What is a Photograph Worth?

A conversation blew up on Reddit this week with people asking how can a photographer justify high prices for photographic prints. Which got me thinking, does the proliferation of “everyone has a camera” nowadays, does the cheapness of photography mean that there’s no room for experience and quality anymore? No need for high-end photographers? Are we all Chevys now, there’s no room for Porsches and Lamborghinis?

The Leica would be the best comparison–it’s a precision camera made by hand by German technicians who have a good standard of living and don’t want to work for minimum wage, nor should they have to. If that Leica costs $8.3k, is it a scam?

Why buy it when you can get a Polaroid 16mp point and shoot WITH a digital lens for $29.99. Good enough is good enough.

Wait, for $8295, there’s not even a lens included? SCAM!

This person on Reddit won a free photo shoot off a Facebook ad, which means they won the 3-hour photo shoot with hair and makeup styling. But when they saw the price of prints they called it a scam.

The knee-jerk reaction is that this is a scammer. My question: Is there any room for high-end photography? Or are all 8x10s seen as now worth $75 or thereabouts–anything more and it’s a ripoff, some charlatan trying to take advantage? What about pros like myself who often shoot commissioned portraits on 4×5 film, and have 30+ years of experience? Do we get to charge more?

Or is photography in general not worth much, kind of like when it was started and museums wouldn’t put photography exhibits on display–they weren’t considered art like paintings and sculptures.

At the top end, Andy Warhol charged $25,000 for a Polaroid portrait. Because he was a celebrity, obviously. But the rest of us, c’mon!

This is the typical response that the Reddit post got, that no photograph should cost that much.

If the photographer made 300 images during the shoot and is not in the business of selling digital rights, and a client asks for all the digital files, if the photographer says each image with rights buyout is $325, that works out to $6500. I don’t sell digital copies of my work at all because I believe it’s my job to print the photographs in a high-quality way, not let them do it at Wal-Mart or their home printer–I care about my work. But if you put the costs in perspective, that explains the price.

This is the response I see and cringe.

There’s not a professional photographer who can make a living with that as their competition. Though it’s not a fair competition, low price will draw many people who don’t care about quality–think Walmart vs Nordstrom.

To me, obviously the people who would go to these low-cost camera operators (I hesitate to call them photographers, certainly not professional photographers as they aren’t working in any professional capacity) are not the market for the quality photograph that the subject of this discussion is interested in reaching.

Same for me. The $75 portrait isn’t my clientele. Here’s how I describe my process for commissioned portraits, including how it takes between 25-30 hours to complete a portrait.

So, my take is that if someone is good enough, they have the experience and can offer a quality unlike the rest in town–the Leica–they can set their price as high as their market will allow. It sounds like this photographer spent a fair amount of time and had extras like hair and makeup at the session for the subjects.

Were the print prices available ahead of time? I don’t know, though I think they were, based on the discussion. Should they be? I would say yes. But perhaps only if requested–that’s evidently part of the sales tool, to show the images and the prices at the same time, during an in-person review of the photographs when the emotional response is high.

Kind of like stepping into a Leica store, where you’re surrounded by dynamic photography in a gallery display, plus the camera shelf.

I knew a photographer who would charge the same rate, say $450, for any size print, 4×6 up to 16×20, because as they said, “You’re not paying for the paper size, you’re paying for the photographer.”

So, what’s fair? If there are Walmarts on every corner, does that make Nordstrom a scam? If there’s a dollar store in every mall, does that make the Hallmark store just for suckers?

What is the cost of a photograph, and is there a range, or is it like back in those early days with the photographers once again fighting for any sense that their work is art?

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