How to Price Photography
Pricing…. such a touchy area in the photography industry. If you are serious about pricing yourself and turning a profit, I know this is a long article (although you can skip to part 2 if you would like), you simply must digest it all.
In 2013, a local survey in the DC/Maryland/Northern Virginia area was done among photographers and showed the following:
- The majority of the photographers who took the survey were between the ages of 20 and 49
- The largest percentage of photographers were full-time with no other jobs.
- The largest percentage group were only paying themselves less than $10,000 per year as a salary and admit to making more than the previous year!
From what I have seen since coming back from my break, this has not changed much. Let me start by saying, the DC/Maryland/NoVA area is an area that ridiculously expensive to live. Montgomery and Howard Counties always sit at the level of highest salaries/most expensive places to live in the U.S. Maryland is such a small state, yet we have two counties that fit that criteria. Have you been to Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun County Virginia? Also super expensive to live. Based on the salaries of $10,000/year that the photographers in that area were claiming, that means they were making $4.81/hour full time or $9.62/hour part time (but we all know part time really isn’t part time for business owners, but either amount is terrible). This sits on my heart (and stomach) to help… to say something, to do something.
The Bidding Wars
In a panic, many photographers have lowered their prices because they let fear lead them. I’m actually not opposed to lowering prices but there must be a substantial reason for it – but most do not have a good reasonf or it. The problem with lowering prices without a clear business model or structure that proves benefits of doing so is…. If you lower with no real reason but “to get more clients” then other photographers will go lower than you…. so there is no use in lowering your prices “to get more clients”. That’s a myth. You will get more clients for a month if you are lucky, and then someone else lowers theirs even more…and then the race to the bottom has begun. The further down you race with no business plan or structure, well, you eventually work for nothing…. and I don’t know about you, I have better things to do with my time than work for $0/hour.
It’s the most bizarre thing I have ever seen. We don’t see other industries going quite as down to the bottom typically because most business owners won’t go below a certain amount because they still need to pay for their operating costs and salaries. You can go online and read “I need a photographer to photograph my baby.” A response, “My friend does it for $200.” Then someone will inevitably say, “Well I can do it for $150” and then yet another one, “I’ll do it for $50…” But wait, there is still someone who will do it for $35. Recently, there was a screenshot going around of something that happened to a wedding photographer. She met with her client for coffee. As she was chatting price, service, etc., a stranger interrupted them and said something to the effect of she’s ripping you off, I can do your wedding for $500. THAT folks, is the state of the industry, whether you want to admit it or not.
Let me interupt for a very important message: Please understand – just because “businesses usually do not profit the first few years” does NOT mean that you don’t pay yourself a salary. You can pay yourself a salary and the business can be unprofitable. You don’t simply decide to not pay yourself a salary. Why are you working if you are not paying yourself a salary? Even unprofitable companies still pay their employees (or owner) a salary.
But they (‘cheap clients’) aren’t your clients.
Oh but they WERE your clients. Photographers can brush it off and feel superior all they want stating “they aren’t your clients.” No. Stop. They WERE our clients. Let me share a little story. I used to have clients that would drive and fly many miles to my studio to be photographed. They wouldn’t hesitate to write a $5,000 check. Then, it all changed. An example – I had a great couple that used to spend $3,000 every time they came to my studio. They both had excellent jobs, lived in high cost of living Maryland and beautiful house, beautiful kids, and financially stable. They are great people. They loved me and loved my work. In fact, I’m still friendly with them and love watching their kids grow. They stopped coming to me. At first, it felt like a slap in the face. I was so upset that they started seeing a photographer I consider subpar who charged $300 for all the digital images AND included a wall canvas. Huh? She’s not turning a profit worthy of a business owner in this high COL area. This is a glorified hobby to her. But wait. Their kids are growing up. They only want or need some portraits to show the changes in their children. They don’t need the fancy art all over their walls every year. They still sing my praises and still adore my work, but they don’t need to pay for it anymore. Maybe on a special occasion, but all their friends and family on social media get to watch their kids grow up every day with the images shared from their cell phones (and anyone can take a decent cell phone shot for social media sharing). I’m not mad at them. In fact, I don’t blame them. They WERE my target market. My target market is such a small pool now because spending habits have changed for everyone.
Solution – Structure Your Business Prior to Pricing Anything
- Stop Hemorrhaging – Stop buying all these miracle solutions…. these webinars, workshops, you name it. They are telling you that you can scale your business to six or even seven figures. Stop buying into it. If the people teaching this had photography businesses that were that size, they wouldn’t be spending all the time marketing it to you and instead would be devoting their time maintaining their photography business with actual well paying clients. YOU do not have the spare funds to waste. Read this article The Magic Beans. (Before you have a knee-jerk reaction to that statement, read that article).
- Record all of Your Transactions, Evaluate, and Make a Plan – guess what? I’m not even even against lowering prices but do NOT lower or raise your prices until you have a clear reason to do so. Businesses don’t simply throw numbers out there regarding pricing. Businesses study their numbers and make a plan. Rethink everything!
Pricing Advice? On Whose Authority?
Put your hands over your ears and yell “La-la-la-la-la-la I can’t hear you!” when someone tries to tell you the numbers you should be using for prices. Only YOU can come up with these numbers. No one can claim to have one solution or method to create a booming business. Here’s why:
- Only YOU know your market. I love it how a photographer in Washington DC advises someone in the middle of Wyoming how they should price or vice versa. No. No, just stop. These markets are COMPLETELY different and so is the cost of living. Years ago, a photographer from the Midwest came out to the East Coast, and she was good – beautiful work – and she was booking workshops and more workshops. Well, new photographers would be all wide eyed and ask her what she charged even though her workshops were about the art, not business. She told them she was charging $500 and including all the digital images. New photographers out this way compared themselves to her and started charging even less than that not feeling worthy of her talent, so how could they charge as much as her; however, the industry standard in the area at the time was around $2,000-3,000 for all the digital images no matter the talent or experience. We all needed to pay our mortgages. This is how the race to the bottom begins.
- Only YOU know your target market. How can a photographer whose target market is the elite tell someone whose target is middle market how to price? They can’t. How can a photographer who lives in the relaxed South claim that a photographer in a busy metro area is doing a disservice to themselves if they are not doing IPS (In Person Sales). You aren’t navigating the same markets at all. Some markets in metro areas will not support IPS because they don’t want to sit in traffic for yet another 2 hours to meet with you. They want to sit at their desk late at night and place an order after dinner because they want to spend any free time they have with their family, not running yet another errand.
- Only YOU know what you need as a salary to live comfortably. This goes with areas, cost of living, lifestyle, and your personal bills or debt.
- Only YOU know how much or how little you want to work.
- Only YOU know your expenses based on your business structure. There is nothing wrong with having a low price, mass production model. There is nothing wrong with having a high priced boutique exclusive structure. However, no one can tell you which one to choose. This is YOUR decision.
Maryland Newborn & Baby PhotographerJodie was the first visible specialized newborn photographer in the Greater Baltimore area. She has been a newborn photographer for over 15 years and has been a big voice thorughout the photography industry regarding best business practices and baby safet. Fine her newborn portfolio here and full bio here .