Photography pricing is the foundation of a thriving photo career, a creative lifestyle, and a fulfilling retirement. Join our conversation with financial guru COURTNEY ZERIZEF from HOMEROOM as we talk numbers – and discover how a little bit of math today can equal a lot of success tomorrow! (Photos by HALEY CARNEFIX.)
Every photographer who ever typed up an invoice has struggled with photography pricing. What to charge, what they’re worth, how to discuss money with their client…
Unfortunately, a lot of us throw up our hands, give in to guesswork, and hope for the best. A lucky few hit the photography pricing jackpot, with a BINGO of elite clients and stellar rates.
For most photographers, however, the numbers are dismal. A deep dive into your finances can reveal unsustainable price points that aren’t truly keeping you afloat – and certainly won’t see you through to retirement.
In our interview with Homeroom’s Courtney Zerizef, you’ll read a series of familiar photography pricing scenarios, and discover how reevaluating your numbers can ensure longterm success!
Getting From Hobbyist To Pro
SHOOTPROOF: “Hi Courtney! Let’s discuss a few common photography pricing scenarios. Scenario #1: Jane is a young photographer with a brand new photography business – but she has no idea what her rates should be! Where should she start?”
COURTNEY: “Congrats, Jane! Starting a new business is really exciting! You get flexibility, autonomy, and full ownership over hows and whens. You get to build your dream business from the ground up and make it exactly what you want it to be!
“While starting a business is exciting, it’s also intimidating. If you’re done photographing for free, it means you’re ready for friends and new clients to take you seriously. That means you have to take yourself seriously too. But what the heck does that mean for your photography pricing?
Start With Market Research…
“Most new photographers start by taking a poll of their market. They:
- ask fellow photographers,
- scour the competition’s websites,
- and maybe survey their target market, asking them what they’re willing to spend.
“In some ways, this is helpful because it provides a general range of current photography pricing in your market. It also reveals what your potential clients are finding when they look for a photographer.
But Don’t STOP There!
“There’s a major problem with this ‘market research’ methodology, however, and the biggest issue is this: many solo-preneurs stop their photography pricing exploration after some light research, and they assume that the businesses they researched were successful. But that’s not necessarily true.
“Until you know that a price will be feasible for YOUR business, you’re not setting photography pricing responsibly. You’re guessing.
“It may sound counter-intuitive, but when it comes to photography pricing (for both products and services), it’s best to start backwards.
“Start with your expenses.
- Who is your target market?
- What do they expect you to deliver?
- Do they want a thumb drive in a fancy box?
- Will you order proofs of all of your sessions?
- If NO to thumb drives or fancy boxes, how will you deliver your images?
- Do you need to budget for ShootProof or other subscription services each year?
- How much time are you devoting to each shoot?
“Once you have a good sense of how much these services and products cost your business in both time and money, you’ll have a better idea of where to set your initial photography pricing.”
A Basic Pricing Calculator
Courtney developed a rough example of how one photographer might begin to break down her costs and establish her initial photography pricing.
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s say you’ve set your pay rate at $24/hour, so that, working 40 hours/week, you can gross approximately $50k/year.
NOTE: For some photographers, this will be an easily achievable income, and plenty of money. For others, it may be a challenge to achieve – and not nearly enough to support their family. Only YOU can do the math and know your financial requirements based on lifestyle and location!
Labor & Materials
1 hour of active photography time
+ 1 hour of travel time
+ 4 hours of culling, post-production, and gallery upload time
+ 2 hours of In-Person Sales and order fulfillment
= 8 hours of labor per 1-hour session
Total Cost of Labor At $24/Hour: $192
$7 thumb drive
+ $15 box/packaging
+ $5 branding material
+ $15 proof prints
+ $30 lens rental
= $72 per 1-hour shoot
Total Cost of Materials: $72
Total Cost of Labor + Materials Per 1-Hour Session: $264
Keep in mind that these costs do not include:
- what you’ll pay in taxes. You have to pay taxes on your income!
- what you’ll pay in annual expenses. Business licenses, insurance, advertising, and new gear all cost money!
$264 is your most basic COST simply to deliver a 1-hour session. This is the minimum you’d have to pay out of pocket for someone else to do your job for you – and it doesn’t even include the camera.
COURTNEY: “In the above example, if you charge $500 for each 1-hour session, you will be able to contribute $236 from each shoot to pay those additional expenses. (Margaritas at photography conferences ain’t cheap, amirite?)
“If your business is new and you’re setting your photography pricing for first time, recognize that this is the lowest your expenses are EVER going to be. If you price yourself too low, you may inadvertently make future growth for your business really difficult.
“That doesn’t mean you need to raise your starting rate to $1000 per 1-hour session. It just means you should think carefully about your ideal target market, and how you’re going to get there.”
Sticker Shock: It’s Not the Boss of You!
