The price indicates if they are a real professional photographer

Anyone can take a good photo, right?  Do you really need a professional photographer?  Why can’t I use the cheaper photographer?  At any given time, most people can make a connection with a “photographer” in less than two layers of friends.  

There is certainly not a shortage of people claiming the title of professional photographer.  There are a lot of people out there that can take really pretty pictures, and they aren’t using expensive equipment, or off camera lighting, they may even have a day job, or still be in school.  They may not even be charging for their time or work, or charging so little it is just too good a “deal to pass up”.   And everyone needs to learn, right?  So a start up photographer might charge less in the beginning.  And if it isn’t the person’s “day job”, they probably don’t “need the money” because it’s not “really a business”, right? 

Well…actually, they are a business if they are charging.  Even if they are a lot cheaper than other professional photographers you might be comparing them to.  So that’s the thing to think about – how much does professional photography cost?

The cheaper photographer looks like a really good deal, right?  Let me ask you to think about a few things.

Will it matter if they aren’t a “real” professional photographer?

Professional photographers are just like any other business – they have expenses and they factor those expenses into their prices, as a “cost of goods sold”.  What they pay for their equipment, marketing, insurance and taxes are all part of what they have to take into account when they set their prices.  And those that deliver an actual product like a print or even a USB drive, have to consider the cost of actually getting those items, and then getting those item to YOU.  All of that comes into account when calculating how much they need to charge for a session of their time, and for any products they deliver.  

It gets a little “tricky” because what they create seems to be just an image on paper.  Some folks think the cost of the actual paper is all that matters and they don’t value what it costs to get to the point of taking the image, and creating the end result.  Ask any artist, the cost of doing business isn’t just the cost of the canvas they paint on.

So that photographer that charges $99 and gives you a bunch of digital files as a download – how are they making money?  Well, they aren’t.  And they may not even know it.  Maybe to them it’s just $99 and nothing else in the “cost” to them.  Maybe they think – it’s only an hour of my time, and that’s a good hourly rate! But at those prices, they are actually giving away their time, and their art.  In some cases, they are losing so much money it’s like they are paying YOU to take the photos.

As a consumer you might say – yup, and so why should I care about that?  “I just want the photos.  I’m getting a great deal!”

Look, I’m not the business police.  I know the facts about why that photographer isn’t making money, and will eventually either burn out, or have to charge more.  Even if they aren’t valuing their time and talent in their prices, there are certain legalities they need to be accounting for in their prices.  And if they don’t at least consider these in their pricing, you all might have a problem, even as a client and not the business owner.

4 legal considerations when working with the “cheaper” photographer

  1. Are they collecting and reporting sales tax to the state?  There will be fines, penalties, back taxes, and more for them if they aren’t and they are caught.  In Virginia, the “session fee” is taxable as it results in a “product” that is delivered.  So if you aren’t paying sales tax to them, that’s a big clue they aren’t paying it to the state.
  2. Are they registered with the state and county as a business, and do they have the business license to prove it?  It’s not expensive, but it’s needed by every business in Virginia.  (if you know someone who is charging for their services, send them this link if they aren’t already set up in Loudoun County as a business)
  3. Are they filing and paying their business property taxes with their county?  Computers and cameras, light stands, camera bags – it all has to be accounted for in Loudoun County, and some other areas as well.  This one adds up fast, it’s typically where most hobbyists start to “get” the costs of being in business. It’s a chore every year to update my list of equipment with new purchases and items I’ve sold, etc.  But it’s like filing your federal taxes, you have to do it when you are a business.  And doing it results in a nice little bill twice a year that has to be paid.  
  4. Are they insured?  Some think their homeowner’s insurance will cover them if you trip or fall during their session – others haven’t thought that far in advance at all, until it happens.  But homeowners insurance will NOT cover them, or YOU, if anything happens while you are working together.  And if it happens in a public park, or in an urban area, there is another entity that will take a piece of pie if anything is damaged, so without insurance you are ALL working at risk.  Business insurance is available, but it isn’t cheap, so lots of folks just don’t get it.  But it’s so much more than the coverage of the photographer’s gear – it’s liability for the client, and the places the photographer will work.  

It’s important to note this – NO ONE is immune from these rules just because they say it’s a “hobby”.  If they are charging people for their “hobby”, it’s a business.  And every business has to address #1, 2, and 3 above.  #4 is a choice, but rolling the dice on a client getting hurt during a session is a risk not worth taking in the end.

So we’ve covered legal, but does the rest even matter?

It may not – again, if in the end you know what you are going to get from working with someone and you are good with what they will deliver, we can stop here.  But most folks don’t understand what they will get and don’t know the difference.  So they may be paying for something and NOT getting what they think they will get.  Think about these:

  • Did you want images you could print someday?  
  • What size will your images be able to print out to?  
  • Are they in focus enough on the important details?  
  • Was there enough light to see the details in the images?  
  • Are there shadows where shadows shouldn’t be?  
  • Are you in a position in the photo that looks natural?  
  • Will you feel safe in the places you are going to be photographed in?
  • Will your images be professionally retouched, or will you have to hire that out later if there are things on skin or with hair that doesn’t show the subjects in the best possible way?
  • If you aren’t happy, what will your photographer do about it? 

It means more, in some cases, to hire a professional photographer

There are certain specialities that truly require a helping hand from a true professional photographer and senior portraits and family portraits are two of them.  Weddings are also, but in a completely different way.  (Obviously that is one day you aren’t getting a “do-over”.) 

For high school senior pictures, you really want someone that is experienced in the age group, and can help to make the senior feel comfortable enough to get great results.   Whether you have someone that loves to play model, and dress up, or someone that is coming out of bribery or guilt.  This age group is super sensitive, and needs a photographer that can help them see the beauty of themselves.  To build confidence with great images, and to give them more to go out into the world with that confidence.

For family photos, you need the same – an experienced photographer that can work with any combination of personalities that get out of the car at the session – in whatever moods they are in on the day.  AND a photographer that has the equipment and knowledge of how to use it – to get the best results as quickly as possible.  Family sessions need an experienced photographer to keep the session moving AND cover the technical basis of being ready to take the photos when the moments happen.  

on location at Rust Manor House Professional Photographer
This image was create at Rust Manor House for a client and her mom. We coordinated the day at the venue, and were able to shoot here because I have a full liability insurance policy for my business. If you were a venue owner, wouldn’t you only want insured vendors in your location? To make sure if something happened, you were all covered?

So, does it matter at all?

Yes, anyone can be a “professional photographer”. There isn’t a standard in place, or a test you have to take. It’s not a college degree designation, and so therefore, anyone can buy a camera today and come up with a name and “be” a professional photographer. There are organizations that can educate on the subject, and even one that gives you a test that you take to be designated “certified professional photographer”. (It’s a good organization and I’d happily debate the subject with anyone willing why it matters or not in the end.) So does it matter?

What defines a professional photographer is very much about the experience of working with them, and if that part isn’t as important to you, then nothing above (except maybe the liability part) is going to be of concern to you.

I hope you’ll take into account some of the things mentioned here when looking for that family photographer for holiday photos, or a senior portrait photographer or the next big family reunion. All of the life moments that deserve good quality images and a great experience for the clients.

Are you looking for a senior photographer and don’t know where to start? I have a FREE guide that can help you see your options and know what to consider when looking for the perfect fit for your graduate. Check out the Ultimate Guide to Senior Photographers HERE.

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