Current Version: How much Should Photographers Here.
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The state of the photography industry
It’s been a rough decade and a half for photographers. Digital technology dramatically changed the photography industry in the early part of the century. I find it amazing how many professionals quit the business because of the digital revolution. For most, it was an unwillingness to change. They feared the developing technology and new photography industry rules
Digital lowered the barrier to entry to the field of photography. New technology allows for cameras in our phones, computers and walls. Images are shared around the world in seconds. Today, Everyone is a photographer.
Maybe those photographers were right to quit?
In 2015 photographers approach photography and the business completely different compared to the analog days. The camera is no longer a magical black box. Cameras were once equipment that took time to master. The film camera would reward or disappoint. Unlike the instant gratification photographers have today, a photographer would wait for the results from the mystical lab. A photo lab was a place were photographers gathered to have their film developed, share war stories, catch up on industry news and wait like expecting parents for their film to be delivered. The lab could take hours or days to provide the results of your success or failure.
Fortunately, our industry is stable for now. Yes, new computer programs and technology will take some work away from photographers in the coming years. Technology also offers photographers new opportunities not available a decade ago. Now a photographer in Montana can find opportunities, share images and earn income without traveling to New York with their portfolio. Everyone is a photographer; everywhere is an opportunity for a photographer.
Quality imagery is required in our society and the growing demand will not end soon. We are in the golden age of photography. A photographer who separates themselves from the competition, understands business and markets their services well will win.
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This is a question both newly minted photographers fresh out of art school and veterans of the business struggle to answer. If a prospect says yes too quickly, you may have underbid. If they say no, your estimate might be too high. Trust me, there is no perfect answer to the question, how much I should charge? The good news is some industry leaders share concepts and guidelines to help you. For example, the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) is an great resource for information about the business of photography.
I received an email from a photographer struggling with pricing a stock image request from a major auto company. His bread and butter is video and shoots still images once in a while for clients in need. It’s kind of like the reverse of what many still photographers do with video. Honestly, I really didn’t know where to start. I’ve been out of the auto photography business for twenty years. So, I contacted a well-known automotive photographer and asked if I could connect the two to figure it out.
They came up with a price. It was about double what I thought the going rate is today. Although I’m known as a go to person on the topic of pricing, I assure you I struggle too. I struggle with pricing my work, regularly. I’m always second guessing if I’m too high or low. You are not alone. When in doubt ask other people in your industry for help.
The process of figuring how much to charge
Honestly, it’s not hard as you might think to figure a good starting point for your photography pricing. The key is to write down your prices and process so you don’t need to guess with each email or phone inquiry. Experience does help over time. If you are just beginning your business or need to adjust your prices; work backwards to give yourself a starting point. Ask yourself the following questions.
- How much do you wish to make in a year?
- How much are your annual business expenses?
- What is your marketing budget?
- How many full days a year will you work?
Now, time for a little reality. The average photographer does not make a lot of money. Most make less than $30,000 a year. Of course the rock stars can make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. There are some photographers who top a million. For now, you need to be ready for the lower end of the scale — if you are not established in your field.
Here is a good list of photography job average salaries.
Double the business expenses you think you have. Many photographers come into the business thinking they have low overhead. The reality is they are only counting the camera they already own, ignore the expenses that come with success and over emphasize the fact they don’t have studio overhead. The truth is your expenses are higher than you think.
Here is something you didn’t put in your original business expense budget, marketing. You should spend about 10% of what you wish to make. So, if you plan to earn $60,000 next year as a photographer, I recommend you spend at least $6,000 in marketing. Be smart with your marketing budget. Spending $6,000 on one ad in a January trade magazine will most likely produce poor results. You need to learn how to create a marketing sales funnel.
Take a look at this information about creating a sales funnel.
Lastly, most freelance and independent photographers do not work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. This is one reason the going rate is not $25 an hour for a photographer. Some photographers, such as wedding photographers, only work on the weekends. An established commercial photographer will work, on average, a few days a week. Students coming out of college are lucky to have 2-3 photography jobs a month.
So, have you recalculated your original estimate? Lets say you wish to make $50,000 next year. You’ve added up your expenses and it will cost you $1,500 a month or $18,000 per year to run your business. Wait, don’t forget $5,000 for marketing. This increases your total to $23,000 for business expenses annually, plus $50,000 for your salary making your target photography sales goal $73,000 a year.
