range anywhere from $30-150/month depending on where you choose to advertise
- Education – online courses, in-person workshops, books, forum membership, professional organization membership, and magazine subscriptions can easily tally $200-3000+
These are just the things you need to start your business off on the right foot. If you add everything up, that can easily total thousands of dollars in start-up expenses. Then you’ve got to factor in other expenses related to growing your business during the first year. Those include:
- Product samples – as you start booking clients, you will want sample products to show them. These can run anywhere from $200-1000+ depending on what you offer and how many samples you order
- Packaging – tissue paper, folders, boxes, bags, note cards, ribbon, stickers… packaging can easily run $200+ if you buy in bulk. Luckily it should last you a while
Unfortunately, those expenses don’t go away. Each year, professional photographers invest money back into their business so they can keep up with the latest industry trends and provide their clients with the highest level of service. The big ticket items, like camera bodies, lenses, and computers will generally last a few years if they are maintained properly, but the other expenses are yearly or monthly and they really add up!
Beyond that, there is the time involved. Photographers spend countless hours building and starting their photography business. I have no idea what the total amount of hours would be for myself if I added them all up, but I am sure it is an obscene number that would make me want to crawl into a corner and cry. But I spent that time on this because I love what I do and I’m serious about running a successful business. You have to put in the time to make it in this industry.
Portrait photographers also spend a lot of time investing in their clients because their business model is based around relationships and the client experience. Here is an estimation of the amount of time a professional boutique portrait photographer spends on a typical client:
- 1-5 hours on preparation, which includes email communication, booking, paperwork, pre-session consultations, location scouting and all of the administrative tasks associated with seeing an inquiry through to booking
- 2-4 hours shooting, including travel time to and from the location(s)
- 2-10 hours editing a session, which includes uploading files, culling images, file backup, Lightroom editing, Photoshop editing, preparing images for different types of production like Facebook, blogging, high resolution images, and gallery upload
- 5-10+ hours on other tasks, which includes post-session communication, gallery maintenance, ordering sessions, preparing images for client orders, packaging client orders, delivering prints + products to clients, submitting images for publication, preparing Facebook sneak peeks, blogging, social media management, etc.
That’s 10-29 hours per client that a photographer is investing in! It’s really amazing when you think about it. Only around 20% of the time is actually spent behind the camera shooting. How rock star is that?
It’s also important to remember that full-time photographers do not get sick days, paid vacation or holidays. They do not get health insurance or benefits either. They pay for that themselves. Glamorous? Not so much.
Oh and I forgot to mention that 30-40% of the profit from any given session goes directly to pay for self-employment and income taxes at the end of the year. *Sigh*
So in order for me to maintain a sustainable, successful photography business, I have to charge a session fee upfront and I rely on back end sales to make a profit. That $200 session fee really only pays for my time and the business expenses related to the session. If I included a disc of images in that price, I’d go out of business in no time because I’d be making absolutely NO money from the session and there would be no incentive for anyone to purchase prints or products from me when they have the digital files already. Boutique portrait photographers, like myself, have to structure their businesses differently than event (wedding) photographers, so you really can’t compare our businesses because they are so drastically different. Wedding photographers can afford to include the disc of images in their packages because they are able to charge so much more upfront and don’t rely on back end sales to survive. That’s why portrait photographers’ digital files cost so much more than event photographers, or those who chose to run a shoot and burn photography business. Their business models are just so different.
I think it’s important for clients to understand their photographer’s pricing upfront, before booking a session with them, so that there are no surprises when it comes time to order. That is why I list starting prices on my website, in an effort to pre-qualify clients ahead of time. I also always send my full pricing guide to clients before they book a session because I want them to see what I offer and understand what their total investment will look like before moving forward. Like most photographers, I hate having to talk money with clients, so I’m always 100% upfront with them and hope they take the time to read through my information and pricing guide before booking me.
Photographers are small business owners and have a LOVE for photography, but please remember that LOVE won’t pay the bills. Please understand that we’re just trying to make a living and not trying to be difficult. Photographers work so hard for so little because we honestly love what we do and we love our clients. We invest so much time into our business + our clients, but we need our clients to invest in us as well.
This holiday season, I ask you to please support your local small businesses. Not just photographers, but all local small businesses. Regardless of the industry, we’re all pursuing our dream and we appreciate every single client who values what we do. Small business owners couldn’t do it without support from their local communities and I know that I am especially grateful for every single client, Facebook fan, and blog follower I have. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to live my dream and I hope this post helps people understand a little more about my business + what is involved in running a successful pet photography business!