The average portrait photographer spends about 1/3 of their time behind a camera – the rest of that time is spent running a business. One of the major factors that will determine whether or not a portrait photographer will still be in business in 10 years is how they set their pricing. So whether you're just starting out or a seasoned veteran, here are 10 things to consider when pricing your portrait photography:
1. How much do you want to make this year?
Notice that this is the first consideration on the list. This is not a coincidence – and I wish somebody had told me this when I was first setting my pricing. If this number is not firmly established it will be very difficult to succeed as a professional photographer. This number is the root – the starting point – for all the math we'll have to do in order to settle on a good, healthy price for your work. This number is absolutely crucial to your success because it sets a tangible, measurable, attainable goal for you to work toward. It keeps you out of the frantic, fingers-crossed pursuit of bookings because it helps you identify how many bookings you need each month. Most importantly, it's a tool to keep you in a proactive mentality rather than a reactive mentality.
First, this number has to be enough. We all have bills to pay and mouths to feed whether it's our own or our family's. If we are serious about taking our photography business full-time we have to be all-in, but there's just no point taking the plunge if success doesn't pay the bills. You have to pay yourself a living wage – whatever that might be for you and your family situation. When my wife and I decided that it was time for me to pursue my photography full-time she sat down and made a spreadsheet of every single cost we were responsible for as a family, including savings and other special funds we hoped to maintain. When we were absolutely sure that we had accounted for and factored in every conceivable cost we might run into as a family we determined that she needed to make “X” amount of dollars every month and I needed to make “Y”. Going above and beyond is fine, but I still only bring home “Y” every month. Anything extra stays in the business. If I come up short one month or if I have an unexpected (or impulsive) gear upgrade/replacement my business is there to take care of me. But every single month it's the same: I wake up every day doing what I can to reach that “Y” dollar amount and then I pay it to myself at the end of the month. I also break it down so I know how much I need to make a month, how much that makes me each year, how much I need to make a week, and what my target hourly rate should be. It's tangible, measurable, and attainable – it's something concrete I can stay motivated to chase after.
This number also has to be realistic – this isn't how much you wish you made every year; it's how much you want to make this year. If I sit down and make a plan to make $1 Million in my first year of business I'd better have a bulletproof plan or I'm in for a lot of disappointment. Very rarely do I hear (honest) stories of photographers setting out for their first year as paid professionals and raking in six figures. You really have to be realistic with your projections and expectations. Is it possible that you might make six figures as a photographer? Absolutely. Is it likely? Maybe. Should I plan on it as if it's the norm for the industry? Absolutely not. My goal was just to replace my old job with my photography. I didn't expect to make six figures in my first year (and I didn't, just to be clear.) What I did expect was to enjoy my job, not feel like I was wasting my life, spend time with my children and my wife, and make enough money to get by (and I have.)
This number is also not a budget for gear. This is a big one. If you're anything like me, your first instinct when you make a couple hundred dollars is to open up your Amazon wishlist and start shopping for the next piece of gear. You and I have got to stop thinking this way. Our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves and our families. That means I don't do a thing until I bring home my paycheck. Once my paycheck is secured, the rest of my monthly income goes into savings. That is where my gear budget lives. If I get that itchy feeling that sends me online to buy new gear but I haven't paid myself yet or I don't have anything in my gear budget I just have to swallow it down and move along. The temptation is always there, though, to spend your “paycheck” on gear but resist the urge. Don't mix your business finances with your personal finances. This can be a difficult thing for somebody just starting out in business but, lucky for you, Improve Photography has this handy little guide for Setting Up a Photography Business Legally.
Finally, this number needs to become a non-negotiable expense for your business EVERY. SINGLE. MONTH. Imagine having a job where you worked 40 hours a week but didn't get paid your full check at the end of the month. How would you react? What would you think of your boss? So often I hear photographers saying that they feel like they work themselves to the bone but they have nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, they're tweeting about how much they love their new L-series lens. We would never tolerate an employer failing to pay us or telling us “I'll pay you the rest next month.” Why would we tolerate it from ourselves?
