Photographers, Stop Leaving Money on the Table

If you want to stir up a hornet’s nest online, start a debate between pro and amateur/aspiring/prosumer photographers about charging a reasonable price for your work.

Whenever I take the “pro” side in this debate, I usually get responses like this one (from the comments on my “12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free – and Why They’re Bogus” post):

What a sad state the industry is in when “professionals” start publicly making excuses and pointing fingers because they can’t make ends meet. The days of cheap, high quality gear are here. Get over it … If you think some teenager with a Digital Rebel is destroying your customer base, then you’d probably be better off spending your time finding ways to improve, and quit crying about it.

This argument entirely misses the point. It’s not about the gear. It’s not even about the “teenager.” It’s about correcting common misconceptions about the value of photography, particularly among customers.

And it’s about teaching the so-called “noobs” to stop leaving money on the table.

Valuing Your Work

You know what often distinguishes a pro from a wannabe pro? It’s not just the work — it’s understanding the value of the work.

A product shot on white seamless? It might seem simple, but it’s not. It takes time and effort to do it right.

What about transfer edges? Highlight shapes? Angle/perspective? I could provide a hundred examples like this. Unless you know what’s involved, it’s easy to underestimate the job.

The same goes for clients — which is why part of our responsibility is to educate them.

Case in point: a client recently drove a long distance to come to my studio for a product shot. At the end of the session, he commented that he had no idea how much work went into doing my job right.

The client had expected it to take me an hour to shoot four products. It wound up taking seven hours, including product-build time. Because he was able to see what was involved, he gained a better understanding of the value of the work.

Too many part-time or aspiring photographers are willing to sell their talents at a price that doesn’t make sense economically. This hurts all photographers because it devalues photography in the eyes of clients.

Communicating Your Value

So, if you are a “noob,” why not spend a little less time shooting for nothing or next to nothing, and a little more time figuring out how to price and market your work to create a sustainable business?

When you bid on a project, often a client does not know what goes into a price.

A shoot fee, and then licensing? “I thought I owned it,” the client might counter.

A post-production charge? “Why do you have to ‘fix’ your photos?” you might be asked.

Don’t just shrug your shoulders and give in. Take the time to teach the client about how you work and why you work that way. And don’t back down.

Sticking to Your Price

Or say the client tells you, “I can’t pay $2,500; my budget is only $1,800.” What do you do?

Well, assuming you want the job at that price, you shouldn’t simply say, “OK, I’ll do it!” You need to take something out of your bid — e.g., shooting fewer images/set-ups, using a single person for hair and makeup/stylist, or limiting the rights package a bit more.

Why do this? Because it enables you to negotiate on price without devaluing your services.

Yes, sometimes you will have to say “no.” “No” is an empowering word; don’t be afraid to use it.

If you end up turning down a job, a nice way to close the conversation is by telling the prospect, “If something goes wrong with the lower-cost photographer you choose, I’ll be happy to help you out with a re-shoot.”

I know, it’s never fun to turn down work. But take comfort in a fact that is true across all industries: customers who price shop are the least loyal to your business — and therefore, the least valuable to you over the long term.

20 Responses to “Photographers, Stop Leaving Money on the Table”

  1. This is ridiculous. The market is the market, you will not change the market. You only adjust to it and prove your value to it.

  2. Don't understand the previous commenter. There doesn't seem to be anything "ridiculous" in this post. Just seems like another well-thought-out post from Mr. Harrington, a talented photographer and someone with a good head for this business. I've seen him speak in Chicago and he always makes good points. Regardless of experience level, photographers need to understand the client's value in the work they do, the value they themselves place on the work they do, and the budget the client is trying to work with. No one should ever feel taken advantage of, and as Mr. Harrington says, no money should be "left on the table." Good post, Sir.
    Troy Freund
    Milwaukee, WI

  3. Ryan, people like you are the ones who devalue the market. If your photography is up to par, you do control parts of the market. You control your local market more than you think. If a client goes to three photographers who all quote $1000, then that's going to show that value in the shoot. In my city I know of only four major photographers and they're all well aware of the value of photography - that's why it's not hard to quote a job out at a reasonable price. Because clients are already expecting the prices to be reasonable across the boards.

  4. The market is the market -- but it's up to you whether you want to be part of a commodity market or whether you want to stand above that market. And how customer perceptions are managed plays a big part in that. Check out this article on how the price of wine changes perceptions of the value of wine, independent of the wine's actual value:

  5. Nice post, we defiantly need to educate our clients when it comes to all of the work that goes into our shoots from start to finish. Our time doesn't start when clients walk on set and end when they walk out the door.

  6. Well. I just lost a job to an established photographer who sent in an estimate at 1/3 to 1/4 the price of the one that I sent. I was flabbergasted that this guy is low balling like this. Very disheartening and hard to fight against.

  7. "The market is the market, you will not change the market."

    Sure you will. Customers pay for value. And good customers willingly pay more money for greater value, but only if they perceive that greater value. "The market is the market" only for price-sensitive customers who approach photographs as commodities. Price-sensitive customers tend not to be good customers, and harder to sway. But if all you've got are price-sensitive customers convinced your service is a commodity, then get better customers, learn to sell better, or find another line of work.

  8. My company is getting a bunch of offers like this. A lot of - "I don't want to go over budget", "can you shoot as a in-kind sponsorship", etc, etc. There is an event that is happening for Halloween that has over $5,000 worth of door prizes and is being held at a 11,000 sq mansion but they want us to shot it as a "in-kind sponsorship". Event planners are taking us for granted & as this article states - we have photogs that are shooting for next to nothing & that is making it hard for the photogs who are shooting to live.

