I don’t do much “writing” on this blog, but I would like to address an issue that I hear about a lot.  I am not pursuing a full-time career in photography at this time because my priorities lie elsewhere, but I honor and respect those photographers who need to make a living at it, and doing the work I do, I know that photography is hard work.  With that in mind…

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I have heard various opinions about the cost of professional photography.  I’ve met people who know photographers and ask them to work for free.  These are not customers but well-meaning friends and commenters on various online forums.

It’s strange to me how people will spend countless dollars on material items that will eventually be cast aside, but when it comes this family heirloom, they expect free or cheap.  Good photographs are a family heirloom….  What will you keep with you for the rest of your life and pass on to future generations? 

In this digital age, it’s easy to see why people think they shouldn’t have to pay for a photograph.  Photos are everywhere, they can be a swapped or stolen easily, cameras are inexpensive, and almost everyone has a computer and a photo-processing program.  Everyone can make a good photo, right?  Why do you have to pay a so-called professional?

Consider this story that someone told me once.  I don’t know if it’s fact or fiction, but the meaning holds truth:

Picasso was sitting at a table outside a Paris cafe. A woman came up to him and asked him to sketch her. He complied. After five minutes he finished. The woman asked what she owed him for the sketch. He said the equivalent $5,000. Aghast the woman said — “but it only took you five minutes!” Picasso replied — “No Madam, it took me my whole life.”

While I agree that almost everyone has the tools available to make good photographs, and not all “so-called professionals” are very good at their craft, I don’t agree that photography has become an easy-do-it profession or hobby.  Good photographers spend countless hours honing their craft, studying and supporting other photographers, and they don’t stop learning.  (I know I’m still learning, and it’s a pleasure to do so.)  Add to this the time, knowledge and cost of running a viable business, and you’ve got someone who deserves to be paid for his or her expertise.

Someone told me once, “You really don’t have to take a good photo anymore.”  What she meant was that she could “fix it” during post processing.  I’ve heard other people say, “Well, she’s got an expensive camera.”  As if it’s the camera taking the photo and not the photographer.

I beg to differ.  It’s true that photographers will manipulate their photographs during processing.  Many people mention how Ansel Adams did this in the dark room, and that’s true.  But you have to start with a good photo.  A poorly exposed photograph might be “fixed up,” but it’s doubtful that it will make a superior image or print.

In addition to this, while everyone can take a great photograph once in a while, a good photographer gets good results continuously.  The better the photograph, the less time it will take to process it, which saves time and money for the photographer.  If a photographer spends several minutes on every photo in a big photo shoot, I doubt he will make a good living.

But having said that, photographers also spend a lot of time learning about the tools to assist them.  Whether it’s a photo program, a camera, lenses, accessories, or vendors who can help them achieve quality results, there’s a lot that photographers need to be aware of and able to make use of.

The most important thing a photographer needs to learn about is light.  People who think that the “better” camera is solely responsible for a good photograph know nothing about light or how to use it.  If you undertake a serious study of photography, you will begin to see the world differently even when you don’t have your camera with you.

There’s a lot more you are paying for when you hire a photographer, but I wager one of the most important things to you, as a customer, is relationship.  A good photographer will want to know about you.  They’ll enjoy talking to you and getting to know your personality.  From this knowledge, they’ll be able to take a unique image depicting your individuality and the era of your life.  This is what you want.  Photographs are sacred because they record your history.  Compare a stock portrait of a child from a “chain store” with a stock pose and sterile backdrop to a photograph of that same child in her house, playing with her toys or perhaps with her pet dog licking her face.

There’s a lot more to record than just your face.  Good photographers tell a story.

To wrap up, I’m giving you my bullet list of what those extra dollars are paying for. You may think you’re only paying for a photo shoot or the photographer’s equipment, but the photographer has to do much more:

  • Years of ongoing study: learning technique and keeping up with new technology and trends
  • Preparation for a shoot: contract, model release form, battery pack, equipment clean & ready to use
  • Travel and time: how far is the photographer traveling to and from the photo shoot? Does he need to figure out directions & pack his lunch?
  • Their creative vision: no two photographers will take the same photograph of the same object.
  • Relationship – images that tell a story: the photographer will need to speak, interact, pose, instill enthusiasm
  • A personal encounter in a place that holds meaning for you or perhaps a studio that offers more than an austere backdrop: has the photographer spent time getting to know worthy locations before you even meet?
  • Sweat!  Photo shoots are physically demanding!
  • Post processing: the real work!
  • Follow-up: Displaying photographs, taking orders, sending out thank you notes, taking more orders, filing images and paperwork.
  • Do they have a website they maintain or offer you a personal gallery to view?  None of this is free to the photographer.
  • Photo equipment and a good working knowledge of how to use them in various situations.
  • A knowledge of the best vendors so that they can deliver the best product to you. Photographers know the inside scoop. Print quality matters.

Of course, good photography is in the eye of the beholder.  If you choose to hire a professional photographer, you need to look at their portfolio to see if they create images you love.  You also need to find out if their work ethic and personality suits your tastes.

And please, if someone offers to take your photographs for free, please give him or her a heartfelt thank you.  Whether they’re an expert or amateur, chances are, they have put a lot of time into your images.

Are you a photographer?  What would you add to this list?