SHOOTPROOF: “In scenario #2, Jane put together a sample price sheet and showed it to her friend. Her friend balked, saying, ‘That’s WAY too expensive! No one will pay that much for photography!’ Now Jane is is afraid she’ll need to slash her rates if she wants to book clients. How would you advise someone like Jane?
COURTNEY: “Finding confidence in your pricing is the hardest part. That said, I can offer a few pearls of wisdom. Just think of me as your business oyster. (J/K. That’s weird.)
“I’ve literally had this EXACT thing happen to me. A friend told me my pricing was too high, that neither she nor anyone she knew would pay that amount, and that I was putting myself out of business before I even got started because I wouldn’t have any clients.
“But my photography pricing was actually TOO LOW at that time. I was barely charging enough to pay all of my expenses, let alone pay myself.
“Remember: not everyone is your target market. Your friends may not be your clients.
“Take some time and think through the big, wide range of potential photography clients. Who is your target market? Because someone will pay the rate you’ve set!
“Both Wal-Mart and West Elm are successful businesses. They offer a somewhat similar product, but they each offer a different quality, have different expenses, and sell different quantities. West Elm has crazy expensive couches, but they’ve done the hard work to target their ideal clients; and they serve enough people to keep the line going.
“I finally found confidence in my photography pricing when I honed in on my business’ numbers.
“I stopped the guesswork and started the hard work.
“Once I knew I had to charge what I charged to keep my business afloat and put food on our table, I became much more matter-of-fact about my photography pricing. I was able to educate my clients (as needed) about how my photography pricing was set without seeming defensive or wishy-washy. And magically, as I exuded more confidence, I booked more clients!
“I went from booking 1 out of 5 prospective clients to booking 4 out of 5.
PRO TIP: The Freedom To Give Back
Being confident in your photography pricing doesn’t have to mean that you’re stingy! Instead, sustainable photography pricing offers you the FREEDOM to give back in ways you couldn’t before!
“Financial resources for some communities are scarce, and it’s important to me that I can afford to donate sessions to the people who need them most. Specifically, for every boudoir ‘marathon’ I host, I donate one session to someone in the LGBTQ community – with a specific focus on trans individuals. Have you read the reports regarding the unemployment rate trans people face? It’s staggering. Photographing them in a way that is validating, comfortable, and empowering – AT NO COST – is the least I can do.” – Haley Carnefix
How will YOU give back as your resources grow?
When the Sh!t Hits the Fan…
SHOOTPROOF: “In scenario #3, Jane has just finished a session that simply didn’t go well. Everything that could go wrong DID. She feels like a failure, and now she’s certain that she’s charging too much. How would you suggest that someone balance their need to EARN with their need to LEARN?”
COURTNEY: “Oof. Been there too.
“There are a lot of great things about working for yourself: independence, ownership, flexibility, autonomy… But it can also be really challenging.
“When I used to work at my day job, I could confess my shortcomings to my coworkers. We could brainstorm and problem-solve together. I would adjust, re-train, and try again with a better skillset. Having a team makes the bumps much easier to get past.
“Give the tough moments some space.
“I remember one family session that I thought went terribly. The baby wouldn’t stop crying, the family’s house was really messy, and I had a really hard time finding any kind of composition. I was sure I didn’t get anything worthwhile. I remember walking out to my car, feeling like my stomach was going to fall out – that’s how low it sank.
“After the shoot, I uploaded the photos, but didn’t look at them for about a week. When I finally came back to the session with fresh eyes, it wasn’t NEARLY as bad I had built up in my head.
“I’ve always tried to make it a habit to under-promise and over-deliver, and in this case, I delivered exactly what I had promised. It wasn’t my best, but it wasn’t as bad as I had convinced myself it was.
“Remember: both small and big businesses mess up.
“Things happen. We’re all human. Just last month, I bought a shirt at Target, and the strap ripped off the first time I put it on at home. You know what Target did? They replaced it, no questions asked.
If, after giving yourself some space, you look back at a session and still feel like you messed up, deliver what you can and offer to reshoot or refund some (or all) of the session fee. Let them know you’re sorry and you want to make it better.
Learn From Your Screw-Ups
“It’s also important to learn and grow. As a creative, continuing to learn and grow in your craft will keep you motivated through the years. Honing your craft and creating your best business is what is will turn you into that six-figure photographer; but just because you’re not a rockstar photographer (yet!) doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be earning a good income in the meantime.
So You Just Realized You’re Not Charging Enough…
SHOOTPROOF: “As you already mentioned, Courtney, a lot of new photographers ‘steal’ their first photography pricing from other photographers. In scenario #4, though she hates to admit it, Jane has copied her print pricing list from the family photographer she hired herself several years ago. Now Jane has sold her first print package – and it was a huge order! Unfortunately, after ordering all the products her client purchased, packaging the order, and shipping it to her client, she was left with only a 10% net profit. A measly $60 remained from a $600 order! Now Jane knows she needs to charge more for prints but… it’s SO MUCH MATH! What’s a straightforward formula for pricing products?”
