Photographers Are Like Handbags ~ A Guide To Professional Photography Costs ~ Austin TX Family & Newborn Photographer

Recently I read a comment on a Facebook mom’s group page that really bothered me. The comment led to a good discussion in which a lot of people became a bit more educated about photography pricing (which was awesome!), but I’ll never forget that original comment and how it made my blood boil for a second (haha). The person was responding to a post about typical pricing for a one-year-old birthday session (someone asked what she should expect to pay when hiring a photographer), and the commenter said in regards to anyone who charges more than $200: “I don’t care what kind of magic you work behind the camera I think it’s exploiting people who just want to have a memory preserved into shelling out a ton of money… If you love photography and make it your life’s work, that’s fine do it because you love it but it shouldn’t be something that makes you rich.”

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NOW WAIT JUST A MINUTE. *climbs up on soap box and clears throat loudly.*

What bothered me most about the comment was the bit about exploitation, of course, and the suggestion that a photographer should not become profitable or “rich” off their craft. I think most sensible people would understand why this is so silly to say, but if you side with the commenter, I would ask you this: who decides which professional field deserves the potential for prosperity? If you personally cannot afford or do not value a certain service, should that mean the artist or professional does not deserve to be prosperous, or should you resent them if they are?

I like to use the analogy that photographers are like handbags. Actually, almost all businesses or brands are like handbags (car companies, restaurants, gyms, clothing brands, baby gear, home decor brands, etc). You have options in nearly every price range, and you choose which works best for you based on how much you value the Thing Being Sold, what kind of experience you want, and what your own budget or economic situation allows. You can go into any Target store and easily spend about $30-50 on a handbag that will be stylish and functional, even though it won’t be made from the same high quality materials that, say, a Kate Spade bag or a Michael Kors bag is made of. It won’t make the same type of statement a Louis Vuitton or Prada bag would make, and you also won’t have the same type of shopping experience you would at a boutique brand. But that Target bag might be all you want, need, or can afford.

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I personally do not value brand name handbags even though I technically could afford one, so you will never see me carrying around a Louis Vuitton. But I understand why some people like them because I understand psychology and economics, to an extent. And I have to take off my hat to the luxury brands that have set themselves apart as leaders in their industry - these brands are typically offering the highest quality, best experience for the consumer, and also (perhaps most importantly) the best “perceived value” which matters a ton to the types of people who buy from these brands. The actual cost of goods for a Louis Vuitton is likely not near so high as the $2000 price tag for the bag, but there is intrinsic value, to many people, in a name. A name that has been vouched for, is seen advertised in high fashion magazines, is associated with prosperity or fine taste. Brands like this also have hidden expenses you don’t see, like said advertising in high fashion magazines or property costs in the most desirable areas of a city. In the end they probably aren’t making as much as you think off one sale, but luxury businesses, if they’re doing it right, are surely doing just fine for themselves and part of this has to do with the quality over quantity model. Target has to pump out and sell fifty handbags at $40 each to reach the same gross sale as one $2k Louis V. It’s not to say that there wasn’t an immense amount of work to build a reputation behind the $2k price tag, but most folks, if given the choice, would prefer to be the guy who sells one bag for $2000 versus the guy who has to sell fifty to reach that number.

The fact of the matter is, we need both kinds of offerings in any economy, and both are wonderful and valuable. A $500 or $1000 or $2000 dollar handbag might sound heinous to you based on your budget or value system (raises hand), but you most certainly make purchases that someone else in a different circumstance would find unreasonable. (Also, you can totally use this argument with your significant other if they disagree with you on what should be spent on a photography session or whatever it is in question: VALUES. They most likely value and would be willing to shell out the big bucks for certain things that you wouldn’t, so it’s all quite arbitrary and financial decisions in any household require a bit of compromise).

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On that note, folks in any business often see posts on neighborhood Facebook pages, mom groups, etc from consumers looking to hire "a reasonably priced ___X___” or an X that doesn’t charge “an arm and a leg.” These posts are interesting to me because, like I just mentioned, what’s “reasonable” to one person might be completely out of budget for another, so it would be much more helpful to post your actual budget with these inquiries, which is less subjective. But I’ve learned to keep on movin’ when I see those comments versus get huffy at the perceived slight of being called “unreasonable” if my pricing is outside someone’s budget for photography.

I could go on quite a bit more about exactly what you’re paying for when you hire a photographer, but I’ll wrap up by saying you can reasonably assume that there is much, much more behind the scenes to any profession than you understand. I’ll leave a general breakdown below for anyone interested in a photographer’s costs. What I didn’t mention below is perhaps most important, though: TIME & EXPERIENCE. You are not just paying for that photographer’s time on the day of your shoot, and their behind the scenes time editing and communicating with you. You are paying for the YEARS. The years of trial and error and honing a craft to a place where you can be confident in the final product you will receive.


I’ll conclude with a short story: I still vividly remember a conversation I had with a newborn client in my first year in business - the mom mentioned their old family photographer raised her prices and they could no longer afford her, and I replied by saying I always wanted to remain affordable and accessible to people. At the time I charged $150 or maybe $200 a session, and now my newborn sessions are quadruple that. I never did see that family again for photography because I had learned quickly that my pricing model was not sustainable and did not support the type of reputation I wanted in the business, so my prices were not so low for long. But I was available to that family at that time at their price range, and there are ALWAYS newer photographers or hobbyists you can find who will be willing to do a job for less than the bigger, well established names. Often you will sacrifice safety or quality by hiring someone less experienced or who doesn’t take the job as seriously, but many times you will do just fine and the work may meet your needs. Do your research, and hold up what you value against what you can afford. See where you end up. And above all, be a kind champion for small business owners doing their best- wish them success and prosperity, even if you don’t support them with your dollar bills. :)

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  • Approximately 30% right off the top or any session or sale POOF goes away for sales tax and income tax

  • Studio costs (if the photographer has a commercial studio, these costs can be quite high, like a second mortgage).

  • Equipment costs
    - usually a pro photographer has two camera bodies (one in case the first one fails in the middle of your wedding or newborn shoot, etc) and usually each camera body costs between $2000 and $4000 if they are using the best gear. Lenses are a separate expense - my current 5 lenses total about $4500.
    - memory cards and batteries (my current collection is valued around $500, and you have to replace them periodically)
    -lighting equipment for certain studios, backdrops (a few more thousand)

  • Supplies & Shipping: packaging, USBs etc, mailing costs, studio wardrobe or props (a few more thousand annually)

  • Advertising (budgets for this vary but I currently spend $3600 a year for Google Adwords)

  • Subscriptions: Website hosts, photo storage sites, business tools like 17 Hats for contracts, etc - annually I spend about $1000 on these

  • Venue fees if the photographer holds sessions at certain indoor locations (last year I paid about $2500 for various vendor and venue fees for mini session events)

  • Mileage/gas

  • Business insurance

  • Assistant/employee pay in some cases

  • CPA fees

Bottom line, a professional photographer is running a legit, licensed and insured business with many costs you don’t understand if you’re not in the business. Each professional in any industry, and particularly an entrepreneur, will have to at some point sit down and look at their Cost Of Doing Business, their time commitment, their own personal expenses and the type of profit they need to make ends meet and, YES, THRIVE! :)


Jenni lives and works in Austin TX and specializes in Family & Newborn/Baby Photography. Click here for the J. Noel Photography Portfolio.