The Art and Business of Photography: A Perspective to Ponder

Machiko Shimizu wipes her tears during a graduation ceremony for students of Okirai Junior High School in Ofunato. Copyright Reuters.

The bruhaha that stirred up over the past 36 hours regarding Jesh de Rox’s “Beloved” webinar is a testament to what is both great and terrible about this industry. The passion and love people have for this craft is great. The desire to want to defend and stand up for someone or something you believe in is great. But some of the level of hate and disdain seems way over the top. In a world where tens of thousands of people are dying, dead or missing in Japan; in a world where people are fighting and dying to attain civil liberties in countries like Libya; in a world where atrocities against women and children in some African countries hearken back to the days of Caligula and the Roman Empire; that some people would get this infuriated over an empirically ridiculous price for a 1on1 is, well, disturbing.

Sometimes I do wonder about where photographers and filmmakers put their passionate causes. One well known photographer posted on his blog the promo video for the MTV show “Skins”. Not to discuss the moral implications of it, but just to point out how cool it was. A video that shows under-aged kids engaged in reckless drinking, drug use and overtly sexual conduct. Because it was “cool,” then it’s okay? No uproar over that.

I see extremely talented photographers take and post photos of teenagers that are on par with Calvin Klein’s controversial “kiddie porn” style ads. No big deal. Why? Because their photography is great. Why is there no firestorm of controversy over that?

I’m not saying don’t speak up for something if you believe it is “hurting” the industry (whatever that really means). But let’s keep a perspective people. On one forum someone referred to Jesh as the Anti-Christ. (Are you kidding me? The freaking “Anti-Christ”?) The level of venom just seems a tad much.

With regard to the crazy 1on1 price tag and the comments about it’s worth, or whether he should charge that, consider this: no one in their right mind is going to pay $16,500 for that workshop. Why get so worked up over something which IMHO is laughable?

Here are just a few things to ponder:

Nothing Personal, It’s Business

With regards to the frustrations over meteoric rises of mediocre talent, or the surge in workshops by people with 1/10 the amount of experience of most veterans, you have to remember this is a business. Love it or hate it, the ability for a relatively new photographer to become a wild success in a short period of time is what makes this country great. In short, the business of photography is not just about the pictures. I know that may be anathema to some of you, but it’s the cold hard truth. Starbucks doesn’t make the best coffee. McDonald’s doesn’t make the best hamburgers. The “Transformers” franchise is not cinematic art that will stand the test of time. We have to accept that when you turn your craft into a business, part of the “art” side may be sacrificed. If that bothers you to such a degree, then you should consider taking down your framed business license and just do this for the love of it so as not to get worked up over those who are more focused on the business side.

How Much Do You Charge for an 8×10?

I know for a fact that there are some of you out there who charge $50, $75, $100 maybe even $150 for an 8×10. An EIGHT BY TEN! That means if a family wants to buy ten of those for other family members, they would have to spend $500 to $1500 for ten 8×10 sheets of paper they can get at Walgreens for $0.19 a pop! Now, don’t bother commenting about why your 8×10 is worth whatever price you deem. To the hard working family of five down the street trying to make ends meet, that $100 for your one 8×10 can mean the difference between food on the table that week or paying the rent. Who are you to charge them $100 for such a special memory. (Note: I am not saying this because I don’t think your craft is worth it. I’m just trying to put the whole, “$16,500 price” debate into a new light. Your $100 price tag for an 8×10 is as ludicrous to some of your prospects as Jesh’s $16,500 1on1 is to you. In many ways worse. Jesh’s workshop is only 8x more expensive than other 1on1’s I’ve seen. My 8×10 examples are higher by a magnitude of 500x and more.)