To summarize this massively important first point: Decide how much you want to make each year. Make sure this number is enough to pay the bills, realistic, and non-negotiable once set. Then break it down until you know your monthly target income, weekly target income,
2. How often do I want to shoot each week?
Now that I know how much I want to make each year I can do some simple math to find out how much I need to make every month and how much I need to make every week. The next thing I need to ask myself is how often I want to shoot. If I want to make a certain amount of money each month but I don't charge enough per session I'm going to have to shoot very, very frequently. This can have all kinds of negative effects on a business (and a family).
Let's say, for example, that I want to make a total of $2000 per month. I can divide that by 4.5 (a little more than the average number of weeks in a month) and I arrive at $444.44. That means I need to make about $445 each week to hit my monthly goal of $2000. I'm getting close to arriving at a portrait session price but it's important to realize that we're absolutely not there yet. But let's assume for the sake of argument that I have absolutely no overhead costs whatsoever. For this example, my monthly $2000 is going to be pure profit. Now, depending on what it is that I'm offering, I might be able to offer my photo sessions for $445. That would mean I only have to shoot one photo session every week in order to meet my goals. However, again depending on what I'm offering and where I live, my potential clients might not be willing to pay $445 for a simple portrait session.
For me, personally, I want to find a price point that is affordable and accessible to my ideal clientele and doesn't require me to work 7 days a week. If I only charge $50 for a photo session I'm going to have to chase down 40 clients every month. That's more than a photo session every day for a month! Not to mention a price point like that almost guarantees that you will end up with the kinds of clients nobody wants – but we'll talk more about that in a later section.
Do some research and collect some data as you do business to give yourself a realistic idea of how often you would like to shoot in a given month and how many photo sessions you can realistically book in a given month. Do everything in your power to maintain that number and try not to convince yourself to budge on it. Many of us got into photography full-time because we didn't want to spend our lives in the daily grind of 9-to-5. This number is important if you hope to achieve the kind of freedom that attracted you to photography in the first place.
3. What is your business's TOTAL current operating cost?
This is one of those numbers that, as a small business owner, you need to know off the top of your head at all times. This is also a number that you need to be trying to drive down as much as you can. Another way you might see this number referenced is as “Cost of Doing Business (CODB)” or “Overhead”. It's also a number which many small business owners mistakenly underestimate and, as we'll see, this can be a costly mistake.
Every business has some amount of overhead – even if it's just the annual cost of renewing your business license. Depending on how your photography business is set up these costs can either be very little or very great. Some costs that I face in my business, for example, are web hosting, domain registration, online gallery hosting, editing software costs, business license renewal fees, etc… You'll notice that most of my costs tend to be from online services. This is fairly obvious in the age of digital photography – I need a place to store, display, and sell my work. Thus, most of my costs are related to how I use the internet to do those three things.
However, the main reason some photographers fail to correctly identify their actual Cost of Doing Business is that many of the costs we face in this industry are a little less-than-obvious. If I take a client out to coffee before a photo session, that is a cost. So is the gas that I used to get to the coffee shop. Every time I print a contract for a client to sign, that is a cost. Every time I make a phone call or spend an hour texting back and forth with a potential client, that is a cost. If I pay to boost a post on Facebook or any other form of online marketing, that is a cost. The problem is that many of these things come along and we gladly foot the bill – but we don't actually have a line item in our budget for these things. This is where many photographers start to flirt with financial trouble in their business.
One of the best ways to identify ALL of the costs your business faces is to keep good records. There are all kinds of services out there to help you keep track of receipts and transactions. I, personally, try to never deal in cash. I will gladly accept cash from a client but I will deposit it straight into my business bank account (you do have a business bank account, I hope) and send my client a receipt through my accounting software. That way when I go to reconcile all of my transactions for the month I have nice, matching deposits for all of my photo sessions and nice, matching withdrawals for all of my business expenses. This makes it very easy for me to look at an overview of my month and see what came in and what went out. A few months of good, organized budget tracking plus a good, comprehensive list of all annual expenses should give a photographer a great sense of all the hidden costs that go along with running their business.
There is one major cost that warrants its own discussion, though. We'll discuss that next.
