The other day I went to a photography exhibit. There were beautiful 11x14 prints, matted and framed. As I was admiring the subject matter, expert composition, technical skill, and creative editing, I heard a man scoff at the price. “Two hundred dollars for a photo!” That price seemed eminently reasonable to me, but it seemed like a very high price to him.
It made me want to walk through the “cost” of a photo you see hanging in an exhibit. Many people don’t understand the time and money that goes into taking one good photo. Some of the costs should be treated like overhead -- no one would expect a single buyer of a single print to bear them -- but they are worth factoring into the overall cost of a photo. Let’s take this photo for example and walk through some considerations.
First off, there’s the gear. To take a long-exposure night shot like this one, you need a good DSLR. You can get a decent camera body for a few grand. Add another grand for one lens, give or take. (Most photographers I know have more than one, but anyway.) You need the camera to be steady while leaving it open for a long exposure, so you need a good tripod, which will run you a few hundred bucks. If you want to use your camera’s bulb mode, you probably want to get a cable release as well. You can get a decent cheap one for less than $20. You should have an extra battery because long exposures suck up power ($30). To carry everything, you need a padded camera bag, plus a tripod bag ($100). This was especially important for this location in particular, as we ended up needing our hands free for climbing.
This picture required some extra supplies. For spinning steel wool, you need to buy very fine plumber’s grade steel wool. Usually this means a trip to a hardware store or special ordering it online. So there’s the time and effort cost of obtaining that, either finding and making a trip to the store or planning a few days in advance so you can get it shipped to you. You also need a strong metal whisk, a nine volt battery, and a fire-resistant cable. These need to be wrapped separately, or they *will* catch on fire, and in plastic, or else they will get wet and not work . For these props, add another $50. If you want to be careful, you should also have a hoodie, gloves, and clothes you don’t mind getting a little singed in case any embers go awry. (One time I skipped the long sleeves and now I have a scar on my upper right arm, but that's a story for another day.)
There’s time and effort involved in researching and scouting locations. There’s a few ways of doing this. You can spend hours on the Internet, looking at pics from Instagram, Google, Flickr, etc. and then trying to find the exact location on a map as well as how to access it. You can also ask someone who knows, but in order to do that you probably have to be well networked, which is hard to quantify, but it is very valuable.
For steel wool, you have to make sure the spot will not only be visually stunning, but will also be safe. This means there can’t be any dry brush around that could catch flame, no members of the general public roaming around, and remote enough so as not to attract unwanted attention of authorities. I don’t know the exact rules around spinning flaming steel wool, but I *do* know from experience that authorities don’t like it.
You have to figure out when and where will make a great shot. You have to think about factors like weather and tides and sunset angle. You have to put together and pack your gear. Steel wool works best with at least two people (one to spin, one to man the camera), so you have to know someone crazy enough to participate in your antics, and coordinate with someone else’s schedule. It’s all time, and time is worth something.
Then there’s getting there. I don’t live in San Francisco, so there were travel costs like an airplane ticket, hotel room, rental car, gas, transport back and forth to the airports, etc. It’s also a lot of time.
Getting to this place required a drive and a hike. We parked the car around 5 pm and started hiking on a rocky beach. Then the beach turned into craggy boulders, so we picked our way over those. As the tide came in, we had to get wet a few times, so we held our gear high and went as fast as possible.
Right after sunset, we set up the shot. Someone had to climb a large boulder and was handed up the supplies. Afterwards, we had to make the long trek back in almost complete darkness. We held flashlights while climbing barnacle-covered boulders in the dark, avoiding the ocean water as much as we could, and trudging through sand laden with packs. The parking lot had been gated shut by the time we got back to the car, so one guy needed to push open a gate and hold it while we drove the car through.
Knowing how to take a long exposure shot takes some technical skill. This isn’t a shot that can be taken with a camera’s auto setting. You have to know which f stop, how many seconds, which ISO, etc. There’s a lot of time either educating oneself or practicing to achieve this.
After taking the shot, you will edit it. This means you need a PC (or at least a good phone or tablet). You’ll need software. Most photographers I know have Lightroom, meaning they pay a monthly subscription fee of $30. It takes time to edit.
There’s a cost associated with printing the photo, and with framing it. There’s time in composing the show. There’s time in coordinating with a gallery, signing contracts, talking about timelines, and delivering an artist bio. Of course, there is also delivering the work: gas, tolls, parking, time. Also, the gallery takes a commission -- usually between 30 and 50%. You will also pay taxes on any income gained from the sale.
General People Costs
Also just a reminder that photographers are people, too, and in addition to all of these costs associated with a photo, they have normal human costs. They need to keep a roof over their heads. They need to pay the electric company, cell phone carrier, internet company, for health insurance, for heat and water. They eat practically daily. They may have a car payment, student loans, or friends who expect wedding gifts, or kids who need diapers or braces.
Does $200 still seem like a lot?
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