What to Charge for Photography: Photography Pricing Answers (2013 Epic Edition)

What to charge for photography? Here you’ll find some answers on the topic I get asked about most often from fellow photographers, both beginners and established shooters expanding into new areas. The question of how to price their work. 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. This is by no means a complete guide of everything you need to know to start or keep your creative business running smoothly, but I’ve tried to touch as many critical topics as possible without this blog post turning into a book. Too late!

Hmmm. A book. Note to self….

Photography Pricing Answers (2013 Epic Edition)

Santa Fe Trainyard, NM, USA

Watch Your Step – Santa Fe Trainyard, NM, USA

As we continue to crawl out from under the recent economic unpleasantness, a sentence I began three years ago that is sadly, still relevant, it’s always a good time to reevaluate how we’re pricing our photographic and other creative services. I get a lot of questions from both emerging and established artists asking about how they might figure out what to charge for their photography.

Some of these answers depend on your 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 to name a few.

I’m always happy to share any knowledge that might be useful to others. 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.

The ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers) is one of several incredible resources for the photography industry as well as other artists trying to shed the common phenomenon of being good at your art but bad at business. I joined the ASMP years ago 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 to attend 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 each going to move forward with our respective businesses.

Other great resources include APA (American Photographic Artists) and NPPA (National Press Photographers Association).

A bird flies over Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

A bird flies over Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy

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 discussions with my friends in the photographic community as I grew my own business.

A few years ago I 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. I also learned the importance of saying no to projects that were financially attractive but creatively soul sucking. Doug taught me about creating the all important “Fuck You Portfolio,” the portfolio that contains work that moves you as an artist, not work that is general and expected and that does not speak to your own style and vision. It’s about defining yourself and making sure your inner artist isn’t squashed trying to keep food on your table.

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.

The photograph at the top of this article is one I made during my time in Santa Fe with Doug. As we all navigate the choices we make when we price our services, Watch Your Step, indeed. All of these things have contributed to how I run the business of Billy Sheahan Photography. And I continue to learn, adapt and change as I go. We all have to do this.

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 and editing.

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

The Pricing of it All

What to charge for photography. The first general thing to consider is that with any client is, once you agree to a specific fee for your work, it’s difficult to get them to pay more next time.

This is important: If you start out as the person who will do it cheap or for free even, that’s what you’ll always be for them. It’s not a very respected reputation to have with your clients and nearly impossible to extract yourself from. You’ll always be the cheap guy, no matter your skill set.

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. Once you’ve established a price with them you’ll have to find new clients if you want to charge more for your services. It’s imperative to find a number that works for you and will continue to work for the next few years as you continue building your business. Better to set a price a little too high and risk losing a few jobs at the start than charging too little and having to constantly try to explain to clients why you’re raising your rates in six months. It won’t happen.

In addition, charging lower rates will also hurt your fellow photographers and the rest of the creative community in an industry where the bottom line often seems to mean much more than the quality of the work. 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. Your low bid today will most certainly come back to haunt you tomorrow.

Trish Davis

Trish Davis

Social Media

Social media has evolved to be both wonderful and a nightmare for independent artists trying to make a living at their craft. Great, because it’s easier than ever to capture the attention of a worldwide audience, if your work is original and inspiring. A nightmare because it has dumbed-down the idea of what a professional photographer or creative artist is.

A perfect example of the current state of tone-deafness concerning what constitutes professional work is the recent statement by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer. At a news event to announce Flickr’s new 1 Terabyte of free storage, Mayer said, “…today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there is no such thing really as professional photographers, when there’s everything is professional photographers [sic].”

Cue the internet outrage from the professional photography community.

Mayer has since apologized for what she called, her statement taken out of context. To be fair, she was trying, in an admittedly clumsy fashion, to say Yahoo didn’t want to differentiate between Free and  Pro Flickr accounts since everyone takes so many photos these days. Giving everyone a free 1TB of storage was Flickr’s way to level the playing field between those who can afford large amounts of online storage, historically, the professionals, and those that cannot, everyone else with a camera.