4. How much time will you actually spend on each photo session?
In my experience, the biggest challenge in pricing is coming up with a realistic expectation of the time commitment I will have to make to each client. Often, photographers think that if they charge $200 for a 1-hour photo session they make $200 per hour. This could not be further from the truth. There are so many hidden time costs associated with portrait photography. How much time did I spend texting/emailing/messaging this client before the photo session? How long did it take me to gather my gear and prep for the photo shoot? Did I spend a few hours here and there looking for inspiration online to help me during this session? How long was the drive to the photo session (and did I keep track of my mileage)? How long did I take to edit the photos?There are several factors to consider here, so let's take a step-by-step tour of an imaginary photo session from start to finish.
First, I post something on social media that captures a potential client's eye or a previous client of mine refers a potential client here. Understand that this is the point when a photographer-client relationship begins. It's usually long before you actually speak with them or meet them face-to-face. They might take a year to contact you after they first see your work. Sometimes, though, a client will come from seemingly out of nowhere and hire you on the spot. Either way, the relationship you build with them starts when they first become aware of you as a photographer – and whatever you did to catch their attention cost you some amount of time. In this example, let's say I searched through my Lightroom catalog and found a portrait I took this month and posted it to my Facebook page as a paid ad offering my services. It probably took me close to two hours from start to finish to open Lightroom, pick a photo, export it for Facebook, draw up an ad, pick a target audience, and post it.
Second, suppose we get an inquiry through Facebook messenger. Our ad caught the attention of a potential client and they sent us a message asking us how much we would charge for a family portrait session at a nearby local park. We write them back and ask them a few more questions before disclosing our rates, just to make sure we understand the job. They have a few questions for us as well, so the entire conversation via Facebook messenger takes us about an hour, all said and done – but we did it! We booked with the client for next week. We hop on our laptop, pull up our contract template, address it to our new client, and send it off. There's another 30 minutes. So far we're at 3 1/2 hours.
Now we go about our week until, finally, we're a day away from our photo session. We pick up our phone to confirm our photo session with our client. We shoot a quick text off that says, “Hi, So-and-so! Looking forward to our photo session tomorrow at 6 PM. I can't wait to spend the evening with you and your family!” She texts you back and tells you she's excited, too. But she has a few more questions – what colors should her family wear? Can she send you a Pinterest board she's made? The weather forecast says it's going to be overcast tomorrow evening – will that be a problem? All in all you spend another 30 minutes texting back and forth to answer all her questions and arrange all the final details. Now we're at 4 hours.
Next, before we go to bed, we have to make sure all of our batteries are charged, our camera bag is packed and ready, and we've looked through the Pinterest board she sent us (which is almost never a great way to start with a new client). We gather our batteries and plug them into our chargers. We make sure our memory cards are cleared off and formatted. We choose which lenses and camera bodies we'll bring with us to the shoot. Finally, we lay in bed with our client's Pinterest board open and we build a rough shot list for tomorrow that we think our client will be happy with. All said and done we've spent another hour on prep for this photo session. We're already flirting with the 5-hour mark and we haven't taken a single photo yet.
Finally, the day has arrived. We pack up the car, shoot a text to our client telling them we're on our way, and we head out to the park. It's a 30-minute drive across town in rush-hour traffic (and, of course, we keep track of our mileage.) We get there about 10 minutes before our client just to make sure that we have some camera settings dialed in and some backdrop areas selected (sometimes it's a good idea to get this done without the client there.) The client shows up, everything goes smoothly, and we wrap up our 1-hour photo session 15 minutes later than we thought we would because we're having such a great time. We drive back home (which only takes us about 20 minutes now that traffic has cleared up) and start backing up our memory card to make sure we are following our 3-2-1 backup strategy and call it quits for the night. Today we devoted about 2 1/2 hours to our client. Now we're at 7 1/2 hours total for this photo shoot – and we still have to edit the shoot.
The next day we turn our attention to editing our photo session. For the sake of this example, let's say that our images looked outstanding in-camera and everyone in the photo had great, clear skin – so no retouching is going to be necessary. Just a few adjustments to the shadows, highlights, and color. Luckily we have some presets that look great and only need minor tweaking. Let's say, by some miracle, we only edit for two hours after spending another hour culling through our photos. We upload them to our online gallery and prepare all the settings for delivery to our client, draft an email to the client, and send it off to them. All in all the final step in our process takes us about 30 minutes – not including the time it took to upload the photos to our gallery. We're done!
