Honestly, We Are All Overpriced Photographers

Honestly, We Are All Overpriced Photographers

Allow me to be the first to ask the question. Are we really worth it? Now, don’t get me wrong. I come from an economics background. I understand price equilibrium. Pour me a large blonde roast with cream, and whisper me sweet nothings about Adam Smith all day. Leave all that behind for a second. I’m talking on a more philosophical level. Are we really worth the money we charge?

Speaking of Adam Smith, take a moment to read the Wiki on the Paradox of Value (aka the diamond-water paradox). Water is absolutely imperative to the literal survival of our species, yet it demands an astonishingly low premium when compared to something like diamonds.

The average wage for an elementary school teacher in the United States is $43,544. In my case, that’s about 12 weddings. At nine weddings I’ve earned a firefighter’s salary. At 15 I’m out-earning most police officers. The bank teller who helps me organize my finances? Eight weddings. How about the friendly face who delivers my mail? You’ve heard the creed, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat…” That’s about 14 weddings, give-or-take.

I even out-earn the mayor of my town after 38 weddings.

My point is that we have a tendency to lose sight of ourselves when we’re in the bubble of photography. My entire life is one giant Paradox of Value. Think about it. What a strange world we live in when a man with a camera and a $15 haircut is valued (at least in terms of income) more than someone in a police cruiser, fire truck, ambulance, classroom, or triage unit.

Pricing is an odd thing — we stress over it, lose sleep over it, argue about it, and watch tutorials on it. We get upset when other photographers “undercharge,” and then get jealous when others charge more. My off-season is coming to an end. Soon, it will be June. The sun will be hot, I’ll be back-to-back-to-back every weekend with weddings, and it might not be so easy to take stock of where I am.

So I’m doing it now. Taking a moment to realize just how lucky I am to take pictures for a living. Yes, there are days when it’s hard. When I’m squeezing in a sunrise engagement shoot before heading out for a 12 hour wedding contract. When I have three meetings with potential clients, but I have to get four albums out for print to hit my deadline. When it pours on the wedding day, the bride is 90 minutes late, and the mother of the groom pulls out her wedding album and starts asking me to recreate her favorites.

Despite all that, a lot of us, across all the many disciplines that exist in this medium of photography (not just weddings), could be well-served to take stock of just how wonderful and fulfilling a life behind-the-lens can be. So when it gets noisy again, when the muted, muffled notes of the off-season are long faded, I’m going to be mindful of my place in this hectic, and artistic endeavor. I’ll try and remember to be thankful that I get to make my living doing this, and not get swept up in the chaos that exists inside this bubble.

Am I worth what I charge? Are any of us?

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49 Comments

Adrian Lyons's picture

Hmm, where to start. I totally agree that we are all lucky to be able to do what we do and make a living off of it. But I must disagree with the statement of being overpaid. What we do are preserve memories and to our clients, those memories are priceless (if we are good at our job and do our job right). It comes down to the same thing for any profession. Skill and talent. I'm sure you heard the story of the handyman...

"Nikola Tesla visited Henry Ford at his factory, which was having some kind of difficulty. Ford asked Tesla if he could help identify the problem area. Tesla walked up to a wall of boilerplate and made a small X in chalk on one of the plates. Ford was thrilled, and told him to send an invoice.

The bill arrived, for $10,000. Ford asked for a breakdown. Tesla sent another invoice, indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with an X, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it."

Why are lawyers paid $200, $300 or $400 per hour? Because they know how to do something that we don't.

Another point, running a business is friggin expensive!!! There's rent (if you have a studio), insurance, equipment costs $$$!!$!$!. Transportation to and from on-site shoots, staff costs and on and on. Providers, once they hear it's for business use, double their fees such as in insurance or studio leases. I haven't even touched on family life expenses yet. I don't know about you but I like to eat food and occasionally watch a tv show.

I currently shoot out of my home and charge a nominal fee for headshots. But about 50% of inquiries are shocked at the price saying it's more than they are willing to spend. A price that I will need to almost double if I have any hopes of moving to a dedicated studio space. But that's just how much things need to cost in order to be in business and make a living.

Markus G's picture

Thanks for the comment, Adrian. The point of my article was not to really try an assign a value to what we do, but to make the argument that we should all be very happy that there even is a value. How many creative people out there are really good at painting, sculpting, or drawing and never make a dime off of their art?

While money isn't always the driving force behind being creative, those of us who are lucky enough to do it should probably take some time to reflect on that.

Great story about Tesla. Cheers!

Janis Lionel's picture

Well, they make art! Shooting weddings isn't art! Of course it can be more or less artistic but mostly you are a service provider not an artist.