Here is her complete statement. You can decide the context for yourself:

“…there’s no such thing as Flickr Pro, because today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there is no such thing really as professional photographers, when there’s everything is professional photographers [sic]. Certainly there is varying levels of skills, but we didn’t want to have a Flickr Pro anymore, we wanted everyone to have professional quality photos, space, and sharing.”

It’s still very clumsy, and that’s being generous. Just because you may want people to have professional quality photos, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to produce professional quality photos. Just sayin’.

The recent attempted photography rights grab by Instagram late last year, is another example. Photographers should keep a close eye on Instagram and all of the other social networks’ Terms of Service Agreements going forward. In Facebook’s hands, Instagram is too enticing to the shareholders to not revisit potentially unwanted use of your photographic images in the future. It’s become the largest and most refreshed stock photography repository in the world.

Tennessee Basketball Hoop

Tennessee Basketball Hoop

Be careful what you upload to social media sites. Read the fine print. If you upload, you may be giving away important rights. Instead of uploading to Facebook, linking images back to sites you control, such as your own website or blog, gives you more control over the content you create. You have to find a balance you’re comfortable with between self-promotion and giving away the farm.

Yes, there are a lot of people who call themselves photographers these days. As I’ve mentioned before, if you count all of the photographs ever taken since the invention of photography in the mid-1800s, 10% of all of those photographs in the last 150 years were made last year. That’s a staggering statistic.

I am giving all of this information simply as a background of how the concept of photography has changed in the last five years alone. Anyone with a mobile phone most likely has a camera with them at all times. Is it a professional camera? No. But the ability to make a half way decent photographic image has become exponentially easier, whether the shooter has actual talent or gets lucky with the right image filter. Can the better Instagram images be considered professional photography? Some of your clients might give you an answer that would make you cringe. You couldn’t blow it up to billboard or even print magazine size, but the resolution might be fine for a brand’s Facebook page.

It’s getting complicated out there.

I could go on and on about the social media questions we’re all asking ourselves these days, but that’s heading away from our photography pricing topic. Another time, perhaps.


Who is a Professional Photographer?

This is a broad stroke and there are exceptions, but for now, I define a professional photographer as someone who can repeatedly make a technically proficient and compelling image, taking into account the story, message or viewpoint the client wishes to express.

And in a specific time frame or under a deadline.

Terry O'Sullivan

Terry O’Sullivan

And within a predetermined budget.

And with clients looking over your shoulder.

And using your experience to add something positive to the overall vision.

And being able to think on your feet when inevitable on-set changes happen and still deliver a quality image.

And that you can consistently do all of those things every time. You know. Repeatable. Not lucky.

If you can do all of those things, you can call yourself a professional photographer. And you should be paid a fair wage for your craft. You’ve earned it.


What Type of Photographer/Artist Are You?

The answer to that question really helps to determine how you should approach your pricing. We’ll assume you are an independent photographer or other type of artist and not as an employee on staff at a specific company. Do you work directly with your clients or are you hired by an agency, studio or other third-party to create work for their clients? If so, you are a commercial and/or advertising photographer. Do you create photo stories based on current events, sports, travel or fashion (non-advertising)? That usually puts you in the editorial photography category. Do you make images that you sell online or in galleries that aren’t about a specific product? That falls under the category of retail photography. Also often described as a fine art photography. A silly term really, because it sounds like bragging, but “personal work photographer” doesn’t have the same cachet. And “I’m an artist,” might result in eye rolls. Even if it’s true.

There are other sub-genres and specialties, of course. Portrait photographer, people photographer, music photographer, table top photographer, food photographer, to name a few. But they all can fit under the umbrella of either commercial/advertising, editorial or fine art photographer.

If you are on staff as a photographer or artist, much of this discussion won’t really apply to you for two reasons. First, you’re probably making your photography as part of your job and you’re paid a salary for it. Congratulations, you probably have your health care covered by your employer as well. Second, what you create is most likely called work for hire. In other words you probably don’t have any legal ownership over what you make or create. It’s owned by your company or their client. There are, as always, exceptions to that concept, but for the most part if you’re on salary, whoever signs your checks owns the work you create outright.

