All images in this post are used with permission from their respective photographers.
Perhaps the most vexing thing for any new photographer is pricing. There aren’t hard and fast rules, and while you want to make a decent amount of money commensurate with your skills, you don’t want to risk turning away potential clients with prices that are too high. Many photographers start out with fairly moderate prices, but after time passes and shooters hone their skills, the question becomes, “Should I raise my prices?” Of course, the better you get, the more you should charge because you have a deeper understanding of your craft and you can make better images. We set out to talk to some photographers who make their living from photography in order to make sense of the pricing game.
How to Figure out Charges
One of the worst things a new photographer can do is charge too little. The obvious consequence is that you’ll get some business, but the hours spent on each shoot will most likely be inversely proportional to the amount you’d be making. The less obvious consequence is the effect it has on your colleagues. It may seem obvious, but your cost of living should heavily factor into your pricing.
“If you live at home with your folks then you have no overhead and are making all profit,” said Mike Lerner, an editorial and lifestyle photographer. “But, if you work from home, have a studio space or have both in one, you have to set your rates based on your rent, phone bill, electric bill, etc.” Depending on where you live, your price per job should factor all of those things in because it’s never just about the time spent shooting and the time spent editing.
This changes a bit with the type of photography you do and how you do your job. You can have a rate per hour for event coverage, a flat fee for a headshot session, or a day rate. The latter is something to keep in mind if you do corporate work, say advertising campaigns for big companies, which is where you have leeway to charge more because of the work involved and how they’ll use the image.
Other photographers also seem to agree, and they argue that selling your services is a negotiation.
“Figure out what the lowest price you’d be willing to sell your images for and start the negotiation higher to leave room to negotiate down to the price you were originally after. Often times you’ll end up making more than you would have expected and it’ll also make the client feel like you’re doing them a favor by lowering your price.” says Robert Caplin, a freelance photographer based in NYC and the founder of the Photo Brigade. “Also, just as your photos have value, the client might have a product or service of value to you, so there may be some sort of barter to negotiate that could be combined with or in lieu of cash. Just always make sure you’re getting an appropriate value for your work, otherwise pass.”
There isn’t a hard and fast rule when it comes to raising your rates, but a lot of it has to do with knowing your value as a photographer as well as knowing what your overhead is.
“Always be confident in the pricing of your work. Never let the buyer feel like you’re out of your depths. It’s important to stand firm on the value of of your work and realize sometimes the best business decision is to say no,” Caplin said.
Of course, this comes with extended planning and that means that as soon as the year starts you’ll need to lay down some ground rules and set goals. “The one thing that stuck with me is to figure out what I want to make out of the year and then price accordingly with things in mind like taxes and expenses,” says Rinzi Ruiz, a freelance photographer who specializes in portraits and weddings.
Knowing what you want to make in a year is a good thing to keep in mind because that will help you determine how many jobs you need to take on. If put yourself at a lower price point than your competition, you’d have to take on more gigs to stay afloat, which can get exhausting after a while. Knowing your competition means researching to figure out prices. Keep your price tethered to your experience and the strength of your portfolio. When you set a price, be ready to justify it. Of course, this also means that you need to be brutally honest with yourself and give yourself a major reality check.
“When pricing your work, leave your ego at the door with your shoes,” said Bill Wadman, a NY-based commercial and editorial photographer and one of the hosts of On Taking Pictures. “It might be the hardest part about being a professional, but you often have to separate the business and artistic sides of your brain and ask for the money you can get, even if it’s less than you think your worth. Work is work in my book.” Bill continued to tell a story that he recently took a shoot for an old client where he was only paid half his normal rate because it was really all that was in their budget and he wanted to maintain the work relationship.
“…I’d like them to keep calling me, and I had nothing else to do that day so I might as well make a few bucks. My ego stung, but I survived,” Wadman said.
Knowing Your Buyer
What any business person will tell you when they’re trying to put out a product is that you have to know your buyer and your target market. Of course, you need to figure out who that is and who you can reasonably go after for sales.
“The one thing that stuck with me is to figure out what I want to make out of the year and then price accordingly with things in mind like taxes and expenses.”
Caplin suggests that you always try to figure out what the buyer’s wants and needs are.
“Always be sure to ask detailed questions about the company requesting the image and do a some research on the buyer so you know if they’re a publication, huge corporation, or a small charity you wish to support,” Caplin said. He went on to say that one should know the difference between personal, charitable, editorial, commercial, and advertising sales as this will affect your sale price dramatically. Indeed, it’s all about knowing your buyer.
In most situations for many photographers, they’re often dealing with folks who know nothing about photography. Many people think that all a photographer does is simply pushes a button–but we all know that our jobs are far more complicated.
“Don’t forget that your clients know less about what your work is worth than you do.” Wadman said. “Most people rarely do if they ever hire a photographer, let alone know what they should be paying for it. Sometimes it’s your job to educate them.” Bill continued to say that you should explain the value of quality images, and point out that they’re probably still paying less than a decent wedding DJ.
Of course, someone doesn’t need to outright purchase your work–but most people will want to do that. Companies, however, like being offered the option of leasing with variable rates for variable purposes. This is otherwise known as licensing, in which you set the terms and the timeframe within which a company can use your images.
In fact, licensing can be easier for photographers. Caplin uses fotoQuote Pro software as a reference to license all his images.
“This piece of software will give you negotiation tips and will also let you plug in all the applicable information about the usage resulting in a price range to charge. Additionally services like PhotoShelter has the software built in and can handle transactions electronically,” Caplin said.
We published a sample licensing form here and a longer guide to licensing here. Essentially, think of it as a long-term rental that the company can renew should they want to continue using the image. It is nowhere near as simple as it sounds, but done right, you can make a decent amount of money. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll have big corporate gigs when you’re starting out, and that’s okay. It takes time to build up to, both in developing your skills and learning the business side of photography.
While licensing is a more affordable solution for companies that want to use your images, you still shouldn’t be a pushover. “Don’t be offended if they balk at your prices.” says Bill. “Let’s say I quote a client $1000, I’ve found that half the people expected $100 and the other half expected $5000. Don’t take it personally, and certainly don’t undercut yourself before you start.”
It’s also important to not lose sight of the business side of things, and you may not even start out as a full-time photographer. There’s a chance you might run a photo business on the side before taking it full time. You can check out our guide to that here. Specializing is key when it comes to working as a photographer. It helps to keep a concentrated market and network of people. It’s easier to keep a steady pricing rubric, too, because the more you work in a certain genre, the better you understand the work it takes to deliver results, whether it’s headshots, events, advertising, corporate gigs, or weddings.