I wrote this several years ago for a big photography portal, and it was one of the most popular posts on there, like EVER. But since this photography portal is no more, and I still see this question popping up every day in various photographer groups I’m in, I thought I’d post it again – with some changes to reflect what I’ve learned since :)
So here it goes.
The first time I was asked to photograph a wedding I nervously muttered: “well… um… £250… if that’s not too much?”. And that was for a full day coverage and a trash the dress shoot two weeks later (the one that lasted from 6am to 6pm and spanned 3 different locations). Plus all the edited files with a print release. And that wasn’t even a very close friend – just a good acquaintance who I’d practised my first portraits on.
Don’t hate: I was absolutely clueless. I simply enjoyed taking pictures. The very fact that people trusted me to document their wedding or create their portraits was compensation good enough. And there was no shortage of people asking me to photograph them. For free, of course.
With a hindsight, I think I should have stopped doing free work much earlier than I did. Yet it was only after a couple of years of not charging, around 2009, that I started taking my photography seriously enough to think that I could earn a living from it. Being made redundant and seeing my bank balance diminishing very quickly only made me think harder about pricing my services.
What should I charge? What would people realistically pay for my services and my talent? Am I even talented enough to charge anything? Can people see the difference between my work and their own snapshots? Should I lower my prices? Should I raise my prices? Why does this photographer charge £50 session fee and that one – £500? Where do I fit in?
I’ll attempt to answer some of these questions here.
When you’re just learning you’ll photograph for free most of the time. There’s simply no other way to learn. But there comes a point when you need to stop doing free work and start charging. Do it as soon as you can. Once you know your f-stops and your shutter speeds (more or less), even if you’re still not completely comfortable with the manual mode (I’ll tell you a secret – psst! – I still mostly shoot in Aperture Priority and I like it that way!) – start charging. You may think you’re still not good enough, but the truth is that you’re definitely better than someone who only uses a point and shoot in fully automatic mode and has that little flash thingy pop up every time they press the shutter button.
It doesn’t have to be much – charge to cover your costs and your time. The ironic thing is that people will often appreciate your work more if they paid for it, and take it for granted (and demand even more) if it’s free.
There will always be situations when you offer your services for free: maybe it’s for a good cause, or maybe it’s a great marketing opportunity that will bring you more business. But make it an exception, not a rule.
So what should you charge?
Once you made a decision to stop doing free work, you need to figure out what to charge. And the first steps towards establishing your prices have very little to do with your talent, experience or what Joe down the road charges for his services.
It’s very simple: your minimum fee should at least cover your costs. And that’s not just obvious expenses directly related to one particular job, like equipment hire or travel (although they too have to be accounted for).
Number-crunching is my least favourite thing in the world (after spiders), and if you’re anything like me you’ll procrastinate sorting it out for ages. But for your own good it’s got to be done. Not tomorrow, today. So take a deep breath and open up that spreadsheet! Hang on in there, I know just a sound of it is painful but it’ll be over soon!
To start with, there are two things you need to figure out: your Cost of Living and Cost of Running Business.
Cost of Living is the sum of all your expenses that enable you to have somewhere to live and have something to eat. So add up all your monthly outgoings: rent or mortgage, bills, utilities, travel, groceries (nope, visits to fancy restaurants don’t count), any other essential payments.
Cost of Running Business is just that – the money you need to spend to be able to do what you do. You’d be surprised how much it amounts to, even if you’re working out of your bedroom. Add up things like hardware maintenance, any necessary upgrades to equipment, insurance (yes you need insurance, and it costs money!), stationery, subscriptions (things like online backup, CRM systems, etc), hosting fees, memberships, books, travel, props, education (that Creative Live class you’ve been eyeing out for ages goes here)… You get the idea.
Now multiply your monthly Cost of Living and Cost of Running Business by 12 (or just look at Cost of Running Business if you do photography in addition to your full-time job that covers your Cost of Living), and it’s how much you need to make per year to just cover your costs and not have anything left over. Divide it by a number of sessions you want (or can realistically have) per year, and you have your absolute minimum, no-money-left-for-going-out-with-friends-or-in-fact-anything, session fee.
If nothing else, this should be motivation good enough to stop doing free assignments and start charging. But we are not done yet!
Account for your time, too.
None of the above takes into account your time. Do you know how much time you actually spend working on a portrait shoot or a wedding? It’s not just the “face time” – it’s also your travel time, time on the phone with a client, time you spend emailing and time you spend post-processing the images.
The latter will be the most time-consuming thing for most of us. I personally can spend as much as 8 hours culling, post-processing and editing images from a 3 hour portrait shoot. I didn’t know it until I timed myself one day.
It’s easy to lose track when playing with images in Photoshop – so set a timer, and see how long you’ve spent post-processing that quick job for a friend!
Now set you actual session fee.
Once you know the minimum you need to make per session, and how much time you actually spend on each job, you can start putting together prices that will enable you to stay in business, keep you sane and turn you a profit.
Dream big. Think of where you’d like to be in a year, 3 years, 5 years. How many shoots would you like to have per month (the fewer shoots, the more you will need to charge per shoot and vice versa)? What are your ideal clients? How much are they prepared to pay for photographic services?
As a minimum, multiply your costs by 3 (one third for costs, one third for taxes, one third for profit). Or think about what you’d like to make per year on top of you costs (and don’t forget about taxes).
“But there’s no way I can charge THAT much!”
I understand. Once you have all those costs and your time accounted for, and add taxes and profit into equation, your session or hourly fee seems to be too high to even say it out loud. I, for sure, couldn’t.
Take your time to get used to it. Start believing that you’re worth it. And keep perfecting your photography skills. Eventually, you’ll be confident and experienced enough to charge a fair price for your time and talent.
Until then, there’s a trick. If you are a complete newbie, take that ideal session fee of yours and apply a 50% discount (but make sure you are still covering your costs). That’s your portfolio building fee mentioned earlier. Over time, decrease that discount percentage to 25%, 20%, 10% until you are fully comfortable with your skills, have an impressive portfolio and a line of clients wanting you to be their photographer. Then, start charging your full prices (and raise them as you develop your skills even further).
Pricing is an art, and it takes time to perfect it.
There are no rights and wrongs in pricing your services, just as there are no rights and wrongs in photography. Once you know the basic rules, you can start breaking them or being creative with them.
Experiment with your prices. If something doesn’t work or doesn’t seem right, change it. And don’t try to please everyone – you’ll only drive yourself crazy.
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was this: “You don’t have to price yourself for everyone, just for the ones that really want you as their photographer”. Remember that.