Early on in my photography career, I could tell things weren’t working business wise. I had been naive about the volume of clients that I could manage. I underestimated how much time it would take to manage a business and provide a decent level of service to the families who had hired me.
I created my pricing around this unrealistic number of sessions I thought I was going to be able to find and shoot.
When my first fall hit, I never saw my husband.
I had small children and he had a full time job, so when he came home from work, I passed the reins of childrearing over to him.
Sometimes we didn’t talk at all. (no, really)
In an attempt to create a business that allowed me to be home with my children, I had created one that didn’t allow me to nurture my marriage.
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My husband has always been my sounding board. I discussed with him purchasing a much needed new lens or attending a workshop in a far away city. I feel so fortunate that he got REAL with me in that moment. You see, there was no money in the business.
I had worked that hard and hadn’t even paid off the money I had spent building the business!
He suggested that I choose the workshop over the lens and make sure that it was a workshop that taught me how to make money because—and I quote him here—
“I’m tired of working hard to subsidize other people’s family portraits.”
He said that he’d rather make sacrifices as a family, and have me home with my children, than continue on the path I had created.
At the $325/session rate that I was currently charging, he simply could not see a path to success. And, he didn’t think it was fair for either of us to have a hobby that took up 30 hours a week, but brought in no income. I simply had never looked at it that way, but now 10 years later, I am so grateful that he spoke up and set me on a path to creating a realistic, sustainable photography business.
The thing is, back then, there was very little information out there to help those of us starting out find our way. The mentors I found told me what to charge (5x’s what I was currently charging) and didn’t tell me why or how to get there— they just said, that is the amount. And, I listened to them as I had no other options.
Nowadays, things are quite different. There’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know what is going to work for you.
And, quite frankly, a lot of it seems created to support people’s dreams about what a photography business should look like instead of people’s realities.
It’s like educators are afraid to tell the truth, because photographers will feel defeated instead of elevated and inspired. We are all encouraged to be real and authentic in our ‘work,’ but not in talking about what it takes to build a sustainable business. Instead of looking towards everyday, working photographers for the answers, we seek our answers from ‘rock star’ photographers who have incredibly different realities in their businesses than the rest of us.
So, when a good friend and amazing photographer came to me and asked me for help in figuring out her pricing, I decided to just be as real as I could. I honestly looked at what it would take to create the business she had in her mind.
Out of this, my pricing workshop, was born.
What I’ve discovered is that most photographers are under the impression that there is a single way of doing things. That, if they ask a photographer how to price, they should have a simple two sentence answer. It’s like they assume there’s some sort of industry standard. Honestly, I feel like there used to be.
In the last few years, the industry has grown and changed so much, that there are about as many ways to price and set up your business as there are photographers.
So, when people ask, ‘what should my price be?’ — I don’t have an easy answer.
It requires some self-reflection about what you want to offer and how you are going to make things work. As soon as a photographer tells me that they have all the answers, I’ve learned to totally distrust them. We can take the knowledge of how things have always been done and combine them with your own specific needs to determine what will work for you. But, doing this, will require more than a two sentence answer from me and a lot of reflection on your part.
So, how do you price yourself?
Well, it is a complicated equation of figuring out targets and goals, plus how many sessions you’re able to do in a year, what kinds of sessions, what you’re going to offer and so on. That’s really why, it is best to take a class and get some direction and assistance.
1. Get realistic with your financial goals
Most people are not charging enough.
All it takes is a simple math equation to see why.
Let’s say you’re doing a family session for $500/session and it’s all inclusive (meaning, you’re giving them all the files with their session fee). According to the PPA Benchmark Survey*, if you’re a freelance photographer who doesn’t rent or own a retail space, you’ll need to earn just over $100,000 to pay yourself roughly $45,000 after taxes and expenses.
(I’ve rounded these numbers from the real report, but they work for our example here)
If you’re charging $500/session, you’ll need to do 200 sessions to reach that $100,000 total. I’d argue that no one is able to do that many sessions in a year. In fact, when I’ve done polls amongst full time photographers, most have set their manageable number of clients at under 100.
Some high volume photographers will say 115 – 125, but most custom, low volume photographers will tell you closer to 70 (or even less). As you can see, there’s no recipe for success at $500. If you do the math, you’d realistically need to set your rates at closer to $1500/session to begin to see success. Math doesn’t lie. The only way to charge less is to do more sessions, but at a certain point, you will hit the ceiling of what you can handle. Even high volume photographers, session prices average closer to $900-$1000!
That’s a tough number to wrap your head around when most photographers are charging nowhere near that. And, if you’re all inclusive, it’s a tough sell to get clients to commit to that big ol’ number up front without having even seen the photographs.
So, what’s a photographer to do?
2. Separate your time from your art
The first thing to do is to separate your time from your art. It allows you to charge a fee for your time and then lets your clients know that they don’t have to buy the photographs unless they love them.
It doesn’t mean you have to do IPS (in person sales). In fact, I would argue, that most people are super comfortable shopping online, so you should be able to sell prints, products and digital files online with some ease. You just have to be smart about it. You have to allow yourself to be creative in your business the way you are creative in your photography. You have to find what works for you and not worry about what you think ‘the rest of the industry’ is doing.
Once you set up your business with targets that are sustainable and reachable, you can then set out to reach those targets and forget what everyone else is doing.
3. Market Offline
Look beyond social media to find clients. Most of us are much more comfortable hiding behind our computers than we are knocking on doors and cold calling.
This means that when you’re starting out, it’s harder to find clients who are willing to invest that much in your services.
4. Be patient with the process
Most of us underestimate the length of time it takes to build a business. That leads to panic when our schedule isn’t full right away. It takes 3 years to build a sustainable business to a point where it should start to have enough momentum for you to see a decent salary. Sometimes, even takes longer than that. And, we beat ourselves up if it doesn’t happen quickly enough. We expect instant results from every marketing campaign and don’t trust in the time to build the brand awareness that it takes for a client to finally hire you for YOU.
Like the old saying: “slow and steady wins the race!” When you’ve done the math and have a plan that you trust to get you to the finish line, it can help to relieve that sense of panic because you can see the clear path to success.
The first step is to stop looking for easy answers and take the time to do the work to figure out how to make the math work for you.
Guest post writing and images are from photographer, Dana Pugh
About Dana Pugh: Dana Pugh is an award winning family and children’s photographer from Okotoks, Alberta. In 2010, she was named the first ever, international Child Photographer of the Year by the National Association of Professional Children’s Photographers. For that award, one of her images was displayed on a billboard in New York’s Time Square. Since then, she has become known for her quest to capture natural expressions from all of the subjects who step in front of her camera.
She is drawn to the imperfect and the chaos of family life as she believes that is where the true beauty of life resides. Recently, she has become known for speaking out about female photographer’s sense of self worth and teaches business courses designed to help family photographers earn a decent income for the time they spend away from their own families.