The dilemma of "what should you charge"??

This is probably the absolute hardest part of being a business owner.  It is something I have wrestled with (and continue to wrestle with) since I decided to start my business.  How much should I charge?

There are a plethora of articles on pricing photography and why custom photography costs so much more than getting portraits at your average chain studio.   But here is my sorted pricing story.....

When I started out, I charged nothing.  I was working on improving my work and gaining experience.  So I took photos for free, gave a CD and was absolutely thrilled when my "clients" loved my pictures.  I was even more thrilled when more inquiries for free pictures came in.  I couldn't believe someone thought I did a good enough job that they would ask me to photograph their family.

After about 6 months, I decided I needed to start charging something.   I love taking photos, but I obviously can't continue to do it for nothing.  So I charged $50 and included the CD of images.  And I still continued to get inquiries!  I was thrilled and honored to photograph all these clients.  And all these clients provided me with invaluable experience.  And they were paying me!!!  Whoo Hoo!!!!

After another 6 months, I realized I needed to get serious.  My current pricing was actually causing me to lose money.  At $50 per client, I was definitely not profitable.

I started adding it all up to see exactly how much time and money do I invest in every client.  Really sitting down to evaluate the exact time and money that actually goes into running your business can be eye opening.

First there is the actual session.  I spent about 2 hrs photographing my clients.  But then there is the travel time (maybe another 30 minutes, often more).  And my culling and editing time - another 3 - 5 hrs.   So that can total  up to 10 hrs per client, at $50 per client, results in a $5/hr job.  Less than minimum wage.  Hmm.  Not so great anymore.

But then you need to remember that running a business requires many hours of just generating business - marketing to new clients, emailing clients, answering questions, meeting with clients in person etc.  So my $5/hr estimate is still a bit of a overestimate.

But of course, it isn't just my time, it is more. A LOT more.

There are my direct costs for each client - gas and wear and tear on vehicles to travel to each session,  all the office supplies and the postage.    And, of course, there are obviously the product costs - the actual cost of the product and the time to order the products and package the products and deliver or mail the final products.

I also want to use high quality equipment so my final images can be much more than just "snapshots".   I started out with an entry level SLR camera.  Which was fine for starting out.  But when I started taking on weddings, I realized I can't agree to capture someone's most important moments of their life with a camera that can't handle the low light and fast action of a ceremony and reception.   And I upgraded to a professional SLR camera with high quality lenses.  Not cheap.  Actually a little more costly than our last [well-used] car.  And you can't shoot a wedding without backup equipment.  At least, you really REALLY shouldn't.  So I have backups of EVERYTHING - extra camera, extra lenses, flashes, batteries......

So my fees need to cover not only my time and my direct costs, but the costs for my cameras and lenses and all the other items needed to produce professional photos -  CF cards, flashes, batteries, props, backdrops.  And then, of course, my "darkroom" which consists of my computer, and all my computer programs.  Again, not cheap.

And then I need a website.  I had a free one for a while, but I feel that if you want to be a professional, you need to present your images in the most professional way possible.  There are definitely some photographers who do a great job in designing their free website or blog.  I'm definitely not one of them.  So I purchased a website and a blog and pay monthly fees for hosting.

Oh - there is also continuing education.  I want to be the best photographer I can.  I refuse to stop learning and improving.  EVER.  So I spend countless hours studying and practicing my techniques.  And I have attended and will continue to attend workshops and seminars that are invaluable in improving my skills and confidence.   And this year I have plans to do much more of the same.

And last, but not least, there are taxes.  Yes, if you are running a business, you better have a tax ID number and you better be paying Uncle Sam.  So if I am charging $50 per session, I can just take 1/3 of that off the top for taxes.  That leaves me with about $35 for way more than 10 hrs of work and not even close to being able to cover any of my costs.

Oops - one last item - insurance.  Yup, you need that too.

You also need to take into consideration the photographer's talent and style and what goes into developing your own style and improving your techniques.  But to keep things a little more simple, I am not going to go into that facet and just keep my discussion on just time and money.

It is funny, when you are 15 and want some extra money, you babysit.  You never would think of offering to babysit for free because you haven't done it before and you want the 'experience'.  And, honestly, most teenage babysitters are bringing in way more $ per hour than your average "portfolio building" photographer.    I am not why photographers feel their time is worth so little, but it happens all the time. I did it.  Many others will do it too.  And you will never be short of clients thrilled with you and your bargain basement prices.  Unfortunately, those photographers are showing that they place little value on their work and their product when they don't charge a price that even enables them earn minimum wage.

With the proliferation of lower cost, higher quality digital cameras, and the ability to set up a free Facebook business page, it is very easy to start your business.   But as we all know, having a great camera does not mean you will create beautiful images.  Just as having a great paintbrush won't make you an artist, or having the best set of golf clubs isn't going turn you into Tiger Woods.  (OK, maybe bad example....but you get the drift.)  It takes way more than the right equipment.  It takes talent, and lots of hard work and a good business sense.

It is nice to have lots of clients.  It is wonderful to feel the love.  But the real test is whether your clients will still love you when you start charging a fair price.  A price where you can continue to deliver the best product and the best service and a price where you have a much better chance of being able to stay in business for years to come.  Because, the #1 reason why photographers fail is lack of business sense.  Eighty-five percent of all photography businesses fail after the first couple years.  You have to admit,  THAT is a scary statistic.

And, the point of this post?  Well, I guess I offer some explanation of why my sessions require more than just a $50 investment.  And maybe to encourage other photographers to have a bit more courage to charge what they are worth and to have a bit more respect for what they do.   Or to at least charge more than the local babysitter.

And if you want to read other articles or guidelines on pricing:

For clients, there is this article -  Why does custom photography cost more? A great website explaining exactly what goes into custom photography (as opposed to chain studio photography, e.g. Olan Mills, Sears etc etc).

And for photographers, there are tons of pricing articles and guides like THIS ONE or THIS ONE .  Both articles were features on MCP Actions blog which is is a wonderful resource for any photographer.  Jodi has great articles, great actions available for purchase (and a few free ones) and just a plethora of tips and advice.

If you want to invest in a really great pricing guide, you can purchase Easy As Pie.   I did and I absolutely LOVE this guide and have read and re-read it countless times.  It is a bit pricey, but worth every penny.  If you are a wedding photographer, Stacey Reeves has an incredible pricing guide HERE that is free to download!

And the wonderful Zack Arias wrote THIS article late last year about his journey in pricing.  Definitely a must read for photographers.

And who wants a post on a photography blog without a photo? So here is are some views of my beloved Presque Isle Beach - in the depths of winter. And here's hoping that we will be seeing some blue water soon!!!!


Until next time!