Pricing for growth versus pricing for profit

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on March 24, 2012

in This is Business

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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:

R.G.,

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:

What should I charge for my part time photography? – Your First Customer Series, Part 3

I write about some of the potential risks of going session-fee-free, and the rewards, here as well:

You’re going to get screwed doing part time photography

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.

James Taylor
The Outlaw Photographer
OutlawPhotography.net
PartTimePhoto.com
830-688-1564

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.

Next Steps

  • 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!

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen March 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm

THANKYOU THANKYOU THANKYOU For over six months I have felt I am ready to start charging for my work. I do lots of free shoots for people at the moment. But the pricing and charging for the session has really put me off. I haven’t read any pricing structures I would feel right buying or charging myself. I just LOVE the idea of charging £10 for an image. I would go for that as a customer. I know I can easily get 10 great images from a shoot. I LOVE styling them as that is a real strength of mine. Plus I am a make up artist as well , so I could go on in the future to charge ££ for that service.
I can so easily see how this pricing could grow with me. So a massive THANKYOU, I am really excited to have read your post and for the future.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor March 25, 2012 at 10:40 pm

Thank you so much for your comment and kind words, Karen! I greatly enjoyed visiting your blog tonight; you have an amazing talent and amazing personality that you bring to your photos and writing. I am nothing but impressed, and there is no reason you can’t charge well for your photography. You are well beyond the “start-up” end of the spectrum when it comes to your art and “voice.”

Surely your pricing can grow with you – this is true of just about any business venture, product, or service. The better you get and the longer you do it, the more valuable your work becomes. The hardest part is always that first step – setting pricing and saying “I’m worth it” is a statement both to yourself and to your market. But it’s not a brag, or a boast, it’s just a fact. It’s not about humility or arrogance, it is about evolution.

Looking at the quality of your art, it is time for you to evolve, Miss Karen – you’ve got all the ingredients. Set your prices, and allow your community to be blessed by your talents and time. And please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures! I think you’re going to have some great stories to tell before the end of the year!

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Aaron McDonald March 27, 2012 at 8:17 pm

More great advice here. I’ll return to study these tips again. I have my 2nd portrait shoot coming up and pricing was a issue. I asked her to make an offer that she was comfortable with. I found this worked rather well for a beginner in portraiture. It took the pressure off of me, and I know she is comfortable with the offer, so it was a win win! Over the next several shoots I will likely adjust this pricing as I become more confident in my expertise. Thanks again, Mr Taylor!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 29, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Certainly Aaron, thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you were able to work out pricing with your client! The old “just pay what you’re comfortable with” move isn’t a bad one, but sometimes for clients it can make it more challenging for them because they want to pay you right, but don’t want to insult you by paying too little. At least with a flat price on the board, there’s no frustration or confusion. And if you skip the session fee and minimum order, that minimum price of entry is just $10 or $20 – just about anyone can afford that. Certainly anyone who would be considering a professional photographer for their photos. Let me know what you decide on and where your prices settle! I look forward to hearing of your adventures!

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Kevin Stacey April 17, 2012 at 7:59 pm

Another great article James! Thank you again for sharing your advice and time with us.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 29, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Thank you Kevin, I appreciate your readership! My young daughter and I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site tonight! You do beautiful work, and your pet portraits are full of fun and personality. Keep up the great work!

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Delilah May 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Hi Again!
I can’t get enough of your site. I’m still reading through old posts as I find them so helpful! Anyway, I have a question about building a website/portfolio… what are your thoughts on how to appoach this? Even with the lower pricing you’ve suggested, it seems that I will need a website and enough pictures to fill a “portfolio” type gallery – in order to establish some credibility as a photographer. Or, at least to show samples of my work/style. I’m leaning toward building a site with what I have – but I really don’t feel like I have enough variety of subjects. Would you suggest offering services for free in the beginning – just to get started? I’ve seen others listing services for free (TFCD) on Craigslist – is this a good strategy? Or, just moving forward with the pricing strategy – without a site initally – and build as you go. Thanks so much for your help!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor May 14, 2012 at 1:22 am

Thank you for your comment Miss Delilah! I do get a lot of questions about photographer web sites, and if I can ever sit down long enough to produce an ebook or video worth selling, this will probably be the first topic I write about. It causes a lot of photographers a great deal of grief.

