WHY That Photo’s Not Free!…

The Alphabet - constructed from food products that start with each respective letter.

Let’s spell it out…

I recently wrote a post on the topic of using images from the web titled “That Photo’s Not Free!…“I touched on copyright issues surrounding the practice of grabbing an image online and using it without permission from (or compensation to) the photographer who created it. After I posted the article and got great response, a colleague of mine offered up the brilliant idea of a follow-up post explaining WHY that photo IS NOT and SHOULD NOT be free.

The first and foremost reason why it SHOULD NOT be free is because once people get the idea in their minds that photos could be free, they soon start to EXPECT them all to be free from now until eternity. This is a difficult place from which to rewind.

Allow me to now lay out the case for why images should not be free, based on the investment we photographers make in both time and money to create valuable assets, assets for which the creator is due compensation. This will of course be from my personal perspective, attempting to illustrate what is necessary to stay current, and maintain a thriving commercial photography studio.

In order to create these assets, we have expenses. But before we get to the nuts and bolts of our associated costs, let’s talk about the foundation on which the photography industry is built. Education.

Some of us do indeed go through 2-4 year programs at accredited universities or community colleges in order to hone our craft. Yet, not everyone goes this traditional route. Some take the apprenticeship approach, learning on the job alongside a professional. Others are self-taught. No matter how the education happens, it involves deep investments of both time and money, and in some cases it can be upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years. For all of which there is no direct compensation. Education is just one of the many “investments” we make in order to excel at our craft.

I recently read a statement that I love. It was a photographer’s response to a client who took issue with paying what was perceived to be an exorbitant amount of money for a shoot that the photographer was able to accomplish rather quickly. It went something like this: “You are not paying for how long it takes me to do the job. You are paying for the decades of experience which I have accumulated that allows me to do the job at this high level.”

Most professional photographers are people who have invested a significant number of years fine-tuning their skills, developing a style, and refining their voices. This is no small feat and is something that is ONLY compensated (monetarily) when they get a gig or sell an image.

Photo of Cowboys eating take-out Chinese Food

Most professional photographers “Test.” Testing means shooting a project for yourself for the purpose of developing or adding to your portfolio. It is both a form of self-expression and a way to show clients your “personal work.” But who PAYS for the test? The photographer does. This particular test was fairly elaborate and cost thousands of dollars.

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty… It’s sharing time.

I am going to share my personal gear list with you to demonstrate the kinds of investments a real-life photographer like me has as overhead. Every professional photographer is going to have his or her preferred gear. How much gear depends on the photographer and also the type of work they do. I don’t think I am anywhere near the high-end of the spectrum in regards to how much I own, but I do have a substantial amount of equipment. Keep in mind, this is the equipment I have now and does not reflect all of the equipment that has gone by the wayside over the years which would EASILY double my investment from the list below.

This is my current equipment investment in all its glory. I doubt this list is exhaustive and I encourage others to add their two cents. In fact, I intentionally omitted a lot of small things here and there because otherwise this post would go on almost forever.

