What makes a professional photographer a Starving Artist?

So most people realize that photography is a form of art, although these days even little children carry around their parents old phones which have better digital camera technology than the general public saw 15 years ago. But it’s usually pretty easy to tell a snapshot from a well thought-out photograph, even in the untrained eyes of the DSC_7986public. For some reason though, people still question how much a photographer charges for their services. Sometimes it may just seem like the artist is very proud of themselves and that they just feel they deserve that amount for their time. And although that is true for some out there, that is by far the minority of photographers most people would ever cross paths with in their life.




For the ease of explanation, let’s assume that when I refer to a photographer in this article, I am talking about your average professional photographer that has been established for a number of years and has a solid portfolio of work covering a variety of areas, and they work in one general location primarily. Because when you get into an artist who focuses on one single niche or travels the world, the prices will likely be much different due to the nature of what they do.

So let’s look at some typical photography work for an artist described above. A family of 4 wants to get a simple holiday portrait taken, nothing crazy, just the 4 family members together outside on a pretty day, so that they can maybe send it out to people around the holidays. This seems simple right? It is to a professional photographer because we do it pretty regularly. So the plan is to meet somewhere local and just snap a few shots of the family outdoors, spending an hour or less on-site to take the photo. (You may have been told it’s a 1 hour minimum charge). So you, the family, arrive at the location and you probably noticed the photographer was already on location, with camera in hand, as well as some lighting and other equipment or props set up. It’s not DSC_3051-2 copymagic, we’re not that fast, we got there early to get things ready. This type of shoot, although it seems simple, can bring many challenges. We have to be ready for weather issues, lighting issues, children issues (you all know what I’m talking about). And most likely if you went up to the photographer as soon as you arrived and asked them how many pictures they’ve taken already, you would get an answer that is more than you might think. We arrive early to set-up equipment, but also take test shots to make sure everything will be perfect when the time comes to snap the photo. I typically arrive at least 30 minutes early for location shoots to really take a good look around and look for the best spots. The idea is that we make the shooting process as simple as possible for you, because we don’t know what kind of mood the children, or parents, will be in when they arrive. So that 1 hour that was agreed to for the shoot, ca be spent making children smile, moving around to different spots for the best angle, as well as trying to get all 4 people looking the same direction with a happy look on their face, all at the same time. With an easy group of 4, a few family shots can be accomplished in 30 minutes. But with a challenging group, this can easily take the full hour.

So quick and easy math, not including any travel time, the photographer that arrived early to make things smooth for this simple shoot, that also spent the full hour on-site with you taking pictures, now has 1.5 hours of time invested in your simple request. Remember that number for later.

So now the family of 4 has gone home, and the photographer is back at their studio making the magic happen. Do you really have any idea how much time is spent from this point on in the process? Probably not, because you’re not standing over their shoulder watching everything that happens. Depending on the photographer and their style, as well as the number of images taken and necessity to be processed, this stage of the artwork can take some time. I would say a minimum of 1 hour from start to finish, up to 4 hours for more complicated images or a higher volume taken. If they are like me, they go through every single shot to see if it is usable for a final image, giving consideration to every smile and squinted eye to make sure you get the best possible image when it’s all said and done. We’ll just round to 2 hours for explanation purposes on this. Those 2 hours are spent culling the shots and identifying the best of the best. Then the shots are edited, adjusting colors/exposures/tints to fit a certain look or style. And lastly the images are run through a final round of touch-ups, for me this is addressing things like a reflective sign in the background, or an odd lens flare that hinders an otherwise perfect photo. At this point, the images are ready to present to you and show to the public.

Quick math again, we’re now at 3.5 hours of time spent on the simple scenario listed above.

So now the time has come to meet with the photographer and review your final images. For me this is a sit down meeting at my office to show you all of the final images we produced for you, let you see them and compare them. This meeting is typically about 1/2 hour of time, discussing how the shoot went and talking about what we were able to achieve. As an artist, we like to give explanation into our work, since not everybody understands why we did what we did, we like to talk about it and show you to help you appreciate the final product.

So here’s some final math from start to finish of this process, we’re at 4 hours of time spent for your simple family photo for the holidays. Does this seem crazy? Yes and no. Yes there are people out there that can do this process in probably 1 hour less than that, maybe they just use preset filters for all of their work because they do all customers’ shots the same. It’s also not crazy, because this is a perfectly normal timeline for this process, assuming the artist is not rushing through any portion of it. So let’s consider the cost up to this point, using my current standard rate for this type of work of $50/hour. Since most people easily understand money when it relates to a paycheck, what does that translate to per hour for the photographer? $12.50. And you may think, but they get plenty of work, so that number is not relevant. But here is the reality, a photographer has the same number of hours available in a week to work as any other person, we’ll say 50 hours to spend so that they still have a little bit of time to spend with family and friends and sleep. You can do the math at that point to see why people refer to artists as “Starving”.

All of this is just the breakdown of the rate coming in for a photographer. Consider what makes their artwork so much better than the pictures you took on your phone, or that your friend took on their point and shoot camera. It’s the quality of the image, as well as the composition. The quality of the image doesn’t just come from experience, it comes from equipment, lots of equipment. Not just the camera… but lenses, lighting, memory, computers, software. And the level of this equipment is much different than what the general public uses or purchases. I have no problem telling you that the camera I am holding in my hand while I take your pictures of you and IMG_9117your family, costs about $5000, not including all of the lighting and additional stuff. So when you wonder why my images are so much sharper, and so much bolder in color, there is your answer. Being a professional photographer is not like being a professional athlete. Nobody just throws equipment at us, nobody “sponsors” us. We’re on our own for all of it. And camera technology is just like anything else electronic, it gets out of date and needs upgraded every so often, so you can’t just buy one nice camera and keep it forever. And to continue getting those beautiful images, the cameras take maintenance and service just like your car does.

So when people refer to any artist as a “Starving Artist”, this gives you a little insight as to why. It’s not that we’re lazy and just not producing artwork, it’s simply because the amount of income gets so diluted by the time we spend to make the beautiful artwork for you, that we end up in this position. Could we all charge more, of course we can. But we also take the risk that we get less jobs from you, which means our situation won’t improve. Most of us truly love what we do, which means we enjoy the entire process from start to finish. So the tradeoff of knowing we will never be millionaires doing what we love, is an unfortunate reality.

What can you do to keep your favorite artist from Starving? Hire them, use them whenever you can, refer them to your friends and family. If you love an artist and the work they produce, those are the biggest compliments you can give. We know you are going to hang the work on your wall, otherwise you wouldn’t have purchased a print. And although that makes us happy as well, knowing that you sent a friend to us to get work done, or came back again for the next time you needed pictures taken truly shows your appreciation. As a photographer, photographs are at the front of my mind all the time, no matter what the situation or circumstances. I know that everyone out there is not constantly thinking about the next picture they want to take or have taken.  People like me are here to help remind you! So help us as artists be a little less starving and use us whenever you can. Photography is not a dying art form. It has been diluted to a certain degree due to advances in technology to the general public, but there are still many ways a professional artist in the world of photography can and will produce images at a different level than the average person. So show us some love and tell your friends, hire us every chance you get!

-Ronnie Sunker

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