COURTNEY: “Jane, Jane, Jane. It’s true that it’s a lot of math. But here’s the thing: YOU’RE A BUSINESS! You have to do the math.
“Companies like Apple and HP calculate the cost of every single product they sell. They know the difference in cost between a charger vs. a tablet, or a laptop vs. a printer. If their distributor changes, the cost changes, and they know exactly how much to adjust their price. They have to, because they’re a business, and they are responsible for their annual numbers.
The Photography Pricing Rule of Three
“Some organizations will recommend taking your expenses and multiplying them by 3. That could be a good place to start, but you still have to do the math and make sure all the numbers work for your own business. Sorry friend; there’s no way around it.
“Is it too late to raise my prices?”
SHOOTPROOF: “When photographers realize they aren’t charging enough, how can they remedy that problem without scaring away all their existing clients?”
COURTNEY: “There are a lot of creative ways you restructure your offerings and keep (at least) some of your current clientele!
Simple Sales Tweaks
“Especially for portrait photographers: start offering In-Person Sales! You can even lower your photography pricing a bit by not including digitals in your session fee or packages. Get your clients back in the door to see samples, consult on size, discuss display location, and purchase products. In-Person Sales provide a great opportunity for more revenue, and give your clients the chance to see the difference between drugstore prints, and high-quality, professional products.
Smart Package Adjustments
“Another solution is to alter your packages so your photography pricing stays the same, but your packages include less. For example:
Last Year’s Wedding Package:
8 Hours of Photography
This Year’s Wedding Package:
8 Hours of Photography
Add An Album for $1000!
Note: Your packages and photography pricing may be drastically different from the example above. What matters is that you have run your numbers and understand what works for your market and your business needs!
Less Time = More Money Per Hour
“The trick is to spend less time on each session. The less time you spend per shoot, the more time you’ll have for more bookings, more marketing, or to update that website which has been on the back burner for 2 years.
PRO TIP: Time-Saving Tricks
In the Wedding Photography example above, the package remained at eight hours. So how does the photographer save time? Two ways! One: by only including one photographer, the quantity of images to cull and edit have been dramatically reduced! Two: by not including an album, design, approval, and ordering time have been eliminated from the job’s labor cost!
It’s Okay To Let Some Clients Go
“As you grow, gain experience, and get better at your craft, both your pricing and your target market are going to change. It’s soooo great to keep clients over the years, and to see their relationship develop and their family expand; but the clients who stick around are the ones who value you and your work. They’re not the clients who booked you because you were cheaper than other photographers.
“Learn to be okay with saying goodbye to some clients. You were both good for one another for the time being, but they may not be able or willing to come with you as your business develops.
“Learn how and – maybe more importantly – WHEN to say NO.” – Haley Carnefix
PRO TIP: Stop Comparing & Get To Work!
If you’re looking around at all the other photographers in the world, thinking how everyone else is thriving, and how you’re barely making ends meet, think again. Every single one us has their ups and downs. Each artist is different, and every business has unique needs that won’t be anything like your own.
There’s no time to waste comparing yourself to the best that others reveal of themselves. (And that’s really all they reveal anymore, isn’t it?) Your time is better spent doing your best – ACTUALLY DOING, not just trying to prove you’re the best with Instagram posts or SnapChats.” – Haley Carnefix
Focus on yourself, your work, and your business. If you take care of your business, in time, your business will take care of you!
Top Advice for EVERY Serious Photographer
SHOOTPROOF: “What is the number one piece of advice you’d give to any photographer who LOVES photography and wants to thrive in this industry?”
COURTNEY: “Take yourself seriously as a business.
“You can have fun, be a fun person, AND operate a business! But you are now your boss. You are the boss of your boss. You are the CEO, the sales associate, the accountant, and the photographer.
“Creatives sometimes make it a habit to fly by the seat of their pants. But if you want to be a successful business, you have to BE a business. OWN IT. Rock its effing socks off! While it’s a lot of up-front work, it will pay off in dividends as the years go by.
PRO TIP: Systems Save You $$$!
Courtney: “In Homeroom’s finance master-class, we walk through systems for tracking monthly and annual expenses. Once your expenses are systematized, you’ll save quite a bit of money in professional fees. Your accountant’s time goes down, their fees go down, and your understanding of your own business goes up!
“You don’t have to use Homeroom’s master-class for this, but creating a system to track all of your expenses makes tax-time so much easier!
Price Like Your Livelihood Depends On It
Because it does!
You deserve to live your fullest life: creatively, emotionally, relationally, and financially.
By incorporating the insights and advice Courtney shares here, you’ll be breathing easier – both today and far into your future!