A Practical Guide to (Ack!) Pricing for Professional Photographers

Pricing. Ugh.  That’s what I hear a lot in the photography world when it comes go having to figure out what to charge.  I’ve done the same thing.  I do love business planning, but I often find pricing the most challenging. Not because I don’t think I’m worth it, but I get worried no one will pay what I charge!  I get worried that if I tell someone it will cost XXXX to shoot their wedding, they’ll run away screaming and yelling.

Before I offer advice, a disclaimer: This is an article for Professional Photographers, addressing only the business planning aspect, and for those who already own their own business, and have the technical side of photography down.  This is not for those photographers who are just starting to dabble in photography, and don’t know how to take great photos.  Pricing can be a tricky thing, but I’m writing this from the perspective that you take amazing photographs and you want to grow your business as fast as possible.  This article assumes you know business basics, like Cost of Goods Sold, and that you pay taxes.  If you don’t, this article may not be for you.

Eight Questions to Consider First

To start off with pricing, we actually have to step back a little and figure out a few other things.

  1. How many hours a week do you want to work?
  2. If you shoot weddings, how many weekends do you want to work?
  3. If you shoot weddings, how many hours per wedding do you work? This includes ALL time, including client meetings, engagement shoot, shooting the wedding, culling, editing, album design, and every other thing that goes into this.
  4. How much does it cost you per wedding? Album, assistant, etc. This is your Cost of Goods.
  5. If you shoot portraits, how many sessions a week can you handle?
  6. If you shoot portraits, how many hours per session do you work? This includes ALL time, including client meetings or phone calls, doing the session, culling, editing, album design, ordering the products, and anything else you do.
  7. How much does it cost you per photo shoot? This is your Cost of Goods.
  8. How much take-home pay do you want to have per year?

So, for example, say I want to take home $100,000 per year and I’m primarily a wedding photographer.  As a general business rule, your cost of goods will run you around 33 percent for a small business photographer, your taxes and overhead another 33 percent, and your profit will be the remaining 33 percent.  Basically, it’s one-third Cost of Goods, one-third taxes, running your business and one third take-home pay. To bring home 100,000, that means I would have to have gross sales of $300,000.

Next, How to Get There

If I am to have gross sales of $300,000, and I don’t care if I work every weekend of the year, I could shoot 52 weddings at $5,769.00 each, and I’d be set.  Unfortunately, I really don’t care to work that much, so say my goal is to shoot only 30 weddings a year.  If that’s the case and I still only wanted to shoot weddings, I would have to charge $10,000 to make my $300,000 in gross sales.

If I was doing a portrait-only business and wanted to bring in $300,000 in sales per year and I wanted to make $1,000 per shoot, I would have to do 300 sessions, which is almost 6 per week.  However, if I could bring my average sale to $2,000, I would have to shoot only 2.5 per week in order to make it.

If I shot weddings and portraits and wanted to have half my income come from weddings and half from portraits, I could photograph 30 weddings at $5,000 each and 1.5 portrait sessions per week at an average sale of $2,000.

I realize this might be a little overwhelming, but start where you are right now, and think about where you want to be in five years. Now make a path from here to there. For instance, right now maybe you’re charging $2,000 or $3,000 for a wedding. Now you know you need to be moving up to $5,000 or $10,000 so you can start increasing your pricing slowly. This will help give you the confidence you need to know, “Yes, this is what I want to do, because in five years, I’m going to be charging xxxx per wedding, and making xxxx per portrait shoot.”

4 Responses to “A Practical Guide to (Ack!) Pricing for Professional Photographers”

  1. Susie, the 3:1 (gross to take home) paragraph was an eye opener the first time I saw it (years ago). This is a great reminder for business professionals and aspiring professionals looking for pricing direction.

  2. 'General Business Rules' are no way to calculate expenses. Sorry, but the 3:1 rule gets everything completely backwards. Stop and think about that rule for a second—it is telling you that your expenses are a function of how much profit you want to make. But that's ridiculous. Your expenses are a function of how much you spend on your business, which is independent of your wished-for salary, and varies considerably from industry to industry and even within businesses in the same industry. You need to figure out your actual cost of doing business. Then if you want more take home pay you can either charge more, shoot more, or find ways to reduce your expenses.

    Also basing prices entirely on your cost of doing business is insufficient. It ignores the market, your competition, and the fact that your work might be more valuable than a simple multiple of your expenses in some cases.

    MIT's Open Courseware has a course on the pricing. The lecture notes include the basics, as well as an introduction to market segmentation and non-linear pricing. Maybe a better place to start.

  3. Mark, I've seen the 3:1 ratio based a survey of professional photographers. Sure, some can be higher or lower. Nowhere does she mention it as a method to calculate expenses. Rather, it's a placeholder when trying to understand the difference between what you bring home versus what you gross. Sure, if your expenses are lower, you take more home!

    This is a blog article, and a good one. It's not meant to replace a business course from MIT.

  4. Unfortunately, this advice relates to "back in the day," Before amateurs had flooded the market and called themselves pros because they had cameras and business cards. And visually handicapped buyers flocked to them because they are so cheap.
    There is only one criteria for pricing. What the market will pay. Your desires, needs etc are irrelevant. A better way to analyze would be to determine what the going rate is for what you do and determine whether you can conceive of living on that amount of money. You are not going to get the market to meet your expectations/demands.

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