The title to this post may seem a bit melodramatic, but it speaks to the intense frustration I feel when thinking about the issues I write about in this post.
Photographers who know me, who attended one of my workshops or mentored with me back when I used to teach, who received advice/input/help/a listening ear from me, and/or read my blog posts over the years since I started helping photographers in 2007 know me to be honest but supportive and helpful. Although I no longer teach or offer any products for photographers, from time-to-time I step out of my business to speak to my colleagues. This is one of those times.
Brace yourselves for a change from me: this post is not designed to be supportive or feel-goody.
This post is designed to get people to think………
This post was written for any photographer who has gotten push-back from clients on pricing, for photographers who are trying to figure out what to charge, and for photographers who can’t figure out why they can’t seem to make a living at this business. Which is most of you.
I’m not holding back here. I am going to speak from the heart, and IMHO, it’s long overdue. It’s time I defend my career, my industry, and my #1 passion from those who are attempting to destroy it. I have invested nearly 12 years into my business, and I am not ready to see it ended by other photographer’s actions.
Ok, let’s begin.
All professional photographers who are successful in business (successful = making a modest full time living), know that you don’t make profit off of session fees. You make the profit needed to run your business and keep you alive by selling products.
I’m not going to get into the details of photography finances, outlined in studies like the PPA benchmark study, which EVERY ‘professional photographer’ should already know about because they know the basics of profit and loss, costs-of-goods-sold, their hourly rate, sales targets per client, monthly overhead, etc. (Note- PPA members can access the full Benchmark survey results here, once logged in). But here are some basic figures from the PPA study:
Home Based = 25% profit margin
Studio Based = 19.3% profit margin
Home Based = 40.7% profit margin
Studio Based = 37% profit margin
In a nutshell, according to extensive research done on the subject of small photography studios and revenue, if the average photographer wants to NET approximately $30,000, they need to GROSS over $100,000 annually, or $8,335 monthly. (i.e. net = 30% of gross sales in this example).
Provided a photographer can’t feasibly do a good job on more than 3 or 4 photo sessions per week, and realistically is probably only going to do between 8-10 sessions per month, accounting for slow periods, time off, etc, Each client needs to produce a MINIMUM of $835 in total sales. Let’s say a $235 session fee + $600 in products. Ideally each client will produce a minimum $1,000 in total sales, so a $250 session fee + $750 in products, which is a healthy and realistic goal.
If each and every client purchased $750 in products and paid a $250 session fee (total $1,000 sale), the photographer would be making a $30,000 per year take-home income working full time.
READ THAT AGAIN.
And since we are being honest here, the hourly work required to provide this level of service at this volume would be around 60-80 hours per week, accounting for all work needed to run the business. So: 60-80 hours per week for $30,000 per year take-home income.
The photographer is making $10.41 per hour worked on business. Every week, every month, every year, until their product sales increase/improve. Nice, huh?
Remember earlier when I said ‘modest living’. I was exaggerating when I used the word ‘modest’. $10.41 per hour isn’t what I call a ‘modest’ living, but the photographers this post is aimed at are the ones that really need this pricing exercise to truly get it. How much are you making per hour take-home with your photography business?
How much do you think the ‘cheap-but-good’ photographers are making? A few dollars per hour? Or nothing after expenses???? <—- most likely this. IF they are filing a schedule C form, (which is doubtful), I’m guessing they are reporting a negative number on the final line.
I read this on a new photographer’s website recently on their FAQ page:
“Do you charge for prints?” Absolutely not. I think photographers who make you pay for prints are simply trying to get more money out of you.”
Gahhhh… I wanted to tear my hair out and stick a fork in my eye when I read that!
Why? Because this photographer has a great looking, custom website filled with professional writing, and high quality, expressive professional images. By all appearances to a potential client- this person is a ‘professional photographer’, with lots of experience.
But here’s the rub:
……this individual charges $175 for a 2-hour on location photo session that includes a DVD of high-res professionally-retouched files!
Here’s the full package this individual is offering:
- 2-3 hours of session time.
- unlimited photos
- multiple pets
- full session of printable high res image files on DVD
- ten (10) fully retouched printable image files of client’s choice
- includes 20 miles of travel each way to client’s house
Price to client: $175
Here’s what’s happening:
THIS PHOTOGRAPHER IS EDUCATING ALL POTENTIAL PHOTOGRAPHY CLIENTS THAT A CUSTOM, ON-LOCATION PHOTO SESSION PLUS BEAUTIFUL HIGH-RES ***RETOUCHED*** PRINTABLE FILES FROM HER ISN’T WORTH ANY MORE THAN $175.
ADDITIONALLY: A CLIENT SHOULDN’T EXPECT TO PAY MORE THAN $175 TO ANY PHOTOGRAPHER DOING COMPARABLE WORK.