From start-to-finish, in this VERY typical portrait session workflow we spent a grand total of 11 hours on this 1-hour photo session. To stick with our previous example let's assume we charged our client $200 for this session. Some people might assume that a photographer who charges $200 for a 1-hour photo session makes $200 per hour but, as we've seen, this just isn't the case. $200/11 hours comes out to about $18/hour when all the time costs are factored in.
Now, some of you more seasoned veterans in the photography industry can probably identify about a hundred things wrong with that workflow which are costing that photographer quite a bit of unnecessary time, but we'll save that for another article. Suffice it to say that, for the average photographer just starting out, it is important to really, truly understand just how much time goes into each new client and then, in turn, factor that in when deciding how much to charge.
5. What upgrades do I need to make to my equipment in the next year?
We've already gone over the most important, most significant considerations for setting pricing for portrait photography but there are still a few notable factors a photographer should still take into consideration. One of these, which we'll quickly cover, is what kinds of upgrades you might need or want to make to your equipment in the next year.
When I first started working full-time as a photographer not all of my gear was “full-time professional” quality. I was getting by just fine with what I had, but I was starting to notice some limitations in my gear. For a long time, I only seemed to be photographing my subjects in golden light in some sort of outdoor setting, so low-light capabilities were pretty low on my wishlist. However, the first time I was hired to photograph a band it was in a dark, poorly lit bar late at night. For the first time, I really ran up into a serious limitation in my gear. The ISO performance I needed just wasn't there when I needed it – and flash was out of the questions. So I started looking into a new camera body. That was something I had to budget for in the next year and I had to charge accordingly if I wanted it to pay for itself within the year.
Another upgrade I needed to make was my speedlight arsenal. I didn't find myself using a lot of flash because I figured I would just stick to ambient light. I'd had great success with natural, available light in the past and figured I could just continue with that. I did employ speedlights from time-to-time, though. But my speedlights were the cheapest ones I could find – the kind that don't give you a lot of information about what they're doing. They just had little lights that told you which “power setting” they were on. If I wanted to adjust the output of an off-camera light I had to walk over to it and adjust it every time. Then I started having issues with my cheapo transmitter not wanting to reach out to a speedlight more than 4 feet away. I finally got fed up enough to go shopping and decided on some new speedlights… and a couple modifiers. Those were all costs I hadn't expected but had to budget for.
Gear is going to fail – either mechanically or functionally. Your needs will evolve as a photographer and your gear will get worn out. You have to factor in what kinds of upgrades/replacements you expect to make in the next year when determining your pricing.
6. What sales or promotions will you run this year?
As a basic rule-of-thumb, it is typically unwise to run unplanned, reactionary sales and promotions. Discounting sessions for friends or family, excessive amounts of ‘mini-sessions', working for free too often, etc… These are all nails that can collectively seal the coffin on a small photography business over time. However, when discounts, sales, promotions, and pro bono work are planned and intentional they can be powerful tools to create momentum for a photographer.
If you're still reading this article I'm willing to bet that you want your photography career to succeed on purpose. I hear so many social media advertisers trying to lure young photographers in with lines like, “I used this one simple trick and I made my first six figures in six months! I still can't believe it!” Well, neither can I – nor should you. Success in business occasionally comes as a surprise to photographers but I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of successful photographers are successful because they've worked their tails off to get there.
A very common but very detrimental trend in photography is something we could call “Promotion-Matching”. Let's say that I sit down and go through all of these steps to come up with my absolute bottom-line for portrait photography pricing. I know exactly how much my business costs to run, how much I need to make to survive, and exactly how much I need to charge to get there. I've come up with a price that makes me happy and, I hope, will make my clients happy, too. But then, just like she always does, Jenny-Down-the-Road Photography blasts everybody's social media feeds with her Fall special pricing: $50 mini-sessions, a guaranteed 20 full-resolution images, and 20 printed Christmas cards. “How is she even doing this!? How can she possibly afford to charge that little and stay in business?” you ask yourself. (Don't worry. We'll talk more about Jenny-Down-the-Road Photography in a later section.)