Jim Chung's picture

Eric,you are a brave man! And I was about to unsubscribe to Fstoppers which keeps dumping unworthy postings on my phone until I read yours. I don't think you're overpaid, I think society needs to value those other profession more and pay them more equitably. In fact politicans are likely underpaid ... because how can you attract people of quality to those positions if compensation is so unattractive. You end up with uninspiring, marginally competent candidates fulfilling an extremely critical role in society - to society's detriment.

Markus G's picture

Well I (we) certainly don't want you to stop following Fstoppers. There is a lot of great content on this site. Yes, there are lots of gear reviews and tech stuff, but those are important too. I decided to try and write about the things I'm passionate about, but there are lots of people who think my articles are crap! haha.

Thanks for the comment and the read. Cheers.

LA M's picture

Thanks for sticking your neck out there....

NO opinion on your article yet but ask yourself this....do lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc write articles about why they ask for the payments for services?

Maybe we should take a note or two out of their playbook.

Daris Fox's picture

They do, just in their own journals that most people don't see ;)

Anonymous's picture

If this were a philosophy blog, it would be an interesting question.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Foucault-Stoppers

Jim Chung's picture

My first thought was Leon Foucault, not Michel.

Markus G's picture

Thanks for the response, Patrick.

I think my article was aimed not at asking the actual question of "Am I worth it?" But rather to ask other photographers as a whole to at least look at their place in this world.

A few articles into my tenure at Fstoppers and I've received nearly a dozen anonymous emails from various photographers telling me everything from how poor of a writer I am, to how I should consider both quitting photography and hanging myself!

So the message I want to put out into the world is a philosophical one. There are plenty of gear reviews to read, and I read most of them. But I'm challenging my peers to rethink the old standard and push themselves into asking more of themselves.

But why is it such a surprise that someone who makes his living as an artist wants to ask a philosophical question about the value of that endeavor?

The bottom line is we are worth what the market tells is. My market tells me that most people are willing to pay me a good wage to shoot their wedding. My question is why does the market tell me that? Not from an X's and O's standpoint... but bigger than that. Why?

Is it fair a 17 year old kid with a YouTube channel makes more money than every teacher from his high school combined?

There really is no answer... but I truly love asking the question. Cheers!

Anonymous's picture

I apologize for the terse comment. It IS an interesting question and one we should ask ourselves, both philosophically and practically. The problem with posing it is, it invites responses that attempt to answer it for others rather than each individual for themselves.

As an aside (please don't flame me), I think the title "artist" is kind of like "Master" or "Expert". You can apply it to someone else but not to yourself. JMO

Markus G's picture

No apology necessary. I like what you're saying about the word Artist. I'm going to replace that with "creative professional" from here on out.

Thanks for the read!

Jim Chung's picture

I'll take some heat off Eric. I'm a dentist and I do feel we often charge exorbitant fees for some procedures. I'm also Canadian which means because of high dental costs, dentistry is not part of our universal health care as it is in some European nations. I would be in favor of a fee adjustment if this was the reality that would allow universal dental health care but others would fight tooth and nail. In the end we would all benefit because society benefits. It's not some esoteric philosophical mind puzzle, it's a real problem as 21st century society confronts all the ills of income inequality.

Anonymous's picture

Universal health or dental care is only as good as the quality of that care. Less money could result in inferior care. From your tone, I think that wouldn't be the case with you but others...?
In the same way, if all photographers charged similar, lesser fees, I think in a lot of cases the quality of the resulting photos would also decrease.
Not in all cases but...

Like it or not, income inequality has always been the case and isn't going to change. Ever!

Aivaras G.'s picture

Professional photographers are not overpriced. At least in most cases. The problem is that teachers, doctors, firefighters, policemen are not paid enough.

Markus G's picture

Agreed

J J's picture

How much is any consultant worth? How much is any art worth? It's not a commodity. There is a higher level of risk. Also - most photographers fail to make much money.

Markus G's picture

Thanks for the comment. Maybe I'm assuming more people are doing this for a living than is reality. A little touch of the Survivorship Bias: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias

Andrew Ashley's picture

Pay is an esoteric concept based on the value one believes they are providing, and the value their customers believe they deliver. That is the free market system. Politicians, Police, Fire, get their salaries set by a conflicted constituent that knows they need these people, but are loath to see their taxes increase by any amount. Being the economist you should know, you are worth whatever someone is willing to pay you to provide your service. Customer A may be will to pay you X, Customer B may be willing to pay you 3X, maybe it's because of their image of the industry or experience in the past or where they grew up or just how much they like your images? By setting a price we are telling the world that is what I believe my worth to be, which is why we hate it when people low ball, "Are you saying I am worth less you vile fiend?!?!" But equally distressed when we price ourselves too high and we have no customers, "Maybe it's me? Maybe I'm not worth it? I suck." When in reality it often has more to do with outside forces and your perceived value based on your market and targeted customers. Want more money? Target businesses with larger budgets who value images, and move to a market where things are more expensive in general. Go free market economy! Yea?

