Let's assume our photographer (lets call him Bill), decides to photograph weddings. He buys a used Nikon D300s (he's on a budget and doesn't need a backup camera right?) for $1400 and two lenses (a 24-70 for $1600 and a 80-200 for $900). He'll buy a spare battery (you know, just in case) and two memory cards for a total of $200 because he found them in the sale bin. Bill will skip a flash at first because he's a natural light kinda guy. So his whopping total for equipment (let's say he's using a school backpack for a camera bag) is about $4100.
Now Bill can advertise by Craigslist and Kijiji and other such free sites. That's his demographic. And why shouldn't people get affordable photography? Not everyone is a millionaire after-all and his art should be accessible!
Also, he won't get insurance because it's a rip-off and he'll just take cash for payment so no need to let the government know he's in business. Hey, it's a bonus to his customers as they won't have to pay sales tax. Also, let's just say that his local municipality doesn't need to know he's in business, so the business license can be kind of ignored.
Bill does like to spend time on the internet getting awesome so he has a Kelby Training membership and is a card carrying member of NAPP because they are cool. So that's about $200 because he found a promotional coupon and the sites are awesome so totally worth it. He won't worry about those old stuffy professional associations like PPOC or PPA so he'll save $ there. Joe McNally came through town so he spent $99 on that seminar so he's got the latest training.
So for the whopping total of $4400 Bill is ready for prime time. Look out all you old dusty pro's, Bill is on the scene and he's breaking the mould. He's getting couples the photography they can afford, and rightfully so, screw the opinions of his peers.
In his first year Bill booked 10 weddings! He knew lots of 'professionals' in his community that had a similar amount of weddings or even fewer, so he must be doing something right. About 3 weddings in he realized he should have a flash. After-all he had been reading Strobist online. So he bought a SB-700 for $350 because the SB-910 was too much $$ (rip-off).
Some grandma at a wedding complained about his clothing while he was there (nosey old cranky lady) so he went to Walmart and bought a shirt, shoes and pants for a total of $150 for everything. His total investment to date is $4900.
Now it's year two and he has booked another 10 weddings. Things are looking up! But uh-oh. On wedding two his D300s failed. Something is wrong with it. Because he bought it used it has no warranty. And he has a wedding this weekend and no camera! He borrows a camera from a friend, but his batteries don't work for it and his friend only has one battery. So he has to buy a battery for that camera because one battery never gets him through a whole wedding. Damn, that was $100 wasted.
The D300s costs him $300 to get fixed. Bill realizes the D300s is getting kind of old and behind the times so he is going to invest in a used D700 because it's full frame and rocks. He gets one for $1500. Also he picks up a prime lens for the bargain price of $100 (a 50mm f1.8). Now he has a pro kit!!! Except that darn flash he bought kind of sucks. It takes forever to recycle and doesn't have much power. Plus he was thinking he'd like to get one of those Gary Fong puffer things because that would be cool. So he springs for an SB-900 and a Fong setup for $600 total.
Bill has now spent $7500 dollars on business expenses.
Sometime in year two, about wedding #15 a mother of the Bride complains that his photos are terrible. She wants a refund and threatens to sue. He just wants to get rid of her so he refunds the money and hopes she will go away. That's not fair. Why sue him? It's not his fault the wedding was in a dark hall and he only has a small flash, What does she expect? She just wants something for free and is pushing him around.
But he made it. Two years, 20 weddings (19 that he was paid for) and he made some coin. He can tell his friends he is a pro photographer. He has 1500 likes on his Facebook page and his photos are real, artistic and totally his style. Brides rave about him and recommend him to all their friends. Sure he's away on weekends from his family, but the money helps pay the bills. He has a full time job anyway so this is all gravy!
So out of curiosity how much would Bill have charged if he made $0. Yes I mean how much money would Bill have charged these clients so that he could work for free.