Note: this estimate doesn’t include production expenses, rentals, assistants, crew or location fees. OMG this is getting expensive.
Lets assume you will earn 50 assignments over the next year. If you have a more accurate number based on experience use it instead. If you divide 73,000 by fifty you will see that you need to earn a least $1460 for each of those fifty days to meet your goal. Divide that number by ten to estimate your hourly rate. In this case it’s about $150 per hour.
The reality is you will work many partial days. The goal is to make as much money as possible, while you have the opportunities. That is why I like using per-image and project pricing. Hourly and day rates are best used as internal and estimation numbers and not for client estimates. Per-image pricing rewards you for a job well done.
If you want to make money In the digital age, per-image pricing makes more sense than day rates. It takes much less time to produce and create a photograph compared to the analog film days. Although pre-production and real shooting time is less than before, many photographers spending long hours in front of the computer doing post-production work. Unfortunately, photographers are not considering this valuable time as part of their fee. I’m still not sure why so many photographers think they can’t charge for computer time. It’s part of your job. It’s how you develop and create your style, you should be paid for it.
I’ve created a simple tool to help you calculate how much you can charge per-image based on a few criteria. I designed my calculator for corporate, commercial and advertising photography. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a good rate with this calculator for retail or family photography.
Here is my best example of why per-image pricing is better. Lets say you receive an email from a company who needs ten photographs for a website. Using the daily rate listed above; $1,500 for the day is what you need to charge for your fee. When you add travel, assistants and location expenses your total estimate is $2000. If the company has little experience working with photographers, chances are they will balk at your rate. You’re just taking pictures and no one in their company commands $1500 for a day of work. Sticker shock is common.
Lets say your client accepts your estimate. Everything goes well and you completed all your image creation by 2:00PM. Now what? The standard in the photography industry is a ten-hour day, eight hours of photography –plus an hour each for set up and breakdown. If you don’t deliver a ten-hour day, do you give the client a discount? It’s likely they will ask for one. You didn’t work a full day, so you are now being punished for your efficiency.
Maybe the client has more work for you to do. Since you are on site and you owe them time, off to work you go. By the end of the assignment you may feel resentful. Yes, the client is satisfied, but you are doing your best not to giving them attitude for making you photograph more than you agreed. Maybe they have more employees who need portraits or new products to be shot. It may seem alright to accept another five sittings at the moment, anything to keep a client happy. Unfortunately, you now have unpaid post-production and touch up work to do.
A better way to approach pricing is per-image pricing. Charge clients for the value of the photograph, not your time. If you use the same scenario, rather than charge $2000 for the day, you offer a price of $200 per image. This is much easier for a client to digest. If you finish early, the client is happy, no refund is necessary. If they want more images, you have the opportunity to earn more money. If five more people sign up for a sitting; you will now earn $3000.
Per-image pricing needs to be a win-win solution. When I quote a project, I let the client know that they only pay for the images the wish to purchase. Sometimes the assignment calls for ten images and they select twelve. Other jobs the client only select eight. Yes, about once every eighteen months I have a client not order any photographs. Fortunately, when I do a good job, clients tend to select more images than they originally budgeted.
If I’m concerned about losing money on a specific project, there are always options. I can set a minimum number of images the client must select. If I know my break-even point is four images, I may request a five image minimum. Sometimes large productions require high overhead and I will line item special fees in the estimate that the client must pay. These fees can be models, water trucks, rental equipment, weather delays and location fees. Most clients understand.
Per-image pricing is a winner because it focuses on the value of the image and not the time it took to create it.
Large corporations and ad agencies.
Some companies require photographers to estimate photography using a day rate. Often it’s what the art buyer or marketing director knows and they don’t want to change. Many large corporations, marketing and advertising agencies who work with a lot of photographers prefer day rates and own all the copyrights to your images too. Big or well-known companies have the advantage of a lot of quality photographers knocking on their door. They can call the shots, you must decide if you wish to play the game.
When I have a feeling that an agency or large corporation is looking to work the photographer (me) in to the ground and demand all copyrights, I make sure they pay for it. My time and images are valuable. I add up all the opportunity I think I could earn from per-image pricing. This includes the resale of my images and I quote based on that number. The estimate can be a few times higher than my average rate. I’ll always line-item out the purchase of the copyright, if required. If they are looking for the lowest bidder, I will lose. If the client wants to work with me because of my style, they will accept my bid. Sometimes a prospect will ask me if I can work within a certain price range or negotiate with me for a price that fits their budget. I don’t mind trying to work out a deal with people who like my work.
