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The PRO-Files: What’s The Value of A Photograph?

Pricing has always been a challenge, but today’s climate makes pricing and selling more difficult than ever. More competition, more outlets for discount photography online, more people fighting over a smaller pie. This kind of thing can trick a photographer into thinking that they must lower their prices if they’re ever going to compete, much less prosper in a career making fine art. But is that really how it has to be? At the risk of seeming quixotic, we suggest that now is the time to take a stand.

We turned to Caroll Michels, author of How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul for some insight and advice. Michels says it’s up to each individual artist to buck the system, stand up for the value of their work and try to get over the fear that causes so many pricing problems. “Some artists who have the courage to establish prices that are based on fair compensation, versus ‘slave labor compensation,’ can become unnerved by reactions to their healthy prices by members of the public and other artists,” says Michels. “Often members of the public and other artists convey verbally or through body language, ‘who does she think she is?’” And there lies the problem. Facing that reaction in the context of a steady barrage of ‘the sky is falling’ news about photography prices, it’s natural to simply give in. But not so fast. If you can make an argument for an appropriate value, you can then stand up for it. And when you do that, it’s a whole different ballgame.

Make A Plan, Not A Wish

“Setting a price on artwork can be a grueling task,” she says, “and there is a lot of strange and misleading advice on the subject that can make price-setting very confusing. Much of the advice takes a ‘follow the crowd’ approach. Many artists tend to undervalue their work, with the belief that their careers haven’t measured up to the criteria necessary to justify charging higher prices or a fear that, by setting prices that compensate them fairly, their work will not sell. The tendency to advise artists to sell work at low prices is reinforced by art dealers whose pricing agendas are not necessarily in an artist’s best interest. When artists set low prices on their artwork, it can be translated as a declaration of their insecurities and a lack of confidence.”

“Fear-based thinking is very much responsible for the difficulties artists have in establishing prices for their work,” Michels continues. “Establishing prices for artwork in which you compensate yourself fairly has everything to do with self-confidence, a willingness to defend your prices and take some risks. The best remedy for overcoming the fear is to take a chance, up the ante and price your work to receive a fair and healthy compensation. And when you actually receive the price you want, the price is validated, and magically the fear disappears. And it’s unlikely that it will resurface.”

So how does one determine where, from the myriad options available, to set their prices? Michels says it requires a bit of homework before determining appropriate pricing based on three factors: the actual cost of making art, the market value, and the confidence you have in the price you set.

Any goal without a plan is little more than a wish. Michels has real advice for pricing and sales strategies that work for her clients, based on three fundamental factors.

1. Pragmatic Pricing

Michels refers to an understanding of the actual costs involved with making art “pragmatic pricing.” It factors in everything from the time spent conceptualizing a project to the time and materials necessary to produce the artworks.

“For fine art photography,” she says, “pragmatic pricing should also take into consideration the amount of time it takes to create a body of work and arriving at an estimated amount of time spent per photograph—including travel, set-up time, shooting time, computer editing or developing time. Once an estimated number of hours is established, an hourly wage should be determined.”

“Pragmatic pricing also takes into consideration the size of a photograph,” Michels continues, “and the number of photographs in the edition. It should also take into account minimum overhead costs (for instance lab fees, digital scans, etc.) Eventually, and when you become more confident in the prices you have established, pragmatic pricing should also include the cost of a broader range of career-related overhead—such as photographic equipment, studio rent, utilities, professional fees, etc. In many instances, even without the overhead calculation, artists discover they are working for less than a dollar an hour!”

For photographers working with a dealer, don’t forget to factor in their sales commission—typically 50% or more. Michels advises, however, that if a dealer is asking for a larger cut to find someone else to represent you.

“Another aspect of pragmatic pricing is to build in a dealer’s 50% sales commission,” she says. “Do not adjust the retail price if a dealer’s commission is lower, and do not work with dealers who charge more than 50%! And do not discount the price if a sale takes place without involvement of an art dealer.”

2. Establish Market Value

Determining the market value of a given work of art is not as simple as finding similar works and pricing accordingly. That’s a recipe for disappointment on a number of levels—not the least of which being that so many artists today are undervaluing their work. Because of that, it’s imperative to use market value considerations as a factor in determining appropriate pricing, not the end-all, be-all.

“You can determine a seemingly elusive market value,” Michels says, “by visiting many galleries in person or online, finding work that is allied to your own, studying prices and the artists’ résumés, and comparing their career levels to your own. But keep in mind that other artists’ price lists should serve only as information, not as gospel. Because many artists make the mistake of letting dealers determine the value of their work and take the ‘follow the crowd’ approach. The day and age of the smartphone is particularly challenging to fine art photographers now that every Tom, Dick, and Mary have taken up photography and sell their goods online at embarrassingly low prices.”

3. Have The Confidence Of Your Convictions

Every aspect of pricing is influenced by self-confidence, and Michels argues that without it, your other strategies—including pragmatic pricing and reflecting on market value for similar artists selling to a similar audience—are going to skew too low. And, when you’ve done your homework and you’ve arrived at an appropriate value, there’s no reason not to be self-confident.

“Self-confidence is of paramount importance if you hope to get what you want and negotiate with strength," says Michels. "Determining an hourly wage has a lot to do with self-confidence. Knowing the amount of labor, materials and overhead spent on creating work and becoming familiar with market values can help you build confidence for establishing prices. But, of course, the process of gaining self-confidence is quickly accelerated when work is sold at the price you want.”

Even those who have confidence in their work and their pricing may find that many people, including colleagues, dealers and customers, will try to undermine that confidence at every turn. It’s easier said than done, but finding ways to strengthen one’s confidence even in the face of those who would tear you down is imperative if you hope to make a living selling photographs.

Photographers interested in learning more about Caroll Michels’ fine art pricing strategies, look for her book, How to Survive & Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul, now in its seventh edition. Michels is a respected and award-winning career coach and artist advocate.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.


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