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What does photography cost? That’s a super-complicated question. It’s something all photographers struggle with, but it’s particularly difficult for new professionals. How do you know how much is too much, how much is too little and what price is just right? Because the nature of photographic assignments is so broad and the pricing models so varied, it’s impossible to provide a simple answer with a dollar sign in front of it: “Photography costs X.” We can, however, arm you with the necessary tools to guide you to determining your rates the next time an assignment is at hand.
Many experienced professional photographers agree that, from what we can tell, our youngest, freshest colleagues tend to have an especially hard time talking about price and they tend to dramatically undervalue their work. That has the effect of undervaluing all photography work in the marketplace. With that in mind, it’s safe to advise many young photographers to determine what they think an assignment is worth, then triple it. Emerging photographers should look for that kind of advice—as well as more nuanced guidance—from their experienced colleagues.
It’s up to us as pros who have been working and have experience making a living in a complicated and highly-competitive market to talk pricing with new professionals whenever an opportunity arises. We can help all of our businesses if we’re less mysterious about pricing, and we would all be well served by taking the opportunity to share with students, interns and assistants as much information about bidding and pricing as we share about lighting and lenses.
According to Detroit-based commercial photographer and expert on all things related to photography pricing, Rosh Sillars, it’s important for the whole industry that experienced photographers share their knowledge with the younger crowd. It’s up to young photographers to seek out and build trusting relationships with experienced photographers where that free flow of information will happen naturally. Or at least, it should.
“Many professional photographers are unfortunately short sighted,” Sillars says, and they don’t see the fact that sharing with younger photographers is self-preservation. It helps to keep the industry stronger. I’ve seen an entire photography community's average hourly rate go up because a top photographer posted his commercial rates on his website. It gave photographers who didn’t know someplace to start.”
The first place to start asking for pricing guidance is with experienced colleagues in your own local market. Prices vary widely by location.
“The reality is it’s different in various parts of the country,” Sillars says. “This is why established photographers should share insights. Often, I have to raise my Detroit rates when New York agencies call for the same type of job. I’ve still lost jobs—even after tripling my rate—to someone who charged more. I’ve had agencies say, ‘Please raise your rate so we can hire you!' while a Chicago agency laughs at me for suggesting such a rate for a similar job. We all struggle with the game."
“Everyone has a hard time with pricing,” he adds, “including me. And I write and speak about this topic. This is especially true when the subject, style, production or client is different from your comfort zone. For a newbie, everything is new, they have no experience to draw from. You can have a room full of seasoned professional photographers and get a wide range of prices on the same job. I’ve seen it many times, in real-life and in practice at seminars. We all seem to have the feeling that we must win every job. We don’t need to! More opportunities will come. If you win them all, there is a problem. Younger photographers often don’t have the confidence or understand the value of their work.”
Young photographers often devalue their skills too much in an effort to get hired. Sure, you may want to ensure you’re less expensive than the most experienced shooter in town, but you don’t need to be a fraction of his price. Undervaluing one’s work is not just a risk to the value of photography in the broader market, it’s also a huge problem for the new photographer. The challenge is that the low price may get them in the door, but then raising the price to their “normal” level or a more reasonable amount is easier said than done.
“Beginning photographers think they need to get their foot in the door with low rates,” Sillars says, “however this can hurt them and their reputation in the long run. Your price is your brand. Your brand is your reputation. If your price is low, then your brand is the cheap photographer. If you price high, then your brand is the expensive photographer. The expensive photographer receives the quality label out of default. If a photo buyer has an important assignment, they will hire the expensive photographer. If they have a tight budget, the cheap photographer gets the job. If they know someone who needs $10,000 a day photographer, they will refer the $10,000 photographer. If someone needs a cheap photographer, people know who to refer.”
Hearing the above, many photographers think, ‘Okay, I’m not greedy. I’ll just shoot for the middle. I’ll price myself average, and compete for the average work.’ Still not a good approach, Sillars says.
“This is the most crowded area,” he says, “with the greatest composition. Unfortunately, no one wants to hire an average photographer. Cheap photographers get work—but still struggle. The average photographer has trouble winning jobs and the expensive photographer keeps getting richer. It’s the reputation you build.”
Instead of aiming for average, Sillars says, photographers should aim for the higher end. Easier said than done—particularly when you’re just trying to get a career underway.
“It’s tough to charge high out of the gate,” he says. “One thing I recommend is to offer discounts from your full rate. For example, if I would normally charge $2000 for a project, but I’m new and I want to get the job, I let them know and give them a 50% discount and quote $1,000. I tell them I’ll do it for $1000 and invoice them $2,000 with a 50% discount. This way they understand my value. This is a good policy for cheap or free charity work, so you are not passed around as the cheap charity photographer.”
Another pricing approach relies less upon the market and more upon the photographer and her own costs. Photographers can establish a baseline price that is actually tied to a real-world number—like the cost of doing business. If rent and expenses add up to $3,000 per month, that’s the cost of doing business. So if a photographer only does two shoots per month, she would need to charge $1,500 per shoot just to break even. To some, basing pricing on cost of doing business (or CODB) is a flawed approach since it entirely removes the actual value of an image from the equation. The value, of course, varies widely. But it’s easy to understand that an image commissioned for a major brand’s national campaign has significantly more value than a headshot destined only for the local newspaper. That’s why Sillars doesn’t recommend pricing based solely on CODB, and certainly why he ties the price to the finished product, not to the process.
“Once you have a baseline for how much you need to make per hour, day or month,” he explains, “you can adjust rates based on image use, distribution, web traffic or company revenue. It’s important to not set yourself up as a commodity. Place the value of your photographs on the image, not your time. The value of a photograph is different for a small local retail store and a large multi-national company. Although I’m a fan of per image pricing, you must take into consideration the amount of time—pre- and post-production—it will take to create an image. However, time is an internal number. A per image rate can range from $50 to $5000 per image, depending on production, volume of images created and use.”
In an effort to help photographers get better at determining their rates, Sillars created a per-image pricing calculator on his website at www.roshsillars.com. Though he warns that he would like to update the calculator to reflect a more appropriate approach based on production level rather than photographer status level, it’s still a very helpful tool for photographers in need of guidance.
Even if you know what you want to charge, there are a lot of external forces that continually drive photographers to push their rates down, down, down. These can be internal confidence issues (“How can I charge that much just to take a picture? My lawyer charges less per hour. And I’d be happy with a tenth of that rate for a day’s work!”) or external pressures (“My boss has limited my budget to X. Can you do it for that?”), but either way they are very real. And when photographers have neither the longtime experience of negotiating the price for their services nor the comfort level to speak clearly and confidently about their rates, customers are more likely to go elsewhere. That’s one reason Sillars suggests creating a series of rules and cheat-sheets in order to make pricing and adjusting rates quicker, easier and, ultimately, much more profitable.
“Set up your rules,” Sillars says, "and when you receive a request for an estimate, let your rules and calculations do the talking. For example, if your standard rate is $200 per image for local usage, create a policy which states regional use adds 50% to your rate or 10% per 20,000 website visitors. I often recommend having a cheat sheet on your desktop so you don’t have to guess. Guessing often leads to lower prices.”
“For instance,” he adds, "I often figure out how many shots I can do in a day, based on the project and production level. I base my per-image rates on my average day rate—which is about $3500 (high for Detroit). If someone wishes to purchase the copyright (and I’m willing to sell) it’s usually a 100% charge. A national assignment is often 5x my standard rate. Yet, it depends on what it’s used for such as billboards, magazines, TV. This is where the online calculator comes in handy.”