This is where the rubber meets the road. If you ditch all the solid data and research you did earlier just to try and compete with Jenny-Down-the-Road's pricing you're in for a world of financial disappointment. If you follow her down the rabbit hole of price-gouging and insane discounts you likely won't ever come back up. Rather than being reactionary in your pricing and discounts we need to be intentional and proactive about our businesses. We need to decide in January what kind of sales we're going to have next December. If you find that portrait photography is seasonal for your business, you should come up with a pricing strategy that takes advantage of that seasonality. Maybe you'll offer sales during your off-season to help encourage bookings. Or maybe you'll choose to offer discounts during your on-season to try and float your business during slow seasons. Either way, you need to look at the math and be intentional about your business's pricing strategy. You can't run a business on knee-jerk responses and price-gouging.
7. How will I deliver my final product and what will my final product be?
We need to consider what kind of product we will deliver to our clients. Will we offer prints through an online store of some kind? Will we only offer full-resolution digital images? What will our pricing look like for these things? For every 100 photographers, there are probably 100 different philosophies when it comes to final delivery. I know some photographers who are philosophically opposed to offering digital images to their clients and I know of others who are just as philosophically opposed to offering anything other than digital images. Both groups are probably worth listening to with an open mind. There are photographers who have made a great living offering nothing but prints and there are photographers who have made a great living offering nothing but full-resolution digital images. There really isn't a wrong answer here.
There are all kinds of things to consider when it comes to final delivery, not the least of which is how much it costs to offer something. Another consideration (which I have been guilty of overlooking in the past) is what your clients actually want. I listened to some very wise, very reputable voices when I first started out and settled on a business model which relied fairly heavily on a certain final delivery method. One day, though, I realized I hadn't given much consideration to what my clients wanted. I made a decision one day to change my method and offer the change free of charge to all of my previous clients – partially to see their reactions. They were overjoyed! I hadn't realized the entire time that I had been limiting my success by limiting my clients' return-on-investment.
To this day I am happy with the decision I made to consider this when setting my pricing.
8. What kind of clients do I want?
Another consideration I will briefly touch on (without getting too specific) is what kind of clients you actually want to have. Lots of photographers charge far too little when they first start out because they don't actually understand how much they need to be charging to stay afloat as a business. Others charge far too little because they think it will give them the advantage when a person is shopping for photographers solely based on price. There are several problems with this mindset, but let's pause for a second and think about one aspect of this mentality that is often overlooked.
Do you really want to be hired by a person who only cares about finding the cheapest photographer possible? Personally, I don't want to touch that client with a ten-foot-pole. Jenny-Down-the-Road can have them. What I have often found is that the client who is only price-shopping for a photographer is almost always going to be a nightmare client. Not only do they not value a photographer's work they almost certainly still expect you to produce magazine-worthy images. These types of clients expect to receive professional-quality photography for next-to-nothing. There are tons of people out there every day looking for photographers who charge less than the portrait studio at the mall. But when asked why they don't just go to the mall they tell you “Because they don't take very good pictures.” They almost always fail to understand why better pictures should cost more money – and it's almost always because they don't understand everything that goes into a typical photo session (see consideration #4 above.)
In my experience, these types of clients are often more trouble than they're worth – and they'll be a hassle from start to finish. I would argue that you charge a price that is accessible to the type of client you want to have and inaccessible or unreasonable for the clients you don't want to have. Be firm on your pricing and don't cave in just because things have been a little slow. It's not worth the trouble, in my opinion.
9. Do I truly believe that my work is worth my price?
When we are setting our pricing we are also inadvertently communicating something to our potential clients. In order to understand what we are communicating to them by our pricing we have to ask ourselves two questions: “What does a low price say about the quality of your work?” and “What does a low price say about your own opinion of your work?”
