Why Does Custom Photography Cost So Much? | Part II

In Part I, we talked about the overhead costs that a photographer shells out before ever placing their finger on that shutter button.  So if it’s so expensive, why bother hiring an independent, custom photographer?  Three fabulous reasons.

1) A custom photographer lavishes you with their time and attention.  (How often does that happen in your life?)

Mall-type studios operate on a “fast food” model of photography – with little profit on each client, they count on cramming as many people in as possible.  Like McDonalds, it is their business interest to get you in and out as quickly as possible.  Stores sometimes even use their photography studios as “loss leaders” to get you in the store, meaning they actually lose money on the photos, but they are counting on you buying other things while you wait for your turn under the hot lights.

When I started my business, I didn’t want to be a “hurry up and smile,” high-volume studio.  I don’t believe you can herd memories.  I wanted to be more like the Pottery Barn of photography experiences.  Luxurious, beautiful, long-lasting, heirloom-quality, with all sorts of perks like free design services.  Thus, the actual session is only a tiny fraction of the service and attention that each client receives.  The full custom experience requires much more:

Breakdown of Time Spent On Each Client:

Booking and creating contracts | 30 min
In-home design consultation with client | 1-2 hours, plus 30 mins travel to/from
Location scouting (prep, travel, walking around, taking notes – I do this even when I’ve used the location before) | 1 hour
Emails and phone calls to confirm session and answer questions | 30-60 mins
Session prep, gear checks and rechecks | 1 hour
Travel to/from session | 30 mins
Actual session | 2 hours
Image transfer and backup | 1 hour
Culling, editing, and retouching images | 4-10+ hours, depending on the images
Exporting finished images, writing and prepping blog post | 2-3 hours
Creating custom home design options for client | 2-5 hours, depending on their needs
Ordering | 2-4 hours, depending on revisions
Obsessively re-checking images and placing order | 2 hours
Prepping for delivery | 1 hour
Actual delivery | 30 mins

TOTAL:  23 – 34+ hours.

(This total assumes they’re not ordering an album – if so, add another 10-15 hours.)

The session represents only about 6% – 8% of the time I spend on any given client. And what a difference all the extra time and care makes!  Rather than pushing people through, much thought is put into each facet of the experience, and no expense of time is spared in ensuring that the products you receive are perfect and truly reflective of you and the ones you love.

Some people wonder why a session can’t be reduced from 2 to 1 hours and the session fee cut in half.  As you can see, in the big picture, the time spent shooting is nearly negligible – almost all of the other time commitments remain unchanged.  If I charged less, I could cram in more clients to compensate, but at what cost?  Individualized session prep and secure backups?  Careful retouching and editing?  Custom design?  Being available to answer questions?  Slashing even one of those categories would drastically change the experience and outcome.

When you consider that a photographer’s actual profit is usually only about a third of the check you write to them (the rest going to taxes, cost of goods sold, and cost of doing business), and keep in mind that your experience with them alone represents the majority of a work week, it becomes easier to understand why a full-time professional photographer needs to charge what they do to stay in business.

2)  But what does all that time add up to?  One unparalleled experience.

When you are unrushed during a 2-hour session, amazing things happen.  You start relaxing.  You can only give so many posed, stiff smiles, so after a time you naturally loosen up and start to become more of who you are every day.  The images become about you and your family being yourselves.  Snuggling.  Laughing.  Inside jokes.  Playing.  Flirting.  Spontaneous loving moments can’t be forced, but over the length of a custom session, they will unfold unaided, and a custom photographer can use their lens to show who you really are.  There’s nothing more beautiful than a child lighting up upon spotting a fuzzy caterpillar, a quiet embrace of a couple, a new mom rocking her tiny one to sleep in the comfort of her own home.  These beautiful moments happen all the time, but they are fleeting.  Bringing in a professional photographer allows you to keep them forever.