….and they won’t…. because the photographer is great. Why pay more??
^^^^^^THIS is the crux of the issue in the industry, and what I have a major problem with. I’ll return to this in a moment.
Along with this photographer teaching clients that a photographer’s time is worth almost nothing (i.e. a few dollars an hour take-home, IF THAT), this photographer is also educating all potential photography clients that it’s not ok for a photographer to charge for printed products (i.e. how we keep ourselves alive). How incredibly selfish of me to want to pay rent and eat and buy food for my dog!!!!!! What am I thinking???
I know what you’re thinking, and here’s the problem folks:
We seem to have this mistaken belief that the cheapo photographers are actually creating pretty shitty images. Guess what- more often than not– they are GOOD. Sometimes- really good. Let that sink in for a minute…..
The photographer I mentioned above? Does really good work! And is good both with photography, *and* retouching. This individual has a retouching blog post that clearly demonstrates skill with the latest versions of Photoshop CC and Lightroom 5. This has become extremely common among the cheap photographers out there. In many cases, their work, brand, website, web copy, and process are very similar to that of a much more experienced professional photographer. They are attempting to compete in every way except price- which is where they are drastically undercutting the competition.
Why would a potential client pay your $250 session fee + purchase $750 in printed products if they can just get the (retouched) DVD of (really *great*) images from the photographer down the street who is producing comparable images and has a similarly-professional looking business? Can you blame them? Of course not! Unless your style is so fabulous, so unique, so amazing, that they can’t help but work with you- most of them wont.
Do you wonder why you have gotten push-back from potential clients about your pricing? It’s because of what I just outlined above. Other photographers are making it extremely hard for you to make a profit from your services and products. This is a fact.
In 2013- the last full year I was serving clients in Seattle before taking off on my road trip around the country- I received a record number of requests from potential clients for a DVD of image files with my $350 session fee. I’ve seen the industry change in very concerning ways the past 5-7 years. I’ve tried to ignore it for a very long time, but just couldn’t anymore. Before writing this post, I spent hours and hours (and one sleepless night), reading forum posts about industry changes, the commoditization of images, concerns about ‘shoot-&-burners’, etc, and I have this belief: Photographers who don’t think this issue affects their business or the industry in any way have blinders on. (I originally wanted to use the word ‘deluded’ here, but I decided to be kind). OR, they are just lucky enough that this trickle-down affect hasn’t hit them yet (they have no competition in their market, they have a long-established, repeat customer base that comes back for one thing, etc).
- YES it’s true that some photographers who adapt to these changes will find solutions to them.
- YES great, unique, innovative photographers will continue to thrive.
- YES the shoot-&-burners who aren’t profitable WILL fail within a year or two unless they make drastic changes. (I see these photographers fail usually in 1-3 years; rarely more than 3 years. Between years 2 and 3 seems to be the ‘magic failing point’).
- YES there will always be a market for clients who want high-end products,, and *aren’t* looking for a shoot-&-burner but a true photographic artist instead.
But that market of clients is shrinking dramatically, and the competition is growing quickly and fiercely- with most of the new competition falling into the ‘cheap but good’ category, which produces serious concerns about whether or not ‘professional photographer’ is a viable long-term career for all but a teensy tiny percentage of those making a go at it.
The insanity of it all?
It’s photographers themselves who are destroying the industry!!
It’s NOT client expectations. Where do you think those expectations came from?? The client’s expectations came from other photographers. The damage has already been done. I’m even beginning to wonder if this industry isn’t FUBAR’d.
The excuses I hear from photographers who invest time and money into websites, branding, gear, education, actions, Lightroom, etc, and produce great images, but don’t charge profitable rates include the following:
- “But I am scared to charge more…”
- “I feel bad charging my clients for something I love doing…..”
- “I’m insecure about my work so I have a hard time charging for it”
If this is you- then you don’t care about owning a profitable business and upholding the industry that SO MANY photographers who came before you worked their asses off to build- you care more about pandering to your own feelings. Sound harsh? It’s true. Why would you start a business if you ignore the basic principles that a small business is built on?? (‘Profit-and-loss’ being just one principle that comes to mind.)
I have some cold, hard advice for you if you can’t/won’t/are too scared to charge for profit:
If your fears of charging a living wage override smart business decisions, and you allow your feelings to get in the way of actually running a business, then you have no business being in business- period.
Don’t run a business if you can’t do these four things:
- Be proud of and stand behind your photography and expect and demand revenue that supports you.
- Feel you deserve to be paid more than minimum wage to provide your art, and a custom service, to paying clients.
- Have the balls to discuss pricing with potential clients. (You’ll need A LOT bigger balls for A LOT more things in business- pricing is just a little part. Wait until you have your first justifiably angry/disappointed client. You’ll need way bigger balls then, I promise you).
- Charge rates that uphold, respect and support this industry.