Markus G's picture

Thanks for the response, Andrew! If you haven't yet, check out a book called the Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. You sound like someone who might enjoy it. It touches on all the wonderful, beautiful reasons that a free market is the only market.

My post above is written from about 50,000 feet (to use a cliche). But there are few people who believe stronger in a true free market than me. Check it out, you'll probably like it. Cheers.

Fred Glasser's picture

I don't know, Eric. Sure, a wedding photographer can leverage a client's perceived value of their work quite a bit in structuring their pricing & business model. But, as a commercial photography, I'm sometimes working for companies who make an obscene amount of money, leveraging the engagement created by my work. I'd submit that it's rather closely tied to the value I create for them. I get your premise, and you're not wrong. I'd just say this doesn't apply across the board. When I get paid thousands for a company bringing in billions, I'm not feeling overpaid.

Markus G's picture

"When I get paid thousands for a company bringing in billions, I'm not feeling overpaid."

That's a great remark, and if I end up using that in a future article I will credit you. I think your comparison is different from what I was doing in my article. If someone has a $500,000 wedding, paying me 4k ultimately is a pretty small fraction of the total budget. I am sure the caterer isn't serving chicken that's truly worth $350 a plate.

My comparison was an attempt to value photography against the society we live in as a whole. I'm not sure if I succeeded in the comparison, but I do think I succeeded in generating the conversation. Thanks for the comment!

Fred Glasser's picture

Thanks Eric! Looking back, that quote didn’t come out too bad, I guess.


I definitely think you succeeded here overall. You generated a conversation and made some great points, all while taking on a challenging topic for sure. I may or may not have captured your point exactly, but at the end of the day, I think you were trying to say that a good dose of keeping things in perspective is warranted. We’re getting to do some really great things, while getting compensated fairly well. I think Zack Arias may have mentioned some friends saying that “We aren’t curing cancer with a camera.” and “The only job that cures cancer is the job that cures cancer.” It’s definitely something I’ve tried to keep in mind.

haha... For the record, if someone is serving chicken worth the $350 price tag, sign me up!

Larry McNiff's picture

Eric, I'm not sure you did all your homework. You're comparing you as a business versus others as employees. I'm assuming your comparison is just gross income in both cases. Let's take you and a fire fighter. The fire fighter has to probably pay union dues, some uniform expenses, transportation costs, etc. They work a 40 - 50 hour week in most cases, have some benefits such as holidays, medical benefits and paid time off, etc. Oh, and they voluntarily chose those fields knowing the salary structure just as you did.

Now let's look at you as a business. How much photographic equipment do you have to purchase? No union dues, but what about advertising, possibly studio space, business licenses, taxes, medical and liability insurance, business loans, training courses, books, albums, association dues, etc? Who pays for your vacation time and retirement plan? When you're on vacation is someone paying you a salary?

Sorry, you're comparing apples and oranges, but feel free to reduce your prices.

Markus G's picture

Hi Larry. Thanks for the comment. You make some great points. I thought it would be fun to attach values to your examples. I'm not doing this to prove you right or wrong, just an interesting experiment (maybe something I'll write on Fstoppers about in the future)

These are based on the calendar year 2016:
How much photographic equipment do you have to purchase? $18,500
but what about advertising: about 4k total
possibly studio space: based out of my home
business licenses: n/a
taxes: about 25k give or take
medical and liability insurance: about 15k total
business loans: none currently
training courses: $350 for a reception lighting course
books: too many to count
albums: about 18k
association dues: member of PPA - I think it's $250?
Who pays for your vacation time and retirement plan? Me! Maxed out my IRA and some other investments
When you're on vacation is someone paying you a salary? No

It was interesting to pull the real numbers.

Brad Barton's picture

I agree. This is an apples to oranges comparison.

You are not counting your pay against their pay. You are comparing gross income against their pay. For it to be a fair comparison, you need to take your net income and compare it... that's your income after all those expenses listed - plus your self employment taxes.

Only then can we discuss if your pay compares to theirs.

Charles Gaudreault's picture

ok so I did 7 weddings last summer and made less then a Mc donalds employe working minimum wadge :P maby thats why i dont live from my art lol !

