So often as a professional photographer, I meet people who tell me I have their dream job. “I love photography!” they tell me. “I really want to start my own photography business!” The same words came from my own mouth 10 years ago as I miserably worked second and third shift hours as an operational meteorologist. All the while, I had done my research and knew that the life of a photographer would be more desk work than shooting, spending more time toiling away at my computer than looking through my viewfinder. I was okay with that, and now as a professional, I actually enjoy running my own business, back-end duties included.
My journey from meteorologist to photographer was a slow one. It took years of practice and referring to photography as a hobby before I was ever comfortable enough to take on clients. And it took time after that point to actually start charging them. Eventually, I moved away from “portfolio building” pricing to “this is my job and I have to pay the bills” pricing. Or so I thought.
I was afraid of charging more than my peers.
In the early stages of my photography business, I downloaded a popular pricing guide and worked my way through it. The numbers that came out were quite shocking, and as a new business owner, I felt uncomfortable charging that much. So I made some tweaks, assuring that I was covering my expenses while still remaining affordable. “Other photographers charge $500 for a simple session and $40 for a print, but that won’t be me,” I thought.
Despite having spent the time to calculate my COGS (cost of goods sold), I slashed those prices down. I prided myself on being a reasonably priced (but not cheap) photographer; the one who hoped people would order professional prints from me, yet one who also included the digital files because that’s what the people wanted. I’d effectively weeded out the bargain hunters, but still remained accessible for the masses.
Every few months I would have to reassess my photography pricing and make changes as needed. I knew I needed to be charging more, but I didn’t want to be charging more than my peers. My fear of being on the wrong end of the “Ugh, photographers are crazy to charge that much for a few hours of work!” and “Who does she think she is?!!” comments had driven me to running my photography business like a non-profit. And as we all know, pricing photography this way is not sustainable, and I was beginning to feel the effects as I gave in to pricing myself in a comfortable range for clients.
Figuring out my time and expenses was eye-opening.
Photographer’s guilt led me to minimize the importance of a quality pricing model. When I first worked through the pricing guide I had downloaded, it was early in my business. While I was making the right steps — using real numbers to create my photography prices — I then took two steps back by cutting the prices down until they felt comfortable, then throwing in extras to make what I was charging look more enticing to the client. Classic rookie mistake.
Once again, I sat down to do some simple math. How many hours do I work on my photography business every day? This includes time spent blogging, answering emails, paying taxes, driving to shoots and meetings, time spent at events and shoots, drafting proposals, updating my website, updating my portfolio, reading and taking notes to improve my work, etc. How many hours do I spend on just one shoot? From the initial email response to the emails that follow, the in-person meetings and phone calls, preparing for the session, the shoot itself, the culling and editing, exporting and uploading to the gallery, and so on.
How much money do I spend in business expenses, both general and wedding related? My monthly expenses alone go toward my CPA, web hosting, email hosting, gallery hosting, Dropbox, client management software, studio rentals, sales and use taxes, and so on.
I also have expenses that come up as I run and expand my photography business, like ordering packaging supplies, ordering office supplies, replacing my equipment, buying new equipment, plus paying state and federal small business tax, which I can tell you is no small number. I pay for gifts to send clients, workshops and business coaching to keep improving, marketing supplies, external hard drives to archive photos, software upgrades, photo props, coffee and meals for clients, coffee and meals for myself when I am out and about between shoots and meetings, and so on.
I wasn’t even charging enough to make a profit.
I fully expect you to skim that paragraph and think “Okay, I get it…” and I don’t blame you. It’s a long, boring list. But after calculating all of the unpaid hours spent working, in addition to the expenses I incur over a year of running this business, I realized I was not charging enough to ever actually keep a profit. And just as my clients work to earn a paycheck, I do, too. Because while I love photography and feel incredibly blessed to be my own boss, at the end of the day this is a business, and I need to treat it as such.
Running a photography business is expensive.
I owe my learning process to my stubborn nature, and in a way I am grateful for it. I’d be willing to bet that many of us have taken this sort of roundabout journey to restructuring our pricing, and without going through a certain level of frustration along the way, I don’t know that my new, higher prices would feel quite right. I’m not writing this article to complain or seek sympathy. I’m telling you because as women who run our own businesses, we have to get rid of this guilt that we carry.
Running a photography business is expensive, and most of us don’t have bi-weekly checks to look forward to like we used to. After working every day and paying for all of the above, our paycheck finally comes when a client books us for their portrait session, their wedding, or other type of shoot. And the prices we show to clients for our work aren’t just for a one hour portrait shoot or an 8 hour wedding – when they hire a professional photographer, they’re not only hiring us for our experience and talent, but they are also paying for some of those back-end costs that come with running a photography business. By negating that fact, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and the photography community.
Every time I charged a client $150 for a full photo session (which includes the digital files), I was educating them on what photography pricing should be. Now, I charge over four times that price for the same type of session.
Let go of the guilt and charge what you’re worth.
Unfortunately, there are many photographers out there who, like myself not long ago, are not charging nearly enough to run their photography business and actually pay themselves. We feel guilt, thinking that all small businesses, couples, and families should have access to good photography. We feel guilt over charging triple and quadruple digits to do something we love. It takes a lot of thought and courage to take the leap (fear of upsetting clients or scaring off potential customers is the recurring thought), but it’s got to be done. As photographers, we must recognize our self-worth first if we want clients to see it, too.
5 Questions to help you set profitable photography pricing.
1. How long have you been in business? It’s important to be sure you’re charging enough, but it’s also wise to incorporate your level of experience into the equation. You want to leave room to grow — after all, you won’t be charging the same amount in your 8th year of shooting weddings as your first year.
2. How much time goes into each session? If you don’t know, try keeping track over your next few sessions. Breaking your session fee down into an hourly rate is a good indication of whether you’re charging a livable wage or not.
3. How much do you spend on your business expenses in a year?
4. What’s a realistic income goal for the year? Starting with your overall goal will help you break it down into what you need to make monthly, weekly, and per shoot.
5. How many sessions do you want to schedule per week? Per month?
Using this information, It’s just some simple math to break down your income goal into individual sessions. For example, If your income goal is $40,000 for the year and you spend $10,000 in business expenses, you need $50,000 gross income. If you’d like to shoot two sessions per week (104 sessions annually), that’s 50,000 divided by 104 shoots, which means you need to set your photography pricing at $480 per session.
Of course, I recommend working with your CPA to calculate more exact numbers, but this will give you a baseline to work from.
Update from Alicia: 3 years later
After writing the original article three years ago, I was met with so much support from clients who not only read the article but reaffirmed everything I wrote. Further, they shared their agreement that I was worth what I was charging. When I finally started treating my own business with respect, I received respect back, and with it came more confidence.
Eventually the genre of photography in which I worked evolved from weddings and couples to personal brand and small business photography, but the way I charged clients still stemmed from exactly what I wrote (above): cost of doing business, experience, and the fact that I’m a for-profit business providing a service.
Charging the appropriate amount of money for my business allows me to spend time on each client giving them the attention they deserve.