Just as your art and business acumen grow over time, so should your prices, and your profits.
Although I encourage photographers to work closely with and support their local chartiable organizations, we as small business owners aren’t non-profits ourselves. I believe you should charge according to the value of the art and experience you provide to your clients, which almost always means less in the beginning and more later on.
Easily half the e-mails I get from the super-awesome readers of PTP have to do with pricing.
Reader R.G. from Georgia wrote this week to ask about package pricing for senior portrait clients:
Mr. Taylor, I discovered your website a few days ago and found it to be very helpful. I am having a very difficult time with pricing my services to the point I am not able to go out and do what I love to do. I have been making some money with my photography and I would like to make more.
For example right now I am struggling with pricing for Senior portraits and I live near some very large high schools. In the Atlanta area I am seeing prices for a basic package starting at $300.00 along with a setup or session fee. What should a photographer just starting out charge clients for Senior portraits?
What package options should I offer for a Senior portrait?
Here is my response, for your perusal:
Happy Saturday to you, and thank you for your e-mail and kind words!
I am an extremely customer-friendly business owner – within reason, I try to always err on the side of trusting and supporting my clients. Over the last 13 years, I’ve experimented with different packages, session fees, minimum orders, etc. What I settled on as the most successful structure for me, I write about at:
I write about some of the potential risks of going session-fee-free, and the rewards, here as well:
I’m a big advocate for putting the onus of responsibility on us, the photographers, instead of making clients make a big up-front commitment before the photographer has done any kind of work for them.
I suggest starting out to go with no session fee, no minimum order, and charge as little as $10 for your small prints or digital files. This makes a heck of an elevator pitch when selling potential clients on your value. “You just buy what you love.” It is now extremely rare that I don’t score the business of an interested potential client, and also rare that I get taken advantage of or don’t make at least a modest income for my time invested even from my ‘cheapest’ customers. I used this exact pricing model for years to build clientele, then just doubled my price – prints and files start at just $20 now.
I also became much more consistent with offering full CD packages of all processed images for $XXX – either $295, $395, or $495, depending on the client and the number of salable images I produced from their shoot. I’d say around half of my clients nowadays buy the full CD.
Honestly, the secret is trial and error over a long period of time. If you’re wanting to build client base, lower your prices – make them very attractive. If you want to start maximizing profits from a solid existing client base, raise your prices. Over the course of six months, a year, two years, your art is going to grow commensurate with your experience and your business, you’ll become better at everything from booking to shooting to eliciting expressions and personality to sales, so it’s not unusual or untoward for your pricing to go up commensurate.
I don’t offer any kinds of packages – I just try to introduce my pricing so simply and inexpensively (“Wow, just $20? I would have thought you charged a lot more – can I book right now?”) and then let the quality of my work earn my actual wages after the shoot (“James, these photos are amazing, we have to have them all. How much for the CD again?”).
It’s a learning and earning process – early on, unless your art is already out of this world good (and your marketing equally so), you have to do reasonable work for reasonable pay. As you grow, progress, learn, and improve, the per-hour return on your time improves accordingly. As I state on my blog, I now earn more in pocket from four hours a week of photography than I do in 40 hours a week at my day job as a journalist (not a big number to start with, but a milestone I’m proud of).
I hope this helps answer your question R.G.! I enjoyed looking at your portfolio, especially the images from San Francisco. You do great work – there’s no reason you can’t achieve your goal of earning a professional and proper income from your work. If there’s anything more I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know. And please do keep me posted on your progress! I’d love to hear of your successes and adventures.
The Outlaw Photographer
Learn, then earn
As I share with R.G. above, the more you learn, the more you earn.
Pricing in the early stages of your business should give you just enough profit in pocket to make you feel good about the time you’re investing into your client. Keep in mind you’re getting the added value of live guinea pigs to experiment on; gaining invaluable experience in marketing, photographing real clients, sales, follow-up, customer retention, business in general; building a great base of potential repeat clientele; and you’re refining and improving your art throughout.
However, as you grow, so should your profits.
You’ll get a feel for when it’s time to raise your prices. You’ll be booking more clients than you have time to shoot, and begin turning away a few. You’ll start to feel disappointed in the amount of time you’re investing in your clients and how seemingly little you’re getting back in profits. You’ll grow beyond your tools (camera, lenses, marketing materials, web site, portfolio) and begin to see real, tangible reasons why upgrading your equipment would create opportunities for you (this is far and away different from tech lust).
It’s at this time that you’ll raise your prices, book fewer prospects, but see much better dollars-per-hour numbers. Then the clientele will grow again. As in all things, there’s a balance to be achieved, and your center of balance will shift as your photography and business mature. You’ll start marketing to a different crowd, you’ll shift your attention to your favorite categories of clients (families versus seniors, for example), and you’ll find yourself making more money shooting subjects you love working with.
Never suffer paralysis by analysis – throw a dart and make your best educated guess as to where you should set your prices today, and commit to it. Keep track of your numbers (expenses, hours invested per client, average sale per client, total revenue, total expenses, thus total profit) and within a few months, you can reevaluate and change your prices if you see an opportunity or trend.
The more you shoot, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you earn.
- Grab your business card. Flip it over. Write “Prices” at the top, and fill out your entire price schedule on the back of that business card. If you can’t ‘explain’ your pricing on the back of that card, you’re probably overcomplicated things. Once you’ve got your pricing written out on this card, that’s it – put the pen down and stop obsessing over minutiae. It’s time to hang your shingle, commit to your pricing, and start shooting paying clients. You can always change it later, but you need to put a stake in the ground right here, right now, and get back to what’s important: earning clients and making portraits.
- Now that you’ve set your prices, go take a look at your local competition (independent photographers and chain studios alike) and see how they price themselves, and how they present those prices (this is completely opposite to what most photogs do, in checking out the competition, then building their price list). Try to evaluate the “Why” behind their choices. Do certain pricing or presentation choices better communicate value or excite potential clients? Does their pricing encourage ever-larger purchases? Do they primarily advertise their lowest price package or their largest? Which comes first on the price list? Again: Why?
- Brainstorm session: Think about how you’ve set your prices, and what your selling points are if someone wants to compare you to these other photographers. Are your prices better? More simple? No hidden fees? No confusing packages? No session fees or minimum orders? Is your art unique and custom to each client? Do you provide more value via the experience you provide, the personalized attention you give to clients, your flexibility in scheduling, your access to beautiful private property locations, your digital-friendly products, and then some? All of the above? Of course. Commit this knowledge to heart. You never want to talk down the competition, but you do need to know why what you offer is more valuable – no matter how you price your products. Write this down and file away 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 subscribe to my e-mail newsletter at the top of any page of this site.
- If anything in this post has spoken to and inspired you, please comment below, drop me an e-mail, or call or text me at 830-688-1564 and let me know. I’d love to hear how you use the ideas here to better your part time photography business!
- What should I charge for my part time photography? – Your First Customer Series, Part 3
- How to price your photography, Part II
- What Marketing Ain’t
- How to prepare for your first photography client’s call – Your First Customer Series, Part 5
- How experiments can help multiply the growth of your art and business