Debate: Is longevity the selling point for photography studio prints (and their prices)?

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on September 26, 2010

in This is Business

Debate: Is longevity the selling point for photography studio prints (and their prices)?
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One of the reasons I started PartTimePhoto.com was because there exists a huge canyon online between the advice established professional photographers give and the realities amateurs face as they make the transition to paid professionals.

Established photogs often speak from a position of…well, establishment – their advice pertains to the photography industry on the luxury, boutique end of the market, and it doesn’t acknowledge or solve problems the new-to-the-fold professional photographer faces.

One rabbit grognards like to pull out of their hat is the ‘longevity’ of their studio prints. They use expensive-sounding terms like ‘museum quality’ and ‘archival inks’ while railing against the sins of prints made at Walgreens or Costco, and how their cheap prints will (somehow) self destruct over the years.

Well, no professional photographer would admit it, but…those discount store prints will, in fact, still be around 50 years from now. Their longevity isn’t really in question.

And you know how I know? Because I, like most folks, have boxes and boxes of family photos going all the way back to the early 1900s. Specifically, the cheap Super S Grocery Store discount prints my parents made of their wedding and my early childhood…well, they look the exact same as they did decades ago when they were first made. If they’ve lost a pinch of color or luster, I can’t tell, nor can anyone in my family.

That doesn’t speak to the quality of the photos, of course. My father had a great talent for shooting into the air, cutting friends and family off at the waist and featuring lots of wall and ceiling in his photos.

The longevity question is moot, especially in the digital age:

  • There is no more pure rendition of a photo a client can get than the hi-res file you hand them on CD, usually only one step removed from the RAW file itself. It is infinitely copyable, distributable, and reprintable.
  • Even here in tiny Bandera, Texas, there are photo retouchers who will gladly take your old, worn, faded, torn home photos and restore them to glory.
  • Consumers can buy the same printers and inks that we can, mates. Whether or not they’ll drop hundreds or thousands of dollars to make lifelong-lasting prints at home is another question, but there’s nothing stopping them. And that option gets more attractive in equal proportion to the stunning prices they see boutique studios charge for prints.
  • Down in the trenches of the budget/value/entry level of the professional photography market, dominated by younger families, clients are more concerned with how their photos will look on Facebook than hanging on their grandkids’ walls 50 years from now.

The grognards cry “Woe, woe!” at how the market has shifted over the last decade, and will b*tch all over the photo forums about how the digital age and consumer dSLR market has ruined the industry. Just like the metro newspaper giants are b*tching about the Internet and mobile news providers, and gas-guzzling American car manufacturers are b*tching about fuel-efficient foreign cars. I bet the buggy whip manufacturers would have liked to wrap a wagon wheel around Henry Ford’s neck, too.

Well b*itch yourself out of business or be an innovator in your industry.

Are Canon or Nikon b*tching that they can no longer charge tens of thousands of dollars for Digital SLR cameras? Hell no – they’re making money hand over fist selling $1,000 entry-level camera bodies to consumers who used to spend their money on $9 disposable film cameras.

At the startup end of the market is where your opportunity as a part time photographer lies to innovate and prosper.

It’s About The Art, Not The Paper

Client education is key in the photography industry, at all levels.

The more good, useful knowledge that you can impart upon a client before, during, and after a shoot, the better results and more value they will get out of spending their money with you.

They’re buying the art you create. They’re buying the experience of working with you. They are not, however, buying the piece of paper your art is printed on.

If you’re consistently having issues with clients complaining about the price of your prints, frankly, you’re not doing your job as the expert in the room by explaining to them why what you offer is worth what you’re asking.

And, to be equally frank, if you can’t explain that value, then you need to get educated yourself.

Because of the morass of conflicting and completely generic, unspecific advice that new photographers get online when they ask, “What should my prices be as a new professional photographer?,” most photogs in the startup phase are shooting in the dark when they set their prices. They don’t really know why they charge what they charge.

