business of photography: what is a fair price to charge for your professional photography?

“Can you talk about pricing vs. what the market will bear? For example in the “Pricing Photography” book you link to , they insist that you charge at least your daily overhead, well that’s fine, but will the client be willing to pay for that? This is especially relevant to a starting business like myself. More established photogs have higher buying power, so to speak.” – Mike C.

This question cuts right to the chase: how can I charge enough to survive while growing a business? If I were writing a book on photography, this would be the topic, because it’s relevant to so many. Mike’s question is the crossroads where three elusive variables of pricing meet:

1. What is a fair price to charge in order to preserve the value of your profession and the livelihood of your fellow professional photographers?
2. What does the market expect to pay?
3. What do you need to charge not only to survive, but to grow as a business?

In Mike’s question he refers to Pricing Photography, what I consider a “must have” book on the business of photography (some suggested reading picks here). A strong lesson in the book is that, in order to be profitable, you absolutely must know your cost of doing business. How much do you spend on overhead, pay to yourself, equipment investments, advertising, insurance, phone, etc.? Add it up and divide it by your number of working days (or assignments) a year and that’s how much you need to bill each working day (or assignment) in order to break even. In an earlier post I pointed to the FAQ and online calculator at the NPPA site that helps with this.

But what if your cost of doing business is $500 a day and the local going rate is only $300 for a particular assignment? And what if you’re a beginner and can only command $250 for the job? How do you get started in the business, survive and then thrive? Let’s look at the variables:

1. What is a fair price to charge in order to preserve the value of your profession and the livelihood of your fellow professional photographers?

Early in my career I was told something at an ASMP meeting that‘s stuck with me (there’s a great tip, I urge all aspiring professionals to join a professional organization, asap). While so many other photographers told me “you have to charge this dollar amount” for a particular job, one photographer told me “you have to charge the correct value for your work”.

So what is the difference between charging dollars and charging for value? Let me create a mythical job for a young photographer. If the going rate for a certain type of work is $1000 and a beginning professional charges just $500, are they charging the correct amount? Let’s put it this way, what is the value to a professional photographer in the average, run of the mill, $1000 billing? And then the beginning professional?

The professional photographer receives $1000 for a job that is just an average job for them. The beginning photographer receives $500…plus the opportunity (which has value) plus the exposure (which has value) plus perhaps a portfolio piece (which has value). At all stages of our professional careers we have to juggle these values. For the most part, after being a professional for 25 years, income is my primary concern and only an extraordinary photo credit would hold value. But there are the occasional promotional, opportunity and portfolio values that get factored in.

As a matter of fact, we’re shooting an “extra value“ job right now, a magazine story on environmental concerns that doesn’t pay as much in dollars as we’d normally charge (for what’s involved). The extra value is that I have an opportunity to speak with 10 professionals that are experts in their respective fields. It’s better than watching any TV show or paying for evening courses on the subject, that’s for sure. Plus, the studio contribution helps gain exposure for these important concerns.

Getting photo credits is nice if you’re starting out but be aware that they don’t necessarily hold any intrinsic value on their own, it’s what you do with them that gives them value. If you are simply the person that “does things cheap for a credit” then that’s where you may get stuck. Use the credits to promote your work to the next level, don’t simply expect the phone to ring.

These added values may also work in reverse. If that $1000 job comes my way and I really don’t like working for a particular client, I’ll add an extra $250 onto the estimate. We call it the “hassle fee”, and it’s worth it.

Okay, that’s one piece of the pie. Next Wednesday we’ll look at what the market “going rate” means to photographers.