Headshot photography somewhat unique from a pricing perspective because it is a mix between portrait photography and commercial photography. It is also a specialty that I have relatively little experience in. So I recently sat down with one of the top portrait and commercial photographers in the Colorado area, Connor Hibbs, to chat with him about headshot pricing.
What I learned is that despite how complicated it may seem to develop profitable pricing, the best solution may be more simple than you think.
The Basics of Headshot Pricing
Unlike portrait photography, headshots are not always about delivering prints to the client. A headshot client is typically seeking a photo or photos to use to promote themselves in any number of mediums, such as ads, company or personal websites, social media, or some other way of identifying them to clients.
This is textbook commercial photography, yet the photos themselves are portraits and many clients see the work more as portrait work than commercial work. Some headshot clients, especially actors, may need printed headshots to hand out, but that is very different than a print that will be hanging up on a family's wall because they are still using the photo commercially. It is this straddling of two genres that give many photographers trouble when formulating a pricing strategy for headshots.
What is Licensing?
This concept of licensing a photo is one of the defining characteristics of commercial photography and also a term that can cause some trepidation in newer photographers.
In terms of photography, licensing is selling the right to use a photo for a particular purpose. The terms are usually defined by a licensing agreement which is a legal contract between the photographer and the user of the photograph. These terms can be whatever the photographer and the licensee agree upon. If you don't have a good photography contract template, definitely check out the contract bundle on Improve Photography, which is WAY WAY cheaper than anywhere else online.
Some of the more significant terms to consider when drafting a licensing agreement include price, duration, and scope. Price is the main subject of this article so we will get back to that shortly.
Duration is the length of time that the licensee can use the photograph. This can be as short or as long as both parties agree. A longer term can typically demand a higher price but a shorter term may require the licensee to return to the photographer for another photo or to extend the license. A major consideration by the photographer is whether they will be able to (or willing to) enforce a limited duration.
Scope, much like duration, has infinite possibilities. Limiting the scope of the license is just as difficult to enforce as duration. In addition, it can be an even bigger turn off for clients to hear that you will be telling them where and when they can use the photo. Again, this differs from commercial photography because it is unlikely that they will be using the photo to sell some product. More likely they just want to identify themselves to others.
These are only some of the things that keep photographers up at night wondering what road to go down when engaging in photography that involves licensing.
Should you Limit the License?
This was the one subject that I spent the most time discussing with Connor. Specifically, in terms of headshots, he explained that many photographers will limit the terms of the license in order to bring the client back in for another photo in a few years. But Connor doesn't do it this way anymore. He has switched to an unlimited license for his headshot photography for a number of reasons.
First, its great for marketing. Consider a person going to two photographers for quotes on headshot pricing and one of them starts talking about how he would be limited to only a few years unless he perhaps paid for more and the other photographer tells the person that there is no time limit for use on any of his headshot licensing packages.
Second, you avoid having to explain licensing to the client. This is one area where headshot differs drastically from commercial photography. Connor, who also does a good amount of commercial photography, explained that when you are working with clients that frequently have commercial photography done, they know all about licensing and have an understanding of time and scope limitations. Headshot clients are typically not so savvy on that topic. For many of them, this is their first experience in commercial photography and they are probably thinking in terms of the family portrait they may have had recently. Not limiting the duration of the license simplifies things for the client and this can only make them more comfortable choosing you.
Third, and something I had not considered until Connor mentioned it. Headshots, in many instances are self-expiring. Most people are getting headshots so that they can connect with their clients on things like ads, social media, or their website. They want the clients to be able to recognize them from what they saw on the website. So if the photo is 10 years old, it really is not fulfilling its goal and they are going to need a new one anyone. This is even more true for actors that need an accurate headshot if they hope to actually land any roles. So, explained Connor, there is no real need for duration limits in headshot licensing.
Finally, enforcing the limits takes time and resources that many photographers don't have or aren't willing to commit to doing so. If you don't plan on enforcing the limits, you might as well reap the marketing benefits of giving unlimited licenses.
A Little About Workflow (and why it matters in pricing)
It is impossible to talk about pricing without touching on workflow because how much time you put into a single image and/or shoot and how efficient you can be will have a huge effect on your pricing and bottom line.
