Shonda Hilton
Shonda Hilton

What you’re really buying from a professional photographer…

This is a blog I have been wanting to write for quite some time so I figured now is as good as any…


What you’re really buying from a professional photographer


When someone reaches out to me about scheduling a portrait session, the number one question is always the same: “Hi, I love your work and want to know how much does it cost?”

…How much does it cost…

When I send a potential client my pricing guide magazine, whether for a Glamour session or Family Portraits, about 10% don’t get back to me at all for whatever reason and about another 10% reply with an email similar to this.

“Wow! I had no clue you would charge SO much?!? I’ve had other photographers take our pictures and got all the pictures on a disk for $100! I just can’t afford you.”

Needless to say, that percentage of clients don’t book me. I understand that price can be a big factor when deciding whether to buy a discretionary item like professional portraits.

All of us make those decisions. For example, when celebrating an anniversary or birthday, we often choose a favorite restaurant where we know we’ll get great food, excellent service, and the unique atmosphere to fit our special occasion. We know we’re going to pay more for an elegant dinner than for carry-out pizza, but we also know we’re getting more than just a meal.

Maybe you’re looking for another photographer because the photographer you used before is no longer in business. Maybe he or she couldn’t survive financially on such low prices.

When I started, I was one of those photographers who charged $0.50 for a 4×6 print. I quickly realized if I wanted to be a legitimate, successful, and above all professional photographer, such low prices would not be feasible.

In November 2015 I will have been in business as a professional photographer for five years. Prior to starting my business, I spent hours upon hours learning everything I could about the art and science of photography and practicing my craft. In the five years since then, I have attended several photography conferences, completed multiple online courses, and participated in professional workshops to continue to grow within my field and provide my clients with an amazing experience and gorgeous images.

All of that, and more, is what you’re buying when you book a session with me. Let’s look at what’s on the menu, compared to that carry-out pizza!

That disk for $100 that probably had anywhere between 20 and 50 (maybe more) images. Which means each picture cost you anywhere from $2-$5. You would still have to buy prints, if you wanted any. Essentially, all you bought was just a disk with pictures.

The reasons a professional photographer charges more are many, because in addition to the pictures themselves, you are buying both the time and the professional services of the photographer.

How much would you expect to pay a professional, and how many hours do you think a professional photographer will spend on your portrait shoot? Let’s say $15.00 an hour at bare bones minimum. At that rate, your $100 will only buy six hours and 40 minutes of that photographer’s time! Do you think that’s enough to produce the top quality portraits you want?

I can’t speak for any other photographer, but here’s a breakdown of the time I spend on each and every client.

Once a session is scheduled (not including free phone consults or email interaction prior to the actual confirmed booking) I spend a minimum of one to one and a half hours preparing for your session. This includes stocking my studio, hiring a makeup artist, scouting out locations (if on location), mapping out wardrobes with sets, cleaning, and generally just making sure that everything is ready to go for the moment you walk in my studio.

My glamour sessions are typically four hours from start to finish once you factor in hair and makeup and multiple wardrobe changes and set changes, makeup changes, and so on. Families and children’s sessions are a minimum of one and a half hours and may run over if we have to deal with difficult moods, feedings, or even if we’re simply having a great time and capturing lots of incredible images.

After all the photos are taken and you’ve gone home to relax, much of my work is just beginning. I start by going through the 60 to 120 (or more) images we took and narrowing it down to roughly the 25 best. This takes approximately an hour and a half. Then the editing begins. Each image requires anywhere from five to ten minutes to edit. This includes lightening or evening out skin tones, concealing blemishes or other imperfections, erasing folds or wrinkles in clothing, wild hairs, toning of the overall color of the image, and finally giving it my personal flair.

All of this time adds up. You see now that a single photography session can involve an additional four to five hours of processing to bring out the very best of your photographs.

The process is not, however, done yet. After this you’ll make an appointment for a viewing and ordering session which easily runs another hour.

All of this is time that the photographer spends on your session and your photographs. But there are behind-the-scenes details that set the professional photographer apart from the friend who has an awesome camera and takes everyone’s pictures.

Like any other professional, I am a business. I use business software to keep track of orders and expenses and sales because I pay taxes every year and need accurate bookkeeping. Additional specialized software allows me to upload the images you’ve selected to the appropriate professional labs who will then print your order. I review those prints when they come from the lab and package them in my personal brand packaging – which is the equivalent of the fine china and crystal and linen at the elegant restaurant where you have your special dinner — and arrange for delivery to you or for pickup. This involves another hour or so of my time.

Because I need to keep my business in the forefront of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, I then start posting images and writing blogs. While this time can’t be precisely assigned to your individual order, it’s time any professional has to spend and allocate to the value of the product they’re selling.

Adding this time up so far, it’s easy to see how a photographer can easily spend as many as 12 to 16 hours on a single portrait session.

There are, of course, other elements to a photographer’s professionalism than just the time she spends on a shoot and editing the pictures she takes.

Professionals in any field need to keep up with advancements and innovations. This is especially true in a technology-driven specialty like photography. It’s not enough just to have an amazing camera. As a professional photographer, I must stay up on continued education. Professional workshops and technical education can be expensive, but they are a necessary part of the business.

