What to Charge for Digital Processing & Retouching

Retouching Example

There are many reasons to charge for digital processing and retouching. For one, it’s a profit center for your business. I’m assuming you like making money. It’s also a time-intensive specialized skill. That has intrinsic value to your clients because they would rather pay you than do it themselves. But, the main reason to charge for digital processing fees is that it helps recoup the costs of owning the fastest computer, the latest software, and the best cameras. 

Upgrades Aren’t Free

It’s expensive to keep all your gear and tools up to date. I’d say I spend an average of $5,000 to $10,000 a year on upgrades and subscriptions. My business has grown in recent years, and I’ve hired an employee to do the post-production work for my jobs. So, the digital processing fees pay for their salary and an extra super-fast computer with another copy of the latest software.

Are There Standard Charges for Digital Processing and Retouching?

The problem is that there are few standards out there for what to charge for digital processing and retouching. So many photographers pull numbers out of the air, or worse, they charge by the hour. 

Charging by the hour for retouching is a terrible idea unless you have a super slow computer and you spend hours doing simple cleanup tasks. But I don’t think your clients would like that 😉

We need a new standard, folks! I have an idea.

Let’s Look At Film Processing Fees

4×5 B&W Polaroid

First, a history lesson: Before digital photography was the norm, a photographer would charge for the film itself, plus processing and developing, usually with a significant markup. Shooting film was a profit center of the business, and the photographer needed to mark it up to cover the overhead of keeping fresh film on hand and for testing.

Here’s what my local camera shop charges for film processing

If they also scanned the film or made a print, they would charge a flat rate that services because of time, quality, size, and labor. Either way, they were billing for the photographs to be processed and then delivered in their final form. 

A single scan of one piece of film could cost up to $36.

This “Processing + Delivery” method worked for years until digital photography came along. The lack of physical media changed everyone’s perception of the value of the final photograph. Even photographers were guilty of this mindset. But, the hard truth is that digital files are just as expensive (if not more) as shooting film because you have to pay for the equipment, storage, media, and software. There is no such thing as free photography.

The Digital Photographer’s Processing & Retouching Fee Structure

So, here’s my standard digital processing: Feel free to utilize this, steal it, share it, tweet it, whatever. Just spread the word.

$1 per capture to shoot digital

$1 per MB per final photograph(s) delivered

Photo Authentic Digital Processing Fee

Don’t Charge by the Hour.
Charge by the Unit.

Here’s how it works in practice hypothetically:

Say I did an interior design photoshoot with no people. I shot 108 RAW files and delivered 6 final RGB Tiff files at 60MB each. I would bill:

$108 – Capture and Processing (108 x $1)

$360 – Final Retouched Photographs Delivered (6 x $60)

$468 – Total Digital Processing Fees

The “Capture and Processing” fee covers the handling of my RAW files, culling, and proofing. The “Retouched Photographs” fee covers my time in Photoshop needed to retouch and create my style of photography.

On architecture shoots, I don’t shoot many frames, so a $1 per raw file makes sense. If I were to photograph a high-volume job like fashion, lifestyle, kids, etc., I would charge $1 for the RAW selects. 

I don’t do a lot of Photoshop, so $1/MB covers my retouching time. But if you do a lot of heavy Photoshop and compositing, then you might need to charge more. Like a $2/MB

Digital Processing & Retouching Fees Summary

My point is that you should require some payment for processing and retouching. And it would be best if you charged by the unit, not the time.

Does that sound fair? Does that make sense? It works for me, and if everyone did something like this, it would become a standard.

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