For independent or freelance photographers and artists, what you negotiate before the job begins determines how much you are paid for your work and who owns the copyright of whatever you create. It can vary by client, but just like reading the TOS (terms of service) fine print on social media sites, you will need to become good at reading contacts and know when to push back when a potential client is making an unreasonable land grab with your work.

A photographer recently asked me to point him toward a good resource for learning more about contracts. I’ll be linking to ASMP a great deal in this article because of the information you can get even if you’re not a member. This Bad Contract article is a good place to start. As is their Business Resources series of articles. If you find the information valuable, as I did when I was just starting out, you should consider joining ASMP. I have found that my annual membership fees pays for itself with member discounts on hardware, software and services, beyond what great information on contracts, release forms and other business practices you can get from their website.

Another good resource to hammer home the importance of contracts, is this video from Creative Mornings/San Francisco called “F*ck You. Pay Me.” It’s as funny as it is insightful. It’s about 35 minutes in length, but very worth your time.

Now, let’s get into some of the terminology you’ll be hearing.


Estimates, Buyouts, Licensing, Copyright, Usage, Advances, Exclusivity, P.O.s, Royalty-Free, Rights-Managed and Other Words

At the beginning of a project, you’ll often be asked for an estimate. It’s often the first dance in the work relationship with your client. Estimates are important because it give everyone the opportunity to define the scope of the job in terms of who is responsible for what (sometimes the client will handle paying talent, for example and sometimes that’s your responsibility), begin addressing the legal language of what you and the client expect to be delivered and what rights they have to your work upon delivery and payment.

Jillian Ann with Red Glass Vase

Jillian Ann with Red Glass Vase

When you enter into an agreement to produce photography or other types of creative art, there is more to know than simply X amount of time creating gets you X amount of money. For photographers, historically, you would be paid for your time during the shoot and then on top of that, the images you produce have additional value if they are going to be used commercially. In other words, you get paid to show up and produce the shoot, plus you agree to let your client use the images you created and own, for an additional fee based on the time your images will be used, in what media and for how long. That is called usage or licensing. As the photographer, you own the copyright of the images as soon as you click the shutter and you agree your client can use those images in a commercial manner even though they don’t own the copyright themselves. Your copyright means you control how your image can be used and how you get paid for usage of your image currently and in the future.

Shooting* + licensing = what you get paid.

*Shooting includes your expenses as well, such as location or studio fees, talent or model fees, camera rental (even if you own your camera, you rent it to yourself because you have to pay for the constant equipment and technology upgrades), storage- including a hard drive you may hand to your client with final images, hair and makeup artists, props, lighting. You get the idea.

In addition to understanding that you automatically own the copyright on the images you create, it’s equally important to know that formally registering your work with the US Copyright Office, strengthens the rights you already have and can allow for a larger judgement against anyone who is using your work in an unauthorized manner. ASMP has many resources that explain the how and why of copyright in greater detail.

For editorial non-commercial shoots, historically you get paid a single fee for your time and expenses. You most likely still own the copyright, but you don’t charge for usage or licensing fees. Your images are not being used to sell any specific product. They may be used to illustrate a story in a newspaper, magazine or online. Perhaps images of a celebrity lounging on their sofa. You get paid for your creative vision and craft, but nothing more for the image to be in a magazine. There are exceptions, such as when Vanity Fair wants to use the image in their magazine that you made two years ago for the New York Times. That is called secondary licensing, but let’s just mention it and stop there. Trying to keep this simple.

Fine art photography (retail) is funded by you. You get paid when you sell an image as a piece of art to a business, collector or at a gallery. They can hang the work in their home or office, but they cannot make copies of your work and re-sell your photo. They do not have licensing rights to reproduce your work. That would be stealing.

