Before you can price a product or service, you need to know your costs to provide it. This calculator is one tool to help you get a handle on those costs. It lists annual expenses independent photojournalists need to account for. But it's only as accurate as your inputs, which can be hard to estimate. Err on the high side, since unexpected things can catch up with you, and as you bill more, your expenses almost surely will increase. As high as totals from this calculator may look, experience will probably prove them low.

Click over the value fields for an explanation of what to include in that expense category. There's also a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions to help you make the most of the calculator and the data it generates.

This calculator takes a step beyond just computing your costs. You can input your desired salary, along with your estimated income from other sales (such as prints, reprints and stock photo sales), and the calculator will predict the minimum you must earn - in addition to assignment expenses - every day you shoot, in order to meet your goals. If your clients won't cover this minimum, plus your billable expenses, you need different clients or you need to make adjustments to your budget.

Introduction, FAQ's and category descriptions © 2012 Greg Smith


As a photojournalist you may work from your home (or car). But you still need a space to park, and if you’re using a bedroom for your office, it still has costs. Whether you deduct your office/studio on your taxes or not, the costs are real and should be accounted for in this calculator. Such expenses include rent, mortgage payments, real estate taxes, fees to your homeowners association, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, security fees (such as alarms), home maintenance, etc.

If you share space for work and living, estimate what percentage of the space you devote to your business. Multiply the total of your annual (12 months) rent, a year’s worth of repairs, maintenance and the other bills for your crib. If you rent or own space that’s only for your business, forget the percentage stuff - just total up the cost of that space and its associated expenses.

If you rent out to others your studio or office facilities (such as an editing suite), or if you charge clients for use of your space, either subtract that income from the total in this category or add it to your non-assignment income. Just don’t account it for it in two places if you seek accurate results from this calculator.

If you have separate personal and business lines (which accountants recommend), this is easy. If not, you can still come up with a figure. Add up a years worth of monthly cell phone, long distance, phone card and roam charges, and figure out what percentage of it pertains your business. Don’t forget to include a share of the cost of the phone itself. Fax machines and fax lines (or your bill for faxing at Kinko’s) go here, too.

Technology is constantly advancing and equipment wears out or breaks. In addition, visual journalism roles are converging. Still photographers increasingly record video and audio. Video journalists increasingly work as one-man bands, managing sound and producer duties. You must upgrade and replace equipment regularly to stay competitive. At the same time, many photographers stumble by investing too much in fancy toys, too soon.

A realistic look at what you need and what that costs can help you balance your desire for the latest toy with a plan for getting it.

Add up the costs of equipment, accessories and small tools that will wear out or become obsolete quickly. While lenses and microphones tend to have long lives, many digital capture devices become outdated in four years or less. Rugged use of equipment shortens its life. Figure how much replacements cost (even if you have what you need now) and how soon you’ll need them. Then divide that figure by the number of years they will last to come up with an annual figure for those tools.

Figure all other equipment on a depreciation schedule - five years is typical (check with your accountant) - perform similar math, and add this to your total from above.

Estimate the cost of new equipment with new capabilities (faster, longer lenses, lighting, different camera formats, new audio devices, etc.) you plan to add over the next five years, divide by five and tack this on to the total.

Remember, you need the proper tools for the job. A portrait specialist might do just fine with a prosumer camera and slower lenses. But if you work in remote or hazardous conditions, or shoot lots of action, you’ll need rugged, fast professional cameras and lenses. Likewise, a small, single-chip video camera might be fine for a web portal, but it won’t do the job for most broadcast news.

Also consider what you need to own vs. what you can rent. You can bill rental charges to clients, reducing your overhead costs. Many photographers and videographers charge rental fees for equipment they own, particularly for specialized tools.

Tools must be maintained. And sometimes they break. They must be in proper working order for you to continue working. It costs $500 or more for many digital camera repairs. A simple clean and check can cost more than $100. Budget for these things.

Consider signing up for your camera manufacturer’s pro service, which might discount your repair and maintenance costs. If you do, include any membership costs for that service either here or with "Subscriptions and Dues." Just don’t count them within both totals.

If your equipment is older, if you’re clumsy or if you?re often in hazardous situations, you will need more repairs. Include computer repairs here, too.

This has become an expensive category for photographers. Many visual journalists need two systems: a desktop machine with a good-quality display, lots of power, memory and storage; and a laptop computer for working in the field. Some get by with a laptop, external monitor at home and external storage. Remember to include in your annual cost calculations software (including upgrades), printers, scanners, storage systems, color-accurate monitors, calibration devices, special cables, docks and other peripherals. These can add up quickly, and they need to be replaced regularly. To compute your annual computer costs, consider the following:

  • How often do you need to replace key pieces of hardware?
  • How often does each of your key software packages have paid upgrades? Do you need to upgrade to every new version or only some?
  • What do software and hardware upgrades cost?
  • What new hardware and software do you expect to add and when? What will it cost?

