Why is Birth Photography So Expensive?!
As we near the end of 2018, I find myself looking to the year ahead, wondering what it has in store for my family. This year has been amazing, with the exponential growth of my business, the addition of a new baby, and the evolution and refinement of myself as both an artist and a woman. I’ve reached a place where I’m beginning to see the importance of getting products into my clients’ hands, so they can relive their most precious memories in a more visceral way. Though all my clients receive high resolution digital images and can print them at any time, I’m acutely aware of how many well-intentioned families put this off for so long, that they ultimately forget about it altogether—even I am guilty of that.
With this in mind, I recently put out a survey to collect some feedback on what products families would most like to see, and the response was amazing and very valuable (thank you!). Worth noting, however, were the stunning responses I received to my opening questions, which were “What is your budget for birth photography?” and “What do you think the value of a skilled birth photographer is?”
I think that photographers as a whole, in every genre, are often faced with people questioning their worth. It seems that there are a lot of people that believe that if you love what you do, you should give it away freely. A whopping 51% of respondents said their budget was $500 or less, and another 20% said between $500 and $1000, for a total of 71% who could budget no more than $1000 for a birth photographer. Being that we all have different priorities and financial circumstances, this didn’t surprise me terribly or bother me to any degree. It was when I saw what people think the VALUE of a birth photographer is that my heart really sank. While I was pleasantly surprised to see that 23% of people put the value of what I do at $2000 or more, I was truly shocked to see that 41% of you thought the value of a skilled and experienced birth photographer was $1000 or less. OUCH.
Birth photography, in particular, comes with a unique set of challenges and stressors. I can see there is a lot that is misunderstood about this work. Stick with me here… this might get long, but I’m going to explain why our pricing is justifiable (and arguably even low!) despite the fact that so many seem to think it costs entirely too much.
Before I get into the specifics of my work, I want to talk a little bit about wedding photography. Humor me here. Imagine you called up a wedding photographer and told them you’d like to hire them for your big day, but you’re not sure when it will be. “Sometime in the month of May.” is about all you can offer them. You tell them that you’re not exactly sure of the start time, and that there’s a good chance it could be at 3 in the morning, but you’ll be sure to call an hour or two before they need to be there. Since it could be in the middle of the night, there’s also a possibility they won’t have very much light to work with, much less flattering light. It could even be pitch black, save for a single candle in the corner of the room. You’re also not exactly sure how long it will last… “but it could go really fast!” and hey, they might be headed home after just a few hours! Oh, but also, it may take 12, 24, or even upwards of 36 hours. “Space will be tight, and there will be a lot of people crowded around, too,” you explain, “and you probably won’t have freedom to move around for better angles.” It’s also entirely possible they will go home with someone’s bodily fluids on their shoes.
What do you think they would say to that?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
A little research tells me that the average cost of a wedding in Austin, Tx is just over $30,000. Of that, the typical market cost for a wedding photographer in Austin for 8 hours of coverage is $3,393. According to costofwedding.com, you can “expect to spend $3,704 or more for well-experienced professionals.” Keep in mind, these are people who know what day their job is, when it starts, when it ends, and roughly what the timeline for the entire day is like. Why, then, are we asking birth photographers to show up and capture another once in a lifetime event, debatably an even more important one, for a quarter of the cost of a good wedding photographer? If your mind isn’t blowing yet, it should be.
Of course, now some of you are probably saying that wedding photography is grossly overpriced, too. I see that all too often. I absolutely LOVE what I do, but it is still the ONLY source of income for my family. Loving this work will unfortunately never pay the bills or put food on the table, nor does it negate the fact that it is also an incredibly stressful career path. While it may seem on the surface that photographers make a lot of money, the costs associated with operating a business, as well as professional development, can be great. These expenses will vary from person to person, but I’m happy to break down my own for you here, to give you a greater understanding of why my prices are what they are. So let’s unpack all the reasons birth photography costs what it does, shall we?
COST OF EQUIPMENT & DOING BUSINESS
This should seem an obvious one, but I think it’s oft forgotten. Photography equipment is fucking EXPENSIVE. I’m not even kidding. I consider myself pretty minimalist when it comes to the equipment that I own. Both birth photographers and wedding photographers are documenting events in your life that only happen once. Your baby’s first cry, your face when you see them for the first time, your first kiss as man and wife, the first dance - these things only happen once. Because birth is a one time event with no opportunity for re-shoot, it is imperative that birth photographers carry a backup of every piece of equipment they own. This means, in my case, two camera bodies, at least two lenses, and two speedlights, plus incidentals like batteries and memory cards. This is the bare minimum.