Avenger Super Clamp, Stand Adapter, and Grip Head $75
Avenger 40″ C Stands w/ Grip Head, Ext Arm x 4 @ $175 $700
Bogen Pro Digital Geared Head 405 $350
Calument 42″ Lightdisk Kit $60
Canon EF 100mm 2.8 Macro USM Lens $475
Canon EF 16mm-35mm f2.8 Series II USM AF Lens $1,800
Canon EF 35mm-350mm AF Lens $1,790
Canon EF85mm 1.2L AF USM Lens $1,500
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III Digital Camera w/extra battery $8,250
Canon EOS 1D X Digital Camera Body $6,799
Canon Extension Tube EF25 $150
Chimera Super Pro Soft Box (Lg) $440
Chimera Super Pro Soft Box (sm) $170
Comet Grid Spot Set (3 grids) $145
Extension Cords – 50′ x 6 @ $35 $210
Gel-Stor Roll-Up $35
Gitzo Performance Rapid GT3340 L Tripod $550
GoPro Hero 3+ Black with extra battery, 2 x 32 GB Micro SD Cards, Multi Grip, Strap Mount, and Gecko Mount $675
Grip Package (various small grip items, A Clamps, Super Clamps, Studs, J-Hooks, etc.) $500
Hasselblad 120mm HC 4.0 Macro Lens $3,400
Hasselblad 28mm HCD 4.0 Lens $3,730
Hasselblad 50-110mm HC 3.5-4.5 Zoom Lens $3,500
Hasselblad 80mm HC 2.8 Lens Included w/ Camera Body
Hasselblad Battery Grip x 2 $420
Hasselblad DC Power Grip $325
Hasselblad H13mm Extension Tube $300
Hasselblad H3D-39II   39MP Camera Body $32,000
Hasselblad Pro Lens Shade V/H 6095 w/ 77mm & 95mm Mount Rings $750
Hassleblad H3D II   39MP Digital Back Included w/ Camera Body
Lensbaby Composer Pro with Canon Mount $300
Lexar High Speed Card Reader $50
Light Stands x 4 @ $45.00 $180
Lightware Strobe Head Case T4444 x 2 @ $365 $730
Lightware 50 Flip Lid Case C5042 $225
Lightware 50 Flip Lid Case C6050 $200
Lightware CARGO 32 CASE $140
Lightware CASE #1420 x 3 $1,025
Lightware MF1015 Camera Bag / Case x 2 @$269.00 $538
Lightware Tool Kit Wallet A8700 $80
Lowepro Pro Roller x200 Camera Bag $325
Magliner Gemini JR Hand Truck w/top shelf $600
Manfrotto 685B Monopod $120
Manfrotto 131DB Side Arm $100
Monitor Tray 13″ with Steadi-Cam Pin for mounting on Magliner $225
Motorola Talkabout two-way radios x 4 $200
Photek Umbrellas x 4 @ $65.00 $260
Photoflex Reflector 52″ $86
Pocket Wizard Radio Slaves x 2 (1 Transmitter / 1 Transceiver) $300
Pocket Wizard Plus III Transceiver $150
Pocket Wizard Plus X Transceiver $84
Profoto 5M Head Extension Cable $260
Profoto Acute / D4 Ring Light 330513 $750
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Zomm Reflector 2 and Cover $1,150
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Zomm Reflector 2 and Cover $1,150
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Reflector and Cover $950
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Reflector and Cover $950
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Reflector and Cover $950
Profoto Acute2 / D4 Strobe Head w/Reflector and Cover $950
Profoto D4 2400R Strobe Pack $8,250
Profoto D4 2400R Strobe Pack $8,250
Profoto SpeedRing QR $140
Profoto WideSoft Reflector for RingFlash $275
RawWorkFlow WhiBal Pocket & Studio Full Kit Bundle $150
Sand Bags (25 Lb) x 6 @ $35.00 $210
Sandisk Extreme Pro 16GB CF Cards x 3 $500
Sandisk Extreme IV 2 GB CompactFlash Card x 6 @ $125 $750
Sekonic Flash Meter L-358 with RT Module $400
Smarter Tools STGP-9500EB Generator $850
Sony DSC RX1R Camera with extra batter, charger, and 2x32GB SD Cards $3,200
Speedotron Set of 4 7″ Grids $100
Tamrac 332 Tripod Padded Bag $75
Tamrac 603 Zoom Traveler Camera Bag $80
Tamrac Big Wheels Backpack Camera Case (697) $350
Tenba RS-M24 Wheeled Air Case $600
Tiffen 77mm Polarizing Filter $60
Visible Dust Full Size Pro 1.0x Bundle $200
Wescott 3515 Speed Ring $45
Wescott 4830 16×22 Soft Box $130
Wescott 7′ Parabolic Umbrella with Diffuser $125
Wescott 47″ Zepplin Parabolic with Profoto Bracket and diffuser plate $750
Westcott 42 x 72 Scrim Jim Kit (1893) $250
Sub Total / Photo Equipment $107,867
Advent Powered Speakers (x2) AV 570/570G $290
AirPort Extreme 802.11n Base Station $200
AirPort Extreme 802.11n Base Station $200
AirPort Extreme Base Station $200
APC Battery Backup XS 1500 $150
APC Battery Backup BN700MC $125
APC Battery Backup Pro 1000 $150
Apple 27″ Thunderbolt Display $1,000
Apple 27″ Thunderbolt Display $1,000
Apple iMac 27″ 3.4GHz Intel Quad Core i7, 16GB Ram, 2TB HD + 256GB SSHD, Radeon 6970M Graphics, Apple Care,Creature Speakers $3,500
Apple Mac Pro 2.7GHz 12-Core, 1TB SSHD, 32GB Ram, Dual D700 GPU, Apple Care $9,335
Cabling $750
Epson Photo Stylus R2880 w/ extra ink cartridges $1,000
Epson Stylus Pro 7800 w/8 220mml ink cartridges $4,000
Eye One Pro Spectrometer and Print Matching System $1,400
Areca ARC-8050 Thunderbolt Drive Enclosure $1,500
hp LaserJet M1522nf $500
Innovative 7500 Deluxe LCD Monitor Arm – Heavy Duty LCD Mount $300
Lacie 3TB USB 3.0 Drive $160
LaCie Rugged 1 TB Thunderbolt Drive x 3 $600
Lexar FireWire Compact FlashCard Reader $50
MGBurly8PM – Burly 8 Bay Drive Enclosure w/Port Multiplier $1,050
Seagate Barracuda Internal Drives 1TB x 12 & 2TB x 2 & 3TB x 9 $3,500
Software & Storage Media $5,000
OWC Mercury Pro Dual Drive Enclosure $300
Wacom Intuos 4 Large Tablet $500
Sub Total / Computer Equipment – Stationary $36,760
Apple iPad Air 32GB, Extra Cables, Smart Cover, and Case $850
Apple 15″ MacBook Pro 2.2GHz Intel i7 Quad Core 8GB RAM 256GB SSHD, Super Drive, HR Display w/ Apple Care $3,500
Sub Total / Computer Equipment – Mobile $4,350
Grand Total $148,977