Markus G's picture

Sounds like a case of over editing? Unless all of your wedding packages are 'unlimited' in hours. Most of my couples hire me for 8-10 hours, and that's enough coverage for about 99.9999% of weddings. I do sell an unlimited package, but it's cost prohibitive for a lot of people and unnecessary.

You can PM me if you want to have a more specific conversation on pricing. I'm planning an Fstoppers article on wedding pricing soon, but at the moment its like 10,000 words and is WAY too text heavy to be posted. I'll get it up soon though.

Alain Claveau's picture

For me a typical wedding of 12 hrs, ( I have done 93 so far ) is a total investment of at least 35 hrs. I sit with the couple for 2 hrs for the prep, i visit the venu beforehand.
The day before the wedding i prepare all my equipment, charging battery,formating the card etc etc.. The actual 12 hrs wedding ( without traveling time ), after the wedding culling, edit,etc. On top of that maintenance of equipment, replacing it, ,paying insurance, taxes... I would say we are not charging too much.

David William's picture

This argument is dumb. The marketplace decides if you're overpaid by whether or not you're being hired by paying customers. You're also not taking into account that what's charged for a wedding isn't pure profit. There are a TON of expenses associated with making it all come together for a successful shoot. SO many holes in the argument of this article. It's called supply and demand. As the demand for your photo services go up, the prices should go up too. The market decides what you're worth.

Peter von Reichenberg's picture

Eric, do you shoot weddings with your phone? I guess not. So how many grands did you (like we all) have to invest in your equipment before you even started to be paid? How much all the mentioned employees did have to spend with their equipment? Zero, because they are employees. And they are paid monthly. I had a socialist experiment in my country for 40 years - believe me, it doesn't work.
You mentioned stellar salary of some youtubers. Aside from the quility of the content they produce - they had some idea, they tried and they won. At least some of them. They are advertisement channel of today's times. Not paid by government, like policemen, firefighters or some teachers. And what about CEOs of banks or other big companies, for instance? You don't see them? Even if they bring the company into bankrupcy, they get their several millions as farewell. Their clever contracts say so.
So - if you feel to be overpriced, work for less. Your choice. The only point I totally agree with you is that we should be happy with our lives because we have the luck to do what we love - for living.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

Thank God there are people who want to serve and don't work 12 hour days just for the money. My wife is a teacher and lord knows they don't get paid enough. I have known several police officers and firefighters who loved their jobs and would not do anything else. Most of us probably started in photography not knowing if we would ever make a living at it. I started at age 13 because I fell in love with image making. I have been involved with photography/video for over 45 years and I have been lucky to do what I love.

David Moore's picture

How many exposure bucks = a teacher? lol

Jim Zafrani's picture

I see one of these articles coming at least once a year from every person in every profession where we are lucky enough to do what we love. I used to say the same thing when I was a computer contractor doing development. I couldn't believe that someone was willing to pay me my ridiculous hourly rate for something that I truly loved. But it is the wrong way to think because it causes you to start de-valuing (is that even a word?) yourself. You are worth what you charge because this is what you believe you are worth. The fact that you make more than a teacher does not make you more or less important. To the person paying your rate, you are worth it (and in some cases worth more) because of the specific value that you give to that person. Yes, teachers should be making more and they are very valuable to the community but a wedding photographer who catches that special moment between a bride and her father is as valuable. In some cases more than you think and later than you think. I can tell you that the wedding photographer who captured the photos with my wife and her father was worth every single cent but not at the wedding. Rather, it was a year later when her father passed away from cancer. What I am trying to say is that your worth isn't something that you should question. It is something that your clients will figure out for themselves years after you take their photos.

Artistic iQ's picture

CLICK BAIT... such a misleading title grrrrrr :/ I concur with everyone here and would add also "the time spent meeting with potential clients who DON'T move forward"... That's still time spent WORKING!! Also, the "time spent READING THIS ARTICLE (and others)" is still time spent WORKING... the time spent "NETWORKING" is time spent WORKING.

This was a waste of ALL of our individual and collective energy, time and thought processes. I'm only investing more time in writing this in hopes that better and more relevant articles are written in the future to help advance and teach us, rather than "walk us backwards" or worst "influence the younger minds of photography" to devalue themselves.

Jan Iveta's picture

Interesting and refreshing article!.
I have myself been wondering the same question throughout the years, about the entire “worthiness” of art, not just the photography.
Why are actors paid the wages they are? What about singers? Why are they paid at all? What is the purpose of, lets say, a dancer? Sure, we could live without movies and songs, but it would be blander existence.

