Is Your Photography The $50 Assembly Line Product, or the $5,000 Original?

Photo by Timothy Marsee

Have you ever seen the show American Chopper? While I’m not much of a television watcher, I have seen a little of the show here and there. The bikes they make on every show are truly unique, and are more than a motorcycle – they are an experience. When you see a bike that they produce, you know instantly its value. One of a kind body styles. Chrome that sparkles. Every piece of the bike is custom made and hand produced.

Compare that with a starter bike – a Honda or a Yamaha. Those bikes are created by zipping through an assembly line, each piece being manufactured by a process, and finally put together through a process. No one takes pride in creating one finalized product – instead a person simply has a job, and they do their one job in order to create the finished product.

Custom made versus mass produced. Neither is right or wrong; its simply a different perspective.

Now let’s turn it to photography.

You can only make a healthy living at photography if you emulate one of these business models. You are either an assembly line photographer, or a custom photographer.

The assembly line photographer charges a very low fee, and brings people one after another, doing the same tasks over and over again. If you’re a portrait photographer, you have one or two backgrounds, and you quickly move a person from one to two, snapping a few images. Time can’t be a factor in this type of process – you can’t devote time to specialization of portraits, or customization based on your clients needs. It’s an in and out process. Think big box stores.

  • Sit and wait
  • Stand on the X
  • Pick from the digital proofs
  • Pay
  • Take photos home

Nothing more. Nothing less. Then on to the next customer.

The custom photographer charges a high fee for his services, and creates an individualized service for every client that walks through his door. In need of a senior portrait? Let’s sit down and create a customized portrait sitting based on your interests. Several hours of time, several locations around town, multiple poses, multiple outfit changes, multiple props. Time is a factor, and you get paid well for the time you put in.

Low Fee = Low Customization

High Fee = High Customization

It can never be any other way. Here’s why.

We’ll assume an 8 hour work day, 5 days of the week.

If you charge $50 for a portrait and work 4 hours for the portrait client, you’ll survive on $100 a day. That can’t be done – it would only give you $500 a week, or $26,000 a year in total sales, before all of your expenses. Poverty level at best.

But if you charge $50 for a portrait and spend ½ hour per client, if will bring in $4,000 per week or $208,000 per year in total sales, before expenses. Now we’re at the serious professional level, and have moved from a hobby to a professional business.

Using the same time frame, one $5,000 portrait client a week would bring in $260,000 per year in total sales before expenses. A lot more work per client. And a lot more reward per client.

See the difference?

To bring in the one $5,000 portrait client, you could spend hours on marketing, creating unique experiences, consulting on locations, and driving to various parts of town to create portrait experiences, not just a typical shoot. For the $50, speed is everything. The faster you can get them in and out, the more you can systematize your process, the more effective you will be.

Neither is right, neither is wrong. It’s all a matter of preference.

But once you make your choice, its important to keep in mind what type of photographer you are, and how you can become the most effective at your specialization. That’s all that will mean the difference between surviving – and thriving.

4 thoughts on “Is Your Photography The $50 Assembly Line Product, or the $5,000 Original?”

  1. This has to be one of the best articles I’ve seen on the subject. I consider myself attempting the High Fee, High Customization type of work, but have to work the Low Fee/Customization angle until I can afford to be the photographer I want to be.

    Amazing article. It makes me even happier to be a subscriber of your RSS feed!

  2. I understand the concept and I agree with it. I have to assume $5,000.00 for a 4 hour portrait session was just an example. How many of us can get that kind of money per shoot realistically?

    • Evan

      Yes – and no. Honestly, I do know of quite a few photographers that regularly do $5,000 portraits and more. It is possible. Yet you do have to be willing to do somewhere in between as well. A lot of it comes down to what you think is possible, and what you strive for.


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