the menu

Why Are Digital Files So Expensive? | Baltimore Photographer

outdoor spring portraits in baltimore

You know the age-old questions! What came first, the chicken or the egg? Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway? Or my favorite one… Why are digital files so crazy expensive?

Ok, ok, so the last question is not exactly old as time, but you better believe it gets asked all the time! If you are the least bit curious, I encourage you to read on to find out!

So why do digital files cost more?

As a professional photographer, this is a question I am asked all the time! As a matter of fact, in the past 24 hours, I’ve answered this question at least 3 times from current and potential clients! Although this is a very fair question, I feel like it’s time for a little ‘Photography Clients: 101’ lesson! 🙂

So let’s back up a little and pretend you are booking a professional photo session. It probably goes like this:

  • You decide you really WANT (not really, we all know how painful it can be to get kids to cooperate, much less your husband) to have professional photos taken of your kids/family. They are growing so fast after all!
  • You start googling photographers in your area, find 483 family photographers to choose from, and lose 3 hours online trying to figure out who you love most.
  • You spend another 3 hours on Pinterest searching for the sweetest matching outfits that you can all wear and look like a family out of a Vineyard Vines catalog!
  • You realize you’ve lost an entire day online, get distracted, overwhelmed, and busy, and forgot all about your mission of organizing family photos.
  • Months later, you call a friend desperately looking for a photographer referral because you now NEED to get photos taken right away! Your kids are growing fast, Little Emma is going to lose her two front teeth, and now baseball season has started and you only have 1 weekend in the next 6 months that you can squeeze it in.
  • You book a last-minute session, grab whatever clothes seem the least bit ‘coordinated’ out of the closet, use a little extra hair gel the day of the session (who had time for a haircut), beg and plead your kids to squeeze into their shoes (even though they are 2 sizes too small) because it’s only for a few minutes and you don’t have other shoes for them to wear!
  • You get to the session, beg, plead and bribe a little more for cooperation! “FOR THE LOVE OF WINE, PLEASE STOP FIGHTING for a few minutes! I’m not asking that much!!!”  (Full disclosure, I almost had 2 fewer children after our last family photo session. I totally lost my cool. It was horrifically embarrassing. Anyway…..)
  • Two weeks later, your fabulous photographer presents you with some AMAZING images that you aren’t sure are real because you didn’t see any of this cooperation or behavior during your session. But… your photographer is a genius, so of course, the images are beautiful!!!! You decide you want EVERY digital file because clearly, it will be a LONG time before you do this again AND you need the files to post on Facebook and Instagram, upload to Minted to create your holiday cards, make an album for the grandparents, get enlargements for frames at home, of course, extra gift prints for all the aunts and uncles!! SUCCESS!!!

And then your photographer tells you how much the digital files will cost. Womp, womp, womp!!!!!!!!!! BUT WHY!?!? You didn’t even order prints or an album!

To a consumer who is interested in purchasing digital files, it seems like the files should be cheaper because there is no tangible product being delivered, no ‘presumed’ cost for the photographer. It’s just their ‘time,’ after all. Right?

I totally get it, and it seems like that would make sense, but in reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Here’s why digital files are so expensive!

When you purchase an image from a photographer, you are not ‘buying’ the piece of paper it is printed on, or the file that was sent to you. You are compensating a professional artist, one whom, presumably, you’ve hand-selected to capture your most significant memories and moments. You are compensating a professional for their knowledge, experience, time and talent. You are compensating a professional for creating art, and preserving time and moments that you will never experience again, except through their images.

So what do you think it takes to become this knowledgeable, experienced and talented professional? A camera and some luck?

As is the case with most true professional photographers, the expense of being exceptional is well…. quite exceptional. Cameras alone typically run $3,000-$5000. Most of us have 2 or 3, if not more. A professional-grade lens is usually $1500 – $2000. We usually have 5-10, all necessary for different situations. Lighting can run anywhere from $1000 – $10,000, depending on how much you have. Education to stay ‘up to date and relevant’ is easily $2000-$3000 per class. I won’t even continue to list all the other costs of running a business such as computers, websites, studio rent, marketing, samples, insurance, taxes, etc, etc., etc. Suffice it to say, there are many more expenses than just a good camera. 😉

But still… why are digital files so expensive?

Once a photographer has sold a digital file, he or she will no longer make one cent off that file. None. Zilch! Nothing! Once a consumer has that file, they can use it to make 300-holiday cards, prints for every aunt and uncle, a large masterpiece for over the mantle, even custom wallpaper! Once a client has a digital file, a photographer has ended their ability to profit off that product. So… we have to set our prices for the files, these non-tangible files, to make sure we are covering our cost of doing business and making a living. It is really this simple. If you love your images and purchase holiday cards, prints for your family, and wall art for your home, the total sale is going to be very different than if you purchase just a few files. Digital files need to be priced appropriately, beyond the cost of one print. Does that make sense?

Yes, you will find photographers who sell digital files for $5 and some who sell them for $500 per file. With 100% certainty, I can assure you there is an enormous difference in the quality of the product you receive and the service you experience, and eventually, that $5 photographer will not be around next time you need him or her! As with everything you purchase, you always have the option to go cheap or invest!

If you’ve made it this far, I hope this has helped you understand a little bit about why digital files aren’t cheap! I’m not trying to convince you that you need to spend $5000 every time you want to do a family portrait session!  But next time you find a photographer whose work you adore and business you trust, think about how he or she got to the place they are today. Maybe it’s worth the investment for your family and maybe it’s not, but if you understand why, your decision to purchase files may be easier and your images a little more valuable!


Baltimore Photographer, Robyn Osten, specializes in portraits, weddings, and corporate headshots in the DMV. Her studio is located in Baltimore City and she serves all of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington DC, and beyond. Robyn has been a professional photographer for almost 20 years and has seen the trend in photography move from quality, heirloom products to digital files, back to heirloom products. Robyn offers her clients a variety of beautiful, high-end photography products that will be passed down for generations!

Hi, I’m Robyn

a PORTRAIT and HEADSHOT photographer 

Fueled by equal parts coffee and a genuine love of life, I spend my days capturing the kinds of images that make you stop, smile, and celebrate the little moments. Your story, your life, is beautiful, and it’s an honor to capture it in images you will treasure for years to come.  I look forward to working together and creating the kinds of images that remind you of the joy that can be found in the simplest of moments together.