Commercial Photography Isn’t Free, Because It’s An Expensive Business to Run

First, to everyone that understands the technical knowledge, time, and expensive resources that go into running a commercial photography business, know you are truly appreciated…

There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t get an email or phone inquiry, or read a posting, looking for a free photographer or one to work for practically peanuts. It’s baffling and ridiculous. Would someone go to a hair stylist and ask for a free cut in exchange for likes? Would someone ask an electrician to fix their lights in exchange for snacks? Do people go to a stock broker and ask for investment strategies in exchange for an Instagram tag? None of this happens on the regular for other services providers. For all these services, 99.999 percent of the time you expect to – and do – pay full price for them. Somehow, with photography, it’s different.

I believe a lot of it has to do with certain smartphone manufacturers claiming they produce good quality photos. It creates a perception that anyone, in an instant, might be able to be a commercial photographer. There is no comparing a smartphone to real commercial photography gear. It’s like a Prius to a Ferrari. If you want to get into racing, you start with fast but affordable cars and gain valuable knowledge and experience racing them. Eventually, you buy a Ferrari and train harder to become an expert driver with it. This way, you compete on a circuit with only other hundred thousand-dollar cars, not Prius cars. This is what a high-end commercial photographer does too. They acquire affordable gear and spend sometimes years mastering how to use it. Next step is to get into the Ferraris of camera gear and lighting and master it. It puts you in a unique circuit and it deserves that level of respect, appreciation and acceptance for its price.

I’m glad to see more and more that photographers are standing up against this. Rather than just kindly saying no, lately I see more videos, articles, posts, comments, etc. of an industry of photographers trying to educate people. This is my effort to chime in. There are clear reasons why working with a professional photographer can be costly. We’ll get into that at the end. First, here are some of my favorite all too-common requests for free work.

I’m a Popular Blogger
“Found you on (name your social network) and love your work. I’m a blogger that companies use to promote some of their products. I want to work with you on a weekly basis. Can’t pay but, I have 50,000 followers and I’ll credit your photos. Get back to me please.”

You want me to dedicate a half-day or full-day each week, for free (so I can’t devote that time to other paying clients), to shoot products with and for you that a company is paying you for. And, you don’t want to pay for it in return. Umm, pass.

Event Request, Big Ballers
“Hi. I’m looking for an event photographer for a red-carpet styled event for industry awards and a dinner. I’ll need you to individually shoot 30-50 people and then do some candid shots during the event. So, you’ll need to have high end gear. Can you provide me a list of your gear? Also, you need to provide all the RAW files at the end of the night. So, there’s no editing needed. We can’t pay you for this but, it’s a quick  job and you can use some of the photos for your own promotional items and there will be lots of people there to network with.”

Umm, no. Pass again. You organized a big event and left out budgeting for a photographer – not my mistake to pay for. Oh, and you want the RAW files and will let me use some of them. This misunderstanding of who owns the images is all too common. A photographer owns the images, even if your likeness or property is in a photo. You cannot use them without the photographer’s permission. Yes, it’s your likeness or property in the photos and a photographer is also not free to just use your likeness or property from photos. Permission is a two-way street. FYI. So, is hiring and working with someone and then paying for received services.

Shoot My Event for Food
“Looking for event photographer with professional lighting and camera. But, don’t need anything fancy from the photos. Amateur photographer will do. No pay. Snacks provided.

So, do you want a professional with lighting and a good camera or not? If an amateur will do and the shots don’t need to be fancy, have a friend pull out their smartphone – nothing fancy about that. Pass again.

Do You Do Free Headshots?
Ring! Ring!

Thanks for calling. How can I help?

Hi, yes. Do you do free headshots for people?

Sorry, come again?

I’m wondering if you can do free headshots for me if I come to you? I only need 5-10 finished photos for my website and LinkedIn.

No, sorry I can’t help.

Do you know anyone that does?

No, sorry?

Well, then how much do you charge?

Yep, this happens. Apparently, there is content on my website that I can’t seem to find to remove that says I setup shop to offer free headshots.

Growing Pains
“Saw your profile – love your work. I have a new clothing line of 25 women’s tops, 25 jeans, and various accessories. Just finishing up the website with my designer too. Looking for professional photographer to shoot the products. I can’t pay you now but, maybe down the road I might be able to.”

I feel your pain – starting a business is expensive. It gets more expensive to maintain it. It’s also why I can’t work for free just like you’re not going to want to give away your product for free. You did find a way to pay for the clothing stock and probably that web designer too. So, how about you find a way to pay for the photography? Also, you just indicated to me, by not offering compensation, how much value you place on photography. So, I don’t really have any belief that you’ll be paying me for it in the future.

Photography Takes More Time Than You Think
Running a commercial photography business takes a lot of time but, apparently far less time than some people think. Another comment I hear is, “you want how much for just a couple of photographs? I mean it’s just a couple of minutes to do.” Really, is it? Let’s break down the time it takes for an average quick headshot session.

• 3 minutes to field your call or email
• 3 more minutes to follow-up, coordinate a time and schedule it
• 5 minutes back-and-forth by email, text, etc. to cover “what should I bring, ideas, etc.”
• 1 minute to re-confirm a day prior
• 5 minutes to take out gear and charge – be sure all is ready before the shoot
• 10 minutes to set up gear before the shoot
• 30 minutes for the session
• 3 minutes to process paperwork and payment
• 5 minutes helping with making photo selections
• 20 minutes to catalog and touch-up your chosen 2-3 photos
• 10 minutes to put away gear and clean up
• 5 minutes to close out files (save photos, paperwork, payment)

That’s 100 minutes just for 2-3 professional-grade shots that some people think only takes 2 minutes. We’re not using a basic smartphone camera and flashlight. Too many people have a misperception that using a high-end camera and lighting is as easy as a smartphone and flashlight. So, it should only take a few minutes. They also conveniently forget to account for all the other little things that need doing.

Photography is Not Cheap
Contrary to the belief of many, operating a commercial photography business is not cheap. If you have a commercial studio, you’re in probably $1,000 to $5,000 monthly for a lease. Even renting can run into the hundreds per shoot. Most high-end studios also have invested $30,000+ in premium equipment. This gear matters when you want quality. It’s why people come to a commercial studio instead of using portrait mode on a phone.

Then, as with any business, there are normal operational costs: employee pay, marketing and advertising, accounting/HR, Internet and electric and other utilities, replacing worn equipment or perishable items as needed, etc.

These are some of the many reasons why it’s going to cost you and unfortunately, likes, follows or snacks don’t pay for a commercial photographer’s expenses.

In advance, thanks for understanding. Those that do are truly appreciated and can expect good results if you hire the right professional photographer.

Scroll to top