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thoughts on custom photography


The photographic art you choose to place on your wall is ultimately the result of the vision of the photographer. This vision, coupled with what you wear to your session, the environment, the lighting, even the mood the subjects are in at the time of photographing creates the work that you will want to proudly display on your walls forevermore.

Your first step in the process is more about determining who you are, who your family is and then seeking a photographer that reflects your style. For instance let’s say your family is extremely outdoorsy and loves playing at the park. You start determining what style you like, browse through photography website portfolios and determine if any of the styles exhibited there would be a good fit with your life and family style. You have already determined that you should probably seek out an outdoor photographer and then begin narrowing the field down a bit.

Finally after a bit of internet research, you have narrowed it down to two photographers who do what seems like solid work, the sort of outdoor look you desire.  It is now time to ask yourself: Do you like photographer A’s style over photographer B’s style? Is it because the people in the images of A’s style are having a great time and it seems very caught up in the moment vs. B photographer more posed, looking in the camera images? If this is a case, you probably like “lifestyle” photography or perhaps even take it a step further and define your desired style as as “photojournalistic” photography style. The photographer you probably should choose is photographer A because their style is very similar to the style you desire.

What custom photography ultimately is all about is choice and experience (as in THE experience). Custom photography is about finding someone who will photograph your family, give you devoted 1:1 attention without worry of the next ‘in line’ or the feeling of a crowded portrait studio. A custom photographer will typically show you a fairly extensive gallery culled to only show the good images that meet the photographers’ creative sensibilities. Often the images are fully edited images-color corrected with blemishes and undereye circles removed. Custom photographers are also known as boutique studios, offering a range of products and unparalleled service. Think Lexus vs. Hyundai, think Nordstrom vs. WalMart.

Custom photography should have you, the client and your experience in mind.


Custom photography is more of a luxury than your entry level cookie cutter chain experience. Custom photography truly is not for everyone; it requires a level of commitment, investment in time and money, forethought and planning on the part of the client and requires a larger time commitment for the photographer as well.

Clients who enjoy taking a more active role in the creation of their families’ memories have the desire to have portrait art that is truly personalized.  These more discerning clients have been known to budget and allot time for a custom photography session. Many clients opt for it to be a once a year special experience, some opt to have custom photography sessions done to record their child’s stages in life.  Having said this, it is clear that custom photography is not in everyone’s budget – it is something that most families save for to splurge on from time to time to memorialize their children as they really are (not posed and primped in the cookie cutter studio setting).

There is a great deal of time involved in creating high end custom photography sessions for a client, as well as the luxury of great service, better choices and a superb end product.  The result of all this are heirloom quality images.  The time invested at the session is only a small portion of time involved in this process.

Custom photography has been likened to purchasing a fine vehicle.  To get to point B from A let’s face it, even a bus ride would suffice.  If you want to luxuriate in a finely appointed vehicle, customizing your own experience by listening to smooth jazz while sitting in a climate controlled setting adjusted purely for your comfort in a body hugging leather interior, perhaps that Lexus you so desire is your cup of tea. Custom photography is much the same cup of tea.  It is the Lexus of the photography world.  It is where the intangibles make the experience truly wonderful and the images themselves make the investment of money and time truly worthwhile.

The beauty of custom photography is in the knowledge that your final images are the result of someone caring about those moments so much that they take extra time to ensure that the artwork you receive is good enough to stand by with their name on it.  That level of quality and commitment is all but lost in the age of “mass produced,” “mass marketed,” corporate “everyone is a number” studios.  Custom photography is based on being unique to you.  How great an experience would it be, to be able to sit back and allow a photographer to do this highly custom work for images that you will most likely cherish for a lifetime?

Keep in mind more than anything that the Lexus will never appreciate in value the way your portraits will.  The portrait art you become invested in from your custom photographer will no doubt increase in value and become more priceless as the years pass.


Digital technology is brilliant.  The digital revolution has brought amazing flexibility and amazing amounts of control for the photographer, the hobbyist, the professional, the amateur.  With flexibility comes a price though.  Camera equipment is still considerably more expensive when you factor in its’ lifespan, the need for additional resources for processing those images, the time it takes to get a usable image and the effort that goes into all of this.

Even though you pay $1.99 for a print at your local drugstore and paying for film is pretty much a thing of the past (although you still pay for memory)  you may be wondering why you may pay upwards of $40, 50, 70, 90 for a custom photography print. Some photographers hear this statement every once in awhile:

“How in the world can you charge $60 for an 8×10 if it costs me less than $2 to print at the local drug store?”