In my bag:
Nikon D850: $3,297
Nikon D750: $2,300
Nikkor 24mm f/1.8: $747
Backup Lens: $747
Profoto A1: $995
Backup Speedlight: $327
64gb XQD Card: $120
Camera Bag: $299
Not including incidentals (easily $300-$500 more), the total value of the equipment in my bag is $8,832. Whew! I actually… don’t think I wanted to know that. Now, keep in mind that most photographers replace all of this every 2-5 years. Even if all of these things are gradually replaced over a 4 year period, that’s still over $2,000 a year that goes straight to equipment.
In addition to equipment, there are lots of other expenses involved in keeping a business running smoothly. Gallery hosting, video hosting, music licensing, website, client relations management, email, cell phone, and editing software are all subscription based expenses that run approximately $2,700 a year. Somewhere, I’ll have to factor in the Macbook that I use to edit photos, which cost $3,300 in 2015, and one time investments like Final Cut Pro (for video editing, $300). It’s easy to see how quickly it all adds up… and these are just the basics, things I really couldn’t function without. Additional expenses include advertising materials and professional development, like classes and workshops, easily another $1000-$2000 a year, as well as job specific variable expenses like travel and on-call childcare. Looking at these numbers, it’s reasonable to estimate that it costs around $6,000 just to run my business every year. At $1,000 per birth, that’s 6 births before I can even begin paying myself!
CLIENT LOAD LIMITATIONS
It’s easy to look at the cost of birth photography and assume that the pay is exceptional, but it’s really quite deceiving. You see, birth photography is a demanding and unpredictable line of work. In order to ensure the likelihood that I can make it to all of my client’s births, I have to limit how many I take per month to 2 or 3. How many clients a birth photographer feels comfortable taking per month will vary based on a number of factors, including how available childcare is if they have a family, the quality, reliability and availability of backup photographers should they need one, and how much time they’re able to dedicate to other facets of doing business, including client correspondence, meetings, and editing. What a lot of people don’t realize is that our work doesn’t begin when we arrive at your birth or end when we leave. From inquiry to delivery of gallery or products, the average birth photographer spends 30-35 hours per client, but only about a third of that is the actual birth itself. Myself in particular, I spend a significant amount of time on editing, easily 10-20 hours depending on the length of the birth and the size of the gallery.
ON CALL LIFESTYLE
I really hope you’ve stuck with me this far, this aspect of birth photography is arguably the most influential part of the cost. Let me explain what it’s like living “on-call:” From 38 weeks forward, my phone can never die. Every night before bed, I must check my phone 5 times to make sure the charger is working, and that the ringer is turned all the way up. I can’t have a drink, and I can’t travel more than 20 or 30 minutes away from home. My batteries have to stay charged, and my bag has to be inventoried and packed, sitting by the door at the ready. I have to have all of my options for childcare lined out in case I get the call. If there’s any chance that I could be unavailable for a birth, I have to have a backup photographer on standby. I have to make peace with the possibility of missing important events like birthdays, school performances, Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas morning. How much money would someone have to pay you to miss Christmas morning with your babies? What about their Kindergarten graduation?
How do you determine the value of on-call time… where you’re not really “working,” but you’re clearly not “off” either? With 2 or 3 clients per month, some of us rarely go off-call at all. Please understand, I do love this work immensely! All of this is okay with me. Charging what I do is an imperative part of justifying the stress and restrictiveness of on-call life. It’s what makes it okay when I have a client who contacts me with 3 false alarms before the real deal, because she has weeks and weeks of intense prodromal labor. I have to charge enough to make it all okay, all the time. Enough that I don’t resent the sound of my phone when it rings at 3:27am and wakes my sleeping baby. Enough to be okay when I have to walk out the door an hour after my older kids come back from an extended stay at their Dad’s, all of them crying and begging me to stay.
This work fills me with joy, hope, and inspiration all the time, but it takes from me too, and that’s why it stings a little when I see people value birth photography so low. I documented the arrival of 20 sweet babies this year. If I made $1000 per birth, that’s $20,000. Deducting my yearly business expenses from that leaves me with just $14,000, and taking taxes off the top? That’s a net income of only $9,800, which won’t even cover my rent, much less anything else. It’s not a living wage.
Documenting the birth of your baby is a worthwhile investment, without a doubt. It’s time we start valuing it much higher. Women have made a bad habit of undervaluing work that they believe is in service of others, especially other women, and understandably so. It’s hardwired into us to get fulfillment out of caring for and supporting others, but that doesn’t make it less valuable work. So when you start your search for the perfect birth photographer, budget for it more like you would a wedding. If you happen to be lucky enough to find someone in the early stages of their business willing to do it for less, keep in mind what all they’re truly giving to you. Understand that in terms of quality, reliability, and experience, “you get what you pay for” often rings true. There is a photographer for every budget, but keep your expectations reasonable… and when you go back to hire them for the birth of your next baby, don’t be surprised that their prices are triple what they once were. Just smile and say, “worth every penny.”