That’s a dangerous position to put yourself in when a client challenges you, but it’s understandable. Established photographers, the grognards that see you as competition and the reason the industry is going to hell, aren’t lining up to help you actually set your specific prices.

Honesty and transparency will take you far with clients and help you sleep better at night. Here are a few responses to client questions that should help you out when the time comes:

  • Q: Why do you charge $10 (or $100) for a 4×6 when I can get the same thing at Walmart for 19 cents? A: To be clear, what we charge for is our art, not the paper it’s printed on. I can sell you a 4×6 piece of Kodak paper for 19 cents, but it isn’t worth much without the photo that goes on it. Since we charge no session fee and have no minimum order, we rely on our print and file sales for 100 percent of our revenue. For clients who want bulk orders of prints, we do suggest they buy the digital files on CD and have prints made at less expense elsewhere – and I can suggest a great pro lab if you choose that option – but about half our clients prefer the convenience and satisfaction gaurantee that comes with buying prints directly from us. Our monitors are calibrated to Miller’s Imaging, the pro lab we use for all our prints, and guarantee that what you see in your prints will be as close as possible to what you see here in your proofs. They will be the highest quality you can buy. It’s not the paper you’re buying, it’s the art and the best reproduction that can be made of it.
  • Q: Can I just buy the digital files and print them at Walmart? A: You can, but I don’t suggest it. Cheap prints usually are soft and have a nasty color cast to them – Walgreens tends to shift purple, Walmart tends to shift green. I can e-mail you the information on Mpix.com, the consumer division of Miller’s Imaging, whom we use for our pro lab prints – they will give you the closest quality to what we offer with our studio prints. Their prices are only a bit higher than the discount stores, but you’ll be much happier with the results. I can even walk you through the process right now if you’d like.
  • Q: Why are your big prints so expensive? A: Just like with any kind of art, the cost goes up with the size of the print. A pro lab-printed, studio-guaranteed 20×30 print is the Lamborghini of its kind; it’s the kind of investment you’re going to hang over the fireplace in your home and enjoy for many years, and your kids will enjoy, and their kids years down the road. We offer luxury options like this for clients who want to make that kind of investment. Some clients prefer a more budget-friendly option, which is why we offer mid-sized wall art, and of course, digital files which our clients can then have printed any size they want.

You see, when you cut the horsesh*t and just tell clients the truth, it makes ‘selling’ a lot easier. There are advantages and disadvantages to buying prints or buying digital files and having prints made, and taking just a few minutes to share those truths with clients benefits you both.

I try to paint the picture for clients of white glove, hands-off, convenient, luxury versus being a Do It Yourselfer. I can cook a damn good steak on my grill at home, but that doesn’t mean I won’t drop way more money on a visit to Texas Land & Cattle for a special occasion.

Your client gets to make the final call, but never forget that they look to you for guidance as their professional photographer. Educate your client and try to help them get the most out of their purchase – not just what you want them to buy, but what would really be best for their needs.

You’re worth what clients pay you, whether that’s $8 or $80 for an 8×10. If a photographer is doing good business, I have no right to say she’s charging too much or too little – that’s between her, her clients, and her accountant. That’s capitalism, baby.

The only way to ‘force’ clients to buy what you want them to buy is to only offer what you want to sell. But you have to be slingin’ some impressive artistic chops and have good exposure in your market to dictate the rules like this.

But at the startup end of the professional photography market, be as open, honest, transparent, and consumer-friendly as you can be.

Keep in mind, it’s the draconian rules of the established competition that give you your greatest opportunity to break in and become a breath of fresh air in your market.

And if it ain’t broke, you don’t have to fix it. Even 11 years into the game, I still charge no session fee, ask no minimum order, and my prices are well below the big boys in nearby San Antonio. I beat conventional photography industry wisdom black and blue with every client that books and shoots with me, then buys at averages well above what they ‘should’ according to the ‘experts.’

There are many layers to the photography industry from budget to boutique, but there’s no need to use hyperbole to scare clients into buying what you want instead of what they need. Tell them the truth. If what you have to offer is worth it to them, they’ll be sold long before they’re pulling out their checkbooks.