Annualize these costs by adding up all you expect to pay in the next year - based on previous needs, if you have been in business several years. If you are new to running your own business, consider how frequently your tools manufacturers upgrade your key tools and how crucial each of those upgrades is to all you do. Also consider how hard you are on equipment. A well-traveled laptop, operated in dusty or damp environments, will likely have a short life with multiple repairs. Costs you only incur every few years - such as major software or hardware upgrades should be annualized, using a deprecation schedule, such as that described for photographic equipment.

Finally, as with cameras and audio equipment, consider what you must own and what you can rent. You might get by with a basic laptop and software for most jobs, and then rent a high-powered editing suite for larger projects, billing your clients for the rentals and reducing your overhead. If you are paid rental fees for use of equipment you own, subtract those fees from this category’s total to make your bottom line figures more accurate.

You will need high-speed Internet access. You might get by connecting at Starbucks or McDonald’s on many occasions. But if you’re going to effectively run a visual journalism and/or photography business, you will need a real connection to upload and download lots of data. Some photographers need both a wired connection and a tethered or WiFi hotspot account. Don’t forget extra charges for going beyond any data limits.

To fill in this category, add up all the costs you expect in a year, averaging monthly charges if they vary based on your usage.

Without a website, it’s very hard for any business to flourish. And it’s hard to imagine a successful independent visual journalist who doesn’t have an online presence for:

  • Sharing portfolios and special projects;
  • Delivering large image, audio and/or video files;
  • Taking orders for prints and stock use.
  • Telling clients and others where and how to get in touch.

A professionally designed website can cost several thousand dollars. The best template-based solutions can still cost in excess of $1,000 per year. And portal services - which provide templates, storage, customer shopping carts and delivery tools - can cost between $250 and $1,000 each year, depending on your needs and the service. Include fees for "cloud" storage in this category.

Automobiles are insidious devices. They lure you with their good looks, comfort features and/or awesome powers. Then they break down when you’re broke. Budget for both your lust and that rainy day. Add up your monthly payments, insurance (make sure you’re covered for professional use), maintenance, repair, license fees, parking costs, tolls. and then add in a bit.

If you have no car loan and don’t carry collision insurance, your monthly costs will be lower. However, you still must consider the cost of replacing your vehicle when it wears out. And if your vehicle is older, it probably has high repair costs. A new car might average only $50 per month in repairs. An older one might average $200 or more. A new, mid-size car or small truck can easily cost $25,000. If you replace that car with a new one every five years, you will have a base cost of $5,000 per year, plus interest, plus insurance, plus maintenance, plus fuel, parking, etc.

You also need to consider the share of your vehicle use that is for business. Many accountants agree that if you have a camera with you and you’re ready to use it when you find a good subject, you are using your vehicle for business. But do check with your own bean counter. And reduce your entry in this category by the share of your total annual driving that is for purely personal, rather than business, reasons.

Also know that most photographers bill their clients for travel while on assignment. You can charge any mileage rate you choose - and your client will accept - for this travel in your vehicle. For guidance, check IRS guidelines and auto-club reports on average cost per mile for the type of vehicle you drive. Both now total more than 50 cents per mile.

For the most accurate entry in this category, you should reduce your total vehicle cost by the amounts you are reimbursed for its use by clients.

You’re on your own. You can’t just bring pens home from work (which is stealing, by the way). You also need paper, probably notebooks, paper clips, staples, post-it notes, desk organizers, photo mailers, CD-ROM and/or DVD-ROM blanks, duster cans, tape, scissors, rulers ... You get the idea.

You also likely need a desk, file cabinets and a very good chair, since you’ll spend too many hours communicating, writing, editing, sweetening sound and video, and/or toning images. These furnishings have useful lives, just as your other equipment. In general, it makes sense to depreciate such items over a five-year period.

To fill out this category, add your annual cost of supplies to one-fifth (if you are following a five-year depreciation schedule) the cost of replacing your office equipment.

Note: Be sure not to include peripherals and other computer equipment in this category if you have included them under "Computer(s)."

These are expenses you bill back to clients for specific projects or orders, but you can’t bill the costs of promotional mailings and portfolios. Then there are repairs and shipping costs for supplies and equipment, along with the stamps that grace your monthly bill payments. Be sure to include postal meter and post office box rental if you have such expenses.

