How to price your photography, Part II

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on July 29, 2014

in This is Business

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If there’s one thing we part time photographers never get bored talking about, it’s pricing our work.

But I’m going to digress from talking about pricing, because your pricing isn’t the problem:

You’re trying to scratch your butt by brushing your teeth.

It’s been five years since I wrote my (some say controversial) post on What to charge for your part time photography, and you awesome readers have asked me if my advice still stands today.

In the historic words of fellow Bandera Texan and Classic Western actor Rudy Robbins:

It do.

My philosophy on pricing your work is to be humble: recognize the unique value you create, understand that value will grow over time and practice, and look at pricing as more a tool for managing your calendar than your profit margin.

I could introduce a lot of nuance into this conversation, but here are my practices, some simple if-then-else’s, boiled down to the bones:

  • If you’re marketing yourself well (communicating clearly and excitingly the value you create to the potential clients in your market who want and can afford what you offer), but you’re not booked solid, your prices are too high.
  • If your prices are humble and broadly affordable (such as my ‘buy what you love’ suggested pricing), but you’re not booked solid, you’re not marketing yourself well (either with the wrong message, or to the wrong people, or both).
  • If you’re booked solid, your prices are too low.
  • If you’re booked close to solid, and you’re putting enough cash in your pocket each month or year that it leaves a big ol’ grin on your face, your prices are just right, and it’s time to invest your efforts in growing as an artist and marketer.
  • If you’re happy, don’t listen to a word I or anyone else says to you: never forget, you’re a part time photographer because you choose to be, and you’re the boss – this is your business, and you call the shots.
  • Now, if you’re happy but complacent, if you’re happy but not hungry for more, not growing, I would submit that your happiness is going to fade. If you’re like most artists, you’re going to get bored or burned out – never stop challenging yourself and growing as an artist, marketer, and business owner.

These are some pretty simple formulae to apply to the very complex journey that is being a part time professional photographer.

Simplicity also lets us move on – it allows us to get back to work.

There’s a phrase I hear over and over from my peers, and I feel deeply for them when they feel this way:

“My phone isn’t ringing. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to: I got my web site set up, I handed out business cards, I posted a great deal on my Facebook page, but nobody’s calling. Is my art really that bad?”

I feel you, brothers and sisters.

I believe in art.

I believe in craft, in making, and I believe in its value as a profession and business.

But outside of very special creations and circumstances, your art is not the most influential ingredient to your success.

In fact, when it comes to business success, it may be the least important when compared to your marketing and your business (which includes the experience you create for your clients).

If you’re reading this, if you’ve come this far in your journey into professional photography, your art is almost certainly not what’s holding you back from success.

Chain studios and yearbook photographers prove that you can profitably systematize the photography product (the “art”) down to as little as five canned poses and pay a bored employee $8 an hour to manage that series of repeatable processes: intake, shooting, selling, up selling. Then an automated computer system will follow-up ad infinitum.

(A high school friend, now a mother of three, told me she once paid over $1,000 for a chain portrait session and walked away with an armload of prints of maybe 10 ‘classic’ poses. She was perfectly happy about this… Until I told her my prices.)

Friends, they’re doing business every single day – probably with more clients in a month than you and I shoot in a year.

And their per-client sales are enviable; don’t let the $10 portrait package special advertised on the poster fool you. These businesses have a time-tested process for turning a $10 client into $100, $200, or much more. One PTP reader told me she learned more about making a profit as a portrait photographer from her time working for Kiddie Kandids than she did from years of scouring the Internet.

Good art (even great art) does not guarantee bookings.

Nor does a low price guarantee bookings (so many PTP readers get stuck here, failing to practice and grow their marketing skills).

No doubt, the better your art, the easier it is to show the quality and value of what you have to offer your target market. As the wise folks say, nothing kills a bad product like good marketing.

But there’s the rub: good marketing.

No doubt, you can run your business into the ground with a bad attitude, with policies that make your clients feel like criminals, by treating your clients as adversaries instead of friends.

But even a bad business can get folks in the door with good marketing. They may only come once, they may tell all their friends what a horrible experience they had with you, but the phone had to ring in the first place to get to that point.

If your phone isn’t ringing, I’d bet my beloved 50mm your marketing is weak.

Odds are, it’s non-existent – at least when it comes to proactive, purposeful, targeted, well-placed and well-timed marketing with a high-octane message that not just exists, but invites – nay, excites – potential clients to make your phone ring (or e-mail ding, or Facebook swish).

Your attention, and effort, and research, and concern are misplaced.

It’s not your pricing.

It’s your marketing.

Go find your people.

Show them how you can make their lives better with your art.

Then ask them to do business with you.

Next Steps

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Arensberg July 31, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Another excellent post, James.

This is so applicable, not just to photography, but to other creative ventures as well.

And as someone who’s spent a lot of time on the “art” and not enough on business or marketing (yet!), I’ve definitely been trying to balance on one leg of the stool, instead of having all three planted firmly on the ground and supporting my endeavors.

I got a copy of Book Yourself Solid recently, so per your recommendation I’ll start there. And I’ll bug you if I have questions!

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Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor August 2, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Thank you my friend! Looking forward to our LYL meetup this Wednesday in SATX!

We artists are almost never salesmen by nature – although I’ve seen plenty of photographers who obviously are not deeply invested in their art, but are very busy with paying work, because they’re good at sales and marketing! It shows there is truly a market for everyone.

I personally like coming from the position of artist learning to market, sell, and do business, than from the other way in – the struggle for financial success is greater on this path, but I appreciate the purity of putting the art / product first, and practicing the rest as I go.

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