Why Jewelry Photography is Expensive (and How to Make it Less So)
[Challenged for time? Scroll to bottom for the Take-Away!]
There are some questions I don’t often get asked, although I am sure they are on the minds of clients and prospective clients. One is, “How can I get my photography done at the lowest possible price?”
I definitely get it. I’m expensive. While the average cost of a jewelry shoot with me has been running the the area of around $400, it is not uncommon for clients to spend $600 or $800 or even $1000 for a shoot, especially if they need a significant number of images. That’s a lot of money for anyone, myself included.
First, let’s look at why I’m expensive, then we’ll look at ways to keep the cost down. I’m expensive for a number of reasons. Jewelry photography is a highly-specialized form of product photography. Anyone who has tried it knows how difficult it is to take first-class photos of jewelry. It is tiny, it is often highly reflective, and it often incorporates things such as gemstones or enamel or surface textures which are notoriously difficult to photograph.
There are very few photographers in the country who specialize in jewelry photography for artists on the level that I work. I have spent nearly 20 years developing my skills. During that time I have spent many thousands of dollars on cameras, lenses, computers, software, and lighting equipment, and many thousands of hours learning to use it, all of which has been necessary to get to the point of taking the kind of pictures that I take for my jewelry clients, images which often get them into the most exclusive shows and galleries in the country.
On any given jewelry shoot, here’s what I bring to the table: $10,000 worth of camera and macro lenses; $6-8000 worth of lighting, lighting control, and studio support equipment; $10,000 worth of computers, monitors, software and data storage. All of this equipment must be maintained, upgraded, or replaced as technology changes. And all of this comes with my 20 years of experience as a jewelry photographer, and my track-record of getting artists into the places where they want to be seen.
I should also mention that I don’t have a generic, one-size-fits-all approach to lighting jewelry. I individually light each piece of work, and each grouping of work for an artist. Just as every artist’s work is different, and every piece of work is different, every piece requires its own lighting to bring out its beauty and uniqueness. This is not something you get from cut-rate on-line photographers. I give every piece, and every artist’s body of work, the personal touch.
That’s why I charge what I charge for my time. I can’t charge less or I can’t stay in business. If you need my services, understand that I will do my best to keep your cost down, but the simple fact is that photography like mine is expensive.
What You Can Do to Help Control Costs
OK, we’ve established that I’m expensive, but you feel like you nonetheless need the kind of photography I produce How can you, as an artist, keep the costs as low as possible? As I see it, there a couple of ways. The first way is to be as prepared for your shoot as possible. What I mean by this is, do your homework.
You might start by reading my Technical Posts, in addition to reading my pages on Standards and Procedures and Preparing for Your Shoot, especially if you are shipping work to my studio. Here you will find a lot of useful information to make your shoot go more smoothly and let you know what to expect.
A major part of doing your homework is pre-visualizing what you want. One place to start might be by reviewing the jewelry images on my site. Here you will find samples of my work and a clear indication of my stylistic preferences. You can also use these as a guide for how your own work might look when I shoot it. If you know before we start exactly what you want it makes everything go faster. I’m happy to play and experiment, but I charge by the hour, and while we’re playing the meter is running. The more clearly you can tell me exactly what you want, the less time we spend figuring it out as we go, and that saves you money.
For example, ask yourself what kind of background you prefer. (Here’s a link to a post about backgrounds, and here’s one about Layers and Cut-outs.) Know which pieces you want shot together or separate, and their preferred orientation. Some artists will take their own phone-photos of the pieces in the orientation and composition they want them shown, which is very helpful. Some artists do sketches. The more information I have, the better. I have one artist who designs his work in CAD and he sends me the CAD renderings to go by. Anything you can do to take the guesswork out of the process before we start can save you money.
There is another approach which also can be very cost-effective, and I have many artists who use it. That is to give me basic information such as background and orientation, but beyond that, to let me use my own stylistic and creative judgement. This requires a certain amount of trust that I will produce images of a quality and caliber they expect, but it works for a lot of artists. They know they are not photographers, they recognize the artistry involved in high-quality photography, and they give me a fairly free hand in shooting their work. When I work in this manner I work quickly and efficiently, and this results in keeping costs down.
I have to say, however, that I also work with a number of artists for whom the final arbiter is not cost but quality. These are often artists who work at a very high level, and who are keenly aware of the value of top-quality photography of their work. We might spend three hours shooting a single piece in various orientations and lighting styles until we create the perfect image. It is a highly-collaborative process, and for these artists, they feel that as long as I am bringing my best judgement to the photography and giving them images that are the best of which I am capable, cost is a secondary concern.
This is a bit easier for folks who bring their work to the studio, because the artist sees what we are doing in real time. They see how complex the process is, they see how long it takes to set up and take a shot, they can make suggestions along the way and see the results immediately, and they can work with a clear understanding of the time/cost involved.
It is a bit more difficult when working at a distance, for artists who send work to me. Most artists do not live close enough to me, or any of the other serious jewelry photographers in the country, and they have to ship their work off to be photographed. I have to say, I feel for them, because it has generally been a process fraught with difficulty, trying to work creatively at arm’s length or to find someone whom you can simply trust with presenting your work.
