The cost of doing business as a professional photographer…

Adrianne Killin

Another delightful (and favorite!) model; Adrianne Killin helping with a lighting test.

Lately I have had some interesting conversations when I’m at various business and networking events. After exchanging the usual pleasantries and asking the person that I’m talking with about what they do, invariably (at least most of the time!) the other person will ask me what I do for a living. I like to answer that I’m a problem solver for my clients and that I help make them and their product or service look their best. I do this through my photographic services and knowledge base.

The first question I’m asked is about what camera gear I use. I have found that the answer I give can have a polarizing effect, from “Oh, yes, those cameras are the best and they take great pictures!”, to “How come you don’t use a XXXXX camera? My dad / Mr. Professional / I used to have (you can fill in the blank) always uses an XXXXX and they take the BEST pictures!” The conversation can sometimes take a turn for the worst; with the other person deciding they will tell me what’s wrong with my gear and why brand XXXXX is so much better. What fun!

The second question I get, is why professional photography is so expensive (in their mind)? To them, a camera and a few lenses from Costco or Best Buy and we’re in business! Yes, it’s true, expensive gear a photographer does not make. But the gear we use are tools, just like any other professional. Most top end mechanics use Snap-on, SK or another top of the line tool set. They invest in their craft because they want to be able to do the job without having tool failures and when there is a failure the tool is guaranteed for life and is replaced. Unfortunately, even though we invest in the top of the line professional gear, it is not warranted for life (not even close). So we invest in servicing said gear. A shooting pro can invest tens of thousands of dollars in camera bodies, only to have them wear out or become obsolete in only a few years. At least lenses have a longer life span.

Professional lighting, lighting modifiers, grip (light stands, booms & support), camera supports (tripods, monopods, studio stands) and computers and their software all cost money. And speaking of computers and software, there is always another upgrade waiting in the wings thanks to planned obsolescence. There are things like memory cards, batteries, radio remotes and a whole host of other necessities for day to day photographic capture and production. What about utilities? Power, phone and internet access come to mind. Commercial versions of these cost considerably more than their household counterparts. What about the lease cost for a space? Travel costs, even when in town, like fuel, parking, etc.?

Then we get to the things that most people forget about; insurances, licenses, professional memberships, accountant and attorney. What about marketing and advertising? All of these things add up, and are not much different from any other “professional” business. So why do people think we as photographers should do our livelihood for cheap? Don’t we deserve to put a roof over our head? Send a child to school? Pay for health insurance? Take a vacation? But I digress…

Just the other day I wound up sending in a couple of camera bodies, a lens, two small flashes and a battery grip all for servicing. Thankfully the team at CPS (Canon Professional Services) takes really good care of me! They sent me out loaner gear and covered all of the FedEx shipping both ways, had my gear all repaired within a week and with our Platinum membership it all cost me less than a thousand dollars. Again, one more example of the cost of doing business, and a place I recommend not skimping!

I guess all this is to say, running a professional business or any business for that matter, has expenses and if that business is a specialty it can get quite expensive. Maybe take a look at it from the standpoint that you are investing in great photography rather than the cost of the service, and that way we professional photographers may invest in your product or service too!

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My professional photography support group

A funny thing happened to me the other day. I had been at a SCORE business workshop (for us creative types, something I highly advise going to!), wanting to energize my business brain. The speaker mentioned how businesses should make it a point to use images unique to their own company. While she was speaking about not using stock images (as everyone has the same image, what sets you apart?) I was nodding my head in agreement. And then she said something that stuck in my brain; “Don’t steal images to use on your website and marketing materials.” It got me to wonder, as I am a long time professional photographer, if anyone had stolen my images to use on their site in the digital age.

So I decided to do a rudimentary search using Google, and low and behold found a batch of wedding images I had done for a client / friend a few years back. The problem was they were showcased on another photographer’s blog, with their watermark, and some bad editing, and a statement telling her reading public that I had given my client the images without editing them. That she “had come to the rescue!” and had just finished these wonderful “edits” for them. I felt like I had been kicked between the legs and slightly nauseated. Who was this person I had never heard of telling people that I wasn’t professional enough to finish the images before presenting them to my client. That hurt. (The client had been given finished files plus an archive of the RAW images for safekeeping at their request.)

Enter the calm, cool, collective thoughts I had; Why, I’ll sue! I’ll make a scene! I’ll call Professional Photographers of America! Copyright infringement! Argh! Sputter….

Maybe before I fly off the handle, I should get another perspective on this. I belong to a great group of photographers located in beautiful Charleston SC. So I thought I would put the question to them, especially since my friend and fellow pro Chris Smith had just posted yesterday about image theft. I made it a point to make screen captures of the offending site, just in case.

What I got in response was amazing! Within minutes there was an outpouring of support from my fellow professional photographers, with many recommendations on how to proceed. I decided to start by requesting the offending photographer remove the post with my images that they had post-processed and added their watermark. I dug around and also found their phone number and proceeded to call. Without going into all the details, let’s just say the first call wasn’t as fulfilling as I had hoped, with a rather curt response, no apology and finally an agreement that they would take down the post. Well, I thought, at least that (post removal) is done. Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. It was the photographer, sounding a little nicer this time. I actually think I got an apology, in between the justifications for why it was done.

Two things came from this for me. The first was that we should all remain diligent in protecting our intellectual property and company reputation. Yes it is a little time consuming, but know when these things happen and dealing with them quickly and efficiently is key.

The second was much more meaningful for me. The power of support and friendship from my peers in a tough industry that has such a profound impact on my wellbeing, that it actually put me in a much better space which carried over into the rest of my day! Sometimes we don’t realize how many people we have out there willing to take up the charge for us or cover our back. How do you even put a value on that? Pretty cool, indeed!

B&W Photography

The least desirable position on a WWII B17G heavy bomber was the underbelly ball turret. Only one way in and one way out, so if the ball should jamb in another position, the hatch could not be operated. Part of my Black & White Photo Challenge series.

Next week, The ProActive Photographer; Why I love being the second shooter at weddings.

Safe journey!