First, what does too low of a price say about the quality of your work? So many photographers want to be the cheapest photographer in town. It makes a lot of us very uncomfortable to find out that we cost more than another photographer – especially if we respect that photographer and his/her work. However, what does it say to potential clients if you're the cheapest photographer they can find in their area? When a person is shopping for widgets and they are seeing widgets for $100, $90, $120, etc… they start to expect that a widget should cost somewhere around $100. That seems to be the going rate for a widget. All of a sudden, though, they find a widget that looks pretty similar for $35. They're first reaction is most likely not going to be, “Oh hey! What a great deal on widgets!” It is most likely going to be, “What's wrong with it?” This is the same with photographers. When a photographer is comparatively dirt-cheap it can often communicate inadvertently that perhaps the photographer is an amateur or doesn't quite know what they're doing. It can also lead a potential client to believe that the photographer is desperate for work and might, therefore, be open to offering further discounted work. Neither of these are good messages to send.
Additionally, what does it say about the photographer's own self-worth if all the other photographers in the area are charging $300 per session and he is charging $50? A potential client is most likely going to think, “He must not think he is as good as they are – so why should I?” That client is probably going to keep searching and toss the cheapest photographer's name out of the ring.
The point is this: As photographers, we want to communicate the worth of our work by our pricing. We want to communicate that we are professionals offering a professional service comparable (or better) than the other professionals in our area. Our pricing says more about this than we sometimes realize. Consider this when setting yours.
10. How much are other comparable photographers in your area charging?
This tip is very intentionally at the end of my list – not to emphasize its importance, though. I purposely put this tip at the end of the list because this very often is the first (and sometimes ONLY) thing new photographers consider when setting their pricing. I'll be honest, too. I still get a bit uncomfortable when I learn that I am more expensive than other photographers. I look very critically at my own work and not so critically at the work of others. I often feel that other photographers are much, much better than I am and that I should cost less than they do. But this flies right in the face of everything we JUST finished talking about. This business isn't about the “shoulds” that I think up when I'm feeling insecure. This business is about making a good living doing something I love to do. I have bills to pay and I need to charge enough to pay them. Nobody else has the bills that I have – not the specific combination of bills, anyway. I have my mouth to feed, my wife's mouth to feed, my two boys' mouths to feed, and a few animals, too. I owe it to them to charge what I need to charge without trying to run the rat race against Jenny-Down-the-Road. Jenny might be single. Jenny might still live with her parents. Jenny might be a trust-fund baby with a steady $8,000 showing up in her bank account every month before she ever even picks up a camera. I don't know Jenny's story so I can't just copy Jenny's method – but I do know my story and I know what it's going to take to succeed in my business because I've done the work, I've done the math, and it all adds up. (And, to be honest, Jenny-Down-the-Road probably isn't going to last very long charging as little as she does because she probably isn't as serious about this as you are. Forget Jenny – or, even better, refer the clients you don't want to her!)
Notice, too, that I said “comparable” photographers in your area. Photography is so often a game of unfair self-comparison and it just shouldn't be. I find myself very often comparing my work to the work of other photographers who are in a total league of their own. They are producing amazing work and I totally beat myself up when I see their images. “Why didn't I think of that!? Why don't my images come out that nice!? I have the same exact gear as that guy – why are his pictures so much cooler!?” What I fail to realize is that a lot of these photographers aren't comparable to me! They've been doing this for 20 years, sometimes. I'm still just starting out compared to them! I shouldn't be comparing myself to them – I should be striving to emulate them. I should be learning from them and taking hints and ideas from them. They should be a source of inspiration – not frustration. So, too, should their pricing not be a factor in my pricing.
When I set my pricing I might keep an eye to what others in my area are charging to get a sense of what the market in my area will tolerate. But understand, too, that there are photographers in this country this very day who are able to charge $20,000 for a single framed portrait. The sky is the limit – not the pricing that you see on Jenny-Down-the-Road's Facebook page.
In conclusion, your pricing is often as important (if not more important) than your actual skill as a photographer. It can easily make or break a business and it requires and deserves a great deal of thought, patience, and wisdom. Don't be afraid to try new things and don't be afraid to change things. You're going to be doing this, hopefully, for years to come. Times will change and your business and photography will evolve – your pricing right along with it. Take these 10 considerations and do what you will with them. However the math adds up for you, I wish you all the success in the world!