Improving and growing are important to living. They are essential to a creative business based on rapidly changing technology. Fresh graduates from college often need additional training. Industry veterans need to keep up with technology and often benefit from the creative charge generated by a good workshop or seminar. Budget for the Northern Short Course, Multimedia Immersion and other NPPA events you plan to attend. Consider other workshops, special courses and advanced degrees - both in person and online. Subscriptions to software training videos, such as those from and Creative Edge, go in this category, too.

Your fees to a portfolio or marketing consultant might go in this category.

But if you don’t set aside some money to pay for these events and opportunities you’ll either be surprised by their expense or fail to keep your skills and knowledge polished. Either situation can hurt your business.

Put your travel expenses for these events here or in your travel budget, but not in both.

If folks don’t know you’re selling, they’re unlikely to buy from you. Many photographers send out promotional mailings, which, besides postage, have costs for design, printing and possibly for purchasing a mailing list. Email blasts have many of the same costs. There are also Yellow Pages ads, other directory listings (online and in print), business cards, pricing brochures and special portfolio production costs.

Costs of putting on a special show of your pictures might go in this category. Some businesses in some markets also benefit from newspaper and/or magazine display and classified ads.

Many businesses budget a percentage of revenues toward this category. Consider the same. And consider carefully how you spend your money. Are you reaching an audience you can expect to buy from or hire you? Is your message likely to convince them to choose you, your pictures and your services? There are almost as many answers to these questions as their businesses. Call in advice from your comrades and consider working with a consultant.

But forget about being successful without tooting your own horn, at least a bit.

Staying informed is another key to success, especially for photojournalists, who must track specialized technology, client trends, legal issues and the news. In addition to photography magazines and websites, include the subscriptions for daily newspapers, weekly news magazines and monthly professional publications that clog your boxes - both on the curb and in your computer.

Photography and business organizations will help both you and your business grow. And the connections you make with others who share your passion can be both personally and professionally fulfilling. Your NPPA dues go in this category, along with dues and contributions to other professional organizations, whether Editorial Photographers, Sportshooter or your local Rotary Club.

As an independent photojournalist, you face many risks your homeowners, auto or health insurance won’t cover. It’s folly to attempt our jobs without camera and other professional equipment insurance. But your business has other potential liabilities, from the tripod that trips up the UPS guy, to errors and omissions, libel protection, and more. Review your coverage often. Keep good records. Realize that a single mistake without insurance could end in bankruptcy.

In addition, you should have disability insurance in case something happens to prevent you from working. If you have an employee - in many states this would include a freelance assistant, even for a single day - you need to purchase workers compensation insurance. If that employee drives your vehicle, you’ll need still more insurance. If you haul paying passengers, such as people in your workshop or guided photo tour, you need still more insurance - and probably a special license. If you travel overseas, you need insurance that will cover you there. If you cover war, nuclear accidents or other disasters, many policies will have exclusions. If you manage big productions in rented or public spaces, you will likely need extra liability insurance and certificates to prove you have it.

Be attentive to policy details, get all the protection you need and ...

Be careful out there.

The company plan doesn’t cover you if you’re not with the company (and don’t have a spouse who is). Good coverage may be much more expensive than you think. Check with NPPA and other organizations you belong to concerning group policies. Talk to a local agent. If you’ve recently left a job, you’re likely able to continue on the company insurance for a year or more under U.S. COBRA rules - although you may be shocked at the cost without your former employer’s subsidy.

Regardless, be careful to get the coverage you and your family need. Medical expenses are among the leading causes cited in middle-class bankruptcy filings. And most visual journalists need to be healthy to perform our demanding jobs.

For this annual calculator, be sure to multiply your monthly fees by 12. Then add in deductibles you must pay, along with your estimated co-payments for the amount of services and prescriptions you typically need in the course of a year, as well as needed items and procedures not covered by your policy. Also include over-the-counter medications and devices. And consider looking into a medical savings account as part of your insurance mix.

Life insurance comes in several forms, but you owe it to those close to you to have at least enough to take care of basic expenses when you die, such as burial and probate. If you have dependents or others who count on your income, you may want enough insurance for them to live for months or years as they seek another source of livelihood.

And again, consider disability insurance, either as part of this category entry or with your business insurance. If you’re too injured or sick to work, you will still have bills to pay. List its cost here or with your business insurance, but not with both.

These vary between states, counties, towns and even districts within towns. But one tax all successful business proprietors pay is self-employment tax. It amounts to roughly double what you would pay to "FICA" on an employee pay stub, or another 7 percent right off the top of your pay and profit (unless you form a corporation, which is another story for another day).