The answer is multifaceted and has a lot to do with the time, aforementioned equipment costs, artistic vision and reputation of the photographer, expertise and the usual costs of running a legitimate business.


Approaching it from a time standpoint, for instance let’s imagine that you have hired a photographer who has work that you love and that is traveling an hour to your on location session.  Time break down:

  • session prep time (30 mins – 1 hour, includes equipment and back up equipment checks + vehicle checks)
  • one hour travel time TO session
  • 15-30 minutes prep time at client’s home
  • 90 minutes-2 hours with client photographing subject
  • one hour travel time FROM session
  • 30-45 minutes uploading time from digital cards from camera to computer
  • 30-45 minutes time spent backing up the original images
  • 2-5 hours editing time to present you with a diverse gallery of edited images
  • 1 hour prep time getting ready for ordering
  • 1 hour designing specialty items for client
  • 1 hour sorting through and checking order
  • 30 minutes-1 hour prep time for delivery
  • 30 minutes-1 hour getting order shipped
  • any additional phone time or time needed for add on ordering, shipment issues, quality issues

As you can see, average client time for a session ranges from just under 13 hours to 19 hours dependent on the photographer’s level of service.  This is time dedicated only to your session.  When the photographer charges $150-$300 for the photo shoot you are not just paying for the two hours of session time, you are paying the photographer for 12-19 hours complete time for your session.


Regarding equipment costs, a good quality professional camera with a selection of good optical quality lenses and digital storage mediums and computer set up can run from $10,000-$30,000 costs dependent on the photographer.  Even though you can purchase a really good quality digital SLR for about $1000 there are still other costs related to photography.  A good lens for portrait photography can run up $900 to $2500.  A dependable computer system with software loaded for business and creative usage can run $2500 to $8000 dependent on the photographer.

Then come lab costs for specialty products.  A good photographer knows the lab is integral to their success.  Photography labs dedicated to the professional photographer  often cost more and offer a range of products that allows the custom photographer to continually offer new, innovative products for you, the discerning client.

Discussion other costs of running a photography business could take awhile so we’ll skip the intricate details of running the business, taxes, vehicular costs, costs of advertising/marketing, costs of sample pieces that the photographer may bring to your session, etc.


Often times clients will mention to their photographer that X studio in the mall/department store only charges $25 for an 8×10 or they may mention other things related to discount photography chains.  The fact is those discount chains make their money on volume, not on customized 1:1 service.  The whole reason the big department stores began offering portrait studios in the first place was to get you, the savvy consumer, in through their door so that you could spend more money with them in other departments.  Your “PORTRAITS” are considered the true “loss leader”.

Going to a chain studio, as a consumer, you don’t have the benefit of 1:1 attention for 2 hours at your home where your child is allowed to explore, play and be comfortable in their home environment, nor do you get the experience that many custom photographers are known for or the lovely captures of natural expressions.  You simply get a bare bones, “SAY CHEESE” experience.  Keep this in mind when selecting a photographer.


Being in demand, being well known for quality work, and having a good reputation often costs time on the photographer’s part.  Their expertise comes at a cost, including their time learning their craft and learning the intricacies of lighting, and the commitment put forth on their end to create a persona about their business that oozes professionalism.  A great number of photographers go a very long time from the time that they purchase their first good camera to making money at the business of photography.  Many photographers, when first starting out, rush in thinking that the business will be easily profitable in no time… after all, how expensive could it be to get a camera and use it to create their dream?  They often neglect to factor in the cost of business, the cost of equipment, software, back ups, etc..

Being of sound reputation, a better professional photographer knows that they must always reinvest in their business to create the reputation of being top notch.  To create good work, good equipment, reliable equipment, and back up equipment is a necessity.  The photographer who desires to be known as better/best/unparalleled reputation-wise knows that the most important thing they can do for their business is reliability and dependability.  This is how reputations get built.  Good work often is a wonderful side product of building that good reputation.

I hope this (lengthy) article helps shed some light on WHY a custom photographer is a better choice for your family’s memories.  The photographs that are produced as a result of the professionalism and dedication that your photographer has will be cherished for a lifetime (or more) and great thought and consideration should be placed into hiring who is right for your family’s most precious investment.

text courtesy of Marianne Drenthe (