To review, there are three main types of photography: commercial, editorial and retail (fine art). That being said, an image can be considered to be in more than one type of photography category. A fine art photograph may be used in a commercial medium if it expresses the message a brand wants to convey. In the same way, an editorial photograph might have a second life as a fine art piece, such as some of the beautiful magazine fashion photography by Richard Avedon from the middle of last century.

I personally have licensed fine art images for advertising. It depends on the image.

I’ve been using the word, historically, quite a bit in the previous paragraphs. That is because, unfortunately, clients are constantly trying to figure out how they can get more for less. Sure, it’s their job, but it’s been getting a little brutal lately. It makes me sad when I use the word licensing in a discussion with a new-ish art director and he just blinks at me because he’s never heard the term. The good art buyers and producers know these things, but we artists sometimes have to do a lot of teaching when negotiating a fair price for our work.

I was at a panel discussion recently hosted by the wonderful creative consultant Debra Weiss, talking about the evolution of photo licensing the past decade or so. On the panel was a very knowledgeable and experienced art buyer from a Chicago advertising agency. Her point of view was very insightful. In the last decade, imagery is being used in an ever-expanding number of commercial outlets. It used to be just print and broadcast. Online and digital in general has greatly increased the number of ways advertisers place imagery. As a result, they are less likely to get specific about what type of usage they want to negotiate. Sometimes they genuinely don’t know. Because of that, they now want it all. Forever.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy

That sounds like the a fore-mentioned land grab at first, and maybe it is. But there are some reasons why a client or agency might need an everything/forever license. Agencies today are all connected. Images they purchase go up to servers that are accessed by divisions of that agency in far off countries working on the same brand. Admittedly, it would be difficult to determine what an image was initially licensed for and for how long. Difficult, but not impossible if they really wanted to. But I think that ship has sailed.

Contracts have really gotten unbalanced in the favor of clients over photographers recently. Not only in commercial or advertising work, but editorial as well. In the fine print, it’s not unusual to see language that gives the copyright of any image created to the client outright, even though the photograph(s) being created are not technically work for hire. The process of buying unlimited licensing and the copyright to the image from the photographer is sometimes referred to as a buyout.

Buyouts are the real land grab. Any photographer should do their best to resist signing a contract where they lose their copyright or ownership of the images they create. It’s one thing to negotiate a fair licensing price for unlimited usage forever, it’s another thing to give up your copyright. It’s that one step over the line that we, as artists should really try to avoid. Holding onto the last bread crumb. Sometimes you have to cross out the copyright giveaway in the contract before you sign it and hope you’ll still get the job. Most savvy art buyers understand that asking for copyright is an overreach and won’t fight you on it. But you have to stand up on your own. Some clients will try to get everything, as reasonable or unreasonable as that may seem. You can choose to let them or not. If you go into a contract negotiation with your eyes open, you’re just in a better place.

Sometimes, you’ll have the opportunity to sell images for commercial use through your own website or through a stock agency. If you’ve ever considered selling your images as stock, you may have seen the terms Rights-Managed and Royalty-Free. Both of these terms refer to the kinds of licensing you’re granting for commercial use of your images, similar to the advertising agency model. Rights-managed licenses allow the use of your photograph for a specific project or campaign but limit the length of use and/or where the images can be displayed. For example, a rights-managed license may allow a client to use an image on a website covering 1/4 of the page for a period of one year. They couldn’t use it in a print ad, for instance, without buying a separate license. Right-managed can also offer the client exclusivity of an image to avoid over-saturation or awkward visual collisions with their competitors. In other words, if Apple buys a rights-managed image of a smiling person to illustrate their happy customer service, Microsoft would not be able to use the same image to illustrate their happy customer service. I know, I know, bad example, but you get the idea.

With a royalty-free license, the same image can be bought and used hundreds or thousands of times by many clients. There is often no limitation on how many websites or advertisements the purchaser of the royalty-free license can use them on. A client using a royalty-free image risks that the same image may become synonymous with another brand or concept they might not want to be associated with.

ASMP has a good article on royalty-free licensing.