Some jurisdictions have property taxes on homes, automobiles and business equipment - including professional camera gear. Business license requirements are also very common, with some businesses needing to pay multiple jurisdictions. Some areas require special licenses for visiting production teams and those working on public property. If you haul paying passengers in your vehicle, such as those in a workshop or photo tour you provide, you probably need a special driver’s license - or captain’s license if your vehicle is a boat. Check with your good, local attorney and local officials.

But be sure to keep up with these expenses and requirements. Once you are profitable, you will probably need to file quarterly income tax estimates and payments. Regardless of profits, you must pay sales tax on all retail transactions (note: how these are defined, differs between jurisdictions). And you’ll want to make sure you bank extra cash for this, as well as annual license renewals.

Freelance photojournalism isn’t all glamour, glitz and wild parties. To find work you must prepare marketing materials - such as websites, mailings and portfolios. After you get work, image files need to be edited, captioned, toned, delivered, backed up and catalogued. New software must be purchased, installed and tested. There’s bookkeeping, answering the phone, dunning deadbeat clients and waiting in line at the UPS Store.

The more of these things you do, the less you will be making pictures and meeting with clients who will fund your next project. You can farm out some services, such as bookkeeping, and even image processing, to others. You might hire a part-time assistant. But if your magic eye and perfect timing are in high demand, you might also need real help and a real payroll. If you plan events - such as workshops or tours - you will need help. And the busier you get, the more help you will need.

Budget accordingly.

If you have a separate office or studio, add up a year’s heat, light, water, A/C costs and any property owner’s or special renter’s fees, to fill in this blank. If your office or studio is in your home, add up the same figures and charge your business for the percentage of your house (based on total square footage) your work area consumes. Whether you deduct use of your house on your taxes or not, it’s still an expense and relevant to your pricing.

Clients should pay your travel costs on assignment. But we all have stories, projects and places that give us - and our pictures - a charge. Sometimes it makes good sense to invest in travel on your own, hoping to profit later. Think of how many trips you’ll make in a year, how far you’ll go and how fancy you will need to stay.

If you plan one big trip every second or third year, estimate the costs and average them across several years. The bottom line is that if you plan travel that won’t be reimbursed, you need to budget for it.

Entertainment fees include meals, coffees, perhaps concert tickets, anytime you’re making pictures, gathering story information and/or meeting clients. If you’re doing business - including hosting a party for clients, photo subjects, workshop students or other business contacts at your home or office - it’s deductible as an expense. Be sure to keep good records and save receipts. Consult your accountant concerning details.

Income Factors

This is a fuzzy but very important number. The list of expenses in this calculator shows you that running a business offers a few perks. You can write off business use of your car, your cameras, even part of your home, very legitimately. But you still need to pay for food, the part of your home your business doesn’t use and school supplies for the kids.

You must plan to pay yourself something or the money will be spent elsewhere - on nifty new tools, employees you can’t afford or travel for all-consuming personal projects. Look at your obligations and expectations. Check them against your significant other’s. Consider economic realities. Then come up with a figure you can live with.

If you have net profits above and beyond your salary, you can live better, save for leaner times, or buy that new, 27-frame-per-second, 100-megapixel camera, along with a 12 gigahertz, 16-core computer, 50-inch monitor, and 10 terabytes of storage for all your huge, new images. But if you don’t budget for the basics, chances are you’ll come up short on them while dreaming of glory.

This includes reuse and reprint fees from publications, stock photography sales, print sales, consulting, teaching, writing, editing, etc. Some photographers make more money from these things than from photography assignments. But markets are changing. Be realistic about how much you can earn from such sales. Realize marketing and selling stock and prints take up time you could spend getting and fulfilling assignments. Remember that for the sake of our industry and your future, extra income and side jobs should not subsidize assignment rates that are unfairly low. If a deal is a loser, you can turn it down.

This is a fuzzy number, dependent on a long list of variables. One is your marketability. Another is your client list. Still another is how much help (in house or with vendors and agents) you have for finding, negotiating, editing, filing and delivering assignments. Finally, there is the complexity of reporting and research your jobs require.

You also must realize that if you plan on selling prints and stock as part of your income mix, those efforts require time. Some say it takes two days of marketing, prep and mop up for every day of photography. Others figure on three days or more. If you live in a busy, urban market, photograph assignments and deliver on deadline the same day, have regular clients, have many multi-day assignments, and always get paid on time, you can probably work more assignment days than a rural photographer who may be needed by any given client only once every few years.

Be realistic. For perspective, know that most photographers report 100 or fewer paid assignment days in an average year. That works out to two or fewer assignment days per week. Running a business and shooting that often will keep most folks busy. Finding time for a life and moving at that pace or faster can be difficult or impossible. And if you can only work two assignments each week, then each assignment’s income must average out to at least half the income you require for a week.

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