It’s All About Options
Things have changed drastically from when I first started shooting jewelry. At that time everyone still shot film slides. Artists who sent their work off to a jewelry photographer had to simply trust him, because there was nothing that could be done to change or improve an image once it was shot, or make the process more responsive to the artist. The artist got the slides that the photographer shot. If she did’t like them, too bad. She still had to pay for them, and either use them or try another photographer. Most of the artists I knew at that time were extremely frustrated by the process.
Things are vastly different now. Slides are gone, everything is digital. New cameras and lenses have made it possible to produce images that were impossible only a decade ago. Photoshop has made it possible to alter and enhance images in ways that could not be imagined previously. All of this has made it possible for the artist and photographer to work together in a much more collaborative manner than ever before. It is possible to approach perfection more closely than ever before when it comes to jewelry images. Finally, the artist has the possibility of getting the images she wants, in the way she wants them.
What this means for the artist sending work to my studio is this. I can do just about anything you ask me to do, within the limits of the technology. I can shoot individual pieces exactly as you specify, on your preferred background and in the orientation you specify. Or I can shoot individual or multiple pieces in various combinations, compositions, orientations, and backgrounds, and let you review the images and choose what you like. I can alter compositions, move pieces around within a shot, take pieces out of shots, move pieces from one shot to another, alter or replace backgrounds, and more.
But here’s the catch. The downside of all of this technology-driven flexibility is that it comes at a price. Where once you had very few options, now the options are virtually endless. This is why photographers such as myself have switched from charging by the image to charging by the hour. It might only take me 20 minutes to shoot an image if you clearly specify exactly what you want (or if you simply let me shoot it the way I see it.) But if you want to fully exploit the flexibility of the medium and make use of how responsive and creative it can be in the hands of a professional, if you want me to offer you options and give you the opportunity to make creative decisions about the photography, that can take a lot longer.
It can be even more challenging to work collaboratively at a distance. Because of the lag-time involved in sending and reviewing images, the time involved in shooting in this manner can be substantial. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to do it. I love working directly with the artist to help the artist get exactly what she wants. Much of my very best work is done this way.
There are ways to help manage these costs as well. One is to set a specific time for the shoot and for the artist to be at her computer for the duration of the shoot. That way I can quickly send you review copies and you can make suggestions while the work is being photographed. I can implement the changes and send another copy. I call this Live Email Proofing. It’s not as flexible as being there but its the next best thing.
One thing to keep in mind about this process is that once I take a piece of jewelry off the stage, going back and reshooting it adds additional time because I have to re-light for that piece. Every piece is lit individually and it is best to get that image right, agree it is right, and move on. Also, if I have to come back several days later to reshoot a piece the costs can be even greater. Every artist’s work requires a slightly different lighting set-up. To reshoot a piece after I have taken that set-up down means I have to rebuild the lighting set-up for your work, which will involve additional costs.
So, to wrap it up, the main thing to keep in mind, especially if you are sending work to the studio, is that the process can be either very cut-and-dried, or it can entail a huge degree of flexibility and collaboration, and anything in between. The more flexibility in the approach, the more it is likely to cost. The best way to keep the costs down on a jewelry shoot with me, and probably any jewelry photographer are:
1. Be as prepared as possible and know exactly what you want, in as much detail as possible. or,
2. Give me simple guidelines and allow me to exercise my own creative judgement based on the style of images I have on my website.
3. If you’re more interested in quality than cost, lets play!
Some final thoughts. Photography is an art-form in itself. An image of a thing is never the thing itself, only a representation of it which inherently has flaws and limitations. At best it provides accuracy and reveals the beauty of the piece. However, it is important for the artist to keep in mind that there are many possible ways to properly photograph a piece of jewelry.
I have a certain style in which I work, which I have developed over many years, and many artists have been very successful using my images. You can see samples of this style on my website. If this style suits you, then consider using me. If not, then you will probably be best served going to another photographer.
I also think that it is important for the artist not be too rigidly attached to what they have pre-visualized. The camera sees things in its own way, and a photograph will always be its own thing. The thing to ask oneself is, is this a top-quality image and a great representation of my work, even if it doesn’t exactly match the way I would have done it myself.
My goal is to give the artist the best images they have ever had, and to give them the tools to promote themselves and their work at the very highest level. The fact is, you can now get pictures of your work that are better than any you have ever had. And they are probably going to cost more than you have paid in the past. That’s just the long and the short of it.
High-end digital photography of jewelry is a complex process which relies on sophisticated and expensive technology and a photographer who has the skill, talent, and experience to use it effectively.
Modern digital photography provides options and choices which were never possible before. It can be a highly creative, collaborative process which results in images that are far better than images from even a decade ago.
With this flexibility and responsiveness has come increased cost because of the cost of the technology involved and the increased amount of time one can put into creating an image.
These costs can be ameliorated in several ways. One way is for the artist to be as tightly prepared as possible, to know in advance of the shoot as closely and clearly as possible what she wants with regard to her images.
Another way is to place a high degree of trust in the artistic judgement of the photographer and let him shoot your work quickly and efficiently according to his stylistic judgements based on his experience.
To fully utilize the flexibility of the digital photographic medium by working in close collaboration with the photographer will often result in the very best images possible. It is also the most expensive way to work.
For artists shipping work to the studio, all of these methods are possible, but you need to understand that if you want the ability to review images along the way, make suggestions and changes, and work collaboratively with the photographer, this is billed by the hour for as long as it takes.
Working collaboratively with the photographer will get you photography exactly as you want it, at the a very high level. Is it worth it? Many of my clients think so. I leave that decision up to you.