Some of these exclusivity and quality issues when using stock can be a good argument in favor of hiring a photographer to create original work. Remember that. It’s a good negotiating point.

There are a lot of resources out there to help determine licensing fees. Talk to other photographers. We can’t discuss specific pricing as a group or as part of an organization because of anti-trust laws, but we can compare notes in casual discussion. One software program I like to help get me in the licensing fee ballpark 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 definitions of photography industry pricing terms to help you navigate the process of negotiating usage. I wouldn’t exclusively rely on a software program to help me set my fees, but it’s another place to gather information from if you need a place to start.

A few years ago, I bid a job for a health care industry project to photograph headshots of doctors. Their project summary brief was creatively vapid and not really my style of work, but they asked me to bid and I did. 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 licensing fee for the photos. Yes, that buyout thing.

Mykonos Courtyard Arch, Greece

Mykonos Courtyard Arch, Greece

I wasn’t really that inspired by 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 an unlimited and forever licensing fee, but they insisted on owning the copyright. It’s rare that any company wouldn’t refresh or update photos of their key players every few years anyway, so it seemed a bit silly to me that they wanted copyright and forever and ever usage. In the end, they passed on my bid, but that was fine with me.

If a potential client insists that you bid on a creatively uninspiring project, rather than look at it as just another paycheck and take it, it’s better to try to nicely refer them to someone else who might find inspiration where you have not. Of course, you could just take it and charge them dearly for it, but that doesn’t bode well for anyone involved. If you take on work you’re not excited about on some level, it will show and you’ll ding your professionalism. This was clearly an example of someone looking to hire any photographer to do the job and not hiring me for the Billy-ness I would bring to the project. It was wrong from the start. I should have known better and just passed before I submitted my bid. It’s a continuous learning process.

Next, we should discuss purchase orders. Often referred to as POs (pronounced pee-oh, not poe or you’ll sound like an idiot), purchase orders are an agreement that the client has authorized you to do the agreed upon work or provide a specific service and that they will pay you for it. You should request a PO before or very soon after you begin any work. Not to be confused with a work contract, a PO will often have similar legal language in it to a contract that should also be reviewed to make sure you avoid those land grabs I keep speaking of. As always, pay attention to any fine print.

Finally, most independent freelance photographers, artists and other small businesses do not have the millions in cash reserves that our clients do. Okay maybe not millions, but more than you do. It is standard practice to request a percentage of the job estimate up front as an advance before the job begins to allow the photographer to pay expenses that will occur before the completion of the job. It’s kind of like a deposit. And it’s called an advance. An advance may be anywhere from the first third of the job, to half to 75% in some cases.

Sometimes jobs can last longer than a day or two. Sometimes weeks or months. It would be unreasonable in many cases to expect the photographer/artist to incur thousands of dollars or more of expenses while the project proceeds, especially when the turnaround from invoice to actually getting the check when a job is finished can be up to four months or more in the most horrible cases. Some clients really push it when it comes to timely payments. If a freelance artist has several jobs going at the same time, having to cover expenses for all of those jobs and not get paid for months after completion would put them out of business. It’s important to have a handle on your cash flow and to plan for waiting weeks or months for checks to be issued, but the advance can help manage some of that.

Even requesting an advance before the job begins may not result in a check before you begin shooting. Some larger agencies have made their vendor payment systems so complex that your payment check isn’t even drafted in this country. I have found from personal experience that regardless of whether or not I need an advance for a particular project, I like to get the paperwork machine moving with the advance invoice, just so all of the tax forms, new vendor applications and other bureaucracy can be jump started in a reasonable time period. There’s nothing worse than sending out an invoice when the job is finished and spending weeks faxing forms back and forth before your invoice can even be submitted to the payment bean counters.


Discounts, Freebies and The Cost of Doing Business

Giving discounts is a slippery slope. 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 licensing fees 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.