  9. Andre said it right on. Some, not all, customers DO pay for perceived value, whether they're buying imagery, cars or clothes. Quality costs, but of course, sometimes a client's budget restricts how much they can spend on our photography. Finding and retaining these customers is key towards building a solid business.

    That's where good negotiation and good client relationships come in, AND education of the newer photographers, so that we're not always faced with the possibility of being severely undercut.

    Great post, John.

  10. Another well thought out and sensible blog post.

  11. To Ryan saying: The market is the market, you will not change the market. You only adjust to it and prove your value to it.

    Dear Ryan, imho this is a very wrong and dangerous perception of the market. Market is a human creation, it has no life or character that isn't the one of the human involved.

    Thus: WE are the market and we will change it to our pleasing. If you will just adjust you will at last simply be run over.

    Please think before insulting me in response. I meant to GIVE you something wich I thought was important for all people to finally understand.
    (and 'they' are doing everything to make you believe otherwise)


  12. John another great blog from you.. I spend my time getting so frustrated with 'noobs' as you call them trying to educate them the 'value' of their skills and to ensure that they are paid correctly.

    I give them template 'licences' to use only to find they give away the copyright simply because the client asked for it and they never even charged a premium for the copyright.......

    As a member of Pro-Imaging we have a team of people that constantly battle against photographic competition organisers that try and keep the copyright of images entered (Pro & Am) and have a 'Bill of Rights' we try to get organisers to sign up to so it is fair for all....

  13. Okay, I am not going to start any battles. How do you recommend amateur photographers charge for their work? I quickly googled this, to see what other people suggested, and found a lot of varied answers. By the hour? Flat rates? Should the customers see a break down of the charges (if so, what should some of the break down charges be)? Then the ranges are crazy, some places say amateurs should not be charging more than $80/hour while others say you should start at at least $100/hour (if we should even be thinking in hours). I searched this site, to see if it offered any help for amateurs with pricing, but only found pricing help for established photographers (unless of course we are supposed to start with professional prices.. in which case I think you are setting up people for failure, which may or may not be a good thing).
    Instead of making another post about how free photographers are ruining pros, a more pro-active approach would be help, tips and suggestions for amateur pricing and marketing. This would be significantly less frustrating for the free photographers who probably feel that you are attacking them personally, and less frustrating for the pros who keep replying the same things over and over.

  14. When you talk about an amateur photographer I'm assuming you are talking about one who went to an accredited school to learn about photography and graduated/finished. With that concept in mind, the next step would be to develop your business and marketing plan. It should be your bible as you grow as a professional photographer. What people do you want to photograph? What product do you want to photography? What price do other professional photographers in your area charge ? Where are you going to be a photographer? (Home or retail studio)

    I would contact your local chamber of commerce and take a course on how to start a business. Then I would join a business networking group. Remember, people won't care that you are a new photographer. They only care that the photographs you take (you must have some from going to school) are good quality and show your ability. As you network and show your work, your value as a photographer will be recognized and price will be what you want it to be to cover your costs (cost of sales) and what you believe you are worth per hour or per job.

  15. sweatereyes,

    OK here is your answer. Professional Photography has a value. It doesn't matter how many years you have in business or how many awards you have.

    The value is the cost of doing business(overhead, sales staff, utilities, etc), plus the cost of the shoot(models, mua, props, expendables, studio rental, lights,,retouchers, post and pre production, etc.), plus the cost of the talent (photographer), plus the cost of the licensing, plus 10% of the total for the profit of taking the risk of being in business for yourself and risking your venture capital.

    Once you know that number, divide by the number of jobs add any job related specifics and that is the price. You can figure out any way you want to come up with factors such as hourly, daily, image fee's or whatever floats your boat.

    Now you say beginners don't have sales staff. WRONG! They do, it is themselves and when they are too busy to do it, due to other demands, they either hire someone else or it doesn't get done.

    So you may as well plan for that expense and start charging for it now. Most don't and wonder why they can't make ends meet. They only charge for the shoot time and yet still do all the other work.

  16. Great post. I hope that all the Ryans in the world realize that they are not only hurting others but they are ultimately hurting themselves. If we have to overcome obstacles such as the one described in this post he will have to overcome it with more adversity as he will not understand what his actions created.

    Eventually, he'll leave the industry and tell stories of how he was once a photographer but couldn't make it in such a difficult industry.

  17. So much good information. I am sharing this link with my college students. The sooner they understand the business side of photography, the better for everyone in the industry.

  18. "A shoot fee, and then licensing? “I thought I owned it,” the client might counter."

    What is a good way to answer this? I know it's good practice to do it, and I do it, but I never know how to explain it so the customer actually gets it.

  19. Just to kind of ground and bottom line everyone... Ryan doesn't care if he is hurting anyone. I don't care if my rates hurt other photographers around me as I am a business and i price my services at what i feel i should be pricing. If you can up sell your process, kudos to you! The bottem line is all a Client cares about is the finished product, the time and involvement they have to have. I have worked on some AB and Pepsi shoots which bring very very high rates, They dont care how you do it, they just want their end product. Mind you that is product photography and not wedding photography as those are two different animals all together. But if you are losing Clients to a photographer that is charging 300 bucks or less for a shoot, and you are a professional photographer, you really should define Professional first. Just because you do it for a living doesn't make you a professional. I have been paid to teach people how to use their new prosumer SLR camera that spend 2 hours with me and are better photographers in every aspect than some of the work i come across by "Professional" photographers... Clients shop for a certain quality of work, and if someone can shoot the same quality of work and you and turn a profit for 1/4 your rate... maybe you need to re-evaluate how you do business. Now thats not to say that you should be charging 300 as well, but maybe your complacent...

  20. Thank You Thank You!

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