Professional Photography: Why Are Digital Processing Fees So High?

You commissioned the photographer, attended the shoot, viewed the result on your laptop, and now look forward to getting your drive full of amazing new images. The disc arrives and as predicted the photographs are stunning, more than you could have asked for, however there seems to be a problem with the bill of sale, what is this digital processing fee about?

From past experience, many clients simply don’t understand the costs involved in shooting digitally or seem reluctant to pay for something they believe should be free due to the ‘virtual’ nature of digital files. In fact, there are no expensive polaroids, film, wet processing, printing, and courier fees with digital capture.

In the past, pricing a session simply meant adding up the price of film, photo lab processing plus printing costs, and then adding a modest fee to cover handling of the entire process. Scanning and retouching was usually done and paid for by the client, but if I was asked to do it myself, this time was billed separately. With the advancement of digital capture, things have changed considerably.

Now I don’t shoot on film and indeed the benefits to both myself and the client of shooting digitally are significant. I think the biggest benefits are the new degree of creative control the photographer and client have over the final shots, plus the time saved by the entire digital process. But now there are several less apparent and hidden costs involved in getting to this final image file:

Digital camera equipment. Just to be able to capture digital files, the professional photographer must now continually invest in extremely expensive digital cameras, far more expensive than their film counterparts. Film cameras are fairly simple mechanical instruments that would last many years for a prudent photographer, while digital cameras are full of technology that soon becomes news in the past, so they need frequent updates. Digital cameras also seem to break more often, let alone the regular sensor cleaning required!

RAW file processing and retouching. Professional digital capture often creates a RAW image file, a type of negative that, unlike jpeg files, will need fine tuning to get the right level of exposure, color correction, and sharpness. These RAW files are best compared to a traditional film-based negative that must be processed in the lab, printed, scanned, and finally retouched to customer specifications. But instead of dodging or burning with an enlarger, the photographer must now do this basic retouching work in image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop. Finally, these fully edited and retouched files will be printed using a calibrated desktop printer, transferred to the client via some type of digital media, or sent via email/ftp. High-end computer equipment is not cheap, nor is image manipulation software that commercial photographers must learn to use efficiently. These high priced items also have a nasty habit of depreciating very quickly, plus comprehensive training is often essential to enable the photographer to use them expertly.

Weather. All of these “invisible” tasks and skills require the photographer to spend considerable time processing the perfect shot before returning the files to the client. The client might well receive the completed job sooner than with traditional film-based media, but in many ways the photographer’s workload and knowledge base has increased. The separate costs of scanning and retouching may be a thing of the past for clients, but the photographer still needs remuneration for his now substantial part of this digital production process.

In general, commercial photographers’ digital production fees simply reflect ongoing financial investments in appropriate professional hardware, essential skills to carry out such tasks, and labor time incurred in delivering captured image files to the client. , edited and presented digitally.

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