Nicola Novellone

Nicola Novellone

Working for free or for a photo credit or with the promise of future work can be dangerous as well. Chances are, the people wanting you to work for free are getting paid. Asking you to work for free in those cases feels insulting, as it should. I always say that a photo credit doesn’t pay my studio mortgage. It is a rare occasion that a well placed photo credit will get you future work. Maybe in an extremely high-end magazine, read by the creative industry, but other than that, you’re just working for free.

A pitch I hear far too often these days is the, “If you give us a break on this one, we’ll make sure you get paid next time.” From personal experience, I can tell you that back in the old days, like the 1980s and 90s, there was a chance that your clients would actually follow through on that promise. Today, I’m sorry to report that loyalty and fairness is extremely rare when it comes to, we’ll take care of you next time. Something I like to say when presented with that kind of offer, is, “Well how about you pay me for this one and next time, I’ll work with you on price.” Funny how that doesn’t go over as well when the situation is flipped.

There is a great Cost of Doing Business Calculator online from the NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) that I used when I was starting out 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.

Day Rate vs. Creative Fee

The terminology you use when negotiating a fair price for your work is important. Clients will often ask me what my day rate is. It can be a good quick gauge for them to determine whether they can afford me or not, but it’s usually more complex than that when you’re figuring out what to charge for any job. 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. I prefer to use the term creative fee which may or may not include the licensing of your photographs.

What we often forget, especially when we’re just starting out, is that the camera(s) you have in your hand needs to be paid for over time. Any film or digital media, even if it’s something you can reuse has to be accounted for. Software that you use, the new Adobe Creative Cloud or maybe only Photoshop or Lightroom or Aperture or whatever you use to edit and develop the final images. Your computer(s). Digital storage. Archive backups. (I currently have nearly 40TB for image storage in my studio.) You must have professional insurance, both for your gear and liability insurance in case something catastrophic happens on your shoot. To get a location permit, most municipal agencies require you to have $1,000,000 of liability insurance before they’ll issue you a $30 permit. All of this is a piece of the creative fee pie in addition to your talent and skills. Who said digital was cheaper than film? They were wrong.

And of course 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 what to call your fee. One common approach to this that I often quote a creative fee in addition to a per photograph fee. The reason for this is so I don’t get into the situation of charging a flat day rate and then spending five days retouching 30 photographs when I was originally told the client needed 10. Charging by the photograph allows you to control how much non-shooting work you’re doing for the money.

Eiffel Tower at Place de Trocadéro, Paris, France

Eiffel Tower at Place de Trocadéro, Paris, France

But it’s still a guessing game. I’ve had shoots were I was told they needed five photos and they ended up only buying one. You have to try to set your fees so it’s worth your time even if they choose to buy just one image. It certainly helps if you can wow them with many incredible images, so that doesn’t become an issue.

One more thing. When someone asks for your creative fee or day rate, you don’t have to give them a number immediately. I always delay a direct answer to that question by saying it depends on the details of the job, because even though I probably could make a pretty good instant guess at what I should charge even with minimal information, I’ve made the mistake of underestimating my fee , giving an off guard quote before getting a complete view of the scope of the project. And I was stuck and barely broke even on expenses. Even giving them a ballpark figure can lock you in uncomfortably once the details begin to unfold. Your clients are under pressure to get numbers together as quickly as possible, but you should try to get as much information as possible, including asking if they have a budget in mind (they often don’t or won’t tell you), but it’s worth a shot.

Also, if the scope of a project substantially changes after you agree on an estimate and are in the middle of production, there’s a thing called a change order. You should immediately let the client know you feel the project perimeters have changed, beyond reasonable tweaks here and there and the project fee needs to be adjusted. You should submit a change order so you have something in writing to protect you both in those instances. That’s another reason spelling out details and expectations in advance in the work contract is so important. Sometimes the clients’ client will make a huge concept change long after it’s convenient in the middle of the shoot. It happens. The more you have in writing, the better you can protect the success of the project and your sanity.


Stills vs. Motion

This is a tricky subject. Another area where historically, the lines were crystal clear and now it’s like looking through a jar of mud. No one has any good answers to the question of what to charge when you’re creating both stills and motion photography at the same time on any given project. We’re all feeling around in the dark on this one at the moment.

