Photography in the 21st Century has changed significantly from what it was only ten years ago. In the past, an architectural photographer would have a significant but one-time investment in cameras and lenses. We would be faced with ongoing expenses for film, film processing and Polaroid test film that would apply to each photograph created. At the end of the chemical era, it was not surprising for these consumable expenses to exceed $100.00 per photograph and they would constitute 25% to 50% of the cost of photographing a project. If in a day’s shoot an architectural photographer would shoot five interior images and two exterior images, at the end of the day the bill to client would be in the range of $2000.00.
The Polaroid test film we had was of low resolution, rotten color (which is why I always used B/W Polaroid) and of very limited size; my 4×5 camera used 4×5 Polaroid and we had to make all of our decisions regarding composition, lighting and styling using a 4×5 inch print and a magnifying glass. It was better than trying to look through the camera, and we worked hard at making the most of each Polaroid because we all knew they cost money and the expense could rapidly consume our financial budget without a well-disciplined approach to the use of them.
Film processing was another expense variable that relied upon the skill and technical mastery of the photographer to maintain control and not blow our budgets. Because we were working on location without the luxury of having a photo lab on hand to process the film before we broke down a set, I would normally shoot six sheets of film for each photograph at the cost of $65.00 per photograph. And if the client wanted another version of the image it would require another six sheets of film constituting an additional $65.00 added to the cost of the project. Then it could take as much as a week to process the film and deliver it to the client for preliminary review and consultation on color and cropping.
As an architectural photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area I am thankful for the advent of digital photography, because we no longer need to strain our eyes to see if the flowers in the back corner of a shot are positioned properly. Today we can review the shot at full resolution on a laptop computer at magnification equivalent to a 20×30 print or more. Now we can not only tell if the flowers are in the proper location and oriented effectively, we can determine if the blossoms are overlapping each other or if the babies breath should be thinned. We can see the texture of the fabric on the sofa and the brush strokes in the paintings and make judgments of color representation and cropping on site before we break down and move on to the next photograph.
These most prominent of the benefits of digital photography and the easiest to describe. The rapid turn around, the retouching and other capabilities the digital process gives are valuable beyond measure. When digital photography became the standard, I and all of my clients all hoped the cost of a photo shoot would be reduced because we would no longer have the expense of Polaroid, and film processing. This hope soon faded.
The reality is that digital photographic and computer technology are advancing at remarkable rates, and to provide professional photographic services requires a significant and continual investment in upgrading hardware and software. There are significant expenses involved in simply archiving and cataloging the images we create for our clients because we need to have a triply redundant back-up system that includes off-site storage. And the expense of upgrading hardware and software is equaled or exceeded by the expense of continually learning the operation of new software and implementation of new procedures and industry standard practices to provide the services and products our clients need, not only today but in the foreseeable future as well.
The cost of consumable expenses (Polaroid test film, film and film processing) have been replaced by the cost of technology, and these costs must be billed to each photograph or project in order for the photographer to provide these services in an ongoing manner. The photographer who is not billing these costs to the project is a poor business manager and is operating with an unsustainable business model.