Although this is an article about headshot pricing, I did discuss workflow with Connor. The main reason we discussed it was that even when talking about pricing, the conversation kept coming back to efficiency. Without this, no pricing model would be effective.
In order to be as efficient as possible and be able to simplify his pricing structure, Connor does everything he can to have the photos chosen before he and the client part ways from the shoot. Whether this is an on site or in studio shoot, the goal is to have the client choose the photo or photos they want.
Typically, Connor said, he will set up a tethered shoot (even on site) if he is doing more than one or two photos. This becomes especially useful and important when there are a number of subjects. For example, if a company has hired you to do headshots for a number of its employees, you will want to take the time for the initial setup so that they can see their photos on a screen larger than the back of your camera and perhaps even with some post processing done. Then have them choose the photos they want and tag them.
If you can get all of this done on site or during the shoot at the studio, then you just eliminated the back and forth over email of having a client review proofs and choose their favorite, which can take days or weeks. There is tremendous value to having the job done, or virtually done, when you pack up your camera for the day. That allows you to charge less and increase your profit margins.
So develop an efficient workflow and you can price yourself competitively without pricing yourself out of business.
One of the recurring themes that Connor wanted to communicate was the need to simplify the pricing model. He charges a flat fee for the first photo (which includes an unlimited license) and then charges less, on a sliding scale, as the client purchases additional photos. This allows him to make it worth his time even to go out and shoot one photo, but also to pass along some savings to the client that chooses to purchase additional photos. It also allows you to suggest that your clients go out and find others in their business that may want to get together for a group headshot session. It saves them money and brings you more clients.
Including unlimited licensing of the photo also simplifies the process. As we talked about above, this eliminates a pain point in the sales and marketing process and allows you to focus on the client service and experience. It also helps you compete aggressively with other photographers without lowering your prices. In the long run, doing these little things can lead to a better experience for your client and more referrals that likely will outpace any gains you may have made from clients forced to return because of expiring licenses.
Simplifying your shooting and delivery process also allows you to be competitive on pricing and simplify your pricing structure. A complicated and lengthy workflow may require you to charge for your time as well as the license of the photo. However, if you have a good system down and know accurately how much time it will take you to get a certain number of delivered images, then you can offer a flat per image fee that goes down as they buy more and build your time into that fee. Such fees are much more appealing to potential clients as they can more easily budget for them and feel as though they are not being taken advantage of by excessive per hour rates.
All of these things make your job as a photographer, marketer, and salesman much easier. As a result, you can focus on making the client experience that much better. So do your best to simplify your pricing structure.
Every business is different and unique, so it may be impossible to give you a dollar amount and tell you this is where you need to start as far as a flat fee. If I did that, I would be doing you a disservice. However, I asked Connor if he had any thoughts as to determining a good market value range for flat fee headshot pricing. He suggested considering pricing the initial per-photo flat fee around the same as a mid-level portrait session and reduce it as they want more photos.
If step by step instructions are your thing, here is a good basic process to follow:
- Determine what the market in your area is getting for headshots. If you can't find any similar photographers in your area that do flat rates like we talked about, then look to pricing for mid-range portrait sessions. This is not the end of the process but it will let you know if you are way too low or way too high.
- Figure out what you need to earn per hour to cover expenses and make a living.
- Figure out how much time you would spend shooting, choosing, and delivering one headshot photo (this is where efficiency helps you out).
- Do the math. If you need to take in $200/hour to cover costs and pay yourself and it takes you one hour to do the work, then there is your flat fee.
- As you do more photos, a lot of the setup time and costs are the same, so you can drop the price for each additional photo until you get to something like $50 per photo.
As with any business system, reevaluate this at every chance you get and don't be afraid to adjust if it isn't working out.
Ultimately, Connor told me the key is not to overthink it. Headshots are about executing with skill and efficiency. They don't always incorporate the artistic touch that many other portraits do. So make it simple, execute it properly, and deliver it quickly. These are the things that headshot clients value and that will drive your demand (and price) up.
If you want to hear more great advice from Connor Hibbs, then check out the Improve Photography podcast feed which includes Portrait Sessions hosted by Connor Hibbs and the also very talented Erica Kay. Just search for Improve Photography in your favorite podcast app.
If anyone has any tips or experiences they want to share related to headshot pricing, leave a comment below and we can get a great discussion started.