So what are rates that uphold, respect and support this industry and don’t devalue and commoditize custom visual art?
Before I answer that question, I am going to say this:
If you have read any basic business book, taken a class on small business, and/or understand basic principles of small business (which was the FIRST thing you did before starting your business– right?), you should be able to answer this question all on your own, regardless of where you are at in your process.
You should already know how much you need to charge, because your pricing is not based on the competition or industry, it’s based on your own business expenses, your personal expenses, your service you are providing, your products you are providing, your COGS, your overhead, your taxes, etc. etc. Those things have nothing to do with anyone else.
Here is an example of what is not a profitable business for anyone, regardless of what your monthly expenses, costs-of-goods-sold or initial investment are.
- Session fee: $125-$175
- 90-minute or 2-hour on-location photo session for multiple subjects
- Includes a DVD of processed high-res printable digital files, sometimes even fully retouched in Photoshop
$150 session fee. DVD available for $100/$150/$200. Session + all high-res files for < $350
It’s so clear to me that photographers who do this don’t know the first thing about business or profit-and-loss, OR, for whatever reason they are trying to run a non-profit business working for regular clients. OR, they just really love running an extremely high-volume business that requires a tremendous output of energy and is taxing on both mental and physical health and enjoy heading quickly down the road of burnout.
Let’s break this down. I suspect at this point many people reading this still believe you can generate profit with the prices I listed above.
For a photographer to make $30,000 per year net, when charging $175 for a session fee that includes printable image files, and intentionally does not offer wall art or any other printed products, this is what their life would look like:
The cheap-but-good photographer would need to do:
- 571.43 on-location photo sessions per year
- 47.6 on-location photo sessions per month, every month of the year, with no time off.
- 12 photo sessions per week, every week of the year, including the holidays
- 2.4 photo sessions PER DAY, provided they only do sessions 5 days per week.
- 2.4 x 2 hours = 5 hours PER DAY of just photo sessions alone.
Add in travel time + post processing time on these sessions and you’ve got between 7-8 hours per day on just photography, post-processing and travel time. This doesn’t include marketing, emails, phone calls, website maintenance, errands, DVD fulfillment, etc, etc, etc (etc). Realistically it ends up being more like 12-14 hours of work per day. Don’t even get me started on what that would look like if the photographer worked an unrelated full time job. Let’s say they only needed to generate half that $30k revenue, so they’d need an additional $15,000 per year. They’d be working 7 hours per day IN ADDITION to their 8-hour day day job. Total: 75 hours per week.
Excuses I can already hear in people’s heads:
“But I only do this part time and don’t really need the revenue because it’s just in addition to my and my spouse’s income. It’s just extra cash in the bank.”
THEN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD- CHARGE MORE THAN I DO!!!
I actually NEED my revenue. I don’t have a spouse, I don’t have another paycheck. I can’t afford to go months without a client booking. YOU CAN. Charge more than other photographers if you don’t need the money. Don’t charge less and undercut them. Please.
“But my work isn’t very good…”
Says who?? Where have you gotten that feedback?? Is that just in your head, or have your photographer peers also told you it needs a lot of work? When was the last time you had your portfolio critiqued?
Here’s the irony. Usually the photographers who think they are great- AREN’T. The ones who *don’t* think they are very good- ARE.
If you don’t know if you do good work or not, post your images to one of the Flickr critique groups, and get honest feedback from people.
If it’s true that your work isn’t very professional (professional= free from technical issues like blown highlights, clipped shadows, over/underexposure, lack of focus, AND, images are expressive, engaging, creative, good composition, interesting negative space + sharp), then you need to be doing more complimentary portfolio-building sessions and work on improving your skills before you try and sell them as a professional service. Don’t half-ass it and do ‘somewhere in between pricing’ because your images ‘just aren’t good enough to charge much for yet’. Wait to start a business and charge for your services until your images ARE worth paying a living wage for. Photography is the only industry where I see people daily trying to sell a ‘professional’ service for money without having very much real-life experience doing it.
When clients pay for professional photography services, they expect professional results, as they should. Wouldn’t you rather start your business commanding $250-$300 for a session fee than $100 + DVD and be nothing more than a glorified non-tax-exempt non-profit? Sure you would! Set yourself up right so you can charge profitable rates- *when you start your business*. If you don’t think your work justifies that yet, then you need more practice to refine your skills first, before taking on clients.
“But we all have to start somewhere.”
This is true. But EVERY professional photographer can provide professional products for their clients. There is no excuse for not signing up with WHCC or other lab, since, if you are a professional photographer, WHCC will take you on as a photographer client, AND, if you aren’t able to package and ship, you can purchase drop-shipping in nice boutique packaging. Don’t commoditize your images by giving them away. Take pride in providing archival products for your clients. Don’t you care about your images enough to do that? Don’t your clients deserve products that have more than a shitty 2-7 year print permanence rating they’ll get from consumer prints and products from your home printer, Walgreens or Costco? Why would you want them to hang prints on their walls that will start fading and discoloring in just a few years, as opposed to providing them professional archival printed products that will look fantastic for the rest of their lives?