Of Splinters and Logs

I also know some of your are charging and getting $5,000 or more for your weddings. There are people going into debt to pay for you. In many ways, one could make the argument that what you’re doing is worse than what Jesh is doing. As I mentioned, no one is going to pay him that insane amount of money for a 1-day workshop. But people ARE going into debt, spending money they don’t have to pay for YOU. Again, I’m not saying you’re not worth it. But, if you knew someone who really couldn’t afford you was putting your $5,000 package on a credit card they can’t afford to pay off, would you still take their money? What’s worse? A guy who charges a ridiculous fee for something no sane person would even remotely consider? Or someone who takes money from a family that can’t really afford their services. (I’m not passing judgment here, these are just thoughts. You know, things that make you go, hmmm? 🙂 )

Bad Press Is Not Always Good Press

Lots of people are calling Jesh a marketing genius for this. Really? About 98% of the tweets, forum posts, and comments I’ve seen are skewering him. For someone selling to that market, I’d say that pretty much sucks. Bad press is usually only good if the thing getting the bad press gets a benefit from the increased number of eyeballs (i.e. A show gets bad press so more people tune in to see what’s the fuss.) I saw one photographer make a great point on Twitter. “If 4,000 people are calling you an idiot, that’s not good.” So true. Personally, I think it was a bad business and branding move to put that “whopper” package on his site. But, only time will tell.

I’m sure some of you may be perturbed by this blog post. That is not my intent. I care about what happens in this industry. I wouldn’t spend the time on this blog if I didn’t. I just want to offer some perspective on all of this in hopes that we can learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Or to just chill out and relax. Or to maybe, as Scott Bourne commented last night, spend less time attacking one another and more time actually improving our craft.

What say you?

16 thoughts on “The Art and Business of Photography: A Perspective to Ponder

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I thought the exact same thing about the prices some photographers charge and this “controversy” is no different. I think it’s unconscionable that other photographers are attacking him for his pricing. It’s as if they think no one has a brain and can’t make a decision based on what they want/need and what they think is reasonable/unreasonable. Great post and very well said. Glad to know I’m not alone in this school of thought 🙂

  2. I found a flaw with your math. A 500x markup on the 8 x10 is based on the @cost of the blank sheet of paper. This assumes all the equipment used on the shoot and the time spent shooting and editing has no real value? Is that really what you meant? Do you sell YOUR 8×10’s for 30¢? Not trying to be a troll, just looking for clarification. Thanks!

    1. Hey Scott,

      Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify. I can get an 8×10 at Walgreens for about $0.20. That’s the math I was talking about. What that family of five thinks an 8×10 is worth based on what they can get at Walgreens, Kodak Online, Costco, etc, and the $50-$100 price tag many photogs charge.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Your comment wasn’t anywhere near being troll-ish. 🙂

  3. Don’t get me wrong. I agree that $100-$150 for an 8×10 is steep. Imho, $50 or less is more reasonable unless it is in a tasteful frame and then $150 would still be steep unless the frame was gilded……

  4. I think you’re super smart for using this controversy to drive traffic to your blog! That being said… I think the industry is at a major turning point. Is what we do so valuable that we can hang $20k price tags on it!? I don’t think so. Maybe for Kate and Williams wedding. A photographer on twitter mentioned that she was paying $16k for her wedding photography… Just for his time!! Are you kidding me?? Frankly I think this has as much to do with how overly opportunistic the wedding industry has become, let alone it’s photography. Who the hell do we think we are? Last year I had a bride pass away. She was 32. It was at that moment I really understood the POWER of what it is that I do. I cried for days looking through her wedding images hoping that I did a good enough job for her legacy and her family. She didn’t spend $15k on her photos, not even $5k. Her photos are priceless.
    We are NOT curing cancer people! We are all just squirrels trying to get a nut. But if we are not careful we are all going to end up doing exactly what Jesh had to do… Feel me?

  5. I think the difference is that I would never charge $16,500 for a one day wedding shoot just like I would never spend the same on a one day workshop. I never question why a client wants to give me their money or how they are going to pay for it or whether they should – that is paternalistic. There are lots of photographers cheaper than me and they are free to use them. Do not make photographers feel guilty for charging amounts that allow them to do the job full time without having second jobs.

