February 16, 2021
How much does a portrait photographer cost? Hiring a photographer is like buying a car; you can spend a little for a car that gets you from A to B or spend more on a high-end vehicle that makes your commute feel like a luxury experience. Both have four wheels and A/C, but the difference between the two is immense. Photography is the same way. Some portrait photographers do lovely work for a lower price, while others cost significantly more and offer an experience that is truly exceptional with images and products to match. Now, this isn’t a post saying one is better than the other or to convince you to spend more than your budget allows. My goal is to provide you with the knowledge to know what questions to ask a photographer before hiring them and understand the different portrait photographer costs for their services. Where you go from there is entirely up to you!
So let’s dig into the different pricing models used to determine what a photographer costs. These rules can be applied to senior portraits, brand portraits, headshots, and most other forms of photography. I’ll also include some costs across the industry as well!
One caveat, make sure you research the photographer’s work before you hire them. Find a photographer who takes the portraits you want to receive. If you want bright and airy, don’t hire someone that primarily shoots dark and moody. You’ll have a much higher chance of getting portraits you love if you find a photographer whose portfolio already shows the images you want to take home.
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This isn’t a hard rule, but portrait photographers with more experience tend to charge more. They’ve got business licenses, insurance, contracts, possibly a studio, and have accumulated a ton of gear, all to make sure you get amazing images. They’ve also spent a lot of time learning about posing, lighting, and other nuances that make their images not only technically better but also visually more appealing. They know how to pose and light anyone regardless of unique features so that they still look amazing.
As a consumer, you may not notice the subtle differences that other photographers might when looking at an image. In that regard, you may not see why one photographer is more expensive than another. What you will notice is a difference in the service offered by the photographers. Experienced photographers tend to ask more questions, offer more printed product options, may include a Hair & Make-Up Artist in their fee, provide more helpful documents and tips, and may also spoil you more with client gifts. You’ll probably feel more pampered and taken care of with an experienced photographer vs. a newer one.
I remember when I got my high school senior portraits taken for the yearbook. I walked into a studio that had an agreement with my school, and from the moment I got there until my mom received the final images, I felt like I was a number on a list. Everything was clinical, procedural, and bland. The photos were all pre-staged. The lighting, setting, and camera position were already in place for several “scenes” when I arrived! There were no questions about the type of portraits I wanted. There were no options to change the lighting to get a more dramatic or moodier image. It was all, “come in, sit here, turn this way, smile, and done!” This is the experience of a volume studio. Volume Studios are designed to minimize the amount of work needed to deliver a set of images. If you just need something quick and dirty, this isn’t a bad option. But you’re subject to their methods and procedures and have minimal input on how the images are taken. Because of this, volume studios tend to be relatively cheap. The sitting fees will range from $20 to $100 and possibly include some prints for $15 to $25 each.
If you want a more customized session, you’ll most likely need to hire an individual photographer. They may have a studio option or suggest you shoot on location based on the portraits you want to capture. You’ll be able to get images that are more tailored to your interests and likes, that match the vision in your head. Studio Agencies are factories. Individual portrait photographers cost more so they can create something unique and special for each of their clients. These photographers will run the gamut on pricing. They may cost $50 for just the session, or up to $3,000, including printed products, studio rental, hair and makeup, and the session fee. Make sure you ask questions to know what is and is not included in a photographer’s pricing.
Portrait photography costs can be quoted in a few different ways. It all depends on the photographer’s business model, how they like to operate, and what products they offer. The three most common quotes are Hourly, Packages, and Session Fee only.
Hourly options are what they sound like; you pay the photographer based on how long you work with them. Some photographers will also guarantee a certain number of digital images per hour as well. So you may see options like, “$150 per hour with ten digital images delivered with every hour shot.” These photographers will typically include all retouching costs in their hourly rate if they offer digital images with the hourly rate. In the Atlanta market, these portrait photographers cost an average of $150 to $180 per hour.
Instead of charging per hour, some portrait photographers will charge a flat fee for their time to photograph the session. In this instance, the session fee does not include any digital files or printed product deliverables. You are merely paying for the photographer’s time and their creative experience to shoot your session. Some photographers may include studio rental along with hair and make-up services with their session fee, though, so be sure to ask about that. Session fee photographers can range anywhere from $50 for a mini session (a quick, 30-minute session) to $400 for a multi-hour session. High-end photographers will sometimes charge based on half-day (4 hours) or full-day (8 hours) rates. These can start at $500 for a half-day and $800 for a full-day.
