Why does photography cost that much?

There’s an old story in professional circles, referred to as The Locksmith’s Dilemma. It’s become a parable for explaining the pricing of a service when the effort to produce the desired result is invisible. Have you ever been locked out of the car while it was still running? I have. I called for roadside assistance and they dispatched a charming fellow who unlocked my car door in seconds. Then I had to pay the bill. When the effort isn’t visible, the only metric we have to judge value by is the time taken to do the work. A less experienced person would have taken ten minutes or more to get me back into my still-running car. Which outcome do you think I prefer?

Photographers find themselves in the same dilemma, particularly where digital files are concerned; and especially now the technology inside smartphones means anyone can produce a higher resolution image than the consumer-grade cameras and lenses most people would be able to get their hands on. Out of interest and for the sake of transparency, I’ll break down the costs, but first I want to highlight the intangibles.

I take hundreds of great photos every day. To make sure I don’t also take thousands more rubbish ones, I’ve had to learn what makes a great photo—the light, the composition, the processing techniques, the technology, manipulating depth of field, capturing movement. And there are the less technical things, things I haven’t been able to articulate yet, but it’s akin to connecting with a feeling or an emotion that exists between rider and horse, or horse and I. I’ve acquired these skills over many years of practicing my craft. It’s these intangibles that people appreciate most when they view their print for the first time, (sometimes with tears of gratitude), even though they can’t perceive what went went into it.

Costs are much easier to draw attention to and there’s a reason why photography is often described as an expensive hobby. If professional photographers can’t charge what their work is worth, your only option will be hobbyist photographers who have some (or few) skills, and limited experience. You will look at those prints or images and something will be missing. And you will know it. Photography is not my hobby. This is my craft, my work, and it’s how I pay my rent. If I can’t at least meet these calculable expenses, like any other business, the doors will close.

Capital expenses

This is the most obvious. I have two cameras, two lenses, several memory cards, batteries and accessories. These all amount to around $15,000 and are generally needing replacement or upgrading every three years. The computer I use for post-production and its accessories are about $4,000 and replaceable after 2 years.

Operational expenses

I use a professional lab to ensure high-quality prints and stock. It’s not unusual to run a test print at my own expense. On any print order, I typically only get to pocket $5. Excluding the website itself, I host an online gallery to make it easy for you to order images, and that costs about $40 per month. I also absorb the 2% fee on every transaction that takes place.

Travel expenses

Family sessions almost always take place at the home or other property where you keep your horse and I always make my own way to wherever that happens to be. Similarly, when I shoot an event, travel and accommodation is never provided. For a multi-day event, I will either travel back and forth over the weekend or have to pony-up (pardon the pun) for a low-budget hotel. Let’s call it $120, but that varies depending on location and number of days.


Of course, the time I spend with you and your horse at your place is easy to understand. A full-day event, on the other hand, is 8-10 hours of lugging around a 5kg camera (another one in a backpack), plus up to 2 hours of travel, and I’m up at 4:30am to be there for the start. I’m never paid to be at an event or show, I carry the risk of not selling any prints or digital photos, after the time and effort of simply being there. As a comparison, if I was a contractor in an office job, I could expect $800 per day. That’s the time involved on the day. There’s also the time involved with post-production and preparing your images for download or printing. I take time to filter through photos and upload the best ones to the gallery. This can take a few days when I’m working through show images. Once you’ve selected your favourite photos, I then get to work on cleaning them up for download or printing. A high-res image, and any images selected for printing, require about an hour of careful work. A low-res image is much less labour-intensive at only 15 minutes. The cost of a high-res digital image is where I see the most resistance, but as I lay it all out here, at a bare minimum the post-production time alone would be the equivalent of $100 for one hour at a desk job.

As you can see, that’s quite a bit to account for, and now I need a gin & tonic and a lie down. But I love the majesty and loyalty of horses, so in spite of it all, I will always work hard to keep on capturing the unutterable bond between a horse and its rider. I hope I can capture that for you too, some time.