Lets assume a couple of things. Bill works on average 8 hours at each wedding (some more some less) not including driving time to and from the wedding. He doesn't edit the photos very much so after the wedding he does a couple of edits (really basic) and burns the Bride a disc. She gets the disc the next day. Time to dump the photos on a disc, do some quick edits and drive the disc to the Bride the next day is 2 hours. He spends an additional 1 hour total responding to all her emails and talking to her before and after the wedding not including the 1 hour he spent meeting her to book the wedding at a local Starbucks where he showed her his portfolio on his iPhone.
Bill's total cost for materials for a wedding are about $5 for two DVD's and two paper sleeves to put them in. He doesn't use the printable discs, just the Memorex ones and he Jiffy Markers the name on them. He spends about $20 in gas on each wedding driving around (he has a small economy car). He doesn't store photos after the wedding so he doesn't have to buy extra hard drives (hey it's their responsibility to backup their photos he gives them). He's a computer addict so his computer cost him nothing as he had it anyway to play World of Warcraft. He stole Photoshop and Lightroom from the Torrent Site so that was free.
Total investment on his part to shoot 20 weddings in two years? $8000. We can't take into account the time he spent away from his family so we'll just let that go.
OK so he was paid for 19 of those 20 weddings (remember that one cranky Bride??). If he had made $0.00 for photographing those weddings he would have charged $421.05 per wedding. If he was your typical Craigslist photographer he would have charged $300 per wedding so would have lost $2300, meaning he would have paid each Bride $115 for the privilege of photographing their wedding. If he was on the high end of the Craigslist photographers he would have charged $500 per wedding. So he would have made $1500 profit over two years. That's $75 per wedding.
Given that his total time investment for each wedding was about 11 hours, as a $500 wedding photographer he made about $6.82 per hour. The minimum wage where I live is about $8.00 per hour. So he would have made more working an entry level fast food job.
You might argue that he still has his cameras and equipment and you'd be right. But at 20 weddings he has shot those cameras about 40,000 frames. They still have life in them (shutters are rated about 150,000 frames) but they are getting out of date. The D800 is out already and all the pro's are using it. His customers are always asking him what camera he has and it really bugs him. Plus the government found out he wasn't registered as a business (he tried to claim his equipment as a work expense) and now he is getting audited. Someone also called the municipality and reported him for not having a business license.
And remember, he has no insurance. No serious backup equipment or lighting. No studio or business location. Doesn't attend expensive high end training every year. Bill doesn't belong to any professional associations. Has paid no taxes or license fees. He has stolen software and isn't backing up images anywhere for his customers.
What happens to the typical Bill? They quit. At some point they realize they've made no money and people are taking advantage of them. And it's a shame because you know what? Bill was actually a very good photographer with a natural eye. He was someone that genuinely loved photography but his spirit has been crushed.
The final straw was when he was asked to do a wedding for free to "help his portfolio", but the Bride arrived to their initial meeting in a Mercedes. When he left the meeting his Chevy Cobalt broke down on the way home and he didn't have the money to fix it.
And there are 50 more 'Bill's' to replace him after he quits. All with new shiny Canon 60D's or Nikon D7000's that they got for a Christmas present and who are jumping on the life-long dream of being a professional photographer. They are photographing families at beaches and parks for $25 session fees. They are building their portfolios at weddings and photographing aspiring 'models' they meet online for free.
This is all great for a photographic industry that is geared toward making money from the Bill's of the world selling him online seminars, Lightroom plugins and flash modifiers so that he or she can become the next Ghionis or Yervant.
If you've read through this whole post, good for you.
I'm not trying to he hard on photographers that are in this position. We all start somewhere. Realize that I'm on your side and I understand the sense of self-worth and confidence it takes to charge fair money for your craft.
You are worth it and by charging too little for your art you are simply letting people take advantage of you. They don't love and respect you as a person or artist, they are bargain shopping in the clearance bin.
You don't want to be the clearance bin.