Far more often than not, clients are thanking me for a wonderful experience while handing me a check for more than I expected to earn. And they’re telling their friends – who are telling their friends.

So success goes – at least by my definition.

Next Steps

  • Put your money where your mouth is, and as they say up north, Prove It. Throw a dozen of your personal favorite photos on CD, head into town, and have sets of 4x6s and 8x10s printed up at Walgreens, Walmart, Costco, wherever you like. Then send the same set of files to your pro lab (or printer, if you print in-house) and wait for the prints to arrive. Lay them out and compare. Look for all the ways – color, feel, texture, quality, glare, detail, sharpness, contrast, pop – that your professional prints are superior. Keep these prints on hand to show clients what a difference a pro job makes.
  • ProTip: Car salesmen are notorious for their…talents of persuasion. Dress up nice, and pay a visit to your local luxury car dealership – Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, etc. Let a salesman give you a tour, ask you questions to determine your needs (and secret wants), and take mental notes on how he makes the connection between what you want and what he has to offer – and what the upgraded solutions are to your problem. You will learn more about personal attention and selling on value here than in any expensive workshop. Do it again next week at another dealership. Do it again the following week at another. This is an invaluable education.
  • Brainstorm Session: Why do you charge the prices you charge? After expenses and overhead, are you pocketing as much money as you want for your time invested? If not, how much do you need to charge to be thrilled with every sale? What can you do to add value to your art and experience to charge those prices? File this in your Brainstorms folder.
  • My writing at PartTimePhoto.com exists to serve your needs as an amateur photographer making the transition to paid professional. I appreciate and welcome your readership, and invite you to click the free “Subscribe” link at the top of any page of this site.
  • How do you communicate the value of your prints, files and products to clients, and justify your prices accordingly? Leave a comment below, e-mail me, or call or text me at 830-688-1564.

P.S. Sometimes a client doesn’t realize your worth until you frame your offer around its value.

True story: A client and I had a great shoot together, she sent me her order for a bunch of digital files, and I sent her back an invoice with a nice bulk discount. She wrote back and told me she never dreamed I would be so expensive!

This, after my discount, and having long ago told her my prices.

With great gentility and kindness, I told her a happy customer was worth more to me than the money itself – I told her to mail me a check for what she thought the photos of her daughter were worth, and that I’d send her the entire shoot on CD, no questions asked, no hard feelings. And I meant it sincerely.

A check arrived in the mail for the full amount I invoiced her for – and she’s already booked her family’s next shoot.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Staci October 7, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Once again, very good article. I’m still learning how to justify my prices. I’m torn. On one hand other photography professionals are preaching if you price too low it hurts all the other photographers who do this for a living, which I understand. But on the other hand, I don’t like to get bent out of shape over every nickel and dime. Personally, I can’t justify a $500 minimum purchase right now or an album for say $800 only 6 months into my photography business. Some days I feel more passionately about what I’m charging than others. I justify my pricing by the experience I offer to the customer, on location (avoiding the hassle of crowded and sometimes slow chain studios), wardrobe consultation because I feel passionately that what you wear can and does make for a more esthetically pleasing portrait, optional make up artist, sometimes days of brainstorming and planning shoot concepts so that the client ends up with truly unique images, boutique packaging because it just looks so darn cute, assistance in picking final images and I could go on. But you get the point.

Anyway, I love your blog.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor October 18, 2010 at 9:11 pm

And thank you again Staci!

You’re exactly right, especially when a photographer is early on in their professional career, they can’t explode their artistic ability overnight – growth as an artist takes time and practice – but they can create an incredibly tight and memorable experience for their clients right from the get-go. I can cook a steak in my back yard, so why do I pay $30 per person at Texas Land & Cattle when I’m out with my wife or friends? Exactly.

The grognards don’t like to acknowledge that there are layers to our industry that match the layers of our markets – budget / start-up, mid-range, luxury / boutique, and lots of gray area between. They act like the high-end is the only end, and the only ideal to strive for. If you don’t have a home built around your studio and a fountain in your foyer, you’re actively destroying the industry.

