Understanding Total Cost of Ownership for Post-Production

We hear all the time, right off the bat. “So how much per image?” And it drives us crazy.

“So how much per image?”

Yes, per-image pricing is an essential piece of information. But far, far too many people think it’s the beginning and the end of calculating costs. Or that post-production prices are the only thing that matters when deciding between post-production options—like hiring in-house, using freelancers, or outsourcing.

It’s not, far from it.

Your actual post-production cost, or total cost of ownership, must factor in TIME: the time you spend onboarding, management, and your time to market.

How to Calculate Your Total Cost of Retouching

If you are going to break post-production and image editing down to a per-image price, do it right. While we are referring to it as per-image price, this formula and breakdown can also be applied to your video assets.

A common mistake is to divide a retoucher’s salary by images they retouch in a year and equate that with your in-house per-image price. The problem is that it ignores a host of direct and indirect costs: health insurance, computers, office space, HR, time to market, etc.

Another—even bigger—fallacy is to calculate an in-house per image price by dividing a retoucher’s max capacity by salary (“John can retouch 30 images a day times 260 working days a year divided by 70k salary is 11¢ an image! What a deal!”). That not only ignores the more hidden costs of staffing, it assumes a retoucher is working non-stop. They’re not. There are vacation days, sick days, training days, and, of course, slow days where you don’t have enough images to keep them occupied

First, to start calculating your total cost of ownership, let’s start with the direct costs. These are things with clear price tags we can calculate without too much conjecture.

In-House Direct Costs: $90,389


According to ZipRecruiter, the average salary for a photo retoucher in Los Angeles is $71,518, with hourly wages ranging from $25-$60.

Health care costs

$15,797 - U.S. company’s average health care costs per employee per year according to a survery from Mercer.


Most creative departments live in the Apple ecosystem.

$1299 - 24-inch iMac, Retina 4.5K Display, 1TB Storage

$380 - Wacom Intuos Pro digital graphic drawing tablet, medium-size

$99 - Magic Mouse 2

$99 - Magic Keyboard

$180 - Lacie 4 TB Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 portable hard drive

$599/yr - Adobe Creative Cloud

$329 - Ikea Bekant desk

$89 - Ikea Renberget swivel chair

Office Space

$5,089.20 - A standard cubicle is 48 sqft (8x6), and office space in Los Angeles averages $42.41/sqft/year, according to a Commerical Cafe. Keep in mind that as you scale, you need additional space for conference rooms, walled offices, hallways, kitchens, break rooms, etc.

Okay, it's getting pricey.

But that’s about it, right? Not quite.

The Forgotten Costs: $9080

Included in that price tag are all the forgotten costs - while needed, we often don’t calculate them into our overall cost of ownership. These include things like PTO, holidays, sick days, training or conference days, and downtime. Photography is seasonal. It takes a large team to handle the peaks—that means even more downtime during the valleys.

We calculated it out to be about 34 work days where a full-time retoucher isn’t working, at just over $9k.

Without factoring in the inevitable slow days. Standard downtime, where the team you had to beef up to handle rushes now doesn’t have enough work to occupy them.

If you’re successful, you’re going to grow! Building a team has expenses beyond just summing individual costs.

Scaling Costs: $11,524

Unless this is your final hire ever, there’s going to be scaling costs. Those are costs you incur as your team grows, and you need more support staff and structure, like HR and management.

HR can save a lot of time when it comes to managing insurance, legal compliance, and the hiring process. Let’s estimate this cost per employee at $2,524 based on Gartner’s 2023 HR Budget and Efficiency Benchmark’s Report.

And then there is also the need for management for your growing team. Let’s estimate this at $9000 - Based on a $90,000 Retouching Manager salary and one manager for every 10 retouching employees.

Instead, let’s take a look at what can potentially be the single greatest expense around retouching bottlenecks: the cost of delay.

What do retouching bottlenecks really cost you? Figuring out your Cost of Delay (Time to Market)

If you’re looking at hiring retouchers or partnering with a post-production service, it’s probably because you’re already well behind. It might take you one, two, three weeks, or more to get an asset up on the website.

That can be an expensive problem that can be overlooked when you’re focused on deadlines. Often, in-house teams try to staff just enough to be only a little bit behind because the cost of an idle retoucher is more obvious than the cost of delay (it’s way easier to see Jon swiping through Instagram than it is to see a customer move on from your website—or never land there in the first place).

Time to market can greatly impact your bottom line (and your KPIs).

The simplest formula for figuring the cost of delay is Lost Time Cost + Peak Reduction Cost. So if you’re late by a month, your cost is the sales from that month + however much your peak sales are reduced. That’s hard to figure, but it’s real.

Let’s use a handbag company as an example. Let’s say they’re two weeks behind in retouching, have an average price of $300, sell about 1000 handbags a month, and their profit margin is 8%. What might their delay cost them?

