So you want to be a professional photographer. It’s expensive, right? You buy high-priced gear like cameras and lenses. You purchase a computer and photo processing software. You find a studio or workshop plus some advertising. And you might want to throw in a few photo classes and some insurance. That all adds up really quickly.
But I bet you’ve never considered the cost of actually taking a photo. We’re giving you a peek behind the scenes this week and sharing what Dad actually paid to create some of his favorite photos.
Producing these images is more than just snapping a photo. Dad choreographs these photo events like a ballet. They require photo assistants, wranglers, land permit fees, modeling fees, props, expensive camera gear and travel expenses.
Big Budget Shoot
We’ll start with the South Rim Horse Chase. During the peak of Dad’s Western shooting in the early 2000s, he dreamed up a simple action shot of a cowboy roping horses. Executing that shot would be anything but simple and definitely not cheap.
Dad hired cowboy extraordinaire Red Wolverton from the Wolverton Mountain Movie Ranch to coordinate the horses, the wranglers, the roper and handle safety issues. Red lived in southeastern Arizona and knew just the spot to shoot this action packed scene. He negotiated fees with the owners of the King Ranch at Mendoza Canyon. The day of the shoot, Red showed up early to create a temporary corral and a chute made out of orange construction fencing.
Meanwhile Dad made preparations from Dallas. He hired a photo assistant to accompany him to Arizona. He arranged with his brother (and business partner) to run the studio in his absence. He packed up gear, bought the film and drove west.
Then it was show time. Red’s wranglers moved the white horses through the corral and to the chute. Dad only had four passes to capture the action of the cowboy roping the white horses. Timing was everything. Plus he needed to finish the shoot in one day to keep costs down.
He succeeded! Then he roared back to Dallas to get the film processed and scanned at his professional lab. So the South Rim Horse Chase’s price tag included:
|Red Wolverton’s Services||$3,500|
|King Ranch Fees||$500|
|Photo Assistant Fees||$800|
|Film Processing & Scanning||$800|
The bottom line would be much higher today due to inflation. Have we shocked you yet? Yes, these old West puppies were pricey.
However, during this time, Western images sold like hotcakes in the advertising world. Dad, through his fabulous stock agency Sharpshooters, would make enough in sales to cover his next Western shoot. He continually re-invested in the business.
Back to the Canyon
Next up, Mendoza Canyon Packhorses. This shot didn’t require coordinating action, but it Dad needed two photo assistants. One ran the fog machine in the background of the photo and the other assisted Dad with film loading, moving equipment, etc.
Again Dad brought Red on as the photo coordinator. Red scouted locations, settled on the King Ranch and negotiated the fees. He provided the horses, the pack gear and was the cowboy in this shot.
Dad paid travel expenses from Dallas to southeastern Arizona for himself and two assistants, plus film and processing back in the city. He also would need scans and duplicates made at the lab.
Mendoza Canyon Packhorses comes in well under the massive South Rim Horse Chase budget but the bill still packs a big punch:
|Red Wolverton’s Services||$2,000|
|King Ranch Fees||$500|
|Photo Assistant Fees||$900|
|Film Processing & Scanning||$400|
Wildlife versus Westerns
How does shooting wildlife photos compare to the super expensive Western photo events? Animal photographs also carry a big price tag, although not the staggering amount of the Westerns. Photographers must find the wildlife, travel there and, in many cases, pay fees to access the land where the animal lives.
A couple of years ago, Dad decided to photograph the endangered whooping cranes near Port Aransas, Texas. Whooping cranes forage in marshes and shallow water for plants and animals like mollusks, fish and frogs. One of the few ways to get close enough to photograph these birds, even if you have a 400mm lens or longer, is by boat.
So Dad hired Captain Kevin Simms with Aransas Bay Birding Charters to take him out one cold February day. When I say hired, only three passengers went out on the Jack Flash—Dad, my Mom and her friend. That cost a pretty penny. But it was worth it. Captain Kevin got Dad to the right spot for some spectacular photos without the hassle of shooting of around 10 other semi-serious photographers all vying for the same image. That can get pretty ugly.
So here’s where the money went:
That’s certainly better than the South Rim Horse Chase budget, but still a big chunk of change. The whoopers, however, paled in comparison to Dad’s next photographic quest, hummingbirds.
Dad traveled to Madera Canyon, Arizona to capture this broad-billed hummingbird’s photo. Madera’s known as a birding hot spot, especially during the spring and fall migration season. You could see up to 15 different species of hummingbirds not to mention rare birds like the elegant trogon in a trek through this mountainous area.
We stayed the Santa Rita Lodge’s cabins, one of three lodging possibilities in the canyon. Since the closest town is down the mountain, you save time staying at the lodge plus they maintain feeders that bring hummingbirds in droves.
Before he left Dallas, Dad created a special five-flash light ring and a two-flash backdrop for this shoot to ensure all of the feathers glittered on the birds and the wing action was frozen. That meant he bought the wood, hardware, paint, foam core and five new Canon Speedlite flashes.
Dad saved money by using me as a photo assistant. We purchased hummingbird feeders and several native potted flowers to help attract the birds to our cabin.
Using all of these items, we created a photo set just for hummingbirds behind our cabin. Here’s how the costs break down:
|Santa Rita Lodge (4 nights)||$520|
|Hummingbird Photo Gear||$3,000|
As you can see, photography isn’t a cheap business. Capturing amazing images requires a great deal of work and money on the photographer’s part.
By now you may be wondering how on earth do photographers make any money? I find the term “starving artists” very useful. However, there are a couple of ways to recoup the money invested in a photo. But we’ll have to save that for a future blog.
Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse behind the costs in photography, what do you think? Will you be jumping into professional photography any time soon? I think Dad’s happy with his choice to pursue photography even if it meant skipping a few meals out because he was a starving artist.