I was talking to a friend with a gallery who had to answer the question posed by a potential customer. Afterwards, I decided to write out an explanation of the economics of an art photographer from the perspective of my most recent sale. Here it is:
Larry, you said that you had a customer ask why a photograph was so expensive, so I thought that I’d write out a brief walk behind the economics of being an art photographer.
I’m a pretty established photographer in many ways: I’ve been doing this on and off for over thirty years, routinely exhibit at galleries, and occasionally in an art fair. Nevertheless, I sell about a dozen pieces a year, mostly smaller unframed pieces.
However, the piece I most recently sold was larger, framed, and more expensive, so I’ll use that as an example.
I sold the piece for $250. Of that $99 came off the top for professional matting and framing. I could save some money by framing myself, and I’ve tried that route, but frankly I don’t have the equipment, the space to work, or the aptitude to do as good a job as a professional and I don’t want to spend the time learning the techniques or doing the work. That leaves $151.
I paid a commission of 50% of the remainder to the person who sold it. It is a high commission rate, but it is after framing expense so as a percentage of the total it is in line with what I’d expect to pay at most galleries. Some galleries charge a membership or display fee and a lower commission, some just a percentage, but this is in the ballpark of what I’d pay on most sales. That leaves me with $75.50 from this sale.
I print myself, with a high end printer (10 colors of expensive archival ink cartridges and nice paper). I’d estimate it cost $14 to produce the print and get it to the frame shop for drop off and pick up. That leaves me with $61.50.
Most of the shoots I do are done with makeup artists and models that are working for use of the images I produce, but this one was not. I paid the body painter and the model each $50. I also provided the body paint (probably about $5 worth) That leaves me with negative $43.50. You could argue that the entire cost of the model and painter shouldn’t be allocated to this photo, but unlike other shoots I’ve done with these same people this was rather uninspired and I really doubt I’ll get any other sales from this shoot.
Now, out of my $43 loss on this shoot I need to cover some of the fixed expenses that I have. My camera and lenses are about $4,000. Most of my work is in studio, my studio strobes cost about $2,000. I work with really large files, and do very complex edits. My computer was another $2,500. I pay $10/month for a subscription to Photoshop and Lightroom.
I don’t pay for studio time, instead I trade labor, editing senior portraits, shooting weddings, etc. but if I did the going rate is $30/hour. I’d guess that the average shoot is three hours and I do 30-60 shoots/year. So, while most photographers would have lower computer expenses (and possibly a less expensive camera since I do a lot of low light work) than I do, they’d have higher studio costs if they’re doing studio photography.
I’m not going to begin to calculate my losses from damage to frames during transport to and from shows, the cost of business cards, website hosting, and printing flyers for shows. Nor am I going to detail the costs of a display system that I built to hang work on at the East Lansing Art Festival (where it rained) or the cost of memberships that I have in 4 arts organizations but there seem to be new costs every time I turn around. So, I just sold a photograph for $250. It’ll contribute to my annual loss, that runs a well into the thousands of dollars every year. I’m happy though, because I love knowing that a piece I produced spoke to somebody enough that they want it to hang on their wall. That is why a photograph is so expensive.