One of the most common questions photographers have is how to effectively price their work. Prices vary so much by location and skill level that many scratch their heads as to what is fair. This has led to the common mantra of “ask the client’s budget”. So I think that’s a ridiculous way of self-evaluation and terrible advice.
It’s not often that you walk into a restaurant and are asked what you’re willing to pay for your meal. When you call a plumber, a mechanic, or an electrician, they all usually have fairly fixed charges for the services they provide. So why do creatives like photographers keep asking their clients about their budget? Why do you give the customer so much control over your business?
The reality is that most customers don’t know what photography should cost. They might have an idea of what they want to spend, but how that idea matches reality is another story. But I don’t blame the customer. If my attorney called me and asked what to charge me, I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.
Are you starting to see the error here? By asking the client for their budget, you accept the work on their terms. You are basically asking the customer to determine your value to you. This is not the way to run a successful business.
Still, some people might have reservations about what I’m saying.
Not worried about photographers undercutting you?
I honestly don’t give a damn how little others get out of bed for.
I respect those who adhere to industry standards and try not to undercut their competition. Bravo. But if you want to spend $100 for a full day’s work, be my guest. I’m not worried at all. One of two things will happen.
You will have a lot of work to do and inevitably have to raise prices to stem the overwhelming volume and the stark reality of not making a profit.
It is all the more likely that you will ruin your business because you have set an unsustainable price. Before you know it, you’re spending countless hours on projects, working for less than minimum wage, and burning out. Try raising the prices and all those bargain shoppers you’ve found will leave you for the next cheap thrill.
Finally, you must realize that competing on the basis of price alone is a terrible tactic. There will always be someone who can do it cheaper than you. You can’t do it for less money if you want a long-term career in a creative field.
Real customers will appreciate your true value as a real company. They understand that just like them, you have come at prices that sustain the kind of business you want to run. When they expect your service and expertise, they can pay your price. If they don’t care about these things, I wonder how long they’ll stay in business themselves, but they sure as hell don’t bring me down.
What about money that’s on the table?
It’s not about squeezing the last cent out of my customers.
You see, when you take the time to find a price for your services that accurately reflects your value, you tend not to care about the possibility of what might have been left on the table. This is because what you get has already been determined by yourself to be fair. Worrying about how much more you could possibly have received is a sign that you have misjudged your worth.
Try it this way: Asking for a budget leaves just as much money on the table as it does if you don’t ask.
If you ask for the client’s budget, you will inevitably get a number. That doesn’t mean their number is correct or correct in any way. If you give them your own numbers there is always room for negotiation and you may actually get a new budget from the client that better suits your desires. That’s extra money, over and above the original budget, that you could make without being pigeonholed into accepting compensation on their terms. Had you not submitted your own numbers that you made up, you would have left money on the table by accepting their low offer.
Won’t customers think I’m too expensive?
Garbage. If this guy can sell a portrait of a potato for a million dollars, you’re not too expensive.
But seriously, when I say not asking your customers for budgets, I don’t mean that you suddenly have to pick astronomical numbers out of thin air and present them as the industry standard. Getting to what you’re worth is actually a very simple process. If you follow it rationally, you will get very realistic numbers that fit the current market perfectly. Why? Because those are the numbers required to pay for basic living expenses. No one can disagree with them and if you stick to them you will ensure a good quality of life and a thriving environment for your business.
You can’t be too expensive when you’re asking for a comfortable living, and any customer who thinks this is beyond their “budget” is not the right customer for you. It’s a tough lesson to learn as a freelancer, but you don’t have to or want to say yes to every project and client. Learning to say no and knowing your worth is key to maintaining your worth.
You also need to understand that being expensive is simply a state of mind. If I came to your house and tried to sell you a bottle of water for $20, you would probably mock me and turn me down. What would make you pay me $20 for a bottle of water when you could get it for free off the tap or at the store down the street for a fraction of the cost? However, when you were parched and in the middle of the desert and I had the only bottle of water for miles, that $20 suddenly seems like a steal.
When it comes to your photography business, you need to pose as that water bottle in the desert. How you do that? Appeal to your customers’ sense of comfort, exclusivity and reliability.
How do I scale things?
Good argument. Not every customer is the same, and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always work. Some projects are larger than others and may result in additional income. However, what I am proposing here in this article in no way prevents you from scaling your projects. What I suggest instead is that instead of asking the customer to set this for you, you set a base price that adequately covers your expenses and leaves room for profit.
If you’re a commercial photographer like me, the easiest way to scale projects is through your licensing. By maintaining fixed production costs you can ensure your basic needs are met, but as projects grow larger you can increase revenue by charging for usage.
If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, you can also scale your services by offering a variety of packages tailored to different levels of clients. Their basic package ensures that your needs are met, but if a customer wishes to add more perks, this is possible at an additional cost.
There are many strategies for scaling your prices, but at the end of the day, make sure you’re the one setting your floor prices.
What do you have to do
Reevaluate your business and take a moment to find out what you’re really worth. In a previous article, I explained how to determine your business expenses.
Stop thinking of your photography as a service with ambiguous pricing and start thinking in terms of offering a fixed cost product. Your photography is a culmination of investments in equipment, learning, overhead, staff, marketing, etc. These are all expenses that determine the final “price” of your service.
Going forward, trust the pricing you came to, knowing that you must calculate it to ensure the health of your business and yourself. When speaking to clients, frame the budget conversation in a way that puts you in control. Emphasize your intangibles like reliability, convenience, and support. By giving these things a higher priority, you focus on adding value and on simple numbers that can lower your value.
The bottom line is that you are responsible for the well-being of your company, your employees, your family and yourself. Do not leave this enormous responsibility to the customer. Take responsibility and ask for what you want. Don’t let anyone tell you what to get.