In the past, if I was shooting motion, being hired as a director or DP (director of photography) for a commercial project, it was work for hire. In other words, I didn’t have any claim to copyright of any of the motion film images. The client owned what I shot. That was how it always was since directors were first paid for their motion picture work. It didn’t matter whether the film was for advertising or narrative film for a studio. You got a fee for your time and that was that. A very good fee usually, when compared with still photographers, but nothing extra.

A bird flies over the South Branch of the Chicago River near the Monroe Avenue bridge

A bird flies over the South Branch of the Chicago River near the Monroe Avenue bridge

If a client wanted still photographs of the production, a separate photographer was hired to shoot stills during rehearsal takes or in some cases, a device called a blimp was installed on the still camera, preventing the shutter clicking and other camera noise from getting picked up by the actors’ microphones while the actual filming was taking place.

The director and/or DP would get their fee for the days work and the photographer would have negotiated a creative fee and any licensing fees for the images the studio or client chose to use. The photographer might retain copyright or have chosen to sell copyright to the studio and become a work for hire vendor. The point is that motion and still photography fees were negotiated in two different ways.

Sometimes a client or studio might create still images from the motion picture film frames without the need for separate still photography. However a frame of 35mm motion picture film is actually smaller than a 35mm still frame because the former is framed with the film sprocket holes are on the side of the frame while a still 35mm frame is rotated so that the film sprocket holes are at the top and bottom of the frame. A motion picture frame actually has less resolution than a still frame has. The difference is larger still if the film was being shot on 16mm film as many advertising was or if the photographer was using a much larger medium format camera for the still photography. Making a still image from motion picture film instead of using a true still photographic image was possible, but the quality wasn’t as good.

As advertising began to shoot with early HD cameras, a screen grab of the digital frame was even lower resolution than motion picture film and not large enough for the higher dots per inch requirements of print. There was no way to use HD footage for still images with any quality.

The need for a separate still photographer remained if the client or studio wanted high quality still images.

Today, with new camera technology, it’s possible create both high-resolution still images and motion footage from the same digital camera. Some digital motion cameras shoot high enough resolution in motion that grabbing a still from the motion footage can look as good as a still film frame used to. There are issues with shutter speed and motion blur, but it’s technically possible when there is not a lot of quick movement. Even when I’m shooting motion on a DSLR camera where the motion footage has a resolution similar to HD footage and not good enough for print, I can switch a few camera settings and make separate high-resolution still images with the same camera in between takes.

So in those cases, am I a still photographer or a director of photography? The answer is, I’m both.

How do we come up with a fee for that role? The stills I make, either from grabs from the motion footage or when I switch and use the same camera for stills, should they be licensed in the traditional photography sense or are they considered work for hire in the traditional director of photography sense? My clients would pick work for hire, of course and avoid the licensing issue entirely. But they’re getting two for the price of one already with having the same photographer/cinematographer shoot both the still and motion. Shouldn’t they want to pass the savings along? Haha. I know. That was pretty funny.

Rainy Day on Lincoln Park path, Chicago, IL, USA

Rainy Day on Lincoln Park path, Chicago, IL, USA

Since I’ve had to deal with that question already in the past few years, I’ve been trying to break each project down into the dominant genre. In other words, is the project mainly a motion shoot with a few stills here and there or is it primarily a still job where we also fire off a few seconds of video for the behind the scenes web video? Based on that, I can decide which fee model to use. But when it’s split down the middle, it gets complicated.

Truthfully it’s not as efficient to use one camera to shoot motion and stills. I find I’m in a different head space depending on whether I’m shooting motion or stills. This next bit is overly simplified, but even though I’m still looking for good composition either way, for stills I’m looking for moments. With motion I’m look for pacing and visual flow. Similar but different. It takes me a minute or to switch head spaces if I want to create my best work in each discipline.

I’m sure the discussion will continue in the coming years, but we should be prepared to push back if the balance of fair pay for our increasingly larger skill set starts to get too far out of whack. Still or motion, as professionals, we’re creating compelling quality visual content and that has value that must be respected.


