What to charge when pricing photography services?

I originally wrote this blog posting more than three years ago in 2010. It is consistently the most read blog of anything I’ve written before or since. I’ve decided it was time to revisit and refresh this article to reflect some of the changes in the photography industry the past few years and expand on important information and terminology to help you negotiate a fair payment for your work. You can find the newly updated for 2013 post here.

April 2010

As we continue to crawl out from under the recent economic unpleasantness, it’s a good time to reevaluate what we’re charging for our photographic services. I get a lot of questions from both emerging and established photographers asking about how they establish or update their pricing.

Some of these answers depend on the market and your specific client base, but there are a lot of fundamental rules to keep in mind for any business offering creative services, including photography, editing or design.

I’m always happy to share any knowledge that might be useful. I don’t consider it to be inside information or something that would affect how competitive I am in the marketplace. Quite the contrary. It’s good for all artists to be informed. It helps us all collectively as we continue to create and maintain successful businesses.

For photographers, the ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) is an incredible resource for that industry as well as other artists trying to shed the too common phenomenon of being good at your art but bad at business. I joined the ASMP a while back and made it a point to attend as many lectures and seminars as my schedule would allow. To help make sure I didn’t miss them during busy work weeks, I scheduled them with one of my brilliant photography colleagues, Marian Kraus, which allowed us to make sure we both actually attended them as well as to debrief with each other afterwards at a nearby coffee-house, what we had learned and how we were going to move forward.

It was a series of watershed moments. Many instances of the light bulb going off over my head, confirming both things I was doing right and bad habits that were hurting my business. Much of the information I’m discussing here is based on what I have learned from the ASMP and my friends in the photographic community as I grew my own business.

A few years ago I also attended a Santa Fe Photography workshop led by the brilliant photographer and now friend, Doug Menuez, appropriately titled Art and Commerce. It was there that I began to learn how to take my art and integrate it into the business world much more effectively and the importance of saying no to projects that were financially attractive but creatively soul sucking. Creating the all important “Fuck You Portfolio” and making sure your inner artist isn’t squashed trying to keep food on your table.

The photograph above is one I made during my time in Santa Fe.

Doug’s personal story is one of struggle, wild success, throwing it all out and starting over, giving back and finally, success again on his terms. His blog, Go Fast, Don’t Crash, is poignant, funny, well written and always inspiring.

All of these things have contributed to how I run the business of Billy Sheahan Photography.

My work is truly split about 70/30% between the business and artistic side. In other words, seven of every ten hours is spent on marketing, bookkeeping, following up with clients, bidding, invoicing and research and about three hours making and processing photographs or footage.

With that background, let’s get into the point of this blog:

The Pricing of it All

The first general thing to take into consideration is that with any client, once you charge them a specific fee, it’s difficult to get them to pay more next time. I talk to a lot of entry-level photographers who say, Well I’m not really that good so maybe I shouldn’t charge so much, and I always tell them if you charge someone X, they will always want to pay X and you will never be able to charge them more. You’ll have to find new clients every time you want to raise your price. So find a number that works for you and will for the next few years as you start building your business. Better to set a price a little too high to start than charging too low and having to constantly explain to clients why you’re raising your rates in six months.

In addition, charging lower rates will also hurt the rest of the photographic community in an industry where the bottom line often means much more than the quality of the product. With thousands of photographers trying to enter the business every day, there will always be someone who will be willing to charge less than you because they don’t understand the ripple effect of the lowest bid and how that will ultimately affect their own ability in the future to charge a fair price to stay in business.

Giving discounts is a slippery slope as well. It can give the impression that you don’t value your work if you’re not careful how you do it. Rather than discounting, consider throwing in an extra and state it as such, which can allow you to maintain your rates. That might mean negotiating your usage fee (more on this later) or even making an extra print of one of your art pieces for the art director as a thank you or something else that will allow you not to lower your rate.

Giving a discount to a long-term client as a thank you for their loyalty is one thing. Discounting your work from the start is quite another.

There is a great Cost of Doing Business Calculator online from the NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) that I have used to get a ballpark handle on what I need to make per shooting day as a photographer.

Even if you’re just starting out and you’re making income from a day job rather than just photography, it is a great way to set business goals and assist with your pricing. Regardless of whether you’re a full-time photographer or not, use it like your sole income is from photography and it will at least give you another way to look at determining your price on the days you shoot.