Bullbutter.

It doesn’t matter how good your art is, how refined the experience you provide, how much experience you have, how budget or boutique you think you are – you’re worth what clients will pay you. If we take our heads out of the photography industry for a moment and look at just about any other industry on earth, this is exactly how it works. McDonald’s does great business – so does Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I see lots of Kia cars on the road – I see lots of Mercedes cars, too. My underbritches may come from Wal-Mart, and my pants from Target, and my polo from Old Navy, and my sunglasses from Fossil, then I’ll drop $30 on a great pair of running socks. See what I mean?

Low-priced options exist in any industry, and there’s plenty of money at that end of the market. There’s plenty of money in the middle, too – and of course at the top end. There’s pride to be taken in what we do at every level of the market, as well.

The photography industry is no different. If you show your art and ask a price to give a client that same level of art, and they pay up, that’s capitalism, that’s industry itself – the trading of value.

As a general strategy as a business owner, I always suggest photographers try pushing their prices up now and then, just to test the waters. Or introduce some manner of “luxury” option with a higher price tag – see who bites. It has more to do with your target market, where the sweet spot is in that market, and how well you’re exposing your business to that market.

About five years ago, I dropped my session fee from $150 an hour to $0 – and I both did more business and earned a larger profit per client. This year, I doubled my prices across the board on Jan. 1 – my number of bookings and of course profit per client have both gone up substantially.

So successful growth, which in my book is defined very basically as increasing the amount of cash I put in my pocket per hour I invest in my business, can come about via many avenues. Almost always your market will give you big clues as to which path to take.

For example, I dropped my session fee because I wasn’t booking what I felt was a proper number of shoots versus the number of pricing inquiries I got. The session fee ran folks off. Last year I got to the point where my calendar was just packed to the brim – I was booking folks months out, turning away many clients who had more immediate needs (including some very lucrative opportunities), and I was so booked I couldn’t help in the community with things like 4-H photography workshops for the kids, or career day at the high school.

That’s not what I want from my experience as a part time professional photographer. So I doubled my prices. My calendar thinned, I could breathe again, I got control of my schedule again, and both my per-client and total profits went up. You couldn’t ask for much better results.

All this to say, the photography industry is much more broad than the grognards let on, and we all have our place to serve and flourish within it. Treat people right, let your market guide your choices in pricing and policies, be honest and transparent in your dealings, and be confident that what you do as a photographer is important and valuable in this world, no matter what level you presently serve at.

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Lisa June 25, 2012 at 7:15 am

Absolutely love this article. You really understand the psychology of the beginning photographer and his/her clients.

I wanted to share that I went to my first ever professional photographers’ association meeting (at the county level, as an aspiring member). I came out of there feeling anxious and annoyed. They spent a big chunk of the ‘business talk’ part of the meeting bashing the amateurs for taking away “their” business and brainstorming how to get it back. There was also a lot of bitterness about the general public wanting cheap photos and not appreciating the worth of the work they do. I do understand some of it, but it didn’t all make sense. For example, one guy I talked to said he’s dropping his lower end clients because a 2-hour shoot for $200 session fee wasn’t really worth it to him anymore, and he was going for higher end folks with a “full-day” photographic experience upwards of $1k (for just the session fee!!!!!). I mean, that’s great for him and all that he’s got those options, but then don’t get bitchy if I pick up your “low-end” client, since the “low end” is where I currently exist (well, actually, HIS “low-end” client would be my “high end” client right now because I can’t image charging $200 session fee. I’m having a hard enough time getting experience shooting people for practically free LOL).