A custom photographer is around to help you before and after this sweet experience.  They will help you prepare, offer experienced advice on what to wear, find a location that suits you well, answer last-minute questions and give reassurance.  After the session, the images are securely backed up.  The finest images are selected, then individually handcrafted to bring them to their full potential, making them shine.  Additionally, I personally walk through my clients homes with them to measure and photograph their wall spaces.  After the session, they receive a custom catalogue of ideas that will use their images to adorn their space.  How confusing is it to look at a list of different photo sizes and not know the real difference between a 16×20 and a 16×24, not to mention how either one would look on their wall?  My clients get personalized recommendations that suit their space perfectly.  They don’t have to rely on their own guesswork, or simply feel so stressed out so that they grab an 8×10 and run.

Here is a page from a custom home design catalogue that I sent to a recent client:

She loved the gallery so much she decided to move it to a bigger wall and swap out a few images to take advantage of the bigger space.  Here was the final layout:

And final shots of what it looks like in their home (you can see a second gallery we created together on the far left):

Clients of a custom photographer don’t just receive a very special session.  From beginning to end, they receive extra services that help them prepare for the best session possible and then help them use their final images in beautiful and striking ways.  This is the benefit to hiring a photographer who will spend many hours working with you individually.

3) A professional photographer has spent exhaustive amounts of time and money developing expertise that directly benefits YOU.

Some things can only be learned by working with scores of adults and children and shooting tens of thousands of photographs.  A growing professional will then take those images and spend countless hours in the world of Photoshop confronting mistakes and correcting them the next time they shoot.  When they don’t have active clients, they invent their own projects and keep practicing their craft.  The real tragedy of a new photographer going out of business (as 85% will) is that they may never become the craftsmen they could have been if they had only had more years of experience.  The more shoots a photographer has under their belt, the more able they are to “see” the best images and set about creating them.   They can quickly recognize flattering light and use their camera to make it sing.

This is a little abstract, so I’ll offer an example.  In a shoot this past summer, something happened that I never would have seen or done in my first year of shooting.  It was a beautiful Tennessee evening, and we had come to the close of our time together.  The family joined hands to walk across a field, and I exposed for the scene exactly as I saw it in front of me:

I saw the image on the back of my camera, and thought it was nice, but maybe not remarkable.  I already had images of the family together, and this didn’t seem to add anything unique to the body of work.

I ran forward a few steps to catch up with the family, dropped to my knees, and took another shot.  Here it is, straight out of the camera:

This time the clouds and beautiful sky were accented, and the family became a dramatic silhouette.  This is not what the scene looked like to the naked eye, or even to the camera’s sensor.  But an experienced photographer can see the potential, even in the still-sunlit evening, then manipulate their camera settings and make some magic.

When I pulled this image up on my computer, I saw that the power lines were taking away from the image.  After carefully removing them and further toning and enhancing the file, here is the final image I gave to the client:

It’s not that silhouettes are a breakthrough in photographic technique, not by any means.  But in my own first year of shooting, even though I understood how silhouettes work, I would not have been able to see the potential for both images and executed them within a matter of seconds before the little girls broke away from their parents and the moment was lost.  Great photographs can happen on accident – but a professional can take any situation and work with it to give their clients something they’d find memorable. 

An experienced photographer can go in, under, around, and through any situation to make an image.  They don’t bat an eye at cantankerous kids, because they know exactly how to help the kids enjoy themselves.  They aren’t wildly spraying shots everywhere in the hopes that a few will turn out, they wait for the right moments and act deliberately.  They can help families with special needs create beautiful images where everyone is having a good time.  They know how to set people at ease, especially those who don’t like having their picture taken.  They see your best qualities and bring them out.  It’s their job to think about how you look, so that all you have to do is think about how much you love the people you’re with.

A final thought

Custom photography is an investment, to be sure.  One that most families must plan for.  But as anyone who has had a memorable custom photoshoot can tell you, the resulting images will be cherished forever.  I have had clients tell me that their photos changed the way they thought about themselves.  This is why I chose to become a professional photographer.

I hope this has helped you understand a bit more about what custom photographers can do for you.  If you learned anything new or surprising, I’d encourage you to hit the “Like” button below to share it with your friends.


If you’re interested in trying custom photography out, but aren’t quite ready for a full shoot, you’re in luck!  I am offering a limited number of holiday mini sessions this year.  Come see the difference!

I have 8 spots left!  Email jenikaslens@gmail.com or call (816) 489-8400 to reserve your spot TODAY!  The closer we get to December 15th, the more good times will be taken!


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