Fill out as much information in it as you can. Estimate or make up what you don’t know, again, don’t worry about whether you have other sources of income. Just fill it out like you don’t. The last item on the list is how many shooting days you expect to have per year. Even if you were doing this full-time, you wouldn’t be shooting every day, you’d be doing the business of photography on non shooting days such as marketing, invoicing, bookkeeping, portfolio updating, running to Office Depot…. you know… business things. If you are unsure of your actual shooting days, put in a number of 75 shooting days per year. It’s a good starting place. And what you end up with is your Cost of Doing Business.

That number is what you need to make just to break even on every shoot day. It may sounds like a lot, but after you take away your expenses, rent, studio, what-have-you… your actual salary may be less than you would imagine. But it’s a good starting place to figure out what you need to make to stay in business. If I charge less than my CODB for a full day’s work, I’m losing money. It’s very important to know that number. I know what I need to charge to keep my business viable. You can’t run a successful business without it.

Pricing a Model’s Portfolio Shoot: One Example

I recently was discussing with a photography colleague and friend how to price a shoot in which a model hires him to shoot photographs for her portfolio. He is an established fine art photographer and well-recognized for his work in photography books and fine art galleries. But this was an area where he was a little lost as to what to charge in this situation.

I believe the first thing to do as far as coming up with a model shoot fee is determining what you’ll be delivering to her at the end and work backwards. Let’s say for the discussion that you’ll provide them with three final retouched images from the shoot. She’ll probably want digital copies rather than prints so she can use them in portfolios and what-not. If she want more you can determine a fee for each additional image.

I usually charge a minimum per hour fee for retouching depending on the project. The rate depends on the client, but for basic retouching, in most cases I can usually do one photograph per hour unless there is something complicated about the image.

So let’s say it will take three hours for three images. Start with that as the first item in your price.

Depending on the shoot, you should also take into account any transportation, rental fees of any kind, location. This is a pretty vague area and depending on whether you’re a natural light kind of photographer or not, your shoots may or may not be complicated with lighting and things like that. Try to imagine anything you might need to create your vision, making sure you don’t end up having to cover out-of-pocket expenses cutting into your profit. Will you need a makeup artist, stylist or other wardrobe? Hair and makeup makes a huge difference in the final product.

Day Rate vs. Creative Fee

Then there is your shoot time or creative fee. This is a difficult area for most artists because it’s common to look at this sort of fee as a “how much am I worth per hour” or per day or half day or whatever. But what we all forget is that the camera you have in your hand has to be paid for over time. Any film or digital media, even if it’s something you reuse has to be accounted for. Software that you use, Photoshop or Lightroom or Aperture or whatever you use to edit and develop the final images. Computer. Digital storage. (I currently have 10TB of storage in my studio.) All of this is a piece of the creative fee pie. Who said digital was cheaper than film?

And you’re not going to make it all up in one or two shoots, but all of that goes into the cost of doing business and should be taken into consideration in addition to your time shooting.

So back to the creative fee. One common approach to this that I often use is to charge by the photograph so I don’t get into the problem of charging a flat day rate and then spending five days retouching 30 photographs. Charging by the photograph allows you to control how much non-shooting work you’re doing for the money.

But it’s still a guessing game. I’ve had shoots were I was told they needed five photos and end up only buying one after everything is said and done, so you have to try to set that cost so it’s worth it even if they buy just one.

That being said, I’ve sort of come down on the side of a hybrid of a day rate and per photo cost. I still charge per photograph, but I usually build in a creative fee on top of that of for a basic shoot so if they only buy one photo, I still hit my CODB number.

Usage

And finally you have to consider licensing of the photos. In advertising, my clients would license permission to use the photo for a set amount of time in a specific media. I shot some product shots last week for a television commercial and the going usage rate is roughly $2,500 per photo for a 13 week run on national television. That’s on top of my creative and retouching fees.

You may not be doing this with your models you photograph, but usage is a good thing to think about for other types of photography and becoming familiar with usage is critical because depending on who your client is, their using your photograph that you retain the copyright to, to promote themselves or sell something or make money in some way that you will never get a cut of, has value as well.

There are a lot of resources out there to help determine usage fees. One software program I like is fotoQuote Pro. You select from a menu of media usage types and it gives you a range of industry standard prices to help you determine what usage rates to charge. It also contains excellent definitions of photography industry pricing terms to help you navigate the process of negotiating usage.