One Simple Pricing Example: A Model’s Portfolio Shoot

Back to stills only for a moment. A while back, a photography colleague and friend had some questions for me about how to price a model portfolio shoot. A model wanted to hire him to shoot photographs of her for her portfolio. He is an established fine art photographer and well-recognized for his work in photography books and fine art galleries. He usually hired the models or worked out a Trade for Images barter. But this was an area where he was a little lost as to what to charge in this situation where the model was hiring him.

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 online portfolios and what-not. If she want prints or more finished images 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 at least one photograph per hour unless there is something complicated about the image.

Face in Darkness

Face in Darkness

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.

And finally, even in this situation, you have to at least consider any licensing of the photos. You should always retain copyright, but will you allow her to sell your image of her on a poster, for example? 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.

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 and special. My goal is not to create a photograph that is simply beautiful, but one that resonates with the viewer. One that makes a personal connection with the viewer. I make my subjects feel comfortable and that makes it possible for me to capture who they really are or what they wish to convey, because they trust me. 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

Tara Shoreline Curves at Playa las Palmas

Tara – Shoreline Curves at Playa las Palmas

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.

Always make sure your website portfolio is updated, current and brimming with inspiring imagery. It’s the best way for people to discover you. Good luck out there!

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14 thoughts

  1. Wow, I really appreciate this post, thank you! I am a student photographer and researching ways to start out. It’s been hard for me to find clear answers on pricing.

  2. Hi Billy, appreciate you sharing your experience and wisdom on this often-confusing subject area! From what I’ve seen your update is spot on in terms of clients wanting less defined usage of images and the drivers for that. Thanks again!

  3. I was hoping to find some hard numbers in your insightful article that could help me to figure out a price for a photo shoot that my neighbor has asked me to do. Now I am more confused than ever, but it’s ok. As you mention I have to keep researching the subject and eventually I will come up with a figure that it’s a balance between what this client can afford and a fare photographic fee.

  4. Hi, Billy, I need your thoughts on the following: I am a part-time lecturer in English with no contract job. I love photography and I have a website where I take photos and interview people. Recently I have been collaborating with my university on the production of a play as a dramaturg (for free) and I also took pictures of the rehearsals and then the press photos.

    I got an email that they want me for an hour to take photos next week for theatre week. They are giving me 50 euros. Am I right in considering this as a cheap deal, considering I have to drive 40 minutes & 40 minutes and then stay an extra hour to work on the photos and another to upload them?

    Please, tell me what you think I should do at your earliest convenience. I would appreciate it

    best t

  5. T, That’s a difficult question to answer and I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. 50€ does seem like a small amount of money to pay for your work, regardless of whether you’re an amateur or not. As I mentioned in the blog post, photographers have to not only take into consideration their shooting time, but also the years of experience that allow them to make photographs, even if the actual shooting only takes an hour or a few minutes.

    The question remains, are they hiring you for your particular expertise, or are they simply hiring “a photographer?” And by that I mean, *any* photographer. No is a wonderfully powerful word for any artist. Each must make their own determination about whether something is worth the money or not. I think perhaps in asking the question you have asked here, you’ve already answered your question.

    Part of our job as photographer is to educate those who would hire us as to what our value is. You’re value to them is exactly how much you value your own time, expertise and vision. Only you can determine that.

    But to simply answer your question, no, I think 50€ is far, far too low a price to pay for what you’ve described.

  6. Beautiful Billy. Thank you 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your writings. You’ve made a lot of my “I wonder…” questions become clarity. Thanks again 🙂

  7. Pingback: Billy Sheahan Photography Blog | Billy's Freelance Survival Guide - Celebrating Independence Day Weekend - Billy Sheahan Photography Blog

  8. This is the most inspiring piece I’ve read on working as a photographer in a long time. Thank you for your insight as I’m about to write a proposal for the biggest photo job of my life! Thank you.

  9. Pingback: I don’t work for free | Sophia Hsin

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