When should you start charging? How much should you charge? And should you ever work for free? Here’s how we approach the tricky topic of pricing in our studio.
“You aren’t charging half as much as you should be,” a client told me one day, midway through our shoot.
I must have been feeling contrary that day.
“Alright then,” I responded, “I’ll charge you double.”
“No way! I’m not paying that!”
And that, in a nutshell, is how confusing pricing can be. I don’t know a single professional photographer who is confident that they have it absolutely right. We all second-guess ourselves every time clients tell us we’re too cheap or too expensive (usually the latter!).
To complicate matters further, most of us work in an incredibly saturated market where local competitors are offering photography services for free or next-to-nothing.
That’s why I get so many questions about pricing, often from people who are hoping I’ll provide a number in response. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. What I can do is share our studio’s approach to pricing and the mistakes we’ve made.
It’s surprisingly expensive to run a photography business when you factor in equipment costs, insurances, software licences and potentially rent of studio premises and/or other overheads. But when I started out I didn’t know what the costs would add up to. Instead, I set out my stall based on my skill levels at the time, and what I thought I’d be willing to spend on photography myself.
That was a mistake. As someone who had taken thousands of photographs, with archives bursting at the seams, do you think I valued each image as highly as the client featured in it? Of course not. When you are familiar with photography and see your images everyday, it’s easy to think other people wouldn’t be willing to spend a significant amount of money on them.
So like many other new photographers, I started out much too cheap. I rapidly became very busy with client bookings, and my work stood out at the price we were pitching it.
Right from the first time I sold a portrait in a frame, I made a long-term brand decision: I wanted the quality of what I offered at that time, to be worth the prices I eventually wanted to charge.
So I edited every image before anyone else saw it. I ordered top quality frames and albums, and even ended up subsidising some of those early clients. I needed the experience and didn’t want to sell cheap products. Now, if you see an early Paul Wilkinson image, it still projects the same high end quality as my recent work. As my prices continue to rise in increments over time, there’s no risk of current or potential clients seeing unedited or poorly presented work from my cheaper days.
As I increase my prices, there’s more of a balancing act to manage. On the one hand, I want to be affordable enough to attract sufficient clients to keep busy. If you only do one or two jobs a month, there’s a lot riding on each one, and that pressure can be overwhelming. In addition, I don’t want high volatility between sales, with one client spending thousands and the next not buying anything at all.
Our studio uses the model of an upfront session fee followed by the purchase of printed products after an in-person reveal. Our bills arrive every month; they don’t stop coming just because I didn’t make a sale. So my products are surprisingly affordable. My priority is the certainty of a sale, which is why I prime clients and price products to encourage clients to spend on the day they come in to see their pictures.
On the other hand, I need to add a margin that will cover costs (including everyone’s salaries) and still generate a profit for the business. To ensure this, I’ve annualised our costs, and we allocate a proportion of these to each job we do. Then, we keep a very close eye on our average profit per job. That’s very different to the total sale revenue – we focus the margin we make after all the costs, which is a much more important number.
But what about if you’re new to photography as a business – when is the right time to start charging? If you want to be regarded as a professional, I recommend you charge straight away. If you charge nothing, what will people will think your work is worth? Nothing.
That doesn’t mean that you only work for cash, but rather that there always needs to be a mutual benefit. It could be that you swap services, such as creating free headshots for a local legal firm in return for their expertise in drafting your client contracts. It might be that you ask for someone’s time in exchange for the opportunity to try something new, or build your portfolio. Or it could mean that you donate your time for a cause that you feel very passionately about, which provides the good feeling of contributing to a common goal.
What it doesn’t mean is working for free, for someone else’s benefit and thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Shouldn’t I be getting paid for this!?’.
This article first appeared in N-Photo Magazine, issue 102.
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