Why I cannot charge the same as big box portrait studios

Comparing apples to oranges

Marianne Drenthe of Marmalade Photography wrote a FANTASTIC article on Professional Child Photographer’s website, which pretty much sums up the amount of work and preparation that I do for each of my photo shoots (whether they are wedding photography or portrait photography).

Not all portrait sessions are created equal.  What I mean by that is that each photographer has their own level of knowledge and expertise. Also photography equipment has various standards and quality levels.  Having been professionally trained and having many years of experience in portraiture under my belt, I think that I’m pretty darn good at what I do (baby, child, family, wedding photography).

I always feel good when people compliment my photography.  It makes me feel great–like I am putting quality work out there.  I get an even bigger thrill when people like my work so much that they hire me to capture a moment in time of their family that they can cherish for a lifetime.  I really do my best to create beautiful portraits for my clients because I understand the importance of capturing these moments.

Professional photography is not a top priority for a lot of people and their views of how much they are willing to pay for a photo session or even for photography products reflects that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that most people have a budget and having professional photos taken is considered a luxury for many.  That is why there are places like Walmart, Sears and Superstore that have small studios to do portrait sessions on the cheap for those who would like portraits taken, but do not want to spend much money for them.

Many people are happy to just have some decent looking photos to hang on their walls.  Honestly, that is ok with me.  However, what is not ok with me is when people want custom photography, but either at big box portrait studio prices or cheaper.   You cannot compare apples to oranges because wanting a professional  photographer to do a custom photography shoot and give you the digital files, prints, etc. for really low prices is like going to an upscale restaurant, ordering the filet mignon and expecting to pay the same price as a McDonald’s hamburger.  It just can’t logically work like that.  I mean, McDonalds can charge cheap prices because they are serving poor quality food, they pay their employees minimum wage (or pretty darn close to it) and they serve high volume, assembly line type service.  Meanwhile, an upscale restaurant is paying for a trained chef, waiters, quality food and creating a unique dining experience.

My photography prices are certainly not on the high end of professional photography prices in my area.  I would say that I am somewhere in the middle for pricing.  With that said, I need to be able to charge enough to:

  1. Cover my time spent working to not only do the photo shoot, but also the preparation before (prepping gear, packing photography gear, driving to and from photo locations) as well as the computer post production of the photos (uploading photos, colour correction, photo shop editing, uploading galleries, client communications, etc.).  After all, if everyone else can get paid to work at their job, shouldn’t photographers also get paid for the hours of work that we put into our jobs?
  2. Charge for the products that I offer (this includes digital files, prints, canvases, etc.)  and also pay for the equipment that I use to do the photo shoot and post processing of my clients’ images (cameras, lenses, flashes, computer, computer software, etc).  Charging next to nothing for prints or digital files will not cover my costs of doing business.  Many people argue that shooting digital costs very little, if nothing, so why shouldn’t photographers give all of the digital files for a small cost.  Let me give one example.  I own two camera bodies and multiple lenses.  One camera body costs $4000+ and each of my lenses costs between $500-$2000.  Shooting digital is not cheap!
  3. Also, there is the gas and maintenance of my car, which I need to drive to the various photography locations, meet with clients, etc.  There’s also the tens of thousands of dollars that I have spent for education, marketing, buying many different photography props, insurance and the list goes on and on…

Since so many people actually do compare apples to oranges, I decided to compare them myself.  I took my daughter to three different discount photo studios to have her portraits taken and I also did a photo session of her myself to show the difference in quality.  She wore the same outfit in order to make a better comparison.

First, I took my daughter to Walmart.  They had an online coupon special for $9.99 in which I got one 8″x10″, two 5″x7″, four 3 1/2″ x 5″, 16 wallets and 16 keepsakes of the same pose.  In order to be able to purchase a CD of all of the photos, you must purchase their $199 photo package.  From start to finish I was in there for about 30 minutes.  When I asked when I would get the photos, the girl explained that it will take 2-3 weeks as their photos get printed in the US and then shipped up to Canada.  Let’s do the math.  Walmart is paying their part time *employee minimum wage ($10/hr).  She spent a 1/2 hour with me, which means $5 of the $10 I paid goes towards paying their employee.  Then they have to pay the photo lab in the US to print and ship the photos up to Canada.  It is quite clear that Walmart has made no money from my daughter’s photo session.  Is it any wonder why both Walmart and Sears in the US closed down all of their portrait studios due to losses?  No one can sustain a photography business by working for free and giving everything away.  And I mean no one–including Walmart and Sears.