I hate the condescending attitude toward people that can’t afford expensive photography. I keep in mind my own experience as a photography customer for my wedding many years ago. We were soooooo broke. We had 12 people at the wedding in our little church in town, then went to a restaurant which my FIL paid for the meal. My wedding dress was $99. I had no bouquet (just a few flowers I picked in my garden). There was no cake. And, yet, I spent $200 on a photographer. It was the biggest expense of my wedding (and a lot of money to me back then). I valued having photos that much. But, all a professional photographer association would take from that is that I paid $200 for wedding photos and, therefore, was a contributor to their problem, and they would likely stone my photographer in the public square. These guys don’t understand that I wasn’t “their” customer. They think if the cheap photog hadn’t been there, then they would’ve had the gig at their prices. Nope. I just wouldn’t have had wedding photos. They would be less bitter if they understand that.

Anyway, after the association meeting, I came straight to your website to help me not feel so crazy. It was really a confusing and upsetting experience. I’d like to be around professionals to learn about the business, but I find the few times I’ve interacted with them (also in a meetup group) I end up feeling like I’m in bizarro world. So, thanks for keeping it real, practical, simple and attainable.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor August 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Lisa, thank you so much for your kind words and your readership!

I read your rant with a half-smile, half-grimace; I know the exact feeling you have. I felt it for years and years as an ever-striving, ever-growing professional photographer, and it’s the PartTimePhoto.com exists now. In almost all of my travels in the professional photography circles, online and at the local, state, and national levels, I consistently found elitist attitudes, combative perspectives toward clientele, and a whole lot of frustration and anger, misdirected toward the market and the aspiring professional photographers the market was shifting toward.

If I achieve nothing more with PTP than to provide a voice of support, encouragement, and reality to folks just trying to turn their favored hobby into a small business, then I will be a very, very happy writer. It’s a voice that seems to be very, very hard to find in the photography industry.

I agree with you fully; there is a market for $1 photos, for $10 photos, for $10,000 photos, and everything in-between. There is a broad spectrum of opportunities, from the lowest-end to the highest-end – no market is impenetrable, and in fact, I believe there are huge sections of the photography market that are severely under-served. There are a lot of clients out there paying too much for outdated art and neglectful (if not abusive) service.

Those of us entering or working in the industry with an attitude of excitement, ambition, fun, curiosity, service, and humility, are going to be the default inheritors of a massive client base that is sick and tired of dealing with grognards – ‘established’ photographers who are so lazy, angry, stagnant, and bored, that they take out their frustration on fellow photographers as much as their own clientele.

To paraphrase the popular saying, let us be the change we want to see in our industry.

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures Lisa! And if there’s anything more I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know!

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Melinda April 16, 2013 at 2:40 am

Just sending some love from Kentucky!!!!
As a PPA member since 2011, I’ve been studying, training, buying equipment, attending workshops, etc., over the past 3 years. And I’ve yet to open my doors.
(But I plan to late spring) I am a Great photographer, actually started in 1994 in high school classes, but I suck at business. I’ve looked everywhere online for direction that actually would work. Just name any of the “so-called best places for photographers” and YEP, I’ve been there, done that.. I’ve been a blog whore searching for answers and I am happy to say that I’ve finally found one I am going to marry;)
THANK YOU FOR ALL!!!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Thank you for your comment and kind words, Melinda!

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog! Would you mind if I e-mailed you to pick your brain about the PPA and other online photography resources? I’d love to get your perspective on a few related topics!

Thank you again! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures.

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Melinda June 11, 2013 at 7:10 pm

Sorry, just seen this. Email away, don’t mind at all. If it’ll possibly help your blog then great! Because one stop ‘shopping’ or rather, learning, is better than trying to keep up with numerous places online. And many of the popular one’s are very much overrated. Just email a questionnaire or whatever that will benefit you best.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor July 20, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Thank you so much Melinda! I’ll drop you an e-mail ASAP. Please forgive the delay of my response!

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Sasha C July 12, 2013 at 2:36 am

It’s almost 2am… I should be sleeping my eyes are probably red, and I am sure I will be tired when I wake up. Your writing is sucking me in.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor November 28, 2013 at 4:44 am

Thank you so much for your kind words, Sasha! And for your patience with my response. Write when you can and let me know what’s news with your art and business!

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