Their lost time cost alone is $11,200. That doesn’t factor in additional expenses or a reduced sales peak.

Some people think delays simply shift revenue by however long the delay is, but that’s not accurate.

Delays increase expenses, reduce peak revenue, and reduce revenue earning time period.

Increased Expenses

First, expenses. That’s pretty straightforward: the longer you’re paying people to work on a product, the greater your expenses and the less your profit for that product.

Reduced Earning Time And Reduced Peak Sales

Next, why do we say you’re selling it for less time? Why isn’t revenue simply shifted by two weeks or a month?

Because the end of your product’s salable life remains about the same, and your peak sales decrease the later you launch.

Delays eat into shelf life

Especially in fashion, the shopping cycle is highly seasonal and trend-driven. Your product also has a set end-of-life (the end of the season) that doesn’t change depending on when your listing goes up.

So you’re both selling for less time, AND fewer people are buying it during that time. More competing options are out there; your customers have already gone to competitors, and it’s harder to win the sale.

Factoring Outsourced Retouching Costs: How much time do you actually save?

Because image retouching is digital, it’s ripe for outsourcing. And there are plenty of options, so it should be easy to do some quick googling, get a bunch of quotes, and go with the lowest per-image price, right?


Take a lesson from in-house experience.

Remember, it’s not just about salary. It’s about time: onboarding time, management time, and time to market.

The real cost of cheap outsourcing: your time

The formula you should use:

Base per-image price + onboarding time + ongoing management time + cost of delay + reputation and security risk = total cost

It’s easy to throw out a low quote and make promises. You need to look at whether there’s a system in place to back it up.

Do you flip a switch on a machine, or are you essentially just managing a new team?


What’s the onboarding time? That’s time until operational—the time you take instructing the vendor to get up and running.

A lot of vendors will simply say “yes” to everything during the RFP phase and then try to figure it out on the fly. They’re afraid to ask clarifying questions, there’s a language barrier, and you end up in email battles and time-shifted phone calls where you try to talk your way through something that’s extremely visual.

That’s a huge timesuck. You spend hours and hours trying to communicate, you’re not getting usable images, and you have to repeat the process as the remote team churns. The graphic designers you’ve freed from basic retouching aren’t really free—they’re spending all their time in QA, shaking their heads as they watch quality go off a cliff.

In the worst-case scenario, after all of that, you discover that the problem wasn’t just communication; it was competence. They’re not actually capable of the quality you need. Maybe they used a crack retoucher on a handful of trial images for you, but the real everyday team isn’t anywhere near that level.

That’s traditional outsourcing.

Cost of Delay

We don’t need to get into the weeds regarding the cost of delay and time to market again, but you need to factor delivery time into the equation—real, completely finished delivery time. If you can’t use images until after an extensive QA and re-edit process, that’s pure delay.

What time of the day do you receive your images? And how do you receive your images? Are you spending time downloading and re-uploading to your own DAM?


You’re looking for help because your asset volume is increasing and will continue to do so as you grow. Does the vendor have a system that scales? Will it take up more and more of your time as you grow, or will your workflow and time usage remain unchanged?

If they’re simply hiring more retouchers as your volume increases, then there will likely be a ramp-up period for their retouchers before they’re useful, akin to onboarding. That means the vendor will need lead time to increase capacity, and rapid growth will create bottlenecks.

Corporate Responsibility / Reputation Risk

Make sure the company you’re working with operates reputably and treats its workers the way you would want to be treated. It’s just good business. It can also be a brand-tarnishing nightmare if you become entangled with a digital sweatshop.

Learn more about why Pixelz believes ethical outsourcing is the right way to operate in our CSR report.

Security Risk

Who’s handling your data? Is it encrypted in transport or in storage?

Here are 20 retouching infosec questions you should ask every image editing vendor.

Lower total cost of ownership: A Retouching Partner

Pixelz was built to modernize outsourced post-production. After spending years editing millions of images for the most demanding brands and photo studios in the world, we created S.A.W.™, an AI-powered post-production workflow. Image editing is broken down into micro-steps that are completed by AI, automated processes, and specialist editors. It’s super consistent, lightning-fast, and scales with a knowledgeable team.

With a specialist team on your side, Pixelz is like an extension of your own team. Whether you are looking to extend your in-house team or fully outsource your post-production. With our Platform, you have 24/7 access to the status of your assets, including rejection rates and QA tools.

Need to rush a batch of images? Press a button and get them back in 3 hours or less.

Want to compare before-and-afters? Do it online, with guidelines and markup tools at hand.

The platform gives you insight and control over your post-production at a level you’ve never had before, saving you time. It safeguards your data and your reputation. It accelerates your time to market, with standard next-morning delivery for images uploaded before midnight.

Sound expensive? It’s not.

Using technology and a lean workflow to regularly process millions of images means that per-image prices are driven down by volume and economies of scale.

And—as we’ve been stressing throughout this post—it saves you more TIME than any other solution out there.