I think in this whole debate, we forgot that most of us here come from places and social circles where basic life needs are not at immediate stake.
In times where your life or existence is at stake, having a photographer, painter, or a singer is not the first thing that comes to mind.
Planing a wedding ceremony is a luxury.
Paying someone to take your portrait is a luxury.
Having someone take a image of your product is an marketing investment, but again not necessary for the survival of humanity.
Policemen, firefighters, doctors and entire range of “meaningful” jobs are here as necessity; to fulfill and secure our basic needs.
When basic needs are fulfilled, people turn there investments and time to various “luxuries”. In new experiences, be it a movie, a gadget, concert, art.... Preserving memories...

Bottom line, i think all art related professions (including art itself) are a luxury. And we live in world where luxury is priced... Well, as a luxury…

Pedro Pulido's picture

Value is all about supply and demand. there's no point in comparing jobs, otherwise obviously the ones earning more would be high risk jobs instead of football. That is the reality and it is very simple to understand.

Mike Kelley's picture

$4k per wedding x 10 weddings "equals" 40 grand gross but that is hardly even close to netting you $40k. Not really an apt comparison. After calculating for CODB or looking at what you had to do to get to that point in terms of time invested I'd be shocked if you netted more than $25-$30k.

michael andrew's picture

Probably even less than that.

Deleted Account's picture

Wedding photography is a small business where photography is only one part of a larger whole. Small business owners are forced to do multiples tasks (like accounting, advertising, booking jobs etc) and they have the opportunity to make more money because their business isn't narrowed down to a single task. On the other hand, as tasks become more distributed between multiple workers, like in a corporate environment, then each workers individual role becomes less valuable.

michael andrew's picture

I hesitate to agree with you on the comparisons to other incomes, my good buddy is a Firefighter and another a Lifeguard, and while I may make similar "salary" to them, they have pensions, retirement, disability, workers comp, time off, vacation, sick days, injury pay, paternity leave and they can retire at 50 and when they are not doing anything at work they are not doing ANYTHING. Add those in to your peace of the pie and I guarantee you are in the negative. Although I totally agree that creatives should always appreciate the money they make, you should look at the numbers of your apples to peanuts comparisons, life adds up.

Travis Alex's picture

You can't compare incomes like that. It doesn't work the same way. I could argue I think it's unfair a construction worker makes more than a teacher and how that miffs me. However, that would discredit what kind of labors a construction worker has over a teacher, on top of the environment one is working in,

The market (and location of the market) defines prices more so than you, so if you are making that much, be blessed, because you could be like the wedding photographers around here, being offered $500 for a full day wedding and other photographers telling them they are "overpriced" asking for $1000. And these aren't bad photographers either!

You could be like my market here where asking $225 for a 2 hour studio portrait session is also "overpriced" (I'm still entry level pro, so that's why).

nigel walker's picture

You couldn't pay me enough to be a wedding photographer, you deserve all the money you get.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

I actually started my career as a wedding photographers assistant. After a summer of that I said thanks but no thanks. Ironically enough my niece is a successful wedding photographer and loves it.
http://www.maggshots.com/

Sean Fenzl's picture

My wife is a teacher, I'm a photographer, so I have a decent perspective here - for a set sum, she has job security, benefits and a retirement plan. I have the risk vs. reward scenario. No risk, no reward... and you deserve to get paid for that.

Further, if after negotiating and performing the job, I'm happy, and the client is happy... well... I don't really care how that compares with an 'average wage'.

Andrew Faulk's picture

I am worth every penny I charge!

Ian Johnstone's picture

Sorry for coming to this one late. let me ask this question. when the fire fighter/police officer etc accidentally break a leg the day before their shift begins do they lose income? if you break your leg will the wedding,baby shoot, on going processing, social media, networking, charity commitments, employee pay still get done? what about the knock on effect? will there still be fires/ bad guys etc etc when the officers are able to return to work? Will you have weddings from the wedding fairs you couldn't attend? the networking you missed? perhaps you should consider a change if you doubt the value of your chosen career? Incidentally ask any fire officer what causes the most stress other than the loss of a loved one in a fire and they will tell you that it is the loss of memories that upsets people. We help to preserve those memories! Totally agree with the comment that the emergency service personnel who place their
own safety on the line desrve better pay but that doesn't mean i want my work devalued!

Geoff Brown's picture

Something that I wrestle with, and I think you may be overlooking in your article, is that clients (and perhaps you) mistake our fees for salaries. My charges constitute the entire turnover or sales figure of my business. Clients tend to look at your fees and think, yeah, he jams that in his back pocket and runs off to Barbados for his fifth holiday this year.