The High Cost of Cheap Photography

I was speaking to another commercial photographer last week and learned that a new “business trend” I have been observing, but had refrained from commenting on, isn’t just happening to me.  It appears that a growing number of clients are learning a lesson, one that is quite costly.

He told me that it is typical for those calling about his services to say they have “sticker shock” when he delivers a quote and that his response has been, “That is because I am the photographer you come to second” and then explained to them he had found most people first had to learn that the quality of photos they needed could not be created at the prices inexperienced photographers were quoting.

On my side of the fence, the story is the same, but I have been finding out during the shoot, not when I deliver the quote.  In each of the shoots I have done for the last six months, at some point during or directly after the shoot the client would comment “we used another photographer before you and couldn’t use any of the photos. So we came to you to get it done right.”

The picture here is that two different photographers who only met last week have both discovered that an increasing number of clients had attempted to save money by going with someone cheap, and ended up having to do the shoot again at professional rates.

The client can’t be blamed.  We have entered a world where prosumer DSLR cameras can be had for about $1000.  Add to that the number of free websites available, almost anyone can hang out a shingle as a “pro” for the cost of about a weeks pay at a regular job.  Suddenly everyone is a “photographer” and these inexperienced “professionals” spread a lot of disinformation.  One of thee first things a photographer has to learn is just how much he doesn’t know.  The photographer at this level does not yet have the experience to realize that the demands of a commercial shoot is far beyond his ability to deliver, or that it takes more than his cheap DSLR to meet the technical specifications  and will jump up to the plate with a “sure, I can do that,” “nothing to it” and “it will only cost….”  Conversely, a true professional has been shooting long enough to realize he isn’t equipped to do his best on every type of shoot and will refer you to another professional who is better qualified for the job.  We know enough to know we don’t know it all and are smart enough to say as much when we don’t.

Cameras are everywhere now.  I have yet to photograph a live performance or corporate event where I didn’t have at least a half a dozen people come to me and explain how they were “photographers.”   When I question what they mean by that I find that while they are loudly telling the world they are photographers, none of them actually earn a living as professional photographers.  They simply mean they have cameras and take pictures.  This creates the false perception than anyone can do it and that it costs nothing to create good photos.  This is the world the new art buyer or person in need of his or her first professional photos has been surrounded by and so the $1000 price tag on a shoot that a seasoned art buyer would know should cost around $10,000 to produce doesn’t raise any red flags… until after they have to pay to have it shot again by the bidder who came in at $10k.

Changes ushered in by both the internet and digital cameras have created a “perfect storm” in the industry for both art buyers and photographers.  It is a confusing landscape full or lies and myths….  propagated both by those who have no clue what it really takes to do the job and those who wish to exploit the lies for their own benefit.  One myth here is that digital did not make it cost nothing to take a photo.  While it did eliminate the cost of the film and developing chemicals, the cost of keeping up with digital technology is far more expensive that it was in the days of film.  Only the novice believes otherwise.

As a consumer, you can’t be expected to know everything that goes into the creation of a photo.  But do take the time to be somewhat realistic as to what it will take to do the job right.  Unrealistic expectations can destroy the outcome of a shoot.  As an example, I had a woman contact me who needed a shoot done of her entire line of clothing that she was selling via a website.  She wanted 12 models, some children, and the entire clothing line shot… in just one day.  She wanted to use inexperience and unprofessional models and there was no budget for a makeup artist, stylist or assistant — in a shoot where the mood, setting, personality expressed, emotion and attention to every detail in the clothing, hair and makeup (not to mention lighting, exposure, etc) were critical to the success of the shoot as a sales tool.

When I told her this was a recipe for disaster, she told me she had someone who would do it for $25 per hour.  As we talked it later came out that she knew he was incapable of delivering the work she needed, but somehow believed I would be able to deliver the quality of work she saw in my portfolio simply by being better at pushing the button.

Of course I turned this shoot down.  This is a client that needed to learn for herself that it simply can’t be done right without the proper estimation of work involved beforehand.  This isn’t a criticism.  She simply did not know what it takes to do it right and get the quality of images she was seeing on my website… and had been led by the inexperienced photographer she had been working with to believe there was “nothing to it.”

Where I am going with this is a little bit of practical advice.  A shoot is worthless if it does not serve the intended purpose.  It will not do so without the proper planning and a photographer with the experience to know when a vital step is dropped out.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming anyone with a camera is a photographer (as they all love to claim) and that anyone can do it.  A guy with a camera is just that… a guy with a camera.  A photographer is an experienced professional who earns his living by creating images that satisfy the demands of his clients … flawlessly.

If you are new to the game, take the time to look at what it might really take to produce an image and discuss it with the photographer.  Beware of the guy with the dirt cheap price who tells you there is nothing to it.  As I said before, he is not yet up to the point where he knows that there is still a lot he doesn’t know.

On the other hand, don’t assume that the highest price is the best deal either.  Not every shoot requires circus animals and 35 assistants, catering and exotic locations such as the typical Annie Leibovitz shoot.  But EVERY shoot is going to require more than a guy with a camera.  Somewhere in between will lie the right combination to fit your needs.  Finding that requires a realistic approach to what it will really take, a realistic budget, and some give and take to make it all work together.

Taking the time to properly estimate what it will take to do the shoot right and not leaving the outcome to chance could save you the expense of shooting it twice.  And nothing is more expensive than paying for a poor photo that does not generate business.

2 thoughts on “The High Cost of Cheap Photography

  1. Pingback: The hidden invalidation that kills photographers | Mark Stout Photography - Photoshoot News & Models

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