Nicole O'Neil Photography
I get questions from people all of the time who are looking to "get into photography" or want to turn their hobby into a career. I also get people who are just curious about the business of photography, including what goes into it. Many see it's a difficult, competitive, and expensive business, while others seem to think I get to do what I love and it's easy. I do what I love, but it's not always easy. So, for this blog, I'm going to discuss the ins and outs of doing this as a career. For those just curious about what goes into each session, see near the bottom. I hope this will help anyone looking to go into business, to make sure you are prepared first and then make sure you value what you are offering. Be confident but also realistic.
There are many photographers in any one city, town, or neighborhood. There are studios that offer a very old (and what I consider a little boring) experience of white or black backdrops, minimally trained "photographers" and decent printing. Sometimes, they do add other backdrops and props, but the photos are indoors, more stiff, and posed. These are usually your cheapest options. There is a step up from that, with studios who offer some variation of backdrops and more props.
There are photographers like myself who offer a "lifestyle" experience. This means I come to your home, meet outdoors or another location and take high quality images of you and your family in a more candid and fun way. You get to choose whatever "backdrop" you want and get high quality prints from the best labs. You also get a photographer with extensive education and experience in photography and with children. This whole experience costs a little more. This is because those of us offering these services are not just sitting in one place waiting for clients, we travel around to every one of our clients and offer a custom and very personal experience.
In this same category are higher end photographers who charge upwards of $300 for a session. The longer i'm in business, I think these photographers have it right. They charge more because of the high costs those of us in this category spend to run the business. Our business isn't always consistent. Some seasons are slower. We have to pay for our own insurance (business and liability), medical insurance, etc which is not cheap for people who work for themselves. We don't get sick time or paid vacations. We have a lot of overhead. Our equipment alone is very expensive. LIke I said, I think these photographers have it right. However, I find my clients are happy to invest the amounts I charge and value what I do. I have wonderful clients and continue to get more, so I have no intention of losing them by doubling my prices. I do need to up my prices sometimes to cover increased expenses, but that is true with any business.
When I first started, I wanted to build a client base, so I barely charged anything. I would charge $75 to take pictures and give digital images first for nothing and then for a very small price. For prints, I went to a low budget lab and barely charged much over my cost. As time went on, I realized I could not in any way survive as a business or as a person the way I was going. That is why I don't feel bad if someone decides to go spend money at a generic studio or at a photographer who charges these prices. Every time I see someone I know post pictures on social media of their kids on a plain, boring black or white background and I see that the pictures are slightly out of focus and not sharp, it makes me see even more, the value of what I offer. I am not just a person who is trained to press a few buttons on a camera. I have invested in my photography education over the years and continue to improve and learn new techniques.
Custom Lifestyle Photography Investment:
Just to put it in perspective, if you ever go out to a really nice dinner, you may invest the same amount of money you would in a session for a great steak and some nice wine for one evening out. You may go splurge on $200 shoes simply because you love them. They may last for years. So, why is it hard for people to invest in a photo session that freezes moments in time and captures those memories forever? You may look at the investment and think it's a lot. My clients seem to understand the need to charge what I do and the need to increase the investment.
To start a valid business, you first need to register it. You need to pay taxes. You need to have at least some education on business and the subject, in this case photography.
Forget the money I spent before I started my business to take some classes and to purchase a good camera to start learning the trade. Let's start with what has been spent in the last 3 years to run my business, before taxes.
Professional Fees: $5363.28
Membership to a Professional Organizations, includes some liability insurance: $700/year
Website hosting and domain names: $440/year
Online storage and sharing site: $647.76/year 1943.28
Equipment: (so far, 3 years in business) $23,715
Camera Body: $3000 (which lasts approximately 3 years, so i'm almost due to buy a new one)
Backup Camera Body: $1500 (lasts 2-3 years)
Current Lenses: About $5500
Flashes: About $1050
Memory cards x6: $750
Camera bags and backpacks: $725
External Hard drives: $150-$200 each of which I own 10
Misc (cleaning supplies, memory card reader, etc) : $500
Computer Equipment (laptop, computer, printer): $5500
Phone: $900 dedicated to client phone communication each year
Education and supplies (only includes what has been spent in last three years): $6750
Templates: Approximately $1000
Props (hats, headbands, wraps, tutus, etc): $2000
Newborn Posing Beanbag: $200
Background Stands: $350
Background papers/backdrops: $1700
Desk and Shelving: $1200
Organizational tools (folders, containers for props, etc): $500
Misc (things such as memberships to other professional groups, attending networking events, gas, travel expenses, etc): $1000, last three years
So, as you can see, I have spent almost $39,000 on my business in just a few years. It costs me roughly $13,000 per year just to keep my business running, forget other expenses such as rent, utilities, etc. This is a low number considering the equipment I still have yet to purchase and the workshops I don't attend because I try not to overspend. The amount will increase as I upgrade my equipment and continuing education.
Now, let's summarize what comes in.
The session break down.
Say, I get an average of 4 regular sessions per week at $150 per session and an average of one newborn a week for $250. These averages are based on the fact that I do not work all year. These are also not accurate of the first of the three years as I was still building (and still am) my first client base. December through February are very slow and only produce some newborn sessions, not many regular sessions. Add in an event or head shot session per week for $200. That gives around $40,000 a year, BEFORE taxes and before expenses. Then, people order prints and products. With all of this, I can average a basic income to survive on. So, the goal is to get more than those 5 sessions per week. This takes time as you must build a solid client base and get referrals.
Say, I do a family session. I charge $150. That includes the hour or so I spend with them actually taking the pictures. It also includes all of the communication and planning ahead of time. It takes into account the equipment I use, the time to travel to the location, gas, etc. Lastly, it includes the time to download, backup, edit, and upload to galleries.
So, my advice to new photographers is to make sure you have some money to start. I have managed to not put anything on credit to date. I worked a second job for the first of these three years and used that money to put into my business. Besides some traveling, I spent less money than I used to on going out to dinners or for drinks, on clothes and other material things, and spent my money on building my business. Another piece of advice is to get a mentor. Do an internship, work as an assistant, whatever it takes to learn from an experienced professional. I made the mistake of not doing this. I made many mistakes as I started that I may not have made if I had a mentor. As you harness your skills and feel you have reached a point where your work is on the same level as other photographers with your same style, make sure you value yourself and your work.
To my clients, know that the investment you make is based on the industry standards and gives you a custom, personal, and high quality experience. Your products are printed at the highest quality labs to last a lifetime. The session fees do not just cover your session, but any planning, traveling, time to get there and back, and the time I spend editing, uploading, and blogging your images.
I hope this post is helpful for both clients and for aspiring photographers.