  6. I can’t help but smile reading this post. I’m a wedding photographer who understands how frustrating it is to make a living from weddings, to help people understand the value in what we do and how hard we work for this living. It’s not an easy road at all despite the perception.

    I wouldn’t pay $16,500 for a 1-on-1 workshop with Jesh. I think the things he has to say are valuable, and I am investing in his Life as an Artform workshop, but I can’t afford $16,500 and I won’t pretend I can.

    Some photographers out there do charge $16,500 for wedding coverage. Others (like me) don’t. But wedding photographers would be total hypocrites if we berated Jesh for his markup and in the same breath justified our own. He has placed a value on his service (read his blog for a more in-depth description of what his service provides – it’s more than you think) based on his previous experience in offering the same service to other studios, their return on investment, etc. And due to his popularity, I can’t imagine him offering the same service for $1000 a day because he would simply spend every day for the next 10 years or more giving 5,000 1-on-1’s.

    I’m not saying that it’s not a huge investment and I’m not suggesting that it couldn’t be better spent. But I also realise that some studios can benefit from it and I’m not the one to judge that.

    It’s the crap spewing forth from Twitter that makes me cross, because it demonstrates how nasty and judgmental people can be (not the ones giving a balanced opinion or criticism, but the ones dishing up outright hate) about something they clearly have done little research on. And more than anything, it’s the hypocrisy from other photographers that makes my blood boil.

    The “perception of value” comparison between Jesh’s 1-on-1 price and a photographer’s 8″x10″ really hit home. Doesn’t matter a squat that the value of the 8″x10″ lies in our equipment, overheads and experience; it’s the perception of the consumer that will dictate its value. (A family of four with no understanding of how our industry works won’t care; they’ll think it’s ludicrous to spend $150 on a piece of paper they can buy for $0.20 from Walmart). Likewise, some photographers think it’s ludicrous that Jesh offers a 1-on-1 for $16,500 without taking into account his experience, overheads and the product he has to offer.

    Rant over.

  7. Thanks for the great article. I about fell out of my chair when I read how this guy, whom I’ve never heard of, is charging people $16,500 for a one day workshop. Some of the top pros in the industry don’t charge nearly has much. Good on him if he gets just one participant but either it’s a marketing gimmick or just a photographer who is full of himself. And his work I would label as being ok but not something I would pay that kind of price to have him train me. But to each it’s own I guess.

    Good discussion as well about the price of an 8×10. Sure in the US a person can certainly go to the mass market stores such as Costco, Walgreens, etc and get a print for less than $0.50 but will it be a quality print? More than likely not. Paying a photographer $150 for one 8×10 in my opinion is not expensive at all. Where I live this kind of price is not unheard of nor is it deemed expensive. Once you factor in the burning of the CD, going to a quality lab to get it printed, the cost of printing, picking up the print, delivering it to the client, you have already spent quite a bit of time which equals money.

    1. Thanks for the comment Todd. I appreciate you adding to the conversation.

      To be fair to Jesh, he went “on air” the next to clarify what you get for the 1-on-1. It’s not a 1-day workshop. It’s a full on consultation and implementation plan with a money back guarantee. (He should have made that clear up front).

      With regards to the 8×10, the justification for the $150 8×10 is totally valid. We all get that. But to the average consumer who doesn’t know about all that work (or care to be frank), it’s still over-priced. Just like most of us didn’t know what really went into Jesh’s 1-on-1. And even now that we know, some people STILL wouldn’t pay that much.

      I believe if we can educate clients as to what goes into our work, that would help…some.

      Thanks again for participating.

  8. Ron. Good thinking, very insightful and appropriate to the issue at hand. I really have no problem with Jesh ‘doing his thing’ its really up to him to decide if the attention received was what he wanted, and adjust (or not). (Of course, I don’t currently make my living from photography, so there’s my disclaimer.)
    Anyway, love the subtle (of logs and splinters) and not so subtle ( meteoric rise of mediocre talent) phrasing you used in this post. Keep em coming and continue to stand your ground by keeping everyone honest on holding their opinion as *opinion* not fact.

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