Alternatively, if for some bizarre reason you just don’t care about seeing your images you worked hard on printed on beautiful archival wall art, then charge a living wage for a session + digital files, which would be more along the lines of $500 for a short photo shoot or $750-$850 for a standard length shoot, with retouching on select files extra (or include a few retouched files). Don’t think your work is professional/good enough to justify these rates? See above…
“But without all of the cheapo photographers, I wouldn’t have anyone to refer the cheapo clients to that I don’t want to work with.”
Well, yes, there’s that. I do have a list of ‘cheapo’ photographers in the Seattle area that I refer the PITA clients to who want a bargain, have unreasonable demands, and think any price is too high. I find that list very helpful at times in avoiding clients who would otherwise make my life hell. Note to the ‘cheap-but-good’ photographers: most of us long-timers have these ‘referral lists’. Why do you think that so many of the clients who contact you end up making you miserable with their unreasonable demands and lack of respect? Hint: they’ve been referred to you by photographers who do understand profitable rates!
“But my potential clients balk at my pricing all the time. I CAN’T raise it because they complain.”
Why on earth are you allowing other people to dictate your business decisions? Who is running your business? Who is staying up late at night editing images? Who stresses out about equipment repairs and upgrades? Who invests the time and money into providing this service? YOU! It’s *your* business. Never allow a client to tell you how to set your prices or your policies. You’re not a bargainer at a flea market. You are a VISUAL ARTIST who is providing a custom, labor-intensive service and products. Pricing decisions are YOURS to make. Here’s a secret tip: when you undercharge for your products and services, you end up with *a lot* more clients who balk at your prices.
Since this post is now quite long, and I could go on about this forever, I’ll start to wrap this up.
If this post has freaked you out to the point where you second-guess starting/continuing a business, I recommend you return to doing photography as a hobby. The reason? If you are going to find any measure of success as a photographer, you will have A LOT more to throw you off course than a ranting blog post by a frustrated photographer. If this is all it takes to get you to reconsider, then I think the road of a photography business would be filled with too many frustrations, disappointments and stress to continue happily.
I want to say this:
There is absolutely no shame in doing something for the love and passion alone.
The definition of the word ‘amateur’ is simply ‘to love’. Do what you love. There doesn’t have to be anything more to it. Better yet- do what you love for those who deserve it the very most- foster children (if you are a portrait photographer), adoptable animals (if you are a pet photographer), wedding photos for members of your church group, etc. (you get the idea). Don’t spend money on a website (please don’t pass yourself off as a professional if all of your services are free), don’t invest in marketing, or events, or advertising, or fancy products. Just get your business through word-of-mouth, and do it for fun for people you know, and give them the digital files. Share your gift philanthropically, not because your bottom line is your top priority.
I suspect that many photographers who don’t charge a living wage for their services started businesses at the prompting of friends and family, and because they thought that being a professional photographer would be ‘fun’, forgetting that they are first and foremost- a small business owner, and that if they could do their photography for pure joy, and do away with all of the stressful business, marketing and pricing stuff- 80% of the business-, that would be their preference. If this is you- go for it.
If, on the other hand, you genuinely want to make money for your services and products, and you truly want to be the owner of a successful small business, and you are driven to make profit and see this industry continue to thrive, take these next steps:
- Go read a book on small business basics like profit margins, profit-and-loss, costs-of-goods-sold, monthly overhead and sales projections and actuals.
- Sit down and crunch your numbers for your business, and figure out exactly how much you need to survive for yourself personally, and for your business.
- Create two excel spreadsheets with monthly fixed and variable expenses- one for your personally, and one for your business. (I recommend having two worksheets on one file).
- Develop target sales goals per client.
- Determine your monthly revenue goals.
- Develop a kick-ass product line that is unique to you, that will produce the kind of revenue you need to survive.
- Stop giving away your *most valuable* asset- your beautiful photographs.
Develop pricing that won’t just sustain you- but that also upholds, respects and supports the photography industry as a whole, as well as enables photographers like me to continue to make a living doing what they love. If you go through the aforementioned exercises, I think you may be surprised to see just how far off you are.
I DON’T think it’s too late for us to make changes in the industry, to re-educate clients and start to undo some of the damage that the cheap-but-good photographers have done.
It’s going to take time, and risks, and the re-shaping of widespread expectations, but we as a group can do it.
Each of us has the power to affect these changes in the industry, and it starts with those numbers on your website that start with $.
Thoughts, ideas, suggestions, first-hand stories? Let the comments flow.