“Let’s Make a Deal”

July 13, 2014

A word about pricing your work…

This is something I get asked about a lot from other photographers…especially those who are in the beginning phases of their business. So I thought I would do a little blog post. Not just for them, but for their current and future clients.

First – a disclaimer. These are my own personal beliefs after having been doing this for quite a few years, and making plenty of mistakes along the way. I am grateful to those who were further down the road than me, and who gave me valuable advice that I rely on to this day. I have a couple of young photographers whom I have mentored, and it is the same advice I have given them.

When entering the now incredibly oversaturated market of “Professional Photographer”, it is imperative that you ask yourself what constitutes the term “professional”. Is it just that someone is paying you? In a nutshell, I consider a professional to be someone who actively operates under standards that befit a professional. These include:

  • Investing in education in your field – continuously
  • Investing in proper equipment (and backup equipment!)
  • Having the proper insurance (for the sake of both you and your client)
  • Setting their pricing at a level that is sustainable for both themself and their vendors (think Hair & Makup Artists, etc)
  • Educating their clients

So let’s break it down….

Education

When someone hires me, I want to be sure that I have not been static at a certain level, and resting on my laurels so to speak. I always want to find something new with every shoot – I don’t want them to walk away with a carbon copy of some template that I use for everybody. I firmly believe that continuing to take workshops, online tutorials, classes, etc  is imperative to keeping my eye fresh, and my creative juices churning. It enables me to look for the unique with each and every client, while still maintaining my brand. I also believe very strongly that knowing your equipment inside and out, and getting the image quality in-camera is essential – and all to often overlooked with the ease of “fixing” it in post. You can tell the difference – especially when your client blows that image up big. Relying on software to replace technique and quality will eventually catch up to you – and if it doesn’t, you will forever be stuck with the kind of client who doesn’t want to pay for quality (but will still expect it), and your business will never support you. You will, over time, become a slave to your editing.

Investing in Proper Equipment

Now, here’s a point where I can have a radical departure in my approach – yes…you absolutely need to invest in certain core pieces of quality equipment (for instance your camera or better yet, your lenses – they will stay with you while your camera bodies will come and go).  This does not mean the latest and greatest. Think about what your style is – do you shoot mostly available light? Or do you like shooting in the studio? Either way, there will be a few key pieces that you will need to make things flow efficiently and get you the best results. BUT….let’s not go crazy spending a fortune on all the gadgets/equipment marketed to photographers! (I swear those evil marketers know we are suckers for all those amazing promises!) I am also the queen of jury-rigging. I absolutely endorse using whatever is on hand creatively to get the results you want (or even – once you have nailed the shots for the client, to experiment….more on that in a future post!). Think about your style, and what is required – essentially – to achieve a good core image in your camera. Trust me – it thins the list of “must-haves” down quickly. There are tools I invest in that make location shooting possible without having to have a crew of people hauling heavy, poorly designed equipment around – it is true. But you will also see me using what’s on hand to further model and modify the light.  And always have backup equipment for when something goes wrong…for your sake and especially for your clients sake. You cannot redo a wedding, for example.

Insurance

I’ll make this short and sweet. Get some. You are a professional, so act like one. Inventory your equipment, and be sure you are covered if the worst happens. Stuff gets stolen. People can get hurt on location, trip over your cords, etc etc. and you are in no position to pay for their medical bills – especially when you are practically giving your service away to begin with.

Setting Pricing

Here is what I see happening all around me. Person gets a camera. Person gets excited over taking pictures. Person gets even more excited when they get feedback. Person hangs out their shingle and puts a rock bottom price on their service because they are just starting out and “need” the business and in their mind can’t justify charging more. OK – I get it. I really do – because I still get super excited for every shoot. But here is the thing. Experience is part of your education – I took a lot of pictures, and attended a lot of classes before I started charging for my services. And yes, I raised my prices over time – but I did not start with a price that was not going to in any way realistically support the business. The mistake that is being made, is that you are either charging your clients for your education before you are really proficient enough to be charging anything, or you don’t believe your work and experience is worth charging for. But here’s the thing – if you don’t charge a price that is sustainable, you are not running a business are you? And all the while you are building your client base and teaching them that this is what you are worth, and you get more clients just like that as they refer you. Then what happens? Think about it. And if you are including a makeup artist, or a stylist, and charging a rock bottom price, you are now infecting your vendor base with the same disease. Nobody wins – including the client! It makes me so sad to see a photographer not valuing their work, and by extension not valuing their vendors’ work. Your business will absolutely not survive, and definitely will not thrive past the first flush of excitement at having clients. I value my work. My clients value my work. And I absolutely value the work of my vendors. I see photographers who are charging less for their entire session including hair & makeup than I pay my makeup artist alone. Clearly no one is making money in that scenario. I value my vendors – they take my work to another level, and save me time in post. If you want to give your work away great! But give it away – don’t send mixed messages, or you will lose the clients you have, and will never get the clients you want.

Educating Your Clients

It is your job to educate your clients. If you don’t, in 5 years you will still be struggling with $199 “deals” that don’t cover anybody’s costs. Trust me – it won’t be as exciting then. If you have a quality product your clients love, then charge the real price for it.  I am not saying this because I don’t want to be undercut – those are not the clients I want. You are welcome to them. I am saying this because I truly care about the industry I am in, and I see a lot of good photographers shooting themselves in the foot for very short term emotional satisfaction.  Much better than lowball pricing is to charge the actual cost of your service on your pricelist, and then periodically “build your portfolio” – asking other artists to collaborate so they can also use the images in their portfolio, and charge nothing. That’s right. Nothing. (Photographers and other creatives do this all the time). And most importantly be very clear with your client about why you are doing this. It is specifically for doing your own work, to build your portfolio in the style you want, and they get some cool images out of it. I still do this for personal projects to this day (and have other artist thrilled to participate)  but at the same time I am educating my client as to what is, and what isn’t, happening. Inform your clients about the value of what they are getting – they are likely not photographers, so like all of us, it is easy to assume a lot of things about an industry you are not a part of.  That is not their fault, and if you create your price list in response to their assumptions, you are killing your business – and if you go out of business your client loses, right? Let them know that you have invested in all of the things aforementioned so that you can deliver a product they will love and cherish forever. So… do yourself, your clients and your vendors a huge favor – put together a business plan that accounts for all of your time, education, overhead and expenses, and create your pricelist from that. You can thank me later.

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