Why is birth photography so expensive?

Why is birth photography so expensive? Well it isn’t, always, but it should be. Birth photography requires some serious dedication (and skill, and understanding of birth, and lots of other things that are for a different post). Case in point, it’s Halloween and I’m in CA to document a very special surrogate journey. I love what I do. And I love my clients. I knew when I signed up for this gig that some day I would miss a holiday, or birthday, or anniversary.  3.5 years in and here I am, at last experiencing every birth worker’s rite of passage. My family is dressed up and already headed out for some trick or treating down in Austin. They miss me and I sure do miss them. But they also love me and understand what this job requires. So am I ok with sitting in my hotel room tonight with a bag of red vines, a scary movie, and time to catch up on my blog? Yes, yes I am.

But this blog post isn’t just about the sacrifice this work requires. It’s also about the worth of this service. And my journey towards that realization. It has led me, after all, to finding clients like this surrogate couple that value my time and my talent.

When I began shooting births in 2011, I started out as most birth photographers do, working for free, just trying to build up a portfolio that would serve as proof to potential clients that I actually knew what I was doing, and that birth photography was not “ewwww”, but a beautiful preservation of one of the happiest moments of their lives.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the time investment of a birth photographer was far underrated. A single session is not just limited to attending the birth itself (some of which last 24+ hours), but also the time spent culling and editing the images after. Furthermore, birth photographers are on call day and night for up to 2 weeks before and after a mother’s estimated due date. Still, in my eagerness to be hired, I charged far below my worth, an almost apologetic $800 for full birth coverage in fact, because I often felt that I had to not just sell myself, but the idea of birth photography. I worked up the nerve to charge $1000 a year later. Then cowardly climbed my way up to $1300 in 2013. Wedding photography, mind you, costs an average $5000-10,000. And by this time in my career I’d documented my now famous photo of a baby born entirely in the caul, and I was named Austin’s Best Birth Photographer. I was riding a wave of success my friend, and yet feeling… anxious? Discontent? It was a very confusing time.

In 2014 I had lunch with a good friend and life/business doula who told me, unequivocally, that I was undervaluing not only myself but birth photography itself. (This was not a new conversation by the way, it was one I had heard many times as a portrait photographer.) By now I had won the International Association of Birth Photographers’ Image of the Year Competition for the People’s Choice Award. My Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project had gone viral. And I was appearing in parenting magazines and websites regularly. I’d even been on television. Yet I was charging less than some of the other birth photographers in my area. So I knew deep down that she was right. I didn’t, however, own it. I didn’t believe it.  I didn’t value myself (as much as everyone else did). I didn’t want to shoot fewer births. And worst of all I was stuck in this mindset that as a birth worker I simply must be ok making less money than, say, a wedding photographer. Because (in my mind) wedding photography was a luxury and birth photography was a service. It was something that I should be doing out of the goodness of my heart.  And until I had been doing it for many, many years, I was not worth more. I was not a “luxury” service.

I walked away from that meeting and almost doubled my prices. I knew I deserved to make more than $13 an hour after deducting taxes, insurance, equipment upkeep and marketing expenses (among other things). But with the help of that friend I also realized that I had a gift, that the “service” I provided was invaluable, and that my work was high – of the highest, even – quality.  I don’t say all this to toot my horn or to brag. I’m sure some will perceive it that way. We don’t praise ourselves for our accomplishments out of fear of seeming arrogant. One of my favorite eye-opening quotes on that subject is “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson)

And here’s what David duChemin (humanitarian photographer and author) had to say about charging what you’re worth: “The things we do in life that are motivated by desire and love are the most powerful, but our happiness doesn’t have to come at an expense… While there are too many people that will put down a few bucks for something mediocre, there are many people willing to put down more for something amazing, something beautiful, something that took risk and honesty to create.” (A Beautiful Anarchy)

Business has slowed down in 2015. As I knew it would. But with how much I love to write, look for valuable publishing opportunities, spend time on PBAP, speak, and last but certainly not least, be more present for my children, my life feels more balanced. And I am content.

It is my hope that all birth photographers will one day see themselves as a valuable commodity. Will reach the same contentment. Will see the amount of dedication and heart this work requires, and charge accordingly. Don’t photograph for free. Even if you’re just starting out. Don’t forget that you are an artist and that your talent is SPECIAL. Unique. If you can’t charge 4 figures out the gate then study. Find a mentor. Work your way up. This not only upholds the value of our industry, but communicates our value to potential clients as well.

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