And to stay in the forefront of the industry using professional grade equipment is also costly. For example, I currently shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III, of which the body alone is $2500. Quality lenses for a professional grade camera start at $1,000 and quickly go up from there. To give you some idea, when I purchased my camera, it came with the standard lens and cost $4500!

Of course there is also editing software. Photoshop is the end all for editing, again costly but essential for professional results. It’s as essential to a professional as bookkeeping software and the computer and other peripherals to run it. All of the equipment for all my business purposes – from the camera and lenses to the computer and monitor and software, not to mention the studio and backdrops and furniture and props and lights — must remain reliable and maintain the ability to produce the very best photos possible for you, my client.

Maybe now you’re beginning to understand what you’re really buying when you pay a professional photographer to take your portraits and why it costs more than the $100 your friend was going to charge. Even after the pictures are taken and edited, however, there’s another question that comes up frequently.

Many clients ask, “Can’t I just have the pictures all on disk and print them myself? I don’t need to buy the prints from you, too. They’re so expensive!”

The answer to this has two parts, the first of which is, simply put; it all boils down to quality.

I have printed images at several of the chains to compare quality in the print paper, color, texture, tone. I printed at Walgreens, Costco, Snapfish, Mpix, and Target, which is my FAVORITE STORE OF ALL TIMES! but not for prints. Each image was drastically different from what was displayed on my computer screen, the image I would have shown to you as the best of the best.

Why is it so different? you ask. Because professional printing labs, unlike Walgreens or Costco, run the highest quality materials and have specially calibrated equipment. My professional grade equipment is in turn calibrated to the same standards to ensure the final product looks like what I shared with you at our viewing session.

In that sense, buying quality, professionally produced prints is to your benefit. After you’ve paid for a portrait session with a professional photographer, why put your cherished photos on less than top quality stock? But there’s another reason, one that goes back to your photographer’s professionalism.

She may have spent as many as 16 or more hours just on your photos. Would you expect any other professional to provide services at $6.25 an hour? Of course not! Would you expect a professional in any other field to work for less than minimum wage and then still have to buy equipment, pay for studio/office space, advertise and keep up with business and technical advances? All of those things are what you’re buying when you hire a professional photographer to capture your memories . . . forever.

In most cases, your professional photographer doesn’t cover her expenses solely from the fee she charges for your portrait session. It’s true – I won’t deny it – that much of her income comes from the sale of prints, which are the final product of her business. They’re what you take home, rather than the session time spent in the studio or on location, and they represent all of her investment in training, in equipment, in software, in editing, in professional development. When you share your photos with friends and family, you are also sharing your photographer’s knowledge, expertise, creative talent, and professionalism. Because she takes pride in her work, she wants it to be seen in the best possible product.

It is, after all, her work. An aspect of her professionalism many people don’t think about is her legal ownership of her intellectual property. She and she alone holds the copyright to those photographs, which means she and she alone has the legal right to make prints, or to approve anyone else to make them. Protecting her copyright is part of her professionalism.

I LOVE being a photographer! I love showing women a beautiful side of themselves they may not have seen before, capturing that twinkle in their eye, giving them confidence. It is why I put in the time and effort and passion on top of working a full time job as a nurse and being a wife and mom. Photography feeds a love in me that without it is not fulfilling. But I need to make enough profit to maintain my studio, equipment, education, insurance, taxes, and all the other costs of doing business as a professional. I take very little to no funds from my business. Instead I use the profit to ensure my passion of being a professional photographer carries on. That’s right: I don’t bring any of this money home for myself or my family even though I am spending time away from them. But I choose to for my love of what I do.

Your initial session fee compensates me for my investment in your photographs until your package purchase, if you so choose to do so. Since there’s no guarantee I will sell anything, part, most, or possibly all of the session fee first has to go toward all the other expenses of my professional service: studio rent, camera purchases, editing software, and so on. Only a very little of it actually goes toward compensation for the hours I’ll spend directly on your session. The final portrait packages are where I have designed the cost of my time and all of the other factors, along with other members of my team for the session, such as a makeup artist, who are paid whether you buy any prints or not.

What that really means is I don’t really get paid from the session fee. I don’t get paid unless I produce an awesome product you want to buy. That’s my job, and that’s what you’re buying.

So the next time you question a photographer’s pricing or another business, please stop for a moment and consider everything that goes into their work before asking them “You cost how much?” Instead, think about what an awesome and professional portrait you’re going to have, to capture a special moment forever and share with friends and family for many years to come.

The printed images you buy from me will last hundreds of years, and they will contain not only your memories but your photographer’s professionalism. It’s not whether the disk you wanted them on will become obsolete or the hard drive you stored them on will crash. Casual photos taken by friends, whether they have awesome cameras or not, are wonderful. Digital technology makes them fun and affordable. But they aren’t professional. They’re a quick carry-out pizza, yummy when the time is right. When it comes to a special occasion – you! – celebrate with the best. Yes, of course it will cost more, but aren’t you worth it?


Let us conclude this blog with a favorite image of mine 🙂 Her laughter was contagious and beautiful!


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