I recently bid a job for a health care industry project involving doctors headshots. Creatively vapid, but they asked me to bid. However, one of the terms of the bid was that they also wanted me to sign over the copyright to my photos rather than them paying a usage fee for the photos. This is sometimes called a buyout. I wasn’t really that interested in the job, so if I didn’t get it, it wasn’t going to ruin my week. On top of my creative fee and per photo price, I bid an extra four figure cost per photo to sign over my copyright in the estimate. Signing over my copyright means I would never be able to use the photos for anything myself, even in my portfolio without getting their permission. That fee for my copyright was much more than negotiating a usage fee, but they insisted on owning the copyright. In the end, they passed on my bid, but that was fine with me. I probably should have passed on the job from the beginning, but I had some time available, and you never know.

If I’m going to agree to do something creatively vapid, then people are going to pay dearly for it. This was clearly an example of someone looking to hire *any* photographer to do the job and not hiring me for the Billy Sheahan I would bring to the project. It was wrong from the start. I should have known better and just said no. It’s a continuous learning process.

Back to our model shoot example. You should take into account what usage rights you’ll grant the model paying for your pictures. You should always retain copyright, but will you allow her to sell your image of her on a poster? Or will you say she can only use the photos for non-commercial promotion in a physical portfolio or online website or portfolio? Can she use the photos as part of a pay website? You’ll have to decide how much control she has over what she can do with your photograph. If the model wants to use it for anything at all forever, maybe an additional fee would be required. You’ll need a release form that lays all this out in advance.

So what does all this mean? This is a lot of information to consider, but it’s the business of being in business.

You will have to take into account the market and location for what you do. The world is full of mediocre photographers. If you work hard at your photography craft and it’s not a hobby, you should charge a professional rate. In our model shoot example, maybe times are tough at the moment and models will freak out at paying so much for a photo session, but a good photograph is a special thing and if they want thee pictures for $300 they can go find a million GWCs (Guys With Cameras) who can do that for them. You get what you pay for.

The “Why Do You Charge So Much?” Question

You should always be ready with an answer to, “Why do you charge so much?” When someone asks me why I charge what I do for a photo shoot, I answer that beyond my two decades of experience making images, a lot of thought and time and skill goes into my photography and if you look at the images and motion footage in my portfolio you will see that it as has a style that is unique to me. My goal is not to create a photograph that is simply beautiful, but one that resonates with the viewer. My photography stands out in the noise of so much imagery that is out there in the world. Photography or moving footage I create with you will set you apart from the thousands of other images out there. It’s worth it. People remember it.

I bring the Billy Sheahan Photography style to any photography project. That has value.

The Elevator Pitch

It may sound like bragging or being arrogant, but you have to believe in what you do to succeed. Most artists, including myself, are instinctively modest about our work. We grow up being taught to be humble. It’s hard to un-learn. But in a world of literally millions of people with cameras, you have to know what makes you different. You have to be able to articulate that.

You should have what some call an “elevator pitch.” In other words, in the time it takes for an elevator ride, about 30 seconds, can you describe exactly what you do and makes you unique in a few short sentences? You need to be able to do that. Write it down. Rehearse it. Commit it to memory so it sounds natural when you say it.

Take What Works For You

Part of defining who you are and in turn, your pricing, means doing a lot of research and talking to others in the artistic community. You may read what I have written here and it just doesn’t resonate with you, that’s fine. Take some of it or nothing and store away what makes sense to you. Sometimes finding out what makes your art unique is determining what your work isn’t.

But above all, determine who you are. And then share your knowledge with others in the community. We should never be afraid to share our experiences and compare notes. It makes us all more successful, both artistically and from a business standpoint.

Best of luck to you as you continue your artistic journey.

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14 thoughts

  1. What an incredible resource, Billy. Thank you for taking the time to share this valuable information.

    PS: What is your elevatory story? Mind sharing it?

    Alana

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  5. Thank you for a MOST informative and comprehensive article. It gave me so much to think about as I start bidding my jobs. It’s scary to do this, and as artists we all suffer in some way from feelings of unworthiness in the business world, but in order to compete and survive we have to handle this rather ethereal profession like the business that it is. Thanks again!

  6. Hi Billy,
    I re-read your blog and your updates are great. You are a wealth of knowledge.
    I am someone who has been taking photographs for three decades, but I am just getting into the business. Could you provide some insight into where you (or where to) get contracts? Lawyers are expensive but maybe you’ll advise that they are a necessary asset.
    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and experience.
    Dan

  7. Hello again, Dan! Thanks for the kind words.

    I updated the “What Type of Photographer/Artist Are You?” section to include some links with contract information from ASMP’s website. That should be a really good starting place to begin learning about that without a lawyer, although as you mentioned, a good lawyer who knows the photography industry will prove essential to you.

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