*When I asked the Walmart photographer if she was a trained photographer, she told me that she was a college student majoring in marketing.  This is why people can’t compare Walmart’s portrait photography prices to a professional photographer who is running their own business.  Most professional photographers (including myself)  have paid a lot of money to learn the necessary skills to be able to provide the quality style of photography that we offer.  I am not a 19-20 year old student just working a part-time job to pay for school.  I am in business to actually make a living, just like everyone else, so I cannot pay my bills if everyone expects me to charge really cheap prices.  Don’t even get me started on how many people over the years have even asked me to shoot their wedding for free or for peanuts because they say that they can’t afford to pay for a photographer.  Essentially, they are asking me to spend time away from my family (including my young daughter), work during my free time without adequate compensation, put wear and tear on my camera equipment and forgo paying my own bills because they think that they deserve a luxury that they really can get by without.


Next we went to the portrait studio at Superstore.  I chose the $10 economy package, which includes two 8″x10″, two 5″x7″ and 16 wallets. (Presently, they have no digital purchase options.)  Superstore’s studio was a step up from Walmart as the small studio was actually closed off in its own little room (unlike Walmart’s open concept, allowing my hyper daughter to keep running away towards the cashiers and customers).  Superstore also had nicer props than the cheap props that Walmart had, although when I asked if my daughter could sit on the rocking horse at Superstore, I was told that she could not, since I was purchasing the cheapest package.  The flyer with their pricing even says “1 pose, colour only and no props.” I wasn’t too impressed by that.  Imagine if I told my clients that certain props were only to be used by the higher paying clients?!?!?!?  (Btw, the ONLY reason why my daughter was even allowed to pose sitting on that red chair is because she would not sit or stand still, so the only way to salvage the photo session was to get her to sit on it.)

superstore-photo-studio-baby A

Next, we went to Sears portrait studio.  I paid $14.99 for the portrait session and $9.99 for one 8″x10″ unprocessed print.  In order for me to get a print that had ANY kind of minor work done to it, I had to pay $10 extra, so I opted to not have anything done to it.  As far as purchasing digital files from Sears: one “unenhanced” digital file is $79.99, three “unenhanced” digital files are $149.99 and the CD of all of the “unenhanced” digital files are $199.99.  If you want them to add a few enhancements then you will pay $249.99 for the CD of files.  So they spend about 10-20 minutes of post production on your photos and they are charging between $200-250 for a CD of digital files.  I spend about 5-6 hours of post production to make sure that my final images are beautiful, so why should I charge less or even the same as them?


Finally, I did my daughter’s photo shoot myself.  Unlike the the big box portrait studios, I prefer to do my photo sessions outside in order to get many different types of backgrounds.  I also find that photographing children outdoors is far easier than inside using strobes, because with strobes (flash units) you are completely restricted to where you can angle your camera to get the shot by the lighting as well as the backdrop setup.  At least outdoors, I can let children play and have fun while I take their photos using daylight.  I find that this gives more natural results for the photos.  You can see more photos from my daughter’s outdoor photo session.

gatineau baby and child photographers l'ange gardien buckingham QC

Ultimately, everyone will have their own opinion of the quality of the various portraits done by the different companies, so I will let you be the judge.  For me, I prefer good quality over cheaper versions, so I prefer custom photography over ANY big box studio.  In any case, you are free to be the judge and make your own conclusion.  Just know where I am coming from and why I cannot and will not compete with those big box portrait studios as far as pricing goes.


8 thoughts on “Why I cannot charge the same as big box portrait studios

  1. You didn’t mention that you were the one eliciting the lovely smiles from your daughter at the three big box studios. I think this is important to note. You make the photographers look a lot better 😉

  2. I completely agree with everything you’ve said above and such a good idea to show people the difference between professional photography and photos taken at a store where customers are just on a conveyor belt and don’t truly value or even see the difference. I absolutely loved the photos of your daughter in the pretty field near you home (you’re so lucky having that!) and the store photos just truly make me cringe, apart from being terrible quality and the person taking them not even having to be a professional photographer, they show nothing of who your daughter really is and the backdrops, props and lighting are terrible! We face a similar problem when people just want to buy our digital files and then ruin them by printing them cheaply. Such is life however. We will always have people who value professional photography and others who always want something for nothing. Hopefully more people will start to value real professionals such as yourself.

    • Thanks so much for you reply. Yes, there still are people who do value quality, but I find many people are looking for a deal and do not realize the amount of work, money and effort most professional photographers put into their craft. Thanks for the compliments about the photos that I shot of my daughter. 🙂

    • Thanks Vitalia. I agree with helping out the little guys because they usually care more about what they are selling so they try harder to give a quality product. That is not 100% of all little guy businesses, but I have found that most people who run their own business want to impress their customers in order to get repeat business and great word of mouth. 🙂

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