After the photoshoot, you’ll purchase your deliverables like digital image files and printed products. Because of this, session fees are usually lower upfront than Hourly and Packages, but you’ll most likely spend more overall once you purchase your images after the shoot. You can spend anywhere from $200 to $5,000 on product purchases. Make sure to ask for a complete price list before booking a session photographer to know what your possible total spend might be.
Most commonly found with wedding photographers and often newer photographers, packages are when the session and some deliverable are all included in a single fee. Deliverables in packages can be anything from digital image files to printed product to albums, or a combination of all three. You’ll typically pay more upfront for an all-inclusive package than the other options, but that’s all you’ll pay for the photographer’s services. Portrait packages can range from $200 to $1,000 or more, depending on the session’s duration and the included deliverables.
One additional item – many photographers will request a non-refundable booking fee to set up the session. This guarantees that clients will show up to the session and cover the photographer’s costs for studio rental fees or hair and makeup artists. These fees can be a set amount or up to 50% of the session fee.
Not all photographers offer digital files. That’s the simple truth. Usually, newer photographers will offer only digital files. More experienced photographers may only include digital files when you purchase a printed product. Depending on your intent for the digital files (your social media or marketing a product or service), you may have to pay a premium for usage rights to the images. Digital files can be $25 each to $150 each. Retouching those images may also be an additional fee instead of being included.
Another portrait photography cost associated with digital files is the delivery method. You may get all your images on a USB flash drive, which may or may not be a standalone expense. Some photographers will deliver the photos using an online gallery where you download your photos there. Make sure you know how long the gallery stays online. Forever? A month? Your photographer may charge a fee to keep the gallery online for eternity, or they may charge a fee to re-open the gallery after it’s been taken down.
Session fees for photographers vary greatly. Printed product costs differ even more. An 8×10” print can be $10 with one photographer or $150 with another. The difference isn’t merely the prints’ paper choice—factors include color correction, framing, mounting, protective finishes, and other aspects. Ask for a complete price list of all products offered before booking your photographer to know how much you may spend on photography. And also, make sure the photographer offers the products you want to purchase! For my creative portrait sessions, I only offer Bamboo Print Boxes and Canvas Prints. I don’t offer large or individual prints. Ask lots of questions!
If a portrait session can be done in a studio, I will always recommend it. Studios offer a lot of control and eliminate any worries about rain ruining a scheduled shoot. Some photographers have their own studios and include fees to use them in their session fee. Other photographers may not have a studio, and therefore you’ll need to pay to rent one. Studios can range from $35 an hour to $150 an hour. Location is a significant factor as well as what the studio offers for clients and photographers. Check out this post to learn more about shooting your session in a studio.
Like photographing in a studio, I always recommend my clients get pampered with a makeup and hair artist (HMUA) for their session. Not only does it help my retouching, but it can take you from looking good to looking like you’re about to walk the red carpet. Wouldn’t that be awesome for your portraits? Again, some photographers include the HMUA in their session fee, and others may not. HMUA can range from $150 to $400. I have two HMUA that I highly recommend in the Atlanta area.
You may want to add some pizazz to your portrait session in the form of props. Furniture, banners, confetti, balloons, sports equipment, books, you name it. If you can bring these items to your session, go for it. But you may need to make a purchase at Goodwill or Amazon or ask your photographer to track them down. You may not pay your photographer for props, but if you want to add them to your session, you will probably have to get them yourself.
The world is massive. It takes time to get places. If you’re not shooting in a photographer’s studio, you may have to pay the photographer’s travel fees. Some photographers will charge after a certain radius outside of their studio (say 20 miles), and others may charge the moment they hop in their car. Make this a question when planning your session.
I know we’re all out searching for the best deal or bang for our buck. And absolutely, you should get the most value for your hard-earned dollars. When it comes to portrait photography, keep in mind that skill and cost typically go hand in hand. It’s one of the things where you consistently get what you pay for. Do your research and have a firm understanding of what you plan to do with your images. If you’re just planning on using your photos for social media, then be sure to ask about digital image files. And if you’re like me and enjoy having physical, printed products on your coffee tables and walls, then ask lots of questions about the products a photographer offers and ask to see samples.
Did I miss anything? I know there are tons of considerations for how much a photographer may cost. Leave a comment below with other things clients should consider!