A good portfolio site is part of the Big Four marketing pieces I recommend Photographers start with (alongside business cards, an e-mail newsletter, and Facebook). Popular as Facebook may be, having your own web domain stocked with your best work and information for clients offers a huge boost to your professionalism and credibility.

I love blog-driven web sites myself – check out Wordpress.org and do a Google search for Wordpress Themes for Photographers. You’ll find a huge variety of free and paid portfolios that are basically turn-key web sites, often with great documentation to help you get everything set up. If you know someone who is web savvy, or have a college nearby from which you could steal a budding web designer for a few hours, you can very inexpensively get set up and trained in how to keep your site updated. There are even paid themes that come with all the support you could need to get set up and running (although they can get pretty expensive).

As for growing your portfolio, you can most certainly offer as many free shoots as you like to get more practice under your belt and broaden the variety of subjects and locations and looks in your portfolio. Don’t get in a comfortable rut, though – it’s easy to shoot for free for far too long, when you could have flipped the switch and been getting paid well for your time much earlier. Set a goal, such as a dozen or so solid shots of different subjects in different locations, and work toward fulfilling that goal. Then flip the switch, and start getting paid for your work. If you go the no session fee, no minimum order route, you run very little risk of running off potential shoots, and you open yourself to the opportunity to start bagging some good sales along the way. As your art and the experience you provide your clients improves, and your marketing and exposure within your market improves commensurate, you’ll only see those numbers and averages improve.

All that said, you can start charging any time you’re ready, web sites and Facebook be damned. I always recommend going by bookings – if you’re booked solid with free shoots for the next month or so, your art and exposure in the community are obviously more than capable of getting you paid bookings. If you’re struggling to keep your desired shooting schedule (whether that’s once a day or once a month) busy, then you may need to continue with free shoots until you’ve better defined and refined your art and what you have to offer your market. Ebb and flow.

Thank you again for your readership! I look forward to hearing what you decide on, and how it turns out for you in the coming months!

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Delilah May 14, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Thanks for you advice on this topic! I agree with your suggestion on Wordpress and I have been looking for a theme that will work for me. At this point, I think having a site with a limited number of photos in the portfolio (in my eyes) is better than not having one! So,I think this will be my next step – in addition to continuing to book some free shoots. I’ll be back – and asking for your opinion once my site is done!

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Bryan Knitter May 15, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for your advice. I’ve taken bits and pieces and applied it to my own business. Thanks again!

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Unapologetically Mundane August 9, 2012 at 3:50 pm

So glad I Googled and found your site today! I’m just getting started and have really struggled with the idea of charging my friends $200 or $300, even if I think my work is (or eventually will be) worth it. Your suggestion of the $10 single file feels like a revelation to me. Can’t wait to read more. Thank you!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor August 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m so glad the site has been beneficial for you! I appreciate your readership, and if there’s anything more I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to let me know! Keep me posted on your successes and adventures!

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Brandy Fitzgerald October 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I have probably done EVERYTHING backwards. I’ve been in desktop publishing since 1994. I migrated into digital design in 2003 when I went to school for graphic arts. Starting in 2003 – 2011 I’ve bought probably $60K worth of software/camera(s) & equipment/books and did photography for my digital design company for 5 or 6 years (as I am really a Photoshop geek/NAPP and wanted stuff to Photoshop). I started taking photography clients for about year, then started the website, and NOW I’m finally going to school. LOL!! All this time I’ve kept my full time government job. But I am having a magnificent time and am finding I love photography much more than digital design! I just discovered your website by accident and it is wonderful!! Thank you so much for your candidness and your ideas/guidance.

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor October 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Thank you for your readership Brandy! I greatly enjoyed visiting your web site and looking at your photos. You have a great eye for color and processing!

It does sound like you’ve had an interested road to professional photography! But all of that history gives you a great base of knowledge and experience to draw from as an artist – your past and knowledge are wholly unique, and will help give your art its own unique composition and perspective.