So far, NOT INCLUDING all of the equipment that has come and gone over the years (Think 4 or 5 film-based camera systems and countless computers.), my investment in my career including my education and equipment stands around a quarter of a million dollars. I guess I better get out there and start getting some jobs through the door! To that end, the next step is to connect with those who would hire me and let them know I exist. And I need to have a body of work to show them that I can indeed deliver. What does that entail? Another list of expenses…

Photo of a mouse speaking into a megaphone

While “Testing” can be a drain on the pocketbook, it can often pay off in exposure. The expenses on this test were minimal (props / set and animal trainer) but they were well worth the investment. This image won a Communication Arts Award and was featured in the CA Photography Annual

Let’s talk about Monthly Expenses…

As my work is evenly split between studio shoots and location shoots, I choose not to incur the overhead of maintaining an actual physical studio. For those who do, you can expect to add $2500 – $5000+ per month in costs.

Here is a list of my on-going expenses broken down to monthly charges (even though some may be paid on an annual basis). I have not included job-related expense because those are generally charged directly to the client (e.g. talent fees, props, wardrobe, hair and make-up, locations, etc.).

Accounting & Legal fees $60
Advertising in At-Edge $665
Advertising in Workbook $575
Yodelist List Service $100
Various other web-based portfolio sites $25
eBlasts & Site tracking $450
Web Hosting / Domain Names $15
Printed Promotional Pieces $100
Competitions $35
Delivery & Postage $36
Professional Organization Dues $32
Software Subscriptions $29
Equipment Maintenance $25
Business Insurance $160
Office Expenses $95
Parking $35 (while showing portfolios etc.)
Telephone $175
Testing & Portfolio Expense $350
Travel (visiting agencies to solicit work) $675

Total = $3637 per month.

Again, this does not include ANYTHING that is related to an actual job. It also does not include employees if you need help around the office. You’ll also notice I did not include things like:

  • Rent / Mortgage
  • Car payments
  • Non-business insurances (auto, home, health, life)
  • Student loans
  • Gasoline
  • Utilities
  • Oh… food!
  • Clothing
  • Recreation / entertainment
  • Providing for a family (What?!)
  • Updated equipment
  • Business Gifts, which I send every year

These are simply “costs of doing business” and I have to pay them whether I work or not! Plus, every few years you need to factor in capital investments for new cameras and computers.

So as a professional photographer, EVERYTHING I have listed above comes out of my own pocket, out of my “photography fee“. So it becomes quite a challenge to stay in business when your “fee” for a photograph is…. ZERO.

Photo of a woman circa 1960 holding a toothbrush and toothpaste as a sales pitch

Shooting personal work is a cost of doing business. As a commercial photographer, you’ve always got to be developing new work to stay fresh in the eyes of your prospective clients. It is a necessary investment of both time and money.

Hey, we photographers are a passionate bunch and we and LOVE what we do. We CELEBRATE the fact that so many people share our passion to take photos, make beautiful imagery, and express themselves. But for the tens of thousands of us who call this our profession and our ONLY source of income, THIS is WHY that photo is not free!

Please, share your thoughts and expenses that I may have missed!

8 thoughts on “WHY That Photo’s Not Free!…

  1. Of course , I know this ALL too well back from my assisting days.
    A lot of shooters are having to cut corners to budget any kind of shoot these days.
    So these costs rarely see the light of day unless, it’s a true budget shoot.

    Very happy to see that you’re staying on top of the photography game, Dana!

  2. Very well put, I actually sat down and did this a while back and keep in mind the longer you’ve been in the game the more you’ve spent over time and that does add up.
    This needs to be taught to those that are undercutting the cost of doing business as well as the client.

    • You are absolutely correct Jon! While those that undercut may win the job in the short term, they ultimately only put themselves out of business in the long term.

  3. As president of our Greater Florida ASMP chapter, I am asked to present at schools. The “How much does this photo cost?” presentation contains my favorite tool for making sense of it all – The NPPA Cost of Doing Business (CODB) calculator that can be found at their website NPPA.org. It certainly isn’t as in depth as your list but using it does make it perfectly clear why a photographer needs to charge a certain rate just to keep the business open (+ usage + expenses). As a graduate of University Florida’s Fine Art program, I can tell you there was no mention “running a business” only of “being an artist” – thank you Dana for continuing to share.

  4. Very well written Dana,

    we actually need to be treated much more respectfully. Business class flights and 5 star hotels should not be a factor when the project is very prestiges.
    But we also have to factor the time we live in today; where agents like to sign up sometimes Instagram Shooters and pay them very little to make big money for them self. New young shooters work much more simple and have very little equipment but are not afraid to take creative risks. They do it for very little money and the results are often very impressive. We call that the war between the generations and ages. We have to become smarter and let the good old times go. Create maybe a bit kind of a greenhorn mentality but with a lot of more drive and will power as when we started out years ago. Almost kind of a survival attitude!!!

Comments are closed.