It’s amazing how wide the tolerance range is for photography fees. I might bid $3500 for a half day agency assignment and received an email asking me to increase my rate to $5000. A company, the same size, will offer me $300 a day for a similar job. Some companies value photography more than others. The same goes for the media. You might earn $2000 for a magazine cover or receive an email sharing the news that the magazine doesn’t pay for photography. Pick your battles and don’t lose your soul over unreasonable demands. Trust me, more opportunities are coming.
Event photography is one area I believe hourly rates can work well. About eight years ago a magazine named me the best event photographer in my state. That was the year I officially quit events. They are hard work and I hurt for days after. Being an efficient photographer will not get you out of an event early. Although I’ve used per-image pricing systems for events, I don’t think it’s necessary. Charge a good rate for your time and make sure you include your average post production time to edit and handle all your digital files.
Selling Per Image Pricing
The key to selling per-image pricing is placing the value on the image and not your time. People want lower prices because lower prices mean lower risk. If you can show that the client is in control of their budget, they don’t need to purchase images they don’t want and using you is the least risky proposition, price becomes less of a concern.
Some people just want cheap photography. I hear it all the time; photographers tell me their prospects are disrespectful, beat them up on price, insist on day rates and want all the rights. The problem with those clients is that they are not loyal and will leave you for the next lower-priced photographer. Even worse, they will refer you to other people who need cheap photography. Why do you want a client like that? Fire them.
You have my permission.
I receive a lot of emails from photographers stating that they like the idea of per-image pricing, but they don’t think it will work in their niche. Some photographers tell me they are not sure how to approach the topic or sell the pricing system to a prospect.
Changing your business model is not easy. Forget about the client. It’s not about the client accepting per-image-pricing; it’s about you accepting the pricing system and having the confidence to stand by it.
Once in a while I receive an email asking me how to price photography for smart phone app downloads or social media use. This is a tricky questions. My recommendation is to add up all the distribution options and base your price off that number. The bottom line is distribution, just like printed materials. A client who prints a million brochures should pay more for photography than someone who prints 5,000. It’s all about use.
If you are faced with a client who only accepts day rates, the project is a good opportunity and they pay a rate that fits your cost of doing business calculations. Take it! I don’t recommend you force quality long-standing clients to switch to a new system, if they are uncomfortable. Use new opportunities and prospects to learn to sell the pricing method.
Here is how I successfully sell per image pricing. I let prospects know that my pricing system is a little different. I like to consider myself the low risk photographer. This is more important for direct clients who are not experienced working with professional photographers. My goal is to take stress off the project and make sure the job is done right. If we need to reshoot on a different day, they are not charged more (outside of fixed expenses). I keep patient and flexible.
The client is always in control of their budget and they don’t have to buy photographs they don’t want. This fact is important to my reputation. I don’t want unhappy clients forced to use images they are not satisfied with because they had to pay for them. As I’ve mentioned above, if you have fixed expenses you can require a minimum purchase in your contract. You can still be a low risk photographer and still require a client to buy five of the ten images they request.
I always let the client know that if I do a really good job and they wish to buy more images, the photos are available to them. The client knows the value of each image and it is common for them to buy more photographs than they originally intended. They don’t always purchase more images for that specific project. It’s not uncommon for clients to ask for archived photos six months or a year later. It always feels like free money.
Yes, sometimes it does happen. I have to expect that if I put the risk on me, I will sometimes lose. If something goes wrong, I have the confidence to ask if we can reshoot some of the images. If that is not an option, I move on. The time I lost on that assignment is made up a by other clients purchasing more images.
I use per-image pricing as part of my marketing. I’m the low risk, high quality, per-image pricing photographer. It’s part of my combination code. My way of separating myself from the competition. It works for me. You can come up with something else that works for you. You must be comfortable with the system to sell it effectively. Over time you will discover how it works for you.
Remember, you are the expert. Don’t let clients dictate how to run your business.
All the best and good luck. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below.
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Consider reviewing past articles. Many of the same topics are covered, but I do cover somethings not addressed in this post.
- How much should photographers charge in 2013?
- What should photographers charge in 2014?
- How much Should Photographers Charge in 2016
All Photos by Rosh Sillars ©