Photography is easy to love, and that passion is what will help you cross the hurdles that business and marketing present, in creating a successful, professional presence in your market. Keep up the great work!

Thank you again for your comment, and please do keep me posted on your success and adventures!

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Pat Harris November 3, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Hi,

I’m in the process of raising prices and starting over after a year of portfolio building and trial and error. Your words are the right words at the right time. It’s really important to have support during the transition from cheap and easy photographer to professional photographer and I’m so grateful for you sharing your time with us to share your insights. Thanks so much from the bottom of my heart!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor December 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Thank you for your readership and kind words Pat!

No shame in cheap and easy art – it’s where almost all of us have to start out. So long as you practice kaizen, making small daily improvements, better art, better business, and better pay are an inevitability.

Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures in 2013!

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TERESA LYNN March 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I’M TRYING TO START OUT AS A PART TIME PHOTOGRAPHER AS EVERYONE ELSE I WAS PRICING WRONG I WAS TRYING TO SELL CD’S NOT SHEETS I WAS SUGGESTING THEY COULD PRINT AS MANY AS THE WANTED. I DO HAVE ONE QUESTION FOR $10.00 A SHEET IS THAT ON LOCATION ARE THE CLIENT COMING TO ME, I ONLY HAVE A SPARE ROOM RIGHT NOW, OR AM I GOING TO THE CLIENTS HOUSE. I’M JUST WONDERING HOW THAT WORKS, WITH HIGH GAS PRICES WHAT IF THE CLIENT ISN’T REAL CLOSE TO ME. AND I’M NOT SURE I WANT A LOT OF STRANGER’S IN MY HOUSE. CONFUSED!!!!!!!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor March 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

Thank you for your comment and readership, Teresa!

You can surely price your work however you want, and shoot wherever you like best – in your home, at the client’s home, or on location.

I suggest starting out as an on-location portrait photographer. Nature can provide you a great studio and great light to work with, but it does take learning and practice to do location work well. Scout out your town or area and find great locations you love, then get permission to use those locations for your photography work, if you need to (I love shooting at my local city park!).

Then – shoot! Start out with free shoots for friends and family. Grab a book on location portraiture and practice, practice, practice. Try to stick with just one, two, or three locations when starting out so you can really get a feel with the best spots to shoot at each location, what time of days gives the best light, and so forth. The majority of my photo shoots are at just two locations: my local park, and my local playground. Even after 14 years, I can go back to these locations time and time again and give clients photos they love. All it takes is practice and focused effort.

I do charge a travel fee if a client wants me to go outside of my county, usually just enough to cover my gas and a nice dinner!

I hope this helps! Please do keep me posted on your successes and adventures this year! You won’t believe how far you’ve come in just a few months, much less a year!

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Lynn McDougle March 24, 2013 at 3:38 pm

James..just a quick question as an established professional are you still employing your basic pricing tenets in 2013 of No session fee, no minimum order and buy what you love? I’m in a situation where I am starting over with my business of 16 years….my previous set up required no marketing as a former high school guidance counselor…students and parents knew me and word of mouth spread and my business fit what I wanted. But we have moved and I’m starting over and liking you approach as it fits to the way I like to do business….Thanks in advance for your reply!!

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Outlaw Photographer James Taylor April 27, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Thank you for your comment and readership Lynn! I greatly enjoyed visiting your site tonight, your photos feature such beautiful colors! Love the expressions as well, wonderfully natural and evocative.

Yes, I still charge no session fee, ask no minimum order, and folks just buy what they love. After so many years of trying different pricing styles, this has brought me the most clients, the best per-client sales averages, the least stress, and the best clients. If I do my job, I get a great payday from almost every shoot that more than makes me happy.

The best thing about the no session fee, no minimum order style, is that it completely removes price from the equation. It lets you focus on the more important details of match-making with a client:

Do they love your artistic style?

Do they love your personality?

Do you love theirs?

Doing work you love with people you love working with has got to be one of the ingredients of the fountain of youth.

Please do let me know what you decide on, and how it works out for you! I’d love to hear about your successes and adventures!

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