Your agent told you to find a headshot photographer, or you are just about to start a new job and need an updated image for your LinkedIn profile and other social media platforms. Whatever the case may be, you need fresh headshots.
You notice that everyone is charging far more than you expected, and you think to yourself “Why are headshots so expensive?”
This topic is often discussed, but after being a professional headshot photographer for many years, I can say with relative confidence that what I am about to share is a pretty comprehensive guide as to why this is the case.
Before I dive into the nitty gritty, I think it’s important for you to determine if your question is a matter of cost or cash flow.
While you are searching for a professional headshot photographer, you will likely come across a rates page, or a section on the website dealing with the price. The price(s) listed is/are the cost of the session with the photographer and the images you will receive. Every photographer works differently. Some share their prices openly, and some request that you contact them for that information.
Your question may have more to do with cash flow. In other words, you may not have sufficient funds to pay for what you need at this moment, but at some point in the future, you hope to have the amount needed. The tables just got turned. The issue you might have is not that headshot are expensive. Rather, your ability to pay for them at the moment is in question.
I don’t mean to point fingers. We are just dealing in facts. If cash flow is an issue, this article may not be as pertinent to you, but equally informative.
When it comes to analyzing the cost of a headshot session and why things are as expensive as they are, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the photographer. There are plenty of considerations here, but if you follow along, you’ll understand the reasons why a headshot session might seem costly.
I will do my best to keep things as simple as I can.
Photographers have certain expenses associated with running their business:
- Studio Space
- Photography Equipment
- Website and Email
- Continuing Education
- Advertising and Marketing
- Professional Membership Dues
- Equipment and Business Insurance
- Legal and Accounting Services
- Licenses and Permits
- Travel Expenses
- …and More
Let’s dive into some of the expenses mentioned above:
A studio lease, depending on location, can run a pretty penny. Some people pay as little as a few hundred dollars per month. Others pay a few thousand per month. Yet, others pay an arm and a leg.
Photography studios are important as it not only gives us a place to work and create a welcoming atmosphere, but it’s also a place where the proverbial magic happens.
Some photographers choose to operate out of their homes, other’s choose to rent space as needed, and others choose not to maintain a studio at all.
The cost of utilities and maintenance for the studio are additional expenses.
I know that this is an obvious item since we’re discussing headshot photography, but let’s discuss the cost of these complicated pieces of technology.
These days, cameras are like small computers. They are not dissimilar to your smart phone in that respect. They run a lot of complicated processes so that our images come out tack sharp, with great color and tonal range. They serve us in a multitude of ways, which gives you a better end product. That kind of technology just isn’t cheap. Cameras can vary in price. Consumer level cameras can be had for a few hundred dollars, while professional camera bodies may cost in the thousands. Some of the higher end models can range from 2 and 3 thousand to 5 and 6 thousand dollars, or more.
In addition, most professional photographers have more than one camera body. Just in case something breaks down, they need to ensure that your experience is still fantastic, and that the session can proceed as planned.
What I just described above is for camera bodies only. That does not include lenses. Professional lenses vary in price as well. Medium grade lenses can cost a few hundred dollars. Professional grade equipment is more expensive. A single lens may cost around one to three thousand dollars. Each type of lens serves a purpose. In addition, lenses have a great deal of engineering, design and technology embedded in them as well, which makes for a more expensive, but necessary, purchase.
This subject area has a bit more wiggle room, and will vary quite a bit. Professionals have many lighting options available to them. Some opt for strobes, some choose continuous light, some choose natural light (aka the sun), and some choose a combination of them.
When we discuss lighting for headshots, we might be talking about the lights themselves, and/or the accessories necessary to create incredible light that best flatters you.
When I entered the field of headshot photography, I sought out inexpensive strobe lights that would get the job done. At that time, the cost per light was around $400-$500 per light. There are many different brands on the market now, and they all offer plenty of options at differing price points. Let’s use $400 as a rough approximate.
Some photographers choose to go with a continuous lighting set up. This is not cheap either, ranging from around $3,000 to around $9,000 for a set. Of course, professionals tend to choose gear made by reputable brands. As such, the prices are reflective of that.
Multiple lights and modifiers, plus stands to hold them are essential components of this genre of photography.
[Related Reading: How to Light Headshots with One Light – Slice Of Pye Ep. 6]
Tripod and Ball Head
Using a tripod is a choice. Most professional headshot photographers tend to use a tripod because it frees their hands up to either better coach and direct you, fix a light, or maybe tweak your clothes and hair. They also help in keeping the camera steady, which raises the quality of your headshot images. In addition, those cameras get kind of heavy after a while. So, it makes sense for us to use one.
Cheap tripods can be found anywhere. But, as mentioned above, professionals choose to work with reputable companies, as their gear withstands all of the wear and tear that working photographers levy on it. A good tripod can cost a few hundred dollars.
A ball head is another useful element of a tripod. It is sold separately from the tripod itself, and allows photographers to move the camera up, down, left, right, and any other way necessary in order to make a fantastic picture. They too cost a few hundred dollars.
Just a quick side note: not all photographers opt for a ball head. Some use a pan head, and they can be equally expensive.
It’s pretty normal to have a telephone in order to operate a business. Most photographers have opted to utilize their mobile phones and a Google Voice account in order to make things more efficient. However, the mobile phone service providers are in business as well. The cost of the monthly telephone service is another business expense.
While I did mention some of the gear necessary in order to operate a headshot photography business, the list is far from complete. In today’s digital society, with the desire for efficiency and expedience, the need for a computer is paramount. While some argue that an Apple iMac is best, others will stand by their PC. Just the same, a regular consumer-level computer won’t suit the needs of a working professional photographer. The reasoning is simple: We ask our computers to do a lot. The programs / apps we use tend to consume a lot of memory, the high-end graphics components are very important, and we need fast processing speeds. We have the misfortune of requiring the “pro” line of computers from whichever brand or manufacturer, because the higher level components and systems are only available in those lines. The benefit to you is that we are able to make things faster, more efficiently, and produce a better quality product. However, the price tag is significant. These machines could cost thousands of dollars. Moreover, with the introduction of newer models and when our current systems are out of date or obsolete, we need to upgrade in order to deliver the high quality service and professional headshot images that you expect and deserve.
As mentioned above, we ask our computers to do a lot. The software we use helps us to provide a better experience, and a better product. We don’t use every program or application on the market, but just the same, these costs can certainly add up. These programs can range from Photoshop to proofing galleries, slideshow software to applications that allow us to photograph you directly into the computer, and everything in between.
It should come as no surprise that we, much like most of society, have the added expense of connecting to the internet. Since the major telecom and internet providers see fit to charge us for the use of their internet service, we have no choice but to pay the bill. Naturally, this allows us to get online, stay in touch with you, post proofing galleries, host our websites, and many other internet related things.
Website and Email
Websites are not free. We need to pay for the privilege of showing the world that our businesses exist, and to show our work. No matter where our sites are hosted, it comes with a price tag. In addition, if we aren’t capable of web design, coding, or search engine optimization, this might come with an additional cost.
Some businesses choose to stick with a free Google Gmail account. Others have spent a little money for professional suites of applications and services in order to make their business email addresses appear more professional. There is nothing wrong with either choice. They are just different. However, you might choose to work with a headshot photographer who has a more official email address. Then again, you might not. Just the same, some professionals don’t want to take that chance, and to them it makes sense to spend a few bucks on this service.
This is an essential element in owning a business. As professionals, we are constantly learning and growing. We have to! Falling behind on industry trends, techniques, and skills is never a good idea. It’s the same in every profession. Most industries host conferences, where respected and accomplished individuals present their knowledge in order to help their colleagues. We do the exact same thing! But, guess what?! It comes with a price tag. Whether we choose to pay for specific classes or not, the travel expenses associated are significant.
Sure, we could stay at home, grab a drink, and catch a YouTube video. But, we lose out on a lot of opportunities if we do that. Photography conferences offer opportunities to learn and work side by side with presenters. This means that we can practice what is preached, and get comfortable enough to implement the techniques in our own businesses. This has an immediate and direct impact on the quality of work you receive.
There are plenty of other panels and classes available to us. All of which help us to become better photographers and business-people. We are small business owners, and don’t have any way to offset the cost of these trips. Attending is necessary, and as such, the expenses are a necessary evil.
Advertising and marketing is another essential element of owning and operating a business. We honestly don’t expect customers to miraculously find us. Referrals are wonderful, and yes, we love them. However, we can’t survive on referrals alone. Google search is a fantastic tool, and you should absolutely use it! Just Google: Headshot Photographer Near Me, and check out the results.
Unfortunately, there is more to advertising and marketing than just using Google and getting referrals. Sometimes, we need to spend a quarter to make a dollar. This is the plight of most businesses. Corporations do this regularly, though they have the capital to reach a larger audience and make a larger impact. Small businesses usually aim for a more local impact.
If we hadn’t spent a few bucks in the marketing and advertising department, there is a chance that you might not have found us. This might seem a bit extreme, but marketing and advertising dollars aren’t only spent on ads. The simple things like sending out birthday cards, or buying business cards also fall in this category.
Professional Membership Dues
Like most other industries, we have professional affiliations, such as the American Society of Media Photographers, or the Professional Photographers of America. There are plenty of others as well. You can chalk a membership in the local Chamber of Commerce up to a marketing and advertising expense, or professional membership dues. In either case, we still need to cough up cash.
Shit happens. That’s just a fact of life. What kind of responsible individuals and business owners would we be if we didn’t insure our businesses properly? As you can probably tell, our equipment is costly. When stuff happens, we can’t afford to suffer tremendous losses. In addition, we insure our businesses and studios as a measure of protection, both for you and for ourselves. The premiums don’t cost a huge amount, but if/when we need to pay for deductibles, they can be significant.
Legal and Accounting Services
While this title might be a little misleading, it is meant to encompass all of the necessary professional services a business owner requires. Every year, we file taxes, just like you. In order to make heads or tails out of the information, and to ensure that the Government doesn’t come knocking on our door, we use accountants. When you aren’t knowledgeable about the tax code, hiring a good accountant can be a life saver.
Protecting ourselves and our businesses is vital. We have worked hard to get where we are, and to acquire the equipment and assets that we have. We might not be wealthy, but we have a lot of money tied up in our businesses in order to provide you with outstanding service and high quality headshot images. This is why we seek the assistance of attorneys. It’s helpful for us to have solid legal counsel, given that we aren’t knowledgeable about the intricacies of the law.
Once again, these fees are necessary, but costly.
Licensing and Permits
I’m sure that it’s not shocking to you that the Government likes to extend its hand and impose regulation on small businesses. Depending on who you ask, they might just be doing so in order to collect additional fees and revenue. However, in order to register our businesses, and obtain the necessary licenses, we need to cough up some more cash. Some expenses may seem like choices. This is not one of them.
Whether we are traveling to and from conferences, as was mentioned earlier, or we are headed to your company to make corporate headshot photos of your team, we still incur expenses. These could range from parking and fuel to tolls and food. They don’t seem like significant expenses, but they do add up.
Of course, one might assume that these fees would be built into the total price we charge for that particular job. Of course they are! But that’s just one more reason, no matter how trivial, that the prices are as high as they are.
If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll notice that I have listed out a whole bunch of operating expenses to illustrate a very specific point. As you can imagine, these costs add up, and they are quite significant.
When you wonder why headshots are so expensive, you haven’t considered the investment photographers have had to make in order to provide you with the service.
More interestingly, we haven’t even touched on experience, knowledge, talent, or value. For the sake of this conversation, I’m going to hold off on talking about this subject.
Let’s do some basic math:
Let’s assume that we photographed 1 client each day for 365 days at a rate of $99 per client.
That means that we are working every single day through the year, without vacation. At $99 per client, we would effectively make $29,700. When you factor in all of the expenses we have, that entire sum of money is gone.
Sure, we don’t have to make gear purchases every single day, but the normal operating expenses add up!
I know what you’re thinking! Why not photograph more than 1 person each day? I agree! Let’s use 2 people each day as an example.
At $99 per person, the total each day would come to $198 per day. Multiple that across 365 days, and we have made $72,270. Assuming that we are running an absolute bare bones business, a good portion of that money is used to pay for yearly expenses. The rest would be taxable as normal income.
Based on the assumption that we take home $35,000 per year, of which all of that is taxable by the Federal Government and State Government. Depending on which state we operate in, income tax rates could vary.
For the sake of this argument, I will use Pennsylvania as an example, as I am a professional headshot photographer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Based on a single person, filing income tax with the Federal and State Governments, the breakdown will likely look like this:
This means that we effectively make $28,706 per year, or $2,392.17 per month. From that, we need to take care of our own costs of living.
Photographers have day to day living expenses, just like everyone else.
We have to put food on the table for our families, pay our mortgages or the rent, pay for health insurance, clothing, utilities (heat, water, electricity, etc), we have car payments to make, and car insurance to pay, we often have some degree of debt, we try to put money away for retirement, and save some cash for a rainy day, and our kids will need money for the usual odds and ends as well.
Photographers are hard working people, just like you. We are all working hard to make our own ends meet.
There are assumptions of course.
Do we want to work 365 days a year? Will clients choose to work with us every day through the year?
The point that I am making is that the only way cheap headshots are a viable business practice is if there is enough volume to substantiate the low cost, and that just isn’t reality.
Most professional headshot photographers value their work a bit higher than that, as they have invested a lot of time, energy, money, blood, sweat, and tears into honing their craft. Experience, knowledge and talent play a role in why photographers charge what they do. This is where you need to ask yourself if “good enough” is good enough. Investing in yourself and your brand is essential, and that means paying what is necessary in order to get headshot images that best communicate your message.
Consider that if you had a heart attack, would you choose to see a cardiologist (heart specialist) or a podiatrist (foot specialist)? Both have gone to medical school, and while both have knowledge of human anatomy, the cardiologist is more capable of tending to your ailment as they have trained more extensively in this niche. The same can be said of headshot photographers. When your visual messaging, branding, and revenue growth are dependent on making a great first impression, wouldn’t you rather have a photographer who has trained extensively in the world of headshots?
[Related Reading: Headshot Photography Tips | The Gear You Need To Start Your Studio]
When you ask why headshots are so expensive, or why headshot photography is so expensive, please consider the above. It’s not because headshot photographers want to rake you over the coals, or that we are greedy in any way. We just want to have a nice life, just like you. We are honest, hard working people, with a passion for making incredible headshot images of you, so that you can grow your network, your brand, the number of opportunities that get sent your way, and your revenue! We just incur some hefty expenses in order to make that happen, and we believe that our knowledge and talent merit the price(s) we charge.
If the cost is a bit more than you can afford, the best suggestion I can offer is to reach out to us. Perhaps we can find a way to assist you.
If you’d like to chat more about this, or any other headshot photography related question, either